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Remarks in Williamsburg, Virginia: "The American Spirit"

October 02, 1968

Williamsburg is a revered place in America.

Here was the capital of Colonial Virginia; here was a revolutionary war headquarters of George Washington and here, during the Civil War, was the scene of a bloody battle between; Blue and Grey forces.

In modern times, Williamsburg has been restored to its historic setting; today, men of the twentieth century can walk through a village of the eighteenth century, absorbing the mood that surrounded the men who built this nation.

It is fitting, then, to pause in the election campaign of 1968 at a place steeped in our heritage; this is a proper moment to examine our past for some keys to our future. Perhaps we can draw some strength and gain some insight from what has gone before.

We we recall the days of our Revolution, we think of the phrase "the spirit of '76." That is not just a slogan; there was a real "spirit of '76." That spirit was the driving force within most Americans of that revolutionary era.

I believe that a nation, like a person, has a spirit.

I believe that a national spirit comes to the fore in times of national crisis.

I believe that each time a national spirit makes itself felt, it speaks to its own time with a different message directed to the problems of that time.

That is why a searching look at the American spirit is needed today. The American spirit, as I envision it, is not the visitation of some ghost of the past; rather it is the affirmation of a deep national yearning that all of us feel today.

Whenever America falls short, that spirit appears—not to comfort us, but to make demands on us. Not to salve our conscience, but to spur our conscience.

Our history shows that as a people we have responded to these new demands each time they were made.

Almost two centuries ago, at the time of our Revolution, the American spirit demanded political liberty. And so a nation was born.

A century and a half ago, the American spirit demanded a choice in national leadership, calling for a framework that encouraged the cut and thrust of controversy. And the two-party system was born.

A century ago, at the time of our Civil War, the American spirit demanded an end to slavery and an end to sectionalism. And so the nation was horn again, this time into a deeper unity.

At the turn of this century, the American spirit demanded a fair share for all in the fruits of our economic system; trust-busting was born and the labor movement gained momentum.

A generation ago, with tyranny on the march, the American spirit stirred again; a new internationalism was born, and America shouldered her world responsibilities.

With hindsight, we can now see how the American spirit reappeared time after time in our history; looking back, it is easy to detect its differing demands and the great changes it achieved.

But the Americans living through those times did not have the benefit of hindsight. The men who gathered at places like Williamsburg two centuries ago were not then a distinguished group of statesmen known as Founding Fathers—they were a band of practical idealists risking the gallows by talking of revolution.

The great eras of changes are clear enough for us in retrospect. But to the men living through those times, America was upset and uncertain; strong cross-currents of opinion roiled the waters and hatreds flared.

That is the kind of era we are going through right now. The textbooks of the next century—if textbooks are still in use—may sum up the new demands of the American spirit in a sentence or two. But now it is up to us to work it out for ourselves.

Here in 1968, what is missing from American life that has called up this spirit of change? What void in each one of us needs to be filled?

Of course, we think first of the obvious answers. We need peace in the world; we need the good life for all; we need justice for all, in the framework of law. But let's go a step beyond.

We are told of a man who was seen digging around the walls of his house; when he was asked why, he gave this strange and intriguing answer: '"I am letting the dark out of my cellar." That is what we must do now; as we dig for the demands of change, we must let the dark out of our cellars.

I believe that an underlying reason for the feeling of emptiness in so many hearts today stems from the loss of personal freedom.

I believe that the American spirit is reappearing now to demand the return of that personal freedom.

As in our past, these demands are thundered in stormy times. Some of us are all too noisy; some of us are all too silent; but each of us knows that this is the time to stand up for his own individual identity.

We won our fight for political freedom two centuries ago; we won a battle for human freedom a century ago; today, we are in a fight for our personal freedom.

Personal freedom, to me, is at the root of human dignity.

Personal freedom is room to turn around in life. It is the right to grow in your own way, to learn what is not yet being taught; it is both the right to privacy and the right to participate.

Personal freedom is not a license to disrupt, but it is a liberty to dissent; not a duty to destroy, but an obligation to challenge.

Personal freedom will not ensure that every man will get all he desires; it will ensure that every man will get all he deserves.

Those Americans who once had personal freedom and lost it, now want it back; those who never had it at all, want it now.

In striving for a worthy goal—security—we have lost a worthy asset— individuality, the hallmark of personal freedom. In trying to provide for the material needs of all, we have stolen from the personal freedom of each.

Where did we lose our way? Where did we begin to trade away our personal freedom?

Some would say we lost our way when we began our ever-expanding welfare programs. Others would say we lost our way when we took on the responsibility of helping to defend the free world.

I don't agree. These were steps that changed the course of history; these were steps in the right direction.

We were right to want to help the poor, the sick, the unemployed, the elderly. We were right to want to help advance the cause of democracy around the world.

But in making these advances, we lost something. We became so busy doing so much for the "people" that we forgot about the person. We became so obsessed with the collective needs that we overlooked the individual need.

At first we didn't feel the loss. Our American system had so much momentum; there was so much to be done and so much to do it with. We could not detect the slow erosion of our personal freedom, the gradual diminishing of human dignity.

But now, a generation later, we feel it. And we miss what we lost. We miss it in the feeling so many Americans have of being hemmed in; of being a cog in a huge machine; of being no longer in control of our own lives; of not having our own important say in the direction of our communities and our nation.

Well, what are we going to do about it? We cannot turn back the clock; we must not undo all the good we have done, as we try now to regain the freedom we have lost.

Nor can we throw up our hands and say that one man does not count anymore—that we've traded personal freedom away for the security of a big, paternal government.

We do have another choice. We must find a way to make government work for all of us without dominating any one of us. We have to establish new respect for the qualities of initiative, personal sacrifice, and readiness to seize opportunity, that made the individual American the wonder of the world.

And we have to reawaken this respect the hard way: without tearing down the structure we have built to help those who cannot help themselves.

That is why a political promise of "more of the same" is wrong, and why a promise of "less of the same" is just as wrong. We need neither more nor less of the "same"—we need an approach that is entirely different.

Welfare is too important to be left to the Welfare Staters. We are going to change our welfare system to make it lit the American system, to provide each person with a means of escape from welfare into dignity. This is not an impossible dream. America needs it: with leadership that understands the American spirit, America is going to get it.

And that's not all. Each of us wants to get back that sense of participation in government, that hand in our own destinies.

We are going to reverse the flow of power to the Federal Government in Washington, and channel more power back to the states and localities. Tax sharing; bloc grants; decentralization; local option; community participation; this is the direction I believe America is about to choose.

What's more, the pendulum is going to swing back to an emphasis on individual opportunity. But something new will be added: genuinely equal opportunity, starting from childhood. The industrious person will get ahead and the lazy man will fall behind, no matter what their background or heritage or skin color.

How can I be so certain about all this?

Because I believe that is what the American spirit now demands. Because the American people are not "the masses"—they are 200 million individual persons who are discovering what they have lost, and are determined to get it back.

Our present leaders are out of touch with this new mood and cannot comprehend this new need. They see the future as bearing down on us. They are fearful of the future, fearful of the change it will bring, and they brace themselves for the shock that they know will come.

In the eyes of the fearful, tomorrow is a threat that must be faced; in the eyes of the hopeful, tomorrow is a vision that must be realized.

An American poet put it this way: "dive for dreams, or a slogan may topple you." We must turn away from the old slogans that trigger responses that are no longer responsive; we must dive for the dreams we can make come true.

The way to the future is not along the path of least resistance. We will only earn back our personal freedom along a path of great resistance.

The American spirit is presenting its demands today, as it did in different terms to generations before us. Once again, those demands require sacrifice and ingenuity:

The American spirit demands an explosion of education into the mind of every child in every corner of this land;

It demands a career—not just a job, but a career—open to every man and woman who has the capacity to get ahead;

It demands an end to the slamming of doors, with the answering echo of gunfire that we have heard in the past;

It demands a plunge into community service by each of us, rather than delegating compassion to government;

The American spirit of today demands that the helpless be cared for, and the hopeless be cared about;

It demands that there be greater rewards for initiative and hard work and self-reliance;

It demands that privacy be respected, that the individual be respected, that the law be respected.

Most of all, the American spirit today demands the self-determination of the human being. This means a shift from Federal rule to home rule, a shift from faceless manipulation to personal participation.

There is a mystery to America that its detractors have never been able to grasp.

Just when our idealism appears to be swamped in a sea of material wealth; just when our native morality seems to be flooded by a wave of crime and disorder; just when our international power and prestige appear frustrated by the ineptness of our leadership—something remarkable happens.

The American spirit wells up and we snap out of it. We let the dark out of our cellar. We choose new leaders with new ideas and we tell them we're ready to make any sacrifice required to set our nation right.

We don't ask new leadership to put us back to sleep. We don't ask new leadership to fix everything without bothering us. Instead, we demand to know what we need to do—what each individual one of us must do.

At watershed moments like these, the unconquerable American spirit comes alive. We stand at a pivot point; the nation is poised to turn and move in the direction the spirit of America demands.

That is why I have been saying that the choice in this election year is perhaps the most important in our lives. If we fail to seize this moment, if we let slip this chance to recapture our personal freedom—the moment may never come again in our lifetime.

Therefore, let us not lightly dismiss the agony of the American spirit today as only "growing pains."

Let us recognize it as hunger pangs, for now is a time that our body politic hungers for new directions, new answers to new needs.

At moments like these throughout our history, it has been America's genius and good fortune to satisfy this appetite for orderly change. This generation of Americans shall not be the first in 200 years to deny the demands of the American spirit.

Rather, I believe this generation will choose to rise to the challenge: we shall promote the general welfare, yes—but we shall preserve our personal freedom as well.

We shall hold fast to the quality that made America great, as we reach out for new qualities that will make America greater.

Woodrow Wilson described the challenge of such a moment. The year was 1913. The nation was badly torn; a third party movement had split the majority vote. There was war in the Balkans that threatened to spread to the rest of the world.

In his first Inaugural Address, this is what Wilson told his countrymen: "Men's hearts wait upon us; men's lives hang in the balance; men's hopes call upon us to say what we will do. Who shall live up to the great trust? Who dares fail to try?"

In this campaign, my fellow Americans, we can feel the American spirit stirring.

It calls upon us to make a mighty effort to rekindle our hope, our courage and our passion for personal freedom. We dare not fail to try.

The American spirit today demands an awareness of the need for change.

It requires the exploration of new horizons of justice.

It insists on the rediscovery of the worth of the individual.

It will accept nothing less than a reach for greatness.

The next President of the United States could possibly serve until 1976, the 200th anniversary of the birth of our nation.

That next President will lead this nation in its reach for greatness only if he summons a new "spirit of '76"—a spirit conceived in old glories, born to speak to its own time, destined to shape a glorious future.

APP NOTE: From section one of the volume "Nixon Speaks Out" titled, "The American System in a Time of Change".

Richard Nixon, Remarks in Williamsburg, Virginia: "The American Spirit" Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project