March 11, 1987
Mr. Chief Justice and distinguished guests, let me start by thanking Louis Gerstner and American Express for putting together the exhibit that I'm about to see. The documents gathered here are the springs from which the great river of human freedom rises. Assembling this exhibit at any time would be a great service to our nation. Doing it this year is, of course, especially appropriate, because this year we mark the 200th anniversary of the start of the greatest experiment in self-government in the history of man.
Just 200 years ago this May, a small group of men from 12 of the 13 American States gathered in a hall in Philadelphia to debate the form of a new order for the ages. They came from as far north as New Hampshire and as far south as Georgia. Barriers of distance and special interest might have divided them and the people of their States from one another, but something even greater held them together. That something was a common dedication to the rights of man. It was their common devotion to the proposition that governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. And it was their mutual conviction that here on these American shores they would raise a light unto the nations -- a light of self-government, of liberty, and of hope. Yes, many of the Founding Fathers traveled great distances to get to Philadelphia 200 years ago, but in a larger sense, mankind has traveled a great distance to that hall, as well. And today we have a glimpse of how long that journey was. And in the months ahead there in the ``Roads to Liberty'' exhibit, millions of Americans will also be able to see the landmarks of that trail.
The greatest landmark was, perhaps, the first, as the Chief told us. The year was 1215. The place was Runnymede. King John signed a great charter that declared that all free men had rights and that there were limits to the powers of the King. Yes, it was a great and enduring charter. Its letter remains in part in the statute books of Britain to this day, more than seven-and-a-half centuries later. Its spirit remains entirely in the hearts of free people everywhere and will forever. And now let me say here to Dean Oliver Fiennes how deeply all Americans appreciate the generosity of the Lincoln Cathedral for the loan of the Cathedral's copy of the Magna Carta for this exhibit.
Many of the other landmarks on this road are small: the Mayflower Compact -- the statement of a small group of settlers as they were about to set foot in the New World; the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut -- the first constitution agreed upon on American shores; it set out the government of just three towns. And even the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of the Confederation, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights were written for a small country. Sometimes I can't help thinking there must have been monarchs and nobility around the world who smiled at our pretensions in that long, hot summer of 1787. We Americans were so small and weak. And yet each of these documents speak with a force far greater than all the armies that have ever marched: the force of the love of freedom that is born with the birth of every living soul. That force has guided us and given us strength in our journey for two centuries, our journey across a continent and to the stars and into the heart of every man and woman on Earth who dreams of a life of liberty.
Today and in the months ahead we celebrate this 200th anniversary. Let us, as we remember from where we have come, also think of the journey ahead. Let us rededicate ourselves to America's mission of freedom; and let us resolve that we will stand, as did those before us, with all who love freedom and yearn for democracy, wherever they might be. And let us remember our heritage and, with it, our destiny -- the destiny of this shining city on a hill, this beacon of freedom for all the peoples of the Earth.
And now, I've talked enough, and with what remains for us to do -- to go through and see this exhibit here -- I will say as King Henry VIII said to each of his six wives, "I won't keep you long.'' [Laughter]
Note: The President spoke at 2:33 p.m. at the South Portico of the White House. In his opening remarks, he referred to Louis V. Gerstner, Jr., president of the American Express Co. After making opening remarks, former Chief Justice Warren E. Burger introduced the President. The exhibit toured 82 cities in 19 States.