Remarks to the Volunteers and Staff of "We the People" in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
April 1, 1987
Governor Casey and Mayor Goode and ladies and gentlemen, to begin with, let me put you all at ease by letting you know that I intend to keep my remarks brief. I will. As Henry VIII said to each of his six wives: "I won't keep you long.'' [Laughter] You know, I often reflect that George Washington gave an inaugural address of only 135 words and became a great President. And then there was William Henry Harrison. In his inauguration he spoke for nearly 2 hours, caught pneumonia, and was dead within a month. [Laughter]
But it's an honor to be in this historic place with all of you who are doing so much this year to help make our history come alive. Especially on September 17th, the 200th anniversary of the day of our Constitution, the eyes of the world will turn here to Philadelphia. The hours and hours that you've spent contributing the energy and imagination -- all of these represent a magnificent gift to the Nation, and on behalf of all Americans, I thank you. By the way, looking around I can't help thinking that the National Park Service has done a darn good job at taking care of this place. It looks almost like new. And I ought to know; I was here the day it opened. [Laughter] I can't tell you how nice the bell in the other building looked before it cracked. [Laughter]
But on a serious note, join me, if you will, in considering three moments in the history of this square. First, it is December 1790. Sixty-five Representatives and twenty-six Senators have gathered here in Congress Hall. Outside there is the distracting, constant clop of horse hooves and the rumble of coaches, and the men inside here in this room are worried. Many risked property and life itself in the Revolution just a few years before. Now they faced a sobering question: Had they and their countrymen overreached? Can this raw new Republic survive, or will it be torn apart by disputes between the States, lack of finance, pressure from the great powers of Europe? In this House Chamber and in the Senate Chamber above, the Members of the Congress of the United States faced these challenges and surmounted them, bringing into being a sound system of finance, providing for the defense of the Nation, and learning through it all to make this fledgling democracy work.
And now it's February 1861. Abraham Lincoln has been making his way slowly eastward from Springfield, Illinois, to Washington to take the oath of office as President. And like the men of 1790, Lincoln faced a simple question: Not could the Republic prosper, but could the Republic survive? Before dawn on the 22d, he came here to this set of buildings and spoke to the crowd that he found waiting. He had often asked himself, Mr. Lincoln said, what great principle or idea it was that had held the Union together for so long. ``It was not,'' he said, ``the mere matter of separation of the Colonies from the mother country. Instead, it was something giving liberty not alone to the people of this country but hope to the world. It was that which gave promise that in due course the weights should be lifted from the shoulders of all men.''
Well, the final moment I'd like you to join me in considering requires no imagining. It is now, the present. Like the men of 1790, like Lincoln in 1861, indeed, like every generation of Americans throughout our history, we, too, face the question: Will this nation, founded upon freedom, continue to flourish? Will it continue to extend the hope of liberty to all the world? It's my belief that in the last 6 years we've done much to restore our nation, restore our economy and defenses, restore our basic values, even restore a sense of our own fundamental goodness as a people.
Yes, I feel certain that, despite all the challenges that beset us, this nation of freedom will flourish. But if we're to succeed in the future, we must first learn our own past. We must learn to go to a building like this and hear the echoes and sense the greatness and draw strength. For to study American history is, in a sense, to study free will. It is to see that all our greatness has been built up by specific acts of choice and determination. And it is to see how very fragile our nation is, how very quickly so much that we cherish could be lost.
All this is really a more elaborate way of repeating what I said at the beginning: that by doing so much to bring American history to life, each of you is making a weighty gift to the Nation, and especially to our young people. And so, let me repeat, too, the other remark I made a moment ago: My friends, I thank you. And God bless you all.
Note: The President spoke at 2:50 p.m. in the House of Representatives Chamber at Congress Hall. ``We the People'' was an organization established to prepare for the 200th anniversary of the Constitution. In his opening remarks, he referred to Governor Robert Casey and Mayor Wilson Goode. Following his remarks, the President attended a reception for major donors to the organization and then returned to Washington, DC.