Remarks at the Bicentennial Observance of the Battle of Yorktown in Virginia
October 19, 1981
Mr. President, Mrs. Mitterrand, Lord Chancellor [Rt. Honorable Lord Hailsham, Lord Chancellor of the United Kingdom], Governor John Dalton -- and I thank you very much for that most gracious introduction -- Members of the Congress, members of the Cabinet, distinguished guests, and my fellow citizens:
I open with something of an announcement before my remarks. Since today is a day to celebrate freedom, I feel it only appropriate that I exercise one of the more pleasant powers of the Presidency. After consultation with Governor Dalton and with his approval, by the power vested in me as President of the United States, I hereby grant amnesty to the corps of cadets of the Virginia Military Institute under the terms and conditions to be specified by the superintendent. [Laughter]
And now, this field, this ceremony, and this day hold a special meaning for people the world over, whether free in their lives or only in their dreams. Not long after the battle of Yorktown, Lafayette wrote home to France. ``Here,'' he said, ``humanity has won its battle, liberty now has a country.''
It was an extraordinary moment in history. The Continental Army, as you've been told, had marched more than 400 miles from the Hudson River in New York to the tidewaters of Virginia. They surprised and stranded Lord Cornwallis on the tip of this peninsula. When Admiral de Grasse and his French fleet blockaded the Chesapeake, the trap was sprung. There could be no rescue by land or by sea.
Nearly 8,000 British soldiers had swept from Charleston to Richmond to this spot between the York and the James Rivers, with far more victories than defeats. But as they were encircled and besieged by the Continentals, as they withstood day after day of grueling bombardment, they must have known in their hearts they were fighting for a cause they could not win.
Their enemies were a band of colonists with bandaged feet and muskets that couldn't be counted on to fire, but the British were thousands of miles from home and the Americans were fighting where they lived. Those rebels may not have had fancy uniforms or even adequate resources, but they had a passion for liberty burning in their hearts.
In a masterly execution of a textbook siege, General Washington and his grab-bag army defeated the finest troops King George could field.
The morning of the surrender must have been very much like this one today. The first real chill of autumn was in the air. The trees were turning brilliant with the hues of red and gold and brown. The sky was bright and clear. Quiet had finally returned to this lovely countryside. How strange the silence must have seemed after the thundering violence of war.
And then the silence was broken by a muffled beat of British drums, covered with black handkerchiefs, as the Redcoats marched to surrender. The pageantry was spectacular. The French in their spotless white uniforms lined one side of the road. The ragged Continentals were brown and dreary on the other side. But the journals of those who were present mention that the Americans stood every bit as straight and equally as proud as any army could. They had, on that day, a military bearing that was not to be outdone by their comrades in white and blue nor by King George's men in their brilliant red.
As the British marched between the allied armies to the field of surrender, tears streamed down many of their faces. Their musicians played a tune popular in England at the time, yes, ``The World Turned Upside Down.'' And that's just what the colonists had done.
But those Americans were not professional soldiers at all. They had fought for freedom from Quebec to Saratoga, from Camden and Cowpens to Germantown, Valley Forge, and Monmouth -- towns and countrysides once so anonymous that King George complained he could neither pronounce them nor find them on the map.
By Yorktown, they were veterans, but they were still not soldiers. They were farmers, backwoodsmen, tradesmen, clerks, and laborers -- common men from all walks of life, anxious to return to their families and the building of a nation. On that day in 1781 a philosophy found a people, and the world would never be the same.
We who have traveled here today -- and I'm told we number more than 60,000 -- did not come just to admire the strategies, battlements, and trenches of a siege. We did not come to idealize human suffering.
The wounds of this battle have long since healed. Our nations have matured, and bonds of friendship now exist between one-time enemies. The same has been true of other wars since, which makes you wonder if after all the hatred, all the pain, and all the sacrifice, we find ourselves able to be friends and allies, why couldn't we find ourselves able to be friends without first going to war?
We have come to this field to celebrate the triumph of an idea -- that freedom will eventually triumph over tyranny. It is and always will be a warning to those who would usurp the rights of others: Time will find them beaten. The beacon of freedom shines here for all who will see, inspiring free men and captives alike, and no wall, no curtain, nor totalitarian state can shut it out.
The commemoration of this battle marks the end of the revolution and the beginning of a new world era. The promise made on July 4th was kept on October 19th. The dream described in that Pennsylvania hall was fulfilled on this Virginia field. Through courage, the support of our allies, and by the gracious hand of God, a revolution was won, a people were set free, and the world witnessed the most exciting adventure in the history of nations: the beginning of the United States of America.
But we didn't win this battle or this war by ourselves. From your country, Mr. President, came men and ships and goods. Generals Rochambeau and Lafayette and Admirals de Grasse and de Barras were among those without whose help this battle and this war could never have been won. France was first to our side, first to recognize our independence, and steadfast in friendship ever since. We are bonded in spirit and, in fact, by freedom. ``Entre vous, entre nous, a la vie, a la mort,'' Rochambeau said -- Between you, between us, through life, or death.
And others came to our aid -- Poles, Spaniards, Scots, Canadians, Swedes, Germans, Dutch, Irish, and still more.
Our Revolution was won by and for all who cherish the timeless and universal rights of man. This battle was a vindication of ideas that had been forming for centuries in the Western mind.
From the Mediterranean had come the philosophies of Greece and the laws of Rome. England contributed representative government, and the French and the Poles shared their dreams of equality and liberty. On our own frontier, we learned dependence on family and neighbors, and in our Revolution free men were taught reliance on other free men.
We of the West have lived the central truths, the values around which we now must rally -- human dignity, individual rights, and representative democracy. Our nations share the foundation of common law, separation of powers, and limited government. We must unite behind our own common cause of freedom.
There are those in the world today, as there always have been, who recognize human rights as only selective favors to be doled out by the state. They preach revolution against tyranny, but they intend to replace it with the tyranny of totalitarianism.
Once again, today, thousands of free men and women have gathered on this battlefield in testimony to their beliefs. Let the struggle that took place here remind us all: The freedom we enjoy today has not always existed and carries no guarantees. In our search for an everlasting peace, let all of us resolve to remain so sure of our strength that the victory for mankind we won here is never threatened.
Will we meet the challenge, will we meet the challenge Joseph Warren put forth to Americans 200 years ago? Will we act worthy of ourselves?
Each generation before us has struggled and sacrificed for freedom. Can we do any less?
The men and boys who fought on this field somehow understood that government must be close to people and responsive to them; that if all men are free to prosper, all will benefit.
Today in our country those concepts are threatened by government's bloated size and the distortion of its true functions. Our people are struggling under a punishing tax burden many times heavier than that which ignited our first rebellion. Regulations that inhibit our growth and prosperity would be incomprehensible to the colonists who revolted because of the Stamp Act.
Our Founding Fathers devised a system of government unique in all the world -- a federation of sovereign States, with as much law and decisionmaking authority as possible kept at the local level. This concept of federalism has been the secret of America's success and will be a priority again as we restore the balance between the Federal, State, and local levels that was intended in the Constitution.
But of equal concern to me is the uncertainty some seem to have about the need for a strong American defense. Now, that is a proper task for the national government. Military inferiority does not avoid a conflict, it only invites one and then ensures defeat. We have been trusted with freedom. We have been trusted with freedom and must ensure it for our children and for their children. We're rebuilding our defenses so that our sons and daughters never need to be sent to war.
Where are the voices of courage and vision that inspired us in the past? Are we ever to hear those voices again? Yes. Thomas Paine, a voice of patriotism, said, ``Those who expect to reap the blessings of freedom must, . . . , undergo the fatigue of supporting it.'' We always have, and we always will. That's just part of being an American.
Our Declaration of Independence has been copied by emerging nations around the globe, its themes adopted in places many of us have never heard of.
Here in this land, for the first time, it was decided that man is born with certain God-given rights. We the people declared that government is created by the people for their own convenience. Government has no power except those voluntarily granted to it by we the people.
There have been revolutions before and since ours, revolutions that simply exchanged one set of rulers for another. Ours was a philosophical revolution that changed the very concept of government.
John Adams wrote home from Philadelphia shortly before signing the Declaration of Independence, and he said, ``I am well aware of the Toil and Blood and Treasure, that it will cost Us to maintain this Declaration, and support and defend these States. Yet through all the Gloom, I can see the Rays of ravishing Light and Glory. I can see that the End is more than worth all the Means -- and that Posterity will triumph -- ''.
It is that vision we recall today. We have economic problems at home, and we live in a troubled and violent world. But there is a moral fiber running through our people that makes us more than strong enough to face the tests ahead. We can look at our past with pride, and our future can be whatever we make it. We can remember that saying Thomas Paine said, ``We have it within our power to begin the world over again.'' We only have to act worthy of ourselves.
And as has been said already today, God bless America.
Note: The President spoke at 12:23 p.m. from a reviewing stand overlooking the battlefield.
Following his remarks, the President returned to the White House.