July 4, 1986: President Reagan on the Declaration of Independence


My fellow Americans:

In a few moments the celebration will begin here in New York Harbor. It’s going to be quite a show. I was just looking over the preparations and thinking about a saying that we had back in Hollywood about never doing a scene with kids or animals because they’d steal the scene every time. So, you can rest assured I wouldn’t even think about trying to compete with a fireworks display, especially on the Fourth of July.

My remarks tonight will be brief, but it’s worth remembering that all the celebration of this day is rooted in history. It’s recorded that shortly after the Declaration of Independence was signed in Philadelphia celebrations took place throughout the land, and many of the former Colonists — they were just starting to call themselves Americans — set off cannons and marched in fife and drum parades.

What a contrast with the sober scene that had taken place a short time earlier in Independence Hall. Fifty-six men came forward to sign the parchment. It was noted at the time that they pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honors. And that was more than rhetoric; each of those men knew the penalty for high treason to the Crown. “We must all hang together,” Benjamin Franklin said, “or, assuredly, we will all hang separately.” And John Hancock, it is said, wrote his signature in large script so King George could see it without his spectacles. They were brave. They stayed brave through all the bloodshed of the coming years. Their courage created a nation built on a universal claim to human dignity, on the proposition that every man, woman, and child had a right to a future of freedom.

For just a moment, let us listen to the words again: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” Last night when we rededicated Miss Liberty and relit her torch, we reflected on all the millions who came here in search of the dream of freedom inaugurated in Independence Hall. We reflected, too, on their courage in coming great distances and settling in a foreign land and then passing on to their children and their children’s children the hope symbolized in this statue here just behind us: the hope that is America. It is a hope that someday every people and every nation of the world will know the blessings of liberty.

And it’s the hope of millions all around the world. In the last few years, I’ve spoken at Westminster to the mother of Parliaments; at Versailles, where French kings and world leaders have made war and peace. I’ve been to the Vatican in Rome, the Imperial Palace in Japan, and the ancient city of Beijing. I’ve seen the beaches of Normandy and stood again with those boys of Pointe du Hoc, who long ago scaled the heights, and with, at that time, Lisa Zanatta Henn, who was at Omaha Beach for the father she loved, the father who had once dreamed of seeing again the place where he and so many brave others had landed on D-day. But he had died before he could make that trip, and she made it for him. “And, Dad,” she had said, “I’ll always be proud.”

And I’ve seen the successors to these brave men, the young Americans in uniform all over the world, young Americans like you here tonight who man the mighty U.S.S. Kennedy and the Iowa and other ships of the line. I can assure you, you out there who are listening, that these young are like their fathers and their grandfathers, just as willing, just as brave. And we can be just as proud. But our prayer tonight is that the call for their courage will never come. And that it’s important for us, too, to be brave; not so much the bravery of the battlefield, I mean the bravery of brotherhood.

All through our history, our Presidents and leaders have spoken of national unity and warned us that the real obstacle to moving forward the boundaries of freedom, the only permanent danger to the hope that is America, comes from within. It’s easy enough to dismiss this as a kind of familiar exhortation. Yet the truth is that even two of our greatest Founding Fathers, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, once learned this lesson late in life. They’d worked so closely together in Philadelphia for independence. But once that was gained and a government was formed, something called partisan politics began to get in the way. After a bitter and divisive campaign, Jefferson defeated Adams for the Presidency in 1800. And the night before Jefferson’s inauguration, Adams slipped away to Boston, disappointed, brokenhearted, and bitter.

For years their estrangement lasted. But then when both had retired, Jefferson at 68 to Monticello and Adams at 76 to Quincy, they began through their letters to speak again to each other. Letters that discussed almost every conceivable subject: gardening, horseback riding, even sneezing as a cure for hiccups; but other subjects as well: the loss of loved ones, the mystery of grief and sorrow, the importance of religion, and of course the last thoughts, the final hopes of two old men, two great patriarchs, for the country that they had helped to found and loved so deeply. “It carries me back,” Jefferson wrote about correspondence with his cosigner of the Declaration of Independence, “to the times when, beset with difficulties and dangers, we were fellow laborers in the same cause, struggling for what is most valuable to man, his right to self-government. Laboring always at the same oar, with some wave ever ahead threatening to overwhelm us and yet passing harmless . . . we rowed through the storm with heart and hand . . . .” It was their last gift to us, this lesson in brotherhood, in tolerance for each other, this insight into America’s strength as a nation. And when both died on the same day within hours of each other, that date was July 4th, 50 years exactly after that first gift to us, the Declaration of Independence.

My fellow Americans, it falls to us to keep faith with them and all the great Americans of our past. Believe me, if there’s one impression I carry with me after the privilege of holding for 5\1/2\ years the office held by Adams and Jefferson and Lincoln, it is this: that the things that unite us — America’s past of which we’re so proud, our hopes and aspirations for the future of the world and this much-loved country — these things far outweigh what little divides us. And so tonight we reaffirm that Jew and gentile, we are one nation under God; that black and white, we are one nation indivisible; that Republican and Democrat, we are all Americans. Tonight, with heart and hand, through whatever trial and travail, we pledge ourselves to each other and to the cause of human freedom, the cause that has given light to this land and hope to the world.

My fellow Americans, we’re known around the world as a confident and a happy people. Tonight there’s much to celebrate and many blessings to be grateful for. So while it’s good to talk about serious things, it’s just as important and just as American to have some fun. Now, let’s have some fun — let the celebration begin!

More to explorer


  1. When President Reagan spoke I imagine he and everyone listening thought that we had a government by the people; that the people controlled the government. Now what we say? It sure looks like the other way around with the government controlling us with the help of large corporations. We need a new American Revolution.

    Charles Murray has a new book out on this subject: BY The People. Here is a review by the American Enterprise Institute.

    American freedom is being gutted. Whether we are trying to run a business, practice a vocation, raise our families, cooperate with our neighbors, or follow our religious beliefs, we run afoul of the government—not because we are doing anything wrong but because the government has decided it knows better. When we object, that government can and does tell us, “Try to fight this, and we’ll ruin you.”

    In this provocative book, acclaimed social scientist and bestselling author Charles Murray shows us why we can no longer hope to roll back the power of the federal government through the normal political process. The Constitution is broken in ways that cannot be fixed even by a sympathetic Supreme Court. Our legal system is increasingly lawless, unmoored from traditional ideas of “the rule of law.” The legislative process has become systemically corrupt, no matter which party is in control.

    But there’s good news beyond the Beltway. Technology is siphoning power from sclerotic government agencies and putting it in the hands of individuals and communities. The rediversification of American culture is making local freedom attractive to liberals as well as conservatives. People across the political spectrum are increasingly alienated from a regulatory state that nakedly serves its own interests rather than those of ordinary Americans.


    Charles Murray’s field guide to civil disobedience

    The even better news is that federal government has a fatal weakness: It can get away with its thousands of laws and regulations only if the overwhelming majority of Americans voluntarily comply with them. Murray describes how civil disobedience backstopped by legal defense funds can make large portions of the 180,000-page Federal Code of Regulations unenforceable, through a targeted program that identifies regulations that arbitrarily and capriciously tell us what to do. Americans have it within their power to make the federal government an insurable hazard like hurricanes and floods, leaving us once again free to live our lives as we see fit.”

    “By the People” has a hopeful message. Rebuilding our traditional freedoms does not require electing a right-thinking Congress or president, nor does it require five right-thinking justices on the Supreme Court. It can be done by we the people, using America’s unique civil society to put government back in its proper box.


    “A road map to recapture true American exceptionalism. With passion, brilliance, and a keen sense of the radical essence of what America means, Murray dismisses what passes for political debate today and offers an audacious plan to restore the liberty our founders bequeathed to us.”
    —Ed Crane, President Emeritus, Cato Institute

    Charles Murray is the W. H. Brady Scholar at AEI. He first came to national attention in 1984 with his book “Losing Ground” and, most recently, in 2012 with “Coming Apart.”

  2. I still believe that what unites us is more than what divides us. But is it stronger than what divides us? The contemporary liberal believes many of the same things as the conservative; his understanding of things like liberty and equality is different, but not irreconcilably removed from the American tradition. But his image of America, past and present, is irreconcilable with patriotism. He believes that we are the people we’ve been waiting for – that is, the modern dissenters are the ones the country has been waiting for to fulfill its promise by overturning its traditions.

    Evan Sayet describes himself as a September 12th conservative. He tells it this way: If you hear someone complaining about his wife, saying that he hates her, you think he’s just spouting off. They’re together, they love each other, right? But then you’re with him and the two of you see his wife getting beaten up in an alley, and he does nothing to help her. That’s when you realize he really means it. He hates her.

    If I could look around and see any sign of the American liberal rallying around an established aspect of the rule of law, I’d feel some optimism. I think we’re all a lot alike in what we’d like to see our country be, but the liberal appears to be ready to destroy everything to implement his vision. There’s an exchange in the movie As Good As It Gets between an author and a female fan: “How do you write women so well?” “I think of a man, and I take away reason and accountability.” That’s what I think of when I debate a liberal.

  3. Glenn Beck, whom I often consider to be somewhat extreme or even nuts, called for an American Restoration movement. However it is to come about, we need such a movement.

    The Federal Government has run up massive debt that cannot be repaid. Having said that, debt that was purchased by the Federal Reserve Bank – purchases of US Treasury securities in exchange for Federal Reserve Notes – should be repudiated as it is nothing but the printing of money. The Federal Government instigated the Great Recession that began in 2008 – going back to the Carter Administration, accelerated by the Clinton Administration and blown open when Barney Frank and Chris Dodd were on the House and Senate committees with oversight of such things. The Federal Government has refused to enforce immigration law and keep illegal aliens out of our country. The terrorists of 9/11 were men who overstayed their visas and should not have been allowed in the country in the first place. The Federal Government will not enforce election laws.

    No nation on earth – not Great Britain, imperial France or imperial Spain, nor Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan or the USSR – was able to defeat the United States of America. This country will be destroyed only from within by its own people – if allowed.

    We cannot consent to be ruled by Hollywood, Big Enviornment, Big Education, Big Media, pointy-headed Ivy Leaguers and public sector employee unions. Hollywood destroys morals. Big Enviornment is uninterested in protection of the ecosystem but wants to tell everyone where to live and how to live. Big Education has an insatiable appetite for money – education inflation far exceeds medical care inflation but nobody in Big Media cares. Big Education does not produce results demanded from a McDonald’s franchise.Big Media is biased and tells half truths and conceals corruption from those it favors. Public sector employee unions have massive unfunded liabilities in many parts of the country. These benefits were promised in exchange for votes and the responsibilities were kicked down the road.

    Another organized resistance (the third in our history) against the Federal Government may well take place. It can be a Constitutional Convention. It can be a number of states, led by Texas, declaring that they will not abide by Federal Government directives aimed at them. It can be massive civil disobedience. I hope it will not be armed conflict.

    Who will lead such a movement? Who will join in? I don’t know.It may take place after my lifetime, as I’m 52.

    Official Washington is in a world of its own. It has become something similar to a capital of a corrupt Latin American country, with power over everything it wants to control whether permitted or not. The words of the Declaration of Independence – life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – were shredded by Roe v. Wade. The Constitution has been shredded by Obumblercare and numerous court decisions, not the least of which was recently made by the nitwit Anthony Kennedy.

    I could pontificate all day but it’s a beautiful day outside, vacation ends today and there is an errand to run.

  4. Two other thoughts:

    I miss good political rhetoric. After Reagan was Bush Sr, who had some kind of defect in his speaking. Then came Clinton, who I didn’t want to listen to, then Bush Jr., and with all due respect he was as bad (different, but as bad) as his father, then the past 6-and-a-half years. None of the current crop of Republican candidates, talented though they may be, strike me as particularly good speakers. You’d think in an era of communications that we’d be doing better.

    A year after this speech about the things that join us together, Reagan nominated Robert Bork to the Supreme Court. As another blog pointed out, Bork’s rejection led to the recent Court decisions. We do have a lot of things that join us together, but man, we have to fight every battle.

  5. Ever heard of sheriff Dave Clark of Milwaukee, a sheriff who has been on Fox News quite a bit lately? There is an organization that is fighting back and they were elected and took an oath to uphold the constitution and protect citizens. All sheriffs were. But this orginization has been gaining strength lately and doing their best to protect against unconstitutional laws.
    “The CSPOA is a committed group of freedom-loving Americans supporting the office of Sheriff, thereby, enabling us to go about the work of serving our communities and standing by our oaths.”
    Sheriff David A Clarke, Jr. Milwaukee County, WI

  6. Wonder if Peggy Noonan shaped his remarks,the contrast between RR and BO is heartbreaking.as RR recedes in time He looms larger,as BO’s time ends I expect he will shrink.

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