Reagan's 1988 Address To Students

matthew's picture

In the midst of the recent furor over President Obama's planned address to students on September 8, 2009, I thought it would be appropriate to reprint President Reagan's 1988 address to students. I was there. I watched in German class, and if I recall correctly we were kept an extra period to discuss his address after lunch. It was on every television set in the school, and rightly so: a President choosing to address the students of the Union is an important and rare event.

The fact of it happening is etched in my ninth-grade memory, but the details are a bit fuzzy. Here are those details, reprinted from .

I plan to discuss Reagan's address with my kids on the night of September 8. I will talk with them about how they felt, what they thought, how this affects them, and what their plans are as a result. I will try to inspire in them the desire to be the agents of positive change and leadership in society. I will share this President's humble beginnings -- like the early life of Reagan -- to show them how any American can rise to the highest ranks of leadership in the nation and make it a better place for all of us.

If you are one of those who plan to keep your children home from school on September 8, I submit you are allowing fear to motivate your actions. Your children are smarter than you think; they are probably smarter than you. Teach them to make decisions in light and truth, with full knowledge of the facts in every walk of life. Do not coerce them through ignorance.

Remarks and a Question-and-Answer Session With Area Junior High School Students

November 14, 1988

The President. You know, this is a real treat for me -- having you here and to have, in a little while, the chance to answer some of your questions. Let me also offer a special hello to those of you who are watching on C-SPAN and -- or the Instructional Television Network. Thank you for inviting us into your home or your school today.

This marks the beginning of American Education Week, and I'm particularly pleased to be talking to American students in this, the first in a series of speeches that I'll be giving before I leave office. But before we begin here, I have a special message from my roommate. She says to please -- for your families, for your friends, for your country, and most of all for yourselves -- just say no to drugs.

Now, last week the United States did something so exceptional that people around the world marveled at it. Last week the American people freely elected our government. Some ballots were cast by people who were rich and famous, and others were cast by most ordinary people, but each person had the same, one vote. These ballots were cast in secret, and they were counted in the open, not the other way around. And when the votes were totaled, those holding or seeking the highest positions in the land all surrendered to the will of the people. Soon, power will be peacefully transferred from those leaving office to those taking office. And, yes, we do this every election year, and that's what so much of the world marvels at. What we in America take for granted is something that's rare in history and all too remarkable on this globe, the Earth.

The United States is the world's oldest democratic government. And at my age, when I tell you something is the oldest in the world, you can take my word for it; I'm probably talking from personal experience. And it's not just that our government is the oldest of its kind, but that it's based on the world's most revolutionary political idea. You can see that concept in the very first line of our Constitution, and it begins with three simple words: ``We the People.'' In other countries, in their constitutions -- they all have constitutions, and I've read a great many of them, those other ones -- and the difference is so small, but it's found in those three words. Because their constitutions are documents by the Governments telling the people what they can do. And in our country, our Constitution is by the people, and it tells the Government what it can do. And only those things listed in the Constitution, and nothing else, can Government do. So, in America, it is the people who are in charge. And one day you'll be those people out there voting and creating the Government.

That vision of self-government was the basis for the American Revolution, the first revolution of its kind and one of the most important historic events not just for our own nation but for all humanity. Because most revolutions have always just been a case of replacing one set of rulers for another set of rulers. Ours was that kind of a constitution where, for the first time, it was announced -- what I've told you before already -- that the people were in charge of the Government, not the other way around.

Now, the Revolution may seem like something they say happened a long time ago -- to me 200 years seems just like yesterday -- but I think it'll prove to be America's most important guidepost for the future. I believe that the chief moral task for America in your generation -- a period destined for great change -- will be not so much to chart a new course or launch a new revolution, but to keep faith with the original American Revolution and that remarkable vision of freedom that has brought us two centuries of liberty and is still today transforming the world.

Over these 200 years, country after country has followed our path, and I believe that ultimately all nations will do so. It's no exaggeration to say that the political vision of our Founding Fathers has become the model for the world. This is true not just in the many countries that have turned from despotism to democracy these last years, it's also true even where it's least apparent. It's remarkable to realize that in this century even brutal totalitarian dictatorships kneel at the feet of our Founding Fathers when they try to counterfeit the practices and institutions of democracy in order to claim legitimacy for their ruling their people. Dictators today from Afghanistan to Nicaragua do not want to be called Czar or Commissar; they want to be called Mr. President and to pretend that they rule in the people's name, even if they don't. Yes, even Communist dictators holding power through force, against the will of the people, acknowledge the triumph of the American idea when they go through the motions of holding phony elections, forming rubberstamp legislatures to ratify constitutions that will not be honored, and then using our words to call their regimes democracies or republics.

As a wise Frenchman one wrote: ``Hypocrisy is the homage that vice pays to virtue.'' But when dictators, even in this fraudulent way, acknowledge the basic truth that the right to rule comes from the consent of the governed, the door to freedom begins to crack open, and it can't very easily be closed again. John Adams said that long before the opening shots of America's war for independence -- he was one of our Founding Fathers, as you know -- our revolution had already occurred ``in the hearts and minds of the people.'' And today from Asia to Africa to Latin America and behind the Iron Curtain, the world is in the midst of a democratic revolution that was foretold by the creation of the United States.

From the beginning, the American vision was that our country would be the cradle of freedom for all mankind. Two hundred and thirteen years ago, in Philadelphia, James Allen wrote in this diary that: ``If we fail, liberty no longer continues an inhabitant of this globe.'' But our Founding Fathers didn't fail. And now it's our duty to bring the values of the American Revolution to all the peoples of the world, and this is happening. Today, to a degree never before seen in human history, one nation, the United States, has become the model to be followed and imitated by the rest of the world.

But America's world leadership goes well beyond the tide toward democracy. We also find that more countries than ever before are following America's revolutionary economic message of free enterprise, low taxes, and open world trade. These days, whenever I see foreign leaders, they tell me about their plans for reducing taxes and other economic reforms that they're using, copying what we have done here in our country. I wonder if they realize that this vision of economic freedom -- the freedom to work, to create and produce, to own and use property without the interference of the state -- was central to the American Revolution when the American colonists rebelled against a whole web of economic restrictions, taxes, and barriers to free trade. The message at the Boston Tea Party -- have you studied yet in history about the Boston Tea Party, where, because of a tax, they went down and dumped the tea in the harbor? Well, that was America's original tax revolt. And it was the fruits of our labor -- belonged to us, and not to the state. And that truth is fundamental to both liberty and prosperity.

But beyond politics and economics, we find that American culture has also spread around the world. Whether it's young people in Europe or Africa going to an Eddie Murphy movie or Japanese children visiting Mickey Mouse at the new Disneyland in Tokyo or the international jazz festivals or the American soft drinks and rock music and blue jeans that are the choice of young people from Berlin to Beijing, from Managua to Moscow, the fact is that an entire planet is watching and following us.

The same thing is true with science and technology. We lead the world in Nobel Prizes for science, and virtually all of the most important developments in computers, communications, and biotechnology have been made in the United States. And I can't be the only one who's noticed that the Soviet space shuttle that's supposed to go up at 10 p.m. tonight now -- if they can get it off -- it looks very familiar, an awful lot like ours. Other countries may try to copy what we do, but as the rate of progress accelerates, our leadership will become even greater. And these are the technologies that in your lifetime will change the way people all over the world live and change things for the better.

You know, I've seen remarkable technological change in my lifetime. Maybe I'm just going to date myself as belonging back with the dinosaurs or something when I tell you this, but just think, I can still remember my first ride in an automobile. Before cars, we went by horse and buggy. The horse was very fuel-efficient but kind of slow. And if you wanted to supercharge one, you fed him an extra bag of oats. But in pursuing your education, there is one thing I would like to pass along to you. We should always remember that there are the things that change and the things that don't change. The machines will change -- the horse and buggy to the automobile and so forth -- but the people don't. The permanent truths which give meaning to our lives don't change; they are, as I say, permanent. The basic values of faith and family will be just as true when people are living on distant planets as they are today. So, for America to gain greatest benefit from all the exciting new technologies that lie ahead, we will also need to reaffirm our traditional moral values, because these values are the foundation on which everything we do is built. So, yes, I would encourage you to study the math and science that are at the basis of the new technologies. But in a world of change you also need to pay attention to the moral and spiritual values that will stay with you, unchanged, throughout a long lifetime.

And, again, I would say that the most important thing you can do is to ground yourself in the ideas and values of the American Revolution. And that is a vision that goes beyond economics and politics. It's also a moral vision, grounded in the reverence and faith of those who believed that with God's help they could create a free and democratic nation. They designed a system of limited government that, in John Adams' words, was suited only to a religious people such as ours. Our Founding Fathers were the descendents of the Pilgrims -- men and women who came to America seeking freedom of worship -- who prospered here and offered a prayer of thanksgiving, something we've continued to do each year, and so that we'll do it again on Thursday of next week.

By renewing our commitment to the original values of the American Revolution and to the principles of ``We the People,'' we can best preserve our liberty and expand the progress of freedom in the world, which is the purpose for which America was founded. Here, on a continent nestled between two oceans, our country is unique in the world. We have drawn our people from virtually every other nation on Earth, and what we've created here as Americans has touched every corner of the globe.

Here in the White House there's a famous painting of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. And it shows many of the great men of that time assembled in Independence Hall in Philadelphia. But when you look closely at the painting, you see that some of the figures in the hall are just outlines, waiting to be filled in, the faces have not yet been drawn. You see, this great painting isn't finished. But what the people who gathered in Philadelphia two centuries ago set out to do is not yet finished, either. And that, I suppose, is why the painting is the way it is. America is not yet complete, and it's up to each one of us to help complete it. And each one of you can place yourself in that painting. You can become one of the those immortal figures by helping to build and renew America.

And we're entering one of the most exciting times in history, a time of unlimited possibilities, bounded only by the size of your imagination, the depth of your heart, and the character of your courage. More than two centuries of American history -- the contributions of the millions of people who have come before us have been given to us as our birthright. All we can do to earn what we've received is to dream large dreams, to live lives of kindness, and to keep faith with the unfinished vision of the greatness and wonder of America.

Now it's time for me to ask you for your questions, but first I'd like to ask you one: What are some of the things that you're proudest of and some of the things that are best about America? And maybe I can just take a couple of comments if someone has a comment to make.


Q. Okay. My name is Yolanda Coleman. And I'm from Jefferson Junior High School, and I'm a seventh grade student. For one thing, I'm so happy that America is a free country and that we have