Will Be a City Upon a Hill
Ronald Reagan, January 25, 1974. To the First Annual Conservative
Political Action Conference.
are three men here tonight I am very proud to introduce. It was
a year ago this coming February when this country had its spirits
lifted as they have never been lifted in many years. This happened
when planes began landing on American soil and in the Philippines,
bringing back men who had lived with honor for many miserable years
in North Vietnam prisons. Three of those men are here tonight, John
McCain, Bill Lawrence and Ed Martin. It is an honor to be here tonight.
I am proud that you asked me and I feel more than a little humble
in the presence of this distinguished company.
are men here tonight who, through their wisdom, their foresight
and their courage, have earned the right to be regarded as prophets
of our philosophy. Indeed they are prophets of our times. In years
past when others were silent or too blind to the facts, they spoke
up forcefully and fearlessly for what they believed to be right.
A decade has passed since Barry Goldwater walked a lonely path across
this land reminding us that even a land as rich as ours cant
go on forever borrowing against the future, leaving a legacy of
debt for another generation and causing a runaway inflation to erode
the savings and reduce the standard of living. Voices have been
raised trying to rekindle in our country all of the great ideas
and principles which set this nation apart from all the others that
preceded it, but louder and more strident voices utter easily sold
with acid-tipped pens portray some of the reminders of our heritage
and our destiny as old-fashioned. They say that we are trying to
retreat into a past that actually never existed. Looking to the
past in an effort to keep our country from repeating the errors
of history is termed by them as "taking the country back to
McKinley." Of course I never found that was so bad under
McKinley we freed Cuba. On the span of history, we are still thought
of as a young upstart country celebrating soon only our second century
as a nation, and yet we are the oldest continuing republic in the
thought that tonight, rather than talking on the subjects you are
discussing, or trying to find something new to say, it might be
appropriate to reflect a bit on our heritage.
can call it mysticism if you want to, but I have always believed
that there was some divine plan that placed this great continent
between two oceans to be sought out by those who were possessed
of an abiding love of freedom and a special kind of courage.
was true of those who pioneered the great wilderness in the beginning
of this country, as it is also true of those later immigrants who
were willing to leave the land of their birth and come to a land
where even the language was unknown to them. Call it chauvinistic,
but our heritage does not set us apart. Some years ago a writer,
who happened to be an avid student of history, told me a story about
that day in the little hall in Philadelphia where honorable men,
hard-pressed by a King who was flouting the very law they were willing
to obey, debated whether they should take the fateful step of declaring
their independence from that king. I was told by this man that the
story could be found in the writings of Jefferson. I confess, I
never researched or made an effort to verify it. Perhaps it is only
legend. But story, or legend, he described the atmosphere, the strain,
the debate, and that as men for the first time faced the consequences
of such an irretrievable act, the walls resounded with the dread
word of treason and its price the gallows and the headmans
axe. As the day wore on the issue hung in the balance, and then,
according to the story, a man rose in the small gallery. He was
not a young man and was obviously calling on all the energy he could
muster. Citing the grievances that had brought them to this moment
he said, "Sign that parchment. They may turn every tree into
a gallows, every home into a grave and yet the words of that parchment
can never die. For the mechanic in his workshop, they will be words
of hope, to the slave in the mines freedom." And he
added, "If my hands were freezing in death, I would sign that
parchment with my last ounce of strength. Sign, sign if the next
moment the noose is around your neck, sign even if the hall is ringing
with the sound of headmans axe, for that parchment will be
the textbook of freedom, the bible of the rights of man forever."
And then it is said he fell back exhausted. But 56 delegates, swept
by his eloquence, signed the Declaration of Independence, a document
destined to be as immortal as any work of man can be. And according
to the story, when they turned to thank him for his timely oratory,
he could not be found nor were there any who knew who he was or
how he had come in or gone out through the locked and guarded doors.
as I say, whether story or legend, the signing of the document that
day in Independence Hall was miracle enough. Fifty-six men, a little
band so unique we have never seen their like since
pledged their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor. Sixteen
gave their lives, most gave their fortunes and all of them preserved
their sacred honor. What manner of men were they? Certainly they
were not an unwashed, revolutionary rebel, nor were then adventurers
in a heroic mood. Twenty-four were lawyers and jurists, 11 were
merchants and tradesmen, nine were farmers. They were men who would
achieve security but valued freedom more.
what price did they pay? John Hart was driven from the side of his
desperately ill wife. After more than a year of living almost as
an animal in the forest and in caves, he returned to find his wife
had died and his children had vanished. He never saw them again,
his property was destroyed and he died of a broken heart
but with no regret, only pride in the part he had played that day
in Independence Hall. Carter Braxton of Virginia lost all his ships
they were sold to pay his debts. He died in rags. So it was
with Ellery, Clymer, Hall, Walton, Gwinnett, Rutledge, Morris, Livingston,
and Middleton. Nelson, learning that Cornwallis was using his home
for a headquarters, personally begged Washington to fire on him
and destroy his home he died bankrupt. It has never been
reported that any of these men ever expressed bitterness or renounced
their action as not worth the price. Fifty-six rank-and-file, ordinary
citizens had founded a nation that grew from sea to shining sea,
five million farms, quiet villages, cities that never sleep
all done without an area re-development plan, urban renewal or a
rural legal assistance program.
we are a nation of 211 million people with a pedigree that includes
blood lines from every corner of the world. We have shed that American-melting-pot
blood in every corner of the world, usually in defense of someones
freedom. Those who remained of that remarkable band we call our
Founding Fathers tied up some of the loose ends about a dozen years
after the Revolution. It had been the first revolution in all mans
history that did not just exchange one set of rulers for another.
This had been a philosophical revolution. The culmination of mens
dreams for 6,000 years were formalized with the Constitution, probably
the most unique document ever drawn in the long history of mans
relation to man. I know there have been other constitutions, new
ones are being drawn today by newly emerging nations. Most of them,
even the one of the Soviet Union, contains many of the same guarantees
as our own Constitution, and still there is a difference. The difference
is so subtle that we often overlook it, but it is so great that
it tells the whole story. Those other constitutions say, "Government
grants you these rights," and ours says, "You are born
with these rights, they are yours by the grace of God, and no government
on earth can take them from you."
Acton of England, who once said, "Power corrupts, and absolute
power corrupts absolutely," would say of that document, "They
had solved with astonishing ease and unduplicated success two problems
which had heretofore baffled the capacity of the most enlightened
nations. They had contrived a system of federal government which
prodigiously increased national power and yet respected local liberties
and authorities, and they had founded it on a principle of equality
without surrendering the securities of property or freedom."
Never in any society has the preeminence of the individual been
so firmly established and given such a priority.
less than twenty years we would go to war because the God-given
rights of the American sailors, as defined in the Constitution,
were being violated by a foreign power. We served notice then on
the world that all of us together would act collectively to safeguard
the rights of even the least among us. But still, in an older, cynical
world, they were not convinced. The great powers of Europe still
had the idea that one day this great continent would be open again
to colonizing and they would come over and divide us up.
the meantime, men who yearned to breathe free were making their
way to our shores. Among them was a young refugee from the Austro-Hungarian
Empire. He had been a leader in an attempt to free Hungary from
Austrian rule. The attempt had failed and he fled to escape execution.
In America, this young Hungarian, Koscha by name, became an importer
by trade and took out his first citizenship papers. One day, business
took him to a Mediterranean port. There was a large Austrian warship
under the command of an admiral in the harbor. He had a manservant
with him. He had described to this manservant what the flag of his
new country looked like. Word was passed to the Austrian warship
that this revolutionary was there and in the night he was kidnapped
and taken aboard that large ship. This mans servant, desperate,
walking up and down the harbor, suddenly spied a flag that resembled
the description he had heard. It was a small American war sloop.
He went aboard and told Captain Ingraham, of that war sloop, his
story. Captain Ingraham went to the American Consul. When the American
Consul learned that Koscha had only taken out his first citizenship
papers, the consul washed his hands of the incident. Captain Ingraham
said, "I am the senior officer in this port and I believe,
under my oath of my office, that I owe this man the protection of
went aboard the Austrian warship and demanded to see their prisoner,
our citizen. The Admiral was amused, but they brought the man on
deck. He was in chains and had been badly beaten. Captain Ingraham
said, "I can hear him better without those chains," and
the chains were removed. He walked over and said to Koscha, "I
will ask you one question; consider your answer carefully. Do you
ask the protection of the American flag?" Koscha nodded dumbly
"Yes," and the Captain said, "You shall have it."
He went back and told the frightened consul what he had done. Later
in the day three more Austrian ships sailed into harbor. It looked
as though the four were getting ready to leave. Captain Ingraham
sent a junior officer over to the Austrian flag ship to tell the
Admiral that any attempt to leave that harbor with our citizen aboard
would be resisted with appropriate force. He said that he would
expect a satisfactory answer by four oclock that afternoon.
As the hour neared they looked at each other through the glasses.
As it struck four he had them roll the cannons into the ports and
had then light the tapers with which they would set off the cannons
one little sloop. Suddenly the lookout tower called out and
said, "They are lowering a boat," and they rowed Koscha
over to the little American ship.
Ingraham then went below and wrote his letter of resignation to
the United States Navy. In it he said, "I did what I thought
my oath of office required, but if I have embarrassed my country
in any way, I resign." His resignation was refused in the United
States Senate with these words: "This battle that was never
fought may turn out to be the most important battle in our Nation's
history." Incidentally, there is to this day, and I hope there
always will be, a USS Ingraham in the United States Navy.
did not tell that story out of any desire to be narrowly chauvinistic
or to glorify aggressive militarism, but it is an example of government
meeting its highest responsibility.
recent years we have been treated to a rash of noble-sounding phrases.
Some of them sound good, but they dont hold up under close
analysis. Take for instance the slogan so frequently uttered by
the young senator from Massachusetts, "The greatest good for
the greatest number." Certainly under that slogan, no modern
day Captain Ingraham would risk even the smallest craft and crew
for a single citizen. Every dictator who ever lived has justified
the enslavement of his people on the theory of what was good for
are not a warlike people. Nor is our history filled with tales of
aggressive adventures and imperialism, which might come as a shock
to some of the placard painters in our modern demonstrations. The
lesson of Vietnam, I think, should be that never again will young
Americans be asked to fight and possibly die for a cause unless
that cause is so meaningful that we, as a nation, pledge our full
resources to achieve victory as quickly as possible.
realize that such a pronouncement, of course, would possibly be
laying one open to the charge of warmongering but that would
also be ridiculous. My generation has paid a higher price and has
fought harder for freedom that any generation that had ever lived.
We have known four wars in a single lifetime. All were horrible,
all could have been avoided if at a particular moment in time we
had made it plain that we subscribed to the words of John Stuart
Mill when he said that "war is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest
decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which
thinks nothing is worth a war is worse. The man who has nothing
which he cares about more than his personal safety is a miserable
creature and has no chance of being free unless made and kept so
by the exertions of better men than himself.
widespread disaffection with things military is only a part of the
philosophical division in our land today. I must say to you who
have recently, or presently are still receiving an education, I
am awed by your powers of resistance. I have some knowledge of the
attempts that have been made in many classrooms and lecture halls
to persuade you that there is little to admire in America. For the
second time in this century, capitalism and the free enterprise
are under assault. Privately owned business is blamed for spoiling
the environment, exploiting the worker and seducing, if not outright
raping, the customer. Those who make the charge have the solution,
of course government regulation and control. We may never
get around to explaining how citizens who are so gullible that they
can be suckered into buying cereal or soap that they dont
need and would not be good for them, can at the same time be astute
enough to choose representatives in government to which they would
entrust the running of their lives.
too long ago, a poll was taken on 2,500 college campuses in this
country. Thousands and thousands of responses were obtained. Overwhelmingly,
65, 70, and 75 percent of the students found business responsible,
as I have said before, for the things that were wrong in this country.
That same number said that government was the solution and should
take over the management and the control of private business. Eighty
percent of the respondents said they wanted government to keep its
paws out of their private lives.
are told every day that the assembly-line worker is becoming a dull-witted
robot and that mass production results in standardization. Well,
there isnt a socialist country in the world that would not
give its copy of Karl Marx for our standardization.
means production for the masses and the assembly line means more
leisure for the worker freedom from backbreaking and mind-dulling
drudgery that man had known for centuries past. Karl Marx did not
abolish child labor or free the women from working in the coal mines
in England the steam engine and modern machinery did that.
the disciples of the new order have had a hand in determining too
much policy in recent decades. Government has grown in size and
power and cost through the New Deal, the Fair Deal, the New Frontier
and the Great Society. It costs more for government today than a
family pays for food, shelter and clothing combined. Not even the
Office of Management and Budget knows how many boards, commissions,
bureaus and agencies there are in the federal government, but the
federal registry, listing their regulations, is just a few pages
short of being as big as the Encyclopedia Britannica.
the Great Society we saw the greatest growth of this government.
There were eight cabinet departments and 12 independent agencies
to administer the federal health program. There were 35 housing
programs and 20 transportation projects. Public utilities had to
cope with 27 different agencies on just routine business. There
were 192 installations and nine departments with 1,000 projects
having to do with the field of pollution.
Congressman found the federal government was spending 4 billion
dollars on research in its own laboratories but did not know where
they were, how many people were working in them, or what they were
doing. One of the research projects was "The Demography of
Happiness," and for 249,000 dollars we found that "people
who make more money are happier than people who make less, young
people are happier than old people, and people who are healthier
are happier than people who are sick." For 15 cents they could
have bought an Almanac and read the old bromide, "Its
better to be rich, young and healthy, than poor, old and sick."
course that you have chosen is far more in tune with the hopes and
aspirations of our people than are those who would sacrifice freedom
for some fancied security.
on the tiny deck of the Arabella in 1630 off the Massachusetts coast,
John Winthrop said, "We will be as a city upon a hill. The
eyes of all people are upon us, so that if we deal falsely with
our God in this work we have undertaken and so cause Him to withdraw
His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a byword
throughout the world." Well, we have not dealt falsely with
our God, even if He is temporarily suspended from the classroom.
I was born my life expectancy was 10 years less than I have already
lived thats a cause of regret for some people in California,
I know. Ninety percent of Americans at that time lived beneath what
is considered the poverty line today, three-quarters lived in what
is considered substandard housing. Today each of those figures is
less than 10 percent. We have increased our life expectancy by wiping
out, almost totally, diseases that still ravage mankind in other
parts of the world. I doubt if the young people here tonight know
the names of some of the diseases that were commonplace when we
were growing up. We have more doctors per thousand people than any
nation in the world. We have more hospitals that any nation in the
I was your age, believe it or not, none of us knew that we even
had a racial problem. When I graduated from college and became a
radio sport announcer, broadcasting major league baseball, I didnt
have a Hank Aaron or a Willie Mays to talk about. The Spaulding
Guide said baseball was a game for Caucasian gentlemen. Some of
us then began editorializing and campaigning against this. Gradually
we campaigned against all those other areas where the constitutional
rights of a large segment of our citizenry were being denied. We
have not finished the job. We still have a long way to go, but we
have made more progress in a few years than we have made in more
than a century.
of all the students in the world who are pursuing higher education
are doing so in the United States. The percentage of our young Negro
community that is going to college is greater than the percentage
of whites in any other country in the world.
of all the economic activity in the entire history of man has taken
place in this republic. We have distributed our wealth more widely
among our people than any society known to man. Americans work less
hours for a higher standard of living than any other people. Ninety-five
percent of all our families have an adequate daily intake of nutrients
and a part of the five percent that dont are trying
to lose weight! Ninety-nine percent have gas or electric refrigeration,
92 percent have televisions, and an equal number have telephones.
There are 120 million cars on our streets and highways and
all of them are on the street at once when you are trying to get
home at night. But isnt this just proof of our materialism
the very thing that we are charged with? Well, we also have
more churches, more libraries, we support voluntarily more symphony
orchestras, and opera companies, non-profit theaters, and publish
more books than all the other nations of the world put together.
America has bred a kindliness into our people unmatched anywhere,
as has been pointed out in that best-selling record by a Canadian
journalist. We are not a sick society. A sick society could not
produce the men that set foot on the moon, or who are now circling
the earth above us in the Skylab. A sick society bereft of morality
and courage did not produce the men who went through those years
of torture and captivity in Vietnam. Where did we find such men?
They are typical of this land as the Founding Fathers were typical.
We found them in our streets, in the offices, the shops and the
working places of our country and on the farms.
cannot escape our destiny, nor should we try to do so. The leadership
of the free world was thrust upon us two centuries ago in that little
hall of Philadelphia. In the days following World War II, when the
economic strength and power of America was all that stood between
the world and the return to the dark ages, Pope Pius XII said, "The
American people have a great genius for splendid and unselfish actions.
Into the hands of America God has placed the destinies of an afflicted
are indeed, and we are today, the last best hope of man on earth.
June 9, 2004]
images courtesy of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation,
all rights reserved.