Reagan’s Election Eve Address, “A Vision for America”

Protect and pass on lovingly that shining city on a hill.

by Scott L. Vanatter

The gnawing dullness of Carter’s malaise had pretty well set in by late 1980. Ronald Reagan’s growing, optimistic campaign for the presidency culminated with his clear “Vision for America” described in an election eve address on November 3, 1980.

With a gentle touch, Reagan began, “The election will be over soon, autumn will become winter, this year will fade into next . . . and yet, the decisions we make tomorrow will determine our country’s course through what promises to be one of the most perilous decades in our history.”

Too often American leadership wanes. Reagan decried “the constant crisis atmosphere in our foreign policy, about our diminishing prestige around the globe, about the weakness in our economy and national security” because of “our lack of strong, straight-forward leadership.” That we “feel burdened, stifled and sometimes even oppressed by government….”

He intuitively knew that even in the midst of sore trials, “Americans…seek a vision of a better America, a vision of society that frees the energies and ingenuity of our people.” but also one which at the same time “extends compassion to the lonely, the desperate, and the forgotten.”

More than most presidents, Reagan sought to and accomplished his stated goal that “it will be imperative to establish a close working relationship with the new Congress. No objective will be more important to me, if I am elected president, than that of opening a new era of cooperation between the executive and legislative branches of government.”

Reagan then got into the core message of what he wanted speak about that night, “not about campaign issues—but about America, about us, you and me.”

He reviewed “the hard years: riots and assassinations, domestic strife over the Vietnam War and in the last four years, drift and disaster in Washington.” He rejected cries by some that ”we must cut our expectations, conserve and withdraw, that we must tell our children…not to dream as we once dreamed.”

John Wayne had just succumbed to cancer the previous year. He was a hero to many Americans, and a friend of Reagan. Just before his death, he told Reagan, to just give the American people a good cause, and there’s nothing they can’t lick. Reagan said, “Duke Wayne did not believe that our country was ready for the dust bin of history, and if we’ll just think about it we too will know it isn’t.”

Reagan reminded us that he was not underestimating “the difficulties before us.” He said that “it is always when things seem most unbearable—that we must have faith that America’s trials have meaning beyond our own understanding. Since her beginning America has held fast to this hope of divine providence, this vision of ‘man with God.’” He repeated his oft told story of John Winthrop challenging us to be “a city upon a hill.”

Reagan rejected the idea of any “national malaise.” He could “find nothing wrong with the American people. Oh, they are frustrated, even angry at what has been done to this blessed land.”

He shared the challenging words of Joseph Warren, a Boston doctor, who left us these words before giving his life at Bunker Hill: “’Our country is in danger, but not to be despaired of…on you depend the fortunes of America—you are to decide the important question, on which rests the happiness and liberty of millions yet unborn. Act worthy of yourselves.’”

Just prior to concluding Reagan asked us to consider a list of questions about our national confidence, our satisfaction, our strength, world respect. He punctuated his list of questions with several personal ones. “Are you personally more secure in your life? Is your family more secure? . . . And, most importantly–quite simply–the basic question of our lives: are you happier today than when Mr. Carter became President of the United States?”

He said some “Americans want their sons and daughters to see what is still for them and for so many other millions in the world a city offering the ‘last best hope of man on earth!’” Or, that they come to visit the nation’s capital to “read the words inscribed at the Lincoln Memorial. ‘Let us bind up the nation’s wounds.’”

He concludes by saying that “Americans [are] awed by what has gone before, proud of what for them is still…a shining city on a hill. At this very moment, some young American, coming up along the Virginia or Maryland shores of the Potomac is seeing for the first time the lights that glow on the great halls of our government and the monuments to the memory of our great men. Let us resolve tonight that young Americans will always see those Potomac lights; that they will always find there a city of hope in a country that is free. And let us resolve they will say of our day and our generation that we did keep faith with our God, that we did act ‘worthy of ourselves;’ that we did protect and pass on lovingly that shining city on a hill.”

Click here to see the full transcript of this important speech.

Please see below for key excerpts.

The election will be over soon, autumn will become winter, this year will fade into next . . . and yet, the decisions we make tomorrow will determine our country’s course through what promises to be one of the most perilous decades in our history. . . .

WEAKNESS IN OUR ECONOMY AND NATIONAL SECURITY

Many of us are unhappy about our worsening economic problems, about the constant crisis atmosphere in our foreign policy, about our diminishing prestige around the globe, about the weakness in our economy and national security that jeopardizes world peace, about our lack of strong, straight-forward leadership.

And many Americans today, just as they did 200 years ago, feel burdened, stifled and sometimes even oppressed by government that has grown too large, too bureaucratic, too wasteful, too unresponsive, too uncaring about people and their problems.

A VISION OF A BETTER AMERICA

Americans, who have always known that excessive bureaucracy is the enemy of excellence and compassion, want a change in public life—a change that makes government work for people. They seek a vision of a better America, a vision of society that frees the energies and ingenuity of our people while it extends compassion to the lonely, the desperate, and the forgotten.

I believe we can embark on a new age of reform in this country and an era of national renewal. An era that will reorder the relationship between citizen and government, that will make government again responsive to people, that will revitalize the values of family, work, and neighborhood and that will restore our private and independent social institutions. These institutions always have served as both buffer and bridge between the individual and the state—and these institutions, not government, are the real sources of our economic and social progress as a people.

That’s why I’ve said throughout this campaign that we must control and limit the growth of federal spending, that we must reduce tax rates to stimulate work and savings and investment. . . .

NEW ERA OF COOPERATION BETWEEN EXECUTIVE AND LEGISLATIVE BRANCHES

In accomplishing these goals, it will be imperative to establish a close working relationship with the new Congress. No objective will be more important to me, if I am elected president, than that of opening a new era of cooperation between the executive and legislative branches of government. . . .

But beyond even these reforms—as important as they are—there is something more, much more, that needs to be said tonight.

ABOUT AMERICA

That’s why I want to talk with you—not about campaign issues—but about America, about us, you and me. . . .

Then came the hard years: riots and assassinations, domestic strife over the Vietnam War and in the last four years, drift and disaster in Washington.

It all seems a long way from a time when politics was a national passion and sometimes even fun. . . .

They say we must cut our expectations, conserve and withdraw, that we must tell our children…not to dream as we once dreamed.

JOHN WAYNE

Last year I lost a friend who was more than a symbol of the Hollywood dream industry; to millions he was a symbol of our country itself. And when he died, the headlines seemed to convey all the doubt about America, all the nostalgia for a seemingly lost past.

“The Last American Hero,” said one headline, “Mr. America dies,” said another.

Well, I knew John Wayne well, and no one would have been angrier at being called the “last American hero.”

Just before his death, he said in his own blunt way, “Just give the American people a good cause, and there’s nothing they can’t lick.” Duke Wayne did not believe that our country was ready for the dust bin of history, and if we’ll just think about it we too will know it isn’t. . . .

These were not the deeds of men who set out to be heroes. In many ways they were ordinary Americans whose spontaneous response to time and circumstance gave us a glimpse into the soul of this country and enduring vigor of her people.

AMERICA’S TRIALS HAVE MEANING BEYOND OUR OWN UNDERSTANDING

Do not mistake me, no reasonable man who sees the world as it is, who views the deterioration of our economy, the waning of our relationships with our allies, the growth of Soviet might and the sufferings of our recent past could underestimate the difficulties before us.

But I wonder if those who doubt America have forgotten that just as in the lives of individuals so too in the lives of nations: it is always when things seem most unbearable—that we must have faith that America’s trials have meaning beyond our own understanding.

Since her beginning America has held fast to this hope of divine providence, this vision of “man with God.”

VIEW OF MAN

It is true that world peace is jeopardized by those who view man—not as a noble being—but as an accident of nature, without soul, and important only to the extent he can serve an all powerful state.

But it is our spiritual commitment—more than all the military might in the world—that will win our struggle for peace.

It is not ”bombs and rockets” but belief and resolve—it is humility before God that is ultimately the source of America’s strength as a nation. . . .

I know I have told before of the moment in 1630 when the tiny ship Arabella bearing settlers to the New World lay off the Massachusetts coast. To the little bank of settlers gathered on the deck John Winthrop said: “we shall be a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us, so that if we shall 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 through the world.” . . .

We celebrated our 200th anniversary as a nation a short time ago. Fireworks exploded over Boston harbor, Arthur Fiedler conducted, thousands cheered and waved Old Glory. . . .

I find no national malaise, I find nothing wrong with the American people. Oh, they are frustrated, even angry at what has been done to this blessed land. But more than anything they are sturdy and robust as they have always been. . . .

Let it always be clear that we have no dreams of empire, that we seek no manifest destiny, that we understand the limitations of any one nation’s power.

HISTORY’S CALL

But let it also be clear that we do not shirk history’s call; that America is not turned inward but outward—toward others. Let it be clear that we have not lessened our commitment to peace or to the hope that someday all of the people of the world will enjoy lives of decency, lives with a degree of freedom, with a measure of dignity. . . .

Tonight, my fellow Americans, we have reached deep into our national past—remembered the words and deeds of great men who have gone before us.

ACT WORTHY OF YOURSELVES

But before I close, I want to leave with you a speech by a man not so well remembered in history, but those words, spoken on the eve of our struggle for independence, should uplift and inspire now as surely as they did in 1775. Joseph Warren, a Boston doctor, left us these words before giving his life at Bunker Hill: “Our country is in danger, but not to be despaired of…on you depend the fortunes of America—you are to decide the important question, on which rests the happiness and liberty of millions yet unborn. Act worthy of yourselves.”

A PERSONAL DECISION

Tomorrow morning, you will be making a choice between different visions of the future. Your decision is a uniquely personal one. It belongs to no one but you. It will be critical in determining the path we will follow in the years ahead.

If you feel that Mr. Carter has faithfully served America with the kind of competence and distinction which deserve four more years in office, then you should vote for him. If he has given you the kind of leadership you are looking for, if he instills in you pride for our country and a sense of optimism about our future, then he should be reelected.

CONSIDER THESE QUESTIONS

But consider these questions as well when you finally make your decision:

Are you more confident that our economy will create productive work for our society or are you less confident? Do you feel you can keep the job you have or gain a job if you don’t have one?

Are you satisfied that inflation as the highest rates in 33 years were the best that we could do? Are interest rates at 14 ½ percent something you are prepared to live with?

Are you pleased with the ability of young people to buy a home; of the elderly to live their remaining years in happiness; of our youngsters to take pride in the world we have build for them?

Is our nation stronger and more capable of leading the world toward peace and freedom or is it weaker?

Is there more stability in the world or less?

Are you convinced that we have earned the respect of the world and our allies, or has America’s position across the globe diminished?

Are you personally more secure in your life? Is your family more secure? Is America safer in the world?

And, most importantly–quite simply–the basic question of our lives: are you happier today than when Mr. Carter became President of the United States?

I cannot answer those questions for you. Only you can.

TWO REASONS TO VISIT WASHINGTON DC

It is autumn now in Washington, and the residents there say that more than ever during the past few years, Americans are coming to visit their capital—some say because economic conditions rule out more expensive vacations elsewhere; some say an election year has heightened interest in the workings of the national government.

Others say something different: in a time when our values, when our place in history is so seriously questioned, they say Americans want their sons and daughters to see what is still for them and for so many other millions in the world a city offering the “last best hope of man on earth!”

You can see them—these Washington visitors—looking for the famous as they walk through congressional hallways; see them as they return silent and tightlipped to tour buses that brought them for a walk through rows of white crosses in Arlington Cemetery; you can see them as they look up at a towering statue of Jefferson or out from the top of the Washington Monument; or as they read the words inscribed at the Lincoln Memorial. “Let us bind up the nation’s wounds.”

A SHINING CITY ON A HILL

These visitors to that city on the Potomac do not come as white or black, red or yellow; they are not Jews or Christians; conservatives or liberals; or Democrats or Republicans. They are Americans awed by what has gone before, proud of what for them is still…a shining city on a hill.

At this very moment, some young American, coming up along the Virginia or Maryland shores of the Potomac is seeing for the first time the lights that glow on the great halls of our government and the monuments to the memory of our great men.

Let us resolve tonight that young Americans will always see those Potomac lights; that they will always find there a city of hope in a country that is free. And let us resolve they will say of our day and our generation that we did keep faith with our God, that we did act “worthy of ourselves;” that we did protect and pass on lovingly that shining city on a hill.

Comments

  1. Carrie Motley says:

    How cool…Romney would win by a landslide if he could make a speech the night before…like this. Inspire…explain…