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Ronald Reagan’s 1957 Commencement Address Eureka College

From the beginning our nation was charged “with a responsibility to all mankind.”

by Scott L. Vanatter

In one of this first public speeches Ronald Reagan offered the Commencement Address at his alma mater, Eureka College. It was June 7, 1957, four months before Sputnik was put into orbit by the Soviet Union. America was in the height of the Cold War and Ronald Reagan was already speaking of American as a land of destiny, a theme he would return to again and again throughout his career as an elected official. “This is a land of destiny and our forefathers found their way here by some Divine system of selective service gathered here to fulfill a mission to advance man a further step in his climb from the swamps.”

He characterized the Founding Fathers as “a group of disturbed men,” who “met in the small Pennsylvania State House [as] they gathered to decide on a course of action. Behind the locked and guarded doors they debated for hours whether or not to sign the Declaration which had been presented for their consideration.”

So disturbed were they, that they risked all. “For hours the talk was treason and its price the headsman’s axe, the gallows and noose. The talk went on and decision was not forthcoming.”

In the midst of indecision, Jefferson writes that “a voice was heard coming from the balcony.” Note: Jefferson does not put a name to the voice. It said, “They may stretch our necks [and] turn every tree into a gallows, every home into a grave, and yet the words of that parchment can never die.” The voice continued, “They may pour our blood on a thousand scaffolds and yet from every drop that dyes the axe, a new champion of freedom will spring into birth. The words of this declaration will live long after our bones are dust.” Jefferson records the voice as describing the word of the Declaration as offering hope and freedom. “To the mechanic in his workshop they will speak hope; to the slave in the mines, freedom; but to the coward rulers, these words will speak in tones of warning they cannot help but hear.” The voice challenged the Founders to sign the declaration no matter what. “Sign that parchment. Sign if the next moment the noose is around your neck. Sign if the next minute this hall rings with the clash of falling axes! Sign by all your hopes in life or death, not only for yourselves but for all ages, for that parchment will be the textbook of freedom, the bible of the rights of man forever.” The voice’s final reminder was to “implore you to remember this truth God has given America to be free.”

Reagan says that Jefferson recorded that, “The speaker sank back in his seat exhausted. Inspired by his eloquence the delegates rushed forward to sign the Declaration of Independence. When they turned to thank the speaker for his timely words he couldn’t be found and to this day no one knows who he was or how he entered or left the guarded room.” It would not be the first time Reagan suggested a supernatural aspect to our founding. Not only that, but that the nation had “a responsibility to all mankind. And down through the years with but few lapses the people of America have fulfilled their destiny.”

Reagan then declared that we embarked on “the greatest mass undertaking the world has ever seen [World War II],” and that “America fulfilled her destiny.”

In our day he said, “we find ourselves involved in another struggle, this time called a cold war.” Though, he said, this war “isn’t really a new struggle at all. It is the oldest struggle of human kind, as old as man himself. This is a simple struggle between those of us who believe that man has the dignity and sacred right and the ability to choose and shape his own destiny and those who do not so believe.”

He summarized what would be another major theme the rest of his public career. “This irreconcilable conflict is between those who believe in the sanctity of individual freedom and those who believe in the supremacy of the state.”

The problem with those who believe in the supremacy of the state are, “well-meaning people,” but when they work at “placing an economic floor beneath all of us so that no one shall exist below a certain level or standard of living”, that if we “look more closely [we will] find that all too often these well-meaning people are building a ceiling above which no one shall be permitted to climb and between.” That this floor and ceiling “are pressing us all into conformity, into a mold of standardized mediocrity.”

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

Please see below for key excerpts.

LAND OF DESTINY

Those who discovered and pioneered it had to have rare qualities of courage and imagination, nor did these qualities stop there. . . .

This is a land of destiny and our forefathers found their way here by some Divine system of selective service gathered here to fulfill a mission to advance man a further step in his climb from the swamps.

A VOICE AT THE END OF THE DEBATES ON THE DECLARATION

Almost two centuries ago a group of disturbed men met in the small Pennsylvania State House [as] they gathered to decide on a course of action. Behind the locked and guarded doors they debated for hours whether or not to sign the Declaration which had been presented for their consideration. For hours the talk was treason and its price the headsman’s axe, the gallows and noose. The talk went on and decision was not forthcoming. Then, Jefferson writes, a voice was heard coming from the balcony:

“They may stretch our necks on all the gibbets in the land. They may turn every tree into a gallows, every home into a grave, and yet the words of that parchment can never die. They may pour our blood on a thousand scaffolds and yet from every drop that dyes the axe, a new champion of freedom will spring into birth. The words of this declaration will live long after our bones are dust.

“To the mechanic in his workshop they will speak hope; to the slave in the mines, freedom; but to the coward rulers, these words will speak in tones of warning they cannot help but hear. Sign that parchment. Sign if the next moment the noose is around your neck. Sign if the next minute this hall rings with the clash of falling axes! Sign by all your hopes in life or death, not only for yourselves but for all ages, for that parchment will be the textbook of freedom, the bible of the rights of man forever.

“Were my soul trembling on the verge of eternity, my hand freezing in death, I would still implore you to remember this truth God has given America to be free.”

As he finished, the speaker sank back in his seat exhausted. Inspired by his eloquence the delegates rushed forward to sign the Declaration of Independence. When they turned to thank the speaker for his timely words he couldn’t be found and to this day no one knows who he was or how he entered or left the guarded room.

A RESPONSIBILITY TO ALL MANKIND

Here was the first challenge to the people of this new land, the charging of this nation with a responsibility to all mankind. And down through the years with but few lapses the people of America have fulfilled their destiny. . . .

America went into World War II, and never in the history of man had the issues of right and wrong been so clearly defined, so much so that it makes one question how anyone could have remained neutral. And again in the greatest mass undertaking the world has ever seen, America fulfilled her destiny. . . .

And now today we find ourselves involved in another struggle, this time called a cold war. This cold war between great sovereign nations isn’t really a new struggle at all. It is the oldest struggle of human kind, as old as man himself. This is a simple struggle between those of us who believe that man has the dignity and sacred right and the ability to choose and shape his own destiny and those who do not so believe. This irreconcilable conflict is between those who believe in the sanctity of individual freedom and those who believe in the supremacy of the state. . . .

ECONOMIC FLOORS AND CEILINGS

There are many well-meaning people today who work at placing an economic floor beneath all of us so that no one shall exist below a certain level or standard of living, and certainly we don’t quarrel with this. But look more closely and you may find that all too often these well-meaning people are building a ceiling above which no one shall be permitted to climb and between the two are pressing us all into conformity, into a mold of standardized mediocrity. The tendency toward assembly-line education in some of our larger institutions, where we are not teaching but training to fulfill certain specific jobs in the economic life of our nation, is a part of this same pattern. . . .