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Ronald Reagan’s First Inaugural Address: “We are a nation that has a government–not the other way around.”

“We are a nation that has a government–not the other way around. And this makes us special among the nations of the Earth.”

by Scott L. Vanatter

The claim is made that the most important political event in history was neither the writing of the Declaration nor the crafting or ratification of the Constitution which secures our rights. It was neither of these two monumental accomplishments; it was the peaceful transition of the control of the executive office of the United States of America from George Washington to John Adams.

Prior to his running for and winning as president, Ronald Reagan constantly taught the uniqueness of the American Experiment. Not only did he set out to describe the solutions to the tremendous economic burdens which we were dealing with in 1980, he again resorted to the Founders to put into perspective the challenge and the solution. The Founders were prescient in every important political consideration. Not only this, but of the human condition too, the proper consideration of which sets the foundation for a workable and permanent government.

So, it was no surprise that Reagan began this address by citing the “miracle” of “the orderly transfer of authority as called for in the Constitution.” He rightly pointed out that this “routine” happening has taken “place as it has for almost two centuries” but that “few of us stop to think how unique we really are. In the eyes of many in the world, this every-4-year ceremony we accept as normal is nothing less than a miracle.”

Prior to laying out his immediate proscription to solve the economic woes which had beset America in the late 70s, Reagan continued to preach, if you will, the Founder. He reminded us that it was the American “political system which guarantees individual liberty to a greater degree than any other” and “which is the bulwark of our Republic.”

Reagan then summarized our economic problems and the immediate actions he would take to solve them. And solve them he did. We did. “Inflation” which “distorts our economic decisions, penalizes thrift, and crushes the struggling young and the fixed-income elderly alike.” “Unemployment” which causes “human misery and personal indignity.” An unfair “tax system which penalizes successful achievement and keeps us from maintaining full productivity.” Continuing runaway “public spending” which creates “deficit upon deficit” is “to guarantee tremendous social, cultural, political, and economic upheavals.”

Reagan was a man of wise and decisive political action. “We must act today in order to preserve tomorrow. And let there be no misunderstanding–we are going to begin to act, beginning today.” He predicted that our problems “will go away.” He knew this “because we, as Americans, have the capacity now, as we have had in the past, to do whatever needs to be done to preserve this last and greatest bastion of freedom. In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem.” In other words, the solution was inherently within us, not in government itself.

Challenging the liberal orthodoxy, he pointedly made the case that, “We are a nation that has a government–not the other way around. And this makes us special among the nations of the Earth.” And further, that, “It is time to check and reverse the growth of government which shows signs of having grown beyond the consent of the governed.”

Boldly he stated that, “It is my intention to curb the size and influence of the Federal establishment and to demand recognition of the distinction between the powers granted to the Federal Government and those reserved to the States or to the people.”

It was Reagan’s habit not only to teach the, sometimes, hard realities, but also he provided his own built-in answer to those who would challenge his positions. “Now, so there will be no misunderstanding, it is not my intention to do away with government. It is, rather, to make it work–work with us, not over us; to stand by our side, not ride on our back.” For too long government had smothered creativity and productivity.

America is unique among the nations because we have “unleashed the energy and individual genius of man to a greater extent than has ever been done before. Freedom and the dignity of the individual have been more available and assured here than in any other place on Earth. The price for this freedom at times has been high, but we have never been unwilling to pay that price.”

He said that it was “no coincidence that our present troubles parallel and are proportionate to the intervention and intrusion in our lives that result from unnecessary and excessive growth of government.

Always asking us to dream, he challenged us to believe that, “We are not, as some would have us believe, doomed to an inevitable decline. I do not believe in a fate that will fall on us no matter what we do. I do believe in a fate that will fall on us if we do nothing.” And that because we are Americans, “We have every right to dream heroic dreams.”

Reagan then described the concrete action he would take to remove “the roadblocks that have slowed our economy and reduced productivity. Steps will be taken aimed at restoring the balance between the various levels of government.”

In the face of those who were feared that some type of economic malaise might have been permanent, Reagan starkly declared, “It is time to reawaken this industrial giant, to get government back within its means, and to lighten our punitive tax burden. And these will be our first priorities, and on these principles, there will be no compromise.”

Returning to our Founders, he told of one “who might have been one of the greatest . . . Dr. Joseph Warren, President of the Massachusetts Congress.” Dr. Warren “said to his fellow Americans, ‘Our country is in danger, but not to be despaired of…. On you depend the fortunes of America. You are to decide the important questions upon which rests the happiness and the liberty of millions yet unborn. Act worthy of yourselves.’”

Reagan asked us to be ready “to act worthy of ourselves, ready to do what must be done to ensure happiness and liberty for ourselves, our children and our children’s children.”

Not only did we need to secure these blessing for ourselves and our own posterity, but that America was again will be the “exemplar of freedom and a beacon of hope for those who do not now have freedom” around the world.

He concluded by speaking of the strength and freedom which accrues to those who are prepared to support “those neighbors and allies who share our freedom.” By the same token, he warned “the enemies of freedom, those who are potential adversaries,” that “peace is the highest aspiration of the American people. We will negotiate for it, sacrifice for it; we will not surrender for it–now or ever.” He declared this same fortitude against those who sponsor terror.

Summarizing the economic and defense “crisis we are facing today” he said that this requires “our best effort, and our willingness to believe in ourselves and to believe in our capacity to perform great deeds; to believe that together, with God’s help, we can and will resolve the problems which now confront us. And, after all, why shouldn’t we believe that? We are Americans.”

And so we are. Every generation we need to be reminded of this. For so soon we forget and succumb to the temptations of government giveaways. But in this there is not real satisfaction, no real happiness. Just a weakening subsistence level of existence. Reagan said we and would do better.

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

Please see below for key excerpts.

ORDERLY TRANSITION OF AUTHORITY

The orderly transfer of authority as called for in the Constitution routinely takes place as it has for almost two centuries and few of us stop to think how unique we really are. In the eyes of many in the world, this every-4-year ceremony we accept as normal is nothing less than a miracle.

A POLITICAL SYSTEM WHICH GUARANTEES INDIVIDUAL LIBERTY TO A GREATER DEGREE THAN ANY OTHER

We are a united people pledged to maintaining a political system which guarantees individual liberty to a greater degree than any other, and I thank you and your people for all your help in maintaining the continuity which is the bulwark of our Republic.

INFLATION

We suffer from the longest and one of the worst sustained inflations in our national history. It distorts our economic decisions, penalizes thrift, and crushes the struggling young and the fixed-income elderly alike. It threatens to shatter the lives of millions of our people.

UNEMPLOYMENT

Idle industries have cast workers into unemployment, causing human misery and personal indignity. Those who do work are denied a fair return for their labor by a tax system which penalizes successful achievement and keeps us from maintaining full productivity.

TAX AND SPENDING BURDEN

But great as our tax burden is, it has not kept pace with public spending. For decades, we have piled deficit upon deficit, mortgaging our future and our children’s future for the temporary convenience of the present. To continue this long trend is to guarantee tremendous social, cultural, political, and economic upheavals. . . .

ACT TODAY TO PRESERVE TOMORROW

We must act today in order to preserve tomorrow. And let there be no misunderstanding–we are going to begin to act, beginning today. . . . They will not go away in days, weeks, or months, but they will go away. They will go away because we, as Americans, have the capacity now, as we have had in the past, to do whatever needs to be done to preserve this last and greatest bastion of freedom.

GOVERNMENT IS NOT THE SOLUTION

In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem. . . .

THIS BRED CALLED AMERICANS

We hear much of special interest groups. Our concern must be for a special interest group that has been too long neglected. It knows no sectional boundaries or ethnic and racial divisions, and it crosses political party lines. It is made up of men and women who raise our food, patrol our streets, man our mines and our factories, teach our children, keep our homes, and heal us when we are sick–professionals, industrialists, shopkeepers, clerks, cabbies, and truck drivers. They are, in short, “We the people,” this breed called Americans. . . .

NEW BEGINNING: ALL MUST SHARE

All must share in the productive work of this “new beginning” and all must share in the bounty of a revived economy. With the idealism and fair play which are the core of our system and our strength, we can have a strong and prosperous America at peace with itself and the world.

A NATION THAT HAS A GOVERNMENT – NOT THE OTHER WAY AROUND

So, as we begin, let us take inventory. We are a nation that has a government–not the other way around. And this makes us special among the nations of the Earth. Our government has no power except that granted it by the people. It is time to check and reverse the growth of government which shows signs of having grown beyond the consent of the governed.

MY INTENTION TO CURB THE SIZE AND INFLUENCE OF THE FEDERAL ESTABLISHMENT

It is my intention to curb the size and influence of the Federal establishment and to demand recognition of the distinction between the powers granted to the Federal Government and those reserved to the States or to the people. All of us need to be reminded that the Federal Government did not create the States; the States created the Federal Government.

NOT MY INTENTION TO DO AWAY WITH GOVERNMENT

Now, so there will be no misunderstanding, it is not my intention to do away with government. It is, rather, to make it work–work with us, not over us; to stand by our side, not ride on our back. Government can and must provide opportunity, not smother it; foster productivity, not stifle it.

INDIVIDUAL GENIUS: FREEDOM AND DIGNITY OF THE INDIVIDUAL MORE AVAILABLE AND ASSURED THAN ANY OTHER PLACE

If we look to the answer as to why, for so many years, we achieved so much, prospered as no other people on Earth, it was because here, in this land, we unleashed the energy and individual genius of man to a greater extent than has ever been done before. Freedom and the dignity of the individual have been more available and assured here than in any other place on Earth. The price for this freedom at times has been high, but we have never been unwilling to pay that price.

I DO NOT BELIEVE IN A FATE THAT WILL FALL ON US NO MATTER WHAT WE DO

It is no coincidence that our present troubles parallel and are proportionate to the intervention and intrusion in our lives that result from unnecessary and excessive growth of government. It is time for us to realize that we are too great a nation to limit ourselves to small dreams. We are not, as some would have us believe, doomed to an inevitable decline. I do not believe in a fate that will fall on us no matter what we do. I do believe in a fate that will fall on us if we do nothing. . . .

DREAM HEROIC DREAMS: CREATE NEW JOBS, NEW WEALTH

We have every right to dream heroic dreams. . . .

NO INTENTION OF PRESIDING OVER THE DISSOLUTION OF THE WORLD’S STRONGEST ECONOMY

Can we solve the problems confronting us? Well, the answer is an unequivocal and emphatic “yes.” To paraphrase Winston Churchill, I did not take the oath I have just taken with the intention of presiding over the dissolution of the world’s strongest economy.

REMOVING ROADBLOCKS, REAWAKEN THIS INDUSTRIAL GIANT

In the days ahead I will propose removing the roadblocks that have slowed our economy and reduced productivity. Steps will be taken aimed at restoring the balance between the various levels of government. Progress may be slow–measured in inches and feet, not miles–but we will progress. It is time to reawaken this industrial giant, to get government back within its means, and to lighten our punitive tax burden. And these will be our first priorities, and on these principles, there will be no compromise.

ON YOU RESTS THE HAPPINESS AND LIBERTY OF MILLIONS YET UNBORN

On the eve of our struggle for independence a man who might have been one of the greatest among the Founding Fathers, Dr. Joseph Warren, President of the Massachusetts Congress, said to his fellow Americans, “Our country is in danger, but not to be despaired of…. On you depend the fortunes of America. You are to decide the important questions upon which rests the happiness and the liberty of millions yet unborn. Act worthy of yourselves.”

Well, I believe we, the Americans of today, are ready to act worthy of ourselves, ready to do what must be done to ensure happiness and liberty for ourselves, our children and our children’s children.

THE EXEMPLAR OF FREEDOM AND A BEACON OF HOPE

And as we renew ourselves here in our own land, we will be seen as having greater strength throughout the world. We will again be the exemplar of freedom and a beacon of hope for those who do not now have freedom.

ALLIES WHO SHARE OUR FREEDOM

To those neighbors and allies who share our freedom, we will strengthen our historic ties and assure them of our support and firm commitment. We will match loyalty with loyalty. We will strive for mutually beneficial relations. We will not use our friendship to impose on their sovereignty, for our own sovereignty is not for sale.

ENEMIES OF FREEDOM

As for the enemies of freedom, those who are potential adversaries, they will be reminded that peace is the highest aspiration of the American people. We will negotiate for it, sacrifice for it; we will not surrender for it–now or ever.

WHEN ACTION IS REQUIRED

Our forbearance should never be misunderstood. Our reluctance for conflict should not be misjudged as a failure of will. When action is required to preserve our national security, we will act. We will maintain sufficient strength to prevail if need be, knowing that if we do so we have the best chance of never having to use that strength. . . . Let that be understood by those who practice terrorism and prey upon their neighbors. . . .

FOUNDING FATHERS

Directly in front of me, the monument to a monumental man: George Washington, father of our country. A man of humility who came to greatness reluctantly. He led America out of revolutionary victory into infant nationhood. Off to one side, the stately memorial to Thomas Jefferson. The Declaration of Independence flames with his eloquence. And then beyond the Reflecting Pool the dignified columns of the Lincoln Memorial. Whoever would understand in his heart the meaning of America will find it in the life of Abraham Lincoln. . . .

The crisis we are facing today does . . . require, however, our best effort, and our willingness to believe in ourselves and to believe in our capacity to perform great deeds; to believe that together, with God’s help, we can and will resolve the problems which now confront us.

WHY SHOULDN’T WE BELIEVE THAT

And, after all, why shouldn’t we believe that? We are Americans. God bless you, and thank you.