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Ronald Reagan’s Second Inaugural Address: Human freedom is on the march, and nowhere more so than our own hemisphere

“The American sound . . . is hopeful, big-hearted, idealistic, daring, decent, and fair.”

by Scott L. Vanatter

One-term presidents rarely are considered our most successful presidents. Getting re-elected is not in and of itself an indicator of a successful second term. Of course, the more successful the first term, the more likely the success of a second.

During his second term Reagan built on the real economic accomplishment of his first. This success enabled him to ensure our freedoms and secure our defense. This freedom, then, spread around the world. Indeed, America became again the last best hope of earth.

On Monday, January 21, 1985 publicly took the oath and re-enthroned the message he had been teaching for decades. This time, it was not just a clarion call to do something good, tried and true. This time he had put these principles into action and lo and behold. They worked. No matter how this strong man could have done better – no matter how America could have done better – the economy and individual and our collective liberty flourished. He knew it would work, and it did. That any doubted in 1980, was unfortunate. No one could doubt in 1985. A new light had indeed dawned in America and it was lighting the whole world.

Reagan began by contrasting our modern world with that of George Washington’s, where no one was more than a “single day’s journey by horseback from raw, untamed wilderness.” Now, America has tamed the wilderness, and in turn, “We have lighted the world with our inventions, gone to the aid of mankind wherever in the world there was a cry for help.” This is counter to what most great nations have done. Others have sought conquest. We sought to free people and nations.

Recall that Reagan took his first oath “in a time of economic stress.” And when “voices were raised saying we had to look to our past for the greatness and glory.” However, he said, “Our new beginning is a continuation of that beginning created two centuries ago when, for the first time in history, government, the people said, was not our master, it is our servant; its only power that which we, the people, allow it to have.”

The problem with the previous economic malaise was not that our “system [had] never failed us.” No, he said, “we failed the system. We asked things of government that government was not equipped to give.” We asked the government – and still to a great degree, still asking it – to do things it should not do. Even if it was equipped to provide it. Some things are better left to individuals. To us.

Reagan had preached the value of “dreams.” He was confident that, “There are no limits to growth and human progress when men and women are free to follow their dreams.” Reagan not only had faith in our dreams, he constantly challenged us to “dream,” to do, to be.

To a world still largely under the thumb of Soviet Communism, Reagan led as, “Americans courageously supported the struggle for liberty, self-government, and free enterprise throughout the world, and turned the tide of history away from totalitarian darkness and into the warm sunlight of human freedom.”

His first term accomplishments, he thought, might provide enough concrete for the future, such that our ancestors would declare our times were the” golden years–when the American Revolution was reborn, when freedom gained new life, when America reached for her best.”

Poignantly, Reagan reminded us of “two of our Founding Fathers, a Boston lawyer named Adams and a Virginia planter named Jefferson.” These two were “members of that remarkable group who met in Independence Hall and dared to think they could start the world over again.” Telling this story provided Reagan the opportunity to suggest that “political rivals” then and now need not stay enemies. Though they had become bitter enemies, in their later years, “when both were retired, and age had softened their anger, they began to speak to each other again through letters. A bond was reestablished between those two who had helped create this government of ours.”

Most people know that these two Founders both died on the same day, July 4, exactly fifty years after the Declaration. Before he died Jefferson wrote to Adams, “It carries me back to the times when, beset with difficulties and dangers, we were fellow laborers in the same cause, struggling for what is most valuable to man, his right to self-government. Laboring always at the same oar, with some wave ever ahead threatening to overwhelm us, and yet passing harmless … we rode through the storm with heart and hand.”

Extending appropriate caution yet again, Reagan succinctly described our continuing and future dilemma, the challenge which we must meet every generation: “We must not repeat the well-intentioned errors of our past. We must never again abuse the trust of working men and women, by sending their earnings on a futile chase after the spiraling demands of a bloated federal establishment.”

Reagan knew that as “we [began] to increase the rewards for work, savings, and investment” that we would “reduce the increase in the cost and size of government and its interference in people’s lives.”

Not only did Reagan work to “tear down economic barriers” more importantly, he sought to “liberate the spirit of enterprise in the most distressed areas of our country” He had faith that from “new freedom [would] spring new opportunities for growth, a more productive, fulfilled and united people, and a stronger America–an America that will lead the technological revolution, and also open its mind and heart and soul to the treasures of literature, music, and poetry, and the values of faith, courage, and love.” And so it has. And do we have.

Peering into the future, he declared that “more citizens working and paying taxes, will be our strongest tool to bring down budget deficits.” Then, again, one of his timeless challenges, “If not us, who? And if not now, when?”

So his critics could not assume he was against any “place for the federal government in matters of social compassion” he focused on our “fundamental goals” which “must be to reduce dependency and upgrade the dignity of those who are infirm or disadvantaged.”

It is one thing to speak to the ideal that we are the “last best hope of man on earth” it was Reagan’s legacy that he did something about it. Countering a decade’s long theory, Reagan addressed the accepted convention “of mutual assured destruction.” Pointedly he asked, “Is there either logic or morality in believing that if one side threatens to kill tens of millions of our people, our only recourse is to threaten killing tens of millions of theirs?”

He went further, describing once again his funding of research into “a security shield that would destroy nuclear missiles before they reach their target. It wouldn’t kill people, it would destroy weapons. It wouldn’t militarize space, it would help demilitarize the arsenals of Earth. It would render nuclear weapons obsolete.”

So, Reagan’s real first-term accomplishments provided such a hope that “the number of democracies in the world has grown fourfold. Human freedom is on the march, and nowhere more so than our own hemisphere.”

Reagan always knew that “Freedom [was] one of the deepest and noblest aspirations of the human spirit.” Further, that, “People, worldwide, hunger for the right of self-determination, for those inalienable rights that make for human dignity and progress. America must remain freedom’s staunchest friend, for freedom is our best ally. “

The Reagan Revolution sparked a movement “in a world that is [now] lit by lightning. So much is changing and will change, but so much endures, and transcends time.” This is the real impact of his revolution.

Reagan concluded speaking of the symbols of our democracy and our future. “Now we hear again the echoes of our past: a general falls to his knees in the hard snow of Valley Forge; a lonely President paces the darkened halls, and ponders his struggle to preserve the Union; the men of the Alamo call out encouragement to each other; a settler pushes west and sings a song, and the song echoes out forever and fills the unknowing air.”

As much as for his economic accomplishments, and the strength of his stance on defense of our freedoms, Reagan was also known for the power of his worlds. What he heard was beautiful. “It is the American sound. It is hopeful, big-hearted, idealistic, daring, decent, and fair. That’s our heritage; that is our song. We sing it still. For all our problems, our differences, we are together as of old, as we raise our voices to the God who is the Author of this most tender music. And may He continue to hold us close as we fill the world with our sound–sound in unity, affection, and love–one people under God, dedicated to the dream of freedom that He has placed in the human heart, called upon now to pass that dream on to a waiting and hopeful world.”

When we hear this same song, we fulfill our destiny. The destiny Reagan so often described for us, the one too often we forget. His revolution lives as long as we live out our big American dreams. Too many fail to dream. But dream we must.

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

Please see below for key excerpts.

GEORGE WASHINGTON

When the first President, George Washington, placed his hand upon the Bible, he stood less than a single day’s journey by horseback from raw, untamed wilderness. There were 4 million Americans in a union of 13 states. . . . We have lighted the world with our inventions, gone to the aid of mankind wherever in the world there was a cry for help . . . .

FOUR YEARS AGO

When I took this oath four years ago, I did so in a time of economic stress. Voices were raised saying we had to look to our past for the greatness and glory. . . . Our new beginning is a continuation of that beginning created two centuries ago when, for the first time in history, government, the people said, was not our master, it is our servant; its only power that which we, the people, allow it to have.

THAT SYSTEM NEVER FAILED US

That system has never failed us, but, for a time, we failed the system. We asked things of government that government was not equipped to give. We yielded authority to the national government that properly belonged to states or to local governments or to the people themselves. We allowed taxes and inflation to rob us of our earnings and savings and watched the great industrial machine that had made us the most productive people on Earth slow down and the number of unemployed increase. . . .

NO LIMITS

There are no limits to growth and human progress when men and women are free to follow their dreams. And we were right to believe that. Tax rates have been reduced, inflation cut dramatically, and more people are employed than ever before in our history. . . .

Americans courageously supported the struggle for liberty, self-government, and free enterprise throughout the world, and turned the tide of history away from totalitarian darkness and into the warm sunlight of human freedom.

POISED FOR GREATNESS

My fellow citizens, our nation is poised for greatness. We must do what we know is right and do it with all our might. Let history say of us, “These were golden years–when the American Revolution was reborn, when freedom gained new life, when America reached for her best.” . . .

ADAMS AND JEFFERSON

Two of our Founding Fathers, a Boston lawyer named Adams and a Virginia planter named Jefferson, members of that remarkable group who met in Independence Hall and dared to think they could start the world over again, left us an important lesson. They had become political rivals in the Presidential election of 1800. Then, years later, when both were retired, and age had softened their anger, they began to speak to each other again through letters. A bond was reestablished between those two who had helped create this government of ours.

In 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, they both died. They died on the same day, within a few hours of each other, and that day was the Fourth of July.

In one of those letters exchanged in the sunset of their lives, Jefferson wrote: “It carries me back to the times when, beset with difficulties and dangers, we were fellow laborers in the same cause, struggling for what is most valuable to man, his right to self-government. Laboring always at the same oar, with some wave ever ahead threatening to overwhelm us, and yet passing harmless … we rode through the storm with heart and hand.”

MUST NOT REPEAT WELL-INTENTIONED ERRORS OF THE PAST

We must not repeat the well-intentioned errors of our past. We must never again abuse the trust of working men and women, by sending their earnings on a futile chase after the spiraling demands of a bloated federal establishment. . . .

FREEDOM AND INCENTIVES UNLEASH DRIVE AND GENIUS

At the heart of our efforts is one idea vindicated by 25 straight months of economic growth: Freedom and incentives unleash the drive and entrepreneurial genius that are the core of human progress. We have begun to increase the rewards for work, savings, and investment; reduce the increase in the cost and size of government and its interference in people’s lives.

SIMPLIFY TAX SYSTEM

We must simplify our tax system, make it more fair, and bring the rates down for all who work and earn. . . .

TEAR DOWN ECONOMIC BARRIERS

The time has come for a new American emancipation–a great national drive to tear down economic barriers and liberate the spirit of enterprise in the most distressed areas of our country. . . . From new freedom will spring new opportunities for growth, a more productive, fulfilled and united people, and a stronger America–an America that will lead the technological revolution, and also open its mind and heart and soul to the treasures of literature, music, and poetry, and the values of faith, courage, and love.

DEFICIT AND DEBT: IF NOT US, WHO? IF NOT NOW, WHEN?

A dynamic economy, with more citizens working and paying taxes, will be our strongest tool to bring down budget deficits. . . . If not us, who? And if not now, when? It must be done by all of us going forward with a program aimed at reaching a balanced budget. We can then begin reducing the national debt.

I will shortly submit a budget to the Congress aimed at freezing government program spending for the next year. Beyond that, we must take further steps to permanently control government’s power to tax and spend. . . .

A PLACE FOR THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT: BUT A GROWING ECONOMY IS BEST CHANCE FOR A SOCIETY OF COMPASSION

We have already started returning to the people and to state and local governments responsibilities better handled by them. Now, there is a place for the federal government in matters of social compassion. But our fundamental goals must be to reduce dependency and upgrade the dignity of those who are infirm or disadvantaged. . . .

AN OPPORTUNITY SOCIETY

Let us resolve that we, the people, will build an American opportunity society in which all of us–white and black, rich and poor, young and old–will go forward together arm in arm. . . . We are all Americans pledged to carry on this last, best hope of man on Earth. . . .

NATIONAL SECURITY

Now let me turn to a task which is the primary responsibility of national government — the safety and security of our people. . . . There are those in the world who scorn our vision of human dignity and freedom. One nation, the Soviet Union, has conducted the greatest military buildup in the history of man, building arsenals of awesome offensive weapons.

We have made progress in restoring our defense capability. But much remains to be done. There must be no wavering by us, nor any doubts by others, that America will meet her responsibilities to remain free, secure, and at peace.

REDUCE NEED FOR IT

There is only one way safely and legitimately to reduce the cost of national security, and that is to reduce the need for it. And this we are trying to do in negotiations with the Soviet Union. . . .

NEITHER LOGICAL NOR MORAL

Now, for decades, we and the Soviets have lived under the threat of mutual assured destruction; if either resorted to the use of nuclear weapons, the other could retaliate and destroy the one who had started it. Is there either logic or morality in believing that if one side threatens to kill tens of millions of our people, our only recourse is to threaten killing tens of millions of theirs?

RESEARCH ON A SECURITY SHIELD

I have approved a research program to find, if we can, a security shield that would destroy nuclear missiles before they reach their target. It wouldn’t kill people, it would destroy weapons. It wouldn’t militarize space, it would help demilitarize the arsenals of Earth. It would render nuclear weapons obsolete. . . .

HUMAN FREEDOM IS ON MARCH

Since the turn of the century, the number of democracies in the world has grown fourfold. Human freedom is on the march, and nowhere more so than our own hemisphere. Freedom is one of the deepest and noblest aspirations of the human spirit. People, worldwide, hunger for the right of self-determination, for those inalienable rights that make for human dignity and progress. America must remain freedom’s staunchest friend, for freedom is our best ally. . . .

EVERY VICTORY FOR HUMAN FREEDOM WILL BE A VICTORY FOR WORLD PEACE

Every victory for human freedom will be a victory for world peace. So we go forward today, a nation still mighty in its youth and powerful in its purpose. . . .

A WORLD LIT BY LIGHTNING

My friends, we live in a world that is lit by lightning. So much is changing and will change, but so much endures, and transcends time.

REVOLUTIONARY WAR, CIVIL WAR, ALAMO, PIONEERS

History is a ribbon, always unfurling; history is a journey. And as we continue our journey, we think of those who traveled before us. We stand together again at the steps of this symbol of our democracy–or we would have been standing at the steps if it hadn’t gotten so cold. Now we are standing inside this symbol of our democracy. Now we hear again the echoes of our past: a general falls to his knees in the hard snow of Valley Forge; a lonely President paces the darkened halls, and ponders his struggle to preserve the Union; the men of the Alamo call out encouragement to each other; a settler pushes west and sings a song, and the song echoes out forever and fills the unknowing air.

THE AMERICAN SOUND, OUR HERITAGE, OUR SONG: THE MOST TENDER MUSIC – CALLED UPON NOW TO PASS THAT DREAM ON TO A WAITING AND HOPEFUL WORLD

It is the American sound. It is hopeful, big-hearted, idealistic, daring, decent, and fair. That’s our heritage; that is our song. We sing it still. For all our problems, our differences, we are together as of old, as we raise our voices to the God who is the Author of this most tender music. And may He continue to hold us close as we fill the world with our sound–sound in unity, affection, and love–one people under God, dedicated to the dream of freedom that He has placed in the human heart, called upon now to pass that dream on to a waiting and hopeful world. . . .