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Reagan at the first CPAC, “We Will Be A City Upon A Hill”

“You 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. . . . Call it chauvinistic, but our heritage does set us apart.”

by Scott L. Vanatter

Later this week the Conservative Political Action Conference will again convene. Thirty nine years ago, in 1974, Ronald Reagan spoke at the very first conference. At the time conservatism was thought by many to be on the ropes, discredited, and out-of-date. Ronald Reagan thought otherwise.

He labeled certain of his conservative contemporaries, even men at the dinner that night, as “prophets of our philosophy.” In this he might as well have been reading aloud his own bio. Not only a prophet for telling the truth, he also led conservative followers in bringing to pass what later became known as, the Reagan Revolution. In Europe there are old bridges still being used to this day which are many times older than the American republic. We are still young.

Though we were “a young upstart country” not yet two hundred years old, Reagan reminded the conference attendees that “we are the oldest continuing republic in the world.” So convinced was he of our destiny, that he didn’t care that some might “call it mysticism, but I have always believed that there was some divine plan” for America. We were “placed [on] this great continent between two oceans” and that we would “be sought out by those who were possessed of an abiding love of freedom and a special kind of courage.” Yes, immigrants from across the world still yearn for the freedom represented by our flag. “Immigrants . . . willing to leave the land of their birth and come to a land.” Reagan was convinced more so than most in American history that “our heritage does set us apart.”

He went on to tell a story, he allowed that it might be only a legend, of a mysterious unknown patriot who was there at the creation of the Declaration of Independence. He told the story to dramatize “the atmosphere, the strain, the debate, and that as men for the first time faced the consequences of such an irretrievable act” of a Rebellion for Independence. He said, “the walls resounded with the dread word of treason and its price — the gallows and the headman’s axe.” Later in the day “a man rose in the small gallery. ‘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. . . . 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 headman’s axe, for that parchment will be the textbook of freedom, the bible of the rights of man forever.’”

After declaring our freedom, “our Founding Fathers tied up some of the loose ends about a dozen years after the Revolution.”  In creating our Constitution, he described this document as “the first revolution in all man’s history that did not just exchange one set of rulers for another.” He set this timeless act apart from all others in history, calling it “a philosophical revolution.” With the Constitution being created and adopted, he called it the “culmination of men’s dreams for 6,000 years.” He said there was a difference between our Constitution and any others which had been subsequently drawn up by “newly emerging nations.” He said some of them “contain many of the same guarantees as our own Constitution,” but that there was “still there is a difference.” He said the difference was “so subtle that we often overlook it. . . . Those other constitutions say, ‘Government grants you these rights,’ but that 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.’” He cited Lord Acton who described our Constitution thusly, “They had solved with astonishing ease and unduplicated success two problems which had heretofore baffled the capacity of the most enlightened nations.” We had “contrived a system of federal government which prodigiously increased national power and yet respected local liberties and authorities.” Acton went on to say that we “founded it on a principle of equality without surrendering the securities of property or freedom.” Reagan summarized Acton’s observation, “Never in any society has the preeminence of the individual been so firmly established and given such a priority.”

After securing our freedom, he went on to point out that “our history [is not] filled with tales of aggressive adventures and imperialism.” This, he said, “might come as a shock to some of the placard painters in our modern demonstrations.”

He was aware that he could be accused of “warmongering.”  He said that “would also be ridiculous. My generation has paid a higher price and has fought harder for freedom than any generation that had ever lived.” War, he said, was horrible. But he went on to quote John Stuart Mill, that yes, “war is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things.” Protesters had been having a field day for several years attacking all “things military.” Also, “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.” Reagan chided the protesters’ so-called “solution.” In other words, more “government regulation and control.”

Reagan humorously asked, “how citizens who are so gullible that they can be suckered into buying cereal or soap that they don’t need . . . can at the same time be astute enough to choose representatives in government to which they would entrust the running of their lives.”

Reagan declared that, “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.”

For years Reagan had been extending the call that America rise up to our destiny. He cited John Winthrop’s, “We will be as a city upon a hill.” This because, “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.” Reagan quipped that “we have not dealt falsely with our God, even if He is temporarily suspended from the classroom.” He then went on to describe how when he “graduated from college and became a radio sport announcer, broadcasting major league baseball, [he] didn’t have a Hank Aaron or a Willie Mays to talk about.” He quoted The Spaulding Guide of those days which said that “baseball was a game for Caucasian gentlemen.” He said that “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.”

Free enterprise was an engine which both creates and distributes more wealth than all other systems. “We have distributed our wealth more widely among our people than any society known to man.”

Summarizing this call to greatness – and greatness is in how we fulfill Winthrop’s challenge, he said, “We 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 . . . the economic strength and power of America was all that stood between the world and the return to the dark ages.”

He ends by citing Pope Pius XII, “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 mankind.” And alluding to Lincoln’s description of the results when we fulfill our destiny, that “indeed . . . we are today, the last best hope of man on earth.”

Click here to see the full transcript of this speech.

Please see below for key excerpts.

PROPHETS OF OUR PHILOSOPHY

There 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. . . .

A YOUNG UPSTART COUNTRY, YET THE OLDEST REPUBLIC

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 world. . . .

SOME DIVINE PLAN

You 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.

OUR HERITAGE SETS US APART

This 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 set us apart.

STORY DESCRIBES THE ATMOSPHERE OF DECLARING INDEPENDENCE

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. . . . 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 headman’s 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. . . . 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 headman’s axe, for that parchment will be the textbook of freedom, the bible of the rights of man forever.” . . .

DEFENSE OF FREEDOM IN EVERY CORNER OF THE WORLD

Now 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 someone’s freedom.

THE CONSTITUTION: A PHILOSOPHICAL REVOLUTION

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 man’s history that did not just exchange one set of rulers for another. This had been a philosophical revolution. The culmination of men’s dreams for 6,000 years were formalized with the Constitution, probably the most unique document ever drawn in the long history of man’s 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, contain many of the same guarantees as our own Constitution, and still there is a difference.

THE 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.”

PREEMINENCE OF THE INDIVIDUAL

Lord 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. . . .

A NATION’S HIGHEST RESPONSIBILITY

In recent years we have been treated to a rash of noble-sounding phrases. Some of them sound good, but they don’t 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 the majority.

NO TALES OF AGGRESSIVE ADVENTURE AND IMPERIALISM

We 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. . . .

WAR IS AN UGLY THING, BUT NOT THE UGLIEST OF THINGS

I 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 than 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 of things.” . . .

DISAFFECTION OF ALL THINGS MILITARY; CAPITALISM AND FREE ENTERPRISE ARE UNDER ASSAULT

The 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 don’t 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. . . .

MARX DID NOT ABOLISH CHILD LABOR OR FREE WOMEN FROM COAL MINES

We are told every day that the assembly-line worker is becoming a dull-witted robot and that mass production results in standardization. Well, there isn’t a socialist country in the world that would not give its copy of Karl Marx for our standardization.

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.

GOVERNMENT HAS GROWN IN SIZE AND POWER AND COST

Unfortunately, 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. . . .

The 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. . . .

JOHN WINTHROP: “CITY UPON A HILL”

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.

HISTORIC RACIAL PROBLEMS

When 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 didn’t 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. . . .

DISTRIBUTED WEALTH MORE WIDELY

One-half 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. . . .

CANNOT ESCAPE OUR DESTINY, NOR SHOULD WE TRY

We 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 mankind.”

THE LAST BEST HOPE OF MAN ON EARTH

We are indeed, and we are today, the last best hope of man on earth.