Our Better Angels
Reagan Was a Re-Founding Father

Editor's Note: Below is the text of Michael Novak's speech at the celebration of President Reagan's 88th birthday, delivered on February 5, 1999, before the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation, in Simi Valley, California.

This has been the best birthday celebration I have ever attended. The stories, the memories, and the visions for the future remaining to be built have been more than touching--deeply stirring.

Aristotle said that what binds a political community together is a form of love--amicitia, friendship--a friendship among citizens. What I have observed this week among Ronald Reagan's closest associates is something more than admiration for this man, or loyalty--it is a kind of love. The way we all tell stories of him shows that. We love the guy.

One of my favorites involves that awful day when he was almost taken from us. It was the night of the NCAA basketball final game, to be played in Philadelphia. While we were horror-struck, waiting minute by minute for news of his condition, television said there was discussion about whether the championship would be canceled; the president was undergoing an operation to try to save his life. Early in the evening a report came over the television from the hospital. Asked how he was feeling, the president--so very near to death--flashed that mischievous look in his eyes and said: "On the whole, I'd rather be in Philadelphia."

The game went on that night in Philadelphia. The name of that city means "love of brothers." It is the most distinctive name of America--our whole country should have been called "Philadelphia"!

An Eighteenth Century Thinker

For sure, these last three days prove again, we here have been--to cite Shakespeare-"a band of brothers. We few. We happy few." And hundreds of millions with us.

One other story that I like was told to Karen and me by Clare Boothe Luce at dinner in our home. "One thing no one has noticed," Mrs. Luce said, "is where the president gets his equanimity in face of criticism, especially from the media. That's an occupational advantage he gained from Hollywood. Early an actor learns the difference between the box office and the critics. If you have box office, it's astonishing how kind you can be to critics."

Larry Arnns yesterday asked us to think of President Reagan in the context of Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln. The president himself once said (I paraphrase): "I've been accused by my critics of having 19th-century ideas. They're wrong. I have 18th-century ideas. I learned them from our founders. I believe in them."

The best way to understand Ronald Reagan, I believe, is to steep yourself in America's heritage. Again and again and again, he sounds like America speaking--like John Adams, or James Madison.

Let me test you on this. Do you remember the president saying these words, and on what occasion?

Entertaining a due sense of our equal right to the use of our own faculties, to the acquisitions of our own industry, to honor and confidence from our fellow citizens, resulting not from birth, but from our actions and their sense of them; enlightened by a benign religion, professed, indeed, and practiced in various forms, yet all of them inculcating honesty, truth, temperance, gratitude, and the love of man; acknowledging and adoring an overruling Providence. . . With all these blessings, what more is necessary to make us a happy and a prosperous people? Still one more thing, fellow citizens--wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government, and this is necessary to close the circle of our felicities.

These are the words of Thomas Jefferson, First Inaugural. But don't they sound like Ronald Reagan?

The Reagan Re-Volvere

Compare Jefferson's words to Ronald Reagan's own First Inaugural:

...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...

...[I]t's 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....

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.... [W]ith all the creative energy at our command, let us begin an era of national renewal.

Back in 1988, I had the occasion to call these two passages to President Reagan's attention. I said the following words:

Mr. President, taking Thomas Jefferson's words as your own, you made "a new beginning," and not only for the United States. Many nations are now imitating your policies. As the main source of hope for the world's poor, they too are turning from government activists to economic activists, that is, to all the people.

Historians tell us that what our framers meant by "revolution" was a turning back to founding principles--in Latin, a re-volvere--a going back to true beginnings.

Was there a Reagan Revolution? Mr. President, it was not exactly a "Reagan" revolution. It was "the American Revolution," now well into its third century, reestablished by you upon our founding principles.

As the founders humbly dared to hope, Mr. President, this American Revolution heralded "a new order" of basic rights for all humanity and for all the ages. This novus ordo seclorum was conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that every man and every woman everywhere is created equal. All around the world today--even in Mr. Gorbachev's USSR, if glacially--whole peoples are turning toward these shining principles.

May this revolution last forever, Mr. President, and may your name be linked with its renewal, at this time, in this age, for as many generations yet to come as God sees fit to bless America.

For beginning anew the American Revolution, Mr. President, the revolution of natural liberty, the revolution that belongs to all humanity, we thank you.

It gave me great pleasure on that occasion to see that there were tears in his eyes.

The Pillars of His Legacy

That is the first pillar of Ronald Reagan's legacy for the future: A love for the American creed, a reverence for her heritage, an awe before the work that Providence has wrought on these shores, among this people. It does not belong to us, this work, it is God's work, this nation's history.

John Adams, our second president, noted two further foundational pillars to the American adventure: hence, to Ronald Reagan's great adventure. He called one of these "the spirit of liberty"; the other, "the architecture of government."

No need to tell this audience: Ronald Reagan loved liberty. He believed, with Thomas Jefferson, that "the God who made us made us free at the same time." Our Creator made every woman and every man not only free, but responsible. And each of us is unique, different from every other. The name of each of us is written in the mind of God, the Good Book tells us--God knows us one by one, calls us by name. Individual liberty is, then, the second pillar of the Reagan legacy. This is not merely given to us, however. Each of us must awaken to it, live up to it, not allow our inner liberty to slumber. (People can be free in principle, but asleep to it.) Isn't it true Ronald Reagan called each of us in this room--all Americans--to be better, freer, than we might have been? Those of us who remember the 1970s know that it was so.

The third pillar--or at least its roundabout name--is "the architecture of liberty." Better: opportunity. John Adams said that republics require a higher level of virtue than monarchies. But republics lack an aristocracy to remind them what ambition is and what nobility is like. So they must make up for this by inciting individuals everywhere with opportunity to better their condition, to discipline themselves, to learn sound habits.

Worldwide, opportunity today means a new approach through universal capital ownership. During the 20th century, nations pursued a receding mirage of income maintenance. In the 21st century, we should switch the emphasis to capital accumulation for all families. For example, if social security is privately owned, it will become a capital fund inheritable by one's descendants--instead of dissolving with death as Social Security does today. In the same way, individual medical accounts can become inheritable assets, so that unused portions stay in the family. The opportunity to own capital should be made universal. Estate taxes should be abolished. Worldwide, universal capital ownership is the meaning of opportunity today.

Opportunity is the greatest teacher of virtue nature affords--when rules are just, rewards are fair, and government does not distort by favoritism the open field of opportunity.

Opportunity to discover and to use our God-given potential is the third pillar.

The fourth pillar is the most challenging of all.

The fourth pillar is to spread democracy around the world. That is a far more difficult and complicated job then it may seem.

Now it so happens that on or about January 21, 1981, the newly Honorable Jeane Kirkpatrick approached me and said that President Reagan needed a new Ambassador in Geneva for the Human Rights Commission. I said, "When?" She said, "January 31." "Can I have until tomorrow to decide?" "No, but go ahead and take it."

Thus it happened that I found myself in Geneva ten days later, thoroughly unprepared in U.N. jargon or institutional tradition; I was not even a lawyer. I was the first living Reaganaut to arrive in Europe. My fellow ambassadors regarded me with intense curiosity--looked to see if I was wearing sidearms and cowboy boots.

On the airplane over I read my briefing books--huge, prepared by the Carter-administration team. But I was able to predict to my fellow ambassadors what Ronald Reagan expected of me and, in general, what my future voting instructions would be.

I knew Jeane Kirkpatrick, and I believed I knew what Ronald Reagan expected of me. Here is what he said in his inaugural address. He quoted from Dr. Joseph Warren of Massachusetts, who fought at Lexington and died on Bunker Hill in 1775:

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 rest the happiness and the liberty of millions yet unborn. Act worthy of yourselves.

Isn't that 18th-century? Isn't that Ronald Reagan? That is why he belongs with Washington and Jefferson and Lincoln--on Mt. Rushmore. He renewed the American Revolution.

Great Men's Monuments

I knew the United States under Ronald Reagan clings to three principles: We stand for the human rights of all (that is why we came to America). We know that rights do not exist as words on paper ("parchment barriers"), but in the habits and institutions of living peoples. Therefore, we concentrate on institutions. Third, the key institution is democracy--not just majority rule, but separated powers, checks and balances, protections of minorities, the rule of law, free speech and free association--a whole complicated set of ideas. Including such difficult ideas as "coalitions" and "compromise." (In many languages there is not even a word for "compromise" in the good sense.)

Democracy is a very long school. Looking into the future, we need a much more detailed understanding of the complex set of habits and institutions needed to make democracy more than a word. In Russia, today. In China. In the Islamic world.

One last point. Ask yourself, why did our founders say that "the price of liberty is everlasting vigilance"? Because liberty is the most precarious of all regimes. People can freely give it away, allow it to be corrupted, squander it. That is why it can only be saved by re-volvere--turning back to first principles. Our nation needs constant rebirths of freedom--constant Reagan Revolutions.

Clare Boothe Luce said that every great man gets a single line on his monument --"Father of his country", "Freed the slaves." I don't know about that for Ronald Reagan. But in the memorial I will build in my own mind, the words will always be:

"Ronald Reagan--He defeated Communism--He led a new American Revolution--He awoke the better angels of our nature." And if I had to reduce it to one single line, I would write it in marble in my mind:

He awoke the better angels of our nature.

Michael Novak is the George Frederick Jewett Scholar in Religion, Philosophy, and Public Policy and the director of social and political studies at AEI.

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About the Author

 

Michael
Novak
  • Michael Novak, a philosopher, theologian, and author, is the 1994 recipient of the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. He has been an emissary to the United Nations Human Rights Commission and to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. He has written twenty-seven books on the philosophy and theology of culture, especially the essential elements of a free society. His latest book is No One Sees God: The Dark Night of Atheists and Believers (Doubleday, 2008).
  • Phone: 2028625838
    Email: mnovak@aei.org

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