On July 3, 1986, President Ronald Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan were in New York to help kick off Liberty Weekend, which celebrated the restoration of the Statue of Liberty and commemorated its 100th anniversary in America.
The next day, on Independence Day, President Reagan addressed the nation from the deck of the U.S.S. John F. Kennedy in New York Harbor. With Lady Liberty in the distance, he said, “All through our history, our presidents and leaders have spoken of national unity and warned us that the real obstacle to moving forward the boundaries of freedom – the only permanent danger to the hope that is America – comes from within.”
Seemingly reflecting on what he’d just said, Reagan continued, “It’s easy enough to dismiss this as a kind of familiar exhortation. Yet the truth is that even two of our greatest Founding Fathers, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, once learned this lesson late in life.”
“‘It carries me back,’ Jefferson wrote about correspondence with his cosigner of the Declaration of Independence [and former political foe], ‘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 rowed through the storm with heart and hand …’
“It was their last gift to us, this lesson in brotherhood, in tolerance for each other, this insight into America’s strength as a nation. And when both died on the same day within hours of each other, that date was July 4th, 50 years exactly after that first gift to us, the Declaration of Independence.”
Fourth of July will likely look different this year, but once you strip away the parades, and barbeques, and other festivities, it carries the same meaning it always has: America is the greatest country the world has ever known, not only because of what we have achieved, but, as Adams and Jefferson proved, because we’re humble enough to know that we always have room to listen, learn, and grow as we continually strive to live up to the founding principles of the Declaration of Independence.
President Reagan appropriately concluded his remarks in 1986 by saying, “[I]f there’s one impression I carry with me after the privilege of holding for five-and-a-half years the office held by Adams and Jefferson and Lincoln, it is this: that the things that unite us … far outweigh what little divides us.
“And so tonight we reaffirm that Jew and gentile, we are one nation under God; that black and white, we are one nation indivisible; that Republican and Democrat, we are all Americans. Tonight, with heart and hand, through whatever trial and travail, we pledge ourselves to each other and to the cause of human freedom, the cause that has given light to this land and hope to the world.”
To my fellow South Dakotans, I challenge you to honor that cause, embrace that light, and carry that hope as you celebrate the birth of American freedom in 2020 and beyond.