It doesn’t seem like it’s been thirty-four years.
But on January 20, 1981, Ronald Reagan was sworn in as the 40th President of the United States as the new First Lady and millions of Americans looked on. The words of his inaugural address are full of timeless truth… and perhaps are even more powerful today than when they were first uttered.
Like today, the America of 1981 faced economic challenges including unemployment, inflation, a growing deficit, and challenges abroad. Reagan’s speech inspired the American people to believe — not in some vague notion of “hope.” Rather, he inspired us to believe that we could courageously face those problems and solve them. When he said the nation was not, as some claimed, “doomed to an inevitable decline,” it was as if that Carter-induced malaise lost some of its power.
Reagan wasn’t a sunny optimist without also being a stubborn realist. He knew we had real problems and warned of the dangers of “mortgaging our future and our children’s future” with out-of-control spending and deficits. And, in a counter-intuitive statement for a man who’d just taken the most prominent position in the federal government, he said the ballooning size of government was the number-one contributor to the nation’s problems.
… government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem. 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. 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.
If the words of this inaugural address came out of any politician’s mouth today, we’d be shocked. The establishment politicians seem to have embraced the exact ideology against which Reagan warned.
But he was right about that, and he’s right about this: the hope for a brighter American future doesn’t lie in so-called government solutions, but in her people:
Those who say that we are in a time when there are no heroes just don’t know where to look. You can see heroes every day going in and out of factory gates. Others, a handful in number, produce enough food to feed all of us and then the world beyond. You meet heroes across a counter—and they are on both sides of that counter. There are entrepreneurs with faith in themselves and faith in an idea who create new jobs, new wealth and opportunity. They are individuals and families whose taxes support the Government and whose voluntary gifts support church, charity, culture, art, and education. Their patriotism is quiet but deep. Their values sustain our national life.
I have used the words “they” and “their” in speaking of these heroes. I could say “you” and “your,” because I am addressing the heroes of whom I speak—you, the citizens of this blessed land.
Reagan echoed a Founding Father whose timeless words were powerful in 1776, 1981, and 2015:
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.
Today, we have another chance to “act worthy of ourselves” and take back the federal government from those who would have us enslaved to its programs and mortgage away our future. It’s a solution that predates Reagan — it’s been in our Constitution for as long as our country has existed. And it’s a solution as big as the problem we’re facing.
The writers of the Constitution knew one day the federal government would encroach on the powers of the states and the rights of the people. At George Mason’s suggestion — rather his insistence — Article V was included to give the people, through their state legislatures, the right to rein in their government and restore it to its proper bounds. According to Madison’s notes, that suggestion was adopted unanimously, without debate, and so the people got the right to attack federal tyranny at its roots, with a constitutional solution.
It’s time for the people to use our authority while we still have it. We are thirty-four years past the specific issues Reagan addressed, but we’ve sunk even further into their underlying problems.
That doesn’t mean there’s no hope.
Thirty-four years after Reagan warned us of the power of the federal government, the Convention of States project is doing something about it: they’re organizing citizens who will put an end to government encroachment and call for an Article V convention. If the solution to our problems doesn’t lie in a self-governing people, we’re lost. I’ll leave you with one final important question, to each of us, from President Reagan:
From time to time, we have been tempted to believe that society has become too complex to be managed by self-rule, that government by an elite group is superior to government for, by, and of the people. But if no one among us is capable of governing himself, then who among us has the capacity to govern someone else?