Some of the most famous words of two former U.S. Presidents come from speeches they made long before they were elected to the country’s highest office. Reading them, they seem as relevant now as they did when they were spoken.
The issues that each of these former Presidents spoke of during their times are surprisingly some of the very same ones we are struggling with today.
In recent discussions on the state of the division, or polarization, of the U.S., I have heard a few prominent media personalities use phrases like, “We are in a cold civil war,” or they ask, “Is it time for a national divorce?”
At times, the familiar quote, “America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we lose our freedoms it will be because we have destroyed ourselves from within,” has been referenced by those concerned about the future of these United States.
The search for the accurate origin of the quote led me to some interesting information, and so it seemed appropriate to bring the eloquent and relevant words of Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan to life in honor of Presidents’ Day.
But first, some history; Presidents’ Day is a federal holiday held annually on the third Monday in February. It was originally established in 1885, in recognition of the birthday of our first president, George Washington, which is February 22.
After the death of Washington in 1799, his birthday became a perennial day of remembrance. It was enacted as a federal holiday in 1885, and in 1968 a provision was added to include Abraham Lincoln, whose birthday is February 12. Since then, the commemorative day has changed from February 22 to the third Monday in February.
There are four former presidents who were born in February.
George Washington, 1st President (served 1789-1797), February 22, 1732
William Henry Harrison, 9th President, February 9, 1773
Interestingly, Harrison, the oldest President to serve at the time (age 68), also served the shortest tenure in U.S. Presidential history – from March 4, 1841-April 4, 1841. After only one month in office, he caught a cold that turned into pneumonia, also becoming the first President to die in office.
Abraham Lincoln; 16th President (served 1861-1865), February 12, 1809
Ronald Reagan, 40th President (served 1981-1999), February 6, 1911
There are some interesting parallels between our present divisions and those that occurred over 150 years ago in Lincoln’s time. The phrase stating that if America is going to be destroyed, it will be from within, comes from a speech he made over 20 years before he became President.
Over time, the original quote has been condensed or abbreviated, but the meaning or context has not been distorted in the process.
It seems to have evolved and been boiled down from a speech Lincoln made on January 27, 1838, when he was a 28-years-old attorney and state legislator in Springfield, Illinois.
The speech the quote originates from is known as Lincoln’s Lyceum Address, titled “The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions.”
“Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant to step the Ocean, and crush us at a blow? Never!–All the armies of Europe, Asia, and Africa combined, with all the treasure of the earth (our own excepted) in their military chest; with a Buonaparte for a commander, could not by force, take a drink from the Ohio, or make a track on the Blue Ridge, in a trial of a thousand years.
“At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reaches us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.”
Lincoln was referring to his opinions on the state of the political parties in the country at the time as well as addressing a recent event in which a pro-slavery mob in his state murdered an abolitionist newspaper editor. Historians say the murder polarized the nation. Although the situations are distinctly different, the mention of mob violence and polarization is an eerie parallel to the summer of 2020.
Reading the following statements from Lincoln, I am struck by the similarities between the situation he speaks of and the rioting that took place in 2020 and the recent looting sprees and rising crime rates we see in cities across the county.
The references he makes could easily have been said today. Lincoln spoke of an “increasing disregard for the law which pervades the country,” and that “Accounts of outrages committed by mobs form the every-day news of the times.”
“Whenever the vicious portion of population shall be permitted to gather in bands of hundreds and thousands, and burn churches, ravage and rob provision-stores, throw printing presses into rivers, shoot editors, and hang and burn obnoxious persons at pleasure, and with impunity; depend on it, this Government cannot last.”
Lincoln also said that they were in a time when the political institutions were contributing to the “ends of civil and religious liberty, than any of which the history of former times tells us.”
In the opening of the speech, Lincoln speaks about the people being the “legal inheritors” of “fundamental blessings,” that we owe our ancestors gratitude for them, that it is our duty to pass these ideals down, and to defend those rights and freedoms.
“We toiled not in the acquirement or establishment of them–they are a legacy bequeathed us, by a once hardy, brave, and patriotic, but now lamented and departed race of ancestors. Theirs was the task (and nobly they performed it) to possess themselves, and through themselves, us, of this goodly land; and to uprear upon its hills and its valleys, a political edifice of liberty and equal rights; ’tis ours only, to transmit these, the former, unprofaned by the foot of an invader; the latter, undecayed by the lapse of time and untorn by usurpation, to the latest generation that fate shall permit the world to know. This task of gratitude to our fathers, justice to ourselves, duty to posterity, and love for our species in general, all imperatively require us faithfully to perform.”
Coincidentally, a similar quote from Ronald Reagan that is equally famous was also made 20 years before he was elected President. It is from a speech he made at a Chamber of Commerce meeting in Phoenix, Arizona on March 30, 1961 which is titled “Encroaching Control.”
“Our Founding Fathers, here in this country, brought about the only true revolution that has ever taken place in man’s history. Every other revolution simply exchanged one set of rulers for another set of rulers. But only here did that little band of men so advanced beyond their time that the world has never seen their like since, evolve the idea that you and I have within ourselves the God-given right and the ability to determine our own destiny. But freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it on to our children in the bloodstream. The only way they can inherit the freedom we have known is if we fight for it, protect it, defend it and then hand it to them with the well thought lessons of how they in their lifetime must do the same. And if you and I don’t do this, then you and I may well spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it once was like in America when men were free.”
On October 27, 1964, then-actor Ronald Reagan spoke at a campaign event for Barry Goldwater, the GOP presidential candidate running against Democrat John F. Kennedy.
Listening to Reagan’s “A Time for Choosing Speech,” you would think he was the candidate, and you can easily see how he became one later on.
There are so many things worth quoting in this speech that it was tempting to simply post the complete transcript, but thankfully you can watch it.
Many of the things he speaks on are some of the very same issues we are concerned about today.
Taxes are always an issue in an election, but back in 1964 Reagan was talking about the debt limit being raised “three times in the past year.” He also mentions vote harvesting, the “Great Society,” socialism, and how social programs like welfare weren’t working to eliminate poverty, among other familiar sounding dilemmas.
Addressing the differences in ideology between the “left” and the “right,” Reagan had this to say:
“You and I are told increasingly we have to choose between a left or right. Well I’d like to suggest there is no such thing as a left or right. There’s only an up or down – [up] man’s old-aged dream, the ultimate in individual freedom consistent with law and order, or down to the ant heap of totalitarianism. And regardless of their sincerity, their humanitarian motives, those who would trade our freedom for security have embarked on this downward course.”
Reagan, like Lincoln, pays homage to our Founding Fathers, and asks a question close to those I have been wondering about myself; Do we have that many people in the United States that take their freedoms for granted? Are there really that many people that don’t understand how hard-won our freedoms are and how easily they could be taken away?
Reagan says, “As for the peace that we would preserve, I wonder who among us would like to approach the wife or mother whose husband or son has died in South Vietnam and ask them if they think this is a peace that should be maintained indefinitely. Do they mean peace, or do they mean we just want to be left in peace? There can be no real peace while one American is dying some place in the world for the rest of us. We’re at war with the most dangerous enemy that has ever faced mankind in his long climb from the swamp to the stars, and it’s been said if we lose that war, and in so doing lose this way of freedom of ours, history will record with the greatest astonishment that those who had the most to lose did the least to prevent its happening. Well I think it’s time we ask ourselves if we still know the freedoms that were intended for us by the Founding Fathers.”
At some point in the future we may find ourselves at a time when the price of freedom must be paid for again. I pray that time never comes, but if it does, we will have to hope there will be enough people who care enough to pay for it.
Originally published on Citizen Stringer, February 21, 2022