A warning contained in Ronald Reagan’s farewell address seems particularly prescient now over a generation later based on the events of the last several months.
In his famous 1796 remarks, George Washington urged his fellow citizens to beware of foreign entanglements that could drag the fledgling republic into other nation’s affairs, including war. An early example of advocacy for “America first,” you might say.
Dwight Eisenhower gave perhaps the most renowned farewell address of more modern times, warning against the rise of the military-industrial complex as a potential overbearing force on the country’s political landscape.
Reagan’s main concern was about a potential loss of the American spirit, and with it, freedom, if what the nation truly stands for was not taught.
“There is a great tradition of warnings in presidential farewells, and I’ve got one that’s been on my mind for some time,” he said.
“But oddly enough it starts with one of the things I’m proudest of in the past eight years: the resurgence of national pride that I called the new patriotism,” Reagan continued.
“This national feeling is good, but it won’t count for much, and it won’t last unless it’s grounded in thoughtfulness and knowledge.”
The president questioned whether the nation’s youth were really being taught what America “represents in the long history of the world.”
He observed that patriotism was pretty much a given for most Americans until the mid-1960s or so.
“We absorbed, almost in the air, a love of country and an appreciation of its institutions,” Reagan said.
“If you didn’t get these things from your family, you got them from the neighborhood, from the father down the street who fought in Korea or the family who lost someone at [the World War II battle] Anzio,” he continued. “Or you could get a sense of patriotism from school. And if all else failed you could get a sense of patriotism from the popular culture.”
Reagan contended that as the country prepared to enter the 1990s, such was no longer the case.
Despite American citizens overcoming the self-doubts raised by the Vietnam War, Watergate and the economic malaise of the 1970s, there was more work to be done.
“Our spirit is back, but we haven’t reinstitutionalized it. We’ve got to do a better job of getting across that America is freedom — freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of enterprise,” he said.
“And freedom is special and rare. It’s fragile.”
Reagan elaborated on this point in his first inaugural address as California governor in January 1967, saying, “Freedom is a fragile thing and is never more than one generation away from extinction.
“It is not ours by inheritance; it must be fought for and defended constantly by each generation, for it comes only once to a people. Those who have known freedom and then lost it have never known it again.”
Part of protecting liberty is teaching America’s storied history, Reagan argued in his farewell address.
“If we forget what we did, we won’t know who we are. I’m warning of an eradication of the American memory that could result, ultimately, in an erosion of the American spirit. Let’s start with some basics: more attention to American history and a greater emphasis on civic ritual,” he said.
Initiatives like the 1619 Project, which is currently being taught in thousands of classrooms across all 50 states, is doing just the opposite.
The title itself states its purpose, saying that America should be defined by the moral failure of the introduction of slavery into the British colony of Virginia in 1619, rather than the unleashing of liberty that happened on July 4, 1776.
Those American ideals, including the belief in the God-given right to liberty, led to the emancipation of slaves in the Northern states during and in the years immediately after the Revolutionary War.
No other governments in the world were taking such actions at that time.
Ultimately, Abraham Lincoln and the North oversaw the demise of slavery on American soil during the Civil War, undergirded by the beliefs found in the Declaration of Independence.
That, and so much else, stir pride in the American spirit.
There has never been a country that has done more to advance the cause of freedom and opportunity in the history of the world.
Many on the left seem to not see it that way, choosing instead to label the U.S. as systemically racist and economically unjust.
There were massive, destructive protests and riots in cities across the country this past summer, often accompanied by the burning of the American flag.
Statues of American heroes like Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, Frederick Douglass and even Ulysses S. Grant were pulled down.
Of course, those who engaged in violence at the Capitol last week were just as guilty of undermining the true American spirit as the summer’s rioters.
Additionally, kneeling during the national anthem communicates a profound disrespect to those who fought and died to uphold its ideals.
Reagan was right: Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction, and based on the 2020 election results and what can be observed in the broader culture, we have some work to do if we want to preserve it.
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