In his Inaugural Address the 40th President of the United States, Ronald Wilson Reagan, affirmed his belief that America was exceptional, special and unique among nations. America’s long-standing success and liberty was perceived by nations around the world as a miracle of history. That miracle, Reagan believed, was the spirit found in individual Americans, and the political system that unleashed their potential.
Reagan’s belief was not novel, nor was it political. It was found in the laws of nature, America’s history, and it was found to exist by critical observers, most notably the French political thinker and historian, Alexis de Tocqueville. America was exceptional because she was free, and this freedom was founded on timeless principles of natural law and rights which recognized the human dignity of the individual.
Reagan’s ideas were thought revolutionary when he was elected president, even inspiring a book compiling these ideas, written in Reagan’s own hand, in 2001. But Reagan’s ideas were not revolutionary, as has been offered by some critical scholars. They pre-dated America’s founding, were found in the writings of the ancient philosophers and religious sages, were embraced by the Founding Fathers, and acknowledged by the French historian and philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville in 1835 as the key to America’s greatness.
Reagan’s vision sought to restore America to her original ideals, to re-kindle them as it were, not to install something new. America’s foundation was sound and established in history. If she was going to be restored to greatness, Reagan knew, Americans needed to be reminded of their unique station in life as divine creatures, created to be free. Tocqueville had observed that many believed these principles and values were “irresistible.” They were uniform, ancient, and the most permanent tendency to be found in history. Reagan knew this, too. Today many Americans have forgotten it. Our children aren’t even taught them anymore. We cannot let these ideas die, or be forgotten.
America’s greatness was not created in a vacuum and it was not the result of new and revolutionary ideas. It rested on those principles that were found in her heritage, a heritage not limited to the Founding Era, but could also be found in creation itself, and observed throughout history. These principles were built into American institutions and lived in the hearts of her citizens. America, Tocqueville said in 1835, possessed an almost religious enthusiasm for her ancient customs and laws, virtues and rights. In 1981, however, that enthusiasm was gone. America had lost its enthusiasm because she had lost her way. She had forgotten her heritage and institutions. Reagan’s address was the first step toward restoring it, and the timeless values that brought it. We would do well to follow Reagan’s lead.
When Reagan gave his Inaugural Address in 1981, he outlined a bold vision for America. In doing so he reiterated these timeless principles that had led to America’s greatness. Quoting Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, he reminded Americans of their government “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” Self-governance was her heritage, with each American in charge of his own destiny, pursuing his own happiness, while contributing to the good of the nation.
What was the origin of this belief? It was found in the principle of equality, of men in harmony with the laws of nature, which led to an understanding of man’s responsibility in the divine order, and the God who established it. Today we have become content to accept the oligarchy that our government has become, surrendering our individual freedom to people that don’t accept those inalienable truths, and are willing to once again become “subjects” to a ruling class.
In America, though all men were equal, they contributed to America’s greatness in different ways, Reagan said, each according to the special talents of his vocation. Aristotle himself, in his renowned discourses on the body politic, had said the same, emphasizing the importance of these individual contributions in striving for a just society. In his acknowledgement of accountability to this divine order, Aristotle accepted that these various individual associations came together to form a community, and government was required to protect and encourage its pursuits.
Reagan believed Americans had been sold on the reversal of that relationship, with individuals meant to serve a pre-existent government and her aims, rather than pursuing their individual goals with a consideration toward divine accountability and purpose. It was stifling American growth and inhibiting her God-given right to pursue happiness. America was better than this. If she was ever going to reach her potential, she needed to return to the principles that first empowered her. Government should help, not hinder those pursuits. This idea, though sitting on a dusty shelf in America’s annals of history is still true, even it not taught or encouraged.
Reagan was not simply choosing to use inspiring rhetoric. He truly believed these things, with former aides noting that his Inaugural Address was simply a reflection of his personal philosophy. He believed Americans believed it to, they had just forgotten. When one considers the observations of Tocqueville, and his praising of the independent spirit and self-reliance of Americans, Reagan had a point, and his point was grounded in America’s history. These characteristics were the basis of dreaming big dreams. America could solve big problems, accomplish great things, and live in peace. It was her God-given right and destiny. What she needed was a little history lesson.