Remarks by the President and the First Lady at the National Archives

Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release July 1, 1999


National Archives Rotunda

3:55 P.M. EDT

MRS. CLINTON: Thank you very much. And I especially want to thank all of the students who are here with us today, especially Jasmine, Kevin and Nora, for reading to us the words that launched our nation and have inspired and challenged us ever since.

Imagine how significant those phrases are, "We the people," "Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," "Congress shall make no law." There is so much about these Charters of Freedom that we learned about as children and that we still, every day, attempt to live up to in our country.

And I want to thank all of you who are gathered here for this important announcement. I want to thank Secretary and Mrs. Riley, who have joined us; a number of other officials from the administration; Congressman Regula, who is here with us; the Center for Civic Education; and all of you, the students, the educators and the citizens who are helping to pass on the Charters of Freedom and the values they teach to every generation.

I'm especially pleased to be here with Michael Armstrong and AT&T for your extraordinary generosity. For generations, AT&T connected us as individuals, and now it is helping to connect us to the past and move us forward into the future by helping to save our founding documents and make them come alive for our children.

I cannot think of a better gift than the gift that AT&T is announcing today to the Archives, the gift that they've given to the Save America's Treasures initiative that is part of the White House Millennium Council, that truly is making it possible for us to give gifts to the future that will carry us into the next century and the next millennium. So, on behalf of the White House Millennium Council, on behalf of all of us who care about preserving and enhancing our past, let me again thank Michael Armstrong and AT&T for this generous, generous gift. (Applause.)

And none of what we are celebrating today would have been possible without the early support of the Pew Charitable Trust, which allowed the National Archives, the Department of Commerce and NASA to create new cases for the charters. And none of that would have been possible without the commitment and leadership of John Carlin and the entire staff of the National Archives.

John and I first spoke about this project two years ago this month. And he has been a tireless advocate for the need to enhance and preserve better the work that is maintained here in the Archives -- the safety deposit box, which Mr. Armstrong referred to. So I want to thank John, the staff of the Archives and everyone who has helped us understand how we could preserve and protect the charters.

Imagine, if you will, the long tradition of citizens who have made it possible for us to meet here on the brink of a new century and a new millennium -- citizens who in the past protected our charter. Imagine Stephen Pleasanton, a State Department clerk in 1814, who received word that the British forces were coming and that the should take care of the papers in his office.

Now, when he asked the Secretary of War, the Secretary told him he shouldn't be so worried because it was unlikely that the British would break through the line. But as I have often told the story in the White House, we know, indeed, that the British did, and burned the White House to the ground.

And, thankfully, Mr. Pleasanton did not listen to those optimistic reports. Instead, he and others gathered up the Declaration of Independence, laws, letter from George Washington and the unpublished journals of Congress, and brought them to a grist mill two miles from Georgetown. But he decided that that was not far enough away from danger, so he found wagons and took the documents another 35 miles, to Leesburg. He made sure they were safe in an empty house. He locked the doors and he went to bed, exhausted.

When he woke up, he did hear the news that Washington had been set on fire the night before, our public buildings had been burned to the ground. But, thankfully, our founding documents were unharmed because he had saved them.

Well, he was the first in a long line of concerned Americans. And now it is our turn. Because of today's announcement we can help ensure that the Charters of Freedom will be saved for all time and accessible to all people. We can help ensure that 100 years from now children will be able to visit this sacred place and to hear and see the words and the work of our Founding Fathers and so many others who have made America what it is today.

Imagine seeing the notes that President Eisenhower wrote to memorialize what he did during the Little Rock crisis; or to look over the papers showing the arrest and conviction of Susan B. Anthony because she had the audacity to vote. Our children will see this and so much more that is part of the American legacy.

And that is exactly what the President and I had in mind two years ago when we came here in August to announce the White House Millennium Council. We wanted to mark this important point in history, and to provide an opportunity for Americans to take stock of who we are as we end the 20th century, and to decide what of our culture, our history and our values we will bring with us into the next century.

We chose a theme for these activities: Honor the past; imagine the future. And that is what we've been trying to do. We've used the White House, our oldest continuous venue for presenting the arts in America, to showcase the best or our creativity and scholarship. In seven Millennium Evenings that we have held since 1998, we've heard about the future of science from Stephen Hawking; we've heard Winton Marsalis and Marian McPartland explore jazz as an expression of our democracy; we've heard Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel talk about the perils of indifference from Nazi Germany to the Balkans.

Two years ago, we invited Americans to think about ways each of us could give gifts to the future. Today there are more than 135 Millennium Communities. We're also seeing citizens coming together to build new parks, plants trees, create Millennium Trails, all of which help to explore our history and help us appreciate our beautiful outdoors. Because, after all, it is not just our Charters of Freedoms that help us define who we are as Americans; there are many artifacts and documents all over our country.

So we've tried, through the Save America's Treasures campaign to help preserve that history. It is a public-private partnership designed to highlight what is special about America's past. And this year the President proposed grants to save some of our most endangered sites and collections. And I'm very pleased that the Congress, with the leadership of Congressman Regula, and with bipartisan support, approved $30 million for this important effort.

And I'm very pleased that our partner, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, represented here by Dick Moe, has helped to raise an additional $33 million in private funding.

So we can see all over the country that saving treasures is not just the work of the federal government, nor even of our major corporate citizens, like AT&T, or even of our philanthropic foundations like Pew, but indeed, it is the work of all of us, from the youngest of our citizens to the oldest.

When I was recently at the ancient cliff dwellings at Mesa Verde, I learned about a 3rd grade class in Boulder, Colorado, that did extra chores to create something that they called "Adopt a Ruin" calendars. And by selling these calendars, they raised $15. One girl wrote to us and said, "I've raised $15 so far. I feel very special about that because it will mean that my kids get the experience to see all of these wonderful, important sites." Well, that is one of the reasons why this particular announcement is so important.

I'm reminded about the students from Woodlawn High School in Arlington, who are making the lessons about our democracy come alive. They're having town meetings where they give everyone something to say, and those town meetings are exploring all kinds of issues -- from the number of teachers they should hire to whether they have compulsory study halls -- which, incidentally, the lobbied to overturn. They've interviewed veterans of World War II to ask them about the rights they were fighting for. They've done so much, including studying the Bill of Rights and learning more about what it means to be an American citizen.

So as we are now quickly approaching another 4th of July, I hope we will continue to think about how we pass on the values and the blessings that we enjoy as Americans, and that always we will pay particular attention to preserving that of our past that tells us who we are today and where we're going tomorrow.

Passing on the gift of freedom and the opportunity that comes with being an American may be our most important obligation. And by doing so, we help create the kind of future that we want for these young people and for all American children.

It's been a great pleasure working these last two years on the enterprises of the White House Millennium Council. And we have another year and some months to go in order to continue to spread the word about what we are trying to accomplish. And it's been a particular delight that the President has been so involved in these efforts. He's a great history buff and has contributed greatly to the ideas that we have developed about honoring the millennium.

So it gives me great pleasure to introduce the President of the United States. (Applause.)

THE PRESIDENT: Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen. As you might imagine, this is a very special day for Hillary and for me, in a signal honor for us to have the chance to serve at this moment. I want to thank John Carlin for his faithful stewardship of these great documents; thank my friend, Mike Armstrong, for his generosity and for calling on others in the business community to help in this endeavor.

Thank Secretary Riley and NASA and the Department of Commerce for working with the National Archives in designing and developing the new encasement that will house our charters. I thank the Center for Civic Education for their efforts to teach our children the importance of history.

I'd like to thank these young people who are here who read -- first they helped us recite the Pledge of Allegiance, and then they read from our founding documents. And I thought that young man did a remarkable job introducing Hillary. I thought they were all great. Let's give them a hand. (Applause.)

And I would like to say a special word of appreciation to Congressman Ralph Regula for his leadership and for proving that this is one issue which is not a partisan issue. This is an American issue. And I'm very grateful to him for his leadership in the United States Congress on this. (Applause.)

On July 4, 1776, King George of England wrote in his diary, "Nothing of importance happened today." Now, even making allowances for the absence of world news and the Internet, His Majesty's diary entry stands as one of the most inaccurate statements ever written. (Laughter.) We all know that those who put their names to the Declaration of Independence changed the world forever.

Before then, liberty had been a rare and fleeting thing in the course of human history. Citizens of ancient democracies enjoyed it, but let it slip from their grasp. So the Founders labored mightily to craft a Declaration of Independence, then a Constitution and a Bill of Rights that they hoped would help America to beat the odds and keep liberty alive.

Two hundred and twenty-three years later, we can safely say they succeeded -- not only in keeping the liberty they created, in fact, alive, but in moving ever closer, generation after generation, to the pure ideals embodied in the words they wrote.

Today our liberty extends not just to white men with property, but to all Americans. Our concept of freedom no longer includes the so-called freedom to keep slaves or extract profit from the labor of children. And our Constitution is the inspiration behind scores of democratic governments around the world -- from Japan to Poland to Guatemala to South Africa.

Each generation of Americans is called upon not only to preserve that liberty, but to enhance it; not only to protect the institutions that secure our liberty, but to renew and reform them to meet the challenges of the present with an eye for the future. The renewal of our generation -- in our economy, our social fabric, our world leadership for peace and freedom -- is well-symbolized by the project we celebrate today, employing the finest minds and latest technologies to preserve these charters of freedom for generations yet unborn.

When Hillary and I first realized that the turn of the millennium would occur while we were in the White House, we knew we had an obligation to mark it in ways that would be good for the country -- in her words, by honoring the past and imagining the future.

What we do with these hallowed pieces of parchment, all Americans can do with the important historical treasures that exist all around them -- in their attics, their parks, their town halls. Saving America's treasures is not about living in the past. It is about conveying to future generations the American story in all its texture and richness and detail; about fulfilling our duty to be good ancestors; about catching the spirit Thomas Jefferson had in his later years, when he became devoted to preserving desks and chairs and other ordinary things from his extraordinary times.

"These small things," he wrote, "may perhaps, like the relics of saints, help to nourish our devotion to this holy bond of Union, and keep it longer alive and warm in our affections."

I want to thank, first and foremost, Hillary for leading this effort, which has already accomplished so much -- from restoring the Star-Spangled Banner to honoring our great artists, thinkers and scientists. I look forward to walking on some of those 2,000 Millennium Trails we'll build together, and to naming more and more Millennium Communities.

We can all take pride in our efforts to renew our national treasures, for in a larger sense the story of our nation is the story of constant renewal -- the realization that we preserve the ideals embodied in these documents not simply by revering them, but by reaffirming our commitment to them. Each generation must widen the circle of opportunity, deepen the meaning of freedom, and strengthen the bonds of our community.

"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal." We fought a war of revolution to make those words real in 1776. We rededicated ourselves to that proposition in 1863, recognizing that the bright words of the Declaration could not abide the stain of slavery, or endure the breaking of our union.

We rededicated ourselves at the coming of the Industrial Age, when we recognized that new measures were required to protect and advance equal opportunity and freedom. We rededicated ourselves again in 1920, when we ratified the 19th Amendment, granting women the right to vote.

We saved those ideals in World War II, and for millions upon millions of people in the Cold War. We rededicated ourselves again in 1963, hearing and heeding Dr. King's dream that one day, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slaveowners would one day sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

Today, at the coming of the Information Age, we rededicate ourselves yet again. Thank God our challenges are not those of depression or war, but those brought on by this hopeful and remarkable explosion in technology; by the globalization of our economy; by all the changes in the way we work and live and relate to each other and the rest of the world.

To keep our ideals alive we must embrace new ideas and follow a new course. Because we believe equal opportunity in 1999 is just as important as it was in 1776, we must rededicate ourselves to the truest guarantor of that opportunity, a world-class educational system that benefits every single child.

Because we believe the federal government must promote the general welfare, as our founders instructed, we are dedicated to using its resources to pay squarely our single, greatest challenge as a nation today, the aging of America -- and to do so in a way that pays off our national debt for the first time since 1835. (Applause.)

Because we believe every human being has the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and no one should be discriminated against, uprooted, abused or killed because of his or her race or ethnic background or religion, we are proud to stand with our allies in defense of these ideals in Kosovo.

It is natural for any American contemplating the documents behind me to look upon those who crafted them as almost super- human in their wisdom and the times that they lived as a golden age. But the more you read about them, the more you respect their achievement because the founders were not gods on Earth -- they were farmers and lawyers, printers and merchants, surveyors and soldiers, chosen by their constituents to hash out divergent interests and make difficult decisions about the future -- to engage, in other words, in politics.

I said at my alma mater, Georgetown, last week, that at its best, politics is about values, ideas and action. That's what they were about. They turned politics into public service and made it a noble endeavor, and left us a framework to keep it going. The Declaration and the Constitution emerged only after fierce debate and difficult compromise. Today, these documents enjoy universal acclaim. And at the time they were written, believe it or not, many Americans -- though, thank goodness not a majority -- actually did not agree with them.

Yet, the framers refused to let serious differences of opinion become excuses to put off action. They overcame their differences and completed their tasks, and stayed true to an idea that Jefferson would later express in his first inaugural -- that every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle.

We have to keep that idea in mind today. The greatest threat to our democracy today, and certainly to freedom and democracy around the world, is the poisonous idea that what divides us is far more important than what we have in common; that as long as we have differences of opinion we must have personal animosities and we cannot have positive action. This is a dubious political strategy, a dangerous governing strategy, wrong as a matter of historical fact and an affront to the sacred documents we gather here to save.

Despite their many differences, the framers drafted, debated and signed the Declaration of Independence in less than a month. They drafted, debated and approved the Constitution in less than five months. If they could produce those enduring charters of freedom in a matter of months, surely there is no reason why we here in our time cannot make major progress in the remaining months of this millennium, to prepare our nation for the new millennium, and a 21st century which I am convinced will be America's best days.

We owe it to these children to honor their past, to imagine their future and to build a bridge to that future every single one of them can cross. So as we preserve the documents that launched this, the greatest journey in freedom and opportunity in all of history, let us resolve to do all we can to keep alive the spirit that got us to this point. These children will do the rest.

Thank you and God bless you. (Applause.)


4:32 P.M. EDT

July 1-15, 1999

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