Today is Ronald Reagan’s birthday, and this week also marks the 70th anniversary of HUMAN EVENTS. There’s room to debate the exact anniversary date. Our oldest relic is a bound volume of collected articles containing a declaration of principles signed by Frank C. Hanighen, Felix Morley, and William Henry Chamberlin, dated March 1, 1944. However, the first article contained within that volume was dated February 2. I can’t think of a better compromise than celebrating our inception on Reagan’s birthday. I read this publication long before I wrote for it, or anyone else, and it cannot be separated from the Gipper in my mind. I will always wonder what he would have thought of the work I’ve published here.
If you traveled back in time five years and told me that I’d been manning the ramparts on this auspicious occasion, I would have asked how you traveled back in time. Then I would have said you were crazy. But here I am, and it is my great honor to hold this post.
I’m not going to get maudlin about the weight of history, because it is part of conservative wisdom to understand that history is always heavy. We walk atop a great edifice of history piled centuries deep. Technology gives us new variables, but the human equation remains largely the same. For example, a paper magazine that took weeks of labor to assemble might be succeeded by a web page that follows the flow of events in real-time. The principles upon which that publication was built remain timeless. Contemplating them is liberating, not burdensome. Great art and creative thought transcend barriers, without ignoring them; build upon precedent, rather than arrogantly discarding it; understand the rules, before breaking them. Most of history’s great mistakes have been made by people who thought their predecessors were doing everything wrong, for no good reason.
The Declaration of Independence, from which HUMAN EVENTS takes its name, begins as follows:
When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
We disagree, and here is why. We disobey, but not in the spirit of mere anarchy. We withdraw our consent, but not upon a whim. We understand and respect what we write these words to deny. What a noble and powerful way to deliver history’s greatest act of dissent!
It seems as though “decent respect for the opinions of mankind” is a rare commodity these days. We hear angry demands for obedience and submission, delivered with the certainty that no one has the moral or intellectual standing to dissent in good faith. I would offer the contrary assertion, that free people should give each other very few orders that cannot be questioned or escaped without the presumption of venal motives. Freedom is not a gift from the collective State that we must constantly justify keeping. The American people were not meant to spend their lives in the dock, convincing a skeptical tribunal of bureaucrats they have better reasons than blind greed for keeping their liberty and property.
Proud people and a humble government, or vice versa – those are your choices. What I love about Ronald Reagan is how easy and instinctive that choice was for him. He made it with a smile. It was not only his honor, but his pleasure, to tip his hat to the nation he led. Or would it be better to say he represented it, as we truly wish every politician to do? It’s a tall order to represent a vast and energetic country that holds very few unanimous opinions. You do it by understand that your job is not to defeat one faction for the benefit of another, or design “solutions” to be imposed upon all. The very notion of ruling free people with such an iron hand, no matter how loudly your loyal voters sing hymms to your wisdom and compassion, is ridiculous.
That’s one reason Reagan smiled so often, and said so many things that make us smile all these years later. If there’s a young person in your life, Reagan’s words – long form or short, speeches or choice quotes – would make an excellent gift for them. I’m always impressed by the wonder and delight that spread across the faces of those who have never before heard what the man had to say, only what others said about him.
When he said the most terrifying words in the English language are “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help,” he wasn’t expressing some irrational hatred of lawful government, or an urge to anarchy. He wasn’t making a joke at the expense of the people who happened to be working for the government on the day he spoke. He was humorously expressing skepticism born of understanding, mocking not the character of the State, but its nature. That nature is not a “problem” that can be “fixed” by putting the right people in charge… and isn’t that the eternal promise of every statist and totalitarian? The “right” people just haven’t tried this system yet. WE can make it work. Just you wait and see. Before long, waiting to see becomes mandatory, and those who lose patience are punished.
I’ll bet a line like “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for” would have given Reagan a chuckle. “Good heavens, what were you ever ‘waiting for’ at all? Waiting is the opposite of doing,” he might have responded. The line only makes sense in the context of “waiting” for the “right” people to come along and make government work. It’s not an expression of awe and humility for a mighty nation; it was in no sense meant to applaud the astounding and unpredictable individual efforts that would be made by the free people of a remarkable generation. It was applause for a dawning era of bigger, smarter, better government, which looks sadder and more arrogant in retrospect with every passing day.
Salutes to Ronald Reagan will be offered today by people who knew him far better than a college student from a small town in the Eighties, who seriously listened to him for the first time because he wondered why everyone else on TV seemed to hate him so. I can’t compete with Reagan scholars who can quote his speeches from memory, or people who were reading HUMAN EVENTS before I was born. But I’ll share the quote I have framed and hung upon my wall:
Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same, or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it was once like in the United States where men were free.
That’s not just a warning – it’s also a celebration. There will always be plenty of eager defenders of liberty in every American generation, young people who have no intention of spending their sunset years delivering the apology Reagan described to their disappointed children. They are all around us today, young men and women who are not “children,” and have no desire to be treated as such. They do not float in the sea of electronic knowledge; they swim. They do not wait for rescue; they explore. They view the wisdom of the past as a treasure, not rubbish. They want their chance to do even better, but they’re delighted to learn that their fathers and mothers achieved many things that command their respect. The one thing they’re not interested in learning is how to surrender. And if they feel impelled to separate from authority, they are prepared to explain why, standing tall as they claim the heritage of independence left for them by some very modern men who happen to have been born in the 18th century.
The authors of the Declaration of Independence could not possibly have foreseen the world of marvels that surrounds us, but they understood it just fine. None of them thought the course of human events would end in 1776. I highly recommend doing what they did, and what Ronald Reagan did in turn: listen, learn, understand, respect… and then dissent. The history of these times will be written in bolder ink, thanks to your cheerful disobedience.