THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
REMARKS BY THE PRESIDENT AT CEREMONY HONORING 250TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE BIRTH OF THOMAS JEFFERSON
Jefferson Memorial Washington, D.C.
12:42 P.M. EDT
THE PRESIDENT: Thank you very much. Colonel McCarty, General Streeter, my fellow Americans. I want to begin by offering my compliments to the United States Marine Band and the Virginia Glee Club, who have entertained us so well today. I think we should give them another hand. (Applause.)
Today we observe the birthday of perhaps the most brilliant of our Founding Fathers in a setting Thomas Jefferson would have very much approved. One that joins the beauty of human architecture with the rapturous side of nature, with the cherry blossoms bursting all around us in a wreath.
Mr. Jefferson used to say with some pride that the sun never found him in bed, that he always rose early; and he was very proud of the fact that well into his 70s he could ride a horse several miles a day without tiring. Well, in honor of his birthday I rose early this morning, and finding no horses around the White House, I ran over here and jogged around this magnificent Tidal Basin, seeing many of my fellow citizens who were here even before me at the dawn to see this magnificent sight.
Today we have come to lay our wreath in honor of Thomas Jefferson, as his likeness towers behind us. And yet, no amount of bronze can capture the measure of the man who helped to cut a path for our nation, who personally forged the principles that continue to guide us as Americans and as lovers of freedom.
As has already been said, this monument was dedicated a half a century ago on the 200th anniversary of Jefferson's birthday by President Franklin Roosevelt, a worthy heir to the spirit of Jefferson. Were Jefferson here today, I think he would not want very much to talk about America of his time; instead, he would be talking about the America of our time. He would certainly not be at a loss for ideas about what we ought to be doing. For he was a man blessed with an eye for invention, an ear for music, the hands of a farmer, the mind of a philosopher, the voice of a statesman and the soul of a searcher for truth.
The genius of Thomas Jefferson was his ability to get the most out of today while never taking his eye off tomorrow, to think big while enjoying the little things of daily life. Perhaps most important, he understood that in order for us to preserve our timeless values, people have to change. And free people need to devise means by which they can change profoundly and still peacefully.
If you go back to this monument after the ceremony, you will see on the wall in part the following quotation:
"Laws and institutions must go hand-in-hand with the progress of the human mind as that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made and new truths discovered, and manners and opinions change. With the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times."
A very modern statement from our third President. In his own time, the pace of change was enormous. Just think back, during Jefferson's presidency the steamboat made its debut, revolutionizing travel. The importing of slaves was banned paving the way toward emancipation and the realignment of society. And he acquired the Louisiana Purchase for the then massive sum $15 million. Turns out it was an awfully sound investment; it doubled the size of our nation, it opened up a new frontier, and it enabled me to be born in the United States of America -- and many of you as well, I suspect. (Applause.)
But believe it or not, every step along the way Thomas Jefferson was opposed. There were people who opposed the Louisiana Purchase, people who opposed his then radical conception of human liberty, and both the power of individuals and the limitations of the government. He fought and he prevailed.
I wonder what he would say about our time, in which the pace of change is even greater. I think he would take great pride in the fact that we have now found ways to literally double the volume of knowledge every few years. But I think he would terribly disappointed that our understanding in this country of the science and mathematics that he loved so much is still so limited and so inadequate when compared to that of many other nations.
I think he would be delighted that the principles of freedom for which he stood all his life finally resulted in the end of the Cold War and the demise of communism. But I think he would be deeply disappointed that ethnic and racial and other hatreds had kept this world such a dangerous and unstable place, in ways that are blatantly unreasonable as he defined reason.
I think he would be proud of the technological and economic advances of this time, of the increasing interconnection of peoples across national borders in a global economy. But I think he would be profoundly disturbed that even the richest countries are now having enormous difficulty in finding enough jobs for their people, including his own beloved United States, and that so much technological advance seems to bring the destruction of much of the environment, about which he cared so deeply.
I think Jefferson would be impressed at the enormous advances in health care. He cared a lot about his health, and he lived to be 83, largely by taking good care of himself. And I think he would be a little disappointed that more of us don't take better care of ourselves and appalled to think that the United States is the only advanced country where every person doesn't have access to affordable health care -- something I hope we can change before long. (Applause.)
If you go up there and read what's on those walls, there is an incredibly moving statement where Jefferson said he trembles to think that God is just when he considers the real meaning of the institution of slavery. So I think he would be delighted at the progress we have made in human rights and living together across racial lines. Because he had such a passionate belief in individual liberty, I think he would be delighted by the range of personal choices and freedom of speech that the American people enjoy today, even to say things that he would find offensive, for he understood the clear meaning of the First Amendment.
But I think he would be appalled at the lack of selfrespect and self-control and respect for others, which manifest itself in the kind of mindless violence to which this city and others have been subject for the last several years, and appalled at the millions of young people who will never know the full measure of their freedom because they have been raised without order, without love, without family, without even the basic safety which people need to be able almost to take for granted in order to be citizens of a real democracy. In short, I think Thomas Jefferson would tell us that this is one of those times when we need to change.
Clearly, the call for change that Jefferson made he intended to be echoed generation after generation after generation. He believed if we set up the Constitution in the way that it was set up, that Americans of courage and good sense would always, always find themselves in the majority for change when they needed to be there. He believed in government constantly being reformed by reason and popular will.
That is what this administration is trying to do now. We know that we have an economy that even in growth does not produce new jobs. We know that we have increased by four times the debt of this nation over the last 12 years and we don't have much to show for it. We know that the people have now courageously asked us to take on the problems of jobs and the deficit, the environment and education and health care, to try to put our people first again and make government work for them.
The American people, deep in their bones, without even thinking about it, are the agents of change that Thomas Jefferson sought to write in perpetuity into our Constitution. For in the end, Thomas Jefferson understood that no politician, no government, no piece of paper could do for the American people what they would have to do for themselves. He understood better perhaps than any of his colleagues that the people of this country would always have to be not only the protectors of their own liberty, but the agents of their own transformation and change.
But he also knew that government must be willing to supply the tools of that change. And that, very simply, is our task today. After all, what is a good education but a tool to a better life. What is a job but a tool to build self-sufficiency, selfesteem and dignity for a worker and a family.
As I look around this nation, I know that Thomas Jefferson would be very proud and pleased by much of what has happened here. I suspect it would amuse and surprise him and make him very proud to think that for most Americans on most days people from 150 and more racial and ethnic groups live together in not only peace and law abidingness, but also mutual respect and reinforcing strength. I think that would make him proud. (Applause.)
I think he would be proud of the generosity of spirit that characterizes our people and manifests itself most clearly at a time of national crisis and national tragedy. After all, in Jefferson's time people gave food and shelter to travelers who came to their doors at night even when they were total strangers. Jefferson himself at Monticello often offered his home over the years to bone-weary travelers.
Today many of our people would do the same thing. But together -- together -- we have not faced the problems of the boneweary travelers in our own land, nor have we faced the problems that we all share in common. We cannot turn the problems away. It is time for reasonable change. It is time for the Americans in our time to live up to the principles etched in stone in this magnificent memorial.
Just look at the beauty around us today. Do you know that in Mr. Jefferson's time almost all of this was a swamp? People avoided this place like the plague because they were afraid of the plague. But with a plan, with investments, with effort, with vision, Americans transformed it. And from this inhospitable terrain rose the city before us, one of the most magnificent capitals in the history of the world. But the structures around us are simply buildings. They come to life only when they shake from the will of the people. That is what Thomas Jefferson knew.
We are the inheritors of Jefferson's rich legacy. On this the 200th anniversary of his birth, we can honor him best by remembering our own role in governing ourselves and our nation, to speak, to move, to change, for it is only in change that we preserve the timeless values for which Thomas Jefferson gave his life over two centuries ago.
Thank you, and God bless you all. (Applause.)
END12:56 P.M. EDT