10. January 20, 1981 — The First Inaugural Address
As I noted in the introduction, Ronald Reagan presented a practically diametrical alternative to Jimmy Carter throughout the 1980 campaign. He moved tirelessly throughout the campaign with his characteristic humor and fire, and, while it wasn’t a flawless campaign, he caught the eyes and captured the hearts of enough voters to defeat Carter in a landslide.
Reagan began his first term as president confronting some of the toughest challenges of the 20th century — a difficult economy, a belligerent Iran (it all sounds remarkably familiar) — and cleaning up the messes of the Carter of administration. Yet he rose to these challenges with a noticeably positive outlook.
His First Inaugural Address is a prime example of the optimism and faith that Reagan was well known for. The first part of the speech tackled the economic malaise that gripped the nation, pointing out the obvious fact that economic progress, small government, and freedom are interlinked:
The economic ills we suffer have come upon us over several decades. They will not go away in days, weeks, or months, but they will go away. They will go away because we, as Americans, have the capacity now, as we have had in the past, to do whatever needs to be done to preserve this last and greatest bastion of freedom.
In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem.
…this administration’s objective will be a healthy, vigorous, growing economy that provides equal opportunity for all Americans, with no barriers born of bigotry or discrimination. Putting America back to work means putting all Americans back to work.
So, as we begin, let us take inventory. We are a nation that has a government–not the other way around. And this makes us special among the nations of the Earth.
It is no coincidence that our present troubles parallel and are proportionate to the intervention and intrusion in our lives that result from unnecessary and excessive growth of government.
He also touched on the threats to freedom from rogue nations that would threaten to upset the balance of peace:
As for the enemies of freedom, those who are potential adversaries, they will be reminded that peace is the highest aspiration of the American people. We will negotiate for it, sacrifice for it; we will not surrender for it–now or ever.
Our forbearance should never be misunderstood. Our reluctance for conflict should not be misjudged as a failure of will. When action is required to preserve our national security, we will act. We will maintain sufficient strength to prevail if need be, knowing that if we do so we have the best chance of never having to use that strength.
Above all, we must realize that no arsenal, or no weapon in the arsenals of the world, is so formidable as the will and moral courage of free men and women. It is a weapon our adversaries in today’s world do not have. It is a weapon that we as Americans do have. Let that be understood by those who practice terrorism and prey upon their neighbors.
And he addressed the unparalleled heroism of the American people:
We have every right to dream heroic dreams. Those who say that we are in a time when there are no heroes just don’t know where to look. You can see heroes every day going in and out of factory gates. Others, a handful in number, produce enough food to feed all of us and then the world beyond. You meet heroes across a counter–and they are on both sides of that counter. There are entrepreneurs with faith in themselves and faith in an idea who create new jobs, new wealth and opportunity. They are individuals and families whose taxes support the government and whose voluntary gifts support church, charity, culture, art, and education. Their patriotism is quiet but deep. Their values sustain our national life.
I have used the words “they” and “their” in speaking of these heroes. I could say “you” and “your” because I am addressing the heroes of whom I speak–you, the citizens of this blessed land. Your dreams, your hopes, your goals are going to be the dreams, the hopes, and the goals of this administration, so help me God.
Can we solve the problems confronting us? Well, the answer is an unequivocal and emphatic “yes.”
Reading this speech, it’s easy to see why so many Americans believed Reagan had our backs. Such upbeat, infectious optimism was contagious, and the new president instilled in many a belief that the difficulties of the 1970s could be overcome. Watch it here: