On this date in 1976, Gerald R. Ford went to the National Archives and paid homage to the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, which he called "the great charters of American liberty."
Rereading that speech today, in America's unsettling year of pandemic, lockdown, and racial turmoil, it's striking how clearly President Ford favored Thomas Jefferson's call to arms in the Declaration over the Founders' collective compromise in the Constitution -- even though the latter document has proven a more malleable map in negotiating the twists and turns of the national road ahead.
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Jerry Ford's appearance at the National Archives was part of a series of presidential speeches and proclamations Ford made or events he attended to mark America's bicentennial. Given what's unfolding this year, I guess it's a good thing 2020 wasn't a watershed year. A U.S. president, and not just the current incumbent, might trigger millions of Millennials and Gen Zers by merely mentioning America's Founding.
But on that summer evening 44 years ago today, President Ford noted that millions of Americans "have looked and lingered over these priceless documents that have guided our 200 years of high adventure as ‘a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.'"
"Those were Lincoln's words, as he looked to the Declaration of Independence for guidance when a raging storm obscured the Constitution," Ford explained. "We are gathered here tonight to honor both. Even the way these parchments are displayed is instructive: Together, as they must be historically understood; the Constitution and its first 10 Amendments on an equal plane; the Declaration of Independence properly central and above all."
Let's stop and dwell on that idea for a moment, as it's a point being lost in 2020 as statues are being defaced, destroyed, and replaced -- and slogans are replacing critical thinking. The Declaration "above all" -- what did Ford mean by that? Well, he explained himself:
"The Declaration is the Polaris of our political order -- the fixed star of freedom," he said. "It is impervious to change because it states moral truths that are eternal."
What are those "eternal" truths? Well, equality mainly, and the Constitution -- and American society -- are forever rushing to catch up to the promise of the Preamble. Here is how President Ford explained it:
"The Constitution provides for its own changes, having equal force with the original articles. It began to change soon after it was ratified when the Bill of Rights was added. We have since amended it 16 times more, and before we celebrate our 300th birthday there will be more changes. But the Declaration will be there, exactly as it was when the Continental Congress adopted it -- after eliminating and changing some of Jefferson's draft, much to his annoyance. Jefferson's immortal words will remain, and they will be preserved in human hearts even if this original parchment should fall victim to time and fate."
Ford continued by asking his audience to listen as he read the opening of the Preamble:
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness -- That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed."
America's bicentennial president noted, correctly, that the Founders expected July 2 to be celebrated as the national holiday of the newborn republic. But even while forming a radical new government, politicians apparently liked the sound of their own voices and it took two more days to debate and to approve this Declaration to "a candid world" of what was happening in Philadelphia 244 years ago today.
"Jefferson said that the future belongs to the living," Ford said in conclusion. "We stand awed in the presence of these great charters not by their beauty, not by their antiquity, but because they belong to us. We return thanks that they have guided us safely through two centuries of national independence, but the excitement of this occasion is that they still work."
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.