Remarks of Bill Clinton at the New-York Historical Society, July 17, 2001

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Editor's Note: On July 17 former President Clinton delivered a speech--given for free--to the New-York Historical Society to commemorate the 225th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. Following is an excerpt from the speech. (Click here for a transcript of his complete remarks.)

I have always believed that people who have responsibilities like the ones that I had for several years can’t possibly hope to succeed unless they understand the nature of the time in which they live and what is immutable about their situation; that is, what is rooted in the way, in this case, our country was founded, and the values that have been handed down to the present day, and what is different about it. So I think that this is quite an important, fortuitously, quite an important time to be celebrating an anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, because it gives us a way of going back and looking at the Declaration, and then looking at the Constitution, which came after the war with England, and then looking at the first years after that to see how we gave meaning and life to the principles of the Declaration and the system established in the Constitution.

There’ve been a wonderful spate of books written in the last several years about the early American leaders and this whole period. I just finished reading H. W. Brands’s remarkable biography of Benjamin Franklin, The First American, which I heartily commend to all of you. And of course, everybody’s reading David McCullough’s biography of John Adams now, which is an important contribution to kind of getting the historical scales right, because Adams said a lot of important things and stood for the Union at a time when it needed to be stood for. But we have all these other books: E.M. Halliday’s book, Understanding Thomas Jefferson; a couple of years ago, Jean Edward Smith’s marvelous biography of Justice John Marshall; there must be 20 books that have been written in the last couple years designed to help us understand exactly what was going on from the time the Declaration of Independence was issued until about 1810. And it’s all, to me, very, very interesting.

New York did have a big role in all this – some of it has already been mentioned, especially DeWitt Clinton. I have a wonderful letter on my wall in my office in our home in Chappaqua, written by Edward Livingston to George Clinton, who was Governor of New York six times, the only governor in the history of the country to serve for over 20 years, who also was Vice President for a term and a General in the Continental Army. And, you know, he was a pretty elevated guy. But actually, this letter from Edward Livingston is the kind of letter I used to receive, and I don’t get them anymore so I know I’m not very important. But, so in this letter, Mr. Livingston is saying, “Hey, I just found out the Attorney General’s office is vacant, and guess what? I’m qualified. And I would really like it, and, you know, everybody’ll tell you how wonderful I am, so please give me the job.” It was sort of wrapped up in more delicate 18th century English, but that’s what the letter is. And so, George Clinton was important. And of course, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay were of signal importance to the beginning of this country. Aaron Burr played a very important role and one now obscured in history because of the unfortunate way in which he dueled with Alexander Hamilton and killed him, and then the rather tawdry business of his affair in the Southwest of the United States after that. But he was a man of immense talent. And so New Yorkers were kind of central to how we got started.

It’s also interesting to note, I think, that New York was one of the very last states to ratify the Constitution, coming even after Virginia, where there was always a huge fight between the forces of union, represented by Washington and Marshall, and the guys that thought, you know, this national government was going to take away their liberty, which for them included their liberty to keep slaves, and do stuff like that. But New York finally agreed to ratify the Constitution when the merchants of New York City threatened to withdraw from the state of New York if New York didn’t ratify. And it must please the people who traffic in commerce in New York today to know that they’re still running the country, just like they did way back then.

So, it’s interesting – then for about a hundred years New York didn’t have a dominant role in American life. Oh, Martin Van Buren was elected – the first Vice President in history to be directly elected after his President – but he was felled by a horrible recession, marking the end of the dominance of the Democratic party in American life – the Democratic party of the 19th century. And then Grover Cleveland became, at the end of the century, after serving as Governor of New York, the first President ever to serve two non-consecutive terms, and was a very distinguished man. But New York’s emergence in national politics really began in earnest at the dawn of the 20th century, when Theodore Roosevelt embodied the new philosophy of American nationalism, growing out of our becoming an industrialized, urban society with a new generation of immigrants, instead of primarily a rural, agricultural society with only immigrants, by and large, that had come here to America a long time ago. In Theodore Roosevelt and later, of course, his great cousin Franklin Roosevelt, and all the people that helped Roosevelt, including those who worked in the administration of Al Smith in New York beforehand and basically laid the foundation of the New Deal, all of which is chronicled in a great book I read last year by Frances Perkins outlining her whole lifetime friendship with Roosevelt, New York basically led America into another new era, and the first fundamentally new era since we got started as a country.

And so here we are now at the dawn of another century, and another new era in the way we work, and live, and relate to each other and the rest of the world. We are no longer an industrial society, we’re primarily an information technology society; we’re more of a global economy and a global society with a global culture than ever before; we have more diversity within our country than ever before; and New York is sort of the embodiment of all of this. We see in – I read somewhere the other day that Queens, the borough of Queens, has become the most heterogeneous society on earth. I think it was meant as a compliment. For me, it certainly is. And so, not surprisingly, just as we did 100 years ago, and just as we certainly did 200 years ago, Americans and citizens have been involved in a very heated argument about what it means to be an American. What is, you know, what did those words in the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence mean so long ago anyway, and how do they apply to the way we work and live and relate to each other and the rest of the world today? And a lot of people are frustrated by that. It led us, for example, to have an extremely close presidential election in the last election, close enough for the Supreme Court to decide some people’s votes shouldn’t be counted. Quite amazing. But it shouldn’t surprise you if you go back to the beginning, if you look at the struggles that New Yorkers were in in the late 18th century, the debates they were having, because every time things really change, we have to ask and answer all the questions again that we did in the beginning.

And just as it was in the beginning, this city and this state will have a lot to do with how those questions are answered. There is no majority race here, just as there is no majority race now in our largest state of California, and in 50 years there will be no majority race in the United States. Could happen quicker depending on birth rates and immigration patterns. So we have to think about how are we going to identify ourselves, and what does it mean to be an American? What is the culture that we embrace? Can we disentangle it from our own sense of ethnic or racial or religious or gender identity? How will we define the terms of our Union, and what is our responsibility, not only to our fellow Americans, but to people all around the world? These are all these debates – and by the way, what is the role of government? Something they fought about in the very beginning in terms that are not unlike the terms that we’ve been fighting about it for the last 20 years.

And I had thought that in the last election, since about 65% of the American people said they supported the direction in which we were moving the country, that the last election would ratify this debate, and that we would have a new consensus and it would obtain for 30 or 40 years just like every other one has until something else happened, and we’d have the debate all over again. But alas, it didn’t work out that way, so the debate continues.

And what the central message I want to give to all of you is, that if you’re a New Yorker, you ought to be glad about that, because New Yorkers have been arguing like this about what America is, what the role of government, what the national government should do, what our responsibilities are to one another, what’s a country anyway, from the very beginning. And have made a distinguished and significant contribution. You should be very glad that New York is just exploding with all this diversity. That it has a high-tech economy as well as a finance economy. That it has Silicon alley as well as Wall Street. That you can sort of have a cab driver from any country of your choice. You should be glad about that, because it means that you’re on the cutting edge of whatever tomorrow turns out to be, and this state and this city will, not only by the power of its history but by the fact of its presence, have a huge role in shaping what that is.

And so I urge all of you to go back and read some of these books if you haven’t already that have come out in the last two or three years on the first 20 years of our country. Notice carefully the role of your state and your city in that beginning time. Notice what questions were asked and how they were answered, and ask yourselves, as I always do, what does it mean to be an American, anyway? What is the role of the government in the 21st century? How can we do what we have always done at every time in the past when things really changed, as they did at the beginning, in the Industrial Revolution, and now; or when we were really under the gun with crisis, as we were in the Civil War, the Depression, World War II and the beginning of the Cold War; in those great five periods in our history, every time these questions have been asked, the answer always came back the same: we will take this moment, and these ideas and these words (and the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence) and we will marry the moment to our principles and our documents in a way that expands individual opportunity, that widens the reach of freedom, and that deepens the bonds of our national community. Every single solitary time, when this country has faced these big moments, we have these highly energized debates – sometimes, as 200 years ago, just as personal and mean-spirited as the ones we’ve had here in the last 20 years – we always gave the right answers at the end. And this state and this city were always a part of helping America give the right answers.

So I urge you on this 225th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence: go back and figure out what kind of people DeWitt Clinton and George Clinton were, and John Jay and Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr and the whole crowd of New Yorkers that made this country what it was in the beginning for good or ill. Read that spate of critical books, and ask yourself, what are those questions they were asking today? And when it’s all said and done, will we do as well as they did – to expand opportunity, to widen the reach of freedom, to deepen the bonds of our national community? Every time I read the Declaration of Independence, every time I read the Constitution, I can’t do better than those three things as the eternal mission of America.

We live in an era that I believe will be known primarily, not as the age of the Internet or the age of globalization, but as the age of interdependence – human, economic, social, political, you name it. And the great question of this age is whether, on balance, the interdependence will prove to have been a positive or a negative thing for most Americans and most people around the world. Global warming, if not addressed, is interdependence in its ultimately negative form, because no matter where the stuff is spewing out of the atmosphere, the island nations of the Pacific will be flooded in 50 years, and so will the sugar cane fields in Louisiana and the Florida Everglades. AIDS is interdependence in its ultimately negative form. Highest numbers of AIDS cases in Africa; biggest, fastest rates of growth in Russia and the former Soviet states in Europe; second fastest growing rates in the Caribbean, on our back door where we have a lot of immigrants, especially here in New York state; third fastest growing rates in India, the biggest democracy in the world. So those are examples of, if you will, negative interdependence.

The fact that more people have been lifted out of poverty than at any time in human history is positive interdependence. The fact that half the people in the world still live on two dollars a day or less is negative interdependence. But it’s all interdependence, so the question is, are we going to make it, on balance, positive or negative?

I believe that our ability to do what we should do in the rest of the world will turn on, in no small measure, whether we can be true to the way we answer the same questions the Founders were asking and answering 225 years ago, and in the period that followed until we settled down right after 1800. If we can make a place at America’s table for everyone, if we can provide economic and other opportunities for everyone, if we can purge ourselves of our fear and hatred of the other, so that we have a community that involves everyone, then I think there’s a very good chance that the United States will help the world to usher in the greatest period of peace and prosperity, of scientific advance, and plain old-fashioned fun and interesting developments in all of human history. And New Yorkers will have a lot to say about how it all comes out. My best advice tonight, in this hallowed place, is to be faithful to our history. Thank you very much.

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