“Among the leaders who are in the forefront of supporting human liberties, and those who have earned respect for their courage and resoluteness in upholding rights held dear by Americans throughout their careers, Colin Powell is a giant.”
Liberty Medal International Selection Commission
Colin L. Powell
July 4, 2002
My special thanks to the Philadelphia Police and Fire Fifes and Drums for their salute to America’s armed forces.
Good morning, ladies and gentlemen, and thank you, Mayor Street, Mrs. Street, Governor and Mrs. Schweiker, for your presence here this morning, and all the other distinguished ladies and gentlemen up on the platform, the wonderful performers that we have heard. But a special thanks to all of you for being here on this very, very warm morning.
We are joined around the nation by millions and millions of our fellow citizens in every town, in every city, all across this great country. The terrorists thought that they could keep us from celebrating the Fourth of July. They were wrong. We are here and we will remain.
I want to express my deep appreciation to Chairman Meyerson and the International Selection Commission and Greater Philadelphia First for giving me this very high honor. Alma and I are very, very pleased to be with you and to receive this honor. To receive The Liberty Medal here at Independence Hall on the Fourth of July, it just doesn’t get any better.
The 13 previous recipients of The Liberty Medal, from Lech Walesa to Kofi Annan, have done so much to extend the blessings of liberty, prosperity and peace to people all across the world. It is both exhilarating and humbling for me to be numbered among so many of my personal heroes.
I gratefully accept the Liberty Medal, not as a reward for any service I have rendered, but as a symbol of the service I yet owe to our wonderful country. Thomas Jefferson said that there is a debt of service due from every man to his country, proportioned to the bounties which nature and fortune have measured to him.
I have received so much from this country; I feel that debt very heavily. But don’t we all? Don’t we all feel the same obligation, as lucky Americans, to give back to this country as much as it has given to us, and more?
Being an American citizen is a privilege, whether you’re a tenth generation mainline Philadelphian, or a child of immigrants, as I am. Citizenship means more than a conferral of rights through the accident of birth or the act of naturalization; citizenship brings with it the most solemn obligations—an obligation to uphold and defend the values of freedom, justice and democracy that make Americans, in all of our diversity, one nation, one nation—and yes, one nation under God, indivisible. An obligation to share these universal values that make our country liberty’s lamp unto the world.
Much has happened since we gathered last year to mark the Fourth of July. We were savagely attacked on our own soil. We endured a great national trauma. And we have emerged from it with new strength and a deeper sense of who we are as a people, and who we are as a nation. We showed the world that this nation and this people has a spine of steel, a gallant heart, and a fierce love of liberty. And our enemies now know without doubt that we will not rest until they have been defeated and brought to justice—each and every one of them.
Yes, September 11th brought us back to the fundamentals, the same fundamentals that have defined our nation since its birth, the fundamentals captured in Thomas Jefferson’s timeless cadences and the Declaration of Independence. The words are now so familiar, that even when they are so beautifully read, as they were by these wonderful young people a few moments ago, we sometimes here these words without lingering over their meaning.
I don’t know how many times I’ve read the Declaration of Independence. I’m 65 years old, yet every time I read those words I am inspired once again by the magic that took place in this place some 226 years ago during those warm summer days, as those men assembled here and argued with each other, and found compromises, and disagreed and came into agreement, and finally gave us these words—famous words, famous words that I have heard repeated by Lech Walesa and Kofi Annan and Nelson Mandela, and so many others, as words that inspire not us, but others all over the world.
The most famous of these words we all know by heart: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal. Thirteen words for the thirteen colonies. Thirteen words that, 226 years later, still throw the light of hope into the darkest corners of tyranny and oppression. Thirteen words conveying truths that need no explanation or analysis or debate. They’re not facts; they’re truths. They’re self-evident. We don’t need any explanation. We don’t need consultants to come tell us what these truths mean and what they are all about. They are self-evident. They are not subject to dispute.
The truth that all are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights. These are rights granted by no king, by no congress, by no legislature, by no president. They are rights granted to us by a benevolent God, a birthright from God. And they are unalienable, meaning no one can take them away, and that these rights simply are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
There are many other rights that were not mentioned by the signers of the Declaration, but these rights they did mention: God granted us life, God intended us to have liberty, and God expected us to pursue happiness. Everyone knows these lines oh, so well. But it’s the next line of the Declaration that I really love. It says that, “To secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
No definition of democracy has ever improved upon those words. In a democracy, the people have the power, not the government, and any power that the people agree to lend their government is to be used solely for securing the rights given to people in the Declaration and then in the Constitution.
And the Declaration says “secure the rights.” Not protect them. Secure them. If people do not yet have them, the government’s responsibility is to secure them, get them, and give all people in the nation these rights, these God-given rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
By choosing those words, secure those rights, Jefferson gave us a glimpse of his vision for the future. Because when he wrote about equality and unalienable rights, he knew that those rights didn’t apply to everyone—not at that time, not in this place. They didn’t apply to women. They didn’t apply to people who owned no land. They didn’t apply to black people. They surely didn’t apply to the slaves that Jefferson had on his plantation at Monticello.
But his words come back to inspire every succeeding generation of Americans to secure these rights for all. And how fitting it is, how especially fitting it is for me, a black Secretary of State, to stand next to a black mayor on this day, on this place. Two hundred and twenty-six years ago we would have been seen as nothing but property, and now look what that vision has brought us to—a nation of strength and diversity.
We stand here today because Jefferson penned those words, and then he and the others assembled here were willing to sign away everything, everything they had, to bring those words to life. As Jefferson did in his time, so too must we recognize that America is not yet perfect. If we would be faithful to that Declaration and we would be faithful to our legacy, we must recognize there is still more to be done.
We all know that there are still injustices in this marvelous country of ours. We know that there are still bigots. We know that there is still poverty. We know that all of our children don’t yet have the same opportunity for a quality education. We know that our cities aren’t all gleaming alabaster undimmed by human tears.
But what gives us hope and faith in the future is that we also know that our system of government, by the people, is designed to correct injustices and make ours an ever more perfect union.
And our obligation as patriots is to constantly work to reach the goal that was set for us here on that day 226 years ago. Each of us has the duty to stand up not only for our rights, but for the rights of all of our fellow citizens, and to help secure the blessings of liberty for all.
And it is no less our responsibility as citizens of the world’s greatest democracy to ensure that our country, this great country of ours, remains a force for freedom all around the world. After all, unalienable rights were given to all humankind. They belong to every man, woman and child on this earth. People all over the world, as I’ve discovered even more forcefully in my year and a half as Secretary of State, want the same things that Americans want for their children: respect for their human rights, living in democracies, a better life for themselves and their children, a real say in the future of their country. They want increasingly the consent of the governed as their political model.
So Abraham Lincoln said in 1861 on this very spot as he was on his way to Washington for his inauguration, “Liberty was given not alone to the people of this country, but to the world, and for all time.”
So just as we must always stand up for our own rights and the rights of our fellow citizens, Americans must also stand with courageous men and women all around the world who seek to secure the rights of their fellow citizens, just as we stood in solidarity with Liberty Medal recipients like Nelson Mandela and Vaclev Havel and Kim Dae Jung and Oscar Arias, who sacrificed for the freedom of their own people.
And so since 1776, we Americans have known what we value and what we stand for: human liberty and the rights of humankind. And as to the matter of what we are made of, the Declaration of Independence speaks to that as well. The answer can be found in the very last sentence, right above the 56 signatures. The signers pledged their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor to one another and to the cause of freedom. Theirs was not just a parchment pledge. It wasn’t a rhetorical flourish. The founders knew by affixing their signatures to the Declaration, they could be signing their own death warrants. The signatories of the Declaration put it all on the line, not just for their own futures and fortunes, but for those of their wives and children. They were prepared to risk for what they believed in, and they did it for all the generations that would follow.
Indeed, our nation has been blessed with patriots in every generation, who have been willing to place their sacred honor in the service of their fellow citizens, and give their all for freedom. You often hear about the greatest generation. The truth is there is greatness in every generation.
We saw a great generation again on September 11, when ordinary Americans of every conceivable background and walk of life performed extraordinary acts of heroism, compassion and decency. You saw it in our firemen. You saw it in our policemen. You saw it in all those who stepped forward to help somebody in need in New York, in Washington, in Pennsylvania. You saw it with the outpouring of support and patriotism, with the financial support that came forward to help those of our fellow citizens in need. We did not hesitate. We saw our duty as human beings and as citizens, and we did it. And we can be very proud indeed, that in the darkest hours of our national pain and grief, we remain true to our democratic values of tolerance and justice.
Under President Bush’s leadership, we chose the path of principled action. We did not lash out in a blind rage. President Bush spoke from the very core of our national character when he stood before us, and all the world, and made it clear that the terrorists are our enemies, not people of any particular faith or ethnicity.
And in the months since last September, just as they have done at times of national trials in every generation since the days of George Washington, courageous young Americans have selflessly answered their nation’s call to service, this time in the war against terrorism. Today, as I speak, in Afghanistan and all around the world, our military forces, our intelligence officers, our diplomats, are serving on the frontiers of freedom. They are serving for us.
And standing with them and with us in the great global coalition against terrorism are men and women from every continent, every creed, every culture, every region, every race, and every religion. For if in the world today there is a common threat to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, it is terrorism.
And in the years ahead, very few of us sitting here will be called upon to sacrifice our lives or our liberty for the rights that we hold dear. But all of us, the old and the young, the high and the humble, can seek out ways in our own life, in our own community, to serve the cause of freedom. Each of us can devote some of our time and talent and resources to the well-being of our community, to spread happiness throughout our community, to serve others in our community, to show that we are a people united, and none of us can be happy if there is any one of our fellow citizens who is in need, and we could do something about that need.
So in this time of service, President Bush has called upon each of us to fight the war on terrorism by devoting at least two years of our lifetime to public service at home or abroad. One of the main paths to public service is the United States of America Freedom Corps, which the President recently created. The Freedom Corps channels contributions of service in three important directions: to the new Citizen Corps, dedicated to homeland security; to the well established Senior Corps and America Corps, with their impressive community-based reforms; and to the Peace Corps, which for over four decades has embodies America’s commitment to constructing a better future for all people.
There are so many good causes, so many needs to be met. Five years ago, right here at Independence Hall, I was very proud to stand and help to launch a crusade to help our children. We call it America’s Promise, the Alliance for Youth. And the citizen volunteers involved in America’s Promise are dedicated to building the character and confidence of all of our youngsters; that the people of our country are its greatest strength, and our children are its greatest hope. Through Freedom Corps, America’s Promise, places of worship, community centers, charities, international organizations, through whatever means, each and every one of us can find ways to serve someone other than ourselves, something bigger than ourselves.
This is also part of the legacy created here 226 years ago. You do not need to join the military or work in government to perform public service, but I certainly applaud both. But everybody can make the time to serve on a school board, volunteer at a local shelter, mentor a kid who needs someone to care. We can take a stand for tolerance whenever we encounter prejudice. We can honor the service of others and teach our children to do the same. We can lend support to refugees fleeing foreign tyrants. We can express our unity with those around the world who work in freedom’s name.
And so on this Fourth of July, in this beautiful place, in this precious moment, my red, white and blue message to you is this: It is up to every one of us to make the words of the Declaration of Independence speak to the men, women and children of our time. It is up to each of us to make America beautiful, to ensure that our country remains the land of liberty and opportunity. It is for us to keep the American Dream alive for our children and for our children’s children. And it is for America, the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave, to help freedom ring across the globe, unto all the peoples thereof. That is our solemn obligation, and we will not fail.
So on this wonderful day, may God bless you and your families on this special Fourth of July, and may God bless America. Thank you very much.