Elegant July 4th speeches by past presidents of both parties remind us of what makes America great

Where it all began.
Where it all began.
Image: W.L. Ormsby/Library of Congress via AP
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Will US president Donald Trump give a 4th of July speech that inspires and unifies the country?

Judging from his remarks on July 1 to veterans, it’s hard to imagine. He used the speech to lash out at the free press and reiterate his victory on November 8, 2016, occasionally returning to Americans who have served in the military as more of a thematic peg than the focus.

“The fake media tried to stop us from going to the White House, but I’m president and they’re not,” Trump said at one point.

Presidents in the past have done the opposite. While some Independence Day remarks have been undoubtedly political, they’ve all typically followed the same pattern: Count the years since the signing of the Declaration of Independence, invoke America’s founding fathers, extol the virtue of liberty, and—if you’re feeling verbose—try to bring together an ever-divided country.

Take Ronald Reagan in 1986. It was, as always, a tumultuous time in American history. The Challenger space shuttle had exploded on live television earlier that year, the United States and USSR were still attempting to hammer out an arms control deal ahead of the Reykjavik Summit, and Tom Cruise playing volleyball shirtless in Top Gun was freshly-seared into the minds of the film-going public.

Reagan’s speech focused on unity, using the history of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. The pair became estranged after a bitterly-fought presidential election, ultimately won by Jefferson, and the founding fathers ceased to talk. But after years, they set their differences aside, began writing letters to each other about things other than politics, and ultimately died on the same day.

“All through our history, our Presidents and leaders have spoken of national unity and warned us that the real obstacle to moving forward the boundaries of freedom, the only permanent danger to the hope that is America, comes from within,” Reagan said. “My fellow Americans, it falls to us to keep faith with them and all the great Americans of our past.”

Other presidents have used America’s birthday to speak to these same virtues of liberty and unity.

John F. Kennedy, 1962

President Kennedy, with his back to the camera, speaks at Independence Hall in Philadelphia on July 4, 1962.
President Kennedy, with his back to the camera, speaks at Independence Hall in Philadelphia on July 4, 1962.
Image: AP Photo

“For 186 years this doctrine of national independence has shaken the globe—and it remains the most powerful force anywhere in the world today. There are those struggling to eke out a bare existence in a barren land who have never heard of free enterprise, but who cherish the idea of independence. There are those who are grappling with overpowering problems of illiteracy and ill-health and who are ill-equipped to hold free elections. But they are determined to hold fast to their national independence. Even those unwilling or unable to take part in any struggle between East and West are strongly on the side of their own national independence.”

George Bush Sr., 1989

“After 213 years, Americans can say that the experiment is a resounding success. The Fourth of July is a time to rejoice in this success, which has inspired all who seek to break the shackles of totalitarian rule and breathe in the life-giving air of liberty.”

Bill Clinton, 1993

“And together, we can make the years ahead the best years our Nation has ever had if we can rise above cynicism and doubt… Our people have always known that Government could not solve all the problems and that all citizens had to be responsible to build this Nation together.”

George W. Bush, 2001

President George W. Bush speaks at Philadelphia’s Constitution Hall on July 4, 2001.
President George W. Bush speaks at Philadelphia’s Constitution Hall on July 4, 2001.
Image: AP Photo/J. Scott

“Our Founders would also be pleased to walk these streets again and to find, amid the problems of modern life, a familiar American spirit of faith and good works. They would see the signs of poverty and want, but also acts of great kindness and charity. They would see addiction and the wreckage it brings, but they would also see in the works of the religious groups and charities throughout this city the power that can rescue abandoned hopes and repair a broken life. In a world very different from theirs, they would see different kinds of hardships, fears, and suffering; yet they would also recognize the brotherly love that gave this city its name.”

Barack Obama, 2014

“Those early patriots may have come from different backgrounds and different walks of life, but they were united by a belief in a simple truth: that we are all created equal, that we are all endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these rights are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. …

But our success is only possible because we have never treated those self-evident truths as self-executing. Generations of Americans have marched, organized, petitioned, fought, and even died to extend those rights to others, to widen the circle of opportunity for others, and to perfect this Union we love so much.”