On Reagan’s Birthday, His Legacy Lives On

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Today marks President Ronald Reagan’s 101st birthday. Born in Tampico, Illinois, Reagan made his journey west to Iowa as a radio broadcaster, then on to California to take Hollywood by storm. He crossed America as a spokesman for General Electric, and then — after discovering the import of conservative values — entered the political arena, where he would ultimately lead his fellow citizens out of a wilderness of self-doubt, helping the country come to see that it could be morning in America once again.

We at The Heritage Foundation invite you to join us in celebrating Reagan’s life and legacy. For those of you on Facebook, click here to join the thousands of others who have already signed our virtual birthday card to President Reagan. Leave your message about what Reagan’s legacy means to you, share it with friends, and take part in this celebration today.


Upon his inauguration, Reagan was confronted with a deep economic crisis, one of the worst sustained inflations in America’s history, historically high unemployment, the fallout from an energy crisis, stagnation, massive government spending, an untenable tax burden, a hollow military, and the Soviet threat. Yet in the face of the economic crisis, President Reagan turned toward not more government, but less. And in the face of a global threat, he turned toward a stronger military and international leadership — not a weaker military and retrenchment. Reagan understood as well as any that the framework envisioned by the Founders — and set forth in the Constitution — was one that trusted the people to govern themselves, not one that subjugated them to the rule of the few, as reflected in his First Inaugural Address:
From time to time, we have been tempted to believe that society has become too complex to be managed by self-rule, that government by an elite group is superior to government for, by, and of the people. But if no one among us is capable of governing himself, then who among us has the capacity to govern someone else? All of us together, in and out of government, must bear the burden. The solutions we seek must be equitable, with no one group singled out to pay a higher price.

We hear much of special interest groups. Our concern must be for a special interest group that has been too long neglected. It knows no sectional boundaries or ethnic and racial divisions, and it crosses political party lines. It is made up of men and women who raise our food, patrol our streets, man our mines and our factories, teach our children, keep our homes, and heal us when we are sick—professionals, industrialists, shopkeepers, clerks, cabbies, and truckdrivers. They are, in short, “We the people,” this breed called Americans.

The circumstances that Reagan faced are not unlike those that America sees today. The United States faces the threat of entitlement spending growing out of control, a massive debt, a looming tax burden, soaring energy prices, and security threats around the globe. And like Reagan, America’s leaders are faced with a choice: more government or less, a weaker military or a stronger one? We know from history what Reagan would have done. And we also know why he would have done it.

As we look back, we remember that throughout his presidency, Reagan returned again and again to the idea that in all circumstances and with each decision, he was guided by the Constitution. In his State of the Union speeches, Reagan referred to the Constitution more than any other president in the preceding 50 years. A survey of his presidential papers reveals 1,270 references to the Constitution during his eight years in the White House and another 113 mentions of the Declaration of Independence. As part of Heritage’s “Preserve the Constitution” series, we invited two former Reagan Cabinet members and two Reagan historians to discuss how the Constitution provided the foundation of the Reagan presidency. In examining Reagan’s recipe for success, former Attorney General Edwin Meese III, who served under President Reagan, noted “Why was President Reagan so successful? I would suggest that one reason is: He did what the Constitution said he should do, and he did what the Founders had in mind in terms of a constitutional presidency.”

Reagan looked to the Constitution as his North Star in leading the country forward. Today’s leaders have the benefit of that same star — and also of Reagan’s example. To truly honor Reagan’s legacy, we at Heritage each day carry forth the conservative values that our 40th President held so dear. Since 1973, we have worked to build an America where freedom, opportunity, prosperity, and civil society flourish. We were privileged to stand alongside President Reagan when he articulated his conservative vision for America, and we are proud to continue that work today.