Ronald Reagan with Larry Reed
Mackinac Center President Lawrence W. Reed meets with President Ronald Reagan in the East Room of the White House in 1982.

Today marks the 25th anniversary of President Ronald Reagan’s first inaugural speech. On Jan. 20, 1981, Reagan stood on the west front of the U.S. Capitol and articulated his vision of "a nation that has a government — not the other way around."

Reagan was a unique voice in the latter half of the 20th century. He championed freedom in the face of spreading global communism and domestic naysayers. His vision of "morning in America" helped to renew patriotism and revive optimism after a period of national insecurity and economic malaise.

Reagan reminded Americans that our country had flourished — and could do so once again — by embracing individual liberty, free markets and faith. It was his deep conviction that government solutions, accompanied by high taxes and stifling regulations, were anathema, leading to coercion and the trampling of the human spirit. A bold and principled visionary himself, he spoke of our right as Americans to "dream heroic dreams."

As a tribute to President Reagan, his eloquence and the ideals he espoused, we compiled below some of his most memorable remarks. We’ve also included links to Mackinac Center publications and commentaries that discuss our 40th president.

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"In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem. From time to time we've 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. Well, if no one among us is capable of governing himself, then who among us has the capacity to govern someone else?"

* * *

"We are a nation that has a government — not the other way around. And this makes us special among the nations of the Earth. Our government has no power except that granted it by the people. It is time to check and reverse the growth of government, which shows signs of having grown beyond the consent of the governed."

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"It is not my intention to do away with government. It is rather to make it work — work with us, not over us; stand by our side, not ride on our back. Government can and must provide opportunity, not smother it; foster productivity, not stifle it."

* * *

"As for the enemies of freedom, those who are potential adversaries, they will be reminded that peace is the highest aspiration of the American people. We will negotiate for it, sacrifice for it; we will not surrender for it, now or ever."

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"[N]o arsenal or no weapon in the arsenals of the world is so formidable as the will and moral courage of free men and women."

First Inaugural Address, Jan. 20, 1981

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"You and I are told increasingly that we have to choose between a left or right, but I would like to suggest that there is no such thing as a left or right. There is only an up or down —up to a man’s age-old dream, the ultimate in individual freedom consistent with law and order — or down to the ant heap of totalitarianism, and regardless of their sincerity, their humanitarian motives, those who would trade our freedom for security have embarked on this downward course."

* * *

"[The Founding Fathers] knew that governments don’t control things. A government can’t control the economy without controlling people. And they know when a government sets out to do that, it must use force and coercion to achieve its purpose. They also knew, those Founding Fathers, that outside of its legitimate functions, government does nothing as well or as economically as the private sector of the economy."

* * *

"No government ever voluntarily reduces itself in size. Government programs, once launched, never disappear. Actually, a government bureau is the nearest thing to eternal life we’ll ever see on this Earth."

* * *

"It’s time we asked ourselves if we still know the freedoms intended for us by the Founding Fathers. James Madison said, "We base all our experiments on the capacity of mankind for self-government." This idea that government was beholden to the people, that it had no other source of power, is still the newest, most unique idea in all the long history of man's relation to man."

Address to the nation, Oct. 27, 1964

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"Beginning with the traumatic experience of the Great Depression, we the people have turned more and more to government for answers that government has neither the right nor the capacity to provide. But government, as an institution, always tends to increase in size and power, not just this government — any government. It’s built-in. And so government attempted to provide the answers.

"The result is a fourth branch added to the traditional three of executive, legislative, and judicial: a vast federal bureaucracy that’s now being imitated in too many states and too many cities, a bureaucracy of enormous power which determines policy to a greater extent than any of us realize, very possibly to a greater extent than our own elected representatives. And it can’t be removed from office by our votes."

* * *

"Sometimes I think that government fits that old-fashioned definition of a baby: An alimentary canal with an appetite at one end and no sense of responsibility at the other."

* * *

"Freedom is something that cannot be passed on in the blood stream, or genetically. And it’s never more than one generation away from extinction. Every generation has to learn how to protect and defend it, or it’s gone and gone for a long, long time."

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"You know, it has been said that politics is the second oldest profession, and I've come to realize over the last few years, it bears a great similarity to the first."

Lecture at Hillsdale College, Nov. 10, 1977

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"We who live in free market societies believe that growth, prosperity and, ultimately, human fulfillment, are created from the bottom up, not the government down. Only when the human spirit is allowed to invent and create, only when individuals are given a personal stake in deciding economic policies and benefiting from their success — only then can societies remain economically alive, dynamic, progressive and free. Trust the people. This is the one irrefutable lesson of the entire postwar period, contradicting the notion that rigid government controls are essential to economic development."

Remarks at the Annual Meeting of the Boards of Governors of the World Bank Group and International Monetary Fund, Sept. 29, 1981

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"The size of the federal budget is not an appropriate barometer of social conscience or charitable concern."

* * *

"There is a legitimate role for government, but we musn't forget: Before the idea got around that government was the principal vehicle of social change, it was understood that the real source of our progress as a people was the private sector. The private sector still offers creative, less expensive, and more efficient alternatives to solving our social problems."

Address to the National Alliance of Business, Oct. 5, 1981

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"The best view of big government is in a rearview mirror as we leave it behind. If it’s commerce, they regulate it. If it’s income, they tax it. If it’s a budget, they bust it. And given their way, they’d make everything that isn't prohibited, compulsory. And then when everything falls apart, they tell us it's because we let them down. Well, we weren’t put on this Earth just to make government bigger."

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"Government is the people's business and every man, woman and child becomes a shareholder with the first penny of tax paid."

* * *

"Only when the human spirit is allowed to invent and create, only when individuals are given a personal stake in deciding their destiny, in benefiting from their own risks, only then can society remain alive, prosperous, progressive and free."

Address to the New York City Partnership Association, Jan. 14, 1982

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"We don't have a trillion-dollar debt because we haven't taxed enough; we have a trillion-dollar debt because we spend too much."

Address to National Association of Realtors, March 28, 1982

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"[It is] the march of freedom and democracy which will leave Marxism-Leninism on the ash heap of history as it has left other tyrannies which stifle the freedom and muzzle the self-expression of the people."

Speech to Britain’s Parliament, June 8, 1982

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"There are no such things as limits to growth, because there are no limits on the human capacity for intelligence, imagination and wonder."

Address to the University of South Carolina, Columbia, Sept. 20, 1983

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"We will always remember. We will always be proud. We will always be prepared, so we may always be free."

Normandy, France, June 6, 1984

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"Government growing beyond our consent had become a lumbering giant, slamming shut the gates of opportunity, threatening to crush the very roots of our freedom. What brought America back? The American people brought us back — with quiet courage and common sense, with undying faith that in this nation under God the future will be ours, for the future belongs to the free."

State of the Union Address, Feb. 4, 1986

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"Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!"

Speech near the Berlin Wall, June 12, 1987

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"[G]overnment's view of the economy could be summed up in a few short phrases: If it moves, tax it. If it keeps moving, regulate it. And if it stops moving, subsidize it."

Remarks to the White House Conference on Small Business, Aug. 15, 1986

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"Freedom is the right to question and change the established way of doing things. It is the continuous revolution of the marketplace. It is the understanding that allows us to recognize shortcomings and seek solutions."

Address to students at Moscow State University, May 31, 1988

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Links to Mackinac Center documents:

Remembering Grenada — 20 Years Later

Myths of the 1980s Distort Debate Over Tax Cuts

Cutting Taxes to Raise Revenue

Statesmanship: A Most Worthy Cause

Berlin, 1961: An Anniversary We Should Never Forget

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