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 Home > Mrs. Cheney

Office of Lynne Cheney
November 29, 2001

Mrs. Cheney's Remarks on "Teaching for Freedom" at Princeton University
As Prepared
James Madison Program
Princeton University
Princeton, New Jersey

It's a great pleasure to be here this afternoon as part of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions.  Professor George, you deserve congratulations for the excellence of this program's efforts, and let me praise Princeton University as well.  By giving this program a home, Princeton is setting an example of how people of differing viewpoints can, in a university setting, debate important issues with seriousness and civility.

For someone who loves American history, this part of New Jersey is a remarkable place to be, a place rich with stories of our country's past.  Next month, on Christmas night, it will be two hundred twenty-five years since George Washington crossed the Delaware, and in a surprise attack on the Hessian mercenaries manning the British post at Trenton, managed to kill dozens and capture more than nine hundred while sustaining not a single fatality on the American side.

The wonderful painting by Emanuel Leutze of Washington crossing the ice-choked Delaware hints, but barely, at the significance of this victory.  The men in the boat with Washington are dressed in a motley assortment of clothes.  One does not imagine that Washington has a highly trained and disciplined force.  But the men in the boat do not look nearly as ragged and miserable as the historical record suggests Washington's troops were.  The painter Charles Wilson Peale, observing Washington's army in early December, as they were retreating before the advancing British, had been struck with horror at the sight of the sick, exhausted, and half-naked men.  One soldier approached Peale. He was a man who "had lost all his clothes.  He was in an old, dirty blanket jacket, his beard long, and his face so full of sores he could not clean it."  Only when the soldier spoke, did Peale realize that it was his much-loved brother James.

These Americans, going up against superior numbers of British forces, who were better equipped and better trained, had, not surprisingly, spent most of the war thus far in retreat.  And that is why Trenton mattered so much, because suddenly, in the depths of icy winter, there was a victory, and Washington was determined to build on it.  He moved his troops back to Pennsylvania, waited until the commissary wagons could bring provisions, and then on December 30th, crossed the Delaware into New Jersey again and entrenched his troops near Trenton.  Since the enlistments of most of his men expired at year's end, his first job was to persuade a significant number of them to stick with him, which he did with rousing speeches--and $50,000 raised by Philadelphia financier Robert Morris.

Some of Washington's men may have regretted the decision to stay on when, on January 2, 1777, General Cornwallis and 5000 well-trained, well-equipped men advanced on Trenton from Princeton.  Washington's pickets had to fall back across a creek.  With shot and shell flying overhead, scores of men had to make their way across a narrow stone bridge, and while there was no doubt fear, there was no panic.  At the end of the bridge, Washington, on horseback, had taken up a position where his men could see him, firm, composed, resolute.  One of his men forever remembered pressing "against the shoulder of the General's horse" and touching Washington's boot.

Cornwallis was convinced that he had Washington, whom he called "the old fox," trapped, but Washington, leaving his campfires burning as a diversion, moved most of his men around the British left flank and headed for Princeton.  The first encounter between an American brigade approaching Princeton and British troops leaving it to join their main force in Trenton did not go well for the Americans.  Many were wounded and killed in a bayonet attack.  The survivors fell back, bloody, dazed, confused, but Washington rallied them and after more troops arrived, led them himself toward the British.  Displaying astonishing bravery, he took his men to within thirty yards of the British lines and ordered them to fire.  One staff officer was so sure Washington would be killed that he pulled his hat over his eyes to escape the sight, but when the smoke cleared, the General was unharmed.  The staff officer wept in relief.  Washington clasped his hand and then led the charge after the fleeing British.

As I'm sure everyone living near Princeton knows, this story has a pretty dramatic ending.  The British took refuge in Nassau Hall, which the Americans then fired upon.  The result was not only to persuade the British to surrender, but, legend has it, to decapitate, with a well-fired cannonball, a portrait of King George the Second.

Now, I tell this story in part because it is a wonderful story, and it is an important one as well.  Demoralized as Washington and his countrymen were, news of these victories, James Thomas Flexner has written, "traveled across America like a rainstorm across a parched land, lifting bowed heads everywhere."  But I also tell this story because it makes the point--as so many of the stories of our country's beginnings do--that this nation was not inevitable.  The founders had the odds stacked very much against them.  No one had ever thrown off a colonial power before.  No one had ever established representative government over a vast expanse of land.  The Americans were going up against the mightiest military force in the world, and so much of the success they did experience depended on individuals, particularly on Washington, whose legendary bravery--so inspiring to his men--might easily have gotten him killed.

During one battle in the French and Indian War, he had two horses shot out from under him, one bullet had gone through his hat and three ripped through his uniform. A few years later, in 1757, when two detachments of Virginians mistakenly began firing upon one another, he rode his horse between the firing troops and used his sword to knock the gun barrels skyward.  Fourteen men were killed, but Washington was untouched.  If it had turned out otherwise, who would have commanded our troops in the Revolutionary War?  Who could have lent similar prestige to the Constitutional Convention?  Who could have been trusted to be the first president--and to give up power at the proper time?

We are very lucky that things turned out as they did, and so is the world. Jefferson believed that the American Revolution would set the "ball of liberty so well in motion that it would roll round the globe," and he was right. Inspired by what happened here, people in other parts of the world began to struggle for freedom and many of them succeeded.  But freedom, as the study of our history shows, is not our inevitable heritage, nor is it humankind's. This realization should make our freedom all the more precious to us, all the more worth defending.  Were we to lose it, liberty might not come our way again.

The concern I would like to bring before you tonight is that we haven't done a very good job of teaching our history.  We haven't given young people the knowledge they need in order to appreciate how greatly fortunate we are to live in freedom or, indeed, to have much insight at all into the American past.  A 1989 survey of college seniors showed that more than half did not understand the purpose of The Federalist papers.  One out of four was unable to distinguish Karl Marx's words from the ideas of the United States Constitution.   A 1999 survey of elite college seniors--that is seniors at schools like Princeton and Yale and Stanford--showed that only one out of five knew that the words "government of the people, by the people, for the people" came from the Gettysburg Address.  Forty per cent did not know that the Constitution established the division of power between the states and the federal government.

To the question of who was the American general in command at Yorktown, the most popular answer was Ulysses S. Grant.

Now one cannot attribute this lack of knowledge solely to a failure of colleges and universities.  Indeed, the questions asked on these surveys are the kinds of things we should expect high school seniors to know.  But surely a contributing factor to the lack of knowledge highlighted by the survey is that not one--not a single one--of the fifty-five elite colleges and universities whose students were polled required a course in American history.

I have been concerned about lack of historical knowledge for well over a decade, long enough so that I understand that the institutional reforms that would help remedy the problem are difficult to achieve.  One important reason that American history is not required is because if it were, faculty members would have to teach it--and there is very little professional incentive for them to do so.  Advancement in academia comes from publishing, and there is little market in academic journals for articles on subjects that are broadly conceived.  What is wanted are specialized articles that are compatible with teaching specialized courses.  In not wanting to take on general education, people in academe are doing what people in every profession tend to do: avoiding activities for which there are few if any professional incentives.

Changing the reward system of higher education is likely to take a very long time--and that's the optimistic view.  So, too, is it likely to take a long time for every state in the union to put in place history standards--and the tests to match them--that will ensure that youngsters in grade school, middle school, and high school gain essential knowledge of our nation's past.  The fact that the improvement of historical education in our schools and colleges and universities won't happen overnight is no reason to quit the struggle.  I certainly intend to keep working on it--and applauding the efforts of groups like the National Association of Scholars and the American Council of Trustees and Alumni that have spoken out forcefully in favor of well-rounded general education.  But we should recognize that until long-term efforts succeed, American history will remain largely mysterious to many graduates of our finest institutions.  They will continue to place Ulysses S. Grant at Yorktown--unless we come up with ex tracurricular ways to encourage them to know the men and women and events and ideas that have shaped this country.

I began thinking about this when I read there were teach-ins on our campuses, not very well attended events, according to what I've read--and little wonder. They fit an old paradigm when this country was involved in a war with which large numbers of Americans disagreed, in which many, rightly or wrongly, thought vital American interests were not at stake.  None of that applies now.  This is not a war in which we get to choose whether or not to fight.  Thousands of Americans were killed on the very first day of conflict here at home.  We don't have the luxury of not getting involved.

It's time for gatherings of a new kind, it seems to me, in which we remind ourselves of exactly what it is we are defending, in which we talk about exactly what it is we have at stake.   Let us talk to one another about freedom, asking, perhaps as a start, why the founders--Jefferson and Madison, in particular--were so determined that government would have no role in determining how people worship.  We might take the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom for our text.  Jefferson wrote it, Madison got it through the Virginia legislature.  In this remarkable time in which we live, any of us can get it off the internet and see that for Jefferson the issue was not just religious freedom, but intellectual freedom.  "Truth is great," he wrote, "and will prevail if left to herself.  She is the proper and sufficient antagonist to error, and has nothing to fear from the conflict, unless by human interposition [she is] disarmed of her natural weapons, free argument and debate."  Let us engage in conversations in which we explore how the clash of ideas has benefited this country and how the ability to follow a thought wherever it may lead has brought the flourishing of invention and business and art.

We might also meet to talk about valor and use as one of our resources the web site of the Congressional Medal of Honor Society.  There are so many stories of heroism on it, so many stories of men throwing themselves on grenades or exposing themselves to enemy fire in order to save those near them.  The honor roll of heroes is in the thousands now, but reading through it is a reminder of the enormous sacrifices that have been made for the sake of freedom.   And listen to just some of the names:  John Ortega, Joshua Chamberlain, Abraham Cohn, Daniel Inouye, Joseph Timothy O'Callahan, Joe Nishimoto, Mitchell Red Cloud, Jr., Riley Pitts, Roy Benavidez, Jack Jacobs, Gary Gordon, Randall Shughart.  Our liberty has depended on the valor of Americans whose forebears came from every part of the world.  Let us remember their bravery with awe and talk about the inspiration we should take from it, not just to be brave ourselves in the much smaller ways our lives are likely to demand, but also to recognize what they so h eroically illustrated: that great deeds are not the province of any particular race, creed, or class.  Let us talk about how our nation has grown better and stronger as this realization has become ever more central to our national life, and let us talk about the growing we still have to do.

I have been thinking of these gatherings as teach-ins for freedom, but they needn't take place just on campuses. Public libraries would be a good place for them--and so would homes.  Indeed, in their private lives millions of Americans have shown their hunger to know more about our nation's history.  They buy Stephen Ambrose's books. They watch TV series like the HBO production of Band of Brothers.   Edmund Morris's Theodore Rex is unlikely to make it onto many college or university reading lists, but books of this kind and their older equivalents--I think of Daniel Boorstin's The Americans--can be entryways into our nation's past for young adults as well as their parents.

In the weeks since September 11, I've had some very well-credentialed, relatively recent college graduates confess to me how little they know about American history.  "Is there a 'History for Dummies' book?" one asked, half-jokingly.  There may well be, but my recommendation would be to start with some of the thoughtful, well-written books that have received wide acclaim. David McCullough's John Adams would be first on my list for the amazing job McCullough does of simultaneously conveying the significance of Adams' accomplishments and the warmth of his humanity.

As for the children, let us continue the efforts to improve history instruction in our schools, but while we work on that, let us also tell them the stories that might otherwise go untold.  At our Thanksgiving table we talked to our grandchildren about the pilgrims and how hard it was to cross the ocean to an unfamiliar land and how the difficulty of their voyage was a measure of how much they wanted to worship God as they chose and have their children grow up in a way they thought was right.  At our Christmas table, we will, to be sure, talk about the baby born in Bethlehem and the angels who sang and the shepherds and kings who came to visit him.  But we will also remember George Washington and how, on a dark December 25th, he led his improbable army across an ice-choked river to give a people struggling for independence hope that they might one day be free.

Thank you very much, Professor George, for having me here this afternoon. James Madison told us, in words that I understand are now inscribed in Corwin Hall, that "a well-instructed people alone can be permanently a free people." The gatherings you have here at Princeton under the auspices of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions contribute to our instruction--and to our freedom.