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 Home > Mrs. Cheney

Office of Lynne Cheney
September 17, 2002

Mrs. Cheney’s Remarks at the Fairfax County Public Library Association
As Prepared
Fairfax County Public Library
Fairfax County, Virginia

It is a great pleasure to be here today at this event hosted by the Fairfax County Public Library Association.

I especially appreciate that kind introduction, Alice. People often have trouble figuring out what to call the wife of the vice president and I'm thinking you dodged that bullet rather well. I got a good suggestion along these lines from my four-year-old granddaughter not long ago. She was in California visiting her other grandparents. One of the disconcerting things you discover as a grandmother is that your grandchildren do have other grandparents they need to pay attention to. So Elizabeth--that's the four-year-old's name--was in California driving across the Oakland Bay Bridge with her mother. And her mother decided to tell her about her own visit to California as a child when a friend of mine and I, accompanied by children, drove across the Oakland Bay Bridge and ran out of gas. Now this story, illustrating the incompetence of adults, is exactly the kind of tale that little kids love, so my granddaughter was very interested, but since she was in California visiting the other grandmother she couldn't figure out exactly who the incompetent adult was. "You mean Grandma Julie?" she asked my daughter. "No," my daughter answered, "it was Grandma Lynne." Which still left the four-year-old puzzled because that's not what she calls me, but as my daughter described it, suddenly a light bulb went on. "Oh," said the four-year-old, "you mean the grandma of the United States." Now that's a pretty great title, isn't it?

Being a grandmother has made me focus more intensely than ever on children and especially on their need for an education that provides them essential knowledge and skills. They need to know how to read and do math. They need the basic skills that will help them to pursue knowledge in many fields.

And there is one course of study that I particularly want to make the case for tonight: the study of history and American history in particular. If we want our children to become responsible adults who find meaning in their lives then we need to help them understand that they are operating in a stream of time, that the choices that they have before them are in large part the result of choices others made yesterday, and that the choices they make will help determine decisions still others will make tomorrow. "We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny," Martin Luther King, Jr. once observed. Realizing that the network extends back in time as well as forward is part of leading a responsible life, part of understanding that deeds have consequences, some of them amazingly far-reaching.

Think how powerfully every one of us has been affected by the actions of a small, rather shy man named James Madison. Born 251 years ago into the energetic and horse-loving society of the Virginia Piedmont, he was not an athletic boy and probably spent a good deal of time in his younger years reading, first books at home and then in his schoolmaster's library. Early on, he learned the power of books to enlarge experience. He learned the power of the printed word to teach about times and places one could never otherwise know.

During his college years, spent at Princeton, Madison encountered more books that he had ever seen before and well-trained minds to test himself against. In a state of fine intellectual frenzy, he took a double class load and completed the required course of study in two years. After that he found an excuse to stay an extra six months, but finally, in 1772, at age twenty-one, he returned home.

Back in Virginia, he fell into deep depression. Some scholars speculate that it was brought on by a seizure, one that Madison thought was epileptic. Others suggest he was troubled by the death of a college friend. It may also have happened that he had trouble decompressing after Princeton. What use were his studies in history and philosophy, he may have asked himself as he considered his family's well-managed farm. What spur was there to probe deeper and learn more?

The American Revolution gave him in an all-absorbing purpose. He became a politician, though a more unlikely one is hard to imagine. He was small, no more than five and a half feet tall. He was shy and guarded around strangers. He was not a brilliant orator. But what he lacked in charisma, he made up for in brainpower--and in his willingness to study and prepare.

Once independence was won and the young country began to take stock of itself, many thoughtful people concluded that the Articles of Confederation did not provide a strong enough national government. As early as 1783, Madison began an intensive course of reading to assess the alternatives. He implored his friend Thomas Jefferson, then in Paris, to send him books. Jefferson responded by sending more than two hundred volumes across the Atlantic.

Madison read Plutarch, Polybius, and Montesquieu. He studied ancient governments and modern ones, and he pondered the lessons they taught: a republic was usually small, highly constricted in the area it covered. A republic was usually fragile, easy to tip over into despotism.

By the time of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Madison had arrived at a plan for a republic that might both extend and endure. His theories took form in the Virginia Plan, the plan that would become the basis for the convention's deliberations. Madison thus shaped the agenda for the delegates and then went on to steer their debates, speaking more than 160 times, "always . . . the best informed man at any point," one of his fellow delegates wrote. Two hundred and fifteen years ago today, on September 17, 1787, the United States Constitution, a document that Madison, more than any other person, was responsible for, was signed in Philadelphia.

Douglass Adair, a scholar of the founding period, called the course of study that Madison undertook before the Constitutional Convention "probably the most fruitful piece of scholarly research ever carried out by an American." It is a fair assessment, a modest one even. The Constitution, bearing Madison's mark more than any other's, was crucial not just to this country, but to the history of the world. Nation after nation would use our Constitution as a model. Nation after nation would look to the freedom that our Constitution makes possible for inspiration in their own struggles for liberty.

The astonishing thing about Madison's influence is that he exercised it without ever traveling very far from where he was born. He never saw Europe. He never saw most of this continent. If one were to draw a rectangle six or seven hundred miles long and four or five hundred miles wide, it would encompass entirely the area of which Madison had first-hand knowledge.

Within that rectangle, he was born, lived, and died. And from within it, using books as his lever, he managed to move the world.

Stories like Madison's--and our history has an abundance of them--should be familiar to our children. They should know about the founders and understand the ideas and ideals on which our country is built.

And they should know about other men and women who have made our country what it is. They should know the story of a man who was born in 1818, shortly after James Madison's second term as president ended. Born into slavery, this man was separated from his mother while he was still an infant. She died when he was very young, but as an adult he remembered that a few times she had walked many miles from a distant farm to which she had been sent so that she could spend a few hours with him before he went to sleep. And then she would walk back the many miles so that she could be in the fields at sunrise. He had harsh masters, but also, when he was very young, a kind mistress who taught him his letters. When her husband discovered what she was doing he forbade her to continue on the grounds that education would "unfit" the little boy, whose name was Frederick Bailey, for life as a slave. But Frederick would not be stopped. He made friends with the white youngsters he encountered in the streets while he was running errands, and he converted them into teachers. He got hold of the Columbian Orator, a textbook of the time, and read it again and again. He practiced writing on fences and walls and on the pavement and in the spaces left in the copybook of a white child in the household.

By the time Frederick Bailey had reached young manhood and escaped to the North, he was capable of great eloquence. He took a new name--Frederick Douglass--and with powerful speeches setting forth the outrages that he and others he knew had suffered, he brought home the cruel truths of slavery. Frederick Douglass did what American heroes have often done. He pointed out that we had fallen short of our founding ideals and helped set us on a path toward being a better country.

Or consider a contemporary of Douglass's, a woman whose life was animated by the quest for justice. Born into a wealthy family in New York, she had five sisters and five brothers. But children often died young in the nineteenth century and only one of her brothers survived to adulthood. When he died at the age of twenty, the father of the family was devastated, and the girl, Elizabeth, remembered her whole life crawling onto his lap and trying to comfort him. "At length," she wrote years later, "he heaved a deep sigh and said, 'Oh, my daughter, I wish you were a boy!'" And to her grieving father she replied, "I will try to be all my brother was."

And she did exactly that. "She succeeded in what were then considered masculine fields," her biographer Elisabeth Griffith observes. "She won second place in the Johnstown Academy Greek competition, she learned to jump four-foot fences, and she became a skilled debater." But rather than being pleased, her father began to worry. In his eyes--and in the eyes of the world at the time--she was becoming entirely too good at undertakings that were suitable only for males.

And so Elizabeth Cady Stanton decided to change the world, and she had the intellect and analytical skills to do it. For fifty years she was the driving force behind the movement to improve the lot of American women. She argued, among other things, for property rights, the right to attend college, the right to participate in athletics, and the right to vote. She spoke and wrote and agitated, and, I should note, raised seven children. And although she died before all her ambitions for women were realized--American women's right to vote would not be recognized until nearly two decades after her death--Elizabeth Cady Stanton, like Frederick Douglass, moved the country along the path to justice.

Our country's history is full of stories of men and women working to make our country great and greater still. Our children should know these stories so that they can take up the task of making America a place where every person fully experiences his or her God-given rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

And notice the other lesson to be taken away from the lives of James Madison, Frederick Douglass, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and so many other Americans, and that is the crucial role that knowledge plays in a life of leadership. People who have improved the world have generally used the tools that education provides in order to build a better society. If schools were forbidden or non-existent or limited, these men and women took up their own education because they understood that knowledge is not only necessary for daily life, but crucial for those who would change minds and win hearts. This, surely, is an important lesson for our children.

We are not, unfortunately, doing a very good job of conveying America's story to the next generation. The recently released study by the National Assessment of Educational Progress made that point. Fifty-seven percent of high-school seniors scored below basic on the U.S. history exam, meaning that a solid majority of students could not identify the significance of important people, places, documents and ideas in American history. A survey a few years ago of seniors at elite colleges and universities was equally grim. Only one out of five was familiar with the words of the Gettysburg Address. Significant numbers of students thought that Ulysses S. Grant was a general in the Revolutionary War. In a survey taken at the time of the bicentennial of the Constitution, only one percent of respondents could identify Madison as the man who played the biggest role in the writing of the Constitution. Thirty-one percent, in fact, picked Thomas Jefferson, who was in France at the time of the Constitutional Convention.

A West Virginia history professor has published a collection of history as some college students tell it. One student writes about "John F. Kennedy working closely with the Russians to solve the Canadian Missile Crisis." Another writes about "Martin Luther Junior's famous 'If I had a hammer speech.'" Another writes that "Stalin, Roosevelt, Churchill and Truman were known as the 'Big Three.'"

There are policy implications here, and I was very proud to be in the Rose Garden at the White House this morning as the President announced a new initiative that will encourage the teaching and appreciation of American history. The initiative will put increased government funding behind such important projects as seminars that will give teachers opportunities to know more about the great figures and events in the American story. This is a worthy undertaking, fitting well this president's commitment to America's schools. I was reminded again what an honor it is to have family connections to his administration.

But passing along our nation's history is not solely a matter for government. As parents, teachers, and caring adults, we ought to take it upon ourselves to educate ourselves about the story of this nation so that we can tell it to the children in our lives. And all of you here tonight deserve thanks for aiding us in this effort. The libraries you support make available the wonderful biographies and histories that are being written about America's past, and we ought, all of us, not just borrow them, but absorb them so we can pass along their stories to the next generation and the next.

I can testify that the teacher will benefit as much from this task as will the taught. Not long ago, my eight-year-old granddaughter and I were reading a children's book about American history. It was, in the interests of full disclosure let me confess, America: A Patriotic Primer, the book that I recently published. And as we were looking at the page about the Declaration of Independence, my granddaughter Kate read a quote from Thomas Paine that appears in a banner on that page. "We have it in our power," so the quotation goes, "to begin the world over again." Paine's words, which did so much to spur the American colonies to seek independence, were, for my granddaughter an introduction to how remarkable was the endeavor that we began in this country more than two centuries ago. For me, her child's voice reading those words brought home anew the importance of keeping that endeavor prospering so that she and her children and her children's children can continue the work of perfecting this wonderful and amazing country of ours.

Thank you for having me here this evening.