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Remarks by Mrs. Laura Bush at the “Spirit of Liberty: At Home, In The World”

October 19, 2017
Transcript of Mrs. Bush's remarks from October 19, 2017 at the "Spirit of Liberty: At Home, in the World," the Bush Institute’s national forum on freedom, free markets, and security. From Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York, New York.


Thank you, Ken.

Good morning, and welcome to today’s “The Spirit of Liberty.”

In 1944, a federal judge and judicial philosopher Judge Learned Hand delivered a speech in Central Park to over a million people on “I Am an American Day.” His remarks spoke directly to the 150,000 people in the audience who had just been sworn in as naturalized U.S. citizens.

He said, “We have gathered here to affirm a faith, a faith in a common purpose, a common conviction, a common devotion. Some of us have chosen America as the land of our adoption; the rest have come from those who did the same. What was the object that nerved us, or those who went before us, to this choice? We sought liberty - freedom from oppression, freedom from want, freedom to be ourselves.”

Behind me, just across Columbus Circle, is Central Park. Seventy-three years later, we are here to affirm that common faith that Learned Hand proclaimed.

Today, we’ll begin a conversation about how to strengthen our democracy at home, and help foster a new consensus that spreads freedom abroad.

Over the past century, the world has witnessed the transformative power of freedom around the world. In 1900, there were no true democracies. My mother was born before women achieved the right to vote, and only until the Voting Rights act of 1965 were restrictions on voting by African Americans finally lifted. Conditions began to change in what have been described as waves of transformation.

By the end of the 20th century, from Western Europe to Latin America to Asia and Africa, societies that had been ruled by military governments or dictators were choosing democracy. And communism collapsed almost completely.

Millions of people around the world no longer think of themselves as subjects but rather as citizens with rights. And that is a major accomplishment. This progress is a testament to the human spirit, to the sacrifices made by brave men and women who fight for freedom, and to those courageous individuals who continue this fight for freedom today.

George and I believe that freedom is the universal desire for all people. During our time in the White House, and now at the Bush Institute, George and I have met with dozens of dissidents and democracy advocates from every part of the world.

Despite their differences of history, culture, language, or religion, one thing is constant: a fundamental belief in the dignity of all human beings and their right to be free. These conversations have reminded me of the fragility of freedom, particularly in places where it is newly won.

Last year, Freedom House noted the 11th year of decline of freedom around the world. This is due to the use of more forceful tactics by authoritarian regimes and to a rise in global terrorism. We’ve seen populist and nationalist forces gain strength in democratic states. Even in the United States, which remains a beacon of freedom to others, Freedom House has raised concerns about signs of “erosion” that need attention.

Research shows that less than one-third of American students in grades four, eight, and twelve are “proficient” in civics – the knowledge of the American Constitutional system and the role of government and civil society in the lives of free people.

This trend is even more concerning when you consider that more than 1/3 of respondents in a recent Annenberg study could not name a single right protected by the First Amendment.

More than 30% of people surveyed couldn’t name a single branch of government.

We must prepare our children and grandchildren with the tools they need to be informed, engaged citizens who care about individual liberty and democracy.

We must teach them history. We must insist they understand the government they are blessed to live under. We must teach our children how to listen, to show empathy, to show civility in the face of disagreement, and to overcome malice and hate.  And, we must model the behavior ourselves.

This is the task of parents, teachers, and anyone who touches the lives of young people today. And, it’s our patriotic duty as Americans. 

This situation didn’t develop overnight; we’ve been neglecting to tell our nation’s story for years.  It will take time and effort to repair.

Two years ago, the Bush Institute released Freedom Matters!, a supplemental curriculum for high schoolers. Our goal with Freedom Matters! is simple: to foster the next generation of Americans—perhaps even a future President of the United States—to care about democracy and individual liberty at home and abroad.

Freedom Matters! is available online for anyone to download, free of charge.

The 16 lessons in Freedom Matters! combine the personal stories of dissidents and democracy advocates featured in the Bush Institute’s Freedom Collection with broader, universal concepts of freedom, rule of law, limited representative government, and the protection of basic human rights.

This is just one of the ways the Bush Institute is committed to developing a consensus about the value of freedom. We are grateful to work with partners on a new initiative. I’m thrilled to announce that, in collaboration with Freedom House and the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement, we are launching a major public opinion research study – a poll - that will help us learn how Americans feel about their democracy and what American’s believe their role is in spreading liberty abroad. The results of the poll will serve as a resource for others who share our commitment to democracy and freedom.

Grace Jo is a fine example of someone who is committed to spreading liberty worldwide. Grace came to the United States as a refugee from North Korea and she knows what life is like when freedom is absent.

As an inaugural recipient of the Bush Institute’s North Korea Freedom Scholarship, Grace wants to help other North Koreans trapped behind Pyongyang’s iron curtain. George and I are honored that she’s here today to share her story.

Please join me in welcoming Grace Jo.

Thank you.



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