Remarks to the Winners of the 1987 Elementary School Essay Project on the Constitution

June 1, 1987

The President. Well, welcome to the White House, and congratulations to the special representatives of the 1987 Elementary School Essay Project. It could be said that each of you boys and girls here is just about one in a million, because that's how many children entered the Elementary School Essay Project -- more than a million. And the judges tell me they read countless outstanding essays, but yours, well, they just stood out just a little bit above all the rest. And that's why you're here. So again, congratulations. I know you and your parents and teachers and principals are proud, and you deserve to be.

You know, Thomas Jefferson once wrote a friend to say that our Constitution represented ``unquestionably, the wisest ever yet presented to men.'' Well, right about here, you probably think I'm going to say there's no truth to the rumor that I was the friend he was writing the letter to. [Laughter] But history has certainly borne out Mr. Jefferson's judgment. Through two centuries now, our Constitution has proven a source of strength, stability, and unerring wisdom, serving longer than any other written constitution in the world. Think of that: Young as our country is, we're really, though, the oldest republic in the world. I know that, what with some of the budget bills, Presidents have days when they think the Constitution created one branch of government too many. But seriously, the Constitution has blessed us with what I have to believe is the finest Government in history.

Of course, as President, I find that the Constitution is part of my daily life. It's the Constitution that established the Office of the President of the United States. And it's the Constitution that sets forth my responsibilities at home and abroad, the Constitution that guides my dealings with the Congress, the judiciary, and the members of my Cabinet, like Secretary Bennett.

At the same time, the Constitution plays a part in guiding each of your lives. You see, when the Founding Fathers met in Philadelphia to draft that document, they were thinking of the future. They were thinking of the kind of country they wanted to leave for their children and their children's children. They wanted their sons and daughters to grow up in a land that was safe for people of all religious faiths, a land where they would be free to speak their minds and shape their own lives, a land where all would be free.

We're all heirs to the Constitution; we're all the Constitution's children. Being the heirs to the Constitution is our good fortune, but it also places upon us a responsibility: the responsibility to nurture and defend this country so that, when our turn comes, we, too, can pass on to our children a nation of greatness and freedom. And maybe that's the most important part of all that you've learned in studying and writing about the Constitution. You have taken the first step toward shouldering your responsibilities as citizens of our country, the country that you will one day lead.

So, congratulations to all of you once again! And to all your teachers and parents, you all look so happy and proud -- don't go busting any buttons. Just God bless you all.

Secretary Bennett. Thank you very much, Mr. President. We thought, since all these children did so much homework and they represent the homework of more than a million children, we ought to give you, just very briefly, a little sample of the work. So, I'd like to call on two of the Constitution's children to read some remarks, their essays, little essays, they wrote.

First, Wanda Nichols, who's an eighth grader from North Carolina. Wanda, will you step up?

Wanda Nichols. As a young, individualistic, black citizen, this magnificent document means so much to me. The Constitution and its Bill of Rights have given me a distinct and honorable place in a democratic society. I am a respected human being, although I happen to belong to a minority. I can do what I please within the limits of the law. It has granted me rights and freedoms to pursue my human goals and aspirations. Freedom of worship has reinforced and nourished my belief in God and consideration to fellow man. Freedom of speech and of the press have given me the tools to speak out in a positive way, because I am more informed. These constitutional rights have made me a true believer in equal justice and equal opportunity.

To me, the Constitution is like a beautiful and talented lady. She is charming, but unyielding to the onslaughts of bigotry. She is rigid, but flexible. She changes her mood according to the way our society sees change. Yet I am not afraid to face changes, because she is there to guard my identity and human worth. Thank you.

Secretary Bennett. Thank you, Wanda.

Mr. President, representing the first, second, third, and fourth grades, we have Mr. Justin Swope, from the State of Maryland, a second grader.

Justin?

Justin Swope. On July 4th, 1976, our country celebrated our 200th birthday. I wasn't born until 1978, so I missed that celebration. However, on September 17th, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, we will celebrate the birthday of our Constitution. The Constitution is having its 200th birthday, and I want to be there.

The Constitution is important to me. It lets me go to my church. No one is allowed in my house without my permission. I can say anything I want when I get big. I even get to vote for our leaders, and maybe I'll be one. I think our country is lucky we have the Constitution. We all pay taxes to help build roads, schools, parks, courts, and we pay police, firemen, but most important, good leaders. They make the laws we must live by in America. I think the men who wrote the Constitution in 1787 were pretty smart. I'm glad we have the Constitution. I love living in America.

Secretary Bennett. Thatta boy!

The President. I know it's time to let you all get in the shade now, which you'll appreciate it. But just in closing, to all of these children here, you here in Washington, and you've seen, I'm sure, the Capitol, or are going to see, if you haven't already, and some of the great institutions and the buildings of government, but there's one thing that you all must know while you're looking at all of us: We all work for you. You're the boss. And I said in a State of the Union Address some time ago something I'm going to repeat here to all of you, because you probably weren't listening at the time. [Laughter]

As you go on in school, you're probably going to see constitutions in your studies of other countries. I've read a number of constitutions from other nations, even including the Soviet Union. And I'm surprised to find things in there that sound like ours: the right of assembly, the right to do this or that. And you think, well, they seem similar, but there is one great difference. And the difference is so tiny that it's almost overlooked, but it is so great that it spells the difference between all those constitutions and ours. All those other constitutions are written by the government, telling the people what they can do. Our Constitution is written by the people, telling the Government what it can do. And the whole difference is the phrase in our Constitution: ``We the People . . .'' So, when you're looking around here today, why, if you see anything that needs correcting, let us know; you're the boss.

Thank you all very much. Congratulations again.

Note: The President spoke at 11:45 a.m. in the Rose Garden at the White House. In his remarks, he referred to Secretary of Education William J. Bennett.