July 15, 1998

In mid-August 1814, 5,000 British soldiers sailed up the Chesapeake Bay and burned Washington. Then, they turned toward Baltimore.

At dawn on Sept. 13, they attacked Fort McHenry. The bombardment lasted for 25 hours, but as dawn broke on the 14th, American troops hoisted a large flag, hailing their victory.

A young Washington lawyer named Francis Scott Key watched and waited through the long night, capturing the fierce battle in verse. His poem, "Defense of Fort McHenry," would become our National Anthem.

At the Smithsonian Institution this week, where the Star-Spangled Banner hangs, the President and I kicked off an old-fashioned bus, train and motorcar tour to Save America's Treasures. The 30-foot-by-34-foot flag remains a proud -- albeit tattered -- symbol of our young nation's fight for freedom. But if future generations are to thrill to the story it has to tell, it must be preserved.

The purpose of the tour is to spotlight 16 of America's treasures -- historic sites such as Fort McHenry in Baltimore, George Washington's Revolutionary War headquarters in Newburgh, N.Y., and Harriet Tubman's home in Auburn, N.Y. -- sites that must be preserved if they are to tell America's stories to future generations.

Each is a living textbook -- a glimpse into the past and a lesson for the future. James Madison (whose wife Dolley fled with an original copy of the Declaration of Independence before the British burned the White House) once wrote, "The origin and outset of the American Republic contain lessons which posterity ought not to be deprived." If we allow these sites and thousands of others like them to disappear, posterity will indeed be deprived of their lessons.

The Founding Fathers understood that times would change, that the country would face turns in the road and that the enduring mission of America would be "to form a more perfect union." With this simple understanding, they laid the foundation for this great nation, so that now, even as we strive to meet the challenges of the 21st century, every step on the road is grounded in the ideals and values of the past.

The final stop on this week's tour is the Women's Rights National Historical Park in Seneca Falls, N.Y., where the first Women's Rights Convention took place 150 years ago this week. Like the Star-Spangled Banner and Fort McHenry, this is a place with grand stories from the past and important lessons for the future.

Suffragist Elizabeth Cady Stanton lived here from 1847 to 1862. Here's a snippet of a letter she wrote to Susan B. Anthony: "Come here, and I will do what I can to help you with your address, if you will hold the baby and make the puddings." Stanton's home, her letters and even her pudding tins bring history alive and inform us along the road to the future.

While I'm in Seneca Falls, I'll join women from all over the country gathered to pay tribute to those on whose shoulders we stand today and to celebrate the fervor that led them to declare, 72 years after the Declaration of Independence was signed, "We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men and women are created equal ... "

We gather not only to honor the past but also to imagine the future -- to commit to a more perfect union for our daughters and granddaughters as they meet the challenges of the 21st century.

In a letter to her daughters, Stanton began: "Dear Maggie and Hattie, this is my first speech. It contains all I knew at that time. I give this manuscript to my precious daughters, in the hope that they will finish the work I have begun."

Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucretia Mott and Susan B. Anthony never lived to see the passage of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution. Only one woman who attended the Convention, Rhoda Palmer, ever cast a ballot. But their struggle was a gift to each of us.

Our history lives all around us -- in the flags that flew when our country's freedom was won, in the crumbling buildings and churches that housed the slaves crawling to freedom on the Underground Railroad, and in the kitchens of the women who fought for equal rights for all Americans.

From the Civil War monuments in Pennsylvania to the old mining towns in Colorado, every community in America is a repository of a little slice of history. And all of us -- from the kindergarten classroom to the corporate boardroom -- are its caretakers.