June 30, 1999

When I was growing up, the Fourth of July was one of my favorite holidays. My brothers and I decorated our bikes with flags and crepe-paper streamers for the annual parade, which ended at the park. There, we indulged in hot dogs and ice cream cones. Back-yard barbecues in the evening were followed by grand fireworks displays.

Another timeless Fourth of July tradition finds citizens all across America gathered on village greens and courthouse steps to listen to these stirring words from the Declaration of Independence: "We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness."

The Declaration of Independence is one of our nation's most precious national treasures. It was on July 4, 1776 -- 223 years ago -- that the members of the Continental Congress gathered at the State House in Philadelphia and voted unanimously to adopt the Declaration. They set the colonies on a course that would lead them to become the greatest democracy in history.

The inspiring language of the Declaration serves to remind us that the rights we enjoy as citizens of the United States did not come without a struggle. Our democracy and our freedom -- as well as the privileges and responsibilities that go along with them -- were hard-fought and hard-won. We read these words each year so that we -- and future generations -- will never forget.
Today, visitors to the Rotunda of the National Archives in Washington can view the original Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights -- collectively known as the Charters of Freedom. Each of the pages is preserved in a sealed glass encasement filled with helium. Special filters screen out damaging ultraviolet light, and each night, the Charters are lowered into a reinforced concrete vault. But despite these precautions, state-of-the-art technology developed by NASA indicates that the cases are deteriorating, potentially threatening the documents within them.

Each year, more than a million people view the Charters, taking advantage of a unique opportunity to make a connection with our Founding Fathers and the profound legacy of freedom and responsibility they left us. If future generations are to have the same opportunity, these fragile documents must be preserved.

It was nearly two years ago, in the Rotunda of the National Archives, that the President and I announced our plans for the celebration of the new millennium -- a program that would bring Americans from every corner of the country together to honor our past and imagine our future. Last July, we stood in front of the Star-Spangled Banner at the Smithsonian Institution to kick off our Save America's Treasures program -- a public-private partnership to preserve the treasures that embody our heritage.

This week, we will return to the Archives, where we will announce one of the most important of these projects -- a plan to re-encase the Charters of Freedom and, with the generous support of the AT&T Corporation, to develop new exhibits and educational materials. The long-term plan includes an education center, a gallery, a family history center, restored Rotunda murals, a conference room and a new theater. Once the project is complete, more visitors than ever will be able to view the documents and gain a deeper understanding of their unique influence on our democracy.

But I hope they will also gain a greater appreciation of the influence these words have had on other nations. Just before I sat down to write this column, I participated by satellite in an extraordinary conference of political, civic and economic leaders -- all from new and emerging democracies. Hosted by the Republic of Yemen, the program was designed to provide a forum to discuss common hurdles, to highlight success stories and to encourage international commitment to the democratic reform process in these countries. The Republic of Yemen itself offers a remarkable success story. The poorest and most densely populated country on the Arabian peninsula, it has struggled with economic change, social unrest and debilitating poverty. Yet, against these odds, this small country is one of the most democratic countries in the Arab world.

Hard as it is to believe, in the 1970s, there were only 40 democracies in the world. Today, the people of 120 nations are engaged in building societies based on democratic principles. The Fourth of July is a uniquely American holiday, and I hope every American will celebrate with parades and fireworks, ice cream and hot dogs. But I also hope Americans will take this opportunity to wish the citizens of all the emerging democracies of the world success in their struggle for freedom and democracy.

I wish you all a happy Fourth of July.



April 29, 1997