HILL: The Declaration of Independence still inspires today

Former Polish President Lech Walesa addresses an audience at the Reagan Center for Public Affairs Conference on the Reagan Legacy at the Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, Calif. Monday, May 20, 1996. Walesa, who praised the former president, said Reagan's greatest legacy was to gather many admirers around him. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon)

The following is a speech by the Honorable Lech Walesa, first president and founding father of Poland, in Washington D.C., on June 4, 1996: 

Being here again brings back cherished memories of that day six years ago when, as we were all witnessing the end of the communist empire and of the Cold War, I had the honor of addressing a joint session of the United States Congress.  

It was one of those rare moments when we all felt that history was being made. There are indeed very few such great landmarks to one’s lifetime. But this was not the first time Poles and Americans shared such moments. It was two centuries ago when, by a historical coincidence, our ancestors both in America and in Poland were simultaneously experiencing momentous changes in the lives of their nations.  

America had just won her independence and in 1790 ratified a democratic constitution. A year later and an ocean away on May 3, the Polish Parliament also passed its own constitution, a grand design for modern political reform. 

There were striking similarities between them. The basic concept of the American Constitution, that the source of governmental power stems from the will of the people, was also embodied in the Polish one. Both stated the same basic objective: liberty and general welfare of the people.  

The Polish reformers were spiritually at home with the American founding fathers; they shared the same fundamental ideals.  

America was viewed as a model; it was certainly not an accident that Polish Reformer-King Stanislaw August had put a bust of George Washington in his study at the Warsaw Castle. And it was certainly not accidental that Polish volunteers participated in the American Revolution.  

But while the America envisaged by the founding fathers has become a great democracy and still governs itself by the same Constitution, Poland has spent most of the last two centuries relentlessly struggling to achieve among the nations of the earth that which your Declaration of Independence called “a separate and equal station to which laws of nature and Nature’s God entitle them.” 

I am not a historian, as you know, but sometimes I think that, perhaps, apart from the right ideals and stubborn resolve, nations need a bit of luck too. I would have liked fortune to have placed the Poland of the 1791 Constitution somewhere on the map of North America and not in the center of Europe, between autocratic and imperial Russia and Prussia. 

It was exactly 200 years ago that President George Washington was retiring. Having led a victorious fight against the imperial tyranny of Britain and ensured America’s independence, he could withdraw into the peace and tranquility of his beloved Mount Vernon. He cautioned that free people must always remain wary of potential threats, but he was convinced that what he called America’s “detached and distant position” offered hope that the republic would endure.  

As you well know, my country, inhabiting the heart of Europe, unfortunately, had not the luxury of such a “distant and detached position’’ over the past two centuries. The tough experiences of our history do not make a retirement in true peace of mind a very likely possibility for any leader.  

Perhaps that is why Poles love liberty as one loves a bride, but Americans love her more as a grandmother. 

But I believe that although we cannot affect fortune, we can and should help it. From 1989, liberty in Central Europe had been given a new, historic chance, a chance preceded by a very, very long and bitter struggle and, as such, deserving the needed nourishment of peace and security.  

We have before us a rare window of opportunity to help preserve both peace and freedom — and the former depends much on the latter — and ensure that it extends well into the 21st century. Just as the 18th-century constitutions opened a new epoch, the fall of totalitarianism in Europe offers a similar prospect today.  

But many a great battle in history had been ultimately lost due to a lack of follow-up by the victors to ensure a durable success. I strongly believe that this is such a moment requiring a follow-up in the form of providing NATO security to ensure the durability of the democratic revolutions of 1989.  

Only the United States has the power and authority today to lead towards this goal.  

I am particularly pleased that this cause has found much bipartisan support in the United States Congress. It gives me much faith and hope that the liberty for which so many have struggled for so long will be given the protection and opportunity it merits. 

I wish to thank you once again for your kind invitation and for your inestimable support now as in the past.