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Ceremony at Independence Hall : Reagan Says Constitution Changed World Forever

September 18, 1987|JAMES GERSTENZANG | Times Staff Writer

PHILADELPHIA — President Reagan, leading a nationwide celebration of the 200th anniversary of the U.S. Constitution, declared Thursday that the historic document profoundly and forever altered "not just these United States, but the world."

"In a very real sense, it was then, in 1787, that the revolution truly began," the 40th President of the United States said in an addressbefore Independence Hall. "For it was with the writing of our Constitution . . . that the hopes and dreams of the revolutionists could become a living, enduring reality."

Reagan, speaking from a podium erected in front of the red-brick building where the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776 and where the Constitutional Convention met 11 years later, looked back to the divisiveness that prevailed as the Founding Fathers struggled to reach the compromises that created the three branches of government.

It was the ideal of democracy, he said, "proclaimed so proudly in this hall a decade earlier, that enabled them to rise above politics and self-interest to transcend their differences and together create this document, this Constitution that would profoundly and forever alter, not just these United States, but the world."

Reagan's emotional address, punctuated by ringing bells and the flutters of freed doves overhead, was the highlight of the daylong ceremonies held in the Constitution's birthplace. The festivities in Philadelphia included a massive, $3.5-million parade that featured 30 floats, 20,000 marchers and 1,500 white doves, a spectacle witnessed by more than 250,000 people who turned out despite occasionally heavy rain.

Across the nation, millions of Americans paid tribute to the signing of the Constitution, holding celebrations ranging from a huge bell-ringing and balloon-flying fest in Santa Fe, N. M., to the unfurling of a 60-by-90-foot U.S. flag along the George Washington Bridge over the Hudson River. Later, bells were rung across the country in a 200-second salute.

But Philadelphia's celebration dwarfed all others. Its huge parade and presidential address were only two elements of 11 days of events that have included museum exhibits, a puppet show, religious services and dramatic performances.

The enormous procession, which began with a blast of Colonial artillery, featured marching bands playing instruments ranging from Colonial fifes to Dixieland trumpets. Also among the marchers were dozens of units depicting the life of the nation, from the craftsmen and patriots of Revolutionary times to the pin-striped business executives parodied by the Synchronized Briefcase Drill Team of Pasadena.

Selections of Americana in the parade included a 30-foot inflatable fish, representing "the one that got away"; former heavyweight boxing champion Joe Frazier on a float representing sports and recreation; Stars and Stripes, the yacht that won the America's Cup, and Soviet comedian Yakov Smirnoff.

Speaks as Rain Ends

The President, who spent but a few minutes at the festivities, interrupted the six-hour "We the People 200 Parade" to speak at Independence Hall just moments after a steady, drenching rain came to a halt and allowed the crowd to replace umbrellas with small American flags.

"If our Constitution has endured, through times perilous as well as prosperous, it has not been simply as a plan of government, no matter how ingenious or inspired that might be," he said. "This document that we honor today has always been something more to us, filled us with a deeper feeling than one of simple admiration--a feeling, one might say, more of reverence."

The address, made to several thousand Philadelphians, tourists and government officials, included a history lesson, recounting the labor of the Constitutional Convention in the sweltering summer of 1787, and an interpretation of the product: "Checks and balances, limited government--the genius of our constitutional system is its recognition that no one branch of government alone could be relied on to preserve our freedoms.

"The great safeguard of our liberty is the totality of the constitutional system, with no one part getting the upper hand--that is why the judiciary must be independent. And that is why it also must exercise restraint," Reagan said.

Two hours later, at a political fund-raiser for the reelection campaign of Sen. John Heinz (R-Pa.), the President interjected himself into the Senate's consideration of his nomination of federal appellate Judge Robert H. Bork to the Supreme Court, decrying "the high-pitched opposition" to his confirmation.

"Our critics have been proven wrong time and time again," Reagan said. "In the case of Judge Bork, the American people, I'm certain, are finding him to be intelligent, prudent, a firm believer in the Constitution and a strong defender of individual rights. I predict he will be confirmed by the Senate and, over his career on the Supreme Court, he will make great contributions to the American way of life."

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