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As we do every time this year, Presidents and Prime Ministers converge on this great city to advance important work. But as leaders, we are not the most important people here today. It is the civil society leaders who, in many ways, are going to have the more lasting impact, because as the saying goes, the most important title is not president or prime minister; the most important title is citizen. It is citizens — ordinary men and women, determined to forge their own future — who throughout history have sparked all the great change and progress.
Freedom has given us the control of 200,000 able bodied men, born and raised on southern soil. It will give us more yet. Just so much it has subtracted from the strength of our enemies, and instead of alienating the south from us, there are evidences of a fraternal feeling growing up between our own and rebel soldiers. My enemies condemn my emancipation policy. Let them prove by the history of this war, that we can restore the Union without it.
Sometimes the most important changes start in small places. The tides of history can leave people in conflict and exile and poverty. It takes time for those circumstances to change. But the recognition of a common humanity, the reconciliation of people bound by blood and a belief in one another — that's where progress begins. Understanding, and listening, and forgiveness.
Without any coherent national organisation to repel from the land on which they had settled the ever-unknowable descents from the seas, the Saxons, now for four centuries entitled to be deemed the owners of the soil, very nearly succumbed completely to the Danish inroads. That they did not was due—as almost every critical turn of historic fortune has been due—to the sudden apparition in an era of confusion and decay of one of the great figures of history.
Ye who listen with credulity to the whispers of fancy, and pursue with eagerness the phantoms of hope; who expect that age will perform the promises of youth, and that the deficiencies of the present day will be supplied by the morrow; attend to the history of Rasselas, Prince of Abyssinia.
So progress is not inevitable. History does not always march forward. History can travel sideways and sometimes backwards. Building trust after years of conflict takes time. Being able to look past the scars of violence takes courage. Securing the gains of freedom and democracy requires good faith and strength of will, and tolerance and respect for diversity, and it requires vigilance from all citizens. The American people know well that rights and freedoms are not given; they have to be won through struggle and through discipline, and persistence and faith. And it's often young people who have led these struggles; who have compelled us to slowly but surely perfect our own union in America over time.
With respect to modern languages, French, as I have before observed, is indispensible. Next to this the Spanish is most important to an American. Our connection with Spain is already important and will become daily more so. Besides this the antient part of American history is written chiefly in Spanish.
That is the key to history. Terrific energy is expended - civilizations are built up - excellent institutions devised; but each time something goes wrong. Some fatal flaw always brings the selfish and cruel people to the top, and then it all slides back into misery and ruin. In fact, the machine conks. It seems to start up all right and runs a few yards, and then it breaks down.
And in fact, at every moment of economic change throughout our history, this country has taken bold action to adapt to new circumstances and to make sure everyone gets a fair shot. We set up worker protections, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid to protect ourselves from the harshest adversity. We gave our citizens schools and colleges, infrastructure and the Internet — tools they needed to go as far as their effort and their dreams will take them. That's what middle-class economics is — the idea that this country does best when everyone gets their fair shot, everyone does their fair share, everyone plays by the same set of rules. We don't just want everyone to share in America's success, we want everyone to contribute to our success.
All the entertainment and talk of history is nothing almost but fighting and killing: and the honour and renown that is bestowed on conquerers (who for the most part are but the great butchers of mankind) farther mislead growing youth, who by this means come to think slaughter the laudible business of mankind, and the most heroick of virtues. By these steps unnatural cruelty is planted in us; and what humanity abhors, custom reconciles and recommends to us, by laying it in the way to honour. Thus, by fashioning and opinion, that comes to be a pleasure, which in itself neither is, nor can be any.
When over long periods of human history I scrutinized the activity of the Jewish people, suddenly there arose up in me the fearful question whether inscrutable Destiny, perhaps for reasons unknown to us poor mortals, did not, with eternal and immutable resolve, desire the final victory of this little nation.