Guest Author: Heather Cox Richardson, Historian

President Joe Biden launched his reelection campaign with a speech at Montgomery County Community College in Blue Bell, Pennsylvania. He spoke after a visit to nearby Valley Forge, where General George Washington quartered his troops from December 1777 to June 1778 during the Revolutionary War in which the former colonies sought to establish their independence from Great Britain.

Biden began the speech by outlining what the soldiers in the Continental Army quartered at Valley Forge had fought for. “America made a vow,” Biden said. “Never again would we bow down to a king.”

A “ragtag army made up of ordinary people” fought for what Washington called “a sacred cause,” he said: “Freedom, liberty, democracy. American democracy.” Valley Forge, he said, “tells the story of the pain and the suffering and the true patriotism it took to make America.”

Three years ago, he said, when insurrectionists tried to stop the peaceful transfer of power on January 6, 2021, “we nearly…lost it all.”

“Today, we’re here to answer the most important of questions,” Biden said. “Is democracy still America’s sacred cause?… This is not rhetorical, academic or hypothetical. Whether democracy is still America’s sacred cause is the most urgent question of our time.”

“And it’s what the 2024 election is all about.”

Biden described Trump’s attack on American democracy and warned that “Donald Trump’s campaign is about him, not America, not you.” Biden remembered the “smashing windows, shattering doors, attacking the police” of January 6. He recalled the rioters erecting a gallows while the crowd chanted, “Hang Mike Pence,” hunting for then–House speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), and injuring more than 140 police officers.

Like the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol, Biden emphasized that while the whole world was watching the attack in horror and disbelief, and even as staff, family members, and Republican leaders pleaded with Trump to do something, the former president watched events unfold on the television in a little room off the Oval Office and “did nothing.”

Biden repeated the condemnation of former representative Liz Cheney (R-WY) when he called that refusal to act “among the worst derelictions of duty by a president in American history.”

The president went on to explain how Trump continued to lie that he had won the 2020 presidential election despite losing recounts and 60 court cases. For those lies, Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani was ordered last month to pay $148 million to election workers Ruby Freeman and Shaye Moss for defamation, and the Fox News Corporation agreed to pay $787 million to Dominion Voting Systems for lying that their machines had switched votes from Trump to Biden.

Then, when he had exhausted all his legal options, Trump urged his supporters to assault the Capitol. Since then, more than 1,200 people have been charged with crimes related to the events of that day; nearly 900 of them have pleaded guilty or been convicted.

Trump has called those insurrectionists “patriots” and has promised to pardon them if he is returned to office. But normalizing violence as part of our political system destroys the reasonable debate and peaceful transition of power that is at the heart of democracy. Biden identified this danger, warning: “Political violence is never, ever acceptable in the United States political system—never, never, never. It has no place in a democracy. None. You can’t be pro-insurrectionist and pro-American.”

Biden noted that Trump has promised to continue to assault democracy, threatening “a full-scale campaign of ‘revenge’ and ‘retribution’…for some years to come.” Trump has said he “would be a dictator on day one,” called for the “termination of all the rules, regulation, and articles, even those found in the U.S. Constitution,” and echoed the language used in Nazi Germany by calling those who oppose him “vermin” and talking about the blood of Americans being poisoned by immigrants.

“There’s no confusion about who Trump is and what he intends to do,” Biden said.

Immediately after January 6, 2021, “even Republican members of Congress and Fox News commentators publicly and privately condemned the attack,” he said. “But now…those same people have changed their tune…. [P]olitics, fear, money, all have intervened. And now these MAGA voices who know the truth about Trump on January 6th have abandoned the truth and abandoned democracy.”

“They made their choice,” Biden said. “Now the rest of us—Democrats, independents, mainstream Republicans—we have to make our choice. I know mine. And I believe I know America’s. We will defend the truth, not give in to the Big Lie. We’ll embrace the Constitution and the Declaration, not abandon it. We’ll honor the sacred cause of democracy, not walk away from it.”

“Today, I make this sacred pledge to you,” he said. “The defense, protection, and preservation of American democracy will remain, as it has been, the central cause of my presidency.”

“America, as we begin this election year, we must be clear,” Biden said. “Democracy is on the ballot. Your freedom is on the ballot.” “The alternative to democracy is dictatorship—the rule of one, not the rule of ‘We the People.’”

“Together, we can keep proving that America is still a country that believes in decency, dignity, honesty, honor, truth,” he said. “We still believe that no one, not even the President, is above the law…. [T]he vast majority of us still believe that everyone deserves a fair shot at making it. We’re still a nation that gives hate no safe harbor…. We still believe in ‘We the People,’ and that includes all of us, not some of us.”

In “that cold winter of 1777,” Biden said, referring back to the soldiers at Valley Forge, “George Washington and his American troops…waged a battle on behalf of a revolutionary idea that everyday people—like where I come from and the vast majority of you—…that everyday people can govern themselves without a king or a dictator.”

Americans “take charge of our destiny,” Biden said. “We get our job done with…the help of the people we find in America, who find their place in the changing world and dream and build a future that not only they but all people deserve a shot at.”

“This is the first national election since [the] January 6th insurrection placed a dagger at the throat of American democracy,” Biden said. “We all know who Donald Trump is. The question we have to answer is: Who are we? That’s what’s at stake. Who are we?”

And then he answered his own question, concluding with his characteristic faith in the American people. “After all we’ve been through in our history, from independence to Civil War to two world wars to a pandemic to insurrection,” he said, “I refuse to believe that, in 2024, we Americans will choose to walk away from what’s made us the greatest nation in the history of the world: freedom, liberty.”

“Democracy,” he said, “is still a sacred cause.”