Independence Day 2008 — like July 4, 1826, and July 4, 1831 — will long be remembered as a very special day in the history of American Independence.
On the Fourth of July in 1826, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson — Founding Fathers and presidents — both died. On the Fourth of July in 1831 James Monroe — primary author of the Constitution — died. And on the Fourth of July 2008, another great American patriot — Jesse Helms — passed away at the age of 86.
Starting in 1972, Helms served for 30 years in the Senate. He was a staunch conservative voice during a restive time in American politics. Helms proudly earned the nickname “Senator No” because he was adept at using the Senate’s rules to block bad legislation.
Helms wasn’t afraid to stand alone for what was right, even if his opinion wasn’t always in line with that of his fellow elected officials. “I did not come to Washington to win a popularity contest,” he noted once while filibustering a bill. He did come to Washington to win policy disputes, and usually succeeded.
One way he did so was to slow down the legislative process when other lawmakers were racing to pass a bad measure. Time, after all, often showed Helms had been right all along.
For example, during the 1990s Helms led the fight to reduce the amount the U.S. paid to support the United Nations. Even though Washington provided an astounding 25 percent of the U.N.’s budget, bureaucrats at the world body wanted ever more, and diplomats around the globe accused the U.S. of being stingy.
Helms insisted that our share of the U.N. budget be reduced, and also demanded that it undertake vital reforms. Because of his hard work and willingness to stand alone, the U.S. reached a compromise and the U.N. was forced to (slightly) pare back its free-spending ways and deal with some of its shortcomings.
Throughout his career, Helms also worked to bring his conservative ideas to a national stage.
He also was an early supporter of Ronald Reagan. During the 1976 primaries, Reagan’s candidacy was struggling against incumbent Gerald Ford. But Helms threw his support behind Reagan, and worked to put the state of North Carolina in the Reagan camp.
That surprising upset victory energized Reagan’s campaign, giving him enough momentum to remain in the race all the way to the party convention and setting the stage for his eventual nomination in 1980.
In 1984, with conservative ideas on the rise nationwide, Helms explained the source of his conservative views.
“I came up between the two world wars during the Depression,” he told reporters. “All the people around me emphasized working and savings and personal responsibility. They spelled out in one way or another the uniqueness of America. This has largely been lost. Nobody would have thought of turning to the government to solve all our problems.”
During three decades of national service, Jesse Helms did as much as anyone could to put America back on the right path — the path he remembered from his youth and the path that made our country great. Upon his retirement from the Senate in 2002, the Heritage Foundation was proud to award the senator our highest honor, the Clare Boothe Luce Award, for his service to our country.
His leadership will be missed, but his legacy will live on as long as Americans celebrate Independence Day.
– Ed Feulner is president of the Heritage Foundation.