On Wednesday 20th January 2021 Joe Biden will be sworn in as the 46th President of the United States. As a new president is inaugurated at the US Capitol, the seat of the legislative branch of the US federal government, we look back at the visits of American Presidents to the home of democracy in the United Kingdom, the Palace of Westminster.
With a shared history spanning many centuries, the United Kingdom and the United States have long been bound together in what has been coined a ‘special relationship’. Visits of US presidents to Parliament provide an opportunity to commemorate the history of this relationship and commit to its continued existence.
This blog was written by Alex Fisher, Archives Officer.
Since the Second World War, just three US Presidents have had the honour of addressing members of both Houses of Parliament; Ronald Reagan in 1982, Bill Clinton in 1995, and, most recently, Barack Obama in 2011.
Ronald Reagan - 8th June 1982
Just one year into his first term, President Reagan addressed both the House of Commons and House of Lords in the Royal Gallery.
The Royal Gallery, originally known as the Victoria Gallery, is a grand space, lined with portraits of past monarchs. As well as hosting addresses and receptions for visiting statesmen, the Royal Gallery has also witnessed trials of House of Lords Peers.
President Reagan used his address to Parliament to highlight the issues of the day, most notably the rise of totalitarianism and the Soviet Union. To counter this, he said that the democratic revolution that was gathering new strength must be nurtured and allowed to flourish.
“This is precisely our mission today: to preserve freedom as well as peace.”
Democracy and free elections he argued were at the very heart of this. Indeed, Reagan’s address came at a crucial moment in Britain’s history as the Falklands War raged on. Receiving some of the loudest applause of the night Reagan remarked “they fight for a cause, for the belief that armed aggression must not be allowed to succeed, and the people must participate in the decisions of government under the rule of law”.
Addresses also provide the opportunity to highlight the common threads that unite visitors and their hosts. Early in his speech Reagan remarked that this was “a moment of kinship, and homecoming in these hallowed halls”.
A full recording of President Reagan’s speech is available on YouTube, courtesy of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.
Bill Clinton – 29th November 1995
President Clinton’s visit to Parliament came during the tenure of John Major. In the photographs of his visit, which are held within the archives, President Clinton is captured walking through the Palace of Westminster accompanied by his wife, Hilary Clinton, and the Prime Minister. His audience in the Royal Gallery that day included former Prime Minster Margaret Thatcher and Major’s successor Tony Blair. The full album of photographs can be found via the digital archive link on the online catalogue.
Once again democracy was a central theme of President Clinton’s address.
“Ladies and gentlemen, in this century, democracy has not merely endured, it has prevailed. Now it falls to us to advance the cause that so many fought and sacrificed and died for. In this new era, we must rise, not in a call to arms, but in a call to peace.”
“Let us now resolve to stand together for the bright and shining prospect of the next century. It can be the age of possibility and the age of peace. Our forebears won the war. Let us now win the peace.”
The full text of President Clinton’s speech is available online via The John Major Archive.
President Clinton’s address in 1995 was not his first visit to Parliament, as he had previously visited the Palace of Westminster as a student at University College Oxford. He also later visited Parliament after his Presidency had come to an end. This time he was accompanied by Prime Minister Tony Blair and Nelson Mandela to celebrate the Rhodes Trust. Photographs of this visit to Westminster have been made available to view online via the digital archive.
Barack Obama – 25th May 2011
President Obama was the last President to address Parliament when he spoke to both Houses a decade ago. On that occasion, President Obama gave his address in Westminster Hall, rather than the Royal Gallery, an honour that had at that time only previously been granted to Charles de Gaulle and Nelson Mandela.
Echoing Reagan’s speech made three decades earlier President Obama began by noting the special relationship between the two countries and reinforcing its importance going forward.
‘I come here today to reaffirm one of the oldest, one of the strongest alliances the world has ever known’.
The President highlighted the achievements of the partnership in leading to the strengthening of sanctions imposed on Iran by America and the European Union. The importance and continued success of the NATO alliance was also celebrated against the backdrop of an ongoing battle against terrorism.
“And that is why we built an alliance that was strong enough to defend this continent while deterring our enemies. At its core, NATO is rooted in the simple concept of Article Five: that no NATO nation will have to fend on its own; that allies will stand by one another, always.”
Finally, President Obama touched on how the United States and the United Kingdom define themselves as nations, not by race or ethnicity but by shared ideals.
“The example of our two nations says it is possible for people to be united by their ideals instead of divided by their differences”.
It was on this message of hope and courage that the President concluded his speech.
“With courage and purpose, with humility and with hope, with faith in the promise of tomorrow, let us march straightforward together, enduring allies in the cause of a world that is more peaceful, more prosperous, and more just.”
President Obama’s full address is available via YouTube.
To mark the visit of President Obama, the Parliamentary Archives curated a display in the Royal Gallery to illustrate the gradual breakdown in relations between Britain and America in the period 1765 and 1778. Documents on display included:
- An Act for granting and applying certain Stamp Duties, and other Duties, in the British Colonies and Plantations in America, towards further defraying the Expences of defending, protecting and securing the same (the Stamp Act), 5 George III, c. 12, 1765 (HL/PO/PU/1/1765/5G3n11). A digital reproduction of this Act of Parliament is available to view online via the Parliamentary Archives catalogue.
- Petition against the Intolerable Acts, 11 May 1774 (HL/PO/JO/10/3/265B)
- Copy of the American Declaration of Independence of 4 July 1776, laid before the House of Lords on 20 January 1778 (HL/PO/JO/10/7/542A). A digital reproduction of the copy of the Declaration is available to view online via the catalogue.
Presidents Reagan, Bush and Obama are not the only Presidents to have visited Parliament since 1945. The archives hold several photographs of Richard Nixon from his visit to Parliament in February 1969. Taken by acclaimed photographer Gerald Pudsey, the photographs show President Nixon meeting Speaker of the House of Commons, Horace King, and other representatives. During the visit President Nixon signed the visitors book and stopped to view a painting of Winston Churchill.
Want to find out more?
If you are interested in finding out more about the records the Parliamentary Archives hold relating to visits of American Presidents to Parliament you can search our online catalogue.
House of Commons Library Briefing Paper – Addresses to members of both Houses of Parliament.
President Reagan’s address to Parliament, 8 June 1982. Recording courtesy of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.
President Clinton’s address to Parliament, 29th November 1995.
President Obama’s address to Parliament, 25th May 2011.