First Inaugural Address

James Buchanan

March 04, 1857

Fellow—Citizens:

I APPEAR before you this day to take the solemn oath “that I will
faithfully execute the office of President of the United States and
will to the best of my ability preserve, protect, and defend the
Constitution of the United States.”

In entering upon this great office I must humbly invoke the God of our
fathers for wisdom and firmness to execute its high and responsible
duties in such a manner as to restore harmony and ancient friendship
among the people of the several States and to preserve our free
institutions throughout many generations. Convinced that I owe my
election to the inherent love for the Constitution and the Union which
still animates the hearts of the American people, let me earnestly ask
their powerful support in sustaining all just measures calculated to
perpetuate these, the richest political blessings which Heaven has ever
bestowed upon any nation. Having determined not to become a candidate
for reelection, I shall have no motive to influence my conduct in
administering the Government except the desire ably and faithfully to
serve my country and to live in grateful memory of my countrymen.

We have recently passed through a Presidential contest in which the
passions of our fellow—citizens were excited to the highest degree by
questions of deep and vital importance; but when the people proclaimed
their will the tempest at once subsided and all was calm.

The voice of the majority, speaking in the manner prescribed by the
Constitution, was heard, and instant submission followed. Our own
country could alone have exhibited so grand and striking a spectacle of
the capacity of man for self—government.

What a happy conception, then, was it for Congress to apply this simple
rule, that the will of the majority shall govern, to the settlement of
the question of domestic slavery in the Territories. Congress is
neither “to legislate slavery into any Territory or State nor to
exclude it therefrom, but to leave the people thereof perfectly free to
form and regulate their domestic institutions in their own way, subject
only to the Constitution of the United States.”

As a natural consequence, Congress has also prescribed that when the
Territory of Kansas shall be admitted as a State it “shall be received
into the Union with or without slavery, as their constitution may
prescribe at the time of their admission.”

A difference of opinion has arisen in regard to the point of time when
the people of a Territory shall decide this question for themselves.

This is, happily, a matter of but little practical importance. Besides,
it is a judicial question, which legitimately belongs to the Supreme
Court of the United States, before whom it is now pending, and will, it
is understood, be speedily and finally settled. To their decision, in
common with all good citizens, I shall cheerfully submit, whatever this
may be, though it has ever been my individual opinion that under the
Nebraska—Kansas act the appropriate period will be when the number of
actual residents in the Territory shall justify the formation of a
constitution with a view to its admission as a State into the Union.
But be this as it may, it is the imperative and indispensable duty of
the Government of the United States to secure to every resident
inhabitant the free and independent expression of his opinion by his
vote. This sacred right of each individual must be preserved. That
being accomplished, nothing can be fairer than to leave the people of a
Territory free from all foreign interference to decide their own
destiny for themselves, subject only to the Constitution of the United
States.

The whole Territorial question being thus settled upon the principle of
popular sovereignty — a principle as ancient as free government itself
— everything of a practical nature has been decided. No other question
remains for adjustment, because all agree that under the Constitution
slavery in the States is beyond the reach of any human power except
that of the respective States themselves wherein it exists. May we not,
then, hope that the long agitation on this subject is approaching its
end, and that the geographical parties to which it has given birth, so
much dreaded by the Father of his Country, will speedily become
extinct? Most happy will it be for the country when the public mind
shall be diverted from this question to others of more pressing and
practical importance. Throughout the whole progress of this agitation,
which has scarcely known any intermission for more than twenty years,
whilst it has been productive of no positive good to any human being it
has been the prolific source of great evils to the master, to the
slave, and to the whole country. It has alienated and estranged the
people of the sister States from each other, and has even seriously
endangered the very existence of the Union. Nor has the danger yet
entirely ceased. Under our system there is a remedy for all mere
political evils in the sound sense and sober judgment of the people.
Time is a great corrective. Political subjects which but a few years
ago excited and exasperated the public mind have passed away and are
now nearly forgotten. But this question of domestic slavery is of far
graver importance than any mere political question, because should the
agitation continue it may eventually endanger the personal safety of a
large portion of our countrymen where the institution exists. In that
event no form of government, however admirable in itself and however
productive of material benefits, can compensate for the loss of peace
and domestic security around the family altar. Let every Union—loving
man, therefore, exert his best influence to suppress this agitation,
which since the recent legislation of Congress is without any
legitimate object.

It is an evil omen of the times that men have undertaken to calculate
the mere material value of the Union. Reasoned estimates have been
presented of the pecuniary profits and local advantages which would
result to different States and sections from its dissolution and of the
comparative injuries which such an event would inflict on other States
and sections. Even descending to this low and narrow view of the mighty
question, all such calculations are at fault. The bare reference to a
single consideration will be conclusive on this point. We at present
enjoy a free trade throughout our extensive and expanding country such
as the world has never witnessed. This trade is conducted on railroads
and canals, on noble rivers and arms of the sea, which bind together
the North and the South, the East and the West, of our Confederacy.
Annihilate this trade, arrest its free progress by the geographical
lines of jealous and hostile States, and you destroy the prosperity and
onward march of the whole and every part and involve all in one common
ruin. But such considerations, important as they are in themselves,
sink into insignificance when we reflect on the terrific evils which
would result from disunion to every portion of the Confederacy — to the
North, not more than to the South, to the East not more than to the
West. These I shall not attempt to portray, because I feel an humble
confidence that the kind Providence which inspired our fathers with
wisdom to frame the most perfect form of government and union ever
devised by man will not suffer it to perish until it shall have been
peacefully instrumental by its example in the extension of civil and
religious liberty throughout the world.

Next in importance to the maintenance of the Constitution and the Union
is the duty of preserving the Government free from the taint or even
the suspicion of corruption. Public virtue is the vital spirit of
republics, and history proves that when this has decayed and the love
of money has usurped its place, although the forms of free government
may remain for a season, the substance has departed forever.

Our present financial condition is without a parallel in history. No
nation has ever before been embarrassed from too large a surplus in its
treasury. This almost necessarily gives birth to extravagant
legislation. It produces wild schemes of expenditure and begets a race
of speculators and jobbers, whose ingenuity is exerted in contriving
and promoting expedients to obtain public money. The purity of official
agents, whether rightfully or wrongfully, is suspected, and the
character of the government suffers in the estimation of the people.
This is in itself a very great evil.

The natural mode of relief from this embarrassment is to appropriate
the surplus in the Treasury to great national objects for which a clear
warrant can be found in the Constitution. Among these I might mention
the extinguishment of the public debt, a reasonable increase of the
Navy, which is at present inadequate to the protection of our vast
tonnage afloat, now greater than that of any other nation, as well as
to the defense of our extended seacoast.

It is beyond all question the true principle that no more revenue ought
to be collected from the people than the amount necessary to defray the
expenses of a wise, economical, and efficient administration of the
Government. To reach this point it was necessary to resort to a
modification of the tariff, and this has, I trust, been accomplished in
such a manner as to do as little injury as may have been practicable to
our domestic manufactures, especially those necessary for the defense
of the country. Any discrimination against a particular branch for the
purpose of benefiting favored corporations, individuals, or interests
would have been unjust to the rest of the community and inconsistent
with that spirit of fairness and equality which ought to govern in the
adjustment of a revenue tariff.

But the squandering of the public money sinks into comparative
insignificance as a temptation to corruption when compared with the
squandering of the public lands.

No nation in the tide of time has ever been blessed with so rich and
noble an inheritance as we enjoy in the public lands. In administering
this important trust, whilst it may be wise to grant portions of them
for the improvement of the remainder, yet we should never forget that
it is our cardinal policy to reserve these lands, as much as may be,
for actual settlers, and this at moderate prices. We shall thus not
only best promote the prosperity of the new States and Territories, by
furnishing them a hardy and independent race of honest and industrious
citizens, but shall secure homes for our children and our children’s
children, as well as for those exiles from foreign shores who may seek
in this country to improve their condition and to enjoy the blessings
of civil and religious liberty. Such emigrants have done much to
promote the growth and prosperity of the country. They have proved
faithful both in peace and in war. After becoming citizens they are
entitled, under the Constitution and laws, to be placed on a perfect
equality with native—born citizens, and in this character they should
ever be kindly recognized.

The Federal Constitution is a grant from the States to Congress of
certain specific powers, and the question whether this grant should be
liberally or strictly construed has more or less divided political
parties from the beginning. Without entering into the argument, I
desire to state at the commencement of my Administration that long
experience and observation have convinced me that a strict construction
of the powers of the Government is the only true, as well as the only
safe, theory of the Constitution. Whenever in our past history doubtful
powers have been exercised by Congress, these have never failed to
produce injurious and unhappy consequences. Many such instances might
be adduced if this were the proper occasion. Neither is it necessary
for the public service to strain the language of the Constitution,
because all the great and useful powers required for a successful
administration of the Government, both in peace and in war, have been
granted, either in express terms or by the plainest implication.

Whilst deeply convinced of these truths, I yet consider it clear that
under the war—making power Congress may appropriate money toward the
construction of a military road when this is absolutely necessary for
the defense of any State or Territory of the Union against foreign
invasion. Under the Constitution Congress has power “to declare war,”
“to raise and support armies,” “to provide and maintain a navy,” and to
call forth the militia to “repel invasions.” Thus endowed, in an ample
manner, with the war—making power, the corresponding duty is required
that “the United States shall protect each of them [the States] against
invasion.” Now, how is it possible to afford this protection to
California and our Pacific possessions except by means of a military
road through the Territories of the United States, over which men and
munitions of war may be speedily transported from the Atlantic States
to meet and to repel the invader? In the event of a war with a naval
power much stronger than our own we should then have no other available
access to the Pacific Coast, because such a power would instantly close
the route across the isthmus of Central America. It is impossible to
conceive that whilst the Constitution has expressly required Congress
to defend all the States it should yet deny to them, by any fair
construction, the only possible means by which one of these States can
be defended. Besides, the Government, ever since its origin, has been
in the constant practice of constructing military roads. It might also
be wise to consider whether the love for the Union which now animates
our fellow—citizens on the Pacific Coast may not be impaired by our
neglect or refusal to provide for them, in their remote and isolated
condition, the only means by which the power of the States on this side
of the Rocky Mountains can reach them in sufficient time to “protect”
them “against invasion.” I forbear for the present from expressing an
opinion as to the wisest and most economical mode in which the
Government can lend its aid in accomplishing this great and necessary
work. I believe that many of the difficulties in the way, which now
appear formidable, will in a great degree vanish as soon as the nearest
and best route shall have been satisfactorily ascertained.

It may be proper that on this occasion I should make some brief remarks
in regard to our rights and duties as a member of the great family of
nations. In our intercourse with them there are some plain principles,
approved by our own experience, from which we should never depart. We
ought to cultivate peace, commerce, and friendship with all nations,
and this not merely as the best means of promoting our own material
interests, but in a spirit of Christian benevolence toward our
fellow—men, wherever their lot may be cast. Our diplomacy should be
direct and frank, neither seeking to obtain more nor accepting less
than is our due. We ought to cherish a sacred regard for the
independence of all nations, and never attempt to interfere in the
domestic concerns of any unless this shall be imperatively required by
the great law of self—preservation. To avoid entangling alliances has
been a maxim of our policy ever since the days of Washington, and its
wisdom’s no one will attempt to dispute. In short, we ought to do
justice in a kindly spirit to all nations and require justice from them
in return.

It is our glory that whilst other nations have extended their dominions
by the sword we have never acquired any territory except by fair
purchase or, as in the case of Texas, by the voluntary determination of
a brave, kindred, and independent people to blend their destinies with
our own. Even our acquisitions from Mexico form no exception. Unwilling
to take advantage of the fortune of war against a sister republic, we
purchased these possessions under the treaty of peace for a sum which
was considered at the time a fair equivalent. Our past history forbids
that we shall in the future acquire territory unless this be sanctioned
by the laws of justice and honor. Acting on this principle, no nation
will have a right to interfere or to complain if in the progress of
events we shall still further extend our possessions. Hitherto in all
our acquisitions the people, under the protection of the American flag,
have enjoyed civil and religious liberty, as well as equal and just
laws, and have been contented, prosperous, and happy. Their trade with
the rest of the world has rapidly increased, and thus every commercial
nation has shared largely in their successful progress.

I shall now proceed to take the oath prescribed by the Constitution,
whilst humbly invoking the blessing of Divine Providence on this great
people.

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