First Inaugural Address (1797)

No study questions

WHEN it was first perceived, in early times, that no middle course for
America remained between unlimited submission to a foreign legislature
and a total independence of its claims, men of reflection were less
apprehensive of danger from the formidable power of fleets and armies
they must determine to resist than from those contests and dissensions
which would certainly arise concerning the forms of government to be
instituted over the whole and over the parts of this extensive country.
Relying, however, on the purity of their intentions, the justice of
their cause, and the integrity and intelligence of the people, under an
overruling Providence which had so signally protected this country from
the first, the representatives of this nation, then consisting of
little more than half its present number, not only broke to pieces the
chains which were forging and the rod of iron that was lifted up, but
frankly cut asunder the ties which had bound them, and launched into an
ocean of uncertainty.

The zeal and ardor of the people during the Revolutionary war,
supplying the place of government, commanded a degree of order
sufficient at least for the temporary preservation of society. The
Confederation which was early felt to be necessary was prepared from
the models of the Batavian and Helvetic confederacies, the only
examples which remain with any detail and precision in history, and
certainly the only ones which the people at large had ever considered.
But reflecting on the striking difference in so many particulars
between this country and those where a courier may go from the seat of
government to the frontier in a single day, it was then certainly
foreseen by some who assisted in Congress at the formation of it that
it could not be durable.

Negligence of its regulations, inattention to its recommendations, if
not disobedience to its authority, not only in individuals but in
States, soon appeared with their melancholy consequences — universal
languor, jealousies and rivalries of States, decline of navigation and
commerce, discouragement of necessary manufactures, universal fall in
the value of lands and their produce, contempt of public and private
faith, loss of consideration and credit with foreign nations, and at
length in discontents, animosities, combinations, partial conventions,
and insurrection, threatening some great national calamity.

In this dangerous crisis the people of America were not abandoned by
their usual good sense, presence of mind, resolution, or integrity.
Measures were pursued to concert a plan to form a more perfect union,
establish justice, insure domestic tranquillity, provide for the common
defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of
liberty. The public disquisitions, discussions, and deliberations
issued in the present happy Constitution of Government.

Employed in the service of my country abroad during the whole course of
these transactions, I first saw the Constitution of the United States
in a foreign country. Irritated by no literary altercation, animated by
no public debate, heated by no party animosity, I read it with great
satisfaction, as the result of good heads prompted by good hearts, as
an experiment better adapted to the genius, character, situation, and
relations of this nation and country than any which had ever been
proposed or suggested. In its general principles and great outlines it
was conformable to such a system of government as I had ever most
esteemed, and in some States, my own native State in particular, had
contributed to establish. Claiming a right of suffrage, in common with
my fellow-citizens, in the adoption or rejection of a constitution
which was to rule me and my posterity, as well as them and theirs, I
did not hesitate to express my approbation of it on all occasions, in
public and in private. It was not then, nor has been since, any
objection to it in my mind that the Executive and Senate were not more
permanent. Nor have I ever entertained a thought of promoting any
alteration in it but such as the people themselves, in the course of
their experience, should see and feel to be necessary or expedient, and
by their representatives in Congress and the State legislatures,
according to the Constitution itself, adopt and ordain.

Returning to the bosom of my country after a painful separation from it
for ten years, I had the honor to be elected to a station under the new
order of things, and I have repeatedly laid myself under the most
serious obligations to support the Constitution. The operation of it
has equaled the most sanguine expectations of its friends, and from an
habitual attention to it, satisfaction in its administration, and
delight in its effects upon the peace, order, prosperity, and happiness
of the nation I have acquired an habitual attachment to it and
veneration for it.

What other form of government, indeed, can so well deserve our esteem
and love?

There may be little solidity in an ancient idea that congregations of
men into cities and nations are the most pleasing objects in the sight
of superior intelligences, but this is very certain, that to a
benevolent human mind there can be no spectacle presented by any nation
more pleasing, more noble, majestic, or august, than an assembly like
that which has so often been seen in this and the other Chamber of
Congress, of a Government in which the Executive authority, as well as
that of all the branches of the Legislature, are exercised by citizens
selected at regular periods by their neighbors to make and execute laws
for the general good. Can anything essential, anything more than mere
ornament and decoration, be added to this by robes and diamonds? Can
authority be more amiable and respectable when it descends from
accidents or institutions established in remote antiquity than when it
springs fresh from the hearts and judgments of an honest and
enlightened people? For it is the people only that are represented. It
is their power and majesty that is reflected, and only for their good,
in every legitimate government, under whatever form it may appear. The
existence of such a government as ours for any length of time is a full
proof of a general dissemination of knowledge and virtue throughout the
whole body of the people. And what object or consideration more
pleasing than this can be presented to the human mind? If national
pride is ever justifiable or excusable it is when it springs, not from
power or riches, grandeur or glory, but from conviction of national
innocence, information, and benevolence.

In the midst of these pleasing ideas we should be unfaithful to
ourselves if we should ever lose sight of the danger to our liberties
if anything partial or extraneous should infect the purity of our free,
fair, virtuous, and independent elections. If an election is to be
determined by a majority of a single vote, and that can be procured by
a party through artifice or corruption, the Government may be the
choice of a party for its own ends, not of the nation for the national
good. If that solitary suffrage can be obtained by foreign nations by
flattery or menaces, by fraud or violence, by terror, intrigue, or
venality, the Government may not be the choice of the American people,
but of foreign nations. It may be foreign nations who govern us, and
not we, the people, who govern ourselves; and candid men will
acknowledge that in such cases choice would have little advantage to
boast of over lot or chance.

Such is the amiable and interesting system of government (and such are
some of the abuses to which it may be exposed) which the people of
America have exhibited to the admiration and anxiety of the wise and
virtuous of all nations for eight years under the administration of a
citizen who, by a long course of great actions, regulated by prudence,
justice, temperance, and fortitude, conducting a people inspired with
the same virtues and animated with the same ardent patriotism and love
of liberty to independence and peace, to increasing wealth and
unexampled prosperity, has merited the gratitude of his
fellow-citizens, commanded the highest praises of foreign nations, and
secured immortal glory with posterity.

In that retirement which is his voluntary choice may he long live to
enjoy the delicious recollection of his services, the gratitude of
mankind, the happy fruits of them to himself and the world, which are
daily increasing, and that splendid prospect of the future fortunes of
this country which is opening from year to year. His name may be still
a rampart, and the knowledge that he lives a bulwark, against all open
or secret enemies of his country’s peace. This example has been
recommended to the imitation of his successors by both Houses of
Congress and by the voice of the legislatures and the people throughout
the nation.

On this subject it might become me better to be silent or to speak with
diffidence; but as something may be expected, the occasion, I hope,
will be admitted as an apology if I venture to say that if a
preference, upon principle, of a free republican government, formed
upon long and serious reflection, after a diligent and impartial
inquiry after truth; if an attachment to the Constitution of the United
States, and a conscientious determination to support it until it shall
be altered by the judgments and wishes of the people, expressed in the
mode prescribed in it; if a respectful attention to the constitutions
of the individual States and a constant caution and delicacy toward the
State governments; if an equal and impartial regard to the rights,
interest, honor, and happiness of all the States in the Union, without
preference or regard to a northern or southern, an eastern or western,
position, their various political opinions on unessential points or
their personal attachments; if a love of virtuous men of all parties
and denominations; if a love of science and letters and a wish to
patronize every rational effort to encourage schools, colleges,
universities, academies, and every institution for propagating
knowledge, virtue, and religion among all classes of the people, not
only for their benign influence on the happiness of life in all its
stages and classes, and of society in all its forms, but as the only
means of preserving our Constitution from its natural enemies, the
spirit of sophistry, the spirit of party, the spirit of intrigue, the
profligacy of corruption, and the pestilence of foreign influence,
which is the angel of destruction to elective governments; if a love of
equal laws, of justice, and humanity in the interior administration; if
an inclination to improve agriculture, commerce, and manufacturers for
necessity, convenience, and defense; if a spirit of equity and humanity
toward the aboriginal nations of America, and a disposition to
meliorate their condition by inclining them to be more friendly to us,
and our citizens to be more friendly to them; if an inflexible
determination to maintain peace and inviolable faith with all nations,
and that system of neutrality and impartiality among the belligerent
powers of Europe which has been adopted by this Government and so
solemnly sanctioned by both Houses of Congress and applauded by the
legislatures of the States and the public opinion, until it shall be
otherwise ordained by Congress; if a personal esteem for the French
nation, formed in a residence of seven years chiefly among them, and a
sincere desire to preserve the friendship which has been so much for
the honor and interest of both nations; if, while the conscious honor
and integrity of the people of America and the internal sentiment of
their own power and energies must be preserved, an earnest endeavor to
investigate every just cause and remove every colorable pretense of
complaint; if an intention to pursue by amicable negotiation a
reparation for the injuries that have been committed on the commerce of
our fellow-citizens by whatever nation, and if success can not be
obtained, to lay the facts before the Legislature, that they may
consider what further measures the honor and interest of the Government
and its constituents demand; if a resolution to do justice as far as
may depend upon me, at all times and to all nations, and maintain
peace, friendship, and benevolence with all the world; if an unshaken
confidence in the honor, spirit, and resources of the American people,
on which I have so often hazarded my all and never been deceived; if
elevated ideas of the high destinies of this country and of my own
duties toward it, founded on a knowledge of the moral principles and
intellectual improvements of the people deeply engraven on my mind in
early life, and not obscured but exalted by experience and age; and,
with humble reverence, I feel it to be my duty to add, if a veneration
for the religion of a people who profess and call themselves
Christians, and a fixed resolution to consider a decent respect for
Christianity among the best recommendations for the public service, can
enable me in any degree to comply with your wishes, it shall be my
strenuous endeavor that this sagacious injunction of the two Houses
shall not be without effect.

With this great example before me, with the sense and spirit, the faith
and honor, the duty and interest, of the same American people pledged
to support the Constitution of the United States, I entertain no doubt
of its continuance in all its energy, and my mind is prepared without
hesitation to lay myself under the most solemn obligations to support
it to the utmost of my power.

And may that Being who is supreme over all, the Patron of Order, the
Fountain of Justice, and the Protector in all ages of the world of
virtuous liberty, continue His blessing upon this nation and its
Government and give it all possible success and duration consistent
with the ends of His providence.

Teacher Programs

Conversation-based seminars for collegial PD, one-day and multi-day seminars, graduate credit seminars (MA degree), online and in-person.

Our Core Document Collection allows students to read history in the words of those who made it. Available in hard copy and for download.