Miller Center

Inaugural Address (March 4, 1853)

Franklin Pierce

My Countrymen: 

It a relief to feel that no heart but my own can know the personal regretand bitter sorrow over which I have been borne to a position so suitablefor others rather than desirable for myself. 

The circumstances under which I have been called for a limited periodto preside over the destinies of the Republic fill me with aprofound senseof responsibility, but with nothing like shrinking apprehension. I repairto the post assigned me not as to one sought, but in obedience to the unsolicitedexpression of your will, answerable only for a fearless, faithful, anddiligent exercise of my best powers. I ought to be, and am, truly gratefulfor the rare manifestation of the nation's confidence; but this, so farfrom lightening my obligations, only adds to their weight. You have summonedme in my weakness; you must sustain me by your strength. When looking forthe fulfillment of reasonable requirements, you will not be unmindful ofthe great changes which have occurred, even within the last quarter ofa century, and the consequent augmentation and complexity of duties imposedin the administration both of your home and foreign affairs. 

Whether the elements of inherent force in the Republic have kept pacewith its unparalleled progression in territory, population, and wealthhas been the subject of earnest thought and discussion on both sides ofthe ocean. Less than sixty-four years ago the Father of his Country made"the" then "recent accession of the important State of North Carolina tothe Constitution of the United States" one of the subjects of his specialcongratulation. At that moment, however, when the agitation consequentupon the Revolutionary struggle had hardly subsided, when we were justemerging from the weakness and embarrassments of the Confederation, therewas an evident consciousness of vigor equal to the great mission so wiselyand bravely fulfilled by our fathers. It was not a presumptuous assurance,but a calm faith, springing from a clear view of the sources of power ina government constituted like ours. It is no paradox to say that althoughcomparatively weak the new-born nation was intrinsically strong. Inconsiderablein population and apparent resources, it was upheld by a broad and intelligentcomprehension of rights and an all-pervading purpose to maintain them,stronger than armaments. It came from the furnace of the Revolution, temperedto the necessities of the times. The thoughts of the men of that day wereas practical as their sentiments were patriotic. They wasted no portionof their energies upon idle and delusive speculations, but with a firmand fearless step advanced beyond the governmental landmarks which hadhitherto circumscribed the limits of human freedom and planted their standard,where it has stood against dangers which have threatened from abroad, andinternal agitation, which has at times fearfully menaced at home. Theyproved themselves equal to the solution of the great problem, to understandwhich their minds had been illuminated by the dawning lights of the Revolution.The object sought was not a thing dreamed of; it was a thing realized.They had exhibited only the power to achieve, but, what all history affirmsto be so much more unusual, the capacity to maintain. The oppressed throughoutthe world from that day to the present have turned their eyes hitherward,not to find those lights extinguished or to fear lest they should wane,but to be constantly cheered by their steady and increasing radiance. 

In this our country has, in my judgment, thus far fulfilled its highestduty to suffering humanity. It has spoken and will continue to speak, notonly by its words, but by its acts, the language of sympathy, encouragement,and hope to those who earnestly listen to tones which pronounce for thelargest rational liberty. But after all, the most animating encouragementand potent appeal for freedom will be its own history--its trials and itstriumphs. Preeminently, the power of our advocacy reposes in our example;but no example, be it remembered, can be powerful for lasting good, whateverapparent advantages may be gained, which is not based upon eternal principlesof right and justice. Our fathers decided for themselves, both upon thehour to declare and the hour to strike. They were their own judges of thecircumstances under which it became them to pledge to each other "theirlives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor" for the acquisition of thepriceless inheritance transmitted to us. The energy with which that greatconflict was opened and, under the guidance of a manifest and beneficentProvidence the uncomplaining endurance with which it was prosecuted toits consummation were only surpassed by the wisdom and patriotic spiritof concession which characterized all the counsels of the early fathers. 

One of the most impressive evidences of that wisdom is to be found inthe fact that the actual working of our system has dispelled a degree ofsolicitude which at the outset disturbed bold hearts and far-reaching intellects.The apprehension of dangers from extended territory, multiplied States,accumulated wealth, and augmented population has proved to be unfounded.The stars upon your banner have become nearly threefold their originalnumber; your densely populated possessions skirt the shores of the twogreat oceans; and yet this vast increase of people and territory has notonly shown itself compatible with the harmonious action of the States andFederal Government in their respective constitutional spheres, but hasafforded an additional guaranty of the strength and integrity of both. 

With an experience thus suggestive and cheering, the policy of my Administrationwill not be controlled by any timid forebodings of evil from expansion.Indeed, it is not to be disguised that our attitude as a nation and ourposition on the globe render the acquisition of certain possessions notwithin our jurisdiction eminently important for our protection, if notin the future essential for the preservation of the rights of commerceand the peace of the world. Should they be obtained, it will be throughno grasping spirit, but with a view to obvious national interest and security,and in a manner entirely consistent with the strictest observance of nationalfaith. We have nothing in our history or position to invite aggression;we have everything to beckon us to the cultivation of relations of peaceand amity with all nations. Purposes, therefore, at once just and pacificwill be significantly marked in the conduct of our foreign affairs. I intendthat my Administration shall leave no blot upon our fair record, and trustI may safely give the assurance that no act within the legitimate scopeof my constitutional control will be tolerated on the part of any portionof our citizens which can not challenge a ready justification before thetribunal of the civilized world. An Administration would be unworthy ofconfidence at home or respect abroad should it cease to be influenced bythe conviction that no apparent advantage can be purchased at a price sodear as that of national wrong or dishonor. It is not your privilege asa nation to speak of a distant past. The striking incidents of your history,replete with instruction and furnishing abundant grounds for hopeful confidence,are comprised in a period comparatively brief. But if your past is limited,your future is boundless. Its obligations throng the unexplored pathwayof advancement, and will be limitless as duration. Hence a sound and comprehensivepolicy should embrace not less the distant future than the urgent present. 

The great objects of our pursuit as a people are best to be attainedby peace, and are entirely consistent with the tranquillity and interestsof the rest of mankind. With the neighboring nations upon our continentwe should cultivate kindly and fraternal relations. We can desire nothingin regard to them so much as to see them consolidate their strength andpursue the paths of prosperity and happiness. If in the course of theirgrowth we should open new channels of trade and create additional facilitiesfor friendly intercourse, the benefits realized will be equal and mutual.Of the complicated European systems of national polity we have heretoforebeen independent. From their wars, their tumults, and anxieties we havebeen, happily, almost entirely exempt. Whilst these are confined to thenations which gave them existence, and within their legitimate jurisdiction,they can not affect us except as they appeal to our sympathies in the causeof human freedom and universal advancement. But the vast interests of commerceare common to all mankind, and the advantages of trade and internationalintercourse must always present a noble field for the moral influence ofa great people. 

With these views firmly and honestly carried out, we have a right toexpect, and shall under all circumstances require, prompt reciprocity.The rights which belong to us as a nation are not alone to be regarded,but those which pertain to every citizen in his individual capacity, athome and abroad, must be sacredly maintained. So long as he can discernevery star in its place upon that ensign, without wealth to purchase forhim preferment or title to secure for him place, it will be his privilege,and must be his acknowledged right, to stand unabashed even in the presenceof princes, with a proud consciousness that he is himself one of a nationof sovereigns and that he can not in legitimate pursuit wander so far fromhome that the agent whom he shall leave behind in the place which I nowoccupy will not see that no rude hand of power or tyrannical passion islaid upon him with impunity. He must realize that upon every sea and onevery soil where our enterprise may rightfully seek the protection of ourflag American citizenship is an inviolable panoply for the security ofAmerican rights. And in this connection it can hardly be necessary to reaffirma principle which should now be regarded as fundamental. The rights, security,and repose of this Confederacy reject the idea of interference or colonizationon this side of the ocean by any foreign power beyond present jurisdictionas utterly inadmissible. 

The opportunities of observation furnished by my brief experience asa soldier confirmed in my own mind the opinion, entertained and acted uponby others from the formation of the Government, that the maintenance oflarge standing armies in our country would be not only dangerous, but unnecessary.They also illustrated the importance--I might well say the absolute necessity--ofthe military science and practical skill furnished in such an eminent degreeby the institution which has made your Army what it is, under the disciplineand instruction of officers not more distinguished for their solid attainments,gallantry, and devotion to the public service than for unobtrusive bearingand high moral tone. The Army as organized must be the nucleus around whichin every time of need the strength of your military power, the sure bulwarkof your defense--a national militia--may be readily formed into a well-disciplinedand efficient organization. And the skill and self-devotion of the Navyassure you that you may take the performance of the past as a pledge forthe future, and may confidently expect that the flag which has waved itsuntarnished folds over every sea will still float in undiminished honor.But these, like many other subjects, will be appropriately brought at afuturetime to the attention of the coordinate branches of the Government, towhich I shall always look with profound respect and with trustful confidencethat they will accord to me the aid and support which I shall so much needand which their experience and wisdom will readily suggest. 

In the administration of domestic affairs you expect a devoted integrityin the public service and an observance of rigid economy in all departments,so marked as never justly to be questioned. If this reasonable expectationbe not realized, I frankly confess that one of your leading hopes is doomedto disappointment, and that my efforts in a very important particular mustresult in a humiliating failure. Offices can be properly regarded onlyin the light of aids for the accomplishment of these objects, and as occupancycan confer no prerogative nor importunate desire for preferment any claim,the public interest imperatively demands that they be considered with solereference to the duties to be performed. Good citizens may well claim theprotection of good laws and the benign influence of good government, buta claim for office is what the people of a republic should never recognize.No reasonable man of any party will expect the Administration to be soregardless of its responsibility and of the obvious elements of successas to retain persons known to be under the influence of political hostilityand partisan prejudice in positions which will require not only severelabor, but cordial cooperation. Having no implied engagements to ratify,no rewards to bestow, no resentments to remember, and no personal wishesto consult in selections for official station, I shall fulfill this difficultand delicate trust, admitting no motive as worthy either of my characteror position which does not contemplate an efficient discharge of duty andthe best interests of my country. I acknowledge my obligations to the massesof my countrymen, and to them alone. Higher objects than personal aggrandizementgave direction and energy to their exertions in the late canvass, and theyshall not be disappointed. They require at my hands diligence, integrity,and capacity wherever there are duties to be performed. Without these qualitiesin their public servants, more stringent laws for the prevention or punishmentof fraud, negligence, and peculation will be vain. With them they willbe unnecessary. 

But these are not the only points to which you look for vigilant watchfulness.The dangers of a concentration of all power in the general government ofa confederacy so vast as ours are too obvious to be disregarded. You havea right, therefore, to expect your agents in every department to regardstrictly the limits imposed upon them by the Constitution of the UnitedStates. The great scheme of our constitutional liberty rests upon a properdistribution of power between the State and Federal authorities, and experiencehas shown that the harmony and happiness of our people must depend upona just discrimination between the separate rights and responsibilitiesof the States and your common rights and obligations under the GeneralGovernment; and here, in my opinion, are the considerations which shouldform the true basis of future concord in regard to the questions whichhave most seriously disturbed public tranquillity. If the Federal Governmentwill confine itself to the exercise of powers clearly granted by the Constitution,it can hardly happen that its action upon any question should endangerthe institutions of the States or interfere with their right to managematters strictly domestic according to the will of their own people. 

In expressing briefly my views upon an important subject rich has recentlyagitated the nation to almost a fearful degree, I am moved by no otherimpulse than a most earnest desire for the perpetuation of that Union whichhas made us what we are, showering upon us blessings and conferring a powerand influence which our fathers could hardly have anticipated, even withtheir most sanguine hopes directed to a far-off future. The sentimentsI now announce were not unknown before the expression of the voice whichcalled me here. My own position upon this subject was clear and unequivocal,upon the record of my words and my acts, and it is only recurred to atthis time because silence might perhaps be misconstrued. With the Unionmy best and dearest earthly hopes are entwined. Without it what are weindividually or collectively? What becomes of the noblest field ever openedfor the advancement of our race in religion, in government, in the arts,and in all that dignifies and adorns mankind? From that radiant constellationwhich both illumines our own way and points out to struggling nations theircourse, let but a single star be lost, and, if these be not utter darkness,the luster of the whole is dimmed. Do my countrymen need any assurancethat such a catastrophe is not to overtake them while I possess the powerto stay it? It is with me an earnest and vital belief that as the Unionhas been the source, under Providence, of our prosperity to this time,so it is the surest pledge of a continuance of the blessings we have enjoyed,and which we are sacredly bound to transmit undiminished to our children.The field of calm and free discussion in our country is open, and willalways be so, but never has been and never can be traversed for good ina spirit of sectionalism and uncharitableness. The founders of the Republicdealt with things as they were presented to them, in a spirit of self-sacrificingpatriotism, and, as time has proved, with a comprehensive wisdom whichit will always be safe for us to consult. Every measure tending to strengthenthe fraternal feelings of all the members of our Union has had my heartfeltapprobation. To every theory of society or government, whether the offspringof feverish ambition or of morbid enthusiasm, calculated to dissolve thebonds of law and affection which unite us, I shall interpose a ready andstern resistance. I believe that involuntary servitude, as it exists indifferent States of this Confederacy, is recognized by the Constitution.I believe that it stands like any other admitted right, and that the Stateswhere it exists are entitled to efficient remedies to enforce the constitutionalprovisions. I hold that the laws of 1850, commonly called the "compromisemeasures," are strictly constitutional and to be unhesitatingly carriedinto effect. I believe that the constituted authorities of this Republicare bound to regard the rights of the South in this respect as they wouldview any other legal and constitutional right, and that the laws to enforcethem should be respected and obeyed, not with a reluctance encouraged byabstract opinions as to their propriety in a different state of society,but cheerfully and according to the decisions of the tribunal to whichtheir exposition belongs. Such have been, and are, my convictions, andupon them I shall act. I fervently hope that the question is at rest, andthat no sectional or ambitious or fanatical excitement may again threatenthe durability of our institutions or obscure the light of our prosperity. 

But let not the foundation of our hope rest upon man's wisdom. It willnot be sufficient that sectional prejudices find no place in the publicdeliberations. It will not be sufficient that the rash counsels of humanpassion are rejected. It must be felt that there is no national securitybut in the nation's humble, acknowledged dependence upon God and His overrulingprovidence. 

We have been carried in safety through a perilous crisis. Wise counsels,like those which gave us the Constitution, prevailed to uphold it. Letthe period be remembered as an admonition, and not as an encouragement,in any section of the Union, to make experiments where experiments arefraught with such fearful hazard. Let it be impressed upon all hearts that,beautiful as our fabric is, no earthly power or wisdom could ever reuniteits broken fragments. Standing, as I do, almost within view of the greenslopes of Monticello, and, as it were, within reach of the tomb of Washington,with all the cherished memories of the past gathering around me like somany eloquent voices of exhortation from heaven, I can express no betterhope for my country than that the kind Providence which smiled upon ourfathers may enable their children to preserve the blessings they have inherited.