Miller Center

First Inaugural Address (March 4, 1897)

William McKinley

Fellow-Citizens: 

In obedience to the will of the people, and in their presence, by theauthority vested in me by this oath, I assume the arduous and responsibleduties of President of the United States, relying upon the support of mycountrymen and invoking the guidance of Almighty God. Our faith teachesthat there is no safer reliance than upon the God of our fathers, who hasso singularly favored the American people in every national trial, andwho will not forsake us so long as we obey His commandments and walk humblyin His footsteps. 

The responsibilities of the high trust to which I have been called--alwaysof grave importance--are augmented by the prevailing business conditionsentailing idleness upon willing labor and loss to useful enterprises. Thecountry is suffering from industrial disturbances from which speedy reliefmust be had. Our financial system needs some revision; our money is allgood now, but its value must not further be threatened. It should all beput upon an enduring basis, not subject to easy attack, nor its stabilityto doubt or dispute. Our currency should continue under the supervisionof the Government. The several forms of our paper money offer, in my judgment,a constant embarrassment to the Government and a safe balance in the Treasury.Therefore I believe it necessary to devise a system which, without diminishingthe circulating medium or offering a premium for its contraction, willpresent a remedy for those arrangements which, temporary in their nature,might well in the years of our prosperity have been displaced by wiserprovisions. With adequate revenue secured, but not until then, we can enterupon such changes in our fiscal laws as will, while insuring safety andvolume to our money, no longer impose upon the Government the necessityof maintaining so large a gold reserve, with its attendant and inevitabletemptations to speculation. Most of our financial laws are the outgrowthof experience and trial, and should not be amended without investigationand demonstration of the wisdom of the proposed changes. We must be both"sure we are right" and "make haste slowly." If, therefore, Congress, inits wisdom, shall deem it expedient to create a commission to take underearly consideration the revision of our coinage, banking and currency laws,and give them that exhaustive, careful and dispassionate examination thattheir importance demands, I shall cordially concur in such action. If suchpower is vested in the President, it is my purpose to appoint a commissionof prominent, well-informed citizens of different parties, who will commandpublic confidence, both on account of their ability and special fitnessfor the work. Business experience and public training may thus be combined,and the patriotic zeal of the friends of the country be so directed thatsuch a report will be made as to receive the support of all parties, andour finances cease to be the subject of mere partisan contention. The experimentis, at all events, worth a trial, and, in my opinion, it can but provebeneficial to the entire country. 

The question of international bimetallism will have early and earnestattention. It will be my constant endeavor to secure it by co-operationwith the other great commercial powers of the world. Until that conditionis realized when the parity between our gold and silver money springs fromand is supported by the relative value of the two metals, the value ofthe silver already coined and of that which may hereafter be coined, mustbe kept constantly at par with gold by every resource at our command. Thecredit of the Government, the integrity of its currency, and the inviolabilityof its obligations must be preserved. This was the commanding verdict ofthe people, and it will not be unheeded. 

Economy is demanded in every branch of the Government at all times,but especially in periods, like the present, of depression in businessand distress among the people. The severest economy must be observed inall public expenditures, and extravagance stopped wherever it is found,and prevented wherever in the future it may be developed. If the revenuesare to remain as now, the only relief that can come must be from decreasedexpenditures. But the present must not become the permanent condition ofthe Government. It has been our uniform practice to retire, not increaseour outstanding obligations, and this policy must again be resumed andvigorously enforced. Our revenues should always be large enough to meetwith ease and promptness not only our current needs and the principal andinterest of the public debt, but to make proper and liberal provision forthat most deserving body of public creditors, the soldiers and sailorsand the widows and orphans who are the pensioners of the United States. 

The Government should not be permitted to run behind or increase itsdebt in times like the present. Suitably to provide against this is themandate of duty--the certain and easy remedy for most of our financialdifficulties. A deficiency is inevitable so long as the expenditures ofthe Government exceed its receipts. It can only be met by loans or an increasedrevenue. While a large annual surplus of revenue may invite waste and extravagance,inadequate revenue creates distrust and undermines public and private credit.Neither should be encouraged. Between more loans and more revenue thereought to be but one opinion. We should have more revenue, and that withoutdelay, hindrance, or postponement. A surplus in the Treasury created byloans is not a permanent or safe reliance. It will suffice while it lasts,but it can not last long while the outlays of the Government are greaterthan its receipts, as has been the case during the past two years. Normust it be forgotten that however much such loans may temporarily relievethe situation, the Government is still indebted for the amount of the surplusthus accrued, which it must ultimately pay, while its ability to pay isnot strengthened, but weakened by a continued deficit. Loans are imperativein great emergencies to preserve the Government or its credit, but a failureto supply needed revenue in time of peace for the maintenance of eitherhas no justification. 

The best way for the Government to maintain its credit is to pay asit goes--not by resorting to loans, but by keeping out of debt--throughan adequate income secured by a system of taxation, external or internal,or both. It is the settled policy of the Government, pursued from the beginningand practiced by all parties and Administrations, to raise the bulk ofour revenue from taxes upon foreign productions entering the United Statesfor sale and consumption, and avoiding, for the most part, every form ofdirect taxation, except in time of war. The country is clearly opposedto any needless additions to the subject of internal taxation, and is committedby its latest popular utterance to the system of tariff taxation. Therecan be no misunderstanding, either, about the principle upon which thistariff taxation shall be levied. Nothing has ever been made plainer ata general election than that the controlling principle in the raising ofrevenue from duties on imports is zealous care for American interests andAmerican labor. The people have declared that such legislation should behad as will give ample protection and encouragement to the industries andthe development of our country. It is, therefore, earnestly hoped and expectedthat Congress will, at the earliest practicable moment, enact revenue legislationthat shall be fair, reasonable, conservative, and just, and which, whilesupplying sufficient revenue for public purposes, will still be signallybeneficial and helpful to every section and every enterprise of the people.To this policy we are all, of whatever party, firmly bound by the voiceof the people--a power vastly more potential than the expression of anypolitical platform. The paramount duty of Congress is to stop deficienciesby the restoration of that protective legislation which has always beenthe firmest prop of the Treasury. The passage of such a law or laws wouldstrengthen the credit of the Government both at home and abroad, and gofar toward stopping the drain upon the gold reserve held for the redemptionof our currency, which has been heavy and well-nigh constant for severalyears. 

In the revision of the tariff especial attention should be given tothe re-enactment and extension of the reciprocity principle of the lawof 1890, under which so great a stimulus was given to our foreign tradein new and advantageous markets for our surplus agricultural and manufacturedproducts. The brief trial given this legislation amply justifies a furtherexperiment and additional discretionary power in the making of commercialtreaties, the end in view always to be the opening up of new markets forthe products of our country, by granting concessions to the products ofother lands that we need and cannot produce ourselves, and which do notinvolve any loss of labor to our own people, but tend to increase theiremployment. 

The depression of the past four years has fallen with especial severityupon the great body of toilers of the country, and upon none more thanthe holders of small farms. Agriculture has languished and labor suffered.The revival of manufacturing will be a relief to both. No portion of ourpopulation is more devoted to the institution of free government nor moreloyal in their support, while none bears more cheerfully or fully its propershare in the maintenance of the Government or is better entitled to itswise and liberal care and protection. Legislation helpful to producersis beneficial to all. The depressed condition of industry on the farm andin the mine and factory has lessened the ability of the people to meetthe demands upon them, and they rightfully expect that not only a systemof revenue shall be established that will secure the largest income withthe least burden, but that every means will be taken to decrease, ratherthan increase, our public expenditures. Business conditions are not themost promising. It will take time to restore the prosperity of former years.If we cannot promptly attain it, we can resolutely turn our faces in thatdirection and aid its return by friendly legislation. However troublesomethe situation may appear, Congress will not, I am sure, be found lackingin disposition or ability to relieve it as far as legislation can do so.The restoration of confidence and the revival of business, which men ofall parties so much desire, depend more largely upon the prompt, energetic,and intelligent action of Congress than upon any other single agency affectingthe situation. 

It is inspiring, too, to remember that no great emergency in the onehundred and eight years of our eventful national life has ever arisen thathas not been met with wisdom and courage by the American people, with fidelityto their best interests and highest destiny, and to the honor of the Americanname. These years of glorious history have exalted mankind and advancedthe cause of freedom throughout the world, and immeasurably strengthenedthe precious free institutions which we enjoy. The people love and willsustain these institutions. The great essential to our happiness and prosperityis that we adhere to the principles upon which the Government was establishedand insist upon their faithful observance. Equality of rights must prevail,and our laws be always and everywhere respected and obeyed. We may havefailed in the discharge of our full duty as citizens of the great Republic,but it is consoling and encouraging to realize that free speech, a freepress, free thought, free schools, the free and unmolested right of religiousliberty and worship, and free and fair elections are dearer and more universallyenjoyed to-day than ever before. These guaranties must be sacredly preservedand wisely strengthened. The constituted authorities must be cheerfullyand vigorously upheld. Lynchings must not be tolerated in a great and civilizedcountry like the United States; courts, not mobs, must execute the penaltiesof the law. The preservation of public order, the right of discussion,the integrity of courts, and the orderly administration of justice mustcontinue forever the rock of safety upon which our Government securelyrests. 

One of the lessons taught by the late election, which all can rejoicein, is that the citizens of the United States are both law-respecting andlaw-abiding people, not easily swerved from the path of patriotism andhonor. This is in entire accord with the genius of our institutions, andbut emphasizes the advantages of inculcating even a greater love for lawand order in the future. Immunity should be granted to none who violatethe laws, whether individuals, corporations, or communities; and as theConstitution imposes upon the President the duty of both its own execution,and of the statutes enacted in pursuance of its provisions, I shall endeavorcarefully to carry them into effect. The declaration of the party now restoredto power has been in the past that of "opposition to all combinations ofcapital organized in trusts, or otherwise, to control arbitrarily the conditionof trade among our citizens," and it has supported "such legislation aswill prevent the execution of all schemes to oppress the people by unduecharges on their supplies, or by unjust rates for the transportation oftheir products to the market." This purpose will be steadily pursued, bothby the enforcement of the laws now in existence and the recommendationand support of such new statutes as may be necessary to carry it into effect. 

Our naturalization and immigration laws should be further improved tothe constant promotion of a safer, a better, and a higher citizenship.A grave peril to the Republic would be a citizenship too ignorant to understandor too vicious to appreciate the great value and beneficence of our institutionsand laws, and against all who come here to make war upon them our gatesmust be promptly and tightly closed. Nor must we be unmindful of the needof improvement among our own citizens, but with the zeal of our forefathersencourage the spread of knowledge and free education. Illiteracy must bebanished from the land if we shall attain that high destiny as the foremostof the enlightened nations of the world which, under Providence, we oughtto achieve. 

Reforms in the civil service must go on; but the changes should be realand genuine, not perfunctory, or prompted by a zeal in behalf of any partysimply because it happens to be in power. As a member of Congress I votedand spoke in favor of the present law, and I shall attempt its enforcementin the spirit in which it was enacted. The purpose in view was to securethe most efficient service of the best men who would accept appointmentunder the Government, retaining faithful and devoted public servants inoffice, but shielding none, under the authority of any rule or custom,who are inefficient, incompetent, or unworthy. The best interests of thecountry demand this, and the people heartily approve the law wherever andwhenever it has been thus administrated. 

Congress should give prompt attention to the restoration of our Americanmerchant marine, once the pride of the seas in all the great ocean highwaysof commerce. To my mind, few more important subjects so imperatively demandits intelligent consideration. The United States has progressed with marvelousrapidity in every field of enterprise and endeavor until we have becomeforemost in nearly all the great lines of inland trade, commerce, and industry.Yet, while this is true, our American merchant marine has been steadilydeclining until it is now lower, both in the percentage of tonnage andthe number of vessels employed, than it was prior to the Civil War. Commendableprogress has been made of late years in the upbuilding of the AmericanNavy, but we must supplement these efforts by providing as a proper consortfor it a merchant marine amply sufficient for our own carrying trade toforeign countries. The question is one that appeals both to our businessnecessities and the patriotic aspirations of a great people. 

It has been the policy of the United States since the foundation ofthe Government to cultivate relations of peace and amity with all the nationsof the world, and this accords with my conception of our duty now. We havecherished the policy of non-interference with affairs of foreign governmentswisely inaugurated by Washington, keeping ourselves free from entanglement,either as allies or foes, content to leave undisturbed with them the settlementof their own domestic concerns. It will be our aim to pursue a firm anddignified foreign policy, which shall be just, impartial, ever watchfulof our national honor, and always insisting upon the enforcement of thelawful rights of American citizens everywhere. Our diplomacy should seeknothing more and accept nothing less than is due us. We want no wars ofconquest; we must avoid the temptation of territorial aggression. War shouldnever be entered upon until every agency of peace has failed; peace ispreferable to war in almost every contingency. Arbitration is the truemethod of settlement of international as well as local or individual differences.It was recognized as the best means of adjustment of differences betweenemployers and employees by the Forty-ninth Congress, in 1886, and its applicationwas extended to our diplomatic relations by the unanimous concurrence ofthe Senate and House of the Fifty-first Congress in 1890. The latter resolutionwas accepted as the basis of negotiations with us by the British Houseof Commons in 1893, and upon our invitation a treaty of arbitration betweenthe United States and Great Britain was signed at Washington and transmittedto the Senate for its ratification in January last. Since this treaty isclearly the result of our own initiative; since it has been recognizedas the leading feature of our foreign policy throughout our entire nationalhistory--the adjustment of difficulties by judicial methods rather thanforce of arms--and since it presents to the world the glorious exampleof reason and peace, not passion and war, controlling the relations betweentwo of the greatest nations in the world, an example certain to be followedby others, I respectfully urge the early action of the Senate thereon,not merely as a matter of policy, but as a duty to mankind. The importanceand moral influence of the ratification of such a treaty can hardly beoverestimated in the cause of advancing civilization. It may well engagethe best thought of the statesmen and people of every country, and I cannotbut consider it fortunate that it was reserved to the United States tohave the leadership in so grand a work. 

It has been the uniform practice of each President to avoid, as faras possible, the convening of Congress in extraordinary session. It isan example which, under ordinary circumstances and in the absence of apublic necessity, is to be commended. But a failure to convene the representativesof the people in Congress in extra session when it involves neglect ofa public duty places the responsibility of such neglect upon the Executivehimself. The condition of the public Treasury, as has been indicated, demandsthe immediate consideration of Congress. It alone has the power to providerevenues for the Government. Not to convene it under such circumstancesI can view in no other sense than the neglect of a plain duty. I do notsympathize with the sentiment that Congress in session is dangerous toour general business interests. Its members are the agents of the people,and their presence at the seat of Government in the execution of the sovereignwill should not operate as an injury, but a benefit. There could be nobetter time to put the Government upon a sound financial and economic basisthan now. The people have only recently voted that this should be done,and nothing is more binding upon the agents of their will than the obligationof immediate action. It has always seemed to me that the postponement ofthe meeting of Congress until more than a year after it has been chosendeprived Congress too often of the inspiration of the popular will andthe country of the corresponding benefits. It is evident, therefore, thatto postpone action in the presence of so great a necessity would be unwiseon the part of the Executive because unjust to the interests of the people.Our action now will be freer from mere partisan consideration than if thequestion of tariff revision was postponed until the regular session ofCongress. We are nearly two years from a Congressional election, and politicscannot so greatly distract us as if such contest was immediately pending.We can approach the problem calmly and patriotically, without fearing itseffect upon an early election. 

Our fellow-citizens who may disagree with us upon the character of thislegislation prefer to have the question settled now, even against theirpreconceived views, and perhaps settled so reasonably, as I trust and believeit will be, as to insure great permanence, than to have further uncertaintymenacing the vast and varied business interests of the United States. Again,whatever action Congress may take will be given a fair opportunity fortrial before the people are called to pass judgment upon it, and this Iconsider a great essential to the rightful and lasting settlement of thequestion. In view of these considerations, I shall deem it my duty as Presidentto convene Congress in extraordinary session on Monday, the 15th day ofMarch, 1897. 

In conclusion, I congratulate the country upon the fraternal spiritof the people and the manifestations of good will everywhere so apparent.The recent election not only most fortunately demonstrated the obliterationof sectional or geographical lines, but to some extent also the prejudiceswhich for years have distracted our councils and marred our true greatnessas a nation. The triumph of the people, whose verdict is carried into effecttoday, is not the triumph of one section, nor wholly of one party, butof all sections and all the people. The North and the South no longer divideon the old lines, but upon principles and policies; and in this fact surelyevery lover of the country can find cause for true felicitation. 

Let us rejoice in and cultivate this spirit; it is ennobling and willbe both a gain and a blessing to our beloved country. It will be my constantaim to do nothing, and permit nothing to be done, that will arrest or disturbthis growing sentiment of unity and cooperation, this revival of esteemand affiliation which now animates so many thousands in both the old antagonisticsections, but I shall cheerfully do everything possible to promote andincrease it. Let me again repeat the words of the oath administered bythe Chief Justice which, in their respective spheres, so far as applicable,I would have all my countrymen observe: "I will faithfully execute theoffice of President of the United States, and will, to the best of my ability,preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States." Thisis the obligation I have reverently taken before the Lord Most High. Tokeep it will be my single purpose, my constant prayer; and I shall confidentlyrely upon the forbearance and assistance of all the people in the dischargeof my solemn responsibilities.