Miller Center

Inaugural Address (March 4, 1921)

Warren G. Harding

My Countrymen: 

When one surveys the world about him after the great storm, noting themarks of destruction and yet rejoicing in the ruggedness of the thingswhich withstood it, if he is an American he breathes the clarified atmospherewith a strange mingling of regret and new hope. We have seen a world passionspend its fury, but we contemplate our Republic unshaken, and hold ourcivilization secure. Liberty--liberty within the law--and civilizationare inseparable, and though both were threatened we find them now secure;and there comes to Americans the profound assurance that our representativegovernment is the highest expression and surest guaranty of both. 

Standing in this presence, mindful of the solemnity of this occasion,feeling the emotions which no one may know until he senses the great weightof responsibility for himself, I must utter my belief in the divine inspirationof the founding fathers. Surely there must have been God's intent in themaking of this new-world Republic. Ours is an organic law which had butone ambiguity, and we saw that effaced in a baptism of sacrifice and blood,with union maintained, the Nation supreme, and its concord inspiring. Wehave seen the world rivet its hopeful gaze on the great truths on whichthe founders wrought. We have seen civil, human, and religious libertyverified and glorified. In the beginning the Old World scoffed at our experiment;today our foundations of political and social belief stand unshaken, aprecious inheritance to ourselves, an inspiring example of freedom andcivilization to all mankind. Let us express renewed and strengthened devotion,in grateful reverence for the immortal beginning, and utter our confidencein the supreme fulfillment. 

The recorded progress of our Republic, materially and spiritually, initself proves the wisdom of the inherited policy of noninvolvement in OldWorld affairs. Confident of our ability to work out our own destiny, andjealously guarding our right to do so, we seek no part in directing thedestinies of the Old World. We do not mean to be entangled. We will acceptno responsibility except as our own conscience and judgment, in each instance,may determine. 

Our eyes never will be blind to a developing menace, our ears neverdeaf to the call of civilization. We recognize the new order in the world,with the closer contacts which progress has wrought. We sense the callof the human heart for fellowship, fraternity, and cooperation. We cravefriendship and harbor no hate. But America, our America, the America buildedon the foundation laid by the inspired fathers, can be a party to no permanentmilitary alliance. It can enter into no political commitments, nor assumeany economic obligations which will subject our decisions to any otherthan our own authority. 

I am sure our own people will not misunderstand, nor will the worldmisconstrue. We have no thought to impede the paths to closer relationship.We wish to promote understanding. We want to do our part in making offensivewarfare so hateful that Governments and peoples who resort to it must provethe righteousness of their cause or stand as outlaws before the bar ofcivilization. 

We are ready to associate ourselves with the nations of the world, greatand small, for conference, for counsel; to seek the expressed views ofworld opinion; to recommend a way to approximate disarmament and relievethe crushing burdens of military and naval establishments. We elect toparticipate in suggesting plans for mediation, conciliation, and arbitration,and would gladly join in that expressed conscience of progress, which seeksto clarify and write the laws of international relationship, and establisha world court for the disposition of such justiciable questions as nationsare agreed to submit thereto. In expressing aspirations, in seeking practicalplans, in translating humanity's new concept of righteousness and justiceand its hatred of war into recommended action we are ready most heartilyto unite, but every commitment must be made in the exercise of our nationalsovereignty. Since freedom impelled, and independence inspired, and nationalityexalted, a world supergovernment is contrary to everything we cherish andcan have no sanction by our Republic. This is not selfishness, it is sanctity.It is not aloofness, it is security. It is not suspicion of others, itis patriotic adherence to the things which made us what we are. 

Today, better than ever before, we know the aspirations of humankind,and share them. We have come to a new realization of our place in the worldand a new appraisal of our Nation by the world. The unselfishness of theseUnited States is a thing proven; our devotion to peace for ourselves andfor the world is well established; our concern for preserved civilizationhas had its impassioned and heroic expression. There was no American failureto resist the attempted reversion of civilization; there will be no failuretoday or tomorrow. 

The success of our popular government rests wholly upon the correctinterpretation of the deliberate, intelligent, dependable popular willof America. In a deliberate questioning of a suggested change of nationalpolicy, where internationality was to supersede nationality, we turnedto a referendum, to the American people. There was ample discussion, andthere is a public mandate in manifest understanding. 

America is ready to encourage, eager to initiate, anxious to participatein any seemly program likely to lessen the probability of war, and promotethat brotherhood of mankind which must be God's highest conception of humanrelationship. Because we cherish ideals of justice and peace, because weappraise international comity and helpful relationship no less highly thanany people of the world, we aspire to a high place in the moral leadershipof civilization, and we hold a maintained America, the proven Republic,the unshaken temple of representative democracy, to be not only an inspirationand example, but the highest agency of strengthening good will and promotingaccord on both continents. 

Mankind needs a world-wide benediction of understanding. It is neededamong individuals, among peoples, among governments, and it will inauguratean era of good feeling to make the birth of a new order. In such understandingmen will strive confidently for the promotion of their better relationshipsand nations will promote the comities so essential to peace. 

We must understand that ties of trade bind nations in closest intimacy,and none may receive except as he gives. We have not strengthened oursin accordance with our resources or our genius, notably on our own continent,where a galaxy of Republics reflects the glory of new-world democracy,but in the new order of finance and trade we mean to promote enlarged activitiesand seek expanded confidence. 

Perhaps we can make no more helpful contribution by example than provea Republic's capacity to emerge from the wreckage of war. While the world'sembittered travail did not leave us devastated lands nor desolated cities,left no gaping wounds, no breast with hate, it did involve us in the deliriumof expenditure, in expanded currency and credits, in unbalanced industry,in unspeakable waste, and disturbed relationships. While it uncovered ourportion of hateful selfishness at home, it also revealed the heart of Americaas sound and fearless, and beating in confidence unfailing. 

Amid it all we have riveted the gaze of all civilization to the unselfishnessand the righteousness of representative democracy, where our freedom neverhas made offensive warfare, never has sought territorial aggrandizementthrough force, never has turned to the arbitrament of arms until reasonhas been exhausted. When the Governments of the earth shall have establisheda freedom like our own and shall have sanctioned the pursuit of peace aswe have practiced it, I believe the last sorrow and the final sacrificeof international warfare will have been written. 

Let me speak to the maimed and wounded soldiers who are present today,and through them convey to their comrades the gratitude of the Republicfor their sacrifices in its defense. A generous country will never forgetthe services you rendered, and you may hope for a policy under Governmentthat will relieve any maimed successors from taking your places on anothersuch occasion as this. 

Our supreme task is the resumption of our onward, normal way. Reconstruction,readjustment, restoration all these must follow. I would like to hastenthem. If it will lighten the spirit and add to the resolution with whichwe take up the task, let me repeat for our Nation, we shall give no peoplejust cause to make war upon us; we hold no national prejudices; we entertainno spirit of revenge; we do not hate; we do not covet; we dream of no conquest,nor boast of armed prowess. 

If, despite this attitude, war is again forced upon us, I earnestlyhope a way may be found which will unify our individual and collectivestrength and consecrate all America, materially and spiritually, body andsoul, to national defense. I can vision the ideal republic, where everyman and woman is called under the flag for assignment to duty for whateverservice, military or civic, the individual is best fitted; where we maycall to universal service every plant, agency, or facility, all in thesublime sacrifice for country, and not one penny of war profit shall inureto the benefit of private individual, corporation, or combination, butall above the normal shall flow into the defense chest of the Nation. Thereis something inherently wrong, something out of accord with the idealsof representative democracy, when one portion of our citizenship turnsits activities to private gain amid defensive war while another is fighting,sacrificing, or dying for national preservation. 

Out of such universal service will come a new unity of spirit and purpose,a new confidence and consecration, which would make our defense impregnable,our triumph assured. Then we should have little or no disorganization ofour economic, industrial, and commercial systems at home, no staggeringwar debts, no swollen fortunes to flout the sacrifices of our soldiers,no excuse for sedition, no pitiable slackerism, no outrage of treason.Envy and jealousy would have no soil for their menacing development, andrevolution would be without the passion which engenders it.

A regret for the mistakes of yesterday must not, however, blind us tothe tasks of today. War never left such an aftermath. There has been staggeringloss of life and measureless wastage of materials. Nations are still gropingfor return to stable ways. Discouraging indebtedness confronts us likeall the war-torn nations, and these obligations must be provided for. Nocivilization can survive repudiation. 

We can reduce the abnormal expenditures, and we will. We can strikeat war taxation, and we must. We must face the grim necessity, with fullknowledge that the task is to be solved, and we must proceed with a fullrealization that no statute enacted by man can repeal the inexorable lawsof nature. Our most dangerous tendency is to expect too much of government,and at the same time do for it too little. We contemplate the immediatetask of putting our public household in order. We need a rigid and yetsane economy, combined with fiscal justice, and it must be attended byindividual prudence and thrift, which are so essential to this trying hourand reassuring for the future. 

The business world reflects the disturbance of war's reaction. Hereinflows the lifeblood of material existence. The economic mechanism is intricateand its parts interdependent, and has suffered the shocks and jars incidentto abnormal demands, credit inflations, and price upheavals. The normalbalances have been impaired, the channels of distribution have been clogged,the relations of labor and management have been strained. We must seekthe readjustment with care and courage. Our people must give and take.Prices must reflect the receding fever of war activities. Perhaps we nevershall know the old levels of wages again, because war invariably readjustscompensations, and the necessaries of life will show their inseparablerelationship, but we must strive for normalcy to reach stability. All thepenalties will not be light, nor evenly distributed. There is no way ofmaking them so. There is no instant step from disorder to order. We mustface a condition of grim reality, charge off our losses and start afresh.It is the oldest lesson of civilization. I would like government to doall it can to mitigate; then, in understanding, in mutuality of interest,in concern for the common good, our tasks will be solved. No altered systemwill work a miracle. Any wild experiment will only add to the confusion.Our best assurance lies in efficient administration of our proven system. 

The forward course of the business cycle is unmistakable. Peoples areturning from destruction to production. Industry has sensed the changedorder and our own people are turning to resume their normal, onward way.The call is for productive America to go on. I know that Congress and theAdministration will favor every wise Government policy to aid the resumptionand encourage continued progress. 

I speak for administrative efficiency, for lightened tax burdens, forsound commercial practices, for adequate credit facilities, for sympatheticconcern for all agricultural problems, for the omission of unnecessaryinterference of Government with business, for an end to Government's experimentin business, and for more efficient business in Government administration.With all of this must attend a mindfulness of the human side of all activities,so that social, industrial, and economic justice will be squared with thepurposes of a righteous people. 

With the nation-wide induction of womanhood into our political life,we may count upon her intuitions, her refinements, her intelligence, andher influence to exalt the social order. We count upon her exercise ofthe full privileges and the performance of the duties of citizenship tospeed the attainment of the highest state. 

I wish for an America no less alert in guarding against dangers fromwithin than it is watchful against enemies from without. Our fundamentallaw recognizes no class, no group, no section; there must be none in legislationor administration. The supreme inspiration is the common weal. Humanityhungers for international peace, and we crave it with all mankind. My mostreverent prayer for America is for industrial peace, with its rewards,widely and generally distributed, amid the inspirations of equal opportunity.No one justly may deny the equality of opportunity which made us what weare. We have mistaken unpreparedness to embrace it to be a challenge ofthe reality, and due concern for making all citizens fit for participationwill give added strength of citizenship and magnify our achievement. 

If revolution insists upon overturning established order, let otherpeoples make the tragic experiment. There is no place for it in America.When World War threatened civilization we pledged our resources and ourlives to its preservation, and when revolution threatens we unfurl theflag of law and order and renew our consecration. Ours is a constitutionalfreedom where the popular will is the law supreme and minorities are sacredlyprotected. Our revisions, reformations, and evolutions reflect a deliberatejudgment and an orderly progress, and we mean to cure our ills, but neverdestroy or permit destruction by force. 

I had rather submit our industrial controversies to the conference tablein advance than to a settlement table after conflict and suffering. Theearth is thirsting for the cup of good will, understanding is its fountainsource. I would like to acclaim an era of good feeling amid dependableprosperity and all the blessings which attend. 

It has been proved again and again that we cannot, while throwing ourmarkets open to the world, maintain American standards of living and opportunity,and hold our industrial eminence in such unequal competition. There isa luring fallacy in the theory of banished barriers of trade, but preservedAmerican standards require our higher production costs to be reflectedin our tariffs on imports. Today, as never before, when peoples are seekingtrade restoration and expansion, we must adjust our tariffs to the neworder. We seek participation in the world's exchanges, because thereinlies our way to widened influence and the triumphs of peace. We know fullwell we cannot sell where we do not buy, and we cannot sell successfullywhere we do not carry. Opportunity is calling not alone for the restoration,but for a new era in production, transportation and trade. We shall answerit best by meeting the demand of a surpassing home market, by promotingself- reliance in production, and by bidding enterprise, genius, and efficiencyto carry our cargoes in American bottoms to the marts of the world. 

We would not have an America living within and for herself alone, butwe would have her self-reliant, independent, and ever nobler, stronger,and richer. Believing in our higher standards, reared through constitutionalliberty and maintained opportunity, we invite the world to the same heights.But pride in things wrought is no reflex of a completed task. Common welfareis the goal of our national endeavor. Wealth is not inimical to welfare;it ought to be its friendliest agency. There never can be equality of rewardsor possessions so long as the human plan contains varied talents and differingdegrees of industry and thrift, but ours ought to be a country free fromthe great blotches of distressed poverty. We ought to find a way to guardagainst the perils and penalties of unemployment. We want an America ofhomes, illumined with hope and happiness, where mothers, freed from thenecessity for long hours of toil beyond their own doors, may preside asbefits the hearthstone of American citizenship. We want the cradle of Americanchildhood rocked under conditions so wholesome and so hopeful that no blightmay touch it in its development, and we want to provide that no selfishinterest, no material necessity, no lack of opportunity shall prevent thegaining of that education so essential to best citizenship. 

There is no short cut to the making of these ideals into glad realities.The world has witnessed again and again the futility and the mischief ofill-considered remedies for social and economic disorders. But we are mindfultoday as never before of the friction of modern industrialism, and we mustlearn its causes and reduce its evil consequences by sober and tested methods.Where genius has made for great possibilities, justice and happiness mustbe reflected in a greater common welfare. 

Service is the supreme commitment of life. I would rejoice to acclaimthe era of the Golden Rule and crown it with the autocracy of service.I pledge an administration wherein all the agencies of Government are calledto serve, and ever promote an understanding of Government purely as anexpression of the popular will. 

One cannot stand in this presence and be unmindful of the tremendousresponsibility. The world upheaval has added heavily to our tasks. Butwith the realization comes the surge of high resolve, and there is reassurancein belief in the God-given destiny of our Republic. If I felt that thereis to be sole responsibility in the Executive for the America of tomorrowI should shrink from the burden. But here are a hundred millions, withcommon concern and shared responsibility, answerable to God and country.The Republic summons them to their duty, and I invite co-operation. 

I accept my part with single-mindedness of purpose and humility of spirit,and implore the favor and guidance of God in His Heaven. With these I amunafraid, and confidently face the future. 

I have taken the solemn oath of office on that passage of Holy Writwherein it is asked: "What doth the Lord require of thee but to do justly,and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?" This I plight to Godand country.