Presidential Speeches

March 4, 1857: Inaugural Address

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James Buchanan

March 04, 1857

Source National Archives
Presidential Speeches |

March 4, 1857: Inaugural Address



I appear before you this day to take the solemn oath "that I will faithfullyexecute the office of President of the United States and will to the bestof my ability preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the UnitedStates." 

In entering upon this great office I must humbly invoke the God of ourfathers for wisdom and firmness to execute its high and responsible dutiesin such a manner as to restore harmony and ancient friendship among thepeople of the several States and to preserve our free institutions throughoutmany generations. Convinced that I owe my election to the inherent lovefor the Constitution and the Union which still animates the hearts of theAmerican people, let me earnestly ask their powerful support in sustainingall just measures calculated to perpetuate these, the richest politicalblessings which Heaven has ever bestowed upon any nation. Having determinednot to become a candidate for reelection, I shall have no motive to influencemy conduct in administering the Government except the desire ably and faithfullyto serve my country and to live in grateful memory of my countrymen. 

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

The voice of the majority, speaking in the manner prescribed by theConstitution, was heard, and instant submission followed. Our own countrycould alone have exhibited so grand and striking a spectacle of the capacityof man for self-government. 

What a happy conception, then, was it for Congress to apply this simplerule, that the will of the majority shall govern, to the settlement ofthe 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 theirdomestic institutions in their own way, subject only to the Constitutionof the United States." 

As a natural consequence, Congress has also prescribed that when theTerritory of Kansas shall be admitted as a State it "shall be receivedinto the Union with or without slavery, as their constitution may prescribeat the time of their admission." A difference of opinion has arisen inregard to the point of time when the people of a Territory shall decidethis 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 Courtof 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 allgood citizens, I shall cheerfully submit, whatever this may be, thoughit has ever been my individual opinion that under the Nebraska-Kansas actthe appropriate period will be when the number of actual residents in theTerritory shall justify the formation of a constitution with a view toits admission as a State into the Union. But be this as it may, it is theimperative and indispensable duty of the Government of the United Statesto secure to every resident inhabitant the free and independent expressionof his opinion by his vote. This sacred right of each individual must bepreserved. That being accomplished, nothing can be fairer than to leavethe people of a Territory free from all foreign interference to decidetheir own destiny for themselves, subject only to the Constitution of theUnited States. 

The whole Territorial question being thus settled upon the principleof popular sovereignty--a principle as ancient as free government itself--everythingof a practical nature has been decided. No other question remains for adjustment,because all agree that under the Constitution slavery in the States isbeyond the reach of any human power except that of the respective Statesthemselves wherein it exists. May we not, then, hope that the long agitationon this subject is approaching its end, and that the geographical partiesto 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 whenthe public mind shall be diverted from this question to others of morepressing and practical importance. Throughout the whole progress of thisagitation, which has scarcely known any intermission for more than twentyyears, whilst it has been productive of no positive good to any human beingit 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 ofthe sister States from each other, and has even seriously endangered thevery existence of the Union. Nor has the danger yet entirely ceased. Underour system there is a remedy for all mere political evils in the soundsense and sober judgment of the people. Time is a great corrective. Politicalsubjects which but a few years ago excited and exasperated the public mindhave passed away and are now nearly forgotten. But this question of domesticslavery is of far graver importance than any mere political question, becauseshould the agitation continue it may eventually endanger the personal safetyof a large portion of our countrymen where the institution exists. In thatevent no form of government, however admirable in itself and however productiveof material benefits, can compensate for the loss of peace and domesticsecurity around the family altar. Let every Union-loving man, therefore,exert his best influence to suppress this agitation, which since the recentlegislation of Congress is without any legitimate object. 

It is an evil omen of the times that men have undertaken to calculatethe mere material value of the Union. Reasoned estimates have been presentedof the pecuniary profits and local advantages which would result to differentStates and sections from its dissolution and of the comparative injurieswhich such an event would inflict on other States and sections. Even descendingto this low and narrow view of the mighty question, all such calculationsare at fault. The bare reference to a single consideration will be conclusiveon this point. We at present enjoy a free trade throughout our extensiveand expanding country such as the world has never witnessed. This tradeis 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, ofour Confederacy. Annihilate this trade, arrest its free progress by thegeographical lines of jealous and hostile States, and you destroy the prosperityand onward march of the whole and every part and involve all in one commonruin. But such considerations, important as they are in themselves, sinkinto insignificance when we reflect on the terrific evils which would resultfrom disunion to every portion of the Confederacy--to the North, not morethan to the South, to the East not more than to the West. These I shallnot attempt to portray, because I feel an humble confidence that the kindProvidence which inspired our fathers with wisdom to frame the most perfectform of government and union ever devised by man will not suffer it toperish until it shall have been peacefully instrumental by its examplein the extension of civil and religious liberty throughout the world. 

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

Our present financial condition is without a parallel in history. Nonation has ever before been embarrassed from too large a surplus in itstreasury. This almost necessarily gives birth to extravagant legislation.It produces wild schemes of expenditure and begets a race of speculatorsand jobbers, whose ingenuity is exerted in contriving and promoting expedientsto obtain public money. The purity of official agents, whether rightfullyor wrongfully, is suspected, and the character of the government suffersin the estimation of the people. This is in itself a very great evil. 

The natural mode of relief from this embarrassment is to appropriatethe surplus in the Treasury to great national objects for which a clearwarrant can be found in the Constitution. Among these I might mention theextinguishment of the public debt, a reasonable increase of the Navy, whichis 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 ofour extended seacoast. 

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

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

No nation in the tide of time has ever been blessed with so rich andnoble an inheritance as we enjoy in the public lands. In administeringthis important trust, whilst it may be wise to grant portions of them forthe improvement of the remainder, yet we should never forget that it isour cardinal policy to reserve these lands, as much as may be, for actualsettlers, and this at moderate prices. We shall thus not only best promotethe prosperity of the new States and Territories, by furnishing them ahardy and independent race of honest and industrious citizens, but shallsecure homes for our children and our children's children, as well as forthose exiles from foreign shores who may seek in this country to improvetheir condition and to enjoy the blessings of civil and religious liberty.Such emigrants have done much to promote the growth and prosperity of thecountry. They have proved faithful both in peace and in war. After becomingcitizens they are entitled, under the Constitution and laws, to be placedon a perfect equality with native-born citizens, and in this characterthey should ever be kindly recognized. 

The Federal Constitution is a grant from the States to Congress of certainspecific powers, and the question whether this grant should be liberallyor strictly construed has more or less divided political parties from thebeginning. Without entering into the argument, I desire to state at thecommencement of my Administration that long experience and observationhave convinced me that a strict construction of the powers of the Governmentis 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 ofthe Constitution, because all the great and useful powers required fora 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 thatunder the war-making power Congress may appropriate money toward the constructionof a military road when this is absolutely necessary for the defense ofany State or Territory of the Union against foreign invasion. Under theConstitution Congress has power "to declare war," "to raise and supportarmies," "to provide and maintain a navy," and to call forth the militiato "repel invasions." Thus endowed, in an ample manner, with the war-makingpower, the corresponding duty is required that "the United States shallprotect each of them the States] against invasion." Now, how is it possibleto afford this protection to California and our Pacific possessions exceptby means of a military road through the Territories of the United States,over which men and munitions of war may be speedily transported from theAtlantic States to meet and to repel the invader? In the event of a warwith a naval power much stronger than our own we should then have no otheravailable access to the Pacific Coast, because such a power would instantlyclose the route across the isthmus of Central America. It is impossibleto conceive that whilst the Constitution has expressly required Congressto 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 practiceof constructing military roads. It might also be wise to consider whetherthe love for the Union which now animates our fellow-citizens on the PacificCoast 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 powerof the States on this side of the Rocky Mountains can reach them in sufficienttime to "protect" them "against invasion." I forbear for the present fromexpressing an opinion as to the wisest and most economical mode in whichthe Government can lend its aid in accomplishing this great and necessarywork. I believe that many of the difficulties in the way, which now appearformidable, will in a great degree vanish as soon as the nearest and bestroute shall have been satisfactorily ascertained. 

It may be proper that on this occasion I should make some brief remarksin 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, approvedby our own experience, from which we should never depart. We ought to cultivatepeace, commerce, and friendship with all nations, and this not merely asthe best means of promoting our own material interests, but in a spiritof Christian benevolence toward our fellow-men, wherever their lot maybe cast. Our diplomacy should be direct and frank, neither seeking to obtainmore nor accepting less than is our due. We ought to cherish a sacred regardfor the independence of all nations, and never attempt to interfere inthe domestic concerns of any unless this shall be imperatively requiredby the great law of self-preservation. To avoid entangling alliances hasbeen a maxim of our policy ever since the days of Washington, and its wisdom'sno one will attempt to dispute. In short, we ought to do justice in a kindlyspirit to all nations and require justice from them in return. 

It is our glory that whilst other nations have extended their dominionsby the sword we have never acquired any territory except by fair purchaseor, 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 takeadvantage of the fortune of war against a sister republic, we purchasedthese possessions under the treaty of peace for a sum which was consideredat the time a fair equivalent. Our past history forbids that we shall inthe future acquire territory unless this be sanctioned by the laws of justiceand honor. Acting on this principle, no nation will have a right to interfereor to complain if in the progress of events we shall still further extendour possessions. Hitherto in all our acquisitions the people, under theprotection of the American flag, have enjoyed civil and religious liberty,as well as equal and just laws, and have been contented, prosperous, andhappy. Their trade with the rest of the world has rapidly increased, andthus 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 greatpeople.