Presidential Speeches

March 4, 1889: Inaugural Address

About this speech

Benjamin Harrison

March 04, 1889

Source National Archives
Presidential Speeches |

March 4, 1889: Inaugural Address



There is no constitutional or legal requirement that the President shalltake the oath of office in the presence of the people, but there is somanifest an appropriateness in the public induction to office of the chiefexecutive officer of the nation that from the beginning of the Governmentthe people, to whose service the official oath consecrates the officer,have been called to witness the solemn ceremonial. The oath taken in thepresence of the people becomes a mutual covenant. The officer covenantsto serve the whole body of the people by a faithful execution of the laws,so that they may be the unfailing defense and security of those who respectand observe them, and that neither wealth, station, nor the power of combinationsshall be able to evade their just penalties or to wrest them from a beneficentpublic purpose to serve the ends of cruelty or selfishness. 

My promise is spoken; yours unspoken, but not the less real and solemn.The people of every State have here their representatives. Surely I donot misinterpret the spirit of the occasion when I assume that the wholebody of the people covenant with me and with each other to-day to supportand defend the Constitution and the Union of the States, to yield willingobedience to all the laws and each to every other citizen his equal civiland political rights. Entering thus solemnly into covenant with each other,we may reverently invoke and confidently expect the favor and help of AlmightyGod--that He will give to me wisdom, strength, and fidelity, and to ourpeople a spirit of fraternity and a love of righteousness and peace. 

This occasion derives peculiar interest from the fact that the Presidentialterm which begins this day is the twenty-sixth under our Constitution.The first inauguration of President Washington took place in New York,where Congress was then sitting, on the 30th day of April, 1789, havingbeen deferred by reason of delays attending the organization of the Congressand the canvass of the electoral vote. Our people have already worthilyobserved the centennials of the Declaration of Independence, of the battleof Yorktown, and of the adoption of the Constitution, and will shortlycelebrate in New York the institution of the second great department ofour constitutional scheme of government. When the centennial of the institutionof the judicial department, by the organization of the Supreme Court, shallhave been suitably observed, as I trust it will be, our nation will havefully entered its second century. 

I will not attempt to note the marvelous and in great part happy contrastsbetween our country as it steps over the threshold into its second centuryof organized existence under the Constitution and that weak but wiselyordered young nation that looked undauntedly down the first century, whenall its years stretched out before it. 

Our people will not fail at this time to recall the incidents whichaccompanied the institution of government under the Constitution, or tofind inspiration and guidance in the teachings and example of Washingtonand his great associates, and hope and courage in the contrast which thirty-eightpopulous and prosperous States offer to the thirteen States, weak in everythingexcept courage and the love of liberty, that then fringed our Atlanticseaboard. 

The Territory of Dakota has now a population greater than any of theoriginal States (except Virginia) and greater than the aggregate of fiveof the smaller States in 1790. The center of population when our nationalcapital was located was east of Baltimore, and it was argued by many well-informedpersons that it would move eastward rather than westward; yet in 1880 itwas found to be near Cincinnati, and the new census about to be taken willshow another stride to the westward. That which was the body has come tobe only the rich fringe of the nation's robe. But our growth has not beenlimited to territory, population and aggregate wealth, marvelous as ithas been in each of those directions. The masses of our people are betterfed, clothed, and housed than their fathers were. The facilities for populareducation have been vastly enlarged and more generally diffused. 

The virtues of courage and patriotism have given recent proof of theircontinued presence and increasing power in the hearts and over the livesof our people. The influences of religion have been multiplied and strengthened.The sweet offices of charity have greatly increased. The virtue of temperanceis held in higher estimation. We have not attained an ideal condition.Not all of our people are happy and prosperous; not all of them are virtuousand law-abiding. But on the whole the opportunities offered to the individualto secure the comforts of life are better than are found elsewhere andlargely better than they were here one hundred years ago. 

The surrender of a large measure of sovereignty to the General Government,effected by the adoption of the Constitution, was not accomplished untilthe suggestions of reason were strongly reenforced by the more imperativevoice of experience. The divergent interests of peace speedily demandeda "more perfect union." The merchant, the shipmaster, and the manufacturerdiscovered and disclosed to our statesmen and to the people that commercialemancipation must be added to the political freedom which had been so bravelywon. The commercial policy of the mother country had not relaxed any ofits hard and oppressive features. To hold in check the development of ourcommercial marine, to prevent or retard the establishment and growth ofmanufactures in the States, and so to secure the American market for theirshops and the carrying trade for their ships, was the policy of Europeanstatesmen, and was pursued with the most selfish vigor. 

Petitions poured in upon Congress urging the imposition of discriminatingduties that should encourage the production of needed things at home. Thepatriotism of the people, which no longer found afield of exercise in war,was energetically directed to the duty of equipping the young Republicfor the defense of its independence by making its people self-dependent.Societies for the promotion of home manufactures and for encouraging theuse of domestics in the dress of the people were organized in many of theStates. The revival at the end of the century of the same patriotic interestin the preservation and development of domestic industries and the defenseof our working people against injurious foreign competition is an incidentworthy of attention. It is not a departure but a return that we have witnessed.The protective policy had then its opponents. The argument was made, asnow, that its benefits inured to particular classes or sections. 

If the question became in any sense or at any time sectional, it wasonly because slavery existed in some of the States. But for this therewas no reason why the cotton-producing States should not have led or walkedabreast with the New England States in the production of cotton fabrics.There was this reason only why the States that divide with Pennsylvaniathe mineral treasures of the great southeastern and central mountain rangesshould have been so tardy in bringing to the smelting furnace and to themill the coal and iron from their near opposing hillsides. Mill fires werelighted at the funeral pile of slavery. The emancipation proclamation washeard in the depths of the earth as well as in the sky; men were made free,and material things became our better servants. 

The sectional element has happily been eliminated from the tariff discussion.We have no longer States that are necessarily only planting States. Noneare excluded from achieving that diversification of pursuits among thepeople which brings wealth and contentment. The cotton plantation willnot be less valuable when the product is spun in the country town by operativeswhose necessities call for diversified crops and create a home demand forgarden and agricultural products. Every new mine, furnace, and factoryis an extension of the productive capacity of the State more real and valuablethan added territory. 

Shall the prejudices and paralysis of slavery continue to hang uponthe skirts of progress? How long will those who rejoice that slavery nolonger exists cherish or tolerate the incapacities it put upon their communities?I look hopefully to the continuance of our protective system and to theconsequent development of manufacturing and mining enterprises in the Stateshitherto wholly given to agriculture as a potent influence in the perfectunification of our people. The men who have invested their capital in theseenterprises, the farmers who have felt the benefit of their neighborhood,and the men who work in shop or field will not fail to find and to defenda community of interest. 

Is it not quite possible that the farmers and the promoters of the greatmining and manufacturing enterprises which have recently been establishedin the South may yet find that the free ballot of the workingman, withoutdistinction of race, is needed for their defense as well as for his own?I do not doubt that if those men in the South who now accept the tariffviews of Clay and the constitutional expositions of Webster would courageouslyavow and defend their real convictions they would not find it difficult,by friendly instruction and cooperation, to make the black man their efficientand safe ally, not only in establishing correct principles in our nationaladministration, but in preserving for their local communities the benefitsof social order and economical and honest government. At least until thegood offices of kindness and education have been fairly tried the contraryconclusion can not be plausibly urged. 

I have altogether rejected the suggestion of a special Executive policyfor any section of our country. It is the duty of the Executive to administerand enforce in the methods and by the instrumentalities pointed out andprovided by the Constitution all the laws enacted by Congress. These lawsare general and their administration should be uniform and equal. As acitizen may not elect what laws he will obey, neither may the Executiveeject which he will enforce. The duty to obey and to execute embraces theConstitution in its entirety and the whole code of laws enacted under it.The evil example of permitting individuals, corporations, or communitiesto nullify the laws because they cross some selfish or local interest orprejudices is full of danger, not only to the nation at large, but muchmore to those who use this pernicious expedient to escape their just obligationsor to obtain an unjust advantage over others. They will presently themselvesbe compelled to appeal to the law for protection, and those who would usethe law as a defense must not deny that use of it to others. 

If our great corporations would more scrupulously observe their legallimitations and duties, they would have less cause to complain of the unlawfullimitations of their rights or of violent interference with their operations.The community that by concert, open or secret, among its citizens deniesto a portion of its members their plain rights under the law has severedthe only safe bond of social order and prosperity. The evil works froma bad center both ways. It demoralizes those who practice it and destroysthe faith of those who suffer by it in the efficiency of the law as a safeprotector. The man in whose breast that faith has been darkened is naturallythe subject of dangerous and uncanny suggestions. Those who use unlawfulmethods, if moved by no higher motive than the selfishness that promptedthem, may well stop and inquire what is to be the end of this. 

An unlawful expedient can not become a permanent condition of government.If the educated and influential classes in a community either practiceor connive at the systematic violation of laws that seem to them to crosstheir convenience, what can they expect when the lesson that convenienceor a supposed class interest is a sufficient cause for lawlessness hasbeen well learned by the ignorant classes? A community where law is therule of conduct and where courts, not mobs, execute its penalties is theonly attractive field for business investments and honest labor. 

Our naturalization laws should be so amended as to make the inquiryinto the character and good disposition of persons applying for citizenshipmore careful and searching. Our existing laws have been in their administrationan unimpressive and often an unintelligible form. We accept the man asa citizen without any knowledge of his fitness, and he assumes the dutiesof citizenship without any knowledge as to what they are. The privilegesof American citizenship are so great and its duties so grave that we maywell insist upon a good knowledge of every person applying for citizenshipand a good knowledge by him of our institutions. We should not cease tobe hospitable to immigration, but we should cease to be careless as tothe character of it. There are men of all races, even the best, whose comingis necessarily a burden upon our public revenues or a threat to socialorder. These should be identified and excluded. 

We have happily maintained a policy of avoiding all interference withEuropean affairs. We have been only interested spectators of their contentionsin diplomacy and in war, ready to use our friendly offices to promote peace,but never obtruding our advice and never attempting unfairly to coin thedistresses of other powers into commercial advantage to ourselves. We havea just right to expect that our European policy will be the American policyof European courts. 

It is so manifestly incompatible with those precautions for our peaceand safety which all the great powers habitually observe and enforce inmatters affecting them that a shorter waterway between our eastern andwestern seaboards should be dominated by any European Government that wemay confidently expect that such a purpose will not be entertained by anyfriendly power. 

We shall in the future, as in the past, use every endeavor to maintainand enlarge our friendly relations with all the great powers, but theywill not expect us to look kindly upon any project that would leave ussubject to the dangers of a hostile observation or environment. We havenot sought to dominate or to absorb any of our weaker neighbors, but ratherto aid and encourage them to establish free and stable governments restingupon the consent of their own people. We have a clear right to expect,therefore, that no European Government will seek to establish colonialdependencies upon the territory of these independent American States. Thatwhich a sense of justice restrains us from seeking they may be reasonablyexpected willingly to forego. 

It must not be assumed, however, that our interests are so exclusivelyAmerican that our entire inattention to any events that may transpire elsewherecan be taken for granted. Our citizens domiciled for purposes of tradein all countries and in many of the islands of the sea demand and willhave our adequate care in their personal and commercial rights. The necessitiesof our Navy require convenient coaling stations and dock and harbor privileges.These and other trading privileges we will feel free to obtain only bymeans that do not in any degree partake of coercion, however feeble thegovernment from which we ask such concessions. But having fairly obtainedthem by methods and for purposes entirely consistent with the most friendlydisposition toward all other powers, our consent will be necessary to anymodification or impairment of the concession. 

We shall neither fail to respect the flag of any friendly nation orthe just rights of its citizens, nor to exact the like treatment for ourown. Calmness, justice, and consideration should characterize our diplomacy.The offices of an intelligent diplomacy or of friendly arbitration in propercases should be adequate to the peaceful adjustment of all internationaldifficulties. By such methods we will make our contribution to the world'speace, which no nation values more highly, and avoid the opprobrium whichmust fall upon the nation that ruthlessly breaks it. 

The duty devolved by law upon the President to nominate and, by andwith the advice and consent of the Senate, to appoint all public officerswhose appointment is not otherwise provided for in the Constitution orby act of Congress has become very burdensome and its wise and efficientdischarge full of difficulty. The civil list is so large that a personalknowledge of any large number of the applicants is impossible. The Presidentmust rely upon the representations of others, and these are often madeinconsiderately and without any just sense of responsibility. I have aright, I think, to insist that those who volunteer or are invited to giveadvice as to appointments shall exercise consideration and fidelity. Ahigh sense of duty and an ambition to improve the service should characterizeall public officers. 

There are many ways in which the convenience and comfort of those whohave business with our public offices may be promoted by a thoughtful andobliging officer, and I shall expect those whom I may appoint to justifytheir selection by a conspicuous efficiency in the discharge of their duties.Honorable party service will certainly not be esteemed by me a disqualificationfor public office, but it will in no case be allowed to serve as a shieldof official negligence, incompetency, or delinquency. It is entirely creditableto seek public office by proper methods and with proper motives, and allapplicants will be treated with consideration; but I shall need, and theheads of Departments will need, time for inquiry and deliberation. Persistentimportunity will not, therefore, be the best support of an applicationfor office. Heads of Departments, bureaus, and all other public officershaving any duty connected therewith will be expected to enforce the civil-service law fully and without evasion. Beyond this obvious duty I hopeto do something more to advance the reform of the civil service. The ideal,or even my own ideal, I shall probably not attain. Retrospect will be asafer basis of judgment than promises. We shall not, however, I am sure,be able to put our civil service upon a nonpartisan basis until we havesecured an incumbency that fair-minded men of the opposition will approvefor impartiality and integrity. As the number of such in the civil listis increased removals from office will diminish. 

While a Treasury surplus is not the greatest evil, it is a serious evil.Our revenue should be ample to meet the ordinary annual demands upon ourTreasury, with a sufficient margin for those extraordinary but scarcelyless imperative demands which arise now and then. Expenditure should alwaysbe made with economy and only upon public necessity. Wastefulness, profligacy,or favoritism in public expenditures is criminal. But there is nothingin the condition of our country or of our people to suggest that anythingpresently necessary to the public prosperity, security, or honor shouldbe unduly postponed. 

It will be the duty of Congress wisely to forecast and estimate theseextraordinary demands, and, having added them to our ordinary expenditures,to so adjust our revenue laws that no considerable annual surplus willremain. We will fortunately be able to apply to the redemption of the publicdebt any small and unforeseen excess of revenue. This is better than toreduce our income below our necessary expenditures, with the resultingchoice between another change of our revenue laws and an increase of thepublic debt. It is quite possible, I am sure, to effect the necessary reductionin our revenues without breaking down our protective tariff or seriouslyinjuring any domestic industry. 

The construction of a sufficient number of modern war ships and of theirnecessary armament should progress as rapidly as is consistent with careand perfection in plans and workmanship. The spirit, courage, and skillof our naval officers and seamen have many times in our history given toweak ships and inefficient guns a rating greatly beyond that of the navallist. That they will again do so upon occasion I do not doubt; but theyought not, by premeditation or neglect, to be left to the risks and exigenciesof an unequal combat. We should encourage the establishment of Americansteamship lines. The exchanges of commerce demand stated, reliable, andrapid means of communication, and until these are provided the developmentof our trade with the States lying south of us is impossible. 

Our pension laws should give more adequate and discriminating reliefto the Union soldiers and sailors and to their widows and orphans. Suchoccasions as this should remind us that we owe everything to their valorand sacrifice. 

It is a subject of congratulation that there is a near prospect of theadmission into the Union of the Dakotas and Montana and Washington Territories.This act of justice has been unreasonably delayed in the case of some ofthem. The people who have settled these Territories are intelligent, enterprising,and patriotic, and the accession these new States will add strength tothe nation. It is due to the settlers in the Territories who have availedthemselves of the invitations of our land laws to make homes upon the publicdomain that their titles should be speedily adjusted and their honest entriesconfirmed by patent. 

It is very gratifying to observe the general interest now being manifestedin the reform of our election laws. Those who have been for years callingattention to the pressing necessity of throwing about the ballot box andabout the elector further safeguards, in order that our elections mightnot only be free and pure, but might clearly appear to be so, will welcomethe accession of any who did not so soon discover the need of reform. TheNational Congress has not as yet taken control of elections in that caseover which the Constitution gives it jurisdiction, but has accepted andadopted the election laws of the several States, provided penalties fortheir violation and a method of supervision. Only the inefficiency of theState laws or an unfair partisan administration of them could suggest adeparture from this policy. 

It was clearly, however, in the contemplation of the framers of theConstitution that such an exigency might arise, and provision was wiselymade for it. The freedom of the ballot is a condition of our national life,and no power vested in Congress or in the Executive to secure or perpetuateit should remain unused upon occasion. The people of all the Congressionaldistricts have an equal interest that the election in each shall trulyexpress the views and wishes of a majority of the qualified electors residingwithin it. The results of such elections are not local, and the insistenceof electors residing in other districts that they shall be pure and freedoes not savor at all of impertinence. 

If in any of the States the public security is thought to be threatenedby ignorance among the electors, the obvious remedy is education. The sympathyand help of our people will not be withheld from any community strugglingwith special embarrassments or difficulties connected with the suffrageif the remedies proposed proceed upon lawful lines and are promoted byjust and honorable methods. How shall those who practice election fraudsrecover that respect for the sanctity of the ballot which is the firstcondition and obligation of good citizenship? The man who has come to regardthe ballot box as a juggler's hat has renounced his allegiance. 

Let us exalt patriotism and moderate our party contentions. Let thosewho would die for the flag on the field of battle give a better proof oftheir patriotism and a higher glory to their country by promoting fraternityand justice. A party success that is achieved by unfair methods or by practicesthat partake of revolution is hurtful and evanescent even from a partystandpoint. We should hold our differing opinions in mutual respect, and,having submitted them to the arbitrament of the ballot, should accept anadverse judgment with the same respect that we would have demanded of ouropponents if the decision had been in our favor. 

No other people have a government more worthy of their respect and loveor a land so magnificent in extent, so pleasant to look upon, and so fullof generous suggestion to enterprise and labor. God has placed upon ourhead a diadem and has laid at our feet power and wealth beyond definitionor calculation. But we must not forget that we take these gifts upon thecondition that justice and mercy shall hold the reins of power and thatthe upward avenues of hope shall be free to all the people. 

I do not mistrust the future. Dangers have been in frequent ambush alongour path, but we have uncovered and vanquished them all. Passion has sweptsome of our communities, but only to give us a new demonstration that thegreat body of our people are stable, patriotic, and law-abiding. No politicalparty can long pursue advantage at the expense of public honor or by rudeand indecent methods without protest and fatal disaffection in its ownbody. The peaceful agencies of commerce are more fully revealing the necessaryunity of all our communities, and the increasing intercourse of our peopleis promoting mutual respect. We shall find unalloyed pleasure in the revelationwhich our next census will make of the swift development of the great resourcesof some of the States. Each State will bring its generous contributionto the great aggregate of the nation's increase. And when the harvestsfrom the fields, the cattle from the hills, and the ores of the earth shallhave been weighed, counted, and valued, we will turn from them all to crownwith the highest honor the State that has most promoted education, virtue,justice, and patriotism promoted education, virtue, justice, and patriotismamong its people.