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Franklin Pierce
Inaugural Address, 1853
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Friday, March 4, 1853

My Countrymen:

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

The circumstances under which I have been called for a limited
period to preside over the destinies of the Republic fill me with a
profound sense of responsibility, but with nothing like shrinking
apprehension. I repair to the post assigned me not as to one
sought, but in obedience to the unsolicited expression of your
will, answerable only for a fearless, faithful, and diligent exercise
of my best powers. I ought to be, and am, truly grateful for the
rare manifestation of the nation's confidence; but this, so far from
lightening my obligations, only adds to their weight. You have
summoned me in my weakness; you must sustain me by your strength.
When looking for the fulfillment of reasonable requirements, you will
not be unmindful of the great changes which have occurred, even
within the last quarter of a century, and the consequent augmentation
and complexity of duties imposed in the administration both of your
home and foreign affairs.

Whether the elements of inherent force in the Republic have kept
pace with its unparalleled progression in territory, population, and
wealth has been the subject of earnest thought and discussion on
both sides of the ocean. Less than sixty-four years ago the Father
of his Country made "the" then "recent accession of the important
State of North Carolina to the Constitution of the United States"
one of the subjects of his special congratulation. At that moment,
however, when the agitation consequent upon the Revolutionary
struggle had hardly subsided, when we were just emerging from
the weakness and embarrassments of the Confederation, there
was an evident consciousness of vigor equal to the great mission
so wisely and 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 in a government constituted like ours. It is no paradox to say
that although comparatively weak the new-born nation was intrinsically
strong. Inconsiderable in population and apparent resources, it was
upheld by a broad and intelligent comprehension of rights and an
all-pervading purpose to maintain them, stronger than armaments.
It came from the furnace of the Revolution, tempered to the necessities
of the times. The thoughts of the men of that day were as practical as
their sentiments were patriotic. They wasted no portion of their energies
upon idle and delusive speculations, but with a firm and fearless step
advanced beyond the governmental landmarks which had hitherto
circumscribed the limits of human freedom and planted their standard,
where it has stood against dangers which have threatened from
abroad, and internal agitation, which has at times fearfully menaced
at home. They proved themselves equal to the solution of the great
problem, to understand which 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 affirms to be so much
more unusual, the capacity to maintain. The oppressed throughout
the 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 highest
duty to suffering humanity. It has spoken and will continue to speak,
not only by its words, but by its acts, the language of sympathy,
encouragement, and hope to those who earnestly listen to tones
which pronounce for the largest rational liberty. But after all, the
most animating encouragement and potent appeal for freedom will
be its own history? its trials and its triumphs. Preeminently, the
power of our advocacy reposes in our example; but no example,
be it remembered, can be powerful for lasting good, whatever
apparent advantages may be gained, which is not based upon
eternal principles of right and justice. Our fathers decided for
themselves, both upon the hour to declare and the hour to strike.
They were their own judges of the circumstances under which it
became them to pledge to each other "their lives, their fortunes,
and their sacred honor" for the acquisition of the priceless inheritance
transmitted to us. The energy with which that great conflict was
opened and, under the guidance of a manifest and beneficent
Providence the uncomplaining endurance with which it was prosecuted
to its consummation were only surpassed by the wisdom and patriotic
spirit of concession which characterized all the counsels of the early
fathers.

One of the most impressive evidences of that wisdom is to be found
in the fact that the actual working of our system has dispelled a
degree of solicitude 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 original number; your densely
populated possessions skirt the shores of the two great oceans;
and yet this vast increase of people and territory has not only
shown itself compatible with the harmonious action of the States
and Federal Government in their respective constitutional spheres,
but has afforded an additional guaranty of the strength and integrity
of both.

With an experience thus suggestive and cheering, the policy of my
Administration will 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 our position on the globe render the acquisition of
certain possessions not within our jurisdiction eminently important
for our protection, if not in the future essential for the preservation
of the rights of commerce and the peace of the world. Should they
be obtained, it will be through no grasping spirit, but with a view to
obvious national interest and security, and in a manner entirely
consistent with the strictest observance of national faith. We have
nothing in our history or position to invite aggression; we have
everything to beckon us to the cultivation of relations of peace and
amity with all nations. Purposes, therefore, at once just and pacific
will be significantly marked in the conduct of our foreign affairs. I
intend that my Administration shall leave no blot upon our fair record,
and trust I may safely give the assurance that no act within the
legitimate scope of my constitutional control will be tolerated on the
part of any portion of our citizens which can not challenge a ready
justification before the tribunal of the civilized world. An Administration
would be unworthy of confidence at home or respect abroad should
it cease to be influenced by the conviction that no apparent
advantage can be purchased at a price so dear as that of national
wrong or dishonor. It is not your privilege as a 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
pathway of advancement, and will be limitless as duration. Hence
a sound and comprehensive policy should embrace not less the
distant future than the urgent present.

The great objects of our pursuit as a people are best to be
attained by peace, and are entirely consistent with the tranquillity
and interests of the rest of mankind. With the neighboring nations
upon our continent we should cultivate kindly and fraternal relations.
We can desire nothing in regard to them so much as to see them
consolidate their strength and pursue the paths of prosperity and
happiness. If in the course of their growth we should open new
channels of trade and create additional facilities for friendly
intercourse, the benefits realized will be equal and mutual. Of the
complicated European systems of national polity we have heretofore
been independent. From their wars, their tumults, and anxieties
we have been, happily, almost entirely exempt. Whilst these are
confined to the nations which gave them existence, and within their
legitimate jurisdiction, they can not affect us except as they appeal
to our sympathies in the cause of human freedom and universal
advancement. But the vast interests of commerce are common to
all mankind, and the advantages of trade and international intercourse
must always present a noble field for the moral influence of a great
people.

With these views firmly and honestly carried out, we have a right
to expect, 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, at
home and abroad, must be sacredly maintained. So long as he can
discern every star in its place upon that ensign, without wealth to
purchase for him 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 presence of princes, with a proud consciousness that he is
himself one of a nation of sovereigns and that he can not in legitimate
pursuit wander so far from home that the agent whom he shall leave
behind in the place which I now occupy will not see that no rude hand
of power or tyrannical passion is laid upon him with impunity. He must
realize that upon every sea and on every soil where our enterprise
may rightfully seek the protection of our flag American citizenship is
an inviolable panoply for the security of American rights. And in this
connection it can hardly be necessary to reaffirm a principle which
should now be regarded as fundamental. The rights, security, and
repose of this Confederacy reject the idea of interference or
colonization on this side of the ocean by any foreign power beyond
present jurisdiction as utterly inadmissible.

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

In the administration of domestic affairs you expect a devoted
integrity in the public service and an observance of rigid economy
in all departments, so marked as never justly to be questioned. If
this reasonable expectation be not realized, I frankly confess that
one of your leading hopes is doomed to disappointment, and that
my efforts in a very important particular must result in a humiliating
failure. Offices can be properly regarded only in the light of aids for
the accomplishment of these objects, and as occupancy can confer
no prerogative nor importunate desire for preferment any claim,
the public interest imperatively demands that they be considered
with sole reference to the duties to be performed. Good citizens
may well claim the protection of good laws and the benign
influence of good government, but a 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 so regardless of
its responsibility and of the obvious elements of success as to
retain persons known to be under the influence of political hostility
and partisan prejudice in positions which will require not only
severe labor, but cordial cooperation. Having no implied
engagements to ratify, no rewards to bestow, no resentments
to remember, and no personal wishes to consult in selections for
official station, I shall fulfill this difficult and delicate trust, admitting
no motive as worthy either of my character or position which does
not contemplate an efficient discharge of duty and the best interests
of my country. I acknowledge my obligations to the masses of my
countrymen, and to them alone. Higher objects than personal
aggrandizement gave direction and energy to their exertions in
the late canvass, and they shall not be disappointed. They require
at my hands diligence, integrity, and capacity wherever there are
duties to be performed. Without these qualities in their public
servants, more stringent laws for the prevention or punishment
of fraud, negligence, and peculation will be vain. With them they
will be 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 of a confederacy so vast as ours are too
obvious to be disregarded. You have a right, therefore, to expect
your agents in every department to regard strictly the limits
imposed upon them by the Constitution of the United States.
The great scheme of our constitutional liberty rests upon a proper
distribution of power between the State and Federal authorities,
and experience has shown that the harmony and happiness of
our people must depend upon a just discrimination between the
separate rights and responsibilities of the States and your common
rights and obligations under the General Government; and here,
in my opinion, are the considerations which should form the true
basis of future concord in regard to the questions which have
most seriously disturbed public tranquillity. If the Federal Government
will confine itself to the exercise of powers clearly granted by the
Constitution, it can hardly happen that its action upon any question
should endanger the institutions of the States or interfere with their
right to manage matters strictly domestic according to the will of
their own people.

In expressing briefly my views upon an important subject rich
has recently agitated the nation to almost a fearful degree, I am
moved by no other impulse than a most earnest desire for the
perpetuation of that Union which has made us what we are,
showering upon us blessings and conferring a power and influence
which our fathers could hardly have anticipated, even with their
most sanguine hopes directed to a far-off future. The sentiments
I now announce were not unknown before the expression of the
voice which called 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 at this time because silence might
perhaps be misconstrued. With the Union my best and dearest
earthly hopes are entwined. Without it what are we individually
or collectively? What becomes of the noblest field ever opened
for the advancement of our race in religion, in government, in
the arts, and in all that dignifies and adorns mankind? From that
radiant constellation which both illumines our own way and points
out to struggling nations their course, 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 assurance that such a
catastrophe is not to overtake them while I possess the power
to stay it? It is with me an earnest and vital belief that as the
Union has 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 will always be so, but
never has been and never can be traversed for good in a spirit
of sectionalism and uncharitableness. The founders of the Republic
dealt with things as they were presented to them, in a spirit of
self-sacrificing patriotism, and, as time has proved, with a
comprehensive wisdom which it will always be safe for us to
consult. Every measure tending to strengthen the fraternal feelings
of all the members of our Union has had my heartfelt approbation.
To every theory of society or government, whether the offspring of
feverish ambition or of morbid enthusiasm, calculated to dissolve
the bonds of law and affection which unite us, I shall interpose a
ready and stern resistance. I believe that involuntary servitude,
as it exists in different States of this Confederacy, is recognized
by the Constitution. I believe that it stands like any other admitted
right, and that the States where it exists are entitled to efficient
remedies to enforce the constitutional provisions. I hold that the
laws of 1850, commonly called the "compromise measures," are
strictly constitutional and to be unhesitatingly carried into effect.
I believe that the constituted authorities of this Republic are
bound to regard the rights of the South in this respect as they
would view any other legal and constitutional right, and that the
laws to enforce them should be respected and obeyed, not with
a reluctance encouraged by abstract opinions as to their propriety
in a different state of society, but cheerfully and according to the
decisions of the tribunal to which their exposition belongs. Such
have been, and are, my convictions, and upon them I shall act.
I fervently hope that the question is at rest, and that no sectional
or ambitious or fanatical excitement may again threaten the
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 will not be sufficient that sectional prejudices find no place in
the public deliberations. It will not be sufficient that the rash
counsels of human passion are rejected. It must be felt that there
is no national security but in the nation's humble, acknowledged
dependence upon God and His overruling providence.

We have been carried in safety through a perilous crisis. Wise
counsels, like those which gave us the Constitution, prevailed to
uphold it. Let the period be remembered as an admonition, and
not as an encouragement, in any section of the Union, to make
experiments where experiments are fraught with such fearful
hazard. Let it be impressed upon all hearts that, beautiful as
our fabric is, no earthly power or wisdom could ever reunite its
broken fragments. Standing, as I do, almost within view of the
green slopes 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 so many eloquent voices of
exhortation from heaven, I can express no better hope for my
country than that the kind Providence which smiled upon our
fathers may enable their children to preserve the blessings they
have inherited.
 

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