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Thomas Jefferson
First Inaugural Address, 1801
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Friends and Fellow-Citizens:

Called upon to undertake the duties of the first executive office
of our country, I avail myself of the presence of that portion of
my fellow-citizens which is here assembled to express my grateful
thanks for the favor with which they have been pleased to look
toward me, to declare a sincere consciousness that the task is
above my talents, and that I approach it with those anxious and
awful presentiments which the greatness of the charge and the
weakness of my powers so justly inspire. A rising nation, spread
over a wide and fruitful land, traversing all the seas with the rich
productions of their industry, engaged in commerce with nations
who feel power and forget right, advancing rapidly to destinies
beyond the reach of mortal eye?when I contemplate these
transcendent objects, and see the honor, the happiness, and
the hopes of this beloved country committed to the issue, and
the auspices of this day, I shrink from the contemplation, and
humble myself before the magnitude of the undertaking. Utterly,
indeed, should I despair did not the presence of many whom
I here see remind me that in the other igh authorities provided
by our Constitution I shall find resources of wisdom, of virtue,
and of zeal on which to rely under all difficulties. To you, then,
gentlemen, who are charged with the sovereign functions of
legislation, and to those associated with you, I look with
encouragement for that guidance and support which may enable
us to steer with safety the vessel in which we are all embarked
amidst the conflicting elements of a troubled world.

During the contest of opinion through which we have passed
the animation of discussions and of exertions has sometimes
worn an aspect which might impose on strangers unused to
think freely and to speak and to write what they think; but this
being now decided by the voice of the nation, announced
according to the rules of the Constitution, all will, of course,
arrange themselves under the will of the law, and unite in
common efforts for the common good. All, too, will bear in mind
this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all
cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable; that
the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must
protect, and to violate would be oppression. Let us, then,
fellow-citizens, unite with one heart and one mind. Let us restore
to social intercourse that harmony and affection without which
liberty and even life itself are but dreary things. And let us reflect
that, having banished from our land that religious intolerance under
which mankind so long bled and suffered, we have yet gained little
if we countenance a political intolerance as despotic, as wicked,
and capable of as bitter and bloody persecutions. During the throes
and convulsions of the ancient world, during the agonizing spasms
of infuriated man, seeking through blood and slaughter his long-lost
liberty, it was not wonderful that the agitation of the billows should
reach even this distant and peaceful shore; that this should be more
felt and feared by some and less by others, and should divide opinions
as to measures of safety. But every difference of opinion is not a
difference of principle. We have called by different names brethren of
the same principle. We are all Republicans, we are all Federalists. If
there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this Union or to
change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed as monuments
of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where
reason is left free to combat it. I know, indeed, that some honest men
fear that a republican government can not be strong, that this
Government is not strong enough; but would the honest patriot, in
the full tide of successful experiment, abandon a government which
has so far kept us free and firm on the theoretic and visionary fear
that this Government, the world's best hope, may by possibility
want energy to preserve itself? I trust not. I believe this, on the
contrary, the strongest Government on earth. I believe it the only
one where every man, at the call of the law, would fly to the standard
of the law, and would meet invasions of the public order as his own
personal concern. Sometimes it is said that man can not be trusted
with the government of himself. Can he, then, be trusted with the
government of others? Or have we found angels in the forms of kings
to govern him? Let history answer this question.

Let us, then, with courage and confidence pursue our own Federal
and Republican principles, our attachment to union and representative
government. Kindly separated by nature and a wide ocean from the
exterminating havoc of one quarter of the globe; too high-minded to
endure the degradations of the others; possessing a chosen country,
with room enough for our descendants to the thousandth and
thousandth generation; entertaining a due sense of our equal right
to the use of our own faculties, to the acquisitions of our own industry,
to honor and confidence from our fellow-citizens, resulting not from
birth, but from our actions and their sense of them; enlightened by
a benign religion, professed, indeed, and practiced in various forms,
yet all of them inculcating honesty, truth, temperance, gratitude, and
the love of man; acknowledging and adoring an overruling Providence,
which by all its dispensations proves that it delights in the happiness
of man here and his greater happiness hereafter?with all these
blessings, what more is necessary to make us a happy and a
prosperous people? Still one thing more, fellow-citizens?a wise and
frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another,
shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of
industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor
the bread it has earned. This is the sum of good government, and
this is necessary to close the circle of our felicities.

About to enter, fellow-citizens, on the exercise of duties which
comprehend everything dear and valuable to you, it is proper you
should understand what I deem the essential principles of our
Government, and consequently those which ought to shape its
Administration. I will compress them within the narrowest compass
they will bear, stating the general principle, but not all its limitations.
Equal and exact justice to all men, of whatever state or persuasion,
religious or political; peace, commerce, and honest friendship with
all nations, entangling alliances with none; the support of the State
governments in all their rights, as the most competent administrations
for our domestic concerns and the surest bulwarks against
antirepublican tendencies; the preservation of the General Government
in its whole constitutional vigor, as the sheet anchor of our peace at
home and safety abroad; a jealous care of the right of election by the
people?a mild and safe corrective of abuses which are lopped by the
sword of revolution where peaceable remedies are unprovided;
absolute acquiescence in the decisions of the majority, the vital principle
of republics, from which is no appeal but to force, the vital principle and
immediate parent of despotism; a well disciplined militia, our best
reliance in peace and for the first moments of war, till regulars may
relieve them; the supremacy of the civil over the military authority;
economy in the public expense, that labor may be lightly burthened;
the honest payment of our debts and sacred preservation of the public
faith; encouragement of agriculture, and of commerce as its handmaid;
the diffusion of information and arraignment of all abuses at the bar of
the public reason; freedom of religion; freedom of the press, and
freedom of person under the protection of the habeas corpus, and
trial by juries impartially selected. These principles form the bright
constellation which has gone before us and guided our steps through
an age of revolution and reformation. The wisdom of our sages and
blood of our heroes have been devoted to their attainment. They
should be the creed of our political faith, the text of civic instruction,
the touchstone by which to try the services of those we trust; and
should we wander from them in moments of error or of alarm, let
us hasten to retrace our steps and to regain the road which alone
leads to peace, liberty, and safety.

I repair, then, fellow-citizens, to the post you have assigned me.
With experience enough in subordinate offices to have seen the
difficulties of this the greatest of all, I have learnt to expect that it
will rarely fall to the lot of imperfect man to retire from this station
with the reputation and the favor which bring him into it. Without
pretensions to that high confidence you reposed in our first and
greatest revolutionary character, whose preeminent services had
entitled him to the first place in his country's love and destined for
him the fairest page in the volume of faithful history, I ask so much
confidence only as may give firmness and effect to the legal
administration of your affairs. I shall often go wrong through defect
of judgment. When right, I shall often be thought wrong by those
whose positions will not command a view of the whole ground. I
ask your indulgence for my own errors, which will never be
intentional, and your support against the errors of others, who may
condemn what they would not if seen in all its parts. The approbation
implied by your suffrage is a great consolation to me for the past,
and my future solicitude will be to retain the good opinion of those
who have bestowed it in advance, to conciliate that of others by
doing them all the good in my power, and to be instrumental to the
happiness and freedom of all.

Relying, then, on the patronage of your good will, I advance with
obedience to the work, ready to retire from it whenever you
become sensible how much better choice it is in your power to make.
And may that Infinite Power which rules the destinies of the universe
lead our councils to what is best, and give them a favorable issue
for your peace and prosperity.

 

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