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Contents > Author > James Monroe > First Inaugural Address, 1817 1758- 1831
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James Monroe
First Inaugural Address, 1817
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I should be destitute of feeling if I was not deeply affected by the
strong proof which my fellow-citizens have given me of their
confidence in calling me to the high office whose functions I am
about to assume. As the expression of their good opinion of my
conduct in the public service, I derive from it a gratification which
those who are conscious of having done all that they could to merit
it can alone feel. My sensibility is increased by a just estimate of the
importance of the trust and of the nature and extent of its duties,
with the proper discharge of which the highest interests of a great
and free people are intimately connected. Conscious of my own
deficiency, I cannot enter on these duties without great anxiety for
the result. From a just responsibility I will never shrink, calculating
with confidence that in my best efforts to promote the public welfare
my motives will always be duly appreciated and my conduct be
viewed with that candor and indulgence which I have experienced
in other stations.

In commencing the duties of the chief executive office it has been
the practice of the distinguished men who have gone before me to
explain the principles which would govern them in their respective
Administrations. In following their venerated example my attention
is naturally drawn to the great causes which have contributed in a
principal degree to produce the present happy condition of the
United States. They will best explain the nature of our duties and
shed much light on the policy which ought to be pursued in future.

From the commencement of our Revolution to the present day almost
forty years have elapsed, and from the establishment of this
Constitution twenty-eight. Through this whole term the Government
has been what may emphatically be called self-government. And
what has been the effect? To whatever object we turn our attention,
whether it relates to our foreign or domestic concerns, we find
abundant cause to felicitate ourselves in the excellence of our
institutions. During a period fraught with difficulties and marked by
very extraordinary events the United States have flourished beyond
example. Their citizens individually have been happy and the nation
prosperous.

Under this Constitution our commerce has been wisely regulated
with foreign nations and between the States; new States have been
admitted into our Union; our territory has been enlarged by fair and
honorable treaty, and with great advantage to the original States;
the States, respectively protected by the National Government under
a mild, parental system against foreign dangers, and enjoying within
their separate spheres, by a wise partition of power, a just proportion
of the sovereignty, have improved their police, extended their settlements,
and attained a strength and maturity which are the best proofs of
wholesome laws well administered. And if we look to the condition of
individuals what a proud spectacle does it exhibit! On whom has oppression
fallen in any quarter of our Union? Who has been deprived of any right of
person or property? Who restrained from offering his vows in the mode
which he prefers to the Divine Author of his being? It is well known that
all these blessings have been enjoyed in their fullest extent; and I add
with peculiar satisfaction that there has been no example of a capital
punishment being inflicted on anyone for the crime of high treason.

Some who might admit the competency of our Government to these
beneficent duties might doubt it in trials which put to the test its strength
and efficiency as a member of the great community of nations. Here too
experience has afforded us the most satisfactory proof in its favor. Just
as this Constitution was put into action several of the principal States of
Europe had become much agitated and some of them seriously convulsed.
Destructive wars ensued, which have of late only been terminated. In the
course of these conflicts the United States received great injury from
several of the parties. It was their interest to stand aloof from the contest,
to demand justice from the party committing the injury, and to cultivate by
a fair and honorable conduct the friendship of all. War became at length
inevitable, and the result has shown that our Government is equal to that,
the greatest of trials, under the most unfavorable circumstances. Of the
virtue of the people and of the heroic exploits of the Army, the Navy, and
the militia I need not speak.

Such, then, is the happy Government under which we live?a Government
adequate to every purpose for which the social compact is formed; a
Government elective in all its branches, under which every citizen may
by his merit obtain the highest trust recognized by the Constitution;
which contains within it no cause of discord, none to put at variance
one portion of the community with another; a Government which
protects every citizen in the full enjoyment of his rights, and is able
to protect the nation against injustice from foreign powers.

Other considerations of the highest importance admonish us to
cherish our Union and to cling to the Government which supports it.
Fortunate as we are in our political institutions, we have not been
less so in other circumstances on which our prosperity and happiness
essentially depend. Situated within the temperate zone, and extending
through many degrees of latitude along the Atlantic, the United States
enjoy all the varieties of climate, and every production incident to that
portion of the globe. Penetrating internally to the Great Lakes and
beyond the sources of the great rivers which communicate through
our whole interior, no country was ever happier with respect to its
domain. Blessed, too, with a fertile soil, our produce has always been
very abundant, leaving, even in years the least favorable, a surplus for
the wants of our fellow-men in other countries. Such is our peculiar
felicity that there is not a part of our Union that is not particularly
interested in preserving it. The great agricultural interest of the nation
prospers under its protection. Local interests are not less fostered by it.
Our fellow-citizens of the North engaged in navigation find great
encouragement in being made the favored carriers of the vast productions
of the other portions of the United States, while the inhabitants of these
are amply recompensed, in their turn, by the nursery for seamen and
naval force thus formed and reared up for the support of our common
rights. Our manufactures find a generous encouragement by the policy
which patronizes domestic industry, and the surplus of our produce a
steady and profitable market by local wants in less-favored parts at home.

Such, then, being the highly favored condition of our country, it is the
interest of every citizen to maintain it. What are the dangers which
menace us? If any exist they ought to be ascertained and guarded
against.

In explaining my sentiments on this subject it may be asked, What raised
us to the present happy state? How did we accomplish the Revolution?
How remedy the defects of the first instrument of our Union, by infusing
into the National Government sufficient power for national purposes,
without impairing the just rights of the States or affecting those of
individuals? How sustain and pass with glory through the late war?
The Government has been in the hands of the people. To the people,
therefore, and to the faithful and able depositaries of their trust is the
credit due. Had the people of the United States been educated in
different principles, had they been less intelligent, less independent, or
less virtuous, can it be believed that we should have maintained the
same steady and consistent career or been blessed with the same
success? While, then, the constituent body retains its present sound
and healthful state everything will be safe. They will choose competent
and faithful representatives for every department. It is only when the
people become ignorant and corrupt, when they degenerate into a
populace, that they are incapable of exercising the sovereignty.
Usurpation is then an easy attainment, and an usurper soon found.
The people themselves become the willing instruments of their own
debasement and ruin. Let us, then, look to the great cause, and
endeavor to preserve it in full force. Let us by all wise and
constitutional measures promote intelligence among the people as
the best means of preserving our liberties.

Dangers from abroad are not less deserving of attention. Experiencing
the fortune of other nations, the United States may be again involved
in war, and it may in that event be the object of the adverse party to
overset our Government, to break our Union, and demolish us as a
nation. Our distance from Europe and the just, moderate, and pacific
policy of our Government may form some security against these
dangers, but they ought to be anticipated and guarded against. Many
of our citizens are engaged in commerce and navigation, and all of
them are in a certain degree dependent on their prosperous state.
Many are engaged in the fisheries. These interests are exposed to
invasion in the wars between other powers, and we should disregard
the faithful admonition of experience if we did not expect it. We must
support our rights or lose our character, and with it, perhaps, our
liberties. A people who fail to do it can scarcely be said to hold a
place among independent nations. National honor is national
property of the highest value. The sentiment in the mind of every
citizen is national strength. It ought therefore to be cherished.

To secure us against these dangers our coast and inland frontiers
should be fortified, our Army and Navy, regulated upon just principles
as to the force of each, be kept in perfect order, and our militia be
placed on the best practicable footing. To put our extensive coast in
such a state of defense as to secure our cities and interior from
invasion will be attended with expense, but the work when finished
will be permanent, and it is fair to presume that a single campaign
of invasion by a naval force superior to our own, aided by a few
thousand land troops, would expose us to greater expense, without
taking into the estimate the loss of property and distress of our
citizens, than would be sufficient for this great work. Our land and
naval forces should be moderate, but adequate to the necessary
purposes?the former to garrison and preserve our fortifications
and to meet the first invasions of a foreign foe, and, while constituting
the elements of a greater force, to preserve the science as well as all
the necessary implements of war in a state to be brought into activity
in the event of war; the latter, retained within the limits proper in a
state of peace, might aid in maintaining the neutrality of the United
States with dignity in the wars of other powers and in saving the
property of their citizens from spoliation. In time of war, with the
enlargement of which the great naval resources of the country render
it susceptible, and which should be duly fostered in time of peace, it
would contribute essentially, both as an auxiliary of defense and as
a powerful engine of annoyance, to diminish the calamities of war and
to bring the war to a speedy and honorable termination.

But it ought always to be held prominently in view that the safety of
these States and of everything dear to a free people must depend in
an eminent degree on the militia. Invasions may be made too
formidable to be resisted by any land and naval force which it would
comport either with the principles of our Government or the
circumstances of the United States to maintain. In such cases recourse
must be had to the great body of the people, and in a manner to
produce the best effect. It is of the highest importance, therefore, that
they be so organized and trained as to be prepared for any emergency.
The arrangement should be such as to put at the command of the
Government the ardent patriotism and youthful vigor of the country.
If formed on equal and just principles, it can not be oppressive. It is the
crisis which makes the pressure, and not the laws which provide a
remedy for it. This arrangement should be formed, too, in time of peace,
to be the better prepared for war. With such an organization of such a
people the United States have nothing to dread from foreign invasion.
At its approach an overwhelming force of gallant men might always be
put in motion.

Other interests of high importance will claim attention, among which
the improvement of our country by roads and canals, proceeding always
with a constitutional sanction, holds a distinguished place. By thus
facilitating the intercourse between the States we shall add much to the
convenience and comfort of our fellow-citizens, much to the ornament
of the country, and, what is of greater importance, we shall shorten
distances, and, by making each part more accessible to and dependent
on the other, we shall bind the Union more closely together. Nature
has done so much for us by intersecting the country with so many
great rivers, bays, and lakes, approaching from distant points so near
to each other, that the inducement to complete the work seems to be
peculiarly strong. A more interesting spectacle was perhaps never seen
than is exhibited within the limits of the United States?a territory so
vast and advantageously situated, containing objects so grand, so
useful, so happily connected in all their parts!

Our manufacturers will likewise require the systematic and fostering
care of the Government. Possessing as we do all the raw materials,
the fruit of our own soil and industry, we ought not to depend in the
degree we have done on supplies from other countries. While we are
thus dependent the sudden event of war, unsought and unexpected,
can not fail to plunge us into the most serious difficulties. It is important,
too, that the capital which nourishes our manufacturers should be
domestic, as its influence in that case instead of exhausting, as it may
do in foreign hands, would be felt advantageously on agriculture and
every other branch of industry. Equally important is it to provide at home
a market for our raw materials, as by extending the competition it will
enhance the price and protect the cultivator against the casualties
incident to foreign markets.

With the Indian tribes it is our duty to cultivate friendly relations and
to act with kindness and liberality in all our transactions. Equally proper
is it to persevere in our efforts to extend to them the advantages of
civilization.

The great amount of our revenue and the flourishing state of the
Treasury are a full proof of the competency of the national resources
for any emergency, as they are of the willingness of our fellow-citizens
to bear the burdens which the public necessities require. The vast
amount of vacant lands, the value of which daily augments, forms an
additional resource of great extent and duration. These resources,
besides accomplishing every other necessary purpose, put it completely
in the power of the United States to discharge the national debt at an
early period. Peace is the best time for improvement and preparation of
every kind; it is in peace that our commerce flourishes most, that taxes
are most easily paid, and that the revenue is most productive.

The Executive is charged officially in the Departments under it with the
disbursement of the public money, and is responsible for the faithful
application of it to the purposes for which it is raised. The Legislature is
the watchful guardian over the public purse. It is its duty to see that the
disbursement has been honestly made. To meet the requisite responsibility
every facility should be afforded to the Executive to enable it to bring the
public agents intrusted with the public money strictly and promptly to
account. Nothing should be presumed against them; but if, with the
requisite facilities, the public money is suffered to lie long and uselessly
in their hands, they will not be the only defaulters, nor will the demoralizing
effect be confined to them. It will evince a relaxation and want of tone in
the Administration which will be felt by the whole community. I shall do all
I can to secure economy and fidelity in this important branch of the
Administration, and I doubt not that the Legislature will perform its duty
with equal zeal. A thorough examination should be regularly made, and I
will promote it.

It is particularly gratifying to me to enter on the discharge of these duties
at a time when the United States are blessed with peace. It is a state
most consistent with their prosperity and happiness. It will be my sincere
desire to preserve it, so far as depends on the Executive, on just principles
with all nations, claiming nothing unreasonable of any and rendering to
each what is its due.

Equally gratifying is it to witness the increased harmony of opinion which
pervades our Union. Discord does not belong to our system. Union is
recommended as well by the free and benign principles of our Government,
extending its blessings to every individual, as by the other eminent
advantages attending it. The American people have encountered
together great dangers and sustained severe trials with success. They
constitute one great family with a common interest. Experience has
enlightened us on some questions of essential importance to the country.
The progress has been slow, dictated by a just reflection and a faithful
regard to every interest connected with it. To promote this harmony in
accord with the principles of our republican Government and in a manner
to give them the most complete effect, and to advance in all other respects
the best interests of our Union, will be the object of my constant and
zealous exertions.

Never did a government commence under auspices so favorable, nor ever
was success so complete. If we look to the history of other nations,
ancient or modern, we find no example of a growth so rapid, so gigantic,
of a people so prosperous and happy. In contemplating what we have
still to perform, the heart of every citizen must expand with joy when he
reflects how near our Government has approached to perfection; that in
respect to it we have no essential improvement to make; that the great
object is to preserve it in the essential principles and features which
characterize it, and that is to be done by preserving the virtue and
enlightening the minds of the people; and as a security against foreign
dangers to adopt such arrangements as are indispensable to the support
of our independence, our rights and liberties. If we persevere in the career
in which we have advanced so far and in the path already traced, we can
not fail, under the favor of a gracious Providence, to attain the high destiny
which seems to await us.

In the Administrations of the illustrious men who have preceded me in this
high station, with some of whom I have been connected by the closest ties
from early life, examples are presented which will always be found highly
instructive and useful to their successors. From these I shall endeavor to
derive all the advantages which they may afford. Of my immediate
predecessor, under whom so important a portion of this great and
successful experiment has been made, I shall be pardoned for expressing
my earnest wishes that he may long enjoy in his retirement the affections
of a grateful country, the best reward of exalted talents and the most
faithful and meritorious service. Relying on the aid to be derived from the
other departments of the Government, I enter on the trust to which I have
been called by the suffrages of my fellow-citizens with my fervent prayers
to the Almighty that He will be graciously pleased to continue to us that
protection which He has already so conspicuously displayed in our favor.
 

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