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Martin Van Buren
Inaugural Address, 1837
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Fellow-Citizens:

The practice of all my predecessors imposes on me an obligation
I cheerfully fulfill?to accompany the first and solemn act of my
public trust with an avowal of the principles that will guide me in
performing it and an expression of my feelings on assuming a charge
so responsible and vast. In imitating their example I tread in the
footsteps of illustrious men, whose superiors it is our happiness to
believe are not found on the executive calendar of any country.
Among them we recognize the earliest and firmest pillars of the
Republic?those by whom our national independence was first
declared, him who above all others contributed to establish it
on the field of battle, and those whose expanded intellect and
patriotism constructed, improved, and perfected the inestimable
institutions under which we live. If such men in the position I now
occupy felt themselves overwhelmed by a sense of gratitude for
this the highest of all marks of their country's confidence, and by
a consciousness of their inability adequately to discharge the
duties of an office so difficult and exalted, how much more must
these considerations affect one who can rely on no such claims
for favor or forbearance! Unlike all who have preceded me, the
Revolution that gave us existence as one people was achieved
at the period of my birth; and whilst I contemplate with grateful
reverence that memorable event, I feel that I belong to a later
age and that I may not expect my countrymen to weigh my
actions with the same kind and partial hand.

So sensibly, fellow-citizens, do these circumstances press
themselves upon me that I should not dare to enter upon my
path of duty did I not look for the generous aid of those who
will be associated with me in the various and coordinate branches
of the Government; did I not repose with unwavering reliance
on the patriotism, the intelligence, and the kindness of a people
who never yet deserted a public servant honestly laboring their
cause; and, above all, did I not permit myself humbly to hope
for the sustaining support of an ever-watchful and beneficent
Providence.

To the confidence and consolation derived from these sources
it would be ungrateful not to add those which spring from our
present fortunate condition. Though not altogether exempt from
embarrassments that disturb our tranquillity at home and threaten
it abroad, yet in all the attributes of a great, happy, and flourishing
people we stand without a parallel in the world. Abroad we enjoy
the respect and, with scarcely an exception, the friendship of every
nation; at home, while our Government quietly but efficiently
performs the sole legitimate end of political institutions?in doing
the greatest good to the greatest number?we present an
aggregate of human prosperity surely not elsewhere to be found.

How imperious, then, is the obligation imposed upon every
citizen, in his own sphere of action, whether limited or extended,
to exert himself in perpetuating a condition of things so singularly
happy! All the lessons of history and experience must be lost
upon us if we are content to trust alone to the peculiar advantages
we happen to possess. Position and climate and the bounteous
resources that nature has scattered with so liberal a hand?even
the diffused intelligence and elevated character of our people?will
avail us nothing if we fail sacredly to uphold those political institutions
that were wisely and deliberately formed with reference to every
circumstance that could preserve or might endanger the blessings
we enjoy. The thoughtful framers of our Constitution legislated for
our country as they found it. Looking upon it with the eyes of
statesmen and patriots, they saw all the sources of rapid and
wonderful prosperity; but they saw also that various habits,
opinions, and institutions peculiar to the various portions of so
vast a region were deeply fixed. Distinct sovereignties were in
actual existence, whose cordial union was essential to the welfare
and happiness of all. Between many of them there was, at least to
some extent, a real diversity of interests, liable to be exaggerated
through sinister designs; they differed in size, in population, in
wealth, and in actual and prospective resources and power; they
varied in the character of their industry and staple productions,
and existed domestic institutions which, unwisely disturbed,
might endanger the harmony of the whole. Most carefully were
all these circumstances weighed, and the foundations of the new
Government laid upon principles of reciprocal concession and
equitable compromise. The jealousies which the smaller States
might entertain of the power of the rest were allayed by a rule
of representation confessedly unequal at the time, and designed
forever to remain so. A natural fear that the broad scope of
general legislation might bear upon and unwisely control particular
interests was counteracted by limits strictly drawn around the
action of the Federal authority, and to the people and the States
was left unimpaired their sovereign power over the innumerable
subjects embraced in the internal government of a just republic,
excepting such only as necessarily appertain to the concerns of
the whole confederacy or its intercourse as a united community
with the other nations of the world.

This provident forecast has been verified by time. Half a
century, teeming with extraordinary events, and elsewhere
producing astonishing results, has passed along, but on our
institutions it has left no injurious mark. From a small community
we have risen to a people powerful in numbers and in strength;
but with our increase has gone hand in hand the progress of just
principles. The privileges, civil and religious, of the humblest
individual are still sacredly protected at home, and while the valor
and fortitude of our people have removed far from us the slightest
apprehension of foreign power, they have not yet induced us in
a single instance to forget what is right. Our commerce has been
extended to the remotest nations; the value and even nature of
our productions have been greatly changed; a wide difference
has arisen in the relative wealth and resources of every portion
of our country; yet the spirit of mutual regard and of faithful
adherence to existing compacts has continued to prevail in our
councils and never long been absent from our conduct. We have
learned by experience a fruitful lesson?that an implicit and
undeviating adherence to the principles on which we set out
can carry us prosperously onward through all the conflicts of
circumstances and vicissitudes inseparable from the lapse of
years.

The success that has thus attended our great experiment
is in itself a sufficient cause for gratitude, on account of the
happiness it has actually conferred and the example it has
unanswerably given. But to me, my fellow-citizens, looking
forward to the far-distant future with ardent prayers and
confiding hopes, this retrospect presents a ground for still
deeper delight. It impresses on my mind a firm belief that
the perpetuity of our institutions depends upon ourselves;
that if we maintain the principles on which they were
established they are destined to confer their benefits on
countless generations yet to come, and that America will
present to every friend of mankind the cheering proof that
a popular government, wisely formed, is wanting in no
element of endurance or strength. Fifty years ago its rapid
failure was boldly predicted. Latent and uncontrollable causes
of dissolution were supposed to exist even by the wise and
good, and not only did unfriendly or speculative theorists
anticipate for us the fate of past republics, but the fears of
many an honest patriot overbalanced his sanguine hopes.
Look back on these forebodings, not hastily but reluctantly
made, and see how in every instance they have completely
failed.

An imperfect experience during the struggles of the
Revolution was supposed to warrant the belief that the
people would not bear the taxation requisite to discharge
an immense public debt already incurred and to pay the
necessary expenses of the Government. The cost of two wars
has been paid, not only without a murmur, but with unequaled
alacrity. No one is now left to doubt that every burden will be
cheerfully borne that may be necessary to sustain our civil
institutions or guard our honor or welfare. Indeed, all experience
has shown that the willingness of the people to contribute to
these ends in cases of emergency has uniformly outrun the
confidence of their representatives.

In the early stages of the new Government, when all felt
the imposing influence as they recognized the unequaled
services of the first President, it was a common sentiment
that the great weight of his character could alone bind the
discordant materials of our Government together and save
us from the violence of contending factions. Since his death
nearly forty years are gone. Party exasperation has been
often carried to its highest point; the virtue and fortitude of
the people have sometimes been greatly tried; yet our system,
purified and enhanced in value by all it has encountered, still
preserves its spirit of free and fearless discussion, blended
with unimpaired fraternal feeling.

The capacity of the people for self-government, and their
willingness, from a high sense of duty and without those
exhibitions of coercive power so generally employed in other
countries, to submit to all needful restraints and exactions of
municipal law, have also been favorably exemplified in the history
of the American States. Occasionally, it is true, the ardor of
public sentiment, outrunning the regular progress of the judicial
tribunals or seeking to reach cases not denounced as criminal
by the existing law, has displayed itself in a manner calculated
to give pain to the friends of free government and to encourage
the hopes of those who wish for its overthrow. These occurrences,
however, have been far less frequent in our country than in any
other of equal population on the globe, and with the diffusion
of intelligence it may well be hoped that they will constantly
diminish in frequency and violence. The generous patriotism
and sound common sense of the great mass of our fellow-citizens
will assuredly in time produce this result; for as every assumption
of illegal power not only wounds the majesty of the law, but
furnishes a pretext for abridging the liberties of the people,
the latter have the most direct and permanent interest in
preserving the landmarks of social order and maintaining on
all occasions the inviolability of those constitutional and legal
provisions which they themselves have made.

In a supposed unfitness of our institutions for those hostile
emergencies which no country can always avoid their friends
found a fruitful source of apprehension, their enemies of hope.
While they foresaw less promptness of action than in governments
differently formed, they overlooked the far more important
consideration that with us war could never be the result of individual
or irresponsible will, but must be a measure of redress for injuries
sustained, voluntarily resorted to by those who were to bear the
necessary sacrifice, who would consequently feel an individual
interest in the contest, and whose energy would be commensurate
with the difficulties to be encountered. Actual events have proved
their error; the last war, far from impairing, gave new confidence
to our Government, and amid recent apprehensions of a similar
conflict we saw that the energies of our country would not be
wanting in ample season to vindicate its rights. We may not
possess, as we should not desire to possess, the extended
and ever-ready military organization of other nations; we may
occasionally suffer in the outset for the want of it; but among
ourselves all doubt upon this great point has ceased, while a
salutary experience will prevent a contrary opinion from inviting
aggression from abroad.

Certain danger was foretold from the extension of our
territory, the multiplication of States, and the increase of
population. Our system was supposed to be adapted only
to boundaries comparatively narrow. These have been widened
beyond conjecture; the members of our Confederacy are already
doubled, and the numbers of our people are incredibly
augmented. The alleged causes of danger have long surpassed
anticipation, but none of the consequences have followed. The
power and influence of the Republic have arisen to a height
obvious to all mankind; respect for its authority was not more
apparent at its ancient than it is at its present limits; new and
inexhaustible sources of general prosperity have been opened;
the effects of distance have been averted by the inventive
genius of our people, developed and fostered by the spirit of
our institutions; and the enlarged variety and amount of interests,
productions, and pursuits have strengthened the chain of mutual
dependence and formed a circ le of mutual benefits too apparent
ever to be overlooked.

In justly balancing the powers of the Federal and State
authorities difficulties nearly insurmountable arose at the outset
and subsequent collisions were deemed inevitable. Amid these
it was scarcely believed possible that a scheme of government
so complex in construction could remain uninjured. From time to
time embarrassments have certainly occurred; but how just is the
confidence of future safety imparted by the knowledge that each
in succession has been happily removed! Overlooking partial and
temporary evils as inseparable from the practical operation of all
human institutions, and looking only to the general result, every
patriot has reason to be satisfied. While the Federal Government
has successfully performed its appropriate functions in relation to
foreign affairs and concerns evidently national, that of every State
has remarkably improved in protecting and developing local
interests and individual welfare; and if the vibrations of authority
have occasionally tended too much toward one or the other, it is
unquestionably certain that the ultimate operation of the entire
system has been to strengthen all the existing institutions and
to elevate our whole country in prosperity and renown.

The last, perhaps the greatest, of the prominent sources of
discord and disaster supposed to lurk in our political condition
was the institution of domestic slavery. Our forefathers were
deeply impressed with the delicacy of this subject, and they
treated it with a forbearance so evidently wise that in spite
of every sinister foreboding it never until the present period
disturbed the tranquillity of our common country. Such a result
is sufficient evidence of the justice and the patriot ism of their
course; it is evidence not to be mistaken that an adherence to
it can prevent all embarrassment from this as well as from every
other anticipated cause of difficulty or danger. Have not recent
events made it obvious to the slightest reflection that the least
deviation from this spirit of forbearance is injurious to every
interest, that of humanity included? Amidst the violence of
excited passions this generous and fraternal feeling has been
sometimes disregarded; and standing as I now do before my
countrymen, in this high place of honor and of trust, I cannot
refrain from anxiously invoking my fellow-citizens never to be
deaf to its dictates. Perceiving before my election the deep
interest this subject was beginning to excite, I believed it a
solemn duty fully to make known my sentiments in regard to it,
and now, when every motive for misrepresentation has
passed away, I trust that they will be candidly weighed and
understood. At least they will be my standard of conduct in the
path before me. I then declared that if the desire of those of
my countrymen who were favorable to my election was gratified
"I must go into the Presidential chair the inflexible and
uncompromising opponent of every attempt on the part of
Congress to abolish slavery in the District of Columbia against
the wishes of the slaveholding States, and also with a
determination equally decided to resist the slightest interference
with it in the States where it exists." I submitted also to my
fellow-citizens, with fullness and frankness, the reasons which
led me to this determination. The result authorizes me to believe
that they have been approved and are confided in by a majority
of the people of the United States, including those whom they
most immediately affect. It now only remains to add that no bill
conflicting with these views can ever receive my constitutional
sanction. These opinions have been adopted in the firm belief
that they are in accordance with the spirit that actuated the
venerated fathers of the Republic, and that succeeding experience
has proved them to be humane, patriotic, expedient, honorable,
and just. If the agitation of this subject was intended to reach
the stability of our institutions, enough has occurred to show
that it has signally failed, and that in this as in every other
instance the apprehensions of the timid and the hopes of the
wicked for the destruction of our Government are again destined
to be disappointed. Here and there, indeed, scenes of dangerous
excitement have occurred, terrifying instances of local violence
have been witnessed, and a reckless disregard of the
consequences of their conduct has exposed individuals to popular
indignation; but neither masses of the people nor sections of the
country have been swerved from their devotion to the bond of
union and the principles it has made sacred. It will be ever thus.
Such attempts at dangerous agitation may periodically return,
but with each the object will be better understood. That
predominating affection for our political system which prevails
throughout our territorial limits, that calm and enlightened
judgment which ultimately governs our people as one vast body,
will always be at hand to resist and control every effort, foreign
or domestic, which aims or would lead to overthrow our institutions.

What can be more gratifying than such a retrospect as this?
We look back on obstacles avoided and dangers overcome, on
expectations more than realized and prosperity perfectly secured.
To the hopes of the hostile, the fears of the timid, and the doubts
of the anxious actual experience has given the conclusive reply.
We have seen time gradually dispel every unfavorable foreboding
and our Constitution surmount every adverse circumstance
dreaded at the outset as beyond control. Present excitement will
at all times magnify present dangers, but true philosophy must
teach us that none more threatening than the past can remain
to be overcome; and we ought (for we have just reason) to
entertain an abiding confidence in the stability of our institutions
and an entire conviction that if administered in the true form,
character, and spirit in which they were established they are
abundantly adequate to preserve to us and our children the
rich blessings already derived from them, to make our beloved
land for a thousand generations that chosen spot where
happiness springs from a perfect equality of political rights.

For myself, therefore, I desire to declare that the principle
that will govern me in the high duty to which my country calls
me is a strict adherence to the letter and spirit of the
Constitution as it was designed by those who framed it.
Looking back to it as a sacred instrument carefully and not
easily framed; remembering that it was throughout a work
of concession and compromise; viewing it as limited to national
objects; regarding it as leaving to the people and the States
all power not explicitly parted with, I shall endeavor to preserve,
protect, and defend it by anxiously referring to its provision for
direction in every action. To matters of domestic concernment
which it has intrusted to the Federal Government and to such
as relate to our intercourse with foreign nations I shall zealously
devote myself; beyond those limits I shall never pass.

To enter on this occasion into a further or more minute
exposition of my views on the various questions of domestic
policy would be as obtrusive as it is probably unexpected.
Before the suffrages of my countrymen were conferred upon
me I submitted to them, with great precision, my opinions on
all the most prominent of these subjects. Those opinions I
shall endeavor to carry out with my utmost ability.

Our course of foreign policy has been so uniform and
intelligible as to constitute a rule of Executive conduct which
leaves little to my discretion, unless, indeed, I were willing to
run counter to the lights of experience and the known opinions
of my constituents. We sedulously cultivate the friendship of
all nations as the conditions most compatible with our welfare
and the principles of our Government. We decline alliances as
adverse to our peace. We desire commercial relations on
equal terms, being ever willing to give a fair equivalent for
advantages received. We endeavor to conduct our intercourse
with openness and sincerity, promptly avowing our objects
and seeking to establish that mutual frankness which is as
beneficial in the dealings of nations as of men. We have no
disposition and we disclaim all right to meddle in disputes,
whether internal or foreign, that may molest other countries,
regarding them in their actual state as social communities,
and preserving a strict neutrality in all their controversies.
Well knowing the tried valor of our people and our exhaustless
resources, we neither anticipate nor fear any designed
aggression; and in the consciousness of our own just conduct
we feel a security that we shall never be called upon to exert
our determination never to permit an invasion of our rights
without punishment or redress.

In approaching, then, in the presence of my assembled
countrymen, to make the solemn promise that yet remains,
and to pledge myself that I will faithfully execute the office
I am about to fill, I bring with me a settled purpose to
maintain the institutions of my country, which I trust will
atone for the errors I commit.

In receiving from the people the sacred trust twice
confided to my illustrious predecessor, and which he has
discharged so faithfully and so well, I know that I cannot
expect to perform the arduous task with equal ability and
success. But united as I have been in his counsels, a daily
witness of his exclusive and unsurpassed devotion to his
country's welfare, agreeing with him in sentiments which
his countrymen have warmly supported, and permitted to
partake largely of his confidence, I may hope that somewhat
of the same cheering approbation will be found to attend
upon my path. For him I but express with my own the wishes
of all, that he may yet long live to enjoy the brilliant evening
of his well-spent life; and for myself, conscious of but one
desire, faithfully to serve my country, I throw myself without
fear on its justice and its kindness. Beyond that I only look
to the gracious protection of the Divine Being whose
strengthening support I humbly solicit, and whom I fervently
pray to look down upon us all. May it be among the
dispensations of His providence to bless our beloved country
with honors and with length of days. May her ways be ways
of pleasantness and all her paths be peace!
 

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