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James Knox Polk
Inaugural Address, 1845
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Tuesday, March 4, 1845


Without solicitation on my part, I have been chosen by the free
and voluntary suffrages of my countrymen to the most honorable
and most responsible office on earth. I am deeply impressed with
gratitude for the confidence reposed in me. Honored with this
distinguished consideration at an earlier period of life than any of
my predecessors, I can not disguise the diffidence with which I am
about to enter on the discharge of my official duties.

If the more aged and experienced men who have filled the office
of President of the United States even in the infancy of the Republic
distrusted their ability to discharge the duties of that exalted station,
what ought not to be the apprehensions of one so much younger
and less endowed now that our domain extends from ocean to
ocean, that our people have so greatly increased in numbers, and
at a time when so great diversity of opinion prevails in regard to
the principles and policy which should characterize the administration
of our Government? Well may the boldest fear and the wisest tremble
when incurring responsibilities on which may depend our country's
peace and prosperity, and in some degree the hopes and happiness
of the whole human family.

In assuming responsibilities so vast I fervently invoke the aid of that
Almighty Ruler of the Universe in whose hands are the destinies of
nations and of men to guard this Heaven-favored land against the
mischiefs which without His guidance might arise from an unwise
public policy. With a firm reliance upon the wisdom of Omnipotence
to sustain and direct me in the path of duty which I am appointed
to pursue, I stand in the presence of this assembled multitude of
my countrymen to take upon myself the solemn obligation "to the
best of my ability to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution
of the United States."

A concise enumeration of the principles which will guide me in the
administrative policy of the Government is not only in accordance
with the examples set me by all my predecessors, but is eminently
befitting the occasion.

The Constitution itself, plainly written as it is, the safeguard of our
federative compact, the offspring of concession and compromise,
binding together in the bonds of peace and union this great and
increasing family of free and independent States, will be the chart
by which I shall be directed.

It will be my first care to administer the Government in the true
spirit of that instrument, and to assume no powers not expressly
granted or clearly implied in its terms. The Government of the
United States is one of delegated and limited powers, and it is by
a strict adherence to the clearly granted powers and by abstaining
from the exercise of doubtful or unauthorized implied powers that
we have the only sure guaranty against the recurrence of those
unfortunate collisions between the Federal and State authorities
which have occasionally so much disturbed the harmony of our
system and even threatened the perpetuity of our glorious Union.

"To the States, respectively, or to the people" have been reserved
"the powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution
nor prohibited by it to the States." Each State is a complete
sovereignty within the sphere of its reserved powers. The Government
of the Union, acting within the sphere of its delegated authority, is
also a complete sovereignty. While the General Government should
abstain from the exercise of authority not clearly delegated to it, the
States should be equally careful that in the maintenance of their
rights they do not overstep the limits of powers reserved to them.
One of the most distinguished of my predecessors attached
deserved importance to "the support of the State governments in
all their rights, as the most competent administration for our
domestic concerns and the surest bulwark against antirepublican
tendencies," and to the "preservation of the General Government
in its whole constitutional vigor, as the sheet anchor of our peace
at home and safety abroad."

To the Government of the United States has been intrusted the
exclusive management of our foreign affairs. Beyond that it wields
a few general enumerated powers. It does not force reform on
the States. It leaves individuals, over whom it casts its protecting
influence, entirely free to improve their own condition by the
legitimate exercise of all their mental and physical powers. It is a
common protector of each and all the States; of every man who
lives upon our soil, whether of native or foreign birth; of every
religious sect, in their worship of the Almighty according to the
dictates of their own conscience; of every shade of opinion, and
the most free inquiry; of every art, trade, and occupation consistent
with the laws of the States. And we rejoice in the general happiness,
prosperity, and advancement of our country, which have been the
offspring of freedom, and not of power.

This most admirable and wisest system of well-regulated
self-government among men ever devised by human minds has
been tested by its successful operation for more than half a century,
and if preserved from the usurpations of the Federal Government
on the one hand and the exercise by the States of powers not
reserved to them on the other, will, I fervently hope and believe,
endure for ages to come and dispense the blessings of civil and
religious liberty to distant generations. To effect objects so dear
to every patriot I shall devote myself with anxious solicitude. It
will be my desire to guard against that most fruitful source of
danger to the harmonious action of our system which consists
in substituting the mere discretion and caprice of the Executive
or of majorities in the legislative department of the Government
for powers which have been withheld from the Federal Government
by the Constitution. By the theory of our Government majorities
rule, but this right is not an arbitrary or unlimited one. It is a right
to be exercised in subordination to the Constitution and in
conformity to it. One great object of the Constitution was to restrain
majorities from oppressing minorities or encroaching upon their just
rights. Minorities have a right to appeal to the Constitution as a
shield against such oppression.

That the blessings of liberty which our Constitution secures may
be enjoyed alike by minorities and majorities, the Executive has
been wisely invested with a qualified veto upon the acts of the
Legislature. It is a negative power, and is conservative in its
character. It arrests for the time hasty, inconsiderate, or
unconstitutional legislation, invites reconsideration, and transfers
questions at issue between the legislative and executive
departments to the tribunal of the people. Like all other powers,
it is subject to be abused. When judiciously and properly exercised,
the Constitution itself may be saved from infraction and the rights
of all preserved and protected.

The inestimable value of our Federal Union is felt and acknowledged
by all. By this system of united and confederated States our people
are permitted collectively and individually to seek their own happiness
in their own way, and the consequences have been most auspicious.
Since the Union was formed the number of the States has increased
from thirteen to twenty-eight; two of these have taken their position
as members of the Confederacy within the last week. Our population
has increased from three to twenty millions. New communities and
States are seeking protection under its aegis, and multitudes from
the Old World are flocking to our shores to participate in its blessings.
Beneath its benign sway peace and prosperity prevail. Freed from
the burdens and miseries of war, our trade and intercourse have
extended throughout the world. Mind, no longer tasked in devising
means to accomplish or resist schemes of ambition, usurpation, or
conquest, is devoting itself to man's true interests in developing
his faculties and powers and the capacity of nature to minister to
his enjoyments. Genius is free to announce its inventions and
discoveries, and the hand is free to accomplish whatever the head
conceives not incompatible with the rights of a fellow-being. All
distinctions of birth or of rank have been abolished. All citizens,
whether native or adopted, are placed upon terms of precise
equality. All are entitled to equal rights and equal protection. No
union exists between church and state, and perfect freedom of
opinion is guaranteed to all sects and creeds.

These are some of the blessings secured to our happy land by
our Federal Union. To perpetuate them it is our sacred duty to
preserve it. Who shall assign limits to the achievements of free
minds and free hands under the protection of this glorious Union?
No treason to mankind since the organization of society would be
equal in atrocity to that of him who would lift his hand to destroy
it. He would overthrow the noblest structure of human wisdom,
which protects himself and his fellow-man. He would stop the
progress of free government and involve his country either in
anarchy or despotism. He would extinguish the fire of liberty,
which warms and animates the hearts of happy millions and
invites all the nations of the earth to imitate our example. If
he say that error and wrong are committed in the administration
of the Government, let him remember that nothing human can
be perfect, and that under no other system of government
revealed by Heaven or devised by man has reason been allowed
so free and broad a scope to combat error. Has the sword of
despots proved to be a safer or surer instrument of reform in
government than enlightened reason? Does he expect to find
among the ruins of this Union a happier abode for our swarming
millions than they now have under it? Every lover of his country
must shudder at the thought of the possibility of its dissolution,
and will be ready to adopt the patriotic sentiment, "Our Federal
Union? it must be preserved." To preserve it the compromises
which alone enabled our fathers to form a common constitution
for the government and protection of so many States and distinct
communities, of such diversified habits, interests, and domestic
institutions, must be sacredly and religiously observed. Any
attempt to disturb or destroy these compromises, being terms
of the compact of union, can lead to none other than the most
ruinous and disastrous consequences.

It is a source of deep regret that in some sections of our country
misguided persons have occasionally indulged in schemes and
agitations whose object is the destruction of domestic institutions
existing in other sections? institutions which existed at the
adoption of the Constitution and were recognized and protected
by it. All must see that if it were possible for them to be successful
in attaining their object the dissolution of the Union and the
consequent destruction of our happy form of government must
speedily follow.

I am happy to believe that at every period of our existence as
a nation there has existed, and continues to exist, among the
great mass of our people a devotion to the Union of the States
which will shield and protect it against the moral treason of any
who would seriously contemplate its destruction. To secure a
continuance of that devotion the compromises of the Constitution
must not only be preserved, but sectional jealousies and
heartburnings must be discountenanced, and all should remember
that they are members of the same political family, having a
common destiny. To increase the attachment of our people to the
Union, our laws should be just. Any policy which shall tend to favor
monopolies or the peculiar interests of sections or classes must
operate to the prejudice of the interest of their fellow-citizens,
and should be avoided. If the compromises of the Constitution
be preserved, if sectional jealousies and heartburnings be
discountenanced, if our laws be just and the Government be
practically administered strictly within the limits of power prescribed
to it, we may discard all apprehensions for the safety of the Union.

With these views of the nature, character, and objects of the
Government and the value of the Union, I shall steadily oppose
the creation of those institutions and systems which in their nature
tend to pervert it from its legitimate purposes and make it the
instrument of sections, classes, and individuals. We need no national
banks or other extraneous institutions planted around the
Government to control or strengthen it in opposition to the will of
its authors. Experience has taught us how unnecessary they are
as auxiliaries of the public authorities? how impotent for good
and how powerful for mischief.

Ours was intended to be a plain and frugal government, and
I shall regard it to be my duty to recommend to Congress and,
as far as the Executive is concerned, to enforce by all the means
within my power the strictest economy in the expenditure of the
public money which may be compatible with the public interests.

A national debt has become almost an institution of European
monarchies. It is viewed in some of them as an essential prop to
existing governments. Melancholy is the condition of that people
whose government can be sustained only by a system which
periodically transfers large amounts from the labor of the many
to the coffers of the few. Such a system is incompatible with the
ends for which our republican Government was instituted. Under
a wise policy the debts contracted in our Revolution and during
the War of 1812 have been happily extinguished. By a judicious
application of the revenues not required for other necessary
purposes, it is not doubted that the debt which has grown out of
the circumstances of the last few years may be speedily paid off.

I congratulate my fellow-citizens on the entire restoration of the
credit of the General Government of the Union and that of many
of the States. Happy would it be for the indebted States if they
were freed from their liabilities, many of which were incautiously
contracted. Although the Government of the Union is neither in
a legal nor a moral sense bound for the debts of the States, and
it would be a violation of our compact of union to assume them,
yet we can not but feel a deep interest in seeing all the States
meet their public liabilities and pay off their just debts at the
earliest practicable period. That they will do so as soon as it
can be done without imposing too heavy burdens on their citizens
there is no reason to doubt. The sound moral and honorable
feeling of the people of the indebted States can not be questioned,
and we are happy to perceive a settled disposition on their part,
as their ability returns after a season of unexampled pecuniary
embarrassment, to pay off all just demands and to acquiesce in
any reasonable measures to accomplish that object.

One of the difficulties which we have had to encounter in the
practical administration of the Government consists in the
adjustment of our revenue laws and the levy of the taxes
necessary for the support of Government. In the general
proposition that no more money shall be collected than the
necessities of an economical administration shall require all
parties seem to acquiesce. Nor does there seem to be any
material difference of opinion as to the absence of right in the
Government to tax one section of country, or one class of citizens,
or one occupation, for the mere profit of another. "Justice and
sound policy forbid the Federal Government to foster one branch
of industry to the detriment of another, or to cherish the interests
of one portion to the injury of another portion of our common country."
I have heretofore declared to my fellow-citizens that "in my judgment
it is the duty of the Government to extend, as far as it may be
practicable to do so, by its revenue laws and all other means within
its power, fair and just protection to all of the great interests of the
whole Union, embracing agriculture, manufactures, the mechanic arts,
commerce, and navigation." I have also declared my opinion to be
"in favor of a tariff for revenue," and that "in adjusting the details
of such a tariff I have sanctioned such moderate discriminating duties
as would produce the amount of revenue needed and at the same
time afford reasonable incidental protection to our home industry,"
and that I was "opposed to a tariff for protection merely, and not
for revenue."

The power "to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts, and excises"
was an indispensable one to be conferred on the Federal Government,
which without it would possess no means of providing for its own
support. In executing this power by levying a tariff of duties for the
support of Government, the raising of revenue should be the object
and protection the incident. To reverse this principle and make
protection the object and revenue the incident would be to inflict
manifest injustice upon all other than the protected interests. In
levying duties for revenue it is doubtless proper to make such
discriminations within the revenue principle as will afford incidental
protection to our home interests. Within the revenue limit there is
a discretion to discriminate; beyond that limit the rightful exercise
of the power is not conceded. The incidental protection afforded
to our home interests by discriminations within the revenue range
it is believed will be ample. In making discriminations all our home
interests should as far as practicable be equally protected. The
largest portion of our people are agriculturists. Others are employed
in manufactures, commerce, navigation, and the mechanic arts. They
are all engaged in their respective pursuits and their joint labors
constitute the national or home industry. To tax one branch of this
home industry for the benefit of another would be unjust. No one
of these interests can rightfully claim an advantage over the others,
or to be enriched by impoverishing the others. All are equally
entitled to the fostering care and protection of the Government.
In exercising a sound discretion in levying discriminating duties
within the limit prescribed, care should be taken that it be done
in a manner not to benefit the wealthy few at the expense of the
toiling millions by taxing lowest the luxuries of life, or articles of
superior quality and high price, which can only be consumed by
the wealthy, and highest the necessaries of life, or articles of
coarse quality and low price, which the poor and great mass of
our people must consume. The burdens of government should
as far as practicable be distributed justly and equally among all
classes of our population. These general views, long entertained
on this subject, I have deemed it proper to reiterate. It is a subject
upon which conflicting interests of sections and occupations are
supposed to exist, and a spirit of mutual concession and compromise
in adjusting its details should be cherished by every part of our
widespread country as the only means of preserving harmony and
a cheerful acquiescence of all in the operation of our revenue laws.
Our patriotic citizens in every part of the Union will readily submit
to the payment of such taxes as shall be needed for the support
of their Government, whether in peace or in war, if they are so
levied as to distribute the burdens as equally as possible among

The Republic of Texas has made known her desire to come into
our Union, to form a part of our Confederacy and enjoy with us
the blessings of liberty secured and guaranteed by our Constitution.
Texas was once a part of our country? was unwisely ceded away
to a foreign power? is now independent, and possesses an
undoubted right to dispose of a part or the whole of her territory
and to merge her sovereignty as a separate and independent state
in ours. I congratulate my country that by an act of the late Congress
of the United States the assent of this Government has been given
to the reunion, and it only remains for the two countries to agree
upon the terms to consummate an object so important to both.

I regard the question of annexation as belonging exclusively to
the United States and Texas. They are independent powers competent
to contract, and foreign nations have no right to interfere with them
or to take exceptions to their reunion. Foreign powers do not seem
to appreciate the true character of our Government. Our Union is a
confederation of independent States, whose policy is peace with each
other and all the world. To enlarge its limits is to extend the dominions
of peace over additional territories and increasing millions. The world
has nothing to fear from military ambition in our Government. While
the Chief Magistrate and the popular branch of Congress are elected
for short terms by the suffrages of those millions who must in their
own persons bear all the burdens and miseries of war, our Government
can not be otherwise than pacific. Foreign powers should therefore
look on the annexation of Texas to the United States not as the
conquest of a nation seeking to extend her dominions by arms
and violence, but as the peaceful acquisition of a territory once her
own, by adding another member to our confederation, with the
consent of that member, thereby diminishing the chances of war
and opening to them new and ever-increasing markets for their

To Texas the reunion is important, because the strong protecting
arm of our Government would be extended over her, and the vast
resources of her fertile soil and genial climate would be speedily
developed, while the safety of New Orleans and of our whole
southwestern frontier against hostile aggression, as well as the
interests of the whole Union, would be promoted by it.

In the earlier stages of our national existence the opinion prevailed
with some that our system of confederated States could not operate
successfully over an extended territory, and serious objections have
at different times been made to the enlargement of our boundaries.
These objections were earnestly urged when we acquired Louisiana.
Experience has shown that they were not well founded. The title of
numerous Indian tribes to vast tracts of country has been
extinguished; new States have been admitted into the Union;
new Territories have been created and our jurisdiction and laws
extended over them. As our population has expanded, the Union
has been cemented and strengthened. As our boundaries have
been enlarged and our agricultural population has been spread
over a large surface, our federative system has acquired additional
strength and security. It may well be doubted whether it would not
be in greater danger of overthrow if our present population were
confined to the comparatively narrow limits of the original thirteen
States than it is now that they are sparsely settled over a more
expanded territory. It is confidently believed that our system may
be safely extended to the utmost bounds of our territorial limits,
and that as it shall be extended the bonds of our Union, so far
from being weakened, will become stronger.

None can fail to see the danger to our safety and future peace
if Texas remains an independent state or becomes an ally or
dependency of some foreign nation more powerful than herself.
Is there one among our citizens who would not prefer perpetual
peace with Texas to occasional wars, which so often occur between
bordering independent nations? Is there one who would not prefer
free intercourse with her to high duties on all our products and
manufactures which enter her ports or cross her frontiers? Is there
one who would not prefer an unrestricted communication with her
citizens to the frontier obstructions which must occur if she remains
out of the Union? Whatever is good or evil in the local institutions
of Texas will remain her own whether annexed to the United States
or not. None of the present States will be responsible for them
any more than they are for the local institutions of each other.
They have confederated together for certain specified objects.
Upon the same principle that they would refuse to form a perpetual
union with Texas because of her local institutions our forefathers
would have been prevented from forming our present Union.
Perceiving no valid objection to the measure and many reasons
for its adoption vitally affecting the peace, the safety, and the
prosperity of both countries, I shall on the broad principle which
formed the basis and produced the adoption of our Constitution,
and not in any narrow spirit of sectional policy, endeavor by all
constitutional, honorable, and appropriate means to consummate
the expressed will of the people and Government of the United
States by the reannexation of Texas to our Union at the earliest
practicable period.

Nor will it become in a less degree my duty to assert and
maintain by all constitutional means the right of the United
States to that portion of our territory which lies beyond the
Rocky Mountains. Our title to the country of the Oregon is "clear
and unquestionable," and already are our people preparing to
perfect that title by occupying it with their wives and children.
But eighty years ago our population was confined on the west
by the ridge of the Alleghanies. Within that period? within the
lifetime, I might say, of some of my hearers? our people, increasing
to many millions, have filled the eastern valley of the Mississippi,
adventurously ascended the Missouri to its headsprings, and are
already engaged in establishing the blessings of self-government
in valleys of which the rivers flow to the Pacific. The world beholds
the peaceful triumphs of the industry of our emigrants. To us
belongs the duty of protecting them adequately wherever they
may be upon our soil. The jurisdiction of our laws and the benefits
of our republican institutions should be extended over them in the
distant regions which they have selected for their homes. The
increasing facilities of intercourse will easily bring the States, of
which the formation in that part of our territory can not be long
delayed, within the sphere of our federative Union. In the meantime
every obligation imposed by treaty or conventional stipulations
should be sacredly respected.

In the management of our foreign relations it will be my aim to
observe a careful respect for the rights of other nations, while
our own will be the subject of constant watchfulness. Equal and
exact justice should characterize all our intercourse with foreign
countries. All alliances having a tendency to jeopard the welfare
and honor of our country or sacrifice any one of the national
interests will be studiously avoided, and yet no opportunity
will be lost to cultivate a favorable understanding with foreign
governments by which our navigation and commerce may be
extended and the ample products of our fertile soil, as well as
the manufactures of our skillful artisans, find a ready market and
remunerating prices in foreign countries.

In taking "care that the laws be faithfully executed," a strict
performance of duty will be exacted from all public officers. From
those officers, especially, who are charged with the collection
and disbursement of the public revenue will prompt and rigid
accountability be required. Any culpable failure or delay on their
part to account for the moneys intrusted to them at the times
and in the manner required by law will in every instance
terminate the official connection of such defaulting officer with
the Government.

Although in our country the Chief Magistrate must almost of
necessity be chosen by a party and stand pledged to its principles
and measures, yet in his official action he should not be the
President of a part only, but of the whole people of the United States.
While he executes the laws with an impartial hand, shrinks from no
proper responsibility, and faithfully carries out in the executive
department of the Government the principles and policy of those
who have chosen him, he should not be unmindful that our
fellow-citizens who have differed with him in opinion are entitled
to the full and free exercise of their opinions and judgments,
and that the rights of all are entitled to respect and regard.

Confidently relying upon the aid and assistance of the coordinate
departments of the Government in conducting our public affairs, I
enter upon the discharge of the high duties which have been
assigned me by the people, again humbly supplicating that Divine
Being who has watched over and protected our beloved country
from its infancy to the present hour to continue His gracious
benedictions upon us, that we may continue to be a prosperous
and happy people.

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