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James Buchanan
Inaugural Address, 1857
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Wednesday, March 4, 1857


I appear before you this day to take the solemn oath "that I
will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States
and will to the best of my ability preserve, protect, and defend the
Constitution of the United States."

In entering upon this great office I must humbly invoke the God
of our fathers for wisdom and firmness to execute its high and
responsible duties in such a manner as to restore harmony and
ancient friendship among the people of the several States and
to preserve our free institutions throughout many generations.
Convinced that I owe my election to the inherent love for the
Constitution and the Union which still animates the hearts of the
American people, let me earnestly ask their powerful support in
sustaining all just measures calculated to perpetuate these, the
richest political blessings which Heaven has ever bestowed upon
any nation. Having determined not to become a candidate for
reelection, I shall have no motive to influence my conduct in
administering the Government except the desire ably and faithfully
to serve my country and to live in grateful memory of my countrymen.

We have recently passed through a Presidential contest in which
the passions of our fellow-citizens were excited to the highest
degree by questions of deep and vital importance; but when the
people proclaimed their will the tempest at once subsided and all
was calm.

The voice of the majority, speaking in the manner prescribed by
the Constitution, was heard, and instant submission followed. Our
own country could alone have exhibited so grand and striking a
spectacle of the capacity of man for self-government.

What a happy conception, then, was it for Congress to apply this
simple rule, that the will of the majority shall govern, to the settlement
of the question of domestic slavery in the Territories. Congress is
neither "to legislate slavery into any Territory or State nor to exclude
it therefrom, but to leave the people thereof perfectly free to form and
regulate their domestic institutions in their own way, subject only to
the Constitution of the United States."

As a natural consequence, Congress has also prescribed that when
the Territory of Kansas shall be admitted as a State it "shall be
received into the Union with or without slavery, as their constitution
may prescribe at the time of their admission."

A difference of opinion has arisen in regard to the point of time when
the people of a Territory shall decide this question for themselves.

This is, happily, a matter of but little practical importance. Besides,
it is a judicial question, which legitimately belongs to the Supreme
Court of the United States, before whom it is now pending, and will,
it is understood, be speedily and finally settled. To their decision, in
common with all good citizens, I shall cheerfully submit, whatever this
may be, though it has ever been my individual opinion that under the
Nebraska-Kansas act the appropriate period will be when the number
of actual residents in the Territory shall justify the formation of a
constitution with a view to its admission as a State into the Union.
But be this as it may, it is the imperative and indispensable duty of
the Government of the United States to secure to every resident
inhabitant the free and independent expression of his opinion by his
vote. This sacred right of each individual must be preserved. That
being accomplished, nothing can be fairer than to leave the people
of a Territory free from all foreign interference to decide their own
destiny for themselves, subject only to the Constitution of the
United States.

The whole Territorial question being thus settled upon the principle
of popular sovereignty? a principle as ancient as free government
itself? everything of a practical nature has been decided. No other
question remains for adjustment, because all agree that under the
Constitution slavery in the States is beyond the reach of any human
power except that of the respective States themselves wherein it
exists. May we not, then, hope that the long agitation on this
subject is approaching its end, and that the geographical parties
to which it has given birth, so much dreaded by the Father of his
Country, will speedily become extinct? Most happy will it be for the
country when the public mind shall be diverted from this question
to others of more pressing and practical importance. Throughout
the whole progress of this agitation, which has scarcely known any
intermission for more than twenty years, whilst it has been
productive of no positive good to any human being it has been
the prolific source of great evils to the master, to the slave, and to
the whole country. It has alienated and estranged the people of
the sister States from each other, and has even seriously endangered
the very existence of the Union. Nor has the danger yet entirely
ceased. Under our system there is a remedy for all mere political evils
in the sound sense and sober judgment of the people. Time is a
great corrective. Political subjects which but a few years ago excited
and exasperated the public mind have passed away and are now
nearly forgotten. But this question of domestic slavery is of far
graver importance than any mere political question, because should
the agitation continue it may eventually endanger the personal
safety of a large portion of our countrymen where the institution
exists. In that event no form of government, however admirable in
itself and however productive of material benefits, can compensate
for the loss of peace and domestic security around the family altar.
Let every Union-loving man, therefore, exert his best influence to
suppress this agitation, which since the recent legislation of
Congress is without any legitimate object.

It is an evil omen of the times that men have undertaken to
calculate the mere material value of the Union. Reasoned estimates
have been presented of the pecuniary profits and local advantages
which would result to different States and sections from its
dissolution and of the comparative injuries which such an event
would inflict on other States and sections. Even descending to this
low and narrow view of the mighty question, all such calculations
are at fault. The bare reference to a single consideration will be
conclusive on this point. We at present enjoy a free trade
throughout our extensive and expanding country such as the
world has never witnessed. This trade is conducted on railroads
and canals, on noble rivers and arms of the sea, which bind together
the North and the South, the East and the West, of our Confederacy.
Annihilate this trade, arrest its free progress by the geographical
lines of jealous and hostile States, and you destroy the prosperity
and onward march of the whole and every part and involve all in
one common ruin. But such considerations, important as they are
in themselves, sink into insignificance when we reflect on the terrific
evils which would result from disunion to every portion of the
Confederacy? to the North, not more than to the South, to the East
not more than to the West. These I shall not attempt to portray,
because I feel an humble confidence that the kind Providence which
inspired our fathers with wisdom to frame the most perfect form of
government and union ever devised by man will not suffer it to
perish until it shall have been peacefully instrumental by its example
in the extension of civil and religious liberty throughout the world.

Next in importance to the maintenance of the Constitution and
the Union is the duty of preserving the Government free from the
taint or even the suspicion of corruption. Public virtue is the vital
spirit of republics, and history proves that when this has decayed
and the love of money has usurped its place, although the forms
of free government may remain for a season, the substance has
departed forever.

Our present financial condition is without a parallel in history. No
nation has ever before been embarrassed from too large a surplus
in its treasury. This almost necessarily gives birth to extravagant
legislation. It produces wild schemes of expenditure and begets a
race of speculators and jobbers, whose ingenuity is exerted in
contriving and promoting expedients to obtain public money. The
purity of official agents, whether rightfully or wrongfully, is suspected,
and the character of the government suffers in the estimation of the
people. This is in itself a very great evil.

The natural mode of relief from this embarrassment is to appropriate
the surplus in the Treasury to great national objects for which a clear
warrant can be found in the Constitution. Among these I might mention
the extinguishment of the public debt, a reasonable increase of the
Navy, which is at present inadequate to the protection of our vast
tonnage afloat, now greater than that of any other nation, as well as
to the defense of our extended seacoast.

It is beyond all question the true principle that no more revenue
ought to be collected from the people than the amount necessary to
defray the expenses of a wise, economical, and efficient administration
of the Government. To reach this point it was necessary to resort to a
modification of the tariff, and this has, I trust, been accomplished in
such a manner as to do as little injury as may have been practicable
to our domestic manufactures, especially those necessary for the
defense of the country. Any discrimination against a particular branch
for the purpose of benefiting favored corporations, individuals, or
interests would have been unjust to the rest of the community and
inconsistent with that spirit of fairness and equality which ought to
govern in the adjustment of a revenue tariff.

But the squandering of the public money sinks into comparative
insignificance as a temptation to corruption when compared with
the squandering of the public lands.

No nation in the tide of time has ever been blessed with so rich
and noble an inheritance as we enjoy in the public lands. In
administering this important trust, whilst it may be wise to grant
portions of them for the improvement of the remainder, yet we
should never forget that it is our cardinal policy to reserve these
lands, as much as may be, for actual settlers, and this at moderate
prices. We shall thus not only best promote the prosperity of the
new States and Territories, by furnishing them a hardy and
independent race of honest and industrious citizens, but shall
secure homes for our children and our children's children, as well
as for those exiles from foreign shores who may seek in this
country to improve their condition and to enjoy the blessings of
civil and religious liberty. Such emigrants have done much to
promote the growth and prosperity of the country. They have
proved faithful both in peace and in war. After becoming citizens
they are entitled, under the Constitution and laws, to be placed
on a perfect equality with native-born citizens, and in this character
they should ever be kindly recognized.

The Federal Constitution is a grant from the States to Congress
of certain specific powers, and the question whether this grant
should be liberally or strictly construed has more or less divided
political parties from the beginning. Without entering into the
argument, I desire to state at the commencement of my Administration
that long experience and observation have convinced me that a
strict construction of the powers of the Government is the only true,
as well as the only safe, theory of the Constitution. Whenever in our
past history doubtful powers have been exercised by Congress,
these have never failed to produce injurious and unhappy
consequences. Many such instances might be adduced if this were
the proper occasion. Neither is it necessary for the public service to
strain the language of the Constitution, because all the great and
useful powers required for a successful administration of the
Government, both in peace and in war, have been granted, either
in express terms or by the plainest implication.

Whilst deeply convinced of these truths, I yet consider it clear that
under the war-making power Congress may appropriate money
toward the construction of a military road when this is absolutely
necessary for the defense of any State or Territory of the Union
against foreign invasion. Under the Constitution Congress has power
"to declare war," "to raise and support armies," "to provide and
maintain a navy," and to call forth the militia to "repel invasions."
Thus endowed, in an ample manner, with the war-making power,
the corresponding duty is required that "the United States shall
protect each of them against invasion." Now, how is it possible to
afford this protection to California and our Pacific possessions
except by means of a military road through the Territories of the
United States, over which men and munitions of war may be speedily
transported from the Atlantic States to meet and to repel the invader?
In the event of a war with a naval power much stronger than our
own we should then have no other available access to the Pacific
Coast, because such a power would instantly close the route across
the isthmus of Central America. It is impossible to conceive that whilst
the Constitution has expressly required Congress to defend all the
States it should yet deny to them, by any fair construction, the only
possible means by which one of these States can be defended.
Besides, the Government, ever since its origin, has been in the
constant practice of constructing military roads. It might also be wise
to consider whether the love for the Union which now animates our
fellow-citizens on the Pacific Coast may not be impaired by our neglect
or refusal to provide for them, in their remote and isolated condition,
the only means by which the power of the States on this side of the
Rocky Mountains can reach them in sufficient time to "protect" them
"against invasion." I forbear for the present from expressing an
opinion as to the wisest and most economical mode in which the
Government can lend its aid in accomplishing this great and necessary
work. I believe that many of the difficulties in the way, which now
appear formidable, will in a great degree vanish as soon as the
nearest and best route shall have been satisfactorily ascertained.

It may be proper that on this occasion I should make some brief
remarks in regard to our rights and duties as a member of the
great family of nations. In our intercourse with them there are
some plain principles, approved by our own experience, from which
we should never depart. We ought to cultivate peace, commerce,
and friendship with all nations, and this not merely as the best means
of promoting our own material interests, but in a spirit of Christian
benevolence toward our fellow-men, wherever their lot may be cast.
Our diplomacy should be direct and frank, neither seeking to obtain
more nor accepting less than is our due. We ought to cherish a sacred
regard for the independence of all nations, and never attempt to
interfere in the domestic concerns of any unless this shall be imperatively
required by the great law of self-preservation. To avoid entangling
alliances has been a maxim of our policy ever since the days of
Washington, and its wisdom's no one will attempt to dispute. In short,
we ought to do justice in a kindly spirit to all nations and require justice
from them in return.

It is our glory that whilst other nations have extended their dominions
by the sword we have never acquired any territory except by fair
purchase or, as in the case of Texas, by the voluntary determination
of a brave, kindred, and independent people to blend their destinies
with our own. Even our acquisitions from Mexico form no exception.
Unwilling to take advantage of the fortune of war against a sister
republic, we purchased these possessions under the treaty of peace
for a sum which was considered at the time a fair equivalent. Our
past history forbids that we shall in the future acquire territory unless
this be sanctioned by the laws of justice and honor. Acting on this
principle, no nation will have a right to interfere or to complain if in the
progress of events we shall still further extend our possessions.
Hitherto in all our acquisitions the people, under the protection of the
American flag, have enjoyed civil and religious liberty, as well as equal
and just laws, and have been contented, prosperous, and happy.
Their trade with the rest of the world has rapidly increased, and thus
every commercial nation has shared largely in their successful progress.

I shall now proceed to take the oath prescribed by the Constitution,
whilst humbly invoking the blessing of Divine Providence on this great

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