University of Virginia Library


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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 high
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, amid the conflicting elements of a troubled world.

During the contest of opinion through which we have passed, the animation of discussion
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 laws must protect, and to violate which 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; that this 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 cannot 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 is 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 cannot
be trusted with the government of himself. Can he, then, be trusted with the government of
others? Or have we found angels in the form of kings to govern him? Let history answer
this question.

Let us, then, with a courage and confidence, pursue our own federal and republican principles,
our attachment to our 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 hundredth and thousandth generation; entertaining a due sense of our equal
right to the use of our own faculties, to the acquisitions of our 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 prosperous people? Still one thing more, fellow-citizens,—
a wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, which 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 every thing dear
and valuable to you, it is proper that 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 anti-republican 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,—


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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 burdened; 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 public
reason; freedom of religion; freedom of the press; 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 the 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
touch-stone 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 learned 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
reposed in our first and greatest revolutionary character, whose pre-eminent 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 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.—
viii, 1. Ford ed., viii, 1. (March 4, 1801.)