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Martin Van Buren
Inaugural Address
Monday, March 4, 1837


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

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

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 [in some] 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 co mmunity 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 w hile 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 poss ess, 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 opini on
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 beyon d 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 ha ve 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 reflectio n 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
can not 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 onl y 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 devoti on 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 timi d, 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 rel ate 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 know n 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 e qual 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 neutr ality 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 main tain 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 can not 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!

with honors and with length of days. May her ways be ways of 
pleasantness and all her paths be peace!

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