Millercenter.org’s summary of speech:
“Adams praises the patriotism of his predecessors and celebrates the virtues of the Constitution. The President cautions Americans not to lose sight of the danger their liberties face before offering up his qualifications and resources for the job.”
Thoughts on Transcript:
The inauguration of President Adams may be best marked not by his taking the oath of office but by President Washington stepping down from a position that he was popular enough to hold until his death. Washington set the precedent of an unofficial 2 term limit: a limit which lasted until Franklin Delano Roosevelt and was then enshrined into law through the 22nd Amendment. This practice played well into the concerns of the Anti-Federalists, who were hesitant about signing the Constitution due to the danger of career politicians in Washington DC. These concerns still last through the 21st Century, where there is now a growing discontent with no term limits on Representatives and Senators who may be corrupted by the power of The District.
President Adams’s inaugural address follows a couple of themes:
- There is praise for the Constitution. Adams was an ambassador to Great Britain during the writing of the Constitution and therefore did not see many of the debates surrounding it, only seeing the final product. He restates the Preamble as the fourth paragraph in his speech. It additionally talks about the background on why a Constitution was written rather than fixes submitted to the Articles of Confederation. Adams was a Federalist (Washington is traditionally held to be without party) and so many of his arguments are the same as those read in the Papers.
- Much of the Address reads as a résumé. Adams talks about his time as both an ambassador and a vice president.
- Talks of the danger of foreign influence in elections, specifically through corruption or fraud of the popular vote.
- Praises President Washington. Referred to as a “rampart” and a “bulwark”, Adams’s speech reinforces Washington’s popular support and enigma.
- There is a long phrase, covering almost a quarter of the speech, which lists the people and causes that he will represent. This is a change from Washington’s addresses, which did not contain policy discussion.
- Talks of the importance of education and virtue in government, particularly the embracing of the Christian religion as a guiding principle.
- States a need for a “system of neutrality and impartiality among the belligerent powers of Europe”, i.e., a need for isolationism and non-involvement in foreign wars.
- Ends with an 18th Century version of “God bless you and may God bless the United States of America”.
Adams also uses the word “meliorate” which means “to make or become better; to improve” and the origin of which Dictionary.com places around 1760-1770. I wonder if President Adams picked this up during his time as an ambassador, when more languages may have been used in close proximity and a need to modify a French or Latin term (which both have similar words) arose to express a specific idea.
Phrases I have underlined, starred, or otherwise marked:
“… no middle course for America remained between unlimited submission to a foreign legislature and a total independence of its claims …”
“Relying, however, on the purity of their intentions, the justice of their cause, and the integrity and intelligence of the people, under an overruling Providence which had so signally protected this country from the first, the representatives of this nation, then consisting of little more than half its present number, not only broke to pieces the chains which were forging and the rod of iron that was lifted up, but frankly cut asunder the ties which had bound them, and launched into an ocean of uncertainty.”
“But reflecting on the striking difference in so many particulars between this country and those where a courier may go from the seat of government to the frontier in a single day, it was then certainly foreseen by some who assisted in Congress at the formation of it that it could not be durable.” (Interesting commentary on difficulty of government in the past when communication took longer. Also talks of diversity of large nation.)
“Employed in the service of my country abroad during the whole course of these transactions, I first saw the Constitution of the United States in a foreign country.”
“What other form of government, indeed, can so well deserve our esteem and love?”
“… there can be no spectacle presented by any nation more pleasing, more noble, majestic, or august, than an assembly like that which has so often been seen in this and the other Chamber of Congress, of a Government in which the Executive authority, as well as that of all the branches of the Legislature, are exercised by citizens selected at regular periods by their neighbors to make and execute laws for the general good. Can anything essential, anything more than mere ornament and decoration, be added to this by robes and diamonds? … For it is the people only that are represented. It is their power and majesty that is reflected, and only for their good, in every legitimate government, under whatever form it may appear.”
“If national pride is ever justifiable or excusable it is when it springs, not from power or riches, grandeur or glory, but from conviction of national innocence, information, and benevolence.”
“In the midst of these pleasing ideas we should be unfaithful to ourselves if we should ever lose sight of the danger to our liberties if anything partial or extraneous should infect the purity of our free, fair, virtuous, and independent elections. If an election is to be determined by a majority of a single vote, and that can be procured by a party through artifice or corruption, the Government may be the choice of a party for its own ends, not of the nation for the national good. If that solitary suffrage can be obtained by foreign nations by flattery or menaces, by fraud or violence, by terror, intrigue, or venality, the Government may not be the choice of the American people, but of foreign nations. … in such cases choice would have little advantage to boast of over lot or chance.“
“In that retirement which is [Washington’s] voluntary choice may he long live to enjoy the delicious recollection of his services … His name may be still a rampart, and the knowledge that he lives a bulwark, against all open or secret enemies of his country’s peace. This example has been recommended to the imitation of his successors by both Houses of Congress and by the voice of the legislatures and the people throughout the nation.” (Washington died 2 years into Adams’s term)
(The last several excerpts are from the same paragraph)
“… if an equal and impartial regard to the rights, interest, honor, and happiness of all the States in the Union, without preference or regard to a northern or southern, an eastern or western, position, their various political opinions on unessential points or their personal attachments …”
” … every institution for propagating knowledge, virtue, and religion among all classes of the people, not only for their benign influence on the happiness of life in all its stages and classes, and of society in all its forms, but as the only means of preserving our Constitution from its natural enemies, the spirit of sophistry, the spirit of party, the spirit of intrigue, the profligacy of corruption, and the pestilence of foreign influence, which is the angel of destruction to elective governments; …”
” … system of neutrality and impartiality among the belligerent powers of Europe [that we are already following] …”
“[When conflict arises] to lay the facts before the Legislature, that they may consider what further measures the honor and interest of the Government and its constituents demand …”
“… a fixed resolution to consider a decent respect for Christianity among the best recommendations for the public service, can enable me in any degree to comply with your wishes, it shall be my strenuous endeavor that this sagacious injunction of the two Houses shall not be without effort.”
Thoughts on delivery (audio and/or video of speech):
None. They didn’t have that technology when Adams was inaugurated.