Millercenter.org’s summary of speech:
“Madison begins his address by acknowledging the domestic political tensions caused by his fractured [sic] and Congress, and he expresses concern over the war between France and England, which could jeopardize U.S. trade and neutrality. The new President then lists principles he will use to guide him through the challenges of his new position, including maintaining neutrality, fostering a spirit of independence, and respecting the rights of states.”
Thoughts on Transcript:
While the USA had been involved in wars and military actions (Barbary Pirates, Whiskey Rebellion) since the Revolutionary War, Madison’s first term in office is the first major test of US military might. Though the War of 1812 is still 3 years away, clouds are gathering on the horizon and Madison takes note that the US may become involved even as she takes every precaution to avoid entangling herself in the wars of Europe.
Madison does bring up that the economic policies of Jefferson, or the nature of the country’s government as a whole, have led to a prosperous economy where “the fruits of a just policy were enjoyed in an unrivaled growth of our faculties and resources”.
As is custom, Madison extols the virtues of the Constitution, taking note to include as many clauses as possible in his oath. Some other historians may have gone into this, but my personal thoughts from reading these speeches, The Federalist / Anti-Federalist Papers, and other writings of the Founders are that this is intentionally reassuring the people as well as holding themselves accountable. We’ll see how long this practice lasts (modern presidential addresses do not typically follow this form) and whether it makes a resurgence during tumultuous times in both our nation’s and the world’s history (Civil War, WW1, WW2, Cold War). This serves as an interesting foil to the list of grievances from the Declaration of Independence: For each grievance listed against King George, the President has listed a law that he is aware of and will not go against. We’re still only 20 years removed from the Revolution. Fears still linger surrounding tyranny. My guess: these clauses will last until 1840 at the latest before being dropped from common use.
Two clauses that I do want to call attention to, because they seem to underlie most of the disagreements in politics today, are the one regarding religion and the one regarding militias. Where Jefferson is the writer of the Declaration of Independence, Madison is the principal author of the Constitution.
On religion, “to avoid the slightest interference with the right of conscience or the functions of religion, so wisely exempted from civil jurisdiction.” Entire papers may be written on this single statement, but there are two things that I took from it: 1) The State may not interfere with religion and 2) The Church is outside the civil jurisdiction of the State. This is not a “wall” as is commonly said, but it does raise many discussion points. Is the “outside of civil jurisdiction” a good enough rationale to avoid taxation? Does it also allow religious organizations to break building codes? What happens if the Church and State are directly in opposition? We cannot answer all of those questions through just this speech, but it does give good fodder for talk around the bar.
On militias and standing armies, “to keep within the requisite limits a standing military force, always remembering that an armed and trained militia is the firmest bulwark of republics, that without standing armies their liberty can never be in danger, nor with large ones safe.” In modern English: “A national army is necessary for a republic to survive so that external threats cannot harm it. But such an army must be only as large as necessary to survive, for too large of an army will lead to tyranny.” In this statement, Madison seems to be conflating a militia with the standard army (or he may simply be using militia as a synonym). However, it is also important that he is calling for a check / balance system on the army as a whole – keeping the size restricted or at least warning people on the dangers of a large army on their freedom. Modern addresses instead call for a larger military, partly to protect against external threat and partly as a political talking point. Yet the call for a check or balance to the power of the military is often lacking.
The speech goes through the following points:
- Humility on receiving this position
- Discussion of the Tranquility and Prosperity at home while there are foreign wars being waged (Napoleonic Wars)
- USA has a policy of neutrality, but it is being tested by the belligerent powers
- List of promises / oaths that Madison makes. Of note:
- Constitution and its limits of power
- No state interference with religion
- Standing army and militias
- The advancement of science
- Benediction – much like Jefferson’s in his first address
Phrases I have underlined, starred, or otherwise marked:
“The pressure of these, too, is the more severely felt because they have fallen upon us at a moment when the national prosperity of being at a height not before attained, the contrast resulting from the change has been rendered the more striking.”
“It is a precious reflection that the transition from this prosperous condition of our country to the scene which has for some time been distressing us is not chargeable on any unwarrantable views, nor, as I trust, on any involuntary errors in the public councils.”
“In their rage against each other, or impelled by more direct motives, principles of retaliation have been introduced equally contrary to universal reason and acknowledged law. How long their arbitrary edicts will be continued in spite of the demonstrations that not even a pretext for them has been given by the United States, and of the fair and liberal attempt to induce a revocation of them, can not be anticipated.”
“[I vow to] … support the Constitution, which is the cement of the Union, as well in its limitations as in its authorities; to respect the rights and authorities reserved to the States and to the people as equally, incorporated with and essential to the success of the general system; to avoid the slightest interference with the right of conscience or the functions of religion, so wisely exempted from civil jurisdiction; … to keep within the requisite limits a standing military force, always remembering that an armed and trained militia is the firmest bulwark of republics, that without standing armies their liberty can never be in danger, nor with large ones safe … to favor in like manner the advancement of science and the diffusion of information as the best aliment to true liberty …”
Thoughts on delivery (audio and/or video of speech):
None. They didn’t have that technology when Madison was inaugurated.