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Link to MillerCenter.org’s transcript of speech

Millercenter.org’s summary of speech:

“In a humble Inaugural Address, Van Buren praises the great Presidents before him and gives a positive assessment of the first half century of American statehood. President Van Buren addresses two points of concern: the rising incidence of mob action and abolitionist agitation, which he vowed to vote down.”

Thoughts on Transcript:

Van Buren’s speech covers themes from the past and the future.  Shades of John Quincy Adams (henceforth: JQA) appear as recognition of the speaker being part of a later age who has received an inheritance he is taking care of.  Shades of John F Kennedy (who already is JFK) in a contemporary version of “ask not what the country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country”.  Slavery, the issue that will come to a head in under 30 years, occupies a large chunk of the speech.  A note to the growing violence between abolitionists and slavers.  A call to the character and strength of presidents past.  A look to the future as he recognizes the scalability of Government to the present size and acknowledgements of the sturdiness of its structure.  A recognition of the foreign policy of the US through the first half of its existence: neutrality and isolationism.  And, finally, a question that has been debated, answered, accepted, debated, and will likely forever form the crux of disagreement within our nation: The balance of power between Federal and State governments.

Van Buren’s speech is academic.  It looks to history.  It acknowledges issues and wishes to solve them.  It does not partake in flowery or descriptive language (as JQA and others do) nor is it a shorter speech (as Jackson and several of the other early Presidents had).  It is what it is, and it attempts to address the central question which, until it is decided in a flurry of steel and blood, threatens to rip the nation asunder.

vicissitudes = changes in circumstances or fortune, typically for the worse.  Or an alternation between opposite or contrasting things.

Van Buren’s Speech:

  1. Praise for Founders and Recognition of a new generation (similar to John Quincy Adams’s speech)
  2. Need for people to step up to help reshape country and bring it forward
  3. Foundations of government and country are in compromise and in balance of power
  4. Growth of economy and the wisdom of government
    1. People have thought we would fail but we’ve survived 50 years
  5. Strength of early presidential character bound nation together
  6. Operation outside of law and how it hurts country
  7. Government has been proven to be scalable
  8. Balance of state and federal
  9. The issue of slavery
  10. Believes in Constitution’s strength and will let it be guiding light
  11. See campaign for promises
  12. Foreign Policy = Neutrality and Trade
  13. Blessing


Phrases I have underlined, starred, or otherwise marked:

“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.”

“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.”

“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.”

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.”

“…. 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.”

“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.”

“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 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. … Look back on those forebodings, not hastily but reluctantly made, and see how in every instance they have completely failed.”

“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.”

“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. … 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.

“While [our enemies] 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 of 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.”

“In justly balancing the powers of the Federal and State authorities difficulties nearly insurmountable arose at the outset and subsequent collisions were deemed inevitable.  … 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.”

“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.  … it never until the present period disturbed the tranquility of our common country.”

“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.’ … 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 …

“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 devotion to the bond of union and the principles it has made sacred …”

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.

“… 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.”

“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 known opinions of my constituents. … We decline alliances as adverse to our peace.  We desire commercial relations on equal terms, being ever willing to give a fair equivalent for advantages received.  … 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 neutrality in all their controversies.”

Thoughts on delivery (audio and/or video of speech):

None.  They didn’t have that technology when Van Buren was inaugurated.