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Link to MillerCenter.org’s transcript of speech

Millercenter.org’s summary of speech:

“President Harrison begins by describing how America’s democracy is special and then outlines problems with the government and his solutions to them. This Inaugural Address was the longest in American history; it took nearly two hours to read.”

Thoughts on Transcript:

Wow.  The addresses of the previous eight Presidents are amazing, but William Henry Harrison’s is one that I found special meaning in.  Maybe it is because he gave a speech that was inversely proportional to the length of his presidency, but he tackles many different subjects, relying heavily on ancient history (a tactic used throughout the Federalist Papers which initially presented the case for our form of government) to demonstrate the dangers of contemporary actions.  Harrison covers a range of topics from the theoretical basis of our Constitution (inalienable rights) to the dangers that threaten to tear the country asunder (rights of the minority, civility between states, unity and cohesion).  He tackles the danger of the Treasury being under the Executive Branch, the Power of the Veto, and even spends time to discuss the lack of representation in DC.

This speech is less an address than a manifesto.  It lays out a plan for office that is sweeping, that respects the Presidents before Harrison while also seeking to curtail the power of the Executive.  And yet, it all comes to naught as the man will die after less than a month in office.

I’ve pulled a good deal of quotes from the 11 pages of text, but this is a speech that is worthwhile to read in full.

solecism: “a grammatical mistake in speech or writing”

Harrison’s speech:

  1. Similar opening to Washington – soldier called from retirement
  2. Call to ancient history – story re: politicians betraying trust
  3. Power is in the People
    1. God-given, Inalienable, and non-surrenderable rights
    2. Rights are from “No charter granted by his fellow-man”
    3. Constitution evolves to cover defects of language
  4. Importance of term limits as check on power
  5. Legislative power rests in Congress
    1. Power of the Veto
  6. Becoming a representative of all Americans
    1. Protecting the rights of the minority
  7. The Great Experiment has lasted 50 years
  8. Dangers of the spoils/patronage system
  9. Danger of a Treasury chosen by the Executive
  10. Some reference to prohibition signed by Jefferson (?)
  11. Importance of Freedom of Press
  12. Separation of Executive Power from Legislature
    1. Danger of introducing some ideas from Britain
    2. Importance of budget being in hands of representatives
  13. Metal Currency (Silver?)
  14. DC voting rights (?) and government / representation
  15. Separation of powers and separation of states vs distinct bodies
  16. Danger of states imposing wills on each other
  17. Plea for unity and cordiality
  18. Attacks on liberty coming under guise of liberty
    1. Danger of parties
  19. Foreign and Indian Affairs
  20. Extended Blessing

Phrases I have underlined, starred, or otherwise marked:

“Called from a retirement which I had supposed was to continue for the residue of my life …”

“It was the remark of a Roman consul in an early period of that celebrated Republic that a most striking contrast was observable in the conduct of candidates for offices of power and trust before and after obtaining them, they seldom carrying out in the latter case the pledges and promises made in the former.  … I fear that a strict examination of the annals of some of the modern elective governments would develop similar instances of violated confidence.

“… the lapse of a few months will confirm or dispel their fears [of my administration] …” (Harrison will be dead from pneumonia in under a month)

“[The Constitution’s] leading principle [is] the duty of shaping [the government’s] measures so as to produce the greatest good to the greatest number … if we would compare the sovereignty acknowledged to exist in the mass of our people with the power claimed by other sovereignties, even by those which have been considered most purely democratic, we shall find a most essential difference.  All others lay claim to power limited only by their own will.  The majority of our citizens, on the contrary, possess a sovereignty with an amount of power precisely equal to that which has been granted to them by the parties to the national compact, and nothing beyond.  … the only legitimate right to govern is an express grant of power from the governed.  … [It contains] declarations of power granted and of power withheld.  The latter is also susceptible of division into power which the majority had the right to grant, but which they do not think proper to intrust to their agents, and that which they could not have granted, not being possessed by themselves.  In other words, there are certain rights possessed by each individual American citizen which in his compact with the others he has never surrendered.  Some of them, indeed, he is unable to surrender, being, in the language of our system, unalienable.”

These precious privileges … the American citizen derives from no charter granted by his fellow-man.  He claims them because he is himself a man, fashioned by the same Almighty hand a the rest of his species and entitled to a full share of the blessings with which He has endowed them.

“As was to be expected, however, from the defect of language and the necessarily sententious manner in which the Constitution is written, disputes have arisen as to the amount of power which it has actually granted or was intended to give.”

“It is, however, consolatory to reflect that most of the instances of alleged departure from the letter or spirit of the Constitution have ultimately received the sanction of a majority of the people.  And the fact that many of our statesmen most distinguished for talent and patriotism have been at one time or other of their political career on both sides of each of the most warmly disputed questions forces upon us the inference that the errors, if errors there were, are attributable to the intrinsic difficulty in many instances of ascertaining the intentions of the framers of the Constitution rather than the influence of any sinister or unpatriotic motives.

“Some of the former [sources of evil] are unquestionably to be found in the defects of the Constitution; others, in my judgment, are attributable to a misconstruction of some of its provisions.  Of the former is the eligibility of the same individual to a second term of the Presidency.  The sagacious mind of Mr. Jefferson early saw and lamented this error, and attempts have been made, hitherto without success, to apply the amendatory power of the States to its correction.” 

… republics can commit no greater error than to adopt or continue any feature in their systems of government which may be calculated to create or increase the lover of power in the bosoms of those to whom necessity obliges them to commit the management of their affairs; and surely nothing is more likely to produce such a state of mind than the long continuance of an office of high trust.  Nothing can be more corrupting, nothing more destructive of all those noble feelings which belong to the character of a devoted republican patriot.  When this corrupting passion once takes possession of the human mind, like the love of gold it becomes insatiable.  It is the never-dying worm in his bosom, grows with his growth and strengthens with the declining years of its victim.  If this is true, it is the part of wisdom for a republic to limit the service of that officer at least to whom she has intrusted the management of her foreign relations, the execution of her laws, and the command of her armies and navies to a period so short as to prevent his forgetting that he is the accountable agent, not the principal; the servant, not the master. … under no circumstances will I consent to serve a second term.

“In the language of the Constitution, ‘all the legislative powers’ which it grants ‘are vested in the Congress of the United States.’  It would be a solecism in language to say that any portion of these is not included in the whole.”

“… the Constitution has given to the Executive the power to annul the acts of the legislative body by refusing to them his assent.  … The Executive can put his negative upon the acts of the Legislature for other cause than that of want of conformity to the Constitution, whilst the judiciary can only declare void those which violate that instrument.”

It is preposterous to suppose that a thought could for a moment have been entertained that the President, placed at the capital, in the center of the country, could better understand the wants and wishes of the people than their own immediate representatives, who spend a part of every year among them, living with them, often laboring with them, and bound to them by the triple tie of interest, duty, and affection.

“It could not but have occurred to the Convention that in a country so extensive, embracing so great a variety of soil and climate, and consequently of products, and which from the same causes must ever exhibit a great difference in the amount of the population of its various sections, calling for a great diversity in the employments of the people, that the legislation of the majority might not always justly regard the rights and interests of the minority, and that acts of this character might be passed under an express grant by the words of the Constitution, and therefore not within the competency of the judiciary to declare void …”

A person elected to that high office, having his constituents in every section, State, and subdivision of the Union, must consider himself bound by the most solemn sanctions to guard, protect, and defend the rights of all and of every portion, great or small, from the injustice and oppression of the rest.

“We could then compare our actual condition after fifty years’ trial of our system with what it was in the commencement of its operations and ascertain whether the predictions of the patriots who opposed it adoption or the confident hopes of its advocates have been best realized.”

“… the State authorities have amply maintained their rights. … But there is still an undercurrent at work by which, if not seasonably checked, the worst apprehensions of our antifederal patriots will be realized, and not only will the State authorities be overshadowed by the great increase of power in the executive department of the General Government, but the character of that Government, if not its designation, be essentially and radically changed.  This state of things has been in part effected by causes inherent in the Constitution and in part by the never-failing tendency of political power to increase itself.”

But it is not by the extent of its patronage alone that the executive department has become dangerous, but by the use which it appears may be made of the appointing power to bring under its control the whole revenues of the country. … The first Roman Emperor, in his attempt to seize the sacred treasure, silenced the opposition of the officer to whose charge it had been committed by a significant allusion to his sword.  By a selection of political instruments for the care of the public money a reference to their commissions by a President would be quite as effectual an argument as that of Caesar to the Roman knight.It is not the divorce which is complained of, but the unhallowed union of the Treasury with the executive department, which has created such extensive alarm.  … It was certainly a great error in the framers of the Constitution not to have made the officer at the head of the Treasury Department entirely independent of the Executive.  He should at least have been removable only upon the demand of the popular branch of the Legislature.  I have determined never to remove a Secretary of the Treasury without communicating all the circumstances attending such removal to both Houses of Congress.”

“The influence of the Executive in controlling the freedom of the elective franchise through the medium of the public officers can be effectually checked by renewing the prohibition published by Mr. Jefferson forbidding their interference in elections further than giving their own votes …”

“There is no part of the means placed in the hands of the Executive which might be used with greater effect for unhallowed purposes than the control of the public press.  … golden shackles, by whomsoever or by whatever pretense imposed, are as fatal to it as the iron bonds of despotism.  … A decent and manly examination of the acts of the Government should be not only tolerated, but encouraged.”

“I have given my opinion at some length upon the impropriety of Executive interference in the legislation of Congress–that the article in the Constitution making it the duty of the President to communicate information and authorizing him to recommend measures was not intended to make him the source in legislation, and, in particular, that he should never be looked to for schemes of finance.  … Some of our best political maxims and opinions have been drawn from our parent isle.  There are others, however, which can not be introduced in our system without singular incongruity and the production of much mischief, and this I conceive to be one.

“The delicate duty of devising schemes of revenue should be left where the Constitution has placed it–with the immediate representatives of the people.  For similar reasons the mode of keeping the public treasure should be prescribed by them, and the further removed it may be from the control of the Executive the more wholesome the arrangement and the more in accordance with republican principle.”

(On Currency) “The idea of making it exclusively metallic, however well intended, appears to me to be fraught with more fatal consequences than any other scheme having no relation to the personal rights of the citizens that has ever been devised.”

(Regarding Territories) “Those of them which are destined to become members of our great political family are compensated by their rapid progress from infancy to manhood for the partial and temporary deprivation of their political rights.”

(Regarding DC) “If this be true–and it will scarcely be denied by anyone who has a correct idea of his own rights as an American citizen–the grant to Congress of exclusive jurisdiction in the District of Columbia can be interpreted, so far as respects the aggregate people of the United States, as meaning nothing more than to allow to Congress the controlling power necessary to afford a free and safe exercise of the functions assigned to the General Government by the Constitution.”

“I have spoken of the necessity of keeping the respective departments of the Government, as well as all the other authorities of our country, within their appropriate orbits.  This is a matter of difficulty in some cases, as the powers which they respectively claim are often not defined by any distinct lines.”

“Strong as is the tie of interest, it has been often found ineffectual.  Men blinded by their passions have been known to adopt measures for their country in direct opposition to all the suggestions of policy.”

“… in no case can the same persons at the same time act as the citizen of two separate States, and he is therefore positively precluded from any interference with the reserved powers of any State but that of which he is for the time being a citizen.  He may, indeed, offer to the citizens of other States his advice as to their management, and the form in which it is tendered is left to his own discretion and sense of propriety.  It may be observed, however, that organized associations of citizens requiring compliance with their wishes too much resemble the recommendations of Athens to her allies, supported by an armed and powerful fleet.  It was, indeed, to the ambition of the leading States of Greece to control the domestic concerns of the others that the destruction of that celebrated Confederacy, and subsequently of all its members, is mainly to be attributed, and it is owing to the absence of that spirit that the Helvetic Confederacy has for so many years been preserved.

“Our citizens must be content with the exercise of the powers with which the Constitution clothes them.  The attempt of those of one State to control the domestic institutions of another can only result in feelings of distrust and jealousy, the certain harbingers of disunion, violence, and civil war, and the ultimate destruction of our free institutions.”

Of all the great interests which appertain to our country, that of union–cordial, confiding, fraternal union–is by far the most important, since it is the only true and sure guaranty of all others.

(On debt across states) “It is our duty to encourage them to the extent of our Constitutional authority to apply their best means and cheerfully to make all necessary sacrifices and submit to all necessary burdens to fulfill their engagements and maintain their credit, for the character and credit of the several States form a part of the character and credit of the whole country.”

“Unpleasant and even dangerous as collisions may sometimes be between the constituted authorities of the citizens of our country in relation to the lines which separate their respective jurisdictions, the results can be of no vital injury to our institutions if that ardent patriotism, that devoted attachment to liberty, that spirit of moderation and forbearance for which our countrymen were once distinguished, continue to be cherished.  If this continues to be the ruling passion of our souls, the weaker feeling of the mistaken enthusiast will be corrected, the Utopian dreams of the scheming politician dissipated, and the complicated intrigues of the demagogue rendered harmless.  The spirit of liberty is the sovereign balm for every injury which our institutions may receive.  On the contrary, no care that can be used in the construction of our Government, no division of powers, no distribution of checks in its several departments, will prove effectual to keep us a free people if this spirit is suffered to decay; and decay it will without constant nurture.  To the neglect of this duty the best historians agree in attributing the ruin of all the republics with whose existence and fall their writings have made us acquainted.

The danger to all well-established free governments arises from the unwillingness of the people to believe in its existence or from the influence of designing men diverting their attention from the quarter whence it approaches to a source from which it can never come.  This is the old trick of those who would usurp the government of their country.  In the name of democracy they speak, warning the people against the influence of wealth and the danger of aristocracy.

“The tendencies of all such governments in their decline is to monarchy, and the antagonist principle to liberty there is the spirit of faction–a spirit which assumes the character and in times of great excitement imposes itself upon the people as the genuine spirit of freedom, and, like the false Christs whose coming was foretold by the Savior, seeks to, and were it possible would impose upon the true and most faithful disciples of liberty.”

The true spirit of liberty, although devoted, persevering, bold, and uncompromising in principle, that secured is mild and tolerant and scrupulous as to the means it employs, whilst the spirit of party, assuming to be that of liberty, is harsh, vindictive, and intolerant, and totally reckless as to the character of the allies which it brings to the aid of its cause.

“I can conceive of no more sublime spectacle, none more likely to precipitate an impartial and common Creator, than a rigid adherence to the principles of justice on the part of a powerful nation in its transactions with a weaker and uncivilized people whom circumstances have placed at its disposal.”

We have examples of republics where the love of country and of liberty at one time were the dominant passions of the whole mass of citizens, and yet, with the continuance of the name and forms of free government, not a vestige of these qualities remaining in the bosoms of any one of its citizens.  It was the beautiful remark of a distinguished English writer that ‘in the Roman senate Octavius had a party and Anthony a party, but the Commonwealth had none.’  Yet the senate continued to meet in the temple of liberty to talk of the sacredness and beauty of the Commonwealth and gaze at the statues of the elder Brutus and of the Curtil and Decil, and the people assembled in the forum, not, as in the days of Camillus and the Scipios, to cast their free votes for annual magistrates or pass upon the acts of the senate, but to receive from the hands of the leaders of the respective parties their share of the spoils and to shout for one or the other, as those collected in Gaul or Egypt and the lesser Asia would furnish the larger dividend.”

“… it becomes my duty to say to them from this high place to which their partiality has exalted me that there exists in the land a spirit hostile to their best interests–hostile to liberty itself.  It is a spirit contracted in its views, selfish in its objects.  It looks to the aggrandizement of a few even to the destruction of the interests of the whole.  The entire remedy is with the people.  … It is union that we want, not of a party for the sake of that party, but a union of the whole country for the sake of the whole country, for the defense of its interests and its honor against foreign aggression, for the defense of those principles for which our ancestors so gloriously contended.  As far as it depends upon me it shall be accomplished.”

“I deem the present occasion sufficiently important and solemn to justify me in expressing to my fellow-citizens a profound reverence for the Christian religion and a thorough conviction that sound morals, religious liberty, and a just sense of religious responsibility are essentially connected with all true and lasting happiness; and to that good Being who has blessed us by the gifts of civil and religious freedom, who watched over and prospered the labors of our fathers and has hitherto preserved to us institutions far exceeding in excellence those of any other people, let us unite in fervently commending every interest of our beloved country in all future time.”

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

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