William Henry Harrison and “The True Principles of Government”

William Henry Harrison (1773-1841)
[An autograph of the first page]

Quentin Taylor discusses the little read Inaugural Address of William Henry Harrison who was the 9th President of the United States. He assumed office in March 1841 but only served for a month before dying from pneumonia which he got after speaking in the open in the freezing cold at his inauguration. He is thus remembered for being the president who served for the shortest period of time and gave the longest inaugural speech of any president before or since. It lastest for nearly 2 hours and was nearly 9,000 words long. This is a pity because, as Taylor shows, his speech is in fact a very interesting one since he proposed radical changes in the nature of the office of the president which would have reduced the position to that of a mere figurehead. We include a copy of Harrison's speech after Taylor's essay.

Table of Contents:

1. Quentin Taylor, “The True Principles of Government”: William Henry Harrison and the Whig Counter-Revolution

Author: Quentin Taylor is Professor of History and Political Science at Rogers State University in Claremore, OK 74017. His email is: .

 Abstract: Beyond his military exploits on the frontier, William Henry Harrison is best remembered as the president who died a month after taking office. Discussions of his presidency frequently focus on the ephemeral, such as the fatal illness he contracted while delivering his inaugural address – the longest ever – in the bitter cold. The address itself, one of the most extraordinary and bizarre state papers in U. S. history, has largely escaped the serious notice of historians, political scientists, and legal scholars. Harrison proposed nothing short of a constitutional revolution that would have reduced the chief executive to a mere figurehead. This paper explores the many peculiarities of Harrison’s address, including the Whig theory of the presidency, a radical and overlooked innovation that aimed to fundamentally alter the role of the chief executive in the constitutional order. A close reading of Harrison’s inaugural and brief tenure as president also reveals a number of factual errors and interpretative missteps made by leading scholars of the period.

“Sir, I wish you to understand the true principles of government. I wish them carried out. I ask nothing more.” These were the last words spoken by William Henry Harrison shortly before he died on April 4, 1841, a month after his inauguration as the first Whig president. That Harrison’s injunction was addressed to his physician instead of his successor, Vice-President John Tyler, made little difference in the end. Tyler, a Virginian who had been placed on the ticket to attract Southern voters and disaffected Democrats, was a WINO (Whig-in-name-only) whose frequent vetoes of Whig measures led to the mass resignation of his cabinet and his ejection from the party. As a result, Harrison’s presidency is remembered for little more than its short duration. His profile in presidential listings is correspondingly thin and he is typically omitted from presidential rankings altogether. The most frequently chronicled event of his brief tenure in office is his inaugural address, the longest ever.[1] Running to some 9,000 words, the nearly two hour address was delivered in the bitter cold by the sixty-eight-year-old Harrison who declined to wear a hat, gloves, or an overcoat. The pneumonia he later contracted and which claimed his life is often attributed to his exposure to the elements on that blustery day.

A Most Peculiar Address

The address itself has received little sustained attention. And yet it is one of the most remarkable state papers in American history. Besides its inordinate length, Harrison’s inaugural is notable on a number of counts. First, its composition and final form involved two of the era’s leading statesmen, Daniel Webster and Henry Clay. While accounts vary, it seems that Harrison wrote it, Webster edited it, and Clay tried to edit it further, but was prevented by Harrison. What is truly remarkable, however, is the style and content. The style – high-toned and stately – was in stark contrast to Harrison’s popular image as a rough-hewn frontiersman who had been born in a log cabin. He was, in fact, the son of a wealthy Virginia planter, a delegate to the Continental Congress, and a signer of the Declaration of Independence. William Henry had attended Hampton-Sydney College, where he developed a love for history and the classics. Yet few outside of his immediate circle knew of his pretensions to learning: for most Americans “Old Tip” was simply a frontier military hero.[2]

Those who expected to hear a plain speech by a plain man on that frigid March day were either pleasantly surprised or sorely disappointed. What they heard instead was an address studded with classical allusions and punctuated with historical analogies, including references to such figures as Julius Caesar, Oliver Cromwell, and Simon Bolívar. More remarkable still was the use to which Harrison deployed these conceits, for the address is in large part a jeremiad on the temptations of power and the corruption and overthrow of free governments. The theme of tyranny lurking in the shadows was as old as ancient Rome, but for Americans, who (in the words of Edmund Burke) “snuff the approach of tyranny in every tainted breeze,” it was a perennial trope of political discourse. Yet never has a sitting president – in an inaugural or any other address – forecast the approach of “despotism” in America, much less attributed its advance to the love of power, defects in the Constitution, and a former president. Nor has a president ever propounded a vision of executive power that if realized would have reduced the president to a mere figurehead.[3] William Henry Harrison, strangely enough, did both.

“King Andrew” and the Rise of the Whigs

Much of the inaugural’s grave tone and florid language can be attributed to the rabid partisanship and overheated rhetoric of the times, but Harrison’s inaugural remains a unique statement in the annals of presidential lore. It is also a landmark in constitutional history, for never before or since has a sitting president proposed such fundamental changes in the structure and workings of the executive branch. According to Harrison and the Whigs, executive power had become the engine of a looming “despotism” under the presidencies of Andrew Jackson (1829-37) and his successor Martin Van Buren (1837-41). The Whig party itself was formed in opposition to Jackson’s alleged abuses, particularly his misuse of the veto and removal powers. Critics of Jackson, such as Clay and Webster, repeatedly charged him with “executive usurpation” and maintained that his repeated abuse of presidential power amounted to a “revolution” in the constitutional order.[4] Not only did Jackson misuse his powers, the Whigs argued, but he had the audacity to pose as the direct representative of all the people and claim to possess a mandate to thwart the will of Congress. The assertion that the president sits as the “the people’s tribune” was viewed by Whigs as a dangerous innovation, indeed, a lethal “corruption” in the theory and practice of republican government.

For many of his critics, Jackson’s unilateral removal of public monies from federal banks (after replacing two treasury secretaries who refused to do his bidding) was the last straw. In response to this attempt to “unite the purse with the sword,” the Senate censured Jackson for his precipitous action, the first and only time either house of Congress has censured a president. The election of Van Buren, Jackson’s hand-picked successor, only reinforced the Whig contention that the nation was drifting toward an “elective monarchy.” It was at this time that opponents of Jackson-Van Buren began to organize themselves and place an official stamp on what had previously been a loose coalition of disaffected groups. Thus was born the second two-party system of Whigs and Democrats that lasted until the sectional crisis of the mid-1850s.[5]

The financial panic and depression that followed Van Buren’s inauguration set the stage for the Whig triumph in the election of 1840. The party nominated Harrison for president as a kind of anti-Jackson, a frontier military hero who would restore executive power to its limited constitutional role. As envisioned, power would shift back to Congress where the framers of the Constitution had wisely placed it, and where party leaders such as Henry Clay would direct administration policy. Harrison would be the vehicle for this “counter-revolution” and his inaugural address would set out the proper role of the executive in the constitutional order.[6] This downsized role would come to be known as the “Whig theory of the presidency.”

As might be expected, the Whig theory of executive power did not spring like Athena from the head of Zeus, but began as a series of ad hoc responses to the perceived abuses of a sitting president and only gradually developed into a coherent if obtuse vision. In this sense, the “theory” was almost entirely negative in origins. On the other hand, there was historical precedent for the idea of a largely passive chief executive in the administrations between Jefferson and Jackson (1809-29), when presidential power reached its nadir and Congress (especially the House of Representatives) emerged as the dominant branch of government.[7] The Whigs took this two-decade period as the norm of executive-legislative relations, and believed Jackson’s bold measures had tipped the constitutional scales to the point of disfiguring the republican character of the American regime. It is within this context that Harrison’s address must be read in order to be fully understood.

Occasion and Reception

The principal interest here is not simply historical, but also rhetorical, for it is not merely the Whig theory of the presidency that strikes an odd chord in the modern ear, but the entire address is highly idiosyncratic in its mode of expression, use of allusions, and choice of words. It is also extraordinary for its political alarmism and criticism of the Constitution. Finally, Harrison’s address is noteworthy for the broader context in which specific observations are placed and related. That context is the history of republics, ancient and modern. Harrison draws on this history to illustrate by way of analogy the perils and promise of popular government in America. In the process he develops something like a theory of republican government, particularly in terms of its foundations, subversion, and renewal. While wholly derivative in character, the presence of an archaic political sermon in an inaugural address further adds to the novelty of what is arguably the most curious, even bizarre state paper ever to issue from a sitting president. The remainder of this article will explore these novel aspects of Harrison’s address and attempt to assess their significance in American political development.

It is unknown if Harrison consulted previous inaugural addresses when he composed his own, but he was certainly aware of the what was, by the time of his own investiture, a fifty-year tradition. It was a tradition he chose to challenge, not only by the length of his address, but by its style and content as well. And yet in terms of the generic qualities associated with inaugural addresses (as identified by modern scholars), it met all the requirements. 

Presidential inaugurals are a subspecies of the kind of discourse that Aristotle called epideictic, a form of rhetoric that praises or blames on ceremonial occasions, invites the audience to evaluate the speaker’s performance, recalls the past and speculates about the future while focusing on the present, employs a noble, dignified literary style, and amplifies or rehearses admitted facts.[8]

It should be added that this “subspecies” of political rhetoric (the ceremonial) was judged “an inferior art form” by Aristotle. As such, presidential inaugurals are “rarely an occasion for original thought or stimulating reflection. The platitude quotient tends to be high, the rhetoric stately and self-serving, the ritual obsessive, and the surprises few.”[9] Again, Harrison’s address fits the mold, with the possible exception of containing a few surprises. However, the novelty of “the president-elect’s mouldy paean to ancient Rome”[10] cannot be determined by its conformity with generic criteria and classical forms. Indeed, beyond its length, the matter of distinctiveness turns in part upon the angle from which it is viewed, whether looking backward or forward for example. Only an examination of its specific features – particularly against the backdrop of the national politics of the 1830s – will provide the basis for an assessment of Harrison’s address.

Did anyone at the time consider Harrison’s inaugural in any way distinct, odd, or novel? Daniel Webster, who was shown an advance copy of the address, found the frequent references to ancient statesmen peculiar and disturbing. After spending an entire day editing Harrison’s draft, his dinner hostess noted his weariness. Webster replied that he had good reason to look fatigued, for he had just “killed seventeen Roman proconsuls as dead as smelts, every one of them.”[11] Beyond needless repetition and excessive length, Webster found Harrison’s use of classical analogies embarrassingly anachronistic – it had “no more to do with the affairs of the American government than a chapter in the Koran.”[12] Apparently Henry Clay was no more impressed than Webster, for when shown the revised draft he suggested further changes. By this time, however, Harrison was determined to defend his sturdy Romans to a man; the “remaining allusions had become sacrosanct.”[13]

Apparently the press and the public were not as fastidious as Webster and Clay, for there are few contemporary references to the classical allusions or historical parallels in Harrison’s address. A clerk with the British consul did refer to the speech as “pedantic and ridiculous,”[14] but on the whole (writes a Harrison biographer) “the inaugural was [besides its length] considered a good one …”[15] Washington newspapers were more disposed to describe the pomp and identify dignitaries than comment on the content of the address. Two days after the inauguration, the pro-Whig National Register provided such ephemeral details, but deferred discussion of “the character of the paper … to a more leisurely moment.”[16] The moment never arrived.

The Classical Turn

If the learned found Harrison’s allusions trite and tedious, less educated Americans were more likely to find them arcane and innocuous. Both audiences, however, knew that popular government originated in ancient Greece and that Rome was the seat of the greatest republic. Indeed, comparisons between the classical world and the American republic were ubiquitous during the Founding era and beyond. Since the history of Greece and Rome ended in the loss of liberty, such references usually took the form of a cautionary tale. (The treatment of the failed Hellenic confederacies in The Federalist is a notable example.) The influence of the classical republican tradition was also apparent in the symbols and slogans adopted by the American government, from the Roman eagle to Latinate inscriptions. By the time the Constitution was adopted, the American regime and its people were officially and emphatically republican; and republicanism was not just one creed among many – it was the holy grail of political salvation.

Why then should Harrison’s references to a “virtuous and indignant Roman” (106) or a “proud democrat of Athens” (107) be dismissed as tiresome and silly? As one scholar has noted, “the frequency of his classical allusions [was in part] an effort to place American government in a broader context than its own brief history and to use the ancient republics to provide cautionary warnings.”[17] Another has characterized Harrison as “a striking example of the classical revival fostered by the supposed affinity of the new American republic with those of Greece and Rome.”[18] Ironically, the truth of these statements helps explain the annoyance of Clay and Webster. By 1840, as America entered the Railroad Age, whatever loose parallel might be drawn between the ancient republics and the United States had become highly tenuous. Yet even in the mouths of Jefferson or Madison, Harrison’s reference to “Octavius” and “Antony” would have sounded odd, particularly when followed by “the days of Camullis and the Scipios.” And even if Harrison’s audience was familiar with these famous Romans, could they be expected to know the “Curtii” and the “Decii” as well? (122).

Had Harrison been delivering a scholarly paper, such antique name-dropping may have been appropriate, but in an inaugural address, a species of rhetoric that (among other things) seeks to unify the audience, it was embarrassingly out of place. Similarly, the attempt to place the American republic in a larger context was ill-conceived insofar as the ancient world was just that, ancient, and too foreign to provide a meaningful template for the United States. Even in the Founding era, the best-informed writers recognized that the unique and modern nature of the American frames of government made “reasoning from the one case to the other” of limited usefulness (Federalist No. 63). A half century later, such reasoning in the form of Harrison’s classicisms would strike men like Clay and Webster as hopelessly antiquarian. As such, Webster may be credited for thinning the ranks of Harrison’s Roman legions, but as a recent observer has noted, “[h]e should have killed more,” for even in its edited form the address was “a martyr to misplaced erudition …”[19]

A few examples will serve to show that Harrison’s “Roman holiday” was not only unseasonable, but somewhat less than erudite. While warning against the dangers of presidential control of the public revenues, he refers to the “first Roman Emperor” who “seize[d] the sacred treasure, [and] silenced the opposition of the officer to whose charge it had been committed by a significant allusion to his sword” (114). He then compares the president’s removal power to Caesar’s more ominous threat. (This was a thinly veiled reference to Jackson’s removal of the bank deposits and the dismissal of two treasury secretaries who stood in his way.) The story is found in at least three ancient sources, but the version closest to Harrison’s appears in Appian’s Roman History (c. 150 AD). Here it is related that Julius Caesar, upon entering Rome after crossing the Rubicon, raided a hitherto untouched and sacred body of wealth, and threatened to kill the tribune who blocked the doors. Cassius Dio, writing somewhat later, does not place Caesar at the scene, but states that the money was taken to pay his soldiers. Finally, the incident is dramatized in Lucan’s poem “Pharsalia” (c. 65 AD), which presents an indignant tribune, Lucius Metellus, barring the sanctuary of Saturn’s temple from Caesar’s troops. After he is forced to yield, the soldiers enter and seize upon the riches. “Thus was robbed the shrine, / And Caesar first brought poverty to Rome.”

Given the obscurity of the event it is unlikely that many in Harrison’s audience had ever heard of it. Some may even have thought he was referring to Caesar Augustus, who was typically identified as the first Roman emperor. Moreover, at the time he seized the treasure, Julius Caesar was a general: only after defeating his Roman enemies was he named dictator in perpetuity. As the head of the government, he actually augmented the public treasury and left much of his personal fortune to the people of Rome. These details, however, were overshadowed by the obvious parallels between Jackson and Caesar: both were generals, both were demagogues, and both cast themselves as the protector of the people. Under Caesar the Senate shrank into insignificance, power was centralized, and the Roman republic was transformed into a dictatorship. Under Jackson the Congress was eclipsed, executive power mushroomed, and the American republic verged on an “elective monarchy.” This, at least, was the parallel Harrison sought to draw, however obliquely and without mentioning Jackson by name.[20]

An even less felicitous analogy is Harrison’s comparison between the agitation of American abolition societies and the imperial policy of ancient Athens. Without identifying these societies, Harrison likens their petitions to “the recommendations of Athens to her allies, supported by an armed and powerful fleet,” and attributes the “destruction of that celebrated Confederacy” (the Delian League) to misguided attempts by “the leading States of Greece to control the domestic concerns of the others” (118). The reader of Thucydides might recall how Athens’ dominance of the League and high-handed policy led to the break-up of the alliance and the onset of the fratricidal Peloponnesian War. Insofar as the abolition movement contributed to the onset of the American Civil War, the parallel is not entirely without prescience, yet it is problematic on a number of levels. First, an abolition society is not a city-state and certainly not a hegemonic one such as Athens, which could dictate policy to the lesser members of a league. Second, Athens did not typically seek to control the domestic institutions of its allies, least of all slavery, but simply attempted to insure their loyalty and compel their support.

Worse still is Harrison’s citation of the “Helvetic Confederacy” as a counter-example to the Delian League. Unlike the meddlesome Greek states, the several Swiss cantons are praised for embodying a spirit of tolerance in the face of strong religious and political differences (118-19). Harrison implies Americans should emulate this spirit in regard to their own strong disagreements, viz., over slavery and the tariff. In truth, the Swiss were considerably less tolerant than Harrison suggests, and his contention that the cantons had for centuries enjoyed “harmony in their intercourse and permanency in their alliances” does not bear historical scrutiny. Switzerland was hardly immune from the convulsions of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, but was often a battleground in both periods. Popular revolts against the rich and powerful were endemic throughout the eighteenth-century, and the French Revolution brought war, conquest, and foreign occupation. Only with the Restoration (1815) did Switzerland regain its independence, but sectarian strife continued to mar cantonal relations for years to come. Ironically, at the very time Harrison was praising the Swiss, “these sagacious people” were moving towards civil war. Peace, stability, and working federalism in Switzerland, date from the adoption of the Constitution of 1848, years after Harrison was in the grave.[21]

Demagogues and the Democracy

Harrison was on firmer ground in his allusions to Caesar, Cromwell, and Bolívar as examples of popular leaders who in the name of “democracy” stirred up the multitude “against the wealth and the danger of aristocracy,” and then “usurp[ed] the government of their country.”[22] This passage punctuates a section on the perennial threats to republics, viz., the love of power and demagoguery: “the unwillingness of the people to believe in its existence or … the influence of designing men diverting their attention from the quarter whence it approaches to the source from which it can never come” (120). The subtext, of course, is the dangers of popular politics in Jacksonian America. As powdered hair and culottes gave way to trousers and top hats, political life in the age of Jackson underwent an equally dramatic makeover. The addition of several states in the West and the elimination of voting qualifications in others transformed national politics from the pastime of gentlemen into a boisterous, rollicking free-for-all. The political culture so memorably captured in Tocqueville’s Democracy in America (1832-35) was not the patrician world of Washington, Jefferson, and Adams, but the shirt-sleeve republic of Jackson, Calhoun, and Clay. Tocqueville lamented the decline in the quality of political parties and leadership, but acknowledged that the forces unleashed by Jacksonian democracy were irreversible.[23]

Under such changed conditions, the accusation that one was an “Aristocrat” or even a “Federalist” was often politically lethal.[24] From the ashes of the first-party system arose “the Democracy,” and all who aspired to public office had to court its rough-handed, hard-drinking denizens. This often placed the Whigs, who were said to “know each other by the instincts of gentlemen” at a distinct disadvantage.[25] In opposing Jackson, they opposed “the Democracy,” and were often vilified for their alleged contempt for the common man and denounced as defenders of wealth and privilege. The Whigs’ poor showing in 1836 led them to adopt the organizational methods and electoral strategies of the Democrats, culminating in the hoopla-filled “Log Cabin and Hard Cider” campaign of 1840. To onlookers the Whigs appeared to have taken a leaf out of the Democracy’s handbook. As one rueful Democrat observed in the wake of the Whig landslide, “We have taught them how to conquer us!”[26]

In warning of demagogues who would distract the people with the hobgoblin of aristocracy, Harrison was again referencing Jackson and the Democrats, who often portrayed Whigs as elitists and snobs. The real danger to liberty in republics was not from aristocracy, but from democratic Caesarism, for “[t]here is … no instance on record of an extensive and well-established republic changed into an aristocracy” (120). (Here Harrison was technically correct, if only because there had been no republic worthy of the name since ancient times.) “[M]onarchy,” rather, is the tendency “of all such governments in their decline,” wherein the “spirit of faction” masquerades as the “genuine spirit of freedom,” and beguiles the people of their liberty (120-21). Again, the reference to “monarchy” was but another swipe at Jackson, who was often portrayed as “King Andrew” in the opposition press. The attack on the “imperial presidency” did not commence with the New Deal or Watergate, but in the Age of Jackson.

The Religious Turn

The notion that a well-disposed, liberty loving people might be duped by the wiles of a crafty demagogue is another perennial trope of republicanism. In developing this theme, Harrison follows up his historical examples with a striking religious allusion that is without parallel in the history of inaugural addresses. For Harrison, bewitching demagogues are “like the false Christs whose coming was foretold by the Savior” (121). The reference to “false Christs” appears in Matthew 24:24, where Jesus elliptically adumbrates the “time of tribulations” preceding the Apocalypse.[27] What makes this reference so remarkable is not its religious nature, but its specifically Christian quality. It was common enough for presidents to invoke the Deity and even cite Scripture in their addresses, but the former convention typically expressed itself in references to the “Creator” or the “Almighty,” while citations from Scripture tended to draw on the wisdom of Psalms or Proverbs as opposed to the evangel of the New Testament. This remains the case in our own day. No other president, however, has used the word “Christ” (albeit in its plural, inverted form) or referred to “the Savior” in an inaugural address.

Earlier in the address, Harrison makes three further religious references, each quite conventional, but not without significance. First he declares his intention to place his “chief confidence upon the aid of that Almighty Power” in order to resist the “dangerous temptations” of high office (107, 106). The context is a parable on the tendency of power to corrupt and the “violated confidence” of the people. Harrison’s recurrence to this theme throughout the address borders on the obsessive, as the “love of power” – like the “love of gold” – winds itself into an inexorable law of public betrayal ending in the loss of freedom (110). The declaration that a reliance on God would be his principal source of restraint may have been intended as an expression of humility, but if taken literally its implications appear more peculiar than pious.

Insofar as the Whig party had originated in opposition to the specter of “executive usurpation” and was identified with the theory of a “weak” president, Harrison’s appeal to an “Almighty Power” was like the deus ex machina of ancient drama, adventitious and incongruent. Was not the Constitution itself, which Harrison and the Whigs pledged to restore to its original health, a sufficient curb on the love of power? As governor of Indiana Territory (1801-13), Harrison possessed even greater relative power than the president, with an absolute veto over legislation and unfettered power to appoint all territorial officials. Yet for his probity and success in this and other “important but still greatly inferior trusts,” Harrison credits the same “Almighty Power” that “protected me and enabled me to bring to favorable issue” the people’s business (107). In the mind of the new president, it was a business in which God had been a silent but apparently enthusiastic partner.

The Deity appears again in a long paragraph on the popular foundations and limited scope of government under the Constitution. Having distinguished a democracy, with sovereign power residing in the will of the majority, from a proper constitutional system in which only those powers delegated may be exercised, Harrison further distinguishes the latter from “government by divine right” (107). In England, rule by divine right had gone out with the Stuarts, a full century before the United States became a nation. Its mere mention in a presidential address of 1841 was not only anachronistic, but slightly absurd. It did, however, give Harrison the opportunity to invoke the “Beneficent Creator,” who, like Jefferson’s Deity, created all men equal and made the people the fount of public authority. It also provided Harrison the chance to illustrate the difference between a democracy and a limited government with yet another reference to his beloved pagans. Whereas the popular governments of Greece and Rome could deprive citizens of property and liberty by a majority vote, citizens of the United States possessed certain unalienable rights and its government was limited to specified powers. Religious freedom was among those spheres upon which government was not entitled to intrude. “It can interfere with no one’s faith, [nor] prescribe forms of worship for no one’s observance” (108). These and other basic liberties enjoyed by the American people reposed in the nature of man, as shaped by the “Almighty hand” of the Creator.

With the exception of “false Christs” and “the Savior” – a mere four words in an address of nearly 9,000 – Harrison’s religious references are few and fairly conventional for the times. That is, until one reaches the end of the address, where the religious theme takes a novel turn. After citing Jefferson (no little irony) he begins the penultimate paragraph with an expression of “a profound reverence for the Christian religion” followed by the profession of “a thorough conviction that sound morals, religious liberty, and a just sense of religious responsibility are essentially connected with all true and lasting happiness” (128).[28] Ever since Washington identified religion and morality as necessary props of liberty and self-government, presidents have periodically invoked the Deity in public statements, but the specific mention (and personal endorsement) of the “Christian religion” in an inaugural address had but one antecedent (and this craftily qualified) and no real successors.

Ironically, the only prior mention of Christianity was by John Adams, a Unitarian who rejected the Trinity and the divinity of Christ. Adams’s reference occurs in the context of listing his qualifications for the presidency by way of a series of “if/then” propositions. “[I]f the veneration for the religion of a people who profess and call themselves Christians, and a fixed resolution to consider a decent respect for Christianity among the best recommendations for the public service” (18), than he (Adams) merited the confidence of the people. This is hardly a ringing endorsement for Christianity per se, but it goes further in that direction than any other president prior to Harrison. After Harrison, “Christian” or “Christianity” would appear but twice more. James Buchanan, who preceded Lincoln in office, called for “a spirit of Christian benevolence towards our fellow man” (162), while Lincoln himself invoked “Christianity” – along with “[i]ntelligence [and] patriotism” – as guides that rendered Americans “still competent to adjust in the best way all our present difficulty” (174). Virtually every president before and after Lincoln has made some reference, however fleeting, to the Deity in the closing of his inaugural address. Many simply invoked “God” or “the Almighty,” while others sought the guidance of the “Supreme Being” or the favor of “Divine Providence.” One, William McKinley, even spoke with solicitude of the “Lord Most High.” None, however, has specified a religion by name coupled with a clear endorsement in the manner of Harrison.

Why did Harrison do this? Was he a particularly religious man? Accounts of Harrison’s religious beliefs and practices vary, but he is typically identified as an Episcopalian who periodically attended services.[29] It is unclear, however, if he was ever a full communicant. Late in life he claimed to have read the Bible daily for the last twenty years, “[a]t first [as] … a matter of duty … it has now become a pleasure.”[30] The day after his inauguration he purchased a Bible for the White House in which he inscribed “The President of the United States from the People of the United States.” This same Bible was placed on a covered table beside Harrison’s casket at his funeral.[31] John Quincy Adams, who attended the funeral, attributed the following remarks to Reverend Hawley, the rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church.

“He has since been in the habit of daily reading it [the purchased Bible]. He was accustomed not only to attend church, but to join audibly in the services, and to kneel humbly before his maker.” Dr. Hawley [Adams continued] stated that had the president lived, and been in health, he intended on the next Sabbath to become a communicant at the Lord’s table.[32]

This entry in Adams’s diary has led one student of the religious beliefs of the presidents to conclude that “Harrison did not own a Bible, and had not thought religion worthy of his attention” until elected president.[33] This is simply untrue. Harrison had helped establish Christ Episcopal Church in Cincinnati and served as a vestryman, though he apparently never became a member. His intention to take communion (and thereby join the church) suggests that religion had become more important to him late in life; hardly an odd occurrence. This in part explains the explicit references to Christianity in his inaugural address. The inference is reinforced by a letter he received after his election from an Episcopal bishop in Ohio. “Probably no President-elect,” writes a Harrison biographer, “ever received a more amazing letter.” In words that would prove prophetic, Reverend Charles P. McIlvaine expressed his fear for Harrison’s spiritual welfare in light of the rigors of office and his advanced age. “I feel for you deeply when I think of the vortex in which you are going, & how near, at your age, is Eternity.”[34]

The crush of office-seekers, a bitter confrontation with Clay, and fiery clashes with his cabinet would prove a “vortex” that Harrison’s health (already weakened) could not withstand.[35] Perhaps the bishop’s gloomy forecast moved the president-elect to greater reflection on mortality and judgment. Harrison may also have been moved by McIlvaine’s advice “to put the sign of the cross upon your Messages,” for this is precisely what he did in his inaugural address.

Executive Makeover (I): Tyranny and Term Limits

The idiosyncratic use of classical allusions, historical analogy, and religious expression gives Harrison’s address a novel quality, but its greater significance resides with his substantive remarks on the Constitution and strictures on the fate of republican government. We have seen that Harrison believed the government was drifting towards monarchy and attributed this “tendency” to the expansion of executive power under the guise of “democracy.” In his address, the image of a latent “despotism” emerges out of a critique of the Constitution as framed and interpreted. The power granted the government under the Constitution had admirably achieved its objects, but “disputes have arisen” over the proper limits of that power. Harrison assigns these to “the defect of language and the necessarily sententious manner in which the Constitution was written,” as well as the “intrinsic difficulty in many instances of ascertaining the intentions of the framers” (108). In the past these disputes had centered on the extent of legislative power, and particularly the meaning of the “necessary and proper” clause. The present danger, however, was not an overreaching legislature, but an encroaching executive, “the accumulation in one department of that which was assigned to the others.”

It is in this context that Harrison first uses the word “despotism” as the bête noir of popular government. The prospect was enhanced by the relative apathy of citizens towards “encroachments of one department upon another [rather] than upon their own reserved rights” (109). The Antifederalists, who opposed adoption of the Constitution, had warned against vesting too much power in the hands of a single executive and predicted “at no very remote period the Government would terminate in virtual monarchy.” Whether “the fears of these patriots have already been realized,” Harrison declined to say, but he did “sincerely believe that the tendency of measures and of men’s opinions for some years past have been in that direction …” Again, the reference is to Jackson (“measures”) and the Democracy (“opinions”), the avatars of popular monarchy in America. 

From what Harrison says elsewhere in the address, it seems clear that he believed the tendency toward monarchy was well-advanced, if not irreversible. And yet his pledge to “arrest [its] progress” will depend on “if it really exists”! (109, emphasis added). Was Harrison admitting that he and the Whigs might be wrong? Indeed, had not the election of an anti-Jackson president and an anti-Democracy Congress proven them wrong, and reduced their cries of “despotism” and “monarchy” to ridiculous hyperbole?[36] In part, Harrison and the Whigs were trapped by their own rhetoric: a decade of fear-mongering could not be dispensed with overnight. Moreover, the Whig attack on executive power was not simply an assault on a person, but a critique of a particular view of the presidency (what scholars call the Jackson-Polk theory).[37] It was also a critique of the office as originally designed by the framers of the Constitution. Accordingly, the elevation of Harrison and the Whigs did not resolve the underlying problem inherent in the office itself. It was to this problem that Harrison dedicated the largest part of his address.

Harrison divides the “sources of the evils” in the government between those attributable to “defects in the Constitution” and those stemming from “a misconstruction of some of its provisions” (109). Among the former, the leading defect was the failure of the framers to limit the president to a single term in office. Given man’s love of power, this failure was a grave “error” that had been responsible for many “evils,” and may be expected to bring forth additional “bitter fruits … if it continues to disfigure our system.” In lieu of an amendment to the Constitution limiting the president’s term, safety must reside in “public opinion” and the voluntary renunciation of executive power. To this end, Harrison renewed his campaign pledge not to serve a second term.

The argument for a single term for the president by a president can be traced back to Thomas Jefferson and has been periodically repeated as recently as Jimmy Carter.[38] (Jackson himself had called for a single term in his first annual address.) Harrison cites Jefferson’s recognition of this “error of the sages who framed the Constitution” (109), but completely overlooks the two-term tradition set by Washington and followed by all his successors. Had Washington been limited to one term the infant republic may not have survived the rancorous partisan struggles of the 1790s. The same may be said of Lincoln and the fate of the Union in the 1860s. On the other hand, Madison and Monroe served two terms at a time when presidential power reached its lowest ebb. Indeed, before Jackson’s presidency, the greatest abuse of executive power was arguably Jefferson’s attempt to enforce the Embargo Act, the only occasion the military has been used to routinely execute civilian law. The presidency of Franklin Roosevelt would appear to argue both for and against term limits. In any event, the Twenty-Second Amendment, which limits the president to two terms or ten years, owes nothing to Harrison and everything to F.D.R.  

Executive Makeover (II): The Passive President

It may have made sense for sixty-eight year-old Harrison to serve a single term, yet the pledge to do so as an article of republican faith was misguided in the extreme. If not an act of political suicide, the vow to serve one term at the outset of his presidency was an unnecessary act of abnegation that could only weaken the office, particularly with respect to Congress. This, however, is precisely what Harrison had in mind. Turning to the “danger to public liberty” arising from the “misconstruction” of presidential power, he identifies executive influence in law-making as the foremost evil (110). The president’s duty to recommend legislation should not be construed as a power to influence the legislative process. Harrison’s strict reading of the vesting clause in Article I of the Constitution (“All legislative powers herein granted shall be vested in the Congress”) not only proscribes executive influence in legislation, but reduces the president to a mere petitioner: the right to recommend “is a privilege which he holds in common with every other citizen.” In short, while it is his “duty” to suggest needed measures, the president’s recommendations should never set the agenda for legislation. For Harrison, law-making was the exclusive prerogative of Congress, and the Constitution limited the executive to a passive and perfunctory role.

The error of this view was not as apparent to Harrison’s audience as it is today, but many an informed observer surely balked at this caricature of executive power. Several important measures adopted by Congress prior to Jackson’s administration (e.g., the Bank, the Navy, the Louisiana Purchase) had originated with the president or his cabinet, and congressional support for executive initiatives was not seen as a violation of separation of powers. Jackson merely revived a practice that had been dormant for twenty years, while the power to introduce and pass legislation remained with Congress. It might be “preposterous” to assume that the president “could better understand the wants and wishes of the people than their own immediate representatives” (111), but this hardly warranted a conception of the executive that was unworkable.

Harrison’s hedge against an activist president in law-making had its corollary in his opposition to the frequent use of the veto. Prior to Jackson, the negative had been used only nine times and almost exclusively on constitutional grounds. Jackson used the veto more often than all his predecessors combined, a practice he justified both on constitutional and policy grounds. The frequency and rationale of Jackson’s vetoes had yet to gain wide acceptance and were met with dismay and outrage by his opponents.[39] His veto of the bill to re-charter the Bank of the United States (1832) was denounced as an abuse of power that set “the will of the people” at defiance and usurped legislative authority. In his defense, Jackson maintained that the president had a duty to exercise his independent judgment as to the wisdom and constitutionally of legislation. This rationale only further alienated those who believed the president was undermining the Constitution and establishing a kind of popular monarchy. As Daniel Webster wrote:

According to the doctrines put forth by the President, although Congress may have passed a law, and although the Supreme Court may have pronounced it Constitutional, yet it is, nevertheless no law at all, if he, in his good pleasure, sees fit to deny its effect; in other words, to repeal or annul it.[40]

Webster’s choice of the words “repeal” and “annul” is telling, for they imply (unlike “veto” or “negative”) an extra-legal and illegitimate exercise of power. This is how Harrison and the Whigs viewed Jackson’s use of the veto, as a usurpation of legislative authority.[41] In his inaugural, Harrison devoted more space to the veto than any other subject. He begins by drawing a distinction between judicial review and executive veto. The president may block legislation on both constitutional and policy grounds, but his veto can be overridden by a two-thirds vote in both houses of Congress. The judiciary can overturn existing laws only for constitutional reasons, but its decision is final. Because the veto appears to violate the separation of powers it “seems to be an incongruity in our system,” just as its non-conformity with majority rule makes it “so apparently repugnant to [this] leading democratic principle” (111). Why then did the framers of the Constitution adopt it? Because if properly used it “may be productive of great good and be found one of the best safeguards of the Union.” And what did the framers mean by proper use? The veto should not be exercised in the “ordinary course of legislation.”

A Dubious Past and an Ambivalent Future

Discerning the intentions of the framers has always been a precarious business, but Harrison’s attempt is flimsy and false. If he had truly wanted to learn what the framers had said about the veto, he could have procured a copy of James Madison’s notes of the proceedings of the Federal Convention, which were published in 1840 and “immediately became gospel.”[42] From The Federalist Harrison would have discovered that his understanding of the separation of powers was just as flawed as his conception of the veto. The framers recognized that a rigid and absolute separation of powers was simply impossible, and each branch would necessarily have some agency in the operation of the others. While the proper exercise of legislative, executive, and judicial power was to be kept strictly separate, the composition of each branch and mutual interaction would partake of a “mixed” or “blended” character. The veto is an example of such a blend.

            Upon this faulty foundation Harrison attempted to raise an edifice that was at stark variance with the facts. After praising the veto power as in principle “highly expedient,” he observes that “the principle [did] not appear to have enjoyed much favor in the [first] State governments,” for only two of the thirteen state constitutions provided for the veto (111). This was hardly an argument for the restrained use of the negative, for the state legislatures soon proved as dangerous to liberty and property as the royal governors had. By the time the Constitution was operative, many of the states had modified their charters, strengthening executive power and providing governors with the veto. Harrison not only omits this crucial fact in probing the framers’ intentions, but literally turns history on its head by claiming that the delegates who gathered in Philadelphia had complete confidence in the people and held the state legislatures in the highest esteem: “They knew too well the high degree of intelligence which existed among the people and the enlightened character of the State legislatures …”

Harrison was either wholly ignorant of events that were widely known and occurred within his own lifetime, or engaged in a deliberate act of historical obfuscation.[43] The movement that culminated in the Constitution grew out of a crisis of faith in the political capacities of the people and in reaction to the unbridled and reckless state governments. When James Madison wrote on the “Vices of the United States” prior to the Federal Convention, he chronicled the vices of the states, and particularly the legislatures. Far from finding the veto and other non-majoritarian features of the system “repugnant,” Madison and others fully embraced such “inventions of prudence” as indispensable supports of constitutional government. Whatever confidence the framers had in the ability of Congress to legislate without the aid or influence of the executive had little to do with their considered opinions of the people’s wisdom or the integrity of the state legislatures. On that score Harrison could not have been more wrong.

Only by vacating the field of history and returning to theory did Harrison find his way back to terra firma. If the veto was not intended to “assist or control Congress … in its ordinary legislation” (111), what was its intended use? In addition to blocking unconstitutional measures, Harrison provides two other instances when the use of the veto is proper and justified. When a measure is technically constitutional, but violates the “rights and interests of the minority,” it is the duty of the president to prevent it from becoming law (112). (Harrison’s treatment of this species of legislation reads like a gloss on Madison’s discussion of majority tyranny in Federalist No. 10.) In such a case the president should act as an “umpire” and protect the minority from “the injustice and oppression of the rest.” Ironically, this is precisely what Jackson believed he was doing, except in reverse – protecting the majority from the minority. The only other instance when a veto is appropriate is to protect “the people from the effects of hasty legislation where their will has been probably disregarded or not well understood …” Actually, this provides three additional grounds for the negative: 1) “hasty” legislation, 2) legislation not based on the people’s “will,” and 3) legislation wherein this will is “not well understood.” Besides its nebulous formation, it is difficult to see how such a subjective standard could guide a judicious use of the negative. Jackson himself could hardly have devised a more fitting formula to activate his veto pen.    

Harrison muddies the water even further by linking this formula to “the right and privilege of the people to decide disputed points of the Constitution arising from” the exercise of implied powers under the necessary and proper clause (112). But how were “the people” to make this decision? Whigs had castigated Jackson for blocking measures such as the bank bills that had been repeatedly passed by Congress and upheld by the Supreme Court. Jackson claimed a power to interpret the Constitution independently of the co-ordinate branches and pointed to his re-election after the bank veto as popular vindication. But which view represented the “will of the people”? Harrison adopted the position Madison had taken when he signed the Bank Bill in 1816. While Madison had doubts about the constitutionality of chartering a national bank (a power not expressly granted to Congress by the Constitution), precedents set by the various branches of government, combined with indications of popular approval, had effectively settled the matter. By directly quoting Madison’s well-known phrase – one the Jacksonians hated – Harrison was throwing down the gauntlet with an able assist from the “Father of the Constitution.” If a new bank bill crossed his desk (as Clay assured him it would) he would not veto it.

Harrison’s shoddy use of history and flabby reasoning did little credit to his argument for a passive president, but the argument itself was not as idiosyncratic as it appears today. Nor did it die with Harrison. While it is hard to picture Henry Clay or Daniel Webster ever wearing a presidential straight-jacket, Clay and others labored to reduce the powers of the office, and the only other Whig presidents, Zachary Taylor (1849-50) and Millard Fillmore (1850-53), never exercised the veto. Even the Democratic presidents of the antebellum era, with the notable exception of James K. Polk (1845-49), were more Whiggish and less Jacksonian as chief executives. After Polk, presidential power steadily declined until it was virtually abdicated near the end of James Buchanan’s term (1857-61). Jackson and Polk had shown that circumstances and personality had more to do with the scope of presidential power than anything intrinsic to the office. The alternation of “strong” and “weak” presidents from Lincoln to F.D.R. extended this pattern into the modern era. That only two presidents between 1865 and 1933 were “strong” in the manner of Jackson (Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson) suggests that the Whig concept of an administrator-in-chief not only outlived the Whigs, but survived well into the twentieth century.[44]

Still, the Whig theory of the presidency as formulated by Harrison must be understood in terms of what preceded it rather than its subsequent history. At the broadest level, Harrison and the Whigs reflected the deep ambivalence towards executive power that had existed since the advent of American independence. As Harvey Mansfield has observed, this ambivalence arose from the “paradox” of a strong executive in a republican regime. The formidable executive created by the framers was (as Harrison notes) a frequent target of the Antifederalists, and it fell to the Constitution’s defenders, (particularly the authors’ of The Federalist) “to show that an energetic executive could be republicanized.”[45] The Whig reaction to Jackson suggests that “Publius” had not been entirely persuasive. Indeed, as early as Washington’s second term, cries of incipient “tyranny” and charges of “monarchical ambitions” echoed across the political landscape. By Jackson’s second term these reverberations had multiplied into a swelling chorus of political Cassandras. For some, including leading public figures, the fated moment warned of by the Antifederalists had arrived – America was under a de facto despotism.[46]

Removal! Indians, Office Holders, and Deposits

To the extent that Jackson’s presidency constituted a sharp break with the past and clashed with established views of executive power, the Whig reaction was a predicable if exaggerated response. Jackson not only revived the more activist elements that had marked Jefferson’s presidency, but pushed executive power into hitherto uncharted regions.[47] As noted above, his use of the veto, removal of cabinet officials, and claim to embody the popular will were all innovations that sharply expanded executive power. He also introduced the “spoils system” in the civil service whereby loyal supporters were rewarded with jobs in the federal bureaucracy, and in turn were expected to contribute time and money to the president’s party. Before Jackson, presidents had made few removals in the largely non-partisan and professional civil service. After Jackson, removals and appointments for purely partisan reasons became the norm and patronage would fuel the engine of national politics.[48]

Detractors of Jackson also objected to his Indian removal policy, including his “defiance” of a Supreme Court decision in favor of the Cherokees.[49] His reliance on informal advisors, the “Kitchen Cabinet,” and his practice of appointing members of Congress to his administration were also condemned as dangerous innovations: the one undermining executive accountability, the other eroding the separation of powers. Jackson’s “War on the Bank” would prove the crest in a growing wave of criticism that had been building since his first year in office. His decision to “kill” the Bank – not only vetoing its re-charter, but removing government deposits over the objections of two treasurers – was the coup de grâce that gave birth to the Whig party.[50]

If Harrison’s caesarian portrayal of Jackson’s removal of public funds was imprecise and overdrawn, it did underscore a genuine constitutional dilemma that was as old as the Constitution itself. Jackson and the Democracy demanded a divorce between the federal government and the Bank, yet acknowledged that the government needed a method to hold, receive, and disperse its funds. The transfer of federal monies to “pet” banks – chartered by the states and loyal to the Democracy – was denounced by Whigs as proof that Jackson intended to “unite the purse with the sword.” In his address, Harrison did not condemn the “divorce … of the Treasury and the banking institutions” per se, but rather “the unhallowed union of the Treasury with the executive department” (114). This unholy alliance was not merely the result of Jackson’s nefarious policies, but was facilitated by “a great error in the framers of the Constitution,” viz., the failure to make the treasury secretary “entirely independent” of the executive branch. Short of this, the framers should have placed the power to remove the secretary with the House of Representatives. For his part, Harrison pledged never to remove a treasurer without first communicating the causes to Congress.

Since its creation in 1789 the treasury department had occupied an anomalous position in the constitutional framework. In the enabling legislation, Congress departed from the concept of a unitary executive by making the secretary accountable to both itself and the president. The matter of removal of deposits was complicated by apparent discrepancies between the enabling legislation and the Bank’s charter, the former giving discretion to the secretary, the latter requiring the approval of Congress. Prior to Jackson, Congress had often treated the secretary as its agent and delegated responsibility for the safe-keeping of government funds. Jackson abruptly reversed this modus operandi. He not only removed two secretaries who opposed removal, but ignored reports from both houses of Congress that the existing bank deposits were safe. This was too much for the Senate, which passed a censure resolution sponsored by Clay.[51]

In his inaugural, Harrison made it clear that the president should not initiate legislation, particularly in the area of public finance: “he should never be looked to for schemes of finance” (115).[52] Yet the role he did assign the president significantly blurred the line between the power to “recommend” and the ability to initiate. Harrison concedes that a president has a “duty” to suggest fiscal measures, and may return (veto) revenue bills to the lower house with his objections. He may even propose revisions to existing revenue laws … but “the delicate duty of devising schemes of revenue should be left where the Constitution has placed it,” the House of Representatives (116). Control of the treasury should also be in the hands of the “the immediate representatives of the people,” while the executive should have as little control as possible. Such an arrangement, Harrison adds, is “in accordance with republican principle.”

The Whig effort to divorce the treasury from the executive was not only highly strained, but quixotic. The Whigs, and especially Clay, favored a national bank and Harrison indicated he would not oppose the (re)establishment of one. They simply believed the “power of the purse” should reside exclusively with Congress and the president’s role in public finance be circumscribed within the narrowest bounds. Yet Harrison could no more reconcile the president’s “duty” to report to Congress with an injunction against executive influence in legislation than square his equivocal views of the veto with a call for its restricted use. His assertion that the president should act as if the treasury department was outside the executive branch was just as misguided. As Jackson maintained in his protest to the censure resolution, the president could not take care that the laws be faithfully executed if he could not control the actions of those who execute them. Just as Article I of the Constitution vests all legislative power in the Congress, Article II vests all executive power in the president. The Whigs had a point in protesting Jackson’s high-handed actions, and particularly his method of removing public funds, but the proposed cure was worse than the disease – a weak, fragmented, and unaccountable executive.[53]

Son of an Antifederalist

Another of Jackson’s innovations that drew a sharp response from Harrison and the Whigs was his unprecedented use of political patronage. Jackson’s predecessors had shown considerable restraint in replacing officeholders for partisan reasons and even retained cabinet members from the prior administration. This would all change with the election of Jackson, who rejected the idea of a professional, career civil service as inconsistent with the spirit of democracy, and embraced “rotation in office” as the principle best-suited to popular government. In practice, this meant removing untold numbers of officeholders and filling vacancies with loyal supporters regardless of qualifications or competence. Those rewarded with a government position were expected to support the Democracy, even to the point of electioneering on behalf of the party. Not surprisingly, the “spoils system” thoroughly politicized the federal bureaucracy and turned patronage into the driving force of politics.[54]

For Whigs the “corruption” of the civil service was further evidence of the malignant tendency of Jacksonian democracy. As diagnosed by Harrison, the advent of patronage politics created a dangerous “undercurrent” that threatened to compromise the independence of the state governments and “essentially and radically” alter the nature of the central government. Just as the Antifederalists had warned of an “elective monarchy,” they prophesied the creation of a “consolidated power” that would absorb the residual authorities of the states and extinguish the liberties of the people. “Without denying” that this fear “is in the way of being realized,” Harrison notes that the particular “mode of its accomplishment” was not foreseen. Contrary to the expectations of the Antifederalists, the general government had not directly encroached upon the reserved powers of the states, but the executive branch (under Jackson-Van Buren) had extended its influence through the manipulation of the franchise. By “encouraging” political appointees to “vote right” in both state and federal elections, the Jacksonians were undermining the very basis of free government. Harrison lays part of the blame on “the never-failing tendency of political power to increase itself” (113). The problem was also “inherent in the Constitution,” which made “the President the sole distributor of all the patronage of the Government …” Harrison’s solution was to imitate Jefferson, who had issued an order prohibiting federal workers from electioneering.

Harrison’s assault on the “spoils system” was the only bright spot in an otherwise awkward performance. What is curious, however, is his recurrence to the Antifederalists as a quasi-oracular foil to the slightly-myopic framers. In contrast to the “confident hopes of [the Constitution’s] advocates” (113), who ignored or dismissed such gloomy forecasts, the Antifederalists warned that the extensive powers of the central government would in time pose a threat to the states and the people. These “antifederal patriots” may not have identified the precise mode of “executive usurpation” or “consolidation,” Harrison observes, but they did foresee the real prospect of both in the “defects” of the Constitution. Far from being (in Cecelia Kenyon’s famous phrase) “men of little faith,” the “patriots who opposed its adoption” were almost prophet-like in projecting the establishment of an “elective monarchy” and the creation of a “consolidated” government. Indeed, if not immediately checked, the Antifederalists’ “worst apprehensions … will be realized.” (113)

Given his diagnosis of the “evils” that had crept into the republic and the measures he advanced to restore it to “pristine health and beauty,” it was natural for Harrison to enlist the Antifederalists. On one hand, it allowed him to criticize the framers without appearing disrespectful or disloyal. The Antifederalists were, after all, the original “loyal opposition” that had peacefully acquiesced in the adoption of the Constitution. They were also largely responsible for the Bill of Rights that was added after its ratification. Moreover, many of the heroes of the Revolution had opposed the Constitution, including Patrick Henry, James Monroe, and Henry Lee. These Virginians were joined by Harrison’s father, Benjamin, who similarly served as an Antifederalist delegate in the Old Dominion’s ratifying convention. Like the Antifederalists, Harrison fils feared power in general and executive power in particular. All were highly sensitive to the tendency of power to corrupt and all dreaded unscrupulous politicians “who promised that they might deceive and flattered with the intention to betray” the public. (106) Conversely, Harrison’s emphasis on “vigilance,” “public virtue” (122), and the “manly” scrutiny of government (115) echoed the classical republican ethos of the Antifederalists. Finally, his sermon on the foundations of republicanism and his call for civic renewal drew upon this same ethos, which demanded a periodic “recurrence to first principles” in order to restore to health an ailing republic.[55]

Conjuring these “sternest republicans” (109) from the political graveyard may have suited Harrison’s purpose, but it created an odd disjunction that is unparalleled in presidential history. Never before or since has a president found such fault with the Constitution or its framers, whether in an inaugural address or any other official state paper. True, the Constitution had yet to acquire the worshipful status it would acquire after the Civil War, but even in 1841 it was remarkable for a president to publicly highlight its “defects” and underscore the “errors” of its authors.  On the other hand, no other president has explicitly drawn on the Antifederalist tradition as a corrective to the framers and an anodyne for contemporary political ills. Invoking the Antifederalists in defense of republicanism was necessarily a double-edged sword, but for a president to do so fifty years after the adoption of the Constitution was a curious anomaly.[56]

The Theory in Practice

Among scholars who have considered the Whig theory of the presidency there is general agreement that it could hardly have worked in practice. Even if Harrison had agreed to turn his administration over to Clay,[57] who remained in the Senate, the very separation of powers he insisted upon in his address made such an arrangement unworkable. As it was, Clay’s efforts to influence appointments, set the agenda, and make policy led an annoyed Harrison to rebuff the presumptuous senator. “You are too impetuous,” he told Clay, who objected to Harrison’s decision not to immediately call a special session of Congress. Later, when Clay badgered him over an appointment, he shot back: “Mr. Clay, you forget that I am President!” Harrison did call the special session requested by Clay, but rejected the speech Clay had prepared for him, informing the senator that any further communication between the two should be limited to written correspondence. Like Prince Hal in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Clay (who was often called “Prince Hal” in the press) reached for the crown prematurely and received the stern rebuke of its still-breathing possessor.

The new president appeared no more inclined to adhere to the Whig theory of cabinet government than to receive dictation from the leaders of Congress. In contrast to Jackson, whose frequent cabinet shuffles and use of informal advisors smacked of monarchy, the Whigs believed the president was merely primus inter pares and should be guided by his cabinet. More specifically, the official cabinet should deliberate over policy and submit decisions to a majority vote, with the president having but one. The experiment under Harrison was short-lived. When Daniel Webster, whom Harrison had appointed secretary of state, informed the president that the cabinet had selected James Wilson as governor of Iowa Territory, Harrison scribbled some words on a slip of paper and asked Webster to read it. “William Henry Harrison, President of the United States, tells you gentleman that by God, John Chambers shall be Governor of Iowa.” Despite his advanced age and professed views, Harrison was a man accustomed to lead, and when he felt manipulated he naturally bristled and asserted his primacy.

At bottom the Whig theory of the presidency was doomed to failure because it was at odds with the very nature of executive power under the Constitution. More specifically, “it was utterly inconsistent with the concentration of executive power contained in Article II.” For the same reason, “[a]ny effort to implant the cabinet system into our constitutional system was bound to be stillborn, for it lost sight of the reality of power as it is distributed under the basic document.”[58] When Harrison died, John Tyler not only assumed the full powers of the office (rejecting the suggestion that he was merely an “acting” president), but dispensed with the cabinet system altogether. Tyler may have become a Whig in response to Jackson’s “despotism,” but his independence as president proved that he would not conform to a figurehead any more than Harrison had. Clay and Congress would fulminate against Tyler’s “abuse” of the veto, propose constitutional amendments, and even talk of impeachment, but they proved impotent in the face of the determined president. As a constitutional scholar has shrewdly observed, “even during [Harrison and Tyler’s] short-lived tenures, there were signs that no president after Jackson could be reduced to the position of a Merovingian monarch.”[59]

In their excessive reaction to Jackson, the Whigs painted themselves into a corner from which they never fully emerged. Even if Harrison had survived the pneumonia that claimed his life, he would likely have fallen victim to his own unsustainable theory. Harrison had been nominated over Clay for his electability (and pliability), but was not respected by party leaders, who intended to use him to further their own ambitions. As John Quincy Adams observed, “His popularity is all artificial. There is little confidence in his talents or firmness.” Another congressman looked on his early death as a blessing, for had the aging Harrison lived he would have been “devoured by the divided pack of his own dogs.”[60]


Near the opening of his address, Harrison informed his audience that “the lapse of a few months” would be sufficient to determine if he had kept faith with the electorate or violated its confidence. His death a month later preempted any public pronouncement on his administration. The ascension of Tyler and dissension among the Whigs scuttled the entire program of positive legislation Clay had prepared and Harrison pledged to passively support. A national bank, a protective tariff, and internal improvements – the heart of Clay’s “American System” – would not be realized until Clay and the Whigs had followed Harrison to the grave. The president who signed these measures into law, Abraham Lincoln, was a former Whig who idolized Clay and had supported Harrison in 1840. Lincoln’s view of the presidency could hardly have been more remote from his Whig predecessor’s, but his administration showed that the Whig doctrine of the positive state was fully compatible with a strong executive. This is but one of the many ironies surrounding Harrison and the Whig theory of the presidency.

Since the Whig agenda died with Harrison, the ninth president was left without a legacy. Standard accounts of his presidency tend to focus on the trivial. He was the first to die in office, the last to have been born a British subject, served the shortest term, and gave the longest inaugural address. It is the inaugural, however, that has supplied the scène à faire for generations of writers, who invariably link the inclement conditions in which it was delivered to Harrison’s demise. Little, however, has been written about the address itself, which is surprising in light of its outré quality and unique status in American political history. The two leading students of the Whig party, Michael Holt and Daniel Howe, give it short shrift, while most surveys of constitutional history fail to mention it altogether.

Perhaps as a result of this neglect, scholars who do cite the address often repeat old errors or invent new ones. In his “intellectual history” of the presidency, Forrest McDonald credits Webster with writing the address and claims that Harrison “capitulated entirely to Whig congressional leaders and their opposition to an energetic presidency.”[61] This is wrong on both counts. Webster edited the address and Harrison shared the Whigs’ ideas on the presidency. Robert Remini, a leading authority on the Age of Jackson, suggests that Clay and Webster “were horrified” by Harrison’s pledge not to serve a second term, “realizing that the President had just thrown away his main tool for implementing the party’s program.”[62] This reaction was hardly likely given that both men had read the address in advance and conferred with Harrison before his inauguration. The assertion that the Whig statesmen’s “horror” gave way to “joy” when Harrison “announced that he would use his veto sparingly” is subject to the same objection. Elsewhere Remini blames the collapse of the Whig program on Harrison, “a vain and egotistical incompetent …”[63] The assertion that Harrison was responsible for the Whig debacle is simply untrue. The “opportunity to legislate their dynamic program into law and demonstrate to the American people the value and importance of their policies and philosophy” was not lost due to Harrison’s presence, but by his absence. He showed every intention of deferring to the Whig Congress and called a special session that would  have likely resulted in the establishment of a national bank.

A recent survey of presidential power does assign Harrison a separate, albeit short chapter, but the authors’ account is incomplete and misleading. On little more than the “anecdote” of Harrison overriding his cabinet in appointing the governor of Iowa, they conclude that his presidency “saw the same aggressive defense of executive power that is often associated with the Jacksonian Democrats.”[64] The comparison with Jackson on such tenuous grounds is overwrought and unfounded. Harrison never formally committed to cabinet government: it was the one component of the Whig theory of the presidency absent from his inaugural. Moreover, the comparison ignores what Harrison did commit to: a single term, non-intervention in legislation, no removals without cause, and restricted use of the veto. Jackson made no such commitments.

This blind spot leads the authors to further distortions. The suggestion that “Harrison clung steadfastly to a belief in the assertive use of the executive power” despite the best efforts of Clay and Webster is simply incorrect. Harrison offered to appoint Clay secretary of state, and when Clay expressed his intention to remain in the Senate, Harrison offered the position to Webster. Both Webster and Clay had a hand in the appointment process even if they did not always get their way. Harrison simply resisted the efforts of Clay to force his hand, and Webster did precious little to influence a president who had frankly renounced the assertive use of executive power. The fact that Harrison personally visited administrative bureaus, called for reports, and issued a directive forbidding officeholders from electioneering hardly proves that the new president was “an active chief executive.” In spite of his pledge to make no partisan-based removals, Harrison succumbed to the pressures of office-seekers and replaced numerous officials with Whig loyalists. Harrison possessed an independent spirit, but there was nothing activist about his vision of the presidency or brief administration.

There is something perversely ironic in the errors and confusion surrounding Harrison’s address and short month in office, for Harrison himself was in error and confused about history and the nature of the constitutional order. In this he was hardly alone – Clay, Webster, and the Whig party also adopted a theory of the executive that was inconsistent with the basic structure of the Constitution and unworkable in practice. Yet Harrison was the only president to officially endorse this theory in an inaugural. His address is also unique for its classical allusions, religious sentiments, criticism of the Constitution, and appeal to its Antifederalist opponents. Like his one month administration, Harrison’s “excruciatingly long, gangly, repetitious, and platitudinous”[65] address stands alone in the annals of presidential history.

As momentum for Harrison’s election was building, Daniel Webster reflected on the significance of a Whig victory and paused to pinch himself. “We are either on the high road to the accomplishment of the greatest revolution ever yet achieved in this country, or else we are in enchanted ground, surrounded by fairies, fancies, phantoms,  & wild dreams.”[66] Harrison’s bizarre address and his untimely death placed Webster and the Whigs squarely in a land of enchantment.


[1.] Harrison’s inaugural address appears most recently in Fellow Citizens: The Penguin Book of U. S. Presidential Inaugural Addresses, ed., Robert V. Remini and Terry Golway (New York: Penguin, 2008), 106-123. All references to his inaugural and others are from this edition.

[2.] The image of Harrison as a homespun hero, so assiduously cultivated by the Whig party press, was given the lie by his “high-brow” address. “Nothing could have exposed more clearly to the discerning eye the character of the recent contest than this address. The man who been pictured as the common log-cabin, hard-cider candidate stepped forward with an elaborate production, filled with erudite allusion, addressed to the fundamentals.” Rexford G. Tugwell, How They Became President: Thirty-Five Ways to the White House (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1964), 114.

[3.] The term “figurehead” is frequently used to characterize the Whig conception of the presidency, but is rarely discussed in any detail, particularly as embodied in Harrison’s address. For most observers, “[t]he specifics of the program to dismantle the presidency are less important than the deep commitment to the attack.” William M. Goldsmith, The Growth of Presidential Power: A Documented History, vol. 1 (New York: Chelsea House, 1974), 588.

[4.] “We are the midst of a revolution,” stormed Clay, “but rapidly tending toward a total change of the pure republican character of the government, and to the concentration of all power in the hands of one man. The powers of Congress are paralyzed, except when exerted in conformity with his will, by frequent and extraordinary exercise of the executive veto, not anticipated by the founders of our Constitution, and not practiced by any predecessors of the present chief magistrate.” Webster was hardly less emphatic. “The President carries on the government; all the rest are but sub-contractors. Sir, whatever name we give him we have but one executive officer. A Biareus sits in the center of our system, and with his hundred hands, touches everything, moves everything, controls everything. I ask, Sir, is this republicanism? Is this legal responsibility?” Quoted in Goldsmith, Presidential Power, vol. 2, 613.

[5.] For the most recent and comprehensive discussion of the origins of the Whig party see Michael F. Holt. The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 1-122. While an embarrass de richesse in terms of party history, Holt’s massive study all but ignores Harrison’s inaugural address and brief administration. See also Glyndon G. Van Deusen, “The Whig Party,” in History of U.S. Political Parties, 1789-1860, ed., Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. (New York: Chelsea House, 1973), 333-363; and Thomas Brown, Politics and Statesmanship: Essays on the American Whig Party (New York: Columbia University Press, 1985). Dated but still of value is E. Malcolm Carroll, The Origins of the Whig Party (Durham: Duke University Press, 1925).

[6.] Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. refers to the Whig’s electoral triumph of 1840 as a “counter-reformation,” but this implies that (1) Jackson was a reformer and (2) the Whigs were reactionaries. The Age of Jackson (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1945), 267. This is not how the Whigs viewed the situation. Clay and Webster applied the term “revolution” to the Whig victory, but in the generic and retrograde sense. In modern parlance, the Whig project was one of restoration, not reaction or revolution, and is more accurately characterized as a “counter-revolution.” See Robert V. Remini, Daniel Webster, the Man and His Time (New York: W. W. Norton, 1997), 506-7, 510.

[7.] “By the time of Jackson’s first inaugural in 1829, the tide of presidential power and authority had reached a low ebb. It had been receding since the embargo fiasco of Jefferson’s last days in office…. Madison, Monroe, and John Quincy Adams, whatever their other virtues, were among the most ineffectual presidents in all of American history.” Marc Landy and Sidney M. Milkis, Presidential Greatness (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2000), 81, 82.

[8.] Karlyn K. Campbell and Kathleen H. Jamieson, Deeds Done in Words: Presidential Rhetoric and the Genres of Governance (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990), 14.

[9.] Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., ed., The Chief Executive: Inaugural Addresses of the Presidents of the United States from George Washington to Lyndon B. Johnson (New York: Crown Publishers, 1965), vii.

[10.] Richard Norton Smith, “Readers-in-Chief,” Weekly Standard, March 28, 2005, 28.

[11.] Quoted in Dorothy B. Goebel, William Henry Harrison: A Political Biography (Indianapolis: Historical Bureau of the Indiana Library and Historical Department, 1926), 373.

[12.] Quoted in Remini, Webster, 516. Webster was himself fond of peppering his speeches with classical allusions, but only before learned audiences. Carl J. Richard, The Golden Age of the Classics in America: Greece, Rome, and the Antebellum United States (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009), 42.

[13.] Freeman Cleeves, Old Tippecanoe: William Henry Harrison and His Times (Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1939), 336.

[14.] James A. Green, William Henry Harrison: His Life and Times (Richmond: Garrett and Massie, 1944), 395.

[15.] Cleeves, Old Tippecanoe, 337.

[16.] Niles’ National Register, April 6, 1841.

[17.] Wayne Fields, Union of Words: A History of Presidential Eloquence (New York: The Free Press, 1996), 128.

[18.] Goebel, Harrison, 379.

[19.] Smith, “Readers-in-Chief,” 28.

[20.] Jackson was often depicted in cartoons as a king and the comparison with Caesar gained some currency during his presidency. John C. Calhoun wryly called Caesar’s plundering of the treasury an “act of virtue” compared to Jackson’s conduct, while a fellow senator discerned in the demagoguery of Jackson the same force that “crushed the Senate and the liberties of Rome, and placed the blood-stained Caesar upon the throne.” Robert V. Remini, “The Constitution and the Presidencies: The Jackson Era,” in The Constitution and the American Presidency, ed., Martin L. Fausold and Alan Shank (Albany: SUNY Press, 1991), 34; David P. Currie, The Constitution in Congress: Democrats and Whigs, 1829-1861 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), 70.

[21.] In a further twist of irony, the 1848 Swiss Constitution borrowed heavily from the United States, but steered clear of a strong American-style presidency for fear of dictatorship.

[22.] For Harrison, placing Bolívar alongside Caesar and Cromwell was more than a rhetorical flourish. As minister plenipotentiary to Colombia (1828-29), he had met Bolívar and later lectured the would-be dictator in a public letter on the virtues of freedom and democracy. When Jackson took office in March, 1829, Harrison was recalled.

[23.] Tocqueville was unimpressed with President Jackson (whom he met in early 1832) and considered the political parties of the time far inferior to those headed by Jefferson and Hamilton. “America has had great parties; now they no longer exist.” Democracy in America, ed., J. P. Meyer (New York: Harper Collins, 1969), I:175.

[24.] For this reason, “Harrison sought to establish his republican credentials to refute the charge of Federalism by continually invoking the names of Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe, and a panoply of other Democratic-Republican and Antifederalist heroes.” Harry Watson, Liberty and Power: The Politics of Jacksonian America (New York: Hill and Wang, 1990), 220

[25.] As one frustrated Whig observed, “To be popular with the majority in America, to be a favorite with the people, you must divest yourself of all freedom of opinion, you must throw off all dignity, you must shake hands and drink with every man you meet; you must be, in fact, slovenly and dirty, in your appearance, or you will be put down as an aristocrat.” Quoted in Carroll, Origins of the Whig Party, 217. See also Daniel W. Howe, The Political Culture of the American Whigs (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984).

[26.] See Robert G. Grunderson, The Log-Cabin Campaign (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1957).  

[27.] In the King James Bible the full sentence runs as follows. “For there shall arise false Christs, and false prophets, and shall show great signs and wonders; so that, if it were possible, they shall deceive the very elect.” Many among Harrison’s audience would have known this passage and understood the political analog.

[28.] A Harrison biographer asserts that Daniel Webster wrote this paragraph, but provides no evidence to support the claim. Cleeves, Old Tippecanoe, 336. In light of Harrison’s new-found religiosity, he hardly needed prompting from the “god-like Daniel.”

[29.] Whatever his true religious sentiments, Harrison and his Whig handlers aggressively courted evangelical voters in the North. In sharp contrast to the spirituous frivolities associated with the “log cabin and hard cider” campaign, the Whig outreach directed at evangelicals portrayed Harrison as a sober and pious friend of Protestant Christianity and the Whigs as the “Christian party.” See Richard Carwardine, “Evangelicals, Whigs and the Election of William Henry Harrison,” American Studies, 17 (1983), 47-75.

[30.] Quoted in Cleeves, Old Tippecanoe, 332.

[31.] Green, Harrison, 396.

[32.] Quoted in Franklin Steiner, The Religious Beliefs of Our Presidents: Washington to F.D.R. (New York: Prometheus Books, 1936), 68.

[33.] Steiner, Religious Beliefs, 68.

[34.] Quoted in Green, Harrison, 379, 380. It is perhaps not coincidental that the Whigs adopted the “publicity methods of evangelical preachers” and that Harrison “specifically courted evangelical voters with assurances of his sabbatarian, Anti-masonic, and temperance principles.” Daniel W. Howe, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 579.

[35.] For details of Harrison’s month in office and fatal illness see, Norma Lois Peterson, The Presidencies of William Henry Harrison and John Tyler (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1989), 31-43.

[36.] Until a few decades ago this was the prevailing view of Whig rhetoric. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. described it as a façade used by conservatives to conceal their greed for money and office. Age of Jackson, 279.  Brown, Howe, and Holt have done much to correct this biased and simplistic view. In truth, the charge of “executive usurpation” was at once a sincere response to perceived threats to the constitutional order and a shibboleth of electoral politics. “To some extent [Whig] fears were genuine and reflected legitimate issues of constitutional structure and practice, but to an ever-increasing extent they seem to have represented a cynical effort to discredit Democratic candidates by appealing to popular fantasies about power encroaching on liberty.” Rush  Welter, The Mind of America, 1820-1860 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1975 ), 192.

[37.] The Jackson-Polk theory of the presidency embodied four key elements: 1) direct representation of the people, 2) an expanded use of the veto power, 3) an unrestrained power of removal, and 4) the leadership of his political party. The Whigs, led by Clay, rejected each of these on prudential, legal, and constitutional grounds and labored for nearly a decade to shape opinion, change laws, and even amend the Constitution to check these “heresies.” See Leonard D. White, The Jacksonians: A Study in Administrative History (New York: Macmilllan, 1954), 20-49.

[38.] See Thomas Cronin, “Presidential Term, Tenure, and Re-eligibility,” in Inventing the American Presidency, ed. Thomas Cronin (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1989), 61-88.

[39.] See Gerard N. Magliocca, “‘Veto!’ The Jacksonian Revolution in Constitutional Law,” Nebraska Law Review, 78 (1999), 205-209.

[40.] Quoted in Remini, “The Constitution and the Presidencies: The Jackson Era,” 33.

[41.] Whether “usurpation” or not, Jackson’s novel use of the veto “meant he was assuming legislative powers. And everybody knew it. Jackson’s position essentially altered the relationship between the legislative and executive branches of the government. The president was becoming the head of the government, the first among equals, not simply an equal with the other two branches.” Remini, “Constitution and the Presidencies,” 33.

[42.] Currie, Constitution in Congress, xiii.

[43.] If Harrison can be excused on grounds of ignorance, this can hardly be said of the Dartmouth-educated Daniel Webster, who as a strong nationalist must have cringed at Harrison’s “revisionist” history and frequent obeisance to the Antifederalists. 

[44.] “Constitutionally speaking, what was at stake were two theories of the presidency which have competed with each other throughout American history.” Bernard Schwartz, From Confederation to Nation: The American Constitution, 1835-1877 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973), 38-39.

[45.] Harvey C. Mansfield, Jr., Taming the Prince: The Ambivalence of Modern Executive Power (New York: The Free Press, 1989), 250.

[46.] Even the two leading jurists of the age, Joseph Story and James Kent, believed Jackson had established himself as an elective monarch. See Schwarz, Confederation to Nation, 41.

[47.] “Exaggerated as this view of recent presidential history was, it suggests something of the impact that Jackson’s actions had on the development of the executive branch.” Alfred H. Kelly, et al., The American Constitution: Its History and Development, 7th ed., vol. 1 (New York: W. W. Norton, 1990), 214-215. In his landmark study of presidential leadership, Stephen Skowronek suggests the Whigs were basically correct in their assessment of Jackson’s profound impact, not just on the executive branch, but on the political system as a whole. “Jackson’s vindication signaled a wholesale reconstruction of American politics – one that permanently redefined the position of the presidency in its relations with Congress, the Court, the cabinet, the states, the party, and the electorate. The executive office gained foundations categorically more independent than it had enjoyed before.” The Politics Presidents Make: Leadership from John Adams to Bill Clinton (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997), 153.

[48.] “Before 1829 few federal officeholders had been required to discharge any obligation to the party or faction in power ... After 1829 they were progressively brought under the dominion of the local party machine and subjected to various party requirements as a condition of constituting their employment. Among these were obligations to pay party assessments, to do party work at election time, and to ‘vote right’.” White, Jacksonians, 332.

[49.] The Indian Removal Act (1830), which authorized the president to relocate the Southeastern tribes on federal lands, was pushed through Congress by Jackson’s supporters. Jackson’s “defiance” of the decision in Worcester v. Georgia (1832) was simply a refusal to intervene on behalf of the Cherokee. In order to contrast his Indian policies (as governor of Indiana Territory) with those of Jackson, Harrison’s  Discourse on the Aborigines, originally delivered as a lecture in 1838,was published in 1840 as a campaign pamphlet. Carwardine, “Evangelicals, Whigs, and the Election of William Henry Harrison,” 60.

[50.] Jackson’s written justification for removal was no less radical and far-reaching than the act itself. “Jackson’s removal statement constituted a revolutionary change in the conceptualization of the basis of presidential power. The presidency and indeed the party system were never quite the same again.” Richard J. Ellis and Stephen Kirk, “Jefferson, Jackson, and the Origins of the Presidential Mandate,” in Speaking to the People: The Rhetorical Presidency in Historical Perspective (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1998), 56.

[51.] The censure resolution adopted by the Senate on March 28, 1834 read as follows: “Resolved, That the President, in the late Executive Proceedings in relation to the public revenue, has assumed upon himself authority and power not conferred by the constitution and laws, but in derogation of both.” When Jackson responded with a written “Protest” it was rejected out of hand as a violation of the Senate’s independence. After the election of Van Buren, Jackson’s supporters in the Senate had the resolution expunged from the official journal. See Robert V. Remini, Henry Clay, Statesman for the Union (New York: W. W. Norton, 1991).

[52.] As Currie notes, “President Harrison went out of his way to dump on his predecessors for going so far as to draft possible legislation for Congress to consider, especially in the field of finance.” Constitution in Congress, 163.

[53.] Stated positively, “[t]here was something to this argument, but Jackson was on solid ground in insisting on executive unity and responsibility.” Kelly et al., American Constitution, 215.

[54.] See White, Jacksonians, 325-346.

[55.] See Herbert Storing, What the Antifederalists were For (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981).

[56.] See Saul Cornell, The Other Founders: Antifederalism and the Dissenting Tradition in America, 1788-1828 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999).

[57.] In a campaign speech in Versailles, Indiana, Harrison indicated that he would gladly turn his administration over to Clay and retire to his farm if the Constitution allowed it. Peterson, Presidencies of Harrison and Tyler, 32. 

[58.] Schwartz, Confederation to Nation, 49.

[59.] Schwartz, Confederation to Nation, 48.

[60.] Quoted in Peterson, Presidencies of Harrison and Tyler, 31, 42.

[61.] Forrest McDonald, The American Presidency: An Intellectual History (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1994), 319. Gerard N. Magliocca states that the address was “[g]hostwritten by Webster.” Andrew Jackson and the Constitution: The Rise and Fall of Generational Regimes (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2007), 75.

[62.] Remini and Golway, Fellow Citizens, 105.

[63.] Remini, Henry Clay, 567.

[64.] Steven G. Calabresi and Christopher S. Yoo, The Unitary Executive: Presidential Power from Washington to Bush (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008), 130-32.

[65.] Paul F. Boller, Jr., Presidential Inaugurals (New York: Harcourt, 2001), 137.  

[66.] Quoted in Remini, Webster, 506-507.

2. William Henry Harrison, "Inaugural Address" (Tuesday, March 4, 1841)

Presidential Inauguration of Wm. H. Harrison, in Washington City, D.C., on the 4th of March 1841.


The Avalon Project. Documents in Law, History, and Diplomacy <http://avalon.law.yale.edu/19th_century/harrison.asp>.

Bartleby.com <http://www.bartleby.com/124/pres26.html>

The Addresses and Messages of the Presidents of the United States, Inaugural, Annual, and Special, from 1789 to 1846: With a Memoir of Each of the Presidents and a History of Their Administrations; Also the Constitution of the United States, and a Selection of Important Documents and Statistical Information, Compiled from Official Sources by Edwin Williams (New York: Edward Walker, 1846). 2 vols.

  • Harrison's Inaugural Address, pp. 1197-1210.

Image: Presidential Inauguration of Wm. H. Harrison, in Washington City, D.C., on the 4th of March 1841. Library of Congress. Prints and Photographs Division. Reproduction number: LC-USZ62-58550


CALLED from a retirement which I had supposed was to continue for the residue of my life to fill the chief executive office of this great and free nation, I appear before you, fellow-citizens, to take the oaths which the Constitution prescribes as a necessary qualification for the performance of its duties; and in obedience to a custom coeval with our Government and what I believe to be your expectations I proceed to present to you a summary of the principles which will govern me in the discharge of the duties which I shall be called upon to perform.

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. However much the world may have improved in many respects in the lapse of upward of two thousand years since the remark was made by the virtuous and indignant Roman, I fear that a strict examination of the annals of some of the modern elective governments would develop similar instances of violated confidence.

Although the fiat of the people has gone forth proclaiming me the Chief Magistrate of this glorious Union, nothing upon their part remaining to be done, it may be thought that a motive may exist to keep up the delusion under which they may be supposed to have acted in relation to my principles and opinions; and perhaps there may be some in this assembly who have come here either prepared to condemn those I shall now deliver, or, approving them, to doubt the sincerity with which they are now uttered. But the lapse of a few months will confirm or dispel their fears. The outline of principles to govern and measures to be adopted by an Administration not yet begun will soon be exchanged for immutable history, and I shall stand either exonerated by my countrymen or classed with the mass of those who promised that they might deceive and flattered with the intention to betray. However strong may be my present purpose to realize the expectations of a magnanimous and confiding people, I too well understand the dangerous temptations to which I shall be exposed from the magnitude of the power which it has been the pleasure of the people to commit to my hands not to place my chief confidence upon the aid of that Almighty Power which has hitherto protected me and enabled me to bring to favorable issues other important but still greatly inferior trusts heretofore confided to me by my country.

The broad foundation upon which our Constitution rests being the people—a breath of theirs having made, as a breath can unmake, change, or modify it—it can be assigned to none of the great divisions of government but to that of democracy. If such is its theory, those who are called upon to administer it must recognize as its leading principle the duty of shaping their measures so as to produce the greatest good to the greatest number. But with these broad admissions, 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. We admit of no government by divine right, believing that so far as power is concerned the Beneficent Creator has made no distinction amongst men; that all are upon an equality, and that the only legitimate right to govern is an express grant of power from the governed. The Constitution of the United States is the instrument containing this grant of power to the several departments composing the Government. On an examination of that instrument it will be found to contain 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. The boasted privilege of a Roman citizen was to him a shield only against a petty provincial ruler, whilst the proud democrat of Athens would console himself under a sentence of death for a supposed violation of the national faith—which no one understood and which at times was the subject of the mockery of all—or the banishment from his home, his family, and his country with or without an alleged cause, that it was the act not of a single tyrant or hated aristocracy, but of his assembled countrymen. Far different is the power of our sovereignty. It can interfere with no one's faith, prescribe forms of worship for no one's observance, inflict no punishment but after well-ascertained guilt, the result of investigation under rules prescribed by the Constitution itself. These precious privileges, and those scarcely less important of giving expression to his thoughts and opinions, either by writing or speaking, unrestrained but by the liability for injury to others, and that of a full participation in all the advantages which flow from the Government, the acknowledged property of all, 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 as the rest of his species and entitled to a full share of the blessings with which He has endowed them. Notwithstanding the limited sovereignty possessed by the people of the United States and the restricted grant of power to the Government which they have adopted, enough has been given to accomplish all the objects for which it was created. It has been found powerful in war, and hitherto justice has been administered, and intimate union effected, domestic tranquillity preserved, and personal liberty secured to the citizen. 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 grant.

This is more particularly the case in relation to that part of the instrument which treats of the legislative branch, and not only as regards the exercise of powers claimed under a general clause giving that body the authority to pass all laws necessary to carry into effect the specified powers, but in relation to the latter also. 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 motive. But the great danger to our institutions does not appear to me to be in a usurpation by the Government of power not granted by the people, but by the accumulation in one of the departments of that which was assigned to others. Limited as are the powers which have been granted, still enough have been granted to constitute a despotism if concentrated in one of the departments. This danger is greatly heightened, as it has been always observable that men are less jealous of encroachments of one department upon another than upon their own reserved rights. When the Constitution of the United States first came from the hands of the Convention which formed it, many of the sternest republicans of the day were alarmed at the extent of the power which had been granted to the Federal Government, and more particularly of that portion which had been assigned to the executive branch. There were in it features which appeared not to be in harmony with their ideas of a simple representative democracy or republic, and knowing the tendency of power to increase itself, particularly when exercised by a single individual, predictions were made that at no very remote period the Government would terminate in virtual monarchy. It would not become me to say that the fears of these patriots have been already realized; but as I sincerely believe that the tendency of measures and of men's opinions for some years past has been in that direction, it is, I conceive, strictly proper that I should take this occasion to repeat the assurances I have heretofore given of my determination to arrest the progress of that tendency if it really exists and restore the Government to its pristine health and vigor, as far as this can be effected by any legitimate exercise of the power placed in my hands.

I proceed to state in as summary a manner as I can my opinion of the sources of the evils which have been so extensively complained of and the correctives which may be applied. Some of the former 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. As, however, one mode of correction is in the power of every President, and consequently in mine, it would be useless, and perhaps invidious, to enumerate the evils of which, in the opinion of many of our fellow-citizens, this error of the sages who framed the Constitution may have been the source and the bitter fruits which we are still to gather from it if it continues to disfigure our system. It may be observed, however, as a general remark, that 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. Until an amendment of the Constitution can be effected public opinion may secure the desired object. I give my aid to it by renewing the pledge heretofore given that under no circumstances will I consent to serve a second term.

But if there is danger to public liberty from the acknowledged defects of the Constitution in the want of limit to the continuance of the Executive power in the same hands, there is, I apprehend, not much less from a misconstruction of that instrument as it regards the powers actually given. I can not conceive that by a fair construction any or either of its provisions would be found to constitute the President a part of the legislative power. It can not be claimed from the power to recommend, since, although enjoined as a duty upon him, it is a privilege which he holds in common with every other citizen; and although there may be something more of confidence in the propriety of the measures recommended in the one case than in the other, in the obligations of ultimate decision there can be no difference. 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.

It may be said, indeed, that the Constitution has given to the Executive the power to annul the acts of the legislative body by refusing to them his assent. So a similar power has necessarily resulted from that instrument to the judiciary, and yet the judiciary forms no part of the Legislature. There is, it is true, this difference between these grants of power: 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. But the decision of the judiciary is final in such a case, whereas in every instance where the veto of the Executive is applied it may be overcome by a vote of two-thirds of both Houses of Congress. The negative upon the acts of the legislative by the executive authority, and that in the hands of one individual, would seem to be an incongruity in our system. Like some others of a similar character, however, it appears to be highly expedient, and if used only with the forbearance and in the spirit which was intended by its authors it may be productive of great good and be found one of the best safeguards to the Union. At the period of the formation of the Constitution the principle does not appear to have enjoyed much favor in the State governments. It existed but in two, and in one of these there was a plural executive. If we would search for the motives which operated upon the purely patriotic and enlightened assembly which framed the Constitution for the adoption of a provision so apparently repugnant to the leading democratic principle that the majority should govern, we must reject the idea that they anticipated from it any benefit to the ordinary course of legislation. They knew too well the high degree of intelligence which existed among the people and the enlightened character of the State legislatures not to have the fullest confidence that the two bodies elected by them would be worthy representatives of such constituents, and, of course, that they would require no aid in conceiving and maturing the measures which the circumstances of the country might require. And 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. To assist or control Congress, then, in its ordinary legislation could not, I conceive, have been the motive for conferring the veto power on the President. This argument acquires additional force from the fact of its never having been thus used by the first six Presidents—and two of them were members of the Convention, one presiding over its deliberations and the other bearing a larger share in consummating the labors of that august body than any other person. But if bills were never returned to Congress by either of the Presidents above referred to upon the ground of their being inexpedient or not as well adapted as they might be to the wants of the people, the veto was applied upon that of want of conformity to the Constitution or because errors had been committed from a too hasty enactment.

There is another ground for the adoption of the veto principle, which had probably more influence in recommending it to the Convention than any other. I refer to the security which it gives to the just and equitable action of the Legislature upon all parts of the Union. 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; that however enlightened and patriotic they might suppose from past experience the members of Congress might be, and however largely partaking, in the general, of the liberal feelings of the people, it was impossible to expect that bodies so constituted should not sometimes be controlled by local interests and sectional feelings. It was proper, therefore, to provide some umpire from whose situation and mode of appointment more independence and freedom from such influences might be expected. Such a one was afforded by the executive department constituted by the Constitution. 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. I consider the veto power, therefore, given by the Constitution to the Executive of the United States solely as a conservative power, to be used only first, to protect the Constitution from violation; secondly, the people from the effects of hasty legislation where their will has been probably disregarded or not well understood, and, thirdly, to prevent the effects of combinations violative of the rights of minorities. In reference to the second of these objects I may observe that I consider it the right and privilege of the people to decide disputed points of the Constitution arising from the general grant of power to Congress to carry into effect the powers expressly given; and I believe with Mr. Madison that "repeated recognitions under varied circumstances in acts of the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of the Government, accompanied by indications in different modes of the concurrence of the general will of the nation," as affording to the President sufficient authority for his considering such disputed points as settled.

Upward of half a century has elapsed since the adoption of the present form of government. It would be an object more highly desirable than the gratification of the curiosity of speculative statesmen if its precise situation could be ascertained, a fair exhibit made of the operations of each of its departments, of the powers which they respectively claim and exercise, of the collisions which have occurred between them or between the whole Government and those of the States or either of them. 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 its adoption or the confident hopes of its advocates have been best realized. The great dread of the former seems to have been that the reserved powers of the States would be absorbed by those of the Federal Government and a consolidated power established, leaving to the States the shadow only of that independent action for which they had so zealously contended and on the preservation of which they relied as the last hope of liberty. Without denying that the result to which they looked with so much apprehension is in the way of being realized, it is obvious that they did not clearly see the mode of its accomplishment. The General Government has seized upon none of the reserved rights of the States. As far as any open warfare may have gone, the State authorities have amply maintained their rights. To a casual observer our system presents no appearance of discord between the different members which compose it. Even the addition of many new ones has produced no jarring. They move in their respective orbits in perfect harmony with the central head and with each other. 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. By making the President the sole distributer of all the patronage of the Government the framers of the Constitution do not appear to have anticipated at how short a period it would become a formidable instrument to control the free operations of the State governments. Of trifling importance at first, it had early in Mr. Jefferson's Administration become so powerful as to create great alarm in the mind of that patriot from the potent influence it might exert in controlling the freedom of the elective franchise. If such could have then been the effects of its influence, how much greater must be the danger at this time, quadrupled in amount as it certainly is and more completely under the control of the Executive will than their construction of their powers allowed or the forbearing characters of all the early Presidents permitted them to make. 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 Constitution has declared it to be the duty of the President to see that the laws are executed, and it makes him the Commander in Chief of the Armies and Navy of the United States. If the opinion of the most approved writers upon that species of mixed government which in modern Europe is termed monarchy in contradistinction to despotism is correct, there was wanting no other addition to the powers of our Chief Magistrate to stamp a monarchical character on our Government but the control of the public finances; and to me it appears strange indeed that anyone should doubt that the entire control which the President possesses over the officers who have the custody of the public money, by the power of removal with or without cause, does, for all mischievous purposes at least, virtually subject the treasure also to his disposal. 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. I am not insensible of the great difficulty that exists in drawing a proper plan for the safe-keeping and disbursement of the public revenues, and I know the importance which has been attached by men of great abilities and patriotism to the divorce, as it is called, of the Treasury from the banking institutions. 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. To this danger to our republican institutions and that created by the influence given to the Executive through the instrumentality of the Federal officers I propose to apply all the remedies which may be at my command. 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, and their own independence secured by an assurance of perfect immunity in exercising this sacred privilege of freemen under the dictates of their own unbiased judgments. Never with my consent shall an officer of the people, compensated for his services out of their pockets, become the pliant instrument of Executive will.

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. The maxim which our ancestors derived from the mother country that "the freedom of the press is the great bulwark of civil and religious liberty" is one of the most precious legacies which they have left us. We have learned, too, from our own as well as the experience of other countries, that golden shackles, by whomsoever or by whatever pretense imposed, are as fatal to it as the iron bonds of despotism. The presses in the necessary employment of the Government should never be used "to clear the guilty or to varnish crime." A decent and manly examination of the acts of the Government should be not only tolerated, but encouraged.

Upon another occasion 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. It would be very strange, indeed, that the Constitution should have strictly forbidden one branch of the Legislature from interfering in the origination of such bills and that it should be considered proper that an altogether different department of the Government should be permitted to do so. 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. No matter in which of the houses of Parliament a bill may originate nor by whom introduced—a minister or a member of the opposition—by the fiction of law, or rather of constitutional principle, the sovereign is supposed to have prepared it agreeably to his will and then submitted it to Parliament for their advice and consent. Now the very reverse is the case here, not only with regard to the principle, but the forms prescribed by the Constitution. The principle certainly assigns to the only body constituted by the Constitution (the legislative body) the power to make laws, and the forms even direct that the enactment should be ascribed to them. The Senate, in relation to revenue bills, have the right to propose amendments, and so has the Executive by the power given him to return them to the House of Representatives with his objections. It is in his power also to propose amendments in the existing revenue laws, suggested by his observations upon their defective or injurious operation. But 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.

Connected with this subject is the character of the 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. If any single scheme could produce the effect of arresting at once that mutation of condition by which thousands of our most indigent fellow-citizens by their industry and enterprise are raised to the possession of wealth, that is the one. If there is one measure better calculated than another to produce that state of things so much deprecated by all true republicans, by which the rich are daily adding to their hoards and the poor sinking deeper into penury, it is an exclusive metallic currency. Or if there is a process by which the character of the country for generosity and nobleness of feeling may be destroyed by the great increase and neck toleration of usury, it is an exclusive metallic currency.

Amongst the other duties of a delicate character which the President is called upon to perform is the supervision of the government of the Territories of the United States. 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. It is in this District only where American citizens are to be found who under a settled policy are deprived of many important political privileges without any inspiring hope as to the future. Their only consolation under circumstances of such deprivation is that of the devoted exterior guards of a camp—that their sufferings secure tranquillity and safety within. Are there any of their countrymen, who would subject them to greater sacrifices, to any other humiliations than those essentially necessary to the security of the object for which they were thus separated from their fellow-citizens? Are their rights alone not to be guaranteed by the application of those great principles upon which all our constitutions are founded? We are told by the greatest of British orators and statesmen that at the commencement of the War of the Revolution the most stupid men in England spoke of "their American subjects." Are there, indeed, citizens of any of our States who have dreamed of their subjects in the District of Columbia? Such dreams can never be realized by any agency of mine. The people of the District of Columbia are not the subjects of the people of the States, but free American citizens. Being in the latter condition when the Constitution was formed, no words used in that instrument could have been intended to deprive them of that character. If there is anything in the great principle of unalienable rights so emphatically insisted upon in our Declaration of Independence, they could neither make nor the United States accept a surrender of their liberties and become the subjects—in other words, the slaves—of their former fellow-citizens. 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. In all other respects the legislation of Congress should be adapted to their peculiar position and wants and be conformable with their deliberate opinions of their own interests.

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. Mischievous, however, in their tendencies as collisions of this kind may be, those which arise between the respective communities which for certain purposes compose one nation are much more so, for no such nation can long exist without the careful culture of those feelings of confidence and affection which are the effective bonds to union between free and confederated states. 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. The alternative, then, is to destroy or keep down a bad passion by creating and fostering a good one, and this seems to be the corner stone upon which our American political architects have reared the fabric of our Government. The cement which was to bind it and perpetuate its existence was the affectionate attachment between all its members. To insure the continuance of this feeling, produced at first by a community of dangers, of sufferings, and of interests, the advantages of each were made accessible to all. No participation in any good possessed by any member of our extensive Confederacy, except in domestic government, was withheld from the citizen of any other member. By a process attended with no difficulty, no delay, no expense but that of removal, the citizen of one might become the citizen of any other, and successively of the whole. The lines, too, separating powers to be exercised by the citizens of one State from those of another seem to be so distinctly drawn as to leave no room for misunderstanding. The citizens of each State unite in their persons all the privileges which that character confers and all that they may claim as citizens of the United States, but 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. Never has there been seen in the institutions of the separate members of any confederacy more elements of discord. In the principles and forms of government and religion, as well as in the circumstances of the several Cantons, so marked a discrepancy was observable as to promise anything but harmony in their intercourse or permanency in their alliance, and yet for ages neither has been interrupted. Content with the positive benefits which their union produced, with the independence and safety from foreign aggression which it secured, these sagacious people respected the institutions of each other, however repugnant to their own principles and prejudices.

Our Confederacy, fellow-citizens, can only be preserved by the same forbearance. 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. Our Confederacy is perfectly illustrated by the terms and principles governing a common copartnership. There is a fund of power to be exercised under the direction of the joint councils of the allied members, but that which has been reserved by the individual members is intangible by the common Government or the individual members composing it. To attempt it finds no support in the principles of our Constitution.

It should be our constant and earnest endeavor mutually to cultivate a spirit of concord and harmony among the various parts of our Confederacy. Experience has abundantly taught us that the agitation by citizens of one part of the Union of a subject not confided to the General Government, but exclusively under the guardianship of the local authorities, is productive of no other consequences than bitterness, alienation, discord, and injury to the very cause which is intended to be advanced. 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.

In consequence of the embarrassed state of business and the currency, some of the States may meet with difficulty in their financial concerns. However deeply we may regret anything imprudent or excessive in the engagements into which States have entered for purposes of their own, it does not become us to disparage the States governments, nor to discourage them from making proper efforts for their own relief. On the contrary, 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. The resources of the country are abundant, the enterprise and activity of our people proverbial, and we may well hope that wise legislation and prudent administration by the respective governments, each acting within its own sphere, will restore former prosperity.

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 same causes will ever produce the same effects, and as long as the love of power is a dominant passion of the human bosom, and as long as the understandings of men can be warped and their affections changed by operations upon their passions and prejudices, so long will the liberties of a people depend on their own constant attention to its preservation. 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. History, ancient and modern, is full of such examples. Caesar became the master of the Roman people and the senate under the pretense of supporting the democratic claims of the former against the aristocracy of the latter; Cromwell, in the character of protector of the liberties of the people, became the dictator of England, and Bolivar possessed himself of unlimited power with the title of his country's liberator. There is, on the contrary, no instance on record of an extensive and well-established republic being changed into an 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. It is in periods like this that it behooves the people to be most watchful of those to whom they have intrusted power. And although there is at times much difficulty in distinguishing the false from the true spirit, a calm and dispassionate investigation will detect the counterfeit, as well by the character of its operations as the results that are produced. 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. When the genuine spirit of liberty animates the body of a people to a thorough examination of their affairs, it leads to the excision of every excrescence which may have fastened itself upon any of the departments of the government, and restores the system to its pristine health and beauty. But the reign of an intolerant spirit of party amongst a free people seldom fails to result in a dangerous accession to the executive power introduced and established amidst unusual professions of devotion to democracy.

The foregoing remarks relate almost exclusively to matters connected with our domestic concerns. It may be proper, however, that I should give some indications to my fellow-citizens of my proposed course of conduct in the management of our foreign relations. I assure them, therefore, that it is my intention to use every means in my power to preserve the friendly intercourse which now so happily subsists with every foreign nation, and that although, of course, not well informed as to the state of pending negotiations with any of them, I see in the personal characters of the sovereigns, as well as in the mutual interests of our own and of the governments with which our relations are most intimate, a pleasing guaranty that the harmony so important to the interests of their subjects as well as of our citizens will not be interrupted by the advancement of any claim or pretension upon their part to which our honor would not permit us to yield. Long the defender of my country's rights in the field, I trust that my fellow-citizens will not see in my earnest desire to preserve peace with foreign powers any indication that their rights will ever be sacrificed or the honor of the nation tarnished by any admission on the part of their Chief Magistrate unworthy of their former glory. In our intercourse with our aboriginal neighbors the same liberality and justice which marked the course prescribed to me by two of my illustrious predecessors when acting under their direction in the discharge of the duties of superintendent and commissioner shall be strictly observed. I can conceive of no more sublime spectacle, none more likely to propitiate 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. 21
Before concluding, fellow-citizens, I must say something to you on the subject of the parties at this time existing in our country. To me it appears perfectly clear that the interest of that country requires that the violence of the spirit by which those parties are at this time governed must be greatly mitigated, if not entirely extinguished, or consequences will ensue which are appalling to be thought of.

If parties in a republic are necessary to secure a degree of vigilance sufficient to keep the public functionaries within the bounds of law and duty, at that point their usefulness ends. Beyond that they become destructive of public virtue, the parent of a spirit antagonist to that of liberty, and eventually its inevitable conqueror. 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 Curtii and Decii, 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. The spirit of liberty had fled, and, avoiding the abodes of civilized man, had sought protection in the wilds of Scythia or Scandinavia; and so under the operation of the same causes and influences it will fly from our Capitol and our forums. A calamity so awful, not only to our country, but to the world, must be deprecated by every patriot and every tendency to a state of things likely to produce it immediately checked. Such a tendency has existed—does exist. Always the friend of my countrymen, never their flatterer, 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. Something, however, may be effected by the means which they have placed in my hands. 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. All the influence that I possess shall be exerted to prevent the formation at least of an Executive party in the halls of the legislative body. I wish for the support of no member of that body to any measure of mine that does not satisfy his judgment and his sense of duty to those from whom he holds his appointment, nor any confidence in advance from the people but that asked for by Mr. Jefferson, "to give firmness and effect to the legal administration of their affairs."

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.

Fellow-citizens, being fully invested with that high office to which the partiality of my countrymen has called me, I now take an affectionate leave of you. You will bear with you to your homes the remembrance of the pledge I have this day given to discharge all the high duties of my exalted station according to the best of my ability, and I shall enter upon their performance with entire confidence in the support of a just and generous people.

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