Learning from the Past on Presidents Day

On March 4th, 1809, James Madison, the fourth President of the United States, delivered his first inaugural address to the House Chamber in the U.S. Capitol Building. In our present time of turmoil, and considering the tone and content of information from the current executive branch, it’s worth spending a few minutes reading how Madison envisioned his role in government and the guiding principles that he hoped would steer his leadership.


“Assuring myself that under every vicissitude the determined spirit and united councils of the nation will be safeguards to its honor and its essential interests, I repair to the post assigned me with no other discouragement than what springs from my own inadequacy to its high duties. If I do not sink under the weight of this deep conviction it is because I find some support in a consciousness of the purposes and a confidence in the principles which I bring with me into this arduous service.

  • To cherish peace and friendly intercourse with all nations having correspondent dispositions;
  • to maintain sincere neutrality toward belligerent nations;
  • to prefer in all cases amicable discussion and reasonable accommodation of differences to a decision of them by an appeal to arms;
  • to exclude foreign intrigues and foreign partialities, so degrading to all countries and so baneful to free ones;
  • to foster a spirit of independence too just to invade the rights of others, too proud to surrender our own, too liberal to indulge unworthy prejudices ourselves and too elevated not to look down upon them in others;
  • to hold the union of the States as the basis of their peace and happiness;
  • to support the Constitution, which is the cement of the Union, as well in its limitations as in its authorities;
  • to respect the rights and authorities reserved to the States and to the people as equally incorporated with and essential to the success of the general system;
  • to avoid the slightest interference with the right of conscience or the functions of religion, so wisely exempted from civil jurisdiction;
  • to preserve in their full energy the other salutary provisions in behalf of private and personal rights, and of the freedom of the press;
  • to observe economy in public expenditures;
  • to liberate the public resources by an honorable discharge of the public debts;
  • to keep within the requisite limits a standing military force, always remembering that an armed and trained militia is the firmest bulwark of republics—that without standing armies their liberty can never be in danger, nor with large ones safe;
  • to promote by authorized means improvements friendly to agriculture, to manufactures, and to external as well as internal commerce;
  • to favor in like manner the advancement of science and the diffusion of information as the best aliment to true liberty […]”

President James Madison, March 4, 1809, Inaugural Address (formatted for easier reading, downloaded from ICPSR, available through many online sources)

Portrait of President James Madison

“President James Madison, 1816” by John Vanderlyn (from Wikimedia)