Guest Author - Rebecca Graf
The mindset of those involved in a period is best discovered in the writings of the times. The analysis done by historians centuries later can shed some light on the subject, but to fully get the impact one has to read the primary documents from that era. To get the full feel of how the leaders of the United States of America viewed the role of President and where the country stood, the inaugural addresses are a great place to start. It is from the presidential inaugural addresses that one can understand better the various administrations and the decisions they made during their terms in office.
As President James Monroe stepped up to fill the immense shoes of the highest office in the new land, he highlighted the most recent national event that occupied the citizens’ mind: the war with Great Britain called the War of 1812. Monroe noted how the war ended with “conditions equal and honorable to both parties.” The new president was noting how those that had voted him into office still had the war “deeply impressed on the memory” of them all. The war was an event that reminded the young nation that defense was important even during times of peace. The war with Britain was a recent reminder that the nation could not afford to not build fortifications or have a permanent naval force. This was closely tied into the economic situation, on made worse by the war, as the enemy tore the seaboard and land economic structure of a country that was still on wobbly knees.
President John Quincy Adams’ address was focused on the accomplishments of the young nation including its expansion from four million people to twelve million and “territory bounded by the Mississippi has been extended from sea to sea” as new states were added to collection of states and relations with Europe had improved with treaties and mature interactions with those countries. Andrew Jackson’s first term was focused on internal developments and defending the nation without putting said nation in the hole: “I shall not seek to enlarge our present establishment, nor disregard that salutary lesson….that the military should be held subordinate to the civil power.” Jackson’s second inaugural address shifted to the “the preservation of the rights of the several States and the integrity of the Union.” President Martin Van Buren continued promoting the pride of America by pointing out how America stood “without a parallel in the world” as they enjoyed “the respect and, with scarcely an exception, the friendship of every nation.” The nation was growing and presenting massive accomplishments to the world at large. President William Henry Harrison was focused on establishing the role of the government including that of the Executive branch and the Legislative branch as the “Constitution of the United States is the instrument” giving the power he explains in his address to the various parties of the government. President James K. Polk focused again on states’ rights as he reminded the nation that the “Government of the United States is one of delegated and limited powers” while “each State is a complete sovereignty within the sphere of its reserved powers.”
From these inaugural addresses, history students can see the insecurity the young nation still possessed on the world stage as well as that of the desire to promote pride in the citizens. These addresses talked about the status of America, the accomplishments of America, and the internal structure that instilled pride as each state was still sovereign while being of one entity that the world admired. It left the War of 1812 needing to know it was somebody in the world and that the nation had what it took to succeed. Van Buren pointed that out as he said the nations of the world looked to the new nation as something to be admired and respected. He pointed out how the nation had expanded opening up the Mississippi River as well as the expansion of states and possess “within our limits the dimensions and faculties of a great power under a Government possessing all the energies of any government ever known to the Old World.” Each president after that pushed the advancements of the domestic and foreign relations and growth in order to expand more in those areas. Adams pointed out “the great result of this experiment” and how it was “crowned with success equal to the most sanguine expectations of its founders.” The Revolution was being seen as something to be commended and the result of several Presidents was good as the nation was growing and seeing respect. Success was in the air. There was no reason for the nation not to approve further developments internally and abroad. Jackson drew from his time in the military to push for an increase in the navy department and the need to not abandon “forts, arsenals, and dockyards” just because there is peace. His domestic policy was to strengthen the defenses of the nation while trying to maintain a period of peace. Yet domestic policy could not avoid the rights of the states as they were asked to be a part of something that was so much bigger than they ever imagined. Each state was a part of the growing United States of America, but each state was also seeing its sovereignty falling quickly away. Jackson noted in his second inaugural address that as the “General Government encroaches upon the rights of the States” it still had to “fulfill the purposes of its creation.”
During this period, the presidents were notably Democratic aside from Harrison who was the Whig in the mix. At this point in history, the Democratic Party was one that “threatened to supersede the Constitutional powers delegated to Congress.” Over all, the Whigs “supported the supremacy of Congress over the executive branch and favored a program of modernization and economic protectionism.” The Democrats wanted the President to take the nation where the future was calling it forward. Jackson noted that “as long as our Government is administered for the good of the people…[and] as long as it secures to us the rights of person and property” that the nation is worth the expense it would take to defend it. Expansion of the government was needed to accomplish that. Harrison stated in his inaugural address that the “majority of our citizens…possess a sovereignty with an amount of power precisely equal to that which has been granted to them by the parties.” The Whigs did not see the government as being elected by “divine right” as that right “to govern is an express grant of power from the governed.” The Democrats longed for more government while the Whigs feared the strength of such a government.
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