Between Religion and Reason: Equality In Jefferson’s First Inaugural Address

A copy of Jefferson’s First Inaugural is available here. The text is about 1700 words long.


Jefferson introduces a problem and seemingly solves it in the opening. He first says he is afflicted by “anxious and awful presentiments which the greatness of the charge and the weakness of [his] powers so justly inspire.” Then he says:

Utterly, indeed, should I despair did not the presence of many whom I here see remind me that in the other high authorities provided by our Constitution I shall find resources of wisdom, of virtue, and of zeal on which to rely under all difficulties.

We must wonder why, if the first paragraph introduces a problem so easily solved, it is there in this speech at all.

My own suspicion is that the problem the first paragraph introduces is not merely a personal problem. Jefferson claims he is there to “express” thanks and “declare” his consciousness that the task is above him right before he “approaches” that task. He moves from expression of a sentiment to a declaration of knowledge and then to action, except that his action – the approach – is incomplete.

That movement parallels the description of the United States in the same paragraph. The “rising nation” is passive in its richness, more active in the seas it crosses and trade it engages in, but its action is ultimately incomplete too. “Advancing rapidly to destinies beyond the reach of mortal eye” has an ambiguous antecedent – either Jefferson means that the United States is advancing, or the other nations that “forget right” in their lust for power, or both.

The deeper problem of the First Inaugural is how the United States of America will remain true to itself even as it gets prosperous. Will it descend into despotic empire even as it thinks itself ascending? Will republican rhetoric merely be what it was in Florence prior to Machiavelli, a way for a few thugs to do as they pleased?

The parallel between the man about to become President and the nation itself is reinforced by what he sees. Jefferson sees this nation bound to today – from the present arise its sense of honor, happiness and hopes. “Honor” might be considered that which drives nations to advance “to destinies beyond the reach of mortal eye,” but it is Jefferson as speaker who sees America’s honor squarely before him. To that end, the resources that may check any irresponsible imperial ambition the US might feel exist in “wisdom, virtue and zeal” – wisdom supersedes honor, virtue informs happiness, and zeal is what is required to make hopes actual.

But those are only the “resources.” Something has to give those resources form to make them effective.

The Second Paragraph

The deliberation antecedent to the election parallels the problem of the President in his fear before the office, and therefore the problem of the nation’s success. The only difference is that speaking and writing thoughtfully has been resolved into a voice (note “called” in the 1st paragraph), a voice that can be oppressive but was made legitimate and can stay legitimate as long as it respects “equal rights.”

The difference, then, is that there is no “approach.” The popular will has spoken and is legitimate. There is a chance for a just unity now that has not been seen before.

Before, religion attempted to unify people, but it was intolerant. It did not recognize that people wanted “liberty,” and so the countries still tied to this model of unity do indeed export something back to the United States – an “agitation of the billows” that can threaten our peace.

People differ on how we can be safe from this in the United States. Should we emphasize our own liberty (“republicans”), or should we place emphasis on unity (“federalists”)? “Every difference of opinion is not a difference of principle” – the end is the same, and even the means have something in common: they are being expressed reasonably, and it is clear that unity and liberty are essential to the preservation of the other via reason.

The second paragraph then moves from religion (and the problem of intolerance) to liberty (defined as a debate over security) to reason (fostered by the law). The law encourages people to think and make decisions for themselves – in giving us this private good, it thus encourages us to “fly” to its “standard.” It might be possible to have someone wholly reasonable rule and dictate perfect laws, but that would be the rule of angels who were kings, and the disunity of what is divine and human is Jefferson’s point.

In the third paragraph, a list of nine items is presented to us. The US is “separated by nature and a wide ocean” from one warring part of the earth, its citizens are “too high-minded” to worry about others’ insults, and it is a country with ample room, a “chosen” country. These first three items describe opportunity, and what it takes to realize one has an opportunity.

“A due sense of equal right to the use of… faculties, to the acquisitions of… industry, to honor and confidence from our fellow citizens:” these next three items describe making use of opportunity. One uses the same discipline in keeping presence of mind for the sake acquiring to make sure one does not lose reputation in the sight of others. The virtues that drive acquisition ultimately make man social in a good way: merit is a more expansive concept than birth, as it asks man to act, not merely be.

What ties opportunity and action together at the moral level is religion. Religion moves man from “honesty” to the “love of man” through “temperance.” Moderation involves self-knowledge, and when one knows and is happy with oneself, one is grateful. A trust in Providence means that one need not be fearful of the future, and that there are actual benefits in this life is a sign that there is a world to come where things can be truly better.

All government does, for Jefferson, is stay “wise and frugal.” It prevents people from exercising the opportunity to injure another, it allows for acquisition of all sorts, and it protects what people earn so that they may be confident in the future. Government therefore mirrors weakly the list of nine – the public is a shadow of the private.

The Fourth Paragraph and Conclusion

Jefferson gives a list of sixteen items this time, which illustrate a “general principle” that is “essential” to the government. We find that every fourth item unifies each group of four in the list: “the preservation of the general government in its whole constitutional vigor” means “equal and exact justice to all men,” and that all nations are treated equally, and all states. “Supremacy of the civil over the military authority” means that in a country where the citizens “fly to the standard of the law” that the majority through rightful election is itself defending the country by governing it. “The diffusion of information” means that all matters of management and policy can be trusted to be brought before the people – commerce and spending and debt require secrets and result in complications, though. Agriculture reaps benefits of virtue and obvious goods (and obvious costs) that make deliberation far easier. Finally, jury trials mean that the judgment of any group of us, we being sufficiently informed and humane, is a manifestation of the justice of God.

The speech winds down with Jefferson pleading forgiveness for his own proneness to error and his full confidence that the job of President alone with precedent already established will “be instrumental to the happiness and freedom of all.” He seems to see in Constitutional form alone equality. There is no pretension, as he is already ready to resign the office if he does not retain the “good opinion of those who have bestowed it in advance.”

It concludes with a movement from “obedience to… work [given],” to sensibility, and then to counsel led to by the Infinite Power. This movement is more explicitly from the religious instinct (humility and fear) to the rational. The “sensibility” is that there may be something better at a given moment. It is a passion that is affirming, uniting of the self, and not dismissing one side of man for the other without cause. The question of equality has always been the question of justice, and to speak of one is to invoke the other as sacred.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.