First Inaugural Address
January 20, 1981
Senator Hatfield, Mr. Chief
Justice, Mr. President, Vice President Bush, Vice President
Mondale, Senator Baker, Speaker O'Neill, Reverend Moomaw,
and my fellow citizens:
To a few of us here today this is a solemn and most momentous
occasion, and yet in the history of our nation it is a
commonplace occurrence. The orderly transfer of authority
as called for in the Constitution routinely takes place,
as it has for almost two centuries, and few of us stop
to think how unique we really are. In the eyes of many
in the world, this every-4-year ceremony we accept as normal
is nothing less than a miracle.
Mr. President, I want our fellow citizens to know how
much you did to carry on this tradition. By your gracious
cooperation in the transition process, you have shown a
watching world that we are a united people pledged to maintaining
a political system which guarantees individual liberty
to a greater degree than any other, and I thank you and
your people for all your help in maintaining the continuity
which is the bulwark of our Republic.
The business of our nation goes forward. These United
States are confronted with an economic affliction of great
proportions. We suffer from the longest and one of the
worst sustained inflations in our national history. It
distorts our economic decisions, penalizes thrift, and
crushes the struggling young and the fixed-income elderly
alike. It threatens to shatter the lives of millions of
Idle industries have cast workers into unemployment, human
misery, and personal indignity. Those who do work are denied
a fair return for their labor by a tax system which penalizes
successful achievement and keeps us from maintaining full
But great as our tax burden is, it has not kept pace with
public spending. For decades we have piled deficit upon
deficit, mortgaging our future and our children's future
for the temporary convenience of the present. To continue
this long trend is to guarantee tremendous social, cultural,
political, and economic upheavals.
You and I, as individuals, can, by borrowing, live beyond
our means, but for only a limited period of time. Why,
then, should we think that collectively, as a nation, we're
not bound by that same limitation? We must act today in
order to preserve tomorrow. And let there be no misunderstanding:
We are going to begin to act, beginning today.
The economic ills we suffer have come upon us over several
decades. They will not go away in days, weeks, or months,
but they will go away. They will go away because we as
Americans have the capacity now, as we've had in the past,
to do whatever needs to be done to preserve this last and
greatest bastion of freedom.
In this present crisis, government is not the solution
to our problem; government is the problem. From time to
time we've been tempted to believe that society has become
too complex to be managed by self-rule, that government
by an elite group is superior to government for, by, and
of the people. Well, if no one among us is capable of governing
himself, then who among us has the capacity to govern someone
else? All of us together, in and out of government, must
bear the burden. The solutions we seek must be equitable,
with no one group singled out to pay a higher price.
We hear much of special interest groups. Well, our concern
must be for a special interest group that has been too
long neglected. It knows no sectional boundaries or ethnic
and racial divisions, and it crosses political party lines.
It is made up of men and women who raise our food, patrol
our streets, man our mines and factories, teach our children,
keep our homes, and heal us when we're sick -- professionals,
industrialists, shopkeepers, clerks, cabbies, and truckdrivers.
They are, in short, ``We the people,'' this breed called
Well, this administration's objective will be a healthy,
vigorous, growing economy that provides equal opportunities
for all Americans with no barriers born of bigotry or discrimination.
Putting America back to work means putting all Americans
back to work. Ending inflation means freeing all Americans
from the terror of runaway living costs. All must share
in the productive work of this ``new beginning,'' and all
must share in the bounty of a revived economy. With the
idealism and fair play which are the core of our system
and our strength, we can have a strong and prosperous America,
at peace with itself and the world.
So, as we begin, let us take inventory. We are a nation
that has a government -- not the other way around. And
this makes us special among the nations of the Earth. Our
government has no power except that granted it by the people.
It is time to check and reverse the growth of government,
which shows signs of having grown beyond the consent of
It is my intention to curb the size and influence of the
Federal establishment and to demand recognition of the
distinction between the powers granted to the Federal Government
and those reserved to the States or to the people. All
of us need to be reminded that the Federal Government did
not create the States; the States created the Federal Government.
Now, so there will be no misunderstanding, it's not my
intention to do away with government. It is rather to make
it work -- work with us, not over us; to stand by our side,
not ride on our back. Government can and must provide opportunity,
not smother it; foster productivity, not stifle it.
If we look to the answer as to why for so many years we
achieved so much, prospered as no other people on Earth,
it was because here in this land we unleashed the energy
and individual genius of man to a greater extent than has
ever been done before. Freedom and the dignity of the individual
have been more available and assured here than in any other
place on Earth. The price for this freedom at times has
been high, but we have never been unwilling to pay that
It is no coincidence that our present troubles parallel
and are proportionate to the intervention and intrusion
in our lives that result from unnecessary and excessive
growth of government. It is time for us to realize that
we're too great a nation to limit ourselves to small dreams.
We're not, as some would have us believe, doomed to an
inevitable decline. I do not believe in a fate that will
fall on us no matter what we do. I do believe in a fate
that will fall on us if we do nothing. So, with all the
creative energy at our command, let us begin an era of
national renewal. Let us renew our determination, our courage,
and our strength. And let us renew our faith and our hope.
We have every right to dream heroic dreams. Those who
say that we're in a time when there are not heroes, they
just don't know where to look. You can see heroes every
day going in and out of factory gates. Others, a handful
in number, produce enough food to feed all of us and then
the world beyond. You meet heroes across a counter, and
they're on both sides of that counter. There are entrepreneurs
with faith in themselves and faith in an idea who create
new jobs, new wealth and opportunity. They're individuals
and families whose taxes support the government and whose
voluntary gifts support church, charity, culture, art,
and education. Their patriotism is quiet, but deep. Their
values sustain our national life.
Now, I have used the words ``they'' and ``their'' in speaking
of these heroes. I could say ``you'' and ``your,'' because
I'm addressing the heroes of whom I speak -- you, the citizens
of this blessed land. Your dreams, your hopes, your goals
are going to be the dreams, the hopes, and the goals of
this administration, so help me God.
We shall reflect the compassion that is so much a part
of your makeup. How can we love our country and not love
our countrymen; and loving them, reach out a hand when
they fall, heal them when they're sick, and provide opportunity
to make them self-sufficient so they will be equal in fact
and not just in theory?
Can we solve the problems confronting us? Well, the answer
is an unequivocal and emphatic ``yes.'' To paraphrase Winston
Churchill, I did not take the oath I've just taken with
the intention of presiding over the dissolution of the
world's strongest economy.
In the days ahead I will propose removing the roadblocks
that have slowed our economy and reduced productivity.
Steps will be taken aimed at restoring the balance between
the various levels of government. Progress may be slow,
measured in inches and feet, not miles, but we will progress.
It is time to reawaken this industrial giant, to get government
back within its means, and to lighten our punitive tax
burden. And these will be our first priorities, and on
these principles there will be no compromise.
On the eve of our struggle for independence a man who
might have been one of the greatest among the Founding
Fathers, Dr. Joseph Warren, president of the Massachusetts
Congress, said to his fellow Americans, "Our country
is in danger, but not to be despaired of . . . . On you
depend the fortunes of America. You are to decide the important
questions upon which rests the happiness and the liberty
of millions yet unborn. Act worthy of yourselves."
Well, I believe we, the Americans of today, are ready
to act worthy of ourselves, ready to do what must be done
to ensure happiness and liberty for ourselves, our children,
and our children's children. And as we renew ourselves
here in our own land, we will be seen as having greater
strength throughout the world. We will again be the exemplar
of freedom and a beacon of hope for those who do not now
To those neighbors and allies who share our freedom, we
will strengthen our historic ties and assure them of our
support and firm commitment. We will match loyalty with
loyalty. We will strive for mutually beneficial relations.
We will not use our friendship to impose on their sovereignty,
for our own sovereignty is not for sale.
As for the enemies of freedom, those who are potential
adversaries, they will be reminded that peace is the highest
aspiration of the American people. We will negotiate for
it, sacrifice for it; we will not surrender for it, now
Our forbearance should never be misunderstood. Our reluctance
for conflict should not be misjudged as a failure of will.
When action is required to preserve our national security,
we will act. We will maintain sufficient strength to prevail
if need be, knowing that if we do so we have the best chance
of never having to use that strength.
Above all, we must realize that no arsenal or no weapon
in the arsenals of the world is so formidable as the will
and moral courage of free men and women. It is a weapon
our adversaries in today's world do not have. It is a weapon
that we as Americans do have. Let that be understood by
those who practice terrorism and prey upon their neighbors.
I'm told that tens of thousands of prayer meetings are
being held on this day, and for that I'm deeply grateful.
We are a nation under God, and I believe God intended for
us to be free. It would be fitting and good, I think, if
on each Inaugural Day in future years it should be declared
a day of prayer.
This is the first time in our history that this ceremony
has been held, as you've been told, on this West Front
of the Capitol. Standing here, one faces a magnificent
vista, opening up on this city's special beauty and history.
At the end of this open mall are those shrines to the giants
on whose shoulders we stand.
Directly in front of me, the monument to a monumental
man, George Washington, father of our country. A man of
humility who came to greatness reluctantly. He led America
out of revolutionary victory into infant nationhood. Off
to one side, the stately memorial to Thomas Jefferson.
The Declaration of Independence flames with his eloquence.
And then, beyond the Reflecting Pool, the dignified columns
of the Lincoln Memorial. Whoever would understand in his
heart the meaning of America will find it in the life of
Beyond those monuments to heroism is the Potomac River,
and on the far shore the sloping hills of Arlington National
Cemetery, with its row upon row of simple white markers
bearing crosses or Stars of David. They add up to only
a tiny fraction of the price that has been paid for our
Each one of those markers is a monument to the kind of
hero I spoke of earlier. Their lives ended in places called
Belleau Wood, The Argonne, Omaha Beach, Salerno, and halfway
around the world on Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Pork Chop Hill,
the Chosin Reservoir, and in a hundred rice paddies and
jungles of a place called Vietnam.
Under one such marker lies a young man, Martin Treptow,
who left his job in a small town barbershop in 1917 to
go to France with the famed Rainbow Division. There, on
the western front, he was killed trying to carry a message
between battalions under heavy artillery fire.
We're told that on his body was found a diary. On the
flyleaf under the heading, ``My Pledge,'' he had written
these words: ``America must win this war. Therefore I will
work, I will save, I will sacrifice, I will endure, I will
fight cheerfully and do my utmost, as if the issue of the
whole struggle depended on me alone.''
The crisis we are facing today does not require of us
the kind of sacrifice that Martin Treptow and so many thousands
of others were called upon to make. It does require, however,
our best effort and our willingness to believe in ourselves
and to believe in our capacity to perform great deeds,
to believe that together with God's help we can and will
resolve the problems which now confront us.
And after all, why shouldn't we believe that? We are Americans.
God bless you, and thank you.