Stephen Allen Benson's First Inaugural Address
I am summoned before you, to take upon me this day the solemn oath of office, the oath of chief magistrate of this Republic; and it is now a befitting time, just before the solemn obligation is formally imposed on me, to express my profound sense of gratitude, and the great obligation I feel under to you, for the confidence you have been pleased to repose in me, by constituting me successor to him, whose eight years administration has been marked by such extraordinary ability, and whose praise is in a measure throughout the civilized world.
In formally taking upon me this day, the solemn obligation prescribed by our most sacred compact, antecedent to entering upon the duties of the office, my mind naturally reverts to the pristine days of Liberia when a colony, and in tracing the vicissitudes through which she has had to pass; I am therefore ſorcibly impressed with a sense of the magnitude of the trust you have committed to me; for if it be a fact, that this government, with its blessed institutions, has been established and secured to us at a cost of that which is incomparably greater than silver and gold; if nothing less than the prayers, and sweat, and blood of our fathers have secured to us this inheritance, then it should be apprised as a trust no less precious, no less sacred, than life itself.
The history of Liberia, from its incipiency to the present, is almost synonymous with the narration of a train of miracles; almost every incident and feature of it are significantly fraught with interest. I have ofttimes wondered how those good, and great, and wise men, who first projected the scheme of African colonization, could have possibly believed under the circumstances in the feasibility of their plans; how they could have reasonably hoped for success to attend the benevolent enterprise, when it was known that very many of those who were to cooperate in establishing and maintaining the colony, had been all their days subject to the most galling oppression, from a majority of whose minds the most arbitrary efforts had been employed to preclude almost every ray of moral and intellectual light; trained up from infancy to depend solely upon those whom they had been taught to regard as their superiors; immigrating to a distant land of gross darkness, for the purpose of planting and nursing the germ of a christian state. Surely, these well known facts must have occasioned misgivings with Liberia's most sanguine friends. So that in whatever aspect the rise and progress of Liberia are viewed this day, it will appear that this great and grand benevolent enterprise has been orginated, and directed by superhuman power and wisdom in a manner marvellous to Liberia's most sanguine friends; and but for this superhuman agency, inspiring the hearts, and strengthening the hands of Liberia's early patrons abroad, and subjects at home, through the successive years of her history, the projectors of the scheme would have abandoned it before their plans had matured; or if they had prosecuted it so far as to have planted the germ of a christian colony here, it would now be spoken of as that which had been, as among the things that were.
In fact, the great improbability of success attending such an enterprise under such circumstances, according to human reasoning, will perhaps account for the versatility of sentiment and action of some of Liberia's early and for a while devoted patrons; good, honest and devoted men no doubt they were, but their faith faltered; their conclusion was, that if any of us survived the ordeal of acclimation, we would degenerate into heathenism, or destroy each other by strife and factions; and as it is usual for gentlemen of good sense and taste to select the most respectful, as well as reasonable arguments in justification of a change of sentiment, some pleaded the abstract rights of persons of color to citizenship in the United States; others, the insufficiency of the means employed to attain the end, (or that the increase of the colored race in the United States could not be removed to this land by colonization instrumentality,) while others urged the uncongeniality of this climate, &c., &c. And, fellow citizens, I have ofttimes thought in view of what I have just remarked in connection with this subject, we ought to indulge charitable feelings towards some of the foreign opposers of the benevolent enterprise. We should I think award to many of them the virtues of benevolence, and purity of motives, and should confidently look forward to the period which is fast approaching, and will most certainly reach us, when prejudice and opposition to such a laudible enterprise will cease, and when the great, and good, and wise of every land in christendom, will harmoniously vie with each other in the furtherance of this great benevolent enterprise.
Very few persons (if any) who are acquainted with the history of Liberia, will deny, that Divine Providence has from her incipiency up to and during the incumbency of my predecessor, graciously provided a man suited to the times, on every occasion for the administration of government.
We might commence with the lamented Ashmun, and enumerate the successive colonial agents and governors up to the administration of governor Buchanan, and perhaps we will not find any considerable contradiction to this assertion, in any of their administrations. Governor Buchanan's administration peculiarly marked a new era in the history of Liberia; its great beneficial results remain yet to be adequately disclosed to the world; nor has that of his worthy successor been less beneficial, for it marked an era in Liberia's history more interestingly conspicuous than that of his predecessor. The first colored governor that Liberia could boast of, commencing his administration, too, very soon after the several settlements had been confederated, his administration was watched with much solicitude by Liberia's friends. And we feel a degree of pride in asserting, that the result of his six years administration as governor of the Commonwealth of Liberia, was the firm conviction wrought on the minds of Liberia's friends abroad, that she possessed within herself governing as well as governable faculty. In fact the success of the six years administration immediately preceding the new organization, and the ample satisfaction it gave, was a part of the means employed by Divine Providence to bring about a change of our political condition; and it was well for us it was so, for at this juncture, there was a combination of circumstances that impelled such a change; Liberia had reached a crisis in her history, when her political existence depended on her launching out upon (to her) the untried ocean of nationality, and on her evincing after this step, that she possessed within herself mental, moral, physical and pecuniary resources, adequate to maintaining a healthy, and honorable state of sovereign existence. Solemn and momentous was the time when Liberia assumed and announced a position of sovereignty; though many considerate friends in America and Europe, as well as Liberians, plainly saw the impelling cause to such a step, yet they reasonably thought the step rather premature, they were fearful of a failure, as it was, and is still believed, that the consequence of such a failure would be, an augmented degradation of our race for centuries to come.
But we find ourselves this day organized into a republican form of government, of eight years existence, blessed with civil and religious liberty, and possessed of the confidence and respect of nearly all the great civilized nations of the earth; these facts at once answer the question, as to whether Liberia's course has
been progressive since her declaration of independence. They respond affirmatively, louder than words can possibly express it, that she has had under the administration of my illustrious predecessor, a hopeful and healthy growth commensurate with her eight years existence; so that the most incredulous as to the capacity of our race to aspire, and for self government, have had to confess with reference to this christian republic, that indeed, a luminary of hope and promise to Africa's sons has arisen in this distant land of darkness; a luminary whose course has hitherto been steadily upward, and which we trust will continue to ascend with increasing strength and lustre, until it reaches the zenith of its glory, and sheds forth a flood of redeeming light upon, and throughout this benighted continent.
I have ofttimes wondered from whence sprang the silly aspersion, “of the incapacity of the colored race for self government.” I have frequently taxed my mind for a discovery of the instances upon which the stigma is based: with the exception of our own, Hayti I believe is the only professed colored civilized and independent government. It is true that, that unfortunate country has been repeatedly convulsed by revolutions and dethronements, but these were neither restricted nor peculiar to her history; similar causes have produced similar effects among other nations, not of African descent, but purely Caucasian. The south American states almost without exception have been equally prolific in civil wars and revolutions, in fact we can even trace them into highly civilized Europe, and as not unfrequently occurring among some of the most refined nations of that enlightened continent; nor would proud Albion have been exempted from them, for so long a space as that which has succeeded the seventeenth century, if the Protestant faith (which constitutes the basis of that righteousness which exalts a nation) had not taken so deep root in that country. And if I mistake not, the same cause is to be assigned for the almost unparalleled success with which the confederated states of North America have been crowned. The pure seed of the protestant faith, was carried over, planted and nurtured by the early settlers; and as is well known, a revival of evangelical religion commenced in that land about the middle of the eighteenth century, which kept pace with the gradual extension of the settlements, east, west, north and south, and by which the pure principles of the Protestant faith became disseminated and to some extent, adopted (really by some, and professedly by others) as a basis of individual— social and national rectitude, and which after all that can be said to the contrary, have been the grèat cementing and preservative principle of that confederation; and for lack of which, Hayti in common with some other governments, to which allusion has been made, failed in demonstrating an equal capacity for self government; and surely the civil wars of Hayti, are no more an argument (if as much so) against the capacity of the colored race for self government, than the multiplied revolutions of the other governments alluded to, are against that of the Caucasian race.
If we impartially look at the aborigines of this land, and carefully study their organizations, and method of government, we cannot avoid discovering incontrovertible proof of their possessing the elements of a great nation. We are ofttimes constrained to admire the facility with which most of the chiefs rule their subjects, and the cheerful, and ofttimes dignified obedience and respect, rendered by subjects to their chiefs and the laws; and but for the accursed slave trade of by gone years, by which they have been greatly corrupted, and which has contributed so much to the subversion of their domestic and social happiness, those very heathens would set a pattern of governing talent and governable disposition, by which several of the proud civilized nations of the earth might be profited.
Fellow citizens; in thus glancing over some of the incidents in the history of Liberia, and congratulating ourselves at the happy issue of our efforts thus far, as also in briefly alluding to what we believe the future prospect of Liberia to be; it is no part of my purpose to inculcate the idea, that Liberia is now out of danger, that she can now move on without difficulty toward the zenith of her national glory, or that there may be henceforth a relaxation of judicious and patriotic effort on the part of any citizen for the consumation of our cherished desires. So far from this, as that I feel solemnly impressed this day with the fact, that our state is still in infancy, and that greater difficulties await it than it has yet come in contact with, for commensurate with the gradual extension of our territory; the developement of the resources of this country; the increase of our commerce (which will also increase our intercourse with other nations, and tend to create a confliction of national interests) will be the difficult, unexpected and perplexing questions, growing out of our foreign and domestic relations; we are admonished by the history of nations that such may be reasonably expected. But by the exercise of a becoming discretion, and a strict adherence to that policy which is based upon virtue, there need be no fear of Liberia's onward course being effectually checked; future difficulties and trials if met in the proper spirit, will cause our national character to appear to more advantage abroad, will conduce to increased respect of, and confidence in us, and to a greater permanency of our institutions at home.
The history of Liberia up to January, 1856, (which closes the constitutional term of my predecessor) is past, it has just closed upon us with an administration, which still illumines our national firmanent; this day marks a new era in the history of Liberia for weal or for wo; and in entering upon the executive duties of my constitutional term, I solemnly promise you this day, that I will do the best I can, for the promotion of our common country's interest, and as an outline of my course of policy and purpose, I will simply state:
1. That according to the solemn obligation soon to be administered to me, I will try and faithfully adhere to the constitution and laws of the Republic. I will also strive to keep permanently in view—2. The encouragement of every branch of industry, and avenue of national greatness; agriculture, commerce, mechanism, internal improvement, education, &c., &c., by recommending such measures from time to time, as will in my opinion enhance their interest, and as the state of the public finance will justify.
3. An avoidance of the pecuniary embarrassment of the government unless circumstances should render a different course indispensable to our national existence, or the maintenance of the majesty of the laws.
4. The moral, intellectual, social and political improvement of the aborigines
5. The cultivation of peace and harmony at home and abroad.
6. The observance of good faith and justice toward all nations.
These principles are not stated by me as a new policy about to be adopted by the government, but simply as a re-announcement of what I conceive to have been the true policy of the government hitherto; and in their announcement this day, I flatter myself that they have the full assent and concurrence of every patriotic and enlightened citizen of this Republic.
Having attempted in this address a brief review of Liberia, past, and a view of her present condition, and what I firmly believe her future prospects and objects are; as I also have alluded to the course of policy I believe best adapted to the consummation of our cherished desires, the object for which this government was instituted. I now beg in closing this address to say, that the government of Liberia is one in which every citizen should feel particularly interested; there are reasons for this perhaps which do not exist so strongly with citizens of most other governments.
It is a fact that citizens of most other governments can emigrate, change their allegiance, and apparently greatly benefit themselves thereby; but how very different the case with a Liberian that is true in heart, and genuine in principle; the man of color who once inhales our atmosphere of freedom and equalities, and has capacity to properly appreciate kind heaven’s best early gift, will ever after find himself out of his proper element in any other land; under other government. He cannot thrive elsewhere; he will find himself in an element paralyzing every manly principle of his soul; to him there will be something blighting to all those attributes that constitute a truly noble minded man; no matter whether that blighting something be the incongeniality of climate; a disrelish of their civil and religious institutions, or the latent or developed prejudice to color and race. Such is the undeniable state of things now in the world, that I do not hesitate to make the assertion, and I am yet to be convinced of its error; and as I cannot doubt that I have your full assent in the assertion, may I not also reasonably conclude that you admit the consequent propriety of each citizen employing every possible laudable effort the honorable preservation and perpetuation of this our own land, our only country, our only earthly home.
I therefore solemnly appeal to you that this day, fellow citizens, in the name of humanity, in the name of all that is sacred to the future welfare down trodden race throughout the world, in the name of Him who holds the destinies of nations in his hand, for that support and co-operation during my constitutional term of administration, which have so admirably characterized you hitherto, and which are and ever will be indispensable to our national success.
I firmly believe I shall have these not only at your hands, but as emanating from your hearts. And while I solemnly appeal to you this day for your support and co-operation, I do as solemnly pledge you my sacred word and honor to spare no pains to serve the best interest of our common country, and that I will diligently seek to be guided in such a way, in my efforts to administer this government, as will insure the Divine blessing upon our individual and national interest.