Text of prepared inauguration speech delivered by Tennessee Governor Bill Lee, Jan. 19, 2019:
In 1796, a man and his young family began their homestead just up the way on the banks of the Cumberland River. That was the same year the great state of Tennessee was formed. 223 years and 50 governors later, we stand here on the banks of the Cumberland, celebrating our history and anticipating our future.
I am honored to stand before you today.
Thank you for that warm introduction Governor McNally. Thanks to you, to Speaker Casada and all the Members of the General Assembly. I look forward to working with you in the months and years ahead.
To the former governors, thank you for being here as well. It’s an honor to have you.
I would also like to thank our Constitutional Officers, the Justices of the Supreme Court, Members of Tennessee’s Congressional Delegation and all of my fellow Tennesseans who have joined us here in War Memorial Auditorium, and those watching at home. Thank you for sharing in this special moment.
I would not be here today without God’s gift to me, my wife Maria.
Throughout the past two years of campaigning, Maria has been constantly at my side. She has been steadfastly committed to me and in this process has become committed to the people of Tennessee. She will make a remarkable First Lady. Maria, thank you.
I would also like to thank my family. My mom Ann Lee is here with us today. She’s been the foundation for four generations of the Lee family, and I’m so honored to have her here with us today.
I would also like to thank my children, Jessica, Jacob, Caleb, Sarah Kate and their families. Your love and support has been strong and yet your sacrifice has been great and I thank you.
I’d like to thank Governor Bill Haslam and his wife Crissy for their tireless service to this state for the past eight years.
Governor, standing here in our state’s capital city, we see reminders everywhere of the successes of your administration. Growth and opportunity seem to be found on every corner. From education to economic development, you have laid a tremendous foundation for us to build upon. We are the envy of many states, and that is due in large part to your exceptional leadership. Thank you for your service and for your friendship.
That man I told you about that settled with his family on the banks of the Cumberland River the year that this state was founded — his name was Charles Braxton Lee.
He was my seventh great grandfather.
We stand here today as the beneficiaries not of great governments of the past–but of the lives of the great men and women who have come before us.
Men and women who forged difficult lives on the frontier, formed small towns, and eventually, larger cities. People who cleared the land and planted crops, started businesses, worked in factories, formed industries.
Creating, as it says on our seal, a state of commerce and agriculture, a state which now stands as one of the most prosperous in the nation.
It did not simply happen, and it was never inevitable.
It happened because of men and women who came before us, who educated the children of Tennessee in one room school houses, and created our education system.
Men and women who cared for our sick on the frontier and then built clinics and hospitals and a healthcare system.
Men and women who protected us and built a system of law and justice, circuit riders who built a community of faith.
It happened because of men and women who struggled to overcome injustices and inequalities in our society … from slavery to suffrage to civil rights.
And it happened because men and women fought and sacrificed, sometimes their lives from the Revolutionary War, until today, defending and protecting the very freedoms that we enjoy today.
And most of all, it happened because of the favor of God Himself. In spite of our inadequacies and our weaknesses, He has been strong on our behalf. He has blessed us indeed. And as governor of Tennessee, I will daily ask Him for his wisdom, guidance, and direction.
We will need that wisdom, for despite the blessings we enjoy, we still face great challenges. Tennesseans, we stand in one of the great states in all of America.
But out greatness has never come from what any one individual did.
Our greatness has always come from the collective lives, service, commitment and sacrifice of those who came before us—because of what we have always done as a people together, in community with each other, in service to our state and to our neighbors.
Last year, Maria and I drove back and forth to every corner of Tennessee in an old RV, and we found out something: no matter whether you live in the mountains of East Tennessee, or the fields of West Tennessee, whether you live in a small town or downtown, people want the same thing: a good job, good school for their kids, and a safe neighborhood.
It’s true that we have good jobs and great prosperity here. We have record low unemployment and taxes. Companies are moving here and small businesses are starting here.
And yet, we also have 15 counties in poverty, all rural, all Tennesseans.
We have some of the most economically distressed zip codes in America — right in the heart of our greatest cities.
When we consider our state, we see how fortunate we are, and yet, we also see how much we have to do.
Not only do Tennesseans want a good job; they want good schools for their kids. We’ve made tremendous progress in education in this state — in part due to great education Governors who have come before me. In fact, Tennessee has the highest rate of improvement in educational outcomes in America. And yet, we’re still in the bottom half of states.
I believe that education is more than a test score — it’s about preparing a child for success in life. A resurgence of vocational, technical and agricultural education, and the inclusion of civics and character education, combined with reforms, will take Tennessee to the top tier of states.
Tennesseans do want good jobs and schools, but they want safe neighborhoods too. And while most neighborhoods are safe, our violent crime rate is on the rise in every major city. We can be tough on crime and smart on crime at the same time. For violent criminals and traffickers, justice should be swift and certain.
But here’s the reality, 95% of the people in prison today are coming out. And today in Tennessee, half of them commit crimes again and return to prison within the first three years. We need to help non-violent criminals re-enter society, and not re-enter prison.
I believe we can do it and create safer neighborhoods for everyone in Tennessee.
These are just a few examples of the challenges that we face, and there are other challenges we can’t ignore.
The opioid epidemic that is ravaging our state.
Too few Tennesseans have access to healthcare that they can afford. And our rural communities are struggling.
These are the challenges of our day, and history will judge us based on how we meet them.
As honored as I am to be your next governor, I know that no governor can solve all the problems we face—in fact, no government can.
Government is not the answer to our greatest challenges.
Government’s role is to protect our rights and our liberty and our freedom.
I believe in a limited government, that provides unlimited opportunity for we the people to address the greatest challenges of our day.
The truth is that most of the things that have created the greatness of Tennessee don’t have very much to do with government at all.
Our strength has always come from our people, people like those First Tennesseans, who came here with hope, who worked together to create this great state.
We are famous for our three grand divisions of East, Middle and West Tennessee, represented by the three stars on our flag. It is important however to remember that the blue circle around the three stars on our flag represents the unity of our state. I believe that Tennesseans have much more that unites us than divides us.
I believe that one way that we unite is by following the commandment to love your neighbor as yourself. In fact, I believe it is the key to American greatness. Our greatness has never come from government compulsion or power. Our greatness has always come from our love for each other, our commitment to our fellow citizens, our neighbors.
If we remember that commandment and walk in that spirit, our greatest days will always lie before us.
So much has changed in the last 223 years, but some things haven’t changed at all.
Once again, here we are: Tennesseans, standing on the banks of the Cumberland, with great challenges and great opportunities before us — as in need of the Wisdom and favor of God as much as ever — and with a deep commitment to each other.
These last few months especially, I’ve thought a lot about Braxton Lee and those first Tennesseans.
I wonder what they told each other and how they dealt with their struggles. I think a lot about who they were.
They were strong and courageous. They were faithful. They were committed. They were certain.
They were Tennesseans.
I’ve also thought a lot about our descendants, seven generations from now. What will they say of us?
Were we strong and courageous, faithful, committed, certain? Did we come together to meet the challenges we faced, with courage, optimism and belief in each other?
If we meet the challenges of this moment, they too will say of us– “They were Tennesseans.”
Thank you for this great honor, may God bless each of you and may God Bless the great state of Tennessee.