Jimmy Carter came home a private citizen today and gave the speech he hoped to give as president. He thanked God for His help -- and America for its patience -- that the hostage crisis that had helped wreck his presidency had finally been settled.

"Our nation acted as a great nation ought to act, not only with justified outrage at a despicable and illegal act, not only with courage and conviction, but with constant purpose and constant restraint in the face of severe provocation," he said.

He stood on a platform outside the old train depot, a peanut farmer turned president turned peanut farmer again, beneath a "Welcome Home, Jimmy" banner in a cold hard rain, his voice cracking with emotion. The "last few hours" had been among the most emotion-packed of his life, he said, as he struggled to bring the 14 1/2-month hostage crisis to an end during his term as president. He had gone without sleep for the last two nights, signed all the documents required by Iran, only to have that country hold the hostages until Ronald Reagan was inaugurated spoiling Carter's last moments as president.

But he didn't sound like a man with spoiled dreams. He seemed exhausted, but elated, and flanked by his wife, Rosalynn, his children, trusted aides and a sea of 2,500 friends, neighbors and well-wishers, he said he had learned just before landing at Warner Robbins Air Force Base near Plains that the "aircraft carrying the 52 hostages had cleared Iranian air space on the first leg of the journey home and that every one of the 52 hostages was alive and well and free."

They whooped and cheered at this final accomplishment, but many who brought covered dishes of potato salad, buttered beans and fried chicken for a down-home celebration on Maine Street said they would have been proud of him, no matter what.

"That's why people are here, to show hm they love him -- and to drink beer at Billy's," said Rowe Nylund, an unemployed Carter campaign worker who came down from South Carolina in a blue cowboy hat and blue blazer. She was drinking a Bud at the service station Billy Carter has turned into a saloon.

Billy, the younger brother whose antics had caused Carter much grief, sipped on a Tab and stared out the window, apparently lost in thought beneath a campaign poster of his brother on a white horse proclaiming, "I'll whip his ass." He hasn't had a drink in 23 months, he said, though his coffee consumption is up to 40 cups a day. He was sorry Jimmy lost, he told reporters at breakfast, but he had no regrets for consorting with the Libyans, or anything else.

"I don't apologize for a damn thing," he said.

Billy Carter was among the horde who jammed the sidewalks and shivered beneath umbrellas said they felt history would vindicate their most distinguished citizen. "You ask the people one year from now and 90 percent will say they voted for Jimmy Carter," he said. "Hell if Jesus Christ ran for president of the Southern Baptist Convention, 25 percent of the people would vote against him just because that's the way they are."

It was 3:41 p.m. when his helicopter touched down on the Plains softball field, the field of battle where Jimmy Carter had showed the same kind of grim determination and tenacity on the pitcher's mound that he poured into the hostage negotiations. And as he walked through the crowd, they reached out to touch him, to tell him they loved him, that they were southerners, too, and would stand by him even in defeat.

"We celebrate defeat because we're used to it," said Birmingham-born novelist Paul Hemphill, 45. "The South doesn't know how to live with victory, but we know how to live with defeat.

"That's what today is all about. On the way down here from Atlanta, I was remembering the nobility with which Robert E. Lee handed over his sword to that rotten SOB Grant. He was nobler in defeat than Grant was in victory. We know how to lose. We lose in style."

Carter's homecoming was in stark contrast to the diamonds, minks and limousines that turned out for Reagan's inauguration in Washington. Carter's supporters drove Pintos and pickups, wore blue jeans and cloth coats. But as he stood before the citizens of this town of 681 people, they gave him a message that has not been a universal experience from southerners returning to their roots: Jimmy Carter, you can go home again.

Still, the hostages release appeared to play heavier on the president's mind than his sincere, down-home reception.

He told the soaking crowd of his emotional encounter with a hostage wife hours earlier, at Andrews air base.

"Mr. President," she said, according to Carter, "i hope someday you'll have a chance to meet my husband.

"I put my arms round her and said, 'I'll tell him you love him,'" Carter related. Then he took off for Plains.

His tentative plans, said one aide, were to spend tonight in Plains, then take off from Georgia Wednesday to greet the hostages in Germany as Reagan's special envoy.

"They are hostages no more. They are prisoners no more, and they are coming back to this great land that we all love," said Carter, his voice breaking.

He heaped praise on the Algerians -- the "real heroes" for their role in the negotiations -- former deputy secretary of state Warren Christopher, other diplomats in the State Department and foreign countries, the American people, and the hostages and their families. "Our people held hostage and their families have borne this ordeal with courage and with honor," he said."

"We kept faith in our principles and as a result we've reached this day of joy and thanksgiving," said Carter.

It wasn't easy, he said, largely because Americans are a "proud people not naturally patient." But, the American people, he said, had endured, standing "by me these last 14 months in a very troubled time, thinking always about how we can keep those hostages alive . . . how we can be sure that they come to freedom, how can we protect our nation's interest." It had been a crisis, he said, that had tested our "national wisdom and our national will."

As a symbol of the hostages' imprisonment, he had turned off the lights of the White House Christmas tree. His last act as president today, he said, was to order the lights turned back on.

He was looking forward to becoming just plain Jimmy, he said, just roaming the streets of Plains and catching up on his neighbors. "You've honored us beyond anything imaginable," he said of the four years he and his family had spent in the White House. "And we all hope to honor you with our lives in the years to come, [by] being great Americans, good Georgians, good Sumter Countians and good residents of Plains, Georgia. We love you all."

And with that, Carter plunged into the crowds, parted only with the help of burly state patrolmen, visited his old peanut warehouse, and went home. The hordes descended upon four blocks of tables laden with deviled eggs, pecan pies, squash casserole, fruit mold and cornbread. Everyone had been asked to bring a covered dish, making the celebration the "biggest covered dish dinner in the history of the world," perhaps a good-hearted exaggeration. And the band played Dixie.