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: Nathaniel Niles 1741-1821: Two Discourses on Liberty - Charles S. Hyneman, American Political Writing During the Founding Era: 1760-1805, vol. 1 
American Political Writing During the Founding Era: 1760-1805, ed. Charles S. Hyneman and Donald Lutz (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1983). 2 vols. Volume 1.
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Nathaniel Niles 1741-1821
Two Discourses on Liberty
NEWBURYPORT, MASSACHUSETTS, 1774
Niles was something of a universal man in the pattern of Benjamin Franklin but without matching Franklin’s productivity or acquiring his fame. Achieving little success with several inventions in his father-in-law’s Connecticut factory, he headed a party that settled new land along the Connecticut River, halfway to the north end of Vermont. From that base he preached and practiced a little medicine (though licensed to do neither), served eight terms in the Vermont legislature (augmenting three terms down at Hartford before he left Connecticut), occupied a succession of other offices, including three years as a Vermont Supreme Court judge, and made money from his farm. Niles delivered this sermon at the North Church in Newburyport on June 5, 1774, only a few weeks after the British closed the port of Boston. The people of Massachusetts were not sure how much support they would receive from elsewhere in the colonies, but they knew the reprisal for radical activity would cause hardship for the people of Boston—the center of revolutionary activity. In this setting Niles begins with a careful, insightful, and dispassionate analysis of liberty. He calls upon the traditional American values of frugality and simplicity to see them through hardship. Then, in the last seven pages, Niles builds a rhetorical masterpiece that has to be one of the best examples available for conveying a sense of that time in our history. Even today it is difficult not to feel the power of the words. For both analysis and rhetorical power this sermon is at least equal to Thomas Paine’s Common Sense. Only the first of the two discourses is reproduced here.
As what was said in public on the following subjects, was delivered, almost entirely extempore, the author finds it impossible to give an exact copy. Those things however, on account of which, he apprehends, a copy was desired, have been carefully preserved. The particular expressions could not be recollected, but the ideas are not lost. Several new thoughts on the subject are interspersed.
The author’s general design is to awaken in his countrymen, proper sentiments and emotions, respecting both civil and spiritual liberty. The former, without the latter, is but a body without a soul.—As the copy is so suddenly called for, the first, rough draught, goes to the press; and the author doubts not, but many imperfections will be observed in the stile and manner; which however he trusts are less evils, than a delay at a time when every means, however imperfect, is needful, that may inspire a genuine spirit of true liberty. He feels that he wants those advantages which many others enjoy, for becoming entirely acquainted with the various branches of civil liberty.—The main ideas alone are attended to. The inquisitive mind will be able to draw a number of important consequences.
I. Corrinth. Chap. VII. ver. 21.
Art thou called being a servant? Care not for it; but if thou mayest be made free, use it rather.
At first glance, it is certain, this text refers to a state of personal servitude, and extends to every instance of the same kind. It is also as clear that the Apostle exhorts the servant to prefer liberty. This proves that the inspired writer himself, prefered liberty to a state of servitude; for he would not exhort another to prefer what was not preferable in his own esteem. Now, if Paul esteemed personal liberty a valuable inheritance, he certainly esteemed the liberty of a community a far richer inheritance; for if one man’s enjoyment of it was a good, the enjoyment of two must be a greater good, and so on through the whole community. From the same manner of reasoning, the slavery of a community appears to be a proportionably greater evil than the slavery of an individual. Hence, we may observe from the text, that Civil Liberty is a great good.
This is the proposition to which I ask your present hour’s attention, and if it should appear in the sequel to contain an important truth, you will not esteem it below the gospel preacher’s duty to explain and support it in public, especially at such a time as this, a time, at the very prospect of which, our generous fore-fathers would have wept in bitterness of soul. If civil liberty is a great good, it ought to be deemed one of the blessings of Heaven; these it is the preacher’s duty to illustrate, that we may feel the obligations they bring us under—that we may enquire whether we have improved them for the glory of the giver, and that we may know how to conduct toward them for the future. Be pleased then to give your candid, close, and serious attention, while I endeavour to explain the nature of civil liberty, and prove that it is a great good.
As it is much less difficult to point out the nature of true coin in general, than to determine whether any particular piece is genuine, or how far it differs from the perfect standard: So it is much easier to point out the general nature of civil liberty, than to say what degree of it enters into any particular civil constitution. It is therefore most natural to enquire, in the first place, concerning the general nature of liberty; and indeed it is as necessary as natural. For until we determine this question we have no rule by which we may estimate the quantity of liberty in any particular constitution: But when once we have found the standard, we shall be prepared to examine our own constitution, or any other, at pleasure, and to determine what part of the constitution should be supported, and what may be given up with safety. An enquiry into the nature of liberty in general, is also needful on another account. Without it we cannot see the force of any evidence that may be brought to evince the value of liberty itself.
That the subject may be fairly elucidated, I will endeavour to remove some mistakes by which it has been obscured. In doing this, I observe, that liberty does not consist in persons thinking themselves free. The Jews could say we were never in bondage to any man though they wore the Roman yoke at the very same time. Again, though a certain constitution should be contended for and supported by a majority of voices; yet this would be no sure evidence that it is free: Because an hundred may as truly tyrannize over one, as one over an hundred; or otherwise, the majority may be in favour of licentiousness. What but a love of licentiousness or tyranny, or both, can induce the heathen nations to approve of their several systems of government? What but these, could induce Saul and the men of Israel to persecute David and his handful? What but one or both of these drew down the fury of Sodom on Lot—of the Jews on the prophets—on Jesus Christ—on his Apostles and their followers. What but these ever raised any one of the many terrible persecutions under which the peaceable disciples of Jesus Christ have fallen from time to time? In all these instances the majority have been unfriendly to liberty.
Civil Liberty consists, not in any inclinations of the members of a community; but in the being and due administration of such a system of laws, as effectually tends to the greatest felicity of a state. Herein consists civil liberty, and to live under such a constitution, so administered, is to be the member of a free state; and he who is free from the censure of those laws, may fully enjoy all the pleasures of civil liberty, unless he is prevented by some defect, not in the constitution, but in himself.
If liberty consists in the being and administration of a civil constitution, different from such an one as has been mentioned, I must confess, my inference from the Apostle’s exhortation is not just. For certain it is, that so far as a constitution doth not tend, in the highest degree, to the greatest felicity of the state, collectively considered; it is a comparitive evil and not a good.
Where there is no system of laws, not liberty, but anarchy, takes place. Some degree of liberty may, indeed, exist where neither the constitution nor the administration of it is perfect. But in order to perfect freedom, the law must extend to every member of the community alike, both in its requisitions and prohibitions. Every one must be required to do all he can that tends to the highest good of the state: For the whole of this is due to the state, from the individuals of which it is composed. Every thing, however trifling, that tends, even in the lowest degree, to disserve the interest of the state must also be forbidden.
Originally, there were no private interests.* The world and all things in it, were the common interests of all the inhabitants, under God the great owner. Nothing is to be esteemed an interest any farther than it tends to good or is capable of being turned to the benefit of the possessor. But whatever has this tendency, or may be thus used, is properly termed an interest. According to this estimate, the term interest includes all those various offices and employments that are capable of being improved for the good of the community. There interests, being such as cannot be managed by the whole body collectively, are distributed among the individuals according as they appear in the eyes of the body politic, to be qualified to use them for the good of the whole. In this way every member becomes a servant to the state, and is a good or bad servant according to the manner in which he discharges the trust reposed in him. This is equally true of the King on the throne and the peasant in the field. The laws of a free state require each individual to use the public interests deposited in his hands, in every instance in that very manner that shall contribute more to the good of the community, without any particular reference to Governor or subject, rich or poor, high or low. While the laws require such a continual course of conduct in every member of the community, they as critically forbid every one to take from another that part of the public property which is committed to him; or to impede him in making the best use of it for the public, unless when the community see it best to deprive an individual of his place, and authorise another to do it in their name. In this manner the laws of a free state provide security for the particular properties of each individual member, or rather for the public interest deposited in the hands of individuals, by denouncing such penalties on every offender as are exactly adequate to his offence. There must be an exact proportion between the offence and the penalty. Where there is no such proportion, or equality, liberty is infringed, because the law is partial, as it will injure, either the public, by not giving it its due, or the offender, by inflicting a greater evil than he deserves. In this case there must be no distinctions, made by the law, between persons of different characters and stations, only as those different characters and stations may give the same criminal action different degrees of aggravation. A criminal action is more criminal in a person who fills an elevated place, than in one of a more humble condition; because it has a more detrimental aspect on the state. For this reason, the offences of the great should be punished with greater indignity and severity, than the crimes of persons in low life. In a perfectly free state, friendship to the community will be as carefully noticed as an offence. Punishment will not be more exactly alloted to the transgressor, than adequate rewards to the faithful subject. The farmer, the seaman, the mechanic, the merchant, and the practitioner of such of the learned professions as belong to the state, are directed by the community, in effect, to reward each other by an exchange of labour, or commodities. While those servants of the state, who are employed in managing the reins of government, are rewarded by a collection from the whole, an equality to which, is returned in the happy effects of legislation and executive justice. At the same time that the laws make due provision for an equal distribution of rewards among the faithful servants of the state, both of higher and lower rank, they make as full provision for the infliction of penalties on every class alike. They render it as easy to bring a royal offender to trial,—to procure an impartial sentence against him, and to inflict deserved punishment, as in the case of the meanest subject.
In such a state, the laws extend to all the members of the society alike, by making an impartial estimate of every offence, but as it is best in all communities, that some offenders should be pardoned, for special reasons, and that others should be punished; those same laws will lodge a power of determining the alternative with some one, whose capacity and integrity are equal to such a trust, so that the community may suffer no harm.
A good foundation for liberty is laid in such a constitution, but its whole worth lies in due administration. Perfect liberty takes place where such a constitution is fully administered: But where the administration is imperfect, liberty is likewise imperfect. In a perfectly free state, both the constitution, and the administration of it, are full of propriety, equality, and equilibrium.
These I take to be the out-lines of genuine liberty, which, by a proper application, may assist us in our enquiries after the degree of liberty enjoyed by any particular state.
Indeed, the circumstances and occurrences, that attend human states are so numerous, extensive, and uncertain, that no one man, or body of men, can foresee and improve them all to the greatest advantage. Hence, it frequently happens, that we cannot ascertain the degree of liberty enjoyed by a community, by comparing the particular parts of a constitution, or the administration of it, with the abstract notion of liberty; for we see but a small part of the whole system. Our views are very partial. This is the case not only of individual subjects, but the body of government, itself, cannot, compleatly, comprehend the whole. Some degree of partial oppression is, therefore, to be expected in every human state, even, under the wisest administration. We may, however, determine, in some instances, whether liberty is unnecessarily infringed or not. When we see the body of a community plundered for the sake of indulging individuals in pride, luxury, idleness and debauchery,—when we see thousands rewarded with pensions, for having either devised, or attempted to execute some scheme for plundering a nation, and establishing despotism, we cannot be in doubt whether some horrid attack is not made on liberty.
We may reason thus in a few particular instances; but, in general, we must form our judgments by considering the various dispositions of mankind, and by noticing their various operations and effects, in various circumstances. We must turn our attention to the facts that have already taken place; and may reasonably conclude, that the same causes will always produce the same effects, unless something special prevents. One general inference from the whole will be, that liberty is much rather to be expected in a state where a majority, first, institutes, and then varies the constitution according as they apprehend circumstances require, than in any other.
Other things being equal, a majority has a more general and distinct knowledge of the circumstances, and exigencies of a state than a minority; and, of consequence, is more able to judge of what is best to be done. Add to this, that private interest is the great idol of the human mind; and, therefore, when a majority unite in any measures, it is to be supposed, they are such measures as are best calculated to secure the particular interests of the members of that majority; and, consequently, the general interests of the body are more effectually provided for, in this way, than by the security of the private interests of any minority whatever. And if the maxims adopted by the majority are general, both in their nature and extent, it is to be supposed, they will prove as salutary to the members of the minority as to those of the majority, and, consequently, to the whole body. Hence, though liberty is not necessarily, nor invariably connected with the voice of a majority; yet, it is much more likely to be found in connection with such a voice, than with that of a minority. Indeed, there is in general, no reason to expect liberty where a majority is counteracted, and, on the contrary, we may hope for some good degree of it, where a majority governs.
It is only on these maxims, that the present British monarch can be exculpated from the several charges of rebellion, treachery, and usurpation, and on these, the glorious revolution in favour of the house of Hanover is perfectly justifiable.
Let us now attend a little, to a few particulars that may serve to excite in us some more adequate ideas of the worth of civil liberty. Indeed, none but an omniscient mind can fully comprehend, and exactly estimate the true worth of this blessing, in its various consequences, effects, and inseparable concomitants, as they take place on various occasions. Our views of this subject may, however, be greatly enlarged and rendered much more distinct than they generally are.
That civil liberty is of great worth, may be infered from the conduct of God towards the Jewish nation. He promised them freedom from the oppression of their enemies as a testimony of his favour in case of their obedience; and as a chastisement for their disobedience, he threatned them with a state of servitude. From this it is certain that the omniscient God himself, esteems liberty a great blessing. The Israelites were taught by him to set their hearts much on liberty, and to avoid slavery with great caution, constancy and vigour.
It was observed that liberty has its rise in such a constitution as tends to the highest good of a community, and that the due administration of such a constitution affords a state of freedom. Hence, the bare idea of liberty discovers it to be an inestimable good, for whatever tends to the highest good of great numbers, must, undoubtedly, be an invaluable treasure. In this view liberty is an inexhaustable fountain, which, under God, sends forth an endless variety of such streams, as are both pleasant and salutary. I will instance in a few particulars. When we enjoy liberty, and are sure of its continuance, we feel that our persons and properties are safely guarded by her watchful eye, her impartial disposition and her powerful arm. This excites to industry, which tends to a competency of wealth. The vassal, on the other hand, having no security of his present possessions, or for those he might obtain, concludes so uncertain a prize is not worth the seeking, and therefore will do no more than barely serves to silence the clamours of necessity from day to day.
In such a situation, every bias of the human mind tends to idleness and poverty. Even generosity itself will sink into inactivity and indolence; because it loaths a connection between tyranny and wealth, and therefore refuses, will do nothing that might establish such a connection, by strengthening a tyrannical state. Liberty not only removes every obstruction out of the way of industry, frugality and wealth, but rouses even indolence to action, and gives honest, laborious industry a social, sprightly, cheerful air; but in a state of slavery, sloth hangs heavily on the heels of dumb, sullen, moross melancholy. Industry and frugality spring from the same source, and are spontaneously productive of temperance. The former moderates the appetites, while the latter forbids unnecessary expence. This triple alliance is the natural parent of decent conversation and courteous behaviour. They calm the passions and urge even pride and avarice to mimic humanity, and every generous sentiment. By these and such means, they, both enable and dispose us to fulfill our contracts* with exactness, and to give us credit with our neighbours, and lay a foundation for public confidence. In this manner liberty renders political virtue fashionable, and tends to diffuse public spirit. It discountenances disorder, and every narrow disposition. Thus the mind is fortified on all sides, and rendered calm, resolute, and stable. Industry and temperance give health to the body, and render it fit for the residence and operations of such a soul. In a nation raised to such a pitch of vigor, firmness, health and opulence, all the natural means of defence are collected, and to such the arts of war will be an easy acquisition. These united, will prove a bulwark against every assault of lawless power, whether foreign or domestic. In such a state, a free people will enjoy composure of soul and their taste will become refined. The study of the fine arts will follow of consequence, and, after these, a long train of science. Industry, frugality, and a curious turn naturally invent and perfect the useful arts. What is more than all, liberty secures the rights of conscience, by protecting every member of the state in the free exercise of his religion, unless it be such a religion as is inconsistent with the good of the state. The first effects of liberty, on the human mind, are calmness, serenity and pleasing hope, and all the various fruits of liberty produce the same happy effects. Thus liberty, first divides itself, as it were, into various streams; which, at length, all meet together again in soothing sensations and sweet emotion of soul. The pleasure that springs from liberty is the life of every other enjoyment, and the importance of it in a single instance is vastly great, too great to be conceived of, unless on a sudden transition from a state of refined freedom, to that of the most abject slavery. How great then must be the collective happiness that a community derives from a state of perfect freedom? I confess liberty never has been enjoyed in perfection by any of the nations of the earth; but this by no means affects the foregoing estimate. For, from the small degree of liberty, with which we are acquainted, the consequences of perfect liberty may be justly inferred. Nor is the imperfection of liberty, as it hath taken place in the world, any discouragment to the pursuit of it. The more we can obtain, the greater will be our enjoyment. Each degree of liberty is a precious pearl.
When we would learn how much any thing tends to happiness, we must view it with reference to the taste of the person in whom the happiness is supposed to take place. So, the happy tendency of liberty cannot be seen, unless it be viewed as terminating on some particular disposition in him by whom it is enjoyed. Liberty is so illy calculated to give pleasure to either a tyrannical, or, licentious spirit, that it proves a galling curb to both. A free spirit,—a spirit that is consonant to a free constitution;—a spirit that seeks the highest good of a community, in its proper place,—this, and this only, can extract and taste all the sweets of liberty. If we would learn how great a tendency liberty has to produce happiness, we must consider it in such circumstances as give it an opportunity to do good.
Let us then, for once, imagine a state whose members are all of a free spirit; and then attend to the glory and pleasures of liberty. The individuals are all of one mind. They unite in the same grand pursuit, the highest good of the whole. Only suppose all the members of such a state to be acquainted with the best means of promoting their general end; and we shall see them all moving in perfect concert. The good of the body will be their first aim. And in subserviency to this, they will impartially regard the particular interests of individuals. You and I shall perfectly unite in our regard for your interest and for mine. Your interest will not be the more dear to you, nor the less so to me, because it is yours. In these circumstances, there would be no room for the emotions of any of the angry painful passions; but, on the contrary, every soft and pleasing affection of every soul, would be called forth into vigorous and harmonious exercise. Every individual would choose to move in his proper sphere, and that all others should move in theirs. This would at once constitute pure felicity, and exalted beauty. How good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity: Such a state of things, in the little community of a single family, must be productive of great good. But should it take place throughout a nation, each family would enjoy the same good from its own domestic circumstances, beside the far greater pleasure which would accrue to each individual from a consideration of the same happy condition of the whole.
Should it be said, that such a scheme as has been mentioned is merely chimerical and romantic; because there never has been, nor ever will be such a general state of mind on earth; I would say, the same objection is equally strong against the worth of a state of perfect holiness. Such a state has never taken place, in perfection, in this world, nor will it hereafter; but must we therefore suppose that holiness is of no worth? The reason why we do not experience all the pleasures of liberty, that have been mentioned, is, not any defect in liberty, but the perverseness of our selfish hearts, which prevents our pursuit and enjoyments of the delights of perfect liberty. Liberty still remains a blessing too great to be compared with any other earthly good.
The thoughts that have been suggested in this discourse, open to us the nature of good government in its several branches. A legislature is denominated good, from the goodness of its laws, or, from the tendency of the laws made by it to produce the highest good of the community. In exact proportion to this tendency of the laws, is the legislature to be esteemed good:—The goodness of executive government, consists in its due administration of the laws already made. It is for the good of the community alone, that laws are either to be made or executed. So that,
Good government is not inconsistent with liberty. Perfect liberty and perfect government are perfectly harmonious, while tyranny and licentiousness are inconsistent with both. Yea farther,
Good government is essential to the very being of liberty. Remove good government and you remove liberty. Abridge the former and you abridge the latter. Let good government encrease and you encrease liberty. These can never be separated in any degree. Their rise and fall is exactly uniform. Hence,
The impropriety of saying of a person, that he is a friend to government, but not to liberty; and of another, that he is a friend to liberty, but not to government, appears to be very gross. Indeed one man may be a friend to tyranny and not to liberty, but then he is as truly an enemy to government. Another may be a friend to licentiousness and not to government; but then he is as truly an enemy to liberty; and both, for this plain reason, that good government in a state, and the liberty of that state, are one and the same thing. This suggests another idea, which is, that
He who infringes on liberty rebels against good government, and ought to be treated as a rebel. It matters not what station he fills; he is a traitor; his treachery is, however, more or less aggravated in proportion to his state and condition. He that fills an elevated station is proportionably more criminal in the same rebellion, than those in a lower state; and where a man proves false to confidence reposed in him, his treachery is still more base and detestable. Because his exaltation puts it into his power to do greater injury to the state than could possibly be done by an inferior.
It is equally true, that every kind and degree of opposition made against good government is an ebullition of licentiousness.* The man that rises up against good government is an enemy to liberty, a tyrant in heart, and they who are discontented and fretful under it are of the same cast.
If liberty is such a thing, and so great a blessing as it has been represented, it is, certainly, a rich tallent that Heaven has been pleased to entrust with every man, and it undoubtedly becomes all to be constantly, and thoroughly awake to a sense of their duty respecting it. We are too ready to fancy, that when once we have appointed legislators, and given them charge of this inestimable treasure, we need give ourselves no farther concern about it. But this is not our whole duty. We are all stewards, to whom the God of nature has committed this talent. The design of appointing a few individuals to government, is not to free the rest from their obligations but to assist them in the discharge of their duty, in the same manner that ministers of the gospel are to assist their hearers in those duties that respect the care of their souls. Communities ought therefore to keep an impartial and watchful eye on government. They are urged to do so, by a consideration of the avaricious, and aspiring dispositions of mankind in general, and the peculiar opportunities and temptations that Governors have to indulge them. In these latter ages of the world, after it has been found by several thousands years experience, that such as have been made the guardians of liberty, have in almost every instance, where it was thought practicable, endeavoured to make themselves masters, instead of continuing stewards of the community; in these days, I say, we are more distinctly, sensible, and frequently called on to watch the conduct of government. Liberty is not an absolute right of our own, if it were, we might support, and guard, or neglect it at pleasure. It is a loan of heaven, for which we must account with the great God. It is therefore, as unreasonable for us to place an unlimited confidence in any earthly ruler, as to place such a confidence in our spiritual ministers and depend wholly on them to settle our final account with the holy judge of the universe.
I do not mean that we should, as individuals, undertake to dictate to our rulers, or oppose them by force whenever we judge they act a wrong part. This would be utterly unreasonable, for surely we have at best, no better right to usurpation than they. What I mean is, that we should all endeavour to turn the attention of our fellow members of the community on the conduct of our rulers. We should notice and compare it with the standard of right and wrong ourselves; and excite others to do so likewise. We should endeavour on every alarming occasion, to collect the sentiments of the body, and vigorously pursue those measures that are thought the most salutary for the whole.
It becomes us, with united hearts, to make a firm stand against every attempt to wrest the jewel from us, either by force or fraud:—The present state of things is very alarming. In the view of the most simple common sense, we are now called on—men, women and children are called on to struggle for the preservation of those rights of mankind which are inexpressibly dear. Let us then rouse and exert ourselves to the utmost, on the present occasion. But you ask me. What shall we do? Shall we renounce the authority of our gracious sovereign? Shall we take up arms against his troops? What shall we do?
I answer, By no means. Do not suffer the thought of renouncing our king’s authority, so much as to turn in your mind; rather, be ready to shed your blood in defence of your rightful sovereign and his high office. Never let us think of entering on a civil war, unless the Pretender, or some other usurper should attempt to dethrone the British parent of his people. But should this be the case, then let the world see that their king is dearer to the Americans than their blood.
Though the time has been when our countrymen, but an handful, were obliged to defend themselves against thousands of the native savages; by dint of arms; yet, notwithstanding, a cloud, in some respects, much heavier than that, lowers over us at present; such is the kindness of our God, that, humanly speaking, it is in the power of America to save both herself and Great-Britain from total destruction, and that without a single hostile stroke. Nothing more than piety and oeconomy are necessary, and in these, every age and character may unite. The pious supplications of the stammering child will as effectually reach the ear of our God, and be as acceptable to him, as the most elegant address. A thousand things may intercept our petitions on their way to an earthly monarch; but a combination of all our enemies in earth and hell cannot prevent a pious wish in its flight to Heaven; and let us remember, that the effectual fervent prayers of the righteous avail much. We have sought in vain for relief from our parent state—from our King. And if salvation has not come from our gracious sovereign King George, we cannot expect it from the hills. We must look still higher. Instead of railing against man let us notice and imitate the example of Michael who railed not against the devil himself. David, said, of Shimei, let him curse for the Lord hath bidden him. He saw, he had deserved so illy at God’s hand, that it was no wonder, he had brought such a punishment on him. He, therefore, accepted it willingly at the hand of God; while he was not insensible to the wickedness of Shimel. It becomes us, likewise, to notice the hand of God, and settle it in our minds, that evil springs not out of the ground,—that there’s no evil in the city which the Lord hath not done. Under such views, let us all, like Daniel of old, piously pour out our hearts before God, acknowledging our own sins, and those of our people. Meanwhile, let us encourage no practice, in ourselves or others, that tends to enslave our country. Let us learn to live in the plain manner of our fore-fathers. It is high time for us to reform. We have had a rich inheritance and wasted it in riotous living. Let us soon return to our father’s house, least we be reduced to the want, even of husks to eat. These are the only expedients that seem needful at present, But if we will risque our country for the sake of a few superfluities, posterity may curse our pride and luxury, and the present generation may find that death and carnage will terminate their folly. And should this be the case we must charge the horrid scene to our own misconduct.—If any should say, it is in vain for them as individuals to be vigilant, zealous and firm in pursuing any measures for the security of our rights, unless all would unite: I would reply.
Ages are composed of seconds, the earth of sands, and the sea of drops, too small to be seen by the naked eye. The smallest particles have their influence. Such is our state, that each individual has a proportion of influence on some neighbour at least; he, on another, and so on; as in a river, the following drop urges that which is before, and every one through the whole length of the stream has the like influence. We know not, what individuals may do. We are not at liberty to lie dormant until we can, at once, influence the whole. We must begin with the weight we have. Should the little springs neglect to flow till a general agreement should take place, the torrent that now bears down all before it, would never be formed. These mighty floods have their rise in single drops from the rocks, which, uniting, creep along till they meet with another combination so small that it might be absorbed by the travellers foot. These unite, proceed, enlarge, till mountains tremble at their sound. Let us receive instruction from the streams, and, without discouragment, pursue a laudable plan. But,
Is it not to be feared, that an appetite for the leeks and onions, is the source of our difficulty? The ungenerous language of the objector seems to be, “I could wish to see my country happy, but if the fates have determined its destruction I will not forgo my share of the booty.”
It is great, it is glorious, to espouse a good cause, and it is still more great and glorious in such a cause to stand alone. It is great and glorious to outbrave the reproach of the base. Should all our countrymen forsake us, perseverance would be an honour, and the honour will rise as the number of our adherents is diminished.
Let us therefore, vigorously pursue prudent measures in the present alarming state of things. Then, should it please the righteous disposer of all, to reduce us to the most abject slavery, we shall at least, have the consolation to think, that we are in no part chargeable with having riveted chains on our country, and the blessing of a clear conscience is incomparably better than the greatest temporal interest and worldly applause.
This has been a land of liberty. We have enjoyed that blessing in a great degree for a long time. It becomes us now to reflect on our ingratitude to the giver. When he has wrought salvation for us, on one occasion and another, how have we expressed our thankfulness? By bonfires, illuminations, revellings, gluttony and drunkenness. Would not a stranger have thought us worshipers of the whole race of the heathen deities, rather than of that God, who is a spirit, and who seeketh such to worship him, as do it in spirit and in truth?
We have boasted of our liberty, and free spirit. A free spirit is no more inclined to enslave others than ourselves. If then it should be found upon examination that we have been of a tyrannical spirit in a free country, how base must our character appear! And how many thousands of thousands have been plunged into death and slavery by our means?
When the servant had nothing to pay, and his master had frankly forgiven him all, and he had gone and cast his fellow servant into prison, there to remain till he should pay the last farthing; the master justly punished his ingratitude and severity with the like imprisonment. Hath not our conduct very nearly resembled the conduct of that servant? God gave us liberty, and we have enslaved our fellow-men. May we not fear that the law of retaliation is about to be executed on us? What can we object against it? What excuse can we make for our conduct? What reason can we urge why our oppression shall not be repaid in kind? Should the Africans see God Almighty subjecting us to all the evils we have brought on them, and should they cry to us, O daughter of America who art to be destroyed, happy shall he be that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us; happy shall he be that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones; how could we object? How could we resent it? Would we enjoy liberty? Then we must grant it to others. For shame, let us either cease to enslave our fellow-men, or else let us cease to complain of those that would enslave us. Let us either wash our hands from blood, or never hope to escape the avenger.
To conclude, unless we adopt some prudent decisive measures in humble dependance on God; we have reason to fear some almost unparallelled calamity. If we do not exert ourselves: It would not be strange, should a military government be established, and popery triumph in our land. Then, perhaps those, who want fortitude to deny themselves some of the superfluities of life, may see their husbands and sons slain in battle, their daughters ravished, their wives ript up, their children dashed against the wall, and their pious parents put to the rack for the religion of Jesus. Now is the decisive moment. God sets before us life and death, good and evil, blessing and cursing, and bids us choose. Let us therefore choose the good and refuse the evil, that we may live and not die.
[* ] The great God is the original owner of all things. He has, originally, no partner in any thing; but has been graciously pleased to invite his rational creatures, who are capable of enjoyment, to a joint participation of his possessions, according to their various capacities. Thus, antecedent to the creation of this world, whatever existed was a kind of common stock enjoyed by God and those of his creatures that could enjoy such a good. All were to exert themselves to turn every thing to the best advantage, for the whole, and no one of all God’s creatures, could call any thing his own, in distinction from others, except the pleasure that resulted to him from the common good. There were no private interests then. Afterwards, God made the world, and this became an addition to the common stock. The world itself, and all the creatures in it were enjoyed by God and his holy Angels. At length, Adam was formed out of the dust of the earth. He was a new addition to the common stock of wealth, and being made capable of enjoyment, was received as a member of the grand company, and became interested in God, Angels, Heaven and Earth, and all things in them. This world, a particular portion of the common stock, was committed, in certain respects, to him and his posterity to be managed by them for the grand company. I say, in certain respects, for there are certain other respects in which it was not committed to them; in certain respects, the Angels have the management of the world and all things in it. Each one has his particular department assigned to him, Adam and his posterity are to be considered both as a part of the common interest, and as overseers. They have nothing that they can call their own, to the exclusion of the right, either of God or his Angels. Nor was there ever any thing in the world that any one could call his own, to the exclusion of his fellow men, i.e. in a state of nature. Antecedent to compact, any one of all the individuals, had as good a right to lay claim to the same inheritance as another. Nay, any one had as good a right to exclude the rest from the enjoyment of every part of the whole, as from any, even the least part. Any one individual might monopolize the whole earth by the same rule of justice, by which he could monopolize a single acre, or inch. So that antecedent to compact, there could not possibly be any private interest whatever, and every appearance of private interest was the effect of violent seizure, and tenure, and not of just distribution. No man has a right to enter on any common interest without the order of the proprietors.
There are two modes in which earthly states were originally formed. The one is, by the over grown influence of an individual, which put it into his power to exercise an arbitrary government. The other is by a compact formed with a particular design to secure and advance the private interests of those by whom the compact was made. Both of these had their rise in usurpation. As to the first there is no dispute. As to the second it may be said, that there were no private interests antecedent to compact, but such as had been taken by usurpation. It is true, that such usurpers may have appropriated such interests as they called their own, without any resistance; but this no more frees them from the charge of usurpation, than it would a tyrant, for him to say that he had obtained a state of absolute monarchy gradually, and without resistance. Stratagem, and the length of the sword are the only standards of right in either of these cases. The absolute monarch justifies himself, by saying, that he had a majority of strength in his favour, and the member of such an association, as has been named, resolved to enter on a combination, for the sake of using his sword in the best manner he could for the defence of what little he had, and consented that his neighbours should hold what they had appropriated, and determined not to attempt to divest them of the public interest they have seized, lest in the scuffle he should lose what he had as unjustly monopolized. This is the maxim on which pirates and gangs of robbers live in a kind of unity. If we go on this maxim, if we suppose that is a well founded government which has its foundation in private interest, we can by no means blame the tyrant for holding absolute dominion, without condemning ourselves; nor can the tyrant blame his subjects for their rebellion, whenever they apprehend rebellion will be their greatest emolument. For, if government is first founded on private interest, it cannot be reasonably expected, that the superstructure will stand, when the foundation is removed. It matters not whether men who build their notions of government of self-interest, call themselves whigs or tories, friends to prerogative, or to the liberties of the people. Their scheme of government is the same for substance. They cannot blame their neighbour for commencing tory when it will be most conducive to his private interest. Indeed, on this scheme it is unreasonable to withstand a mob or a tyrant, or to make war on the pirates themselves, for, according to this doctrine they are none of them doing any thing but what is right. Yes, say you, they infringe on my rights. I ask, what rights? None but such as you have pillaged from the community —Rights in which these very persons are interested as members of the community.
The world and its inhabitants, are a common property that belongs to the whole intellectual system. They are committed to mankind to be managed for the whole. It is therefore the business of mankind collectively, to regulate and dispose of the inheritance for the emolument of the whole company. In order to this, government in its various parts is necessary; and the several offices in the government become so many parts of the common good, or stock. These, as well as the other parts of the common inheritance, are to be committed to individuals by the body of stewards, to be improved for the company of proprietors. Every individual is to have his part assigned him, and so long as he fills his place well, he is to be rewarded for his services by the community, that is, he is to have the enjoyment of such conveniences, in such a degree as shall be a sufficient recompence for his labour and care; but he is not to have any separate interest consigned to him, for this would tend to detach him from the community. Just so far as his affection is turned on private interest, he will become regardless of the common good, and when he is detached from the community in heart his services will be very precarious at best, and those will not be expected at all which imply self-denial. He is only to enjoy it at the will of the community, which is to be regulated by the interest of the whole.
Some are to be rewarded for their services to the community by an exchange of commodities. Carriers, such as merchants are, are to have a certain proportion of the commodities they carry. Others are to be rewarded by a general collection from the whole. Thus each individual is to take care of the community, and the community in its turn, is to make provision for the individuals.—These observations afford us a clue to the relation that kingdoms and states, and the internal part of individual states, bear to each other. The whole world is properly, no more than a small colony of the universe. But small as it is it is too unwieldy to be managed as one state, by reason of the feebleness of human powers. There is therefore a propriety in its being subdivided into still smaller portions called kingdoms. It is the business of these still to regard the good of the world, in subserviency to the good of the universe. Neighbouring states have no more right to rise up against each other, than neighbouring individuals. Different states are interested in the welfare of each other and ought to seek the good of each other. One has no right to devise schemes to enrich itself by impoverishing another. The case is the same with respect to different parts of the same kingdom.
This is a scheme of government perfectly consistent with the divine government, and true reason. And on this scheme we may consistently exert ourselves in favour of liberty, and punish tyrants according to their just deserts.
There is much said about the prerogative of crowns. Crowned heads have a prerogative of doing good, but no prerogative for any private emolument. The true honour of a King consists in his doing good; but if he becomes an obstacle in the way of public good, he is to be removed like other common nuisances.
This scheme shews us, likewise, on what principles we are to stand ready to lay down our lives in the cause of liberty, or, which is the same thing, in vindication of good government: We, and all we have, belong to the community. Whenever therefore the common cause requires it, we should, like Paul, be ready to lay down our lives for the brethren. It is but what we owe to the community.
Our worthy forefathers, however they might greatly err in some particular instances, seem to have been inspired by this generous scheme of liberty. This was what led them to this new world, and I would hope that we their posterity have too much of that spirit, which led them to risque their lives, to suffer ourselves to be enslaved by an India herb, or English manufactures.
[* ] Contracts are sacred things. The man that doth not feel himself bound by them, is totally incapacitated for political intercourse with mankind. Notwithstanding the depravity of human nature, we all detest the man who breaks his faith with us. One great end of civil government, in this apostate world, is to compell men to fulfill their contracts. Should the laws of a realm allow the subjects to break over their contracts at pleasure, the very constitution would contain the spirit of anarchy: And when those in the seat of government become regardless of their contracts, and break through them, in so doing, they throw the state, directly, into the depths of anarchy, and force becomes the only law: For a default of one party in covenant sets the other at liberty. When Kings, therefore, infringe on chartered rights they dissolve all manner of union between themselves and their subjects. The obligation is mutual, and neither party can fail to fulfill the conditions on his part, without setting the other free. Both parts of a covenant are equally sacred, for a King, therefore, to break that which subsists between him and his people, is as criminal as for the people to renounce their allegiance to him. If this be so, it ought to be made a capital offence, for any subject to endeavour to inspire his sovereign with the notion that he is at liberty to break his faith with his subjects. It ought to be deemed the most aggravated kind of high treason; because he at once dethrones the King, and subverts the constitution of nature itself. In the British nation, every right is held by charter. When, therefore British legislators begin to talk seriously of the right of an English King to disannul his royal charters, is it not high time for the whole nation to awake? If a single charter is broken in upon, who can depend on the security of any enjoyment? Awake, Britons awake! nor suffer your King to be dethroned. Let truce breakers and traitors turn to the third chapter of the second epistle to Timothy, if they know where to find it, and read the four first verses and observe with whom they are ranked by their Maker.
[* ] The true spirit of a mob consists in unconstitutional violence, done with a design to bring about some private end, and therfore the term is alike applicable to armies, or navies, or a mixed multitude of madmen, minors and slaves when they are engaged in such unconstitutional violence, and they are dangerous in proportion to their elevation, influence, discernment and malice. All of them are evils and ought to be avoided.