Front Page Titles (by Subject) : Jeremiah Atwater 1773-1835: A Sermon - American Political Writing During the Founding Era: 1760-1805, vol. 2
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: Jeremiah Atwater 1773-1835: A Sermon - Charles S. Hyneman, American Political Writing During the Founding Era: 1760-1805, vol. 2 
American Political Writing During the Founding Era: 1760-1805, ed. Charles S. Hyneman and Donald Lutz (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1983). 2 vols. Volume 2.
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Jeremiah Atwater 1773-1835
middlebury, vermont, 1801
Born in New Haven, Jeremiah Atwater graduated from Yale and for five years remained there as a tutor. During that time he was ordained as a minister, but preaching ran second to education for the succeeding twenty years. At the age of twenty-seven he was selected as first president of Middlebury College, well up on the northern frontier of Vermont, where his success was such that within a decade he was enticed to leave Middlebury to put new life into Dickinson College, in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. This sermon before the governor and legislature of Vermont was delivered two years before Atwater took over the presidency of Middlebury. The title page bears a quote from Montesquieu: “The natural place of Virtue is near to Liberty; but it is not nearer to extreme liberty than to servitude.” The quote nicely summarizes Atwater’s moderate tone and careful balancing of principles.
1st Peter—II Chap. 16th Verse.
As free, and not using your liberty for a cloak of maliciousness.
Called to speak before this respectable Assembly, I have need of much of the candor, and must beg the patient indulgence of my audience, on the present occasion.
The time has been, when the feelings of all have been powerfully interested in the events, which have happened on the theatre of Europe. But the European world is now at peace, and our sympathy with foreign governments, it is to be hoped, is lessened. The affairs which now occupy our minds, are the concerns of our own country, and its government. What happens in all free countries, has happened here, that differences of opinion have arisen. What lies at the bottom of these differences, is, I apprehend, difference of views, relative to the nature and end of government itself. To entertain right ideas on this point will, by all, be judged of the highest importance. Errors here, cannot fail to produce those evils which ever attend error. It is desirable, not only that we should know the true end of government; but that we should understand the foundation of our own free, republican system, that we may unite in our endeavours, to give to it permanency, and guard against the evils, which threaten its overthrow. Whether in treating on a subject of this sort, in times like these, I may flatter myself with the idea of escaping censure, or not, still, this may, with truth, be said, that to attempt to irritate and add fuel to the flame of party, would be improper, and incompatible with the friendly feelings, with which we ought to assemble on this anniversary.
In the chapter containing the text, the apostle directed those to whom he wrote, how to conduct in the civil relation. He supposes that there may be such a thing, as an abuse of liberty, and warns them to guard against it. What I now propose, is, to consider the restraint which the idea of government always supposes, and the nature of this restraint in a republican government; the connexion of such a system in our own country, with the peculiar state of society, and the moral principles and habits of the people; and the necessity and the means of preserving them. The apostle, in the context, informs us, that rulers are appointed for the punishment of evil doers, and for the praise of those who do well. Government may then, I conceive, be considered, as having its origin, primarily, in the vices of man. If all men were virtuous, there would be little need of it. But such is man’s nature, so prone is he to invade the rights of others, that he needs restraint: The selfish passions need curbing and regulating. The necessity of government arises from the necessity of such restraint. This is a very obvious truth: But at the same time, apt to be overlooked in an age, when multitudes, feeling that restraints have, in many instances, been unnecessarily imposed, in the paroxysm of passion seem disposed to throw off all restraint. To exclaim against restraint, and to extol unbounded liberty, has ever been a popular theme. The man who can flatter restlessness with change; poverty with an equalization of station and property; vice with the indulgence of passion; and discontent with the removal of restraints which are displeasing, has ever found friends among those, who are dissatisfied with the existing order of things.
Liberty is a sound dear to us all: But what do we understand by it? One, perhaps, denotes by it, a license to do what he pleases, and considers every kind and degree of restraint, as tyranny, whether that restraint originates with the individual himself, or is imposed by civil rulers. Self-government, as commanded by christianity, is viewed as a counteraction of natural freedom, and civil government as an intrusion on natural rights, equally odious. It is the perfection of Rousseau’s celebrated system, entitled the Social Contract, that “every person while united with all, shall obey only himself, and remain as free, as before the union.” Such a liberty as this must be pronounced, in the highest degree, detrimental to the interests of mankind. It reduces man back to the very state of barbarism, from which government is supposed to have redeemed him. Liberty, if considered as a blessing, must be taken in a qualified sense. The freedom which it implies, must be a limited, not absolute freedom; unless we will pronounce government itself a curse; for the very idea of government always supposes some restraint. But to this restraint the perversity of man’s nature has ever been opposed, and vicious men have ever been most loud in exclaiming in favor of unbounded liberty; because such a liberty is no other than the liberty of sinning, the liberty of indulging lawless passion, and of invading a neighbor’s rights. It would arm the idle and profligate against the virtuous and industrious, and instead of a rational liberty, would be seen and felt to be, the worst of tyrannies; no better than a state of nature, and destitute of the least security for life or property. Let any one point out, if he can, an instance in the history of the world, where the human race have arrived to any tolerable degree of perfection or happiness, in a state of this kind. It cannot be done. Let speculative men then cease to extol the state of nature, and to be in love with the life of savages. To restrain such an absurd liberty, government was instituted. Restraint, in some degree or other, is its very object: And to exclaim in favor of liberty as wholly opposite to restraint, is to oppose the very end for which government itself is instituted. Restraint then must be allowed to be necessary. The only question is, of what sort it shall be? Now, altho’ there are various forms of government; they may all be resolved into two kinds. One kind is supported by force; The other is dependant on opinion. The first is adapted to the worst view of human nature. It considers man, as corrupt, and is prepared to encounter his vices. Fear is the great principle which it addresses. Partaking, generally, of the monarchical form, it is simple in its structure, and easily organized. The greater part of the governments of the world have been of this sort. Originating immediately from the vices of men, it too often operates to continue those vices. The evils of it are, an opposition of interests between rulers and ruled, and the tyrannical oppression and extortion which always follow. Various circumstances modify this kind of government. The government of Turkey is different from that of China, and that of Prussia different from either. The essential principles of each, however, are the same. The evils of this system have made the friends of mankind wish for a better system, in which the happiness of society should be primarily consulted, and not the aggrandizement of rulers; in which rulers should impose no restraints, but such as are necessary, and the ruled should willingly submit to them. If no burdens were imposed, but necessary ones, they could not, with any propriety, be deemed oppressive. Mankind, being unwilling to make themselves unhappy, might, it has been thought, be freely entrusted with the power of governing themselves. Though, in this case, no absolute security could be afforded for wisdom in the people; still, a degree of it would be expected, in their judgment concerning their own interests. In a pure democracy, the people, as a body, act. But this must ever be impossible, but in a very small State. To extend a free government farther, the representative system has, in modern ages, been adopted. But whatever be the form, the people are supposed the source of power, and to have a constant check, or control over rulers. The essential principle of such a government is, that the people are willing to be controlled by reason, and to submit to all necessary restraints and burdens, without the compulsion of force. Such a system is dependant altogether on opinion; and as soon as there is not such a willingness, as soon as it becomes necessary to depend on force, as in despotic countries, the system is overthrown.
Can such a government exist for any length of time? Some have thought not. It has been pronounced utopian; and it is said, that in few countries, has this sort of government flourished. It is said, that no such government will stand; because it is calculated on a wrong view of human nature: That it supposes a degree of knowledge, a moral character and moral habits which, ordinarily, are not found: That to understand the business of government thoroughly, requires a degree of skill, of which, the people, generally are not possessed: That, as a body, they know not enough to be able to judge of public measures: That even tho’ they did, still, a disposition to acquiesce always in what is reasonable would be wanting. Knowledge alone, it is said, is not sufficient: That the people must be not only enlightened, but disposed to obey: That as long as the nature of man continues as it is, there will be no security for the general prevalence of such a disposition: That in all countries, such a system must be alike impracticable for any length of time: That the essential qualities of human nature being the same, the same obstacles will be every where presented. The great enemies of such a system, it is said, are the vices of men: That as long as human passions exist, they will have their operation, and be the fruitful sources of contention, turbulence, and discontent: That demagogues will arise, who will deceive the people for the sake of exalting their own consequence: That ambition in aspiring individuals, and the love of power, which is inherent in man, tend to engender faction: That rival towns or states, actuated by jealousy, will set themselves in opposition to each other, as they find their interests to disagree: That there is no absolute security for wisdom in the people: That they can never, for any considerable time, be brought, willingly, to submit even to wholesome restraints: That, thirsting for novelty, they will ever be given to change, and consider the laws which they themselves have made, as easily unmade: That notwithstanding what is said about the diffusion of information, still, the people will easily suffer themselves to be duped and blinded by the crafty and designing: That truth will be perverted, and the channels of information obstructed: That heat, passion, and prejudice, will drown the still voice of reason, and public offices be the purchase of venality, or the sport of faction.
Some have had a totally different view of human nature. If men, as they suppose, are naturally inclined to do what is right, without being compelled to it; if they are inclined, on all occasions, to respect the rights of others, to do justice, and yield all due submission and obedience to proper restraints and wholesome laws, what should prevent the republican system from being carried into effect? Information, according to their opinion, is the only thing wanted among the people. Let it only be known what is right and necessary, and it will, at once, be acquiesced in: Whatever is for the public interest will be favoured, and all the evils, under which mankind have laboured, will, with justice, be ascribed to corrupt governments as their cause.
But I must acknowledge, that to me, human nature appears different from what is here represented; whether we obtain our knowledge of it from scripture, civil history, or observation.— Selfishness has ever been a prominent trait in the character of mankind; which will make men consult their own private good at the expense of others. Man is always prone to what will center in himself only; hating restraint of any sort, and considering it, of itself, as an evil; aspiring at domination over others; fond of possessing power, and prone to abuse it. Human nature appears in its true colours, without artificial disguise, in children. It is, in general, very hard to make children submit to what is proper. They are self-willed and extremely apt to rebel. What children are, in a family, mankind are, as subject to the restraints of law and order.
But must we then despair of the human race, and sit down with the melancholy conclusion, that no improvements can ever take place in the political state of the world? The most remarkable instance of popular governments, which have secured freedom to the people, while they have been allowed a control over it, is to be found in our own country. Mankind have been astonished at beholding free systems of government prevailing here, while they have flourished so badly in all former ages, and in all other parts of the world. If the before-mentioned objections to the practicability of the republican system do not apply here, this must be owing to some peculiar circumstances.
It has been observed, that government always supposes restraint on the passions of individuals. If mankind can be placed in such a situation, that this restraint shall be imposed from any other cause, there will be little need of much severity on the part of government: There will be little need of force, or fear, to awe men to submission. Human nature, though radically the same in different countries, may still be variously modified; and the character which man has sustained, may be greatly altered, by placing him in a new and different situation, and allowing free scope to all the means necessary for effecting a change.—Whatever of this kind has been peculiar here; whatever there is, which has fitted us for a free government, must be sought for in the genius and habits of the people, and in the circumstances attending the first settlement of the country.
The state of society in Europe, and the governments established there, originated from the feudal system, and the genius of European institutions cannot be understood, without a recurrence to that system. The circumstances attending the settlement of this country, were, in like manner, altogether peculiar, and gave rise to a peculiar state of society. The object of our ancestors was different from what usually influences men, in settling a new country: It was, to worship God, agreeably to the dictates of their own consciences. Though they fled from unrighteous oppression, they did not bring with them an abhorrence of those salutary restraints, which are necessary in all countries. They acquiesced in civil government, as ordained of God, and were firm supporters of law and order. They reverenced the Deity, and framed their lives on Christian principles. They made mistakes, it is true, on the subject of religious toleration; but their errors were those of the age in which they lived. The Bible they revered, and endeavored to enact their laws in accordance with it. Patriotism warmed their hearts and stimulated them to aim at the public good.—Where will you find legislators, laying a better foundation for the greatness and happiness of a nation? Where will you find men, actuated by a more sincere regard to posterity, and possessed of a more ardent desire to transmit to them, undiminished, the blessings they enjoyed? They possessed sober, industrious habits, and were strangers to the temptations of luxury. In their manners, they were distinguished for simplicity, and in speaking their sentiments, they had no artificial disguise. They revered truth and detested hypocrisy. Averse to ceremony in public worship, they had, while in England, been reproachfully styled Puritans by their adversaries. But this name of reproach they accounted their highest honor. The friends of freedom in the country from which they emigrated, the historian* has not failed to do them and their ancestors merited honor, in ascribing to them the freedom which is to be found in the British constitution. Their manners, their habits, and their employments fitted them for the republican system of government.
It cannot be denied, that the institutions which they established, have had great influence, in producing that moral restraint of reason and opinion, which is grounded on religion and knowledge. The influence of the first was secured by the erection of houses for public worship, and the prevalence of the last, by the early establishment of schools and colleges. By these and other means, a state of society has been produced altogether peculiar, different from what has been known in Europe, and superior to what is often known in any part of the world.
Our present enjoyment of civil and religious liberty results from the wise institutions established by our ancestors. Even when colonies, our governments were free, and our present systems are but a continuation of them. The kind of government has grown out of our circumstances, and its success and permanency show how well it is fitted for our peculiar situation. The state of society naturally admitted a free government: No other would have been consonant with the manners, sentiments, and character of the people.
Now, it is evident that the more virtuous a people are, the less need is there of the restraints of civil government, to promote order. Our country, we have seen, admits of our enjoying a mild and free government. The important enquiry is, to what this is owing? Is it owing to this, which some have contended, that man needs no restraint; but will, unless made vicious by government, always act as a reasonable being, and be obedient and virtuous, because it is his highest interest to be so? This is a theoretical idea, which has no foundation in fact. It proceeds from a totally wrong view of human nature, and is fraught with mischief to society. If man is here formed a good citizen, it is not because he needs no restraint; but because, from his youth, he has been taught to restrain those passions, which it is the principal business of law and government to restrain. This restraint is begun in the family. Children are early inured to family government, and are taught habits of subordination and respect. In the school, the same system is continued, while the seeds of knowledge and virtue are sown in the youthful mind. Higher seminaries of learning also, accord with the same system, as do the instructions of the bible and the desk. Man, from the cradle to the grave, is constantly learning new lessons of moral instruction, and is trained to virtue and order by perpetual and salutary restraints. To all which may be added the restraint of public opinion, which, in a country where christianity is believed, compels even profligates to be outwardly virtuous. Habits and institutions, like these, tho’ by many deemed unworthy of notice, and underrated, as subordinate means of securing virtue and order, are here found to possess distinguished efficacy. Influencing reason and opinion, they operate more silently, but far more powerfully than force, or fear. Like the great law of gravity, in the natural world, they tend to the preservation of universal harmony and order in society. They govern man far more effectually, than the most cruel codes of penal laws. When they have produced their effect, and taught man the course of conduct which he ought to pursue, little is left for the magistrate: The business of government is already anticipated.
From the moral culture of the heart, is derived the chief force of moral obligation, and of course, the chief support of human laws. Thence proceed all the endearing ties of gratitude and love, which unite man to man, in the discharge of reciprocal duties, and which unite man to his Maker, in the discharge of the more solemn duties of piety. To be satisfied of the importance of these truths, we feel under no necessity of going abroad for light and information; for few can be found, who will not blush to deny them, in a country like this, where a constant experience of their benefits has produced a general conviction of their truth.
Property, in this country, is pretty equally divided among the people, and the principles of a just and equal distribution are recognized and established by the laws, which regulate the descent of estates. An ocean of three thousand miles has separated us from the vices of an old and corrupt world. With a soil, not so spontaneously productive as to encourage idleness, but sufficiently fertile to repay the annual loan of industry, the innocent employments of an agricultural life have blessed us with health and happiness.
The feudal distinctions of tenant and lord are here unknown. In most European countries, the dependance of the peasants on the rich, produces, on the one side, idleness and pride, and on the other, depression and humiliating debasement. The dependance of our citizens is only on each other, for the supply of mutual wants; which produces mutual confidence and good-will in the interchange of kind offices. Men, respectable for knowledge and worth, without the pride generally attached to their character in other countries, can here freely associate with their less informed fellow-citizens, for diffusing among them useful information. It is the false pride of ignorance, which always elates empty minds; but, in them, good sense carries with itself the antidote to arrogance and vanity. The traveller, reposing confidence in the moral habits of the people, feels himself safe from lawless assaults, and in every village that he enters, meets with the marks of civility and cordial welcome, from the cheerful sons of toil.
Facts of this kind are open to the observation of all, and cannot but be peculiarly interesting to Americans. The astonishing effects of our institutions strike foreigners with surprise, while we, who experience their benefits, are apt to be insensible of their importance.
At no period, was it ever more necessary, that this importance should be understood and felt, than at present. A general attention to the subject of politics, both at home and abroad, has led to the discovery of moral theories, concerning the means of producing national and individual happiness, which, while they come to us, not recommended by the sanction of experience, do, at the same time, strike at the root of our own systems. Principles in their nature visionary, have been held out by speculative men, as improvements upon our own systems, and are already fast gaining ground in popular estimation. A wild way of thinking has arisen, in connexion with events which have recently happened in the world: New ideas on political subjects have been adopted by men of speculative minds, tending to annihilate all that is practical in virtue, and to substitute, in the room, the boldness of unauthorised conjecture. It must be allowed by all, that it is of importance, that we should understand the true genius and spirit of our institutions, and their effects on the state of society, lest, in an age of innovation, we make shipwreck of our political happiness, by venturing on the uncertainty of untried hypothesis. This is the more necessary at a period, when, by an application of our principles of civil liberty to European nations, in a different state of society, mistakes concerning their nature have unavoidably happened. Those who have become converts to liberty, after having recently smarted under the lash of tyranny, like the first converts to christianity, who passed as suddenly from the superstitious darkness of heathenism, could not fail, influenced by feeling rather than reason, to mistake the nature and application of principles, adopted with precipitancy and passion, before opportunity was afforded to study them, with coolness and care, or to trace their extensive and important effects on society. It has been the wish of benevolent minds, that the principles of our liberty might be universally adopted: And as mankind easily believe what they wish to be true, without waiting to enquire, whether liberty can be any blessing to those who have not habituated themselves to that moral restraint which is a necessary substitute for force, the conclusion has been rested in, as certain, that other nations in a totally different situation, could, as easily as ourselves, enjoy what we enjoy, without that previous discipline in the school of virtue, which has laid the foundation of our peculiar state of society. Benevolent men, pleased at beholding this country enjoying rational freedom, but failing to notice that peculiar state of society on which it is grounded, with a well-intentioned but ill-timed zeal, have hastened to make the experiment of giving liberty, like ours, to nations unprepared to receive it: And they have fallen victims to their precipitancy. Ambitious men, treading in their steps, taking advantage of popular passion and revolutionary phrenzy, anxious to acquire, by disorganizing, a distinction which they never would acquire by merit, and to attain a promotion to which they never could have aspired by keeping to the line of duty and honor, and madly estimating their importance by the confusion which they spread, proceeded on to level, with blind violence, the distinctions of virtue, to overthrow the wisdom of ages, and to fill the world with wretchedness and ruin.
These scenes are now past, and Americans, it is to be hoped, will learn from them, a profitable lesson. It is plain that our political happiness is valuable, only, in proportion to the security of its continuance. If this security depends on the preservation of our civil and religious institutions, it follows that the means, by which this can be effected, highly merit our attention. Manly and vigorous resolution duly exerted, in enquiries concerning their nature and influence, will lead to such a knowledge of their importance, as will make it impossible to overlook, or neglect them: While ignorance and sloth, joined with knavery and cunning, by blinding us to their real value, cannot fail to induce us to withhold the attention, necessary for their preservation, and thus precipitate our national ruin. In a situation like ours, no endeavours of false and designing men will be wanting, to warp and seduce us from our principles. What they cannot effect, by the force of ridicule, or the blandishments of persuasion and flattery, they will endeavor to accomplish by sophistry and intrigue.
That we may be guarded against the dangers of innovation, let us be cautious, in what manner we apply ourselves to the study of politics. On this, as on other subjects, common sense will ever be our best guide. This most useful faculty always proceeds, by slow steps and clear deductions from known principles. Carefully consulting facts, it admits no conclusions, as certain, which are not warranted by them. Safe from the fascination of sound, it looks only at things. Experience is its only guide, in examining or adopting.
In private life, it often requires much skill and experience, to hit upon the proper means of accomplishing any good. These qualities are still more necessary, in searching for the means of national happiness. Practical rules, in all situations, are safe; because tried. Theory is novel, and therefore, dangerous. Whenever it is resorted to, it is the source of innumerable errors.
In common life, the projector, who idly wastes his time and estate, by venturing on theoretical plans, which promise no certainty, is, by all, laughed at and pitied. In political matters, where the lives and happiness of millions are at stake, such trifling ought to excite other feelings than those of pity. The speculatist in his closet, may not feel the evils, which flow from the ill success of his plans; but to the great body of mankind, on whom the suffering devolves, they are too serious, not to turn to sadness the wantonness of sport, and touch with remorse even the heart of [the] adamant.
It is only by proceeding in the course of experiment, that advances have ever been made in real knowledge. It was by discarding theory, and by philosophising upon the principles of common sense, that Bacon and Newton were led to the vast improvements which they made in natural philosophy: And it has been by adhering to common sense, that, in a few years, we have been able to know more of the true nature of government, than we could have learned by studying for ages, all the absurd declamations of all the theoretical politicians that ever existed.
It shuns with equal care, the errors of prejudice and the flights of enthusiasm. Are we required to divest ourselves of all prejudice and passion, when about to investigate truth in other sciences, and shall we wrap ourselves up completely in them, when about to apply to the study of politics? The science is interesting to the happiness of our species, and ought therefore to be studied with a candor, proportionate to its importance. Prejudice is a sandy foundation, on which no system can be stable or lasting.—Warmth of passion is apt to warp the mind from truth, and lead it astray into the bewildering paths of error. The republicanism of our countrymen, if it have no other foundation than this, is mere sound. It may animate the soldier in battle; but can do little towards informing his mind, or guiding his conduct, as a citizen.
Prejudice and enthusiasm have ever proved wretched guides, which lead, only to bewilder, and govern, only to destroy: They are equally useless in their influence, and transient in their being. When the events which called them forth, have ceased to impress the mind with their novelty, they die; and with them, the opinions which they created, and the spirit which they inspired. But it is far otherwise with the evils, which they occasion. They inflict wounds, not in the power of time itself to heal, and embitter the cup of life to millions of the human race.
The preservation of our institutions, and the influence which they shall have, depend much on the character of those, who are to direct our national affairs. Human nature is so constituted, that the sentiments and conduct of one part of society are always, in some degree, under the influence of the other. This ever must be the case, while the endowments of the mind and the advantages for improving them continue, as at present, infinitely various. If good men only, could be influential, virtue and order might, in them, uniformly meet with powerful support. But while the world is sufficiently vicious, to allow influence to men of gross immorality, such men will ever be directing their endeavors to increase the stock of vice, by assimilating others to themselves.
Political promotion, in this country, depends on the suffrages of the people. It is for them to determine, on the one hand, the rewards which shall crown the virtuous; and on the other, the success which shall attend the vicious. These rewards, we trust, will be rightly bestowed, if the people properly feel respect for the man, who unites goodness with greatness, and at the same time, detest the villain, the evils of whose villainy are increased by the very abilities which he possesses: If they properly feel, how much permanent good will accrue to our country from the patriotic labors of the one, and how much misery cannot fail to be entailed on it, by the plots and vices of the other.
With these views, let us for a moment, contrast some of the prominent features of their respective characters.
The love of his country is, in the good man, the ruling principle, and the public good is the pole-star, which guides his conduct, in the turbulent ocean of political life. His firmness in support of a cause, which he deems a right one, fear cannot weaken: His resolution danger cannot shake. Aiming steadily at the public welfare, he is discouraged by no difficulty and retarded by no obstacle. Opposition only stimulates his powers and invigorates his exertions. As the fabled Phoenix rises from its own ashes, the fire of his soul is kindled, by attempts to extinguish it. With wisdom to contrive, with strength of arm to execute, difficulties serve but to encourage his zeal and add new energy to his determinations. Always consistent in his political conduct, and steadily pursuing an uniform course, he commands the tribute of respect even from his enemies. Moral principle and inherent worth give him a commanding dignity, which overawes the licentious. His character reflects honor on himself and his country. To society he is an ornament and a benefactor, and from his labors results more permanent benefit, than would accrue from the splendor of conquest, or the accumulation of national wealth.
But what shall we say of characters, in every thing, the reverse! men distinguished for nothing, but baseness, sophistry, corruption, temporising and fickleness; apparently influenced by no higher motives, than pride, selfishness, and ambition. When the seductions of error and folly have led men to sacrifice the principles of integrity to personal interest, and thro’ motives of avarice or ambition, to counteract the honest convictions of their own minds; when temptation has led to deviate from the plain road of uprightness, the transition is easy and rapid into the by-paths of intrigue and baseness. A crouching and fawning disposition takes the place of manliness of manners and personal independence. Whatever charms a course of fair and open conduct may have before possessed, they have now lost their influence. Too careless faithfully to examine, too uncandid impartially to judge, the mind becomes wholly divested of any relish for truth. Confounding those obvious distinctions, which common sense has ever been sufficient to discover, and common honesty to observe, it no longer discriminates real worth from meanness, and the true honor of pursuing noble ends, by means equally noble, from the baseness of meanly flattering and temporising, to accomplish dishonorable ends, by means no less dishonorable.
If to such men our country is to look, for upholding its most essential interests, it were madness to flatter ourselves, that we can long continue to enjoy them. Not only the happiness, but the dignity of our nation, which, with our own citizens, is to be the ground of attachment to their country and its government, and which is to claim from foreign nations the tribute of respect, must depend on the character of those, who are to fill our offices of trust and importance. But if on such men we depend, we lean upon the staff of a broken reed, which will surely pierce the hand which it supports.
It was not by such men, that our present happy institutions were planned and established. It was not by such men, the glorious revolution was accomplished, which gave us independence as a nation. Bad men, as they are unwilling to lend their aid to accomplish things so noble, are equally unable to comprehend the greatness of soul and sublimity of virtue, which inspired the breasts of those, to whom, under Providence, we are indebted for their existence. Under the influence of principles, which they contributed to establish, we have erected a new empire, unknown to former times. The spirit of enterprise has given a highly elastic spring to the exertions of our citizens: Our commerce has been greatly extended and our wealth proportionably augmented.
Prosperity so unparalleled, has not failed to excite the envy and the jealousy of other nations, who found, that while they were exhausting their resources in unprofitable wars, we were reaping the fruits of peace. The mind dwells with pleasure, on the picture of our prosperity, and with pain do we reflect, that any circumstances of an unpropitious kind darken the prospect of our glory. With pain are we forced to acknowledge, that it is the natural tendency of prosperity to corrupt the human heart.* But prosperity must be considered as a curse rather than a blessing, when it proves the means of corrupting the purity of our national morals and of leading us to reject those wise institutions, established by our ancestors. I have no hesitation in declaring, that whenever, from this or any other cause, there shall exist in the community, a relaxation of every religious and moral principle, together with a general licentiousness of manners and christianity shall here cease to influence the minds of men, there will be an end to the republican system of government. It is an all-important truth and cannot be too forcibly impressed on our minds, that christianity is necessary to fit a nation for enjoying freedom. A government, like ours, cannot flourish, unless there exist among the citizens, a love of justice, benevolence, obedience and contentment. Suppose an individual destitute of these, and what does he become? Without justice, he is prompted to invade his neighbor’s rights, to injure his good name, to disturb his domestic peace and defraud him of his property. Without benevolence, he has no concern for others, no solicitude for his country’s welfare. But wrapped up in indolent self-enjoyment, and making himself the centre of all, he is fitted to be the slave of venality, or sensual appetite. Without obedience and contentment, he becomes turbulent, proud, and assuming. He has no disposition to remain in that subordinate state, which the good of society requires; but rushing forward into the foremost station, he proudly arrogates to himself the honors, belonging to others, and disturbs the peace and harmony of society. We have now only to extend the idea farther and to imagine a nation composed of individuals universally of this character, and we are presented with the picture of a people altogether unqualified for freedom. The Romans, when they became corrupt, notwithstanding their boasted love of liberty, tamely acquiesced in the government of Julius Caesar, and in a more recent instance, a nation, not behind the Romans in pretensions to freedom, have as quietly submitted to an authority no less despotic. Let Americans open their eyes to the evidence which is before them, and derive wisdom from the instructive lesson which the example of other nations affords them. A corrupt people are fitted to be political slaves, and if we become vicious, to attempt to preserve our liberties will be an absurd and a fruitless task.
When we reflect on these things, and look on our own situation, we cannot but be deeply impressed with a sense of our danger. It cannot be denied, that immorality has, of late, very greatly increased, and that the principles and habits of our ancestors are, by many, ridiculed and despised. Is there not a visible contempt of christianity? Has it not become fashionable to reject the whole system of revealed truth as a cunningly devised fable? Has not infidelity, instead of being confined to the higher circles, of late, pervaded the lowest class? These things are written as with a sun-beam, and they must be worse than blind who do not perceive them.
Ingratitude to God for the great things which he has done for us, is likewise too apparent to need any proof; as also, a spirit of discontent and wanton abuse of the blessings conferred on us. The example of the Jewish nation is useful for our contemplation. Our land, like theirs, was originally settled for the purposes of religion, and the events in their history, are written for our instruction. The uneasiness and discontent which they manifested, God severely punished. Murmuring that they should be under the divine government, and desiring a king, that they might be like the nations around them, God gave them a king in his displeasure. A people, ungrateful for a good government and virtuous rulers, deserve to have the blessing taken away from them. Groundless murmurings have ever been the certain means of bringing down upon a people divine judgments, to punish them for their unthankfulness, and all their unworthy returns for divine goodness. Some may be disposed to look no higher than to mere political causes, for the evils with which a nation may, at any time, be visited. But christians will remember, that there is a governing Providence of God over nations, and whatever instruments are used, still the divine hand is to be ultimately regarded.
It cannot be denied, that in our own country, there are some things which bear very evident marks of the displeasure of the Almighty. I do not exaggerate. Every one’s observation must have taught him, that our country, once peaceful and happy, is now rent with divisions. The little cloud that arose, at first, like a man’s hand, is spread over the horizon and portends evil.—What shall we say? “Shall a trumpet be blown in the city and the people not be afraid? Shall there be evil in the city and the Lord hath not done it? All power is of God. He putteth down one and setteth up another: He raiseth up, as well as removeth, the mighty man, the judge, the prudent, and the counsellor.” It is the same Being, that “turneth wise men backward, and sendeth civil discord into kingdoms.”
The anxious mind will be solicitous to know what is to be the issue of these things. We cannot look into futurity. Should we be a virtuous people, we may still hope for the kind protection of that Almighty arm which has often been made bare in our defence. Good men have with pleasure, indulged the idea of our arriving to great national happiness and glory, and that this new and rising empire would be built up and made to flourish, so long as the sun and moon should endure. But from present appearances, have we not reason to apprehend, that the solemn denunciation of the Most High comes addressed to us? “At what instant I shall speak concerning a nation and concerning a kingdom, to build and to plant it; if it do evil in my sight, that it obey not my voice, then I will repent of the good wherewith I said I would benefit them.” It is righteousness alone that exalteth a nation, and it is only by returning to that piety, righteousness and sobriety which adorned and blessed the ancestors of our nation, that we can hope to escape divine judgments and prevent the ruin, threatened to a sinful people. If we truly reform, and put away those evil doings which provoke the Lord to jealousy, then may we expect that he will return to us in mercy, and rejoice over us, to bless us and to do us good. To encourage us in so doing, the Almighty has further given us these words of promise: “At what instant I shall speak concerning a kingdom, to pluck up and to pull down and to destroy, if that nation, against which I have pronounced, turn from their evil ways, I also will repent of the evil, that I thought to do unto them.” Let us then, as a nation, accept the punishment of our iniquity, and return to the God of our fathers, from whom we have revolted. In this way only, can we expect that divisions will cease, and party spirit subside. In this way only, can we hope that he, who hath the hearts of all men in his hands, will give judgment to them who sit in judgment; and make us to be perfectly joined together, in the same mind and in the same judgment; causing our eyes to see our Jerusalem a quiet habitation, a tabernacle that shall not be taken down, none of whose cords shall be broken, neither any of the stakes thereof removed.
May we all repent, and do our first works, remembering that mercy, when despised, will be followed with judgment. Inattention to God and a continued abuse of his goodness will provoke him to empty us from vessel to vessel, and for the iniquities of our land, many will be the rulers thereof: Unstable as water, we shall not excel. But if we notice the Divine hand which has been lifted up against us, and turn unto God by repentance and works of righteousness; if we speak the truth one to another, and love as brethren, we may still hope, that God will be in the midst of us, and sit in the assembly of our rulers, that he will prosper the work of their hands, and make their administration productive of the public good. God shall fill Zion with judgment and righteousness, and wisdom and knowledge shall be the stability of our times and strength of salvation: And the fear of the Lord shall be our treasure; and he shall lift us high among the nations.
[* ] Hume.
[* ] “Often, while employed in writing these papers, have I wished for a warning voice of more power. The present moment, however auspicious to the United States, is critical: and, though apparently the end of all their dangers, may prove the time of their greatest danger. I have, indeed, since finishing this address, been mortified more than I can express by accounts which have led me to fear that I have carried my ideas of them too high, and deceived myself with visionary expectations. And should this be true—should the return of peace, and the pride of independence lead them to security and dissipation—should they lose those virtuous and simple manners by which alone republics can long subsist—should false refinement, luxury and impiety, spread among them; excessive jealousy distract their governments; and clashing interests, subject to no strong control, break the federal union: The consequence will be, that the fairest experiment, ever tried in human affairs, will miscarry; and that a revolution that had revived the hopes of good men, and promised an opening to better times, will become a discouragement to all future efforts in favor of liberty, and prove only an opening to a new scene of human degeneracy and misery.”
Dr. Price’s address to the inhabitants of the United States.