Qualifications for Public Office


Daniel Webster, known as the “Defender
of the Constitution,” was a famous orator and statesman who argued cases before
the U.S. Supreme Court, served as a U.S. Congressman, a U.S. Senator, and U.S.
Secretary of State. In testimony before the Massachusetts Constitutional Convention
(transcribed below), Mr. Webster persuasively reasons for the peoples’ right
to establish qualifications for their elected officials and acknowledges the
importance of Massachusetts’ “respect and attachment to Christianity” through
the retention of a constitutional provision requiring a profession of belief
in the Christian
religion as a qualification for holding public office.

Historical Introduction


In consequence of the separation of what is now the State of Maine from Massachusetts in the year 1820, it became necessary to make some change in the constitution of the Commonwealth. The opportunity was thought a favorable one for a general revision of that instrument, which had undergone no amendment since its adoption in 1780. Delegates were accordingly chosen by the people to meet in convention for this purpose. . . .Mr. Webster was among the delegates chosen by the town of Boston, and took an active and distinguished part in the business of the convention, both in committee-room and in debate.  As soon as the body was organized. . . [t]he subject of the official oaths and subscriptions required by the [current] constitution was referred to a committee . . . of which Mr. Webster was chairman. A report was made by this committee recommending that . . . a simple oath of allegiance to the Commonwealth, together with the oath of office, should be taken by all persons chosen or appointed to office. . . . and that a profession of belief in the Christian religion no longer be required as a qualification for office.

Daniel Webster’s
remarks regarding the committee’s report provides compelling reasoning which
should be considered by every American voter today. Webster’s comments emphasize
the importance of Christian leaders and Christian principles in civil government.
In the report, delivered on December 4th, 1820, Webster explained:

It is obvious that the principal alteration proposed by the
first resolution is the omission of the declaration of belief in the Christian
religion as a qualification for office in the cases of the governor, lieutenant-governor,
councillors, and members of the legislature. I shall content myself on this
occasion with stating, shortly and generally, the sentiments of the select
committee, as I understand them, on the subject of this resolution.

Two questions naturally present themselves. In the first place, Have the people
a right, if in their judgment the security of their government and its due
administration demand it, to require a declaration of belief in the Christian
religion as a qualification or condition of office? On this question, a majority
of the committee held a decided opinion. They thought the people had such
a right. By the fundamental principle of popular and elective governments,
all office is in the free gift of the people. They may grant or they may withhold
it at pleasure; and if it be for them, and them only, to decide whether they
will grant office, it is for them to decide, also, on what terms and what
conditions they will grant it. Nothing is more unfounded than the notion that
any man has a right to an office. This must depend on the choice of others,
and consequently upon the opinions of others, in relation to his fitness and
qualification for office. No man can be said to have a right to that which
others may withhold from him at pleasure.

There are certain rights, no doubt, which the whole people, or the government as representing the whole people, owe to each individual in return for that obedience and personal service,
and those proportionate contributions to the public burdens which each individual
owes to the government. These rights are stated with sufficient accuracy,
in the tenth article of the Bill of Rights, in this constitution. ” Each individual
in society has a right to be protected by it in the enjoyment of his life,
liberty, and property, according to the standing laws.” Here is no right of
office enumerated; no right of governing others, or of bearing rule in the
State. All bestowment of office remaining in the discretion of the people,
they have of course a right to regulate it by any rules which they may deem
expedient. Hence the people, by their constitution, prescribe certain qualifications
for office respecting age, property, residence, and taxation. But if office,
merely as such, were a right which each individual under the social compact
was entitled to claim, all these qualifications would be excluded. Acknowledged
rights are not subject, and ought not to be subject to any such limitation.
The right of being protected in life, liberty, and estate is due to all and
cannot be justly denied to any, whatever be their age, property, or residence
in the State.

These qualifications, then, can only be made requisite as conditions
for office on the ground that office is not what any man can demand as matter
of right but rests in the confidence and good-will of those who are to bestow
it. In short, it seems to me too plain to be questioned that the right of
office is a matter of discretion and option, and can never be claimed by any
man on the ground of obligation. It would seem to follow, then, that those
who confer office may annex any such conditions to it as they think proper.
If they prefer one man to another, they may act on that preference. If they
regard certain personal qualifications, they may act accordingly, and ground
of complaint is given to nobody. Between two candidates otherwise equally
qualified, the people at an election may decide in favor of one because he
is a Christian and against the other because he is not. They may repeat this
preference at the next election on the same ground and may continue it from
year to year.

Now, if the people may, without injustice, act upon this preference, and from
a sole regard to this qualification, and refuse in any instance to depart
from it, they have an equally clear right to prescribe this qualification
beforehand as a rule for their future government. If they may do it, they
may agree to do it. If they deem it necessary, they may so say beforehand.
If the public will may require this qualification at every election as it
occurs, the public will may declare itself beforehand and make such qualification
a standing requisite. That cannot be an unjust rule, the compliance with which,
in every case, would be right. This qualification has nothing to do with any
man’s conscience. If he dislike the condition, he may decline the office in
like manner as if he dislike the salary, the rank, or any thing else which
the law attaches to it.

But however clear the right may be (and I can hardly suppose any gentleman
will dispute it), the expediency of retaining the declaration is a more difficult
question. It is said not to be necessary, because in this Commonwealth ninety-nine
out of every hundred of the inhabitants profess to believe in the Christian
religion. It is sufficiently certain, therefore, that persons of this description,
and none others, will ordinarily be chosen to places of public trust. There
is as much security, it is said, on this subject, as the necessity of the
case requires. And as there is a sort of opprobrium incident to this qualification
– a marking out, for observation and censorious remark, of a single individual,
or a very few individuals, who may not be able to make the declaration – it
is an act if not of injustice, yet of unkindness and of unnecessary rigor,
to call on such individuals to make the declaration and to exclude them from
office if they refuse to do so.

There is also another class of objections which have been stated. It has been
said that there are many very devout and serious persons, persons who esteem
the Christian religion to be above all price, to whom, nevertheless, the terms
of this declaration seem somewhat too strong and intense. They seem, to these
persons, to require the declaration of that faith which is deemed essential
to personal salvation; and therefore not at all fit to be adopted as a declaration
of belief in Christianity in a more popular and general sense. It certainly
appears to me that this is a mistaken interpretation of the terms; that they
imply only a general assent to the truth of the Christian revelation and,
at most, to the supernatural occurrences which establish its authenticity.
There may, however, and there appears to be, conscience in this objection;
and all conscience ought to be respected. I was not aware, before I attended
the discussions in the committee, of the extent to which this objection prevailed.

There is one other consideration to which I will allude, although it was not
urged in committee. It is this. This qualification is made applicable only
to the executive and the members of the legislature. It would not be easy,
perhaps, to say why it should not be extended to the judiciary if it were
thought necessary for any office. There can be no office in which the sense
of religious responsibility is more necessary than in that of a judge; especially
of those judges who pass, in the last resort, on the lives, liberty, and property
of every man. There may be among legislators strong passions and bad passions.
There may be party heats and personal bitterness. But legislation is in its
nature general: laws usually affect the whole society; and if mischievous
or unjust, the whole society is alarmed and seeks their repeal. The judiciary
power, on the other hand, acts directly on individuals. The injured may suffer
without sympathy or the hope of redress. The last hope of the innocent, under
accusation and in distress, is in the integrity of his judges. If this fail,
all fails; and there is no remedy on this side the bar of Heaven. Of all places,
therefore, there is none which so imperatively demands that he who occupies
it should be under the fear of God, and above all other fear, as the situation
of a judge. For these reasons, perhaps, it might be thought that the constitution
has not gone far enough if the provisions already in it were deemed necessary
to the public security.

I believe I have stated the substance of the reasons which appeared to have
weight with the committee. For my own part, finding this declaration in the
constitution and hearing of no practical evil resulting from it, I should
have been willing to retain it unless considerable objection had been expressed
to it. If others were satisfied with it, I should be. I do not consider it,
however, essential to retain it as there is another part of the constitution
which recognizes, in the fullest manner, the benefits which civil society
derives from those Christian institutions which cherish piety, morality, and
religion. I am clearly of opinion that we should not strike out of the constitution
all recognition of the Christian religion. I am desirous, in so solemn a transaction
as the establishment of a constitution, that we should keep in it an expression
of our respect and attachment to Christianity – not, indeed, to any of its
peculiar forms but to its general principles.

(Source: Daniel Webster, The Writings and Speeches of
Daniel Webster
, (Boston: Little, Brown, & Company, 1903), Vol. III, pp. 3-7.)


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