Bela Bates Edwards (1802-1852) graduated from Amherst in 1824 and was licensed to preach in 1831. He served in the American Education Society, as editor of several publications, Professor of the Hebrew Language and later the chair of Biblical Literature at Andover Theological Seminary. This sermon was preached on May 14, 1841, a fast day mourning the death of President William Henry Harrison.
DELIVERED ON THE DAY OF THE
NATIONAL FAST, MAY 14, 1841,
AT A UNITED MEETING OF THE
RELIGIOUS SOCIETIES IN ANDOVER.
BY B. B. EDWARDS,
PROF. IN THE THEOLOGICAL SEMINARY, ANDOVER.
PUBLISHED BY WILLIAM PEIRCE.
ALLEN AND MORRILL, PRINTERS.
Andover, May 14, 1841.
Rev. B. B. Edwards—Dear Sir,
The undersigned, ministers of the several denominations of Christians in this town, having to-day, with their people, listened, with great pleasure, to your eloquent and appropriate Address on the character of General William H. Harrison, our lamented Chief Magistrate, and wishing to have the sentiments expressed in it placed before their fellow-townsmen, and the public generally, do hereby most respectfully request a copy for publication.
The event which has called us together on this occasion, is commonly spoken of as unexpected. That the President of the United States should die, immediately upon his elevation to his high office, appears to have been wholly unanticipated. Possibly not one in a thousand of those who contributed to his election, ever imagined, that he could claim no exemption from the common lot of man. It seems to have been taken for granted, that after one had reached the object of his wishes, perhaps the fruit of a long and hard struggle, he should be permitted to enjoy it awhile; that even the inexorable enemy would show some pity.
But is it so? Does the crown which was yesterday put on, sit more firmly than that which has been worn for half a century? Is the life, which is vigorous to-day, insured against the accidents of to-morrow? On the contrary, is there not in the anxiety and heated action which are incident to the pursuit of power, or wealth, or great usefulness, an obvious cause, why the over-tasked frame should suddenly fail? Besides, no observation is more common, and none is more just, than that adversity is set over against prosperity; and often it is an invisible line which divides them.
We read, last week, in the public papers, of a family that had come into the possession of about all which is commonly regarded as desirable. A joyous household shared in the nameless delights which wealth honorably acquired, could secure. But in three or four days, an only son was borne from that household to his burial-place, and the frantic mother, like Rachel, refused to be comforted.
Last November, a youthful preacher,[i] whom some of you knew, was set apart to his work. Many years he had spent, most industriously, in the fields of human and sacred learning. Rich in acquisition, graceful in manners, bland in temper, strong in aspiration, he entered upon his labors. A large, and almost for the first time unanimous, congregation hung upon his lips, as if they uttered the accents of angels. The educated and the illiterate alike acknowledged his mastery over them. But he passed away like some dream of the night which is too delicious to be real. In four short months, he added another impressive commentary upon frail man’s fondest hopes. He had hardly essayed his polished armor before he must put it off forever.
On the 17th of April last, a morning newspaper in a neighboring city informed us that the proprietor and principal editor would on that afternoon embark for Europe. He had labored long and almost convulsively in his vocation. His sleepless vigilance was crowned with success. Those for whom he battled so unintermittingly came into power, and the worn laborer thought that he might rest from his toil. “I have dreamed all my life,” he said, “of seeing Europe. To-day I go: yes, I am going to Rome. These eyes will soon gaze on the Eternal City.” He did embark, but it was upon that great ocean from which no voyager returns.
These, however, it may be said, were individuals in private life. They did not sit in the seat of presidents or kings. Surely the men who are high in power, and who are entrenching themselves in the warm affections of millions, will not thus pass away. Their premature death will not crush in the germ hopes which are so sanguine. But what is the testimony of the historian? What are the annals of States and Empires? Is it not the concurrent voice of history both sacred and profane, that it is the good, the ardently beloved among sovereigns who die first, while those, “whose hearts are dry as summer dust, burn to the socket.”
Across the centre of the Holy Land, from the Mediterranean to the Jordan, is a large plain, called the valley of Jezreel, or the plain of Esdraelon, which has been the theatre of many sanguinary battles, from the days of Joshua to those of Bonaparte and Sir Sidney Smith. Thirty-three hundred years ago, the brook which winds its way through this plain, was called the Kishon of battles. A few hundred years later, its pure water was reddened with the blood of a Jewish monarch, who there fell mortally wounded. Never, perhaps, did death come in more affecting circumstances. Hardly in the page of universal history is there a character more faultless than his. In his continued life, the very existence of his nation was bound up. He fell too in the meridian of his days, when he was just ready to enjoy the fruits of the gigantic reformation which he had accomplished. Well might the tearful Jeremiah lament for Josiah, while all the singing men and singing women spake of him in their lamentations, for the hope of the nation was extinct, and we shut up the remaining history in despair.
Coming down to modern times, we find that the best king that France ever had, Henry the Fourth, the most interesting monarch, it is said, whom history describes, the defender of Protestantism against hosts of enemies, whose only victories, during a large part of his life, were those which he won over the hearts of his subjects by his generosity, magnanimity and patience, fell by the dagger of a Jesuit; he fell too just as he was on the point of commencing a great enterprise for the peace of Europe. The grief for his death partook of the character of madness. Tears were the least tokens of sorrow. Many persons died on learning the catastrophe.
A few years earlier, the English Josiah, the good king Edward, as he was familiarly called, died in the sixteenth year of his age, leaving a nation in tears, the Protestant cause in despair, and the throne to one whose characteristic epithet is, “the bloody.”
On the 2d of May, 1816, an English princess, of the age of twenty-one years, was married. She was the undisputed heiress to the most enlightened and coveted throne of earth; and to which she would have brought the spirit of an English queen of former days. She had read much and with discrimination. There was a mingled dignity and sweetness in her looks. Warmth and openness of heart marked her conduct through life. Her cherished place of resort was not the palace, but the cottage of the poor. She was the favorite of the religious portion of her people, for she was of pious habits, and a strict observer of the Sabbath day. When she found herself blessed with the husband of her choice, and saw that choice justified by his virtues, she more than once repeated, that she was the happiest woman in the kingdom.
Just eighteen months after her marriage, her bonnet and cloak were on the screen where she placed them, and her watch was suspended upon the wall by her own hands; and there they remained untouched for weeks, for the brokenhearted survivor would not allow them to be removed, and he looked upon them with such fixedness, as if his eyes had been marble. Never, perhaps, was there an instance in which a whole nation, through all its ranks and degrees, was more deeply moved. Never had a mourning been so universal; and its universality attested its sincerity, It was as if the whole people formed but one afflicted family, and every individual had lost a dear sister, an affectionate friend, or a kind benefactress. To this universal grief, there was but one exception, and that was the most lamentable sight of all, for to the old king, there was neither sun, nor moon, nor kingdom, nor wife, nor children.[ii]
Somewhat similar has been our experience during the last few weeks. It is not, indeed, over departed youth and beauty, that the country mourns, but it is over withered hopes, blasted expectations, and fallen goodness. The solemn observance of this day, these tokens of universal grief are not uncalled for. The sorrow is no less considerate and befitting, than it is extensive and heart-felt. The United States have experienced a heavy calamity. Every incident which has come to light respecting the President since his decease, every new development of his character which has been brought to our knowledge, is fitted to awaken a profounder impression of our loss, and to create a more thorough conviction, that but poor justice was done to him while living, even by his more immediate friends.
We are aware, that there may be some, who, now that the first shock occasioned by his death has passed away, do not regard it as a national calamity at all. He died, they say, at the critical moment for his own fame, before he had plunged into the treacherous sea of politics. The government will move on as strongly and as prosperously as before. Only one of the many eminent men in the nation has been removed. Let us thank God, and take courage.
But we are not among those who can dispose of a great event so summarily. We are not ready to brand this universal sorrow as a hollow show, or an irrational sympathy. If it is not to be viewed in the light of a national judgment; if in the President’s death there be no cause for mourning, why was he elected to his office. Why was he borne to it by an overwhelming majority? Why should we raise one to his high position whose death would be nothing more than an ordinary calamity? He was not chosen by a mere popular impulse. Wise and discerning men thought that they saw in his honesty, integrity, and comprehensive views, evidence of his eminent fitness for the station.
If we cannot, indeed, say what would have happened, had he lived. We do not know but that the country maybe more prosperous under his successor, than if he had completed his term of office. These things do not now concern us. They are understood only by God. They do not, however, diminish in the least the causes for the national sorrow.
His death may be, in various aspects of it, a most calamitous event. It may be that his personal influence was indispensable in order to carry through some one of those prominent measures, on which, in the opinion of many, the repose of the country depends. It may appear, without reflection on any other individual, that a President was needed, whose home was neither in the North, nor in the South, but in the controlling West. It is a possible thing, that some of the great religious interests of the country are destined to suffer several additional years of embarrassment; and that, too, not through any fault of his successor. It may be found, that as a people we were not worthy of a President who was manifestly a religious man, and who had determined to exert that religious influence, which is so much needed at our capital city, and which is so becoming in the Head of a great Christian people. It may be, that the fate of the wretched Aborigines was depending on his continued life. No paragraph in his Inaugural Address was perused with a warmer gush of emotion than that which asserted his determination to protect their rights. We had hoped, that the time had now come when their captivity would be turned back, when some of the wrongs which we have ruthlessly heaped upon them should be redressed. Their lot has been a hard one, and the day of their extinction draws near. General Harrison might not have been able to arrest their descent; but he would have wiped some of the tears from their cheeks. The good old soldier would have placed himself between them and the remorseless whiskey-dealer of the frontier. His heart was full of tenderness towards them. His death they may well mourn with bitterer tears than others shed, for no one who has survived him so well understood their peculiar circumstances; none would have administered so effectually to their relief. For many years, he stood up their unflinching guardian, when they were infested by hordes of depredators and swindlers.
It is not my intention, on the present occasion, to narrate the incidents of General Harrison’s eventful life. They are, doubtless, perfectly familiar to all who hear me.
It has seemed to me, that the main features of his character might be legitimately deduced from his Inaugural Address. With the political views contained in that document, I shall not meddle. I refer, mainly, to certain moral lineaments which cannot be mistaken. The address is perfectly characteristic of the mind from which it proceeded. It bears the indubitable impress of the generous soldier, of the man of integrity, compassion, forbearance, firmness, patriotism, unaffected simplicity.
Exceptions have, indeed, been taken to it in several respects; among others, as a literary performance. It does not exactly please the refined scholar. There are too many words in it; and the classical allusions are too frequent. But General Harrison was not educated as a scholar. His collegiate course was early interrupted, and never resumed. The days of his later youth were passed in the unbroken forests and tangled swamps of the North West Territory. His intellectual discipline was gained in unraveling the plots of the wary trapper, and in reconciling the feuds of the jealous and fault-finding emigrant. His academic halls were the ancient woods of Vincennes; the lamps by which he read Caesar and Tacitus were the watch-fires of Tippecanoe. Almost the whole of his adult life, from the time when he received an ensign’s commission from Washington, was spent in the most laborious practical duties, far away from books, and from nearly everything which could nurture a correct literary taste.
We have, however, but little patience with the men who dwell on defects of this nature. Such defects are not, indeed, to be overlooked in documents which emanate from high places. But compared with certain other things, they are lighter than the dust of the balance. What we need in these papers are evidences of candor, benevolence, love of country, firmness, incorruptible integrity. We want plain, direct, straight-forward writing, such as flows from the heart of an honest man, though the style may not be modeled after Quinctilian, and though the periods are not altogether graceful.
General Harrison had studied Roman History attentively and fondly, and in the Latin originals. His address throughout betrays this predilection, while certain features of his character are in accordance with the models with which he was familiar.
He possessed the sterling integrity of some of the old Romans. At certain periods of his life, he had immense pecuniary resources at his command. But no one has detected, after the sharpest scrutiny, the slightest trace of dishonesty. General Harrison never prostituted any office to the purpose of personal emolument. By taking advantage of legal technicalities, he might have become affluent. In former times, land-titles in the western country were loosely secured. In one case, it is stated, that an individual recovered $80,000 for property which his ancestors had designed to alienate, but for which they gave no sufficient title. In circumstances almost precisely similar, General Harrison, in the right of his wife, might he ejected the honest purchaser, and entered upon the possession of property of untold value. But, said he, “if I have no moral title, I have no legal title.[iii] No man who has filled an office in our country has enjoyed so many tempting opportunities as General Harrison did, to amass great wealth by deviating from the strict line of integrity, and, at the same time, with less risk of detection. But he had that nice sense of honor in pecuniary and official engagements, which shrank from the remotest contact with aught corrupt or mean. With Roman fastidiousness, he disdained all modes of acquiring wealth, which would not bear investigation. In the Head of government, in these times of peculation and fraud, how inestimable such an example of more than Catonian probity!
All who knew General Harrison, speak of his unaffected simplicity. He was a frank, large-hearted, affable farmer. In his dress, equipage, manners, domestic arrangements, in all his intercourse with society, he was a plain man. Pride of office, superciliousness of aspect, impatience of contradiction, airs of bustling importance, were as alien to him, as if he had had no conception of their existence. He was not the friend of the people for the sake of winning their applause, or of buying their votes. Everywhere, and at all times, he showed the same guileless, unassuming deportment, in office and out of office, retiring from public life, and a candidate for its honors.
These qualities were not, however, isolated and disproportionate. If President Harrison had the unostentatious simplicity of him who was called from the plough to the dictatorship, he had his firmness also. Without a large measure of it, he could never have fulfilled the numerous and complicated trusts which were committed to him. The governor of a newly-established, ill-defined territory, filling up with emigrants from every region, who were dissimilar in habits, and often involved in bickering and law-suits, must have been a man of firm nerves. The superintendent of a score of Indian tribes, that were at enmity with each other, always jealous of the encroaching white settler, and often the dupes of some French renegade, or Canadian sharper, could not have proceeded a single step, if he had not had a will of his own.
To these characteristics of integrity, simplicity, and decision, which might have flourished, and which did flourish on Roman soil, others were associated, which are more peculiarly the growth of a Christian land. General Harrison was a remarkably kind and compassionate man. In the document to which we have referred, there is an entire freedom from all acerbity of feeling, from all expressions of bitterness towards the party which had so strenuously sought the election of another individual. There is not a harsh phrase in it. This magnanimous forbearance characterized his whole life, military as well as civil. Many of the anecdotes related of him strikingly illustrate his freedom from censoriousness, his habit of putting a charitable construction upon the conduct of others. In his protracted, public career, he must have met with many temptations to indulge in exasperated passion and bitter animosity. Even General Washington, on one or two occasions, could not control his anger. But among all the military officers with whom General Harrison was associated, he had no enemy. All unite in testifying to his habitual kindness, and his promptitude, in every emergency, to succor those in distress. Even the poor comforts which followed him in his wet encampments and forced marches, he was prompt to resign to one who had greater need, let him be friend or foe. The miserable man who had determined to take his life, he promptly rescued from his deserved punishment; thus exemplifying that forgiving spirit, which he could not have learned from Plutarch or Caesar, but which beams from every page of that volume which it was both his habit and his pleasure to read morning and evening.
In respect to the most interesting of all questions relating to the deceased President—his religious character—his countrymen are not required, nor are they competent, to decide. This must be left with Him who judges without prejudice or partiality, and before whom the distinctions of earth are of no avail. Amid the sorrow in which the country is involved, it is affecting to observe the solicitude which is felt on this point, and which is not confined to the religious press, or to professedly religious men. All other questions are merged in this: Was General Harrison a true Christian? Every minute circumstance, every casual incident bearing on this subject, is repeated, as affording the most precious consolation which can be set before an afflicted people. It shows what are the honest convictions of men. We are not content with vague generalities. In the case of one so much beloved, we cannot rest calmly on mere negative evidence. We search for something more specific; we enter into his secret retirements, and rejoice to find, that, amid the strife of parties, and even the excitements of a triumphal march, he did not neglect his Maker, nor his Bible.
This solicitude indicates, also, that there is a conviction in the public mind of the indispensableness of moral principle in him who administers our government. We have ceased to be frightened with the miserable bug-bear of “Church and State.” We do not demand that a president or a judge should be an atheist, lest he should infringe on the rights of conscience. For several years a reaction has been going forward in the public mind towards the better feelings and practices of our early ancestors. Every recognition of a superintending Providence, every reverential allusion to the Inspired Word, in the doings or writings of the high officers of State, is welcomed with joy by multitudes in every part of our land, and of all Christian sects.
When it was seen, that General Harrison went beyond this, and avowed his profound reverence for the Christian system, as distinguished from Judaism, or from the religion of nature, multitudes hailed it as a still brighter omen. And when, further, it was understood, that this was not mere profession, but was the utterance of what the President was, and what he meant to be and to do, how could a Christian people help feel a rushing of heart towards him? The blessed days of the Winthrops, the Trumbulls, the Belchers, the Boudinots, the Witherspoons, were coming once more. The highest man in the nation was not ashamed to have it known, that he bowed his knees daily to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, and that he had determined, whatever others might do to interrupt him, to hallow the Christian Sabbath.
Now when these joyous anticipations were dashed to the ground by his sudden departure, how could a Christian people suppress their tears? How could they avoid being astonished at the inextricable mystery? Most appropriately is it regarded as a national judgment. Pertinently is this day set apart to learn the solemn lessons which it cannot fail to teach.
I. One use of this bereavement, we say in general, is the same, which should be made in every instance of personal or family grief. In such a case, you are the subjects of a new experience. The stony soil in your hearts is broken up. The vain things which cheat men out of the great object of life, you instinctively cast aside. Death and the eternal state rise up before you as vital realities, which are not to be shuffled away by any of the devices which fools may invent. So in the bereavement which affects a whole people. The national heart is softened. The general conscience has an unwonted susceptibility. Practices which are at war with virtue and with God, are felt to be what they are, an impertinence, or an abomination. When the news of the death of the Princess Charlotte Augusta reached London, the midnight reveler stole silently away from his unfinished banquet. Not a theatre was opened, and, we presume, not an infidel club was held, that week, throughout Great Britain. Thus, when the intelligence of the great calamity which has befallen our country first reached us, amusements lost their power to charm; secular business stood still. Tears came unbidden. It was felt that God was in his holy Temple, and that the whole land should keep silence before Him. The public mind was in that mellowed, softened state, which is one of the richest blessings of Heaven; which indicates the presence of the Holy Spirit, affecting millions, as a mighty wind bows down the forest, and which, if cherished, is the sure harbinger of a brighter day.
II. We are taught by this event the importance of cherishing kind feelings towards our rulers, and of forming liberal judgments of their measures.
It would shock us now to hear any harsh epithets applied to General Harrison. We should turn away in sorrow or in anger from him who had it in his heart to vilify the dead. We should be ready to eject from civilized society the man who could wantonly traduce the motives of one who is now alike insensible to human praise or blame.
But is it not wrong to lacerate the feelings of the living? Is it any palliation of our offence, that the object at which we aim our envenomed shafts has nerves which are quick with sensibility? It is a poor business to make war upon the dead. But it is a poorer business to injure the feelings and vilify the name of the living.
Yet it has been done to a mournful extent in relation to our civil rulers. We do not now refer to any particular individual or party. It is a national sin. It is the original sin, we had almost said, of every party. The utmost ingenuity is called into requisition in the invention of abusive epithets, in distorting the plainest facts, in tearing open character, and then pouring into the wounds the venom of asps. He is apt to be regarded as the ablest editor of a newspaper, who can use the most stinging phrases, who has at his command the largest vocabulary of excoriating epithets. It is not unfrequently mentioned in praise of some zealous orator hat he flayed alive his poor opponent. Withering sarcasm has come into the place of calm reasoning; the traducing of motives into that of respectful remonstrance, or of gentlemanly refutation. One would think that many among us had passed their lives in studying the plays of Aristophanes, or the writings of John Wilkes or William Cobbett.
And the abuse is as indiscriminate, as it is abundant. Who does not now see that Mr. Madison did not deserve the torrent of obloquy which was heaped upon him in 1812? Thousands would gladly recall the hard speeches which they then uttered against that illustrious patriot. So we feel it a duty to say, that many illiberal and unjust accusations were laid against the immediate predecessor of General Harrison; accusations to which General Harrison gave no countenance, and whose circulation conferred no honor upon their authors or abettors.
One would think, that it is the great business of men living under a free government, to show their freedom by maligning their rulers, just as the Athenians showed their democracy by ostracizing every citizen of extraordinary virtue. But why can we not learn to distinguish between ignorance and bad intention, between limited capacity and malice, between ignorance which is unavoidable and that which is criminal? Our rulers are not omnipresent. They must often, and necessarily, decide on imperfect information. If they waited for exact knowledge in every case, they would commit flagrant wrong, by the delay, in some other quarter. Many of them have not the keen-sighted sagacity of Sully, nor the comprehensive statesmanship of Burke. They must sometimes test a measure before they can decide upon its practical utility. Why should we assign a sinister motive, when an honorable one is much more probable?
An eminent individual is strongly attached to office. He wishes to have a voice in public affairs up to extreme old age. We attribute it to his ambition, to his love of office for its own sake; whereas it may result from the perfect consciousness which he has, that the abandonment of an occupation with which he has been fifty years familiar, would be the shipwreck of his understanding. The same individual does not act in some great emergency as we had anticipated. He does not remain steadfast in the traces of the party with which he generally votes. We wonder at his inconsistency. We are amazed at his wrong-headedness. Now the day of the revelation of all hidden things may show, that he was not obstinate, but conscientious, that his solemn and well-ascertained convictions of duty would not allow him to vote with his party. Shall we then visit him with our maledictions? To his own Master, he standeth or falleth.
Ought we not to practice a little magnanimity? Ought we not to judge our public men with comprehensive and Christian charity? It may be the trade of a partisan to show how adroit he can be in the use of opprobrious terms. Be it ours, so far as we can, to correct this crying national offense, to rise superior to the miserable arts of the demagogue, and to demonstrate in our own case the ennobling influence of our free institutions, whose foundation rests upon a fraternal and affectionate equality. In no other way, can we obey the authoritative injunctions of the Bible; for how an we offer intercessions for “all in authority,” when in the next breath, we cast out their names as evil, and denounce their knavery or incompetency.
III. Another vice, for which we may be suffering the chastisement of Heaven, is a want of moral integrity, which is the result, in part at least, of an insatiable desire for the acquisition of wealth. This is one of the most vigorous off-shoots of our national depravity. And yet, for the most part, it seems to be overlooked and uncondemned. When we speak of the offences for which we are visited in judgment, our minds instantly revert to the violation of the Sabbath, to intemperance, or to the wrongs inflicted by involuntary servitude. But we are not certain, that either of these is more offensive, or more wide-spread than that controlling love of money which is growing upon the country and menacing alike its purity and its happiness. Thus it was regarded by the departed President. In a speech before the Historical Society of Ohio in 1837, he said, “The inordinate desire for the accumulation of riches, which has so rapidly increased in our country, if not arrested, will ere long effect a deplorable change in the character of our countrymen. This basest of passions could not exhibit itself in a way more destructive to republican principles, than by exerting an influence on the course of education adopted by our youth.”
This impatience of labor, this reluctance to pursue the honorable and toilsome way for the acquisition of wealth, manifests itself in a great variety of forms. It has occasioned a rush of young men from the country to the large towns and cities, many of whom look with contempt upon what they consider the menial and ill-requited tasks of the husbandman; imagining that, as merchants or importers, they shall rapidly rise to the high places of wealth and consideration. Hence, in the reverses or stagnation of business, they are thrown out of employment, and are compelled to resort to almost any occupation, provided it is in a city, for their habits and tastes now unfitted to the dull and prosaic vocation of the tiller of the soil. Hence, also, we may account, in part, for the disgraceful eagerness which thousands manifest to obtain a public office, saying like some of former times, “Thrust me into one of the offices, that I may obtain a morsel of bread;” preferring to live in a sort of precarious vassalage, rather than to go to work, like independent men, and earn, by hard labor, the means of subsistence.
Hence, also, the before unheard-of speculations, the stupendous frauds, forgeries, embezzlement of public funds, ruin of character, which are so common now as to cease to create any surprise. This vice has infested all classes of society. It has even crept into the sacred profession, and men have been found who could preach against the love of money on the Sabbath, and during the whole of the following week speculate in western lands.
It is obvious, that something was necessary to stop this insinuating and fatal vice. It was fast corrupting the vitals of our prosperity, disgracing our character and institutions in the view of the civilized nations of Europe, some of whom are not unwilling now to brand us a community of swindlers and knaves. If the death of General Harrison, coupled with the fact, that both his example and remonstrances were uniformly and decidedly in opposition to the vice in question, should be the means, in any degree, of turning the minds of men to it, with a view to its utter abandonment, then that death, so much lamented, will not have been in vain. It may have been one of the principal reasons of the frown of Heaven. In this matter, we have gone in defiance of the plainest precepts of the Bible. We have run counter to the laws impressed on our own nature, and to the whole tenor of human experience.
IV. One use of this national bereavement maybe to teach us to estimate more adequately the value of our free institutions.
During the last twelve months, these institutions have passed through pretty severe ordeals. It has been proved again, that there is in them some fitness to our character and wants, some adaptation to the genius of the people. It has been too common to represent them as arbitrary and conventional, as something to which the people must inure themselves with long and severe discipline. They are often likened to a reed shaken by the wind, to a rope of sand, to a sheet of perishing parchment, or to the feeblest and frailest objects in nature. It seems to be imagined, that the great Author of our freedom is honored when we speak disparagingly, or contemptuously, of our political institutions, as though he could protect us just as well in some other way, by a monarchical establishment, for instance, or a paternal despotism, between which and the feelings of the people, there is no possible correspondence. It is often said, that our frame of government is no defense against exasperated passion. It is a mere paper bulwark, which a breath may throw down. But is it not thus with any of the works of man? Would not the boasted British constitution be like tow in the fire in some conceivable exigency? And yet that instrument is fitted to the spirit and genius of the British people. It has weathered the storms of more than a dozen centuries. So with our Constitution. It has had somewhat violent handling for more than fifty years, and yet it is substantially unimpaired. It may be battered by some daring innovator, but it has a self-recovering energy. It may be infringed upon by some State or local partisanship, but it is so nicely balanced, so perfectly adjusted, that the attack will call forth a powerful defense from some opposite quarter of the Union; and where one hand of violence is raised for its overthrow, a thousand hands will rally for its rescue. God is to be honored, we conceive, not by mournful ditties on the worthlessness of these civil privileges, but by praising Him, that they are as good as they are, and that He presided in those illustrious councils which gave birth to them. His wisdom was most conspicuously manifest. His spirit of conciliation, and of comprehensive benevolence was breathed into the hearts of the venerable fathers of our republic. One is struck in reading the journals of their secret deliberations, with their repeatedly-expressed consciousness of the solemnity of their work; that the well-being of a “continent,” to use their favorite term, was suspended on the result of their deliberations.[iv]
It has been confidently predicted, over and over again, by the wise and by the unwise, that our frame of government would not endure this or the other sharp trial. Men trembled for the ark when General Washington’s steadying hands were withdrawn from it. The gulf of ruin was yawning before us in the period of the embargo, and of the Berlin and Milan decrees. Many men gave up all for lost when the war of 1812 burst upon us. The financial embarrassments, which succeeded, would ruin forever, it was thought, our public credit. The horrors of civil strife would inevitably follow the discussion of the Missouri question, whichever way it should be decided. Again, when one of the twenty-six planets showed some tokens of rushing out of its orbit, the whole system, it was supposed, would be thrown into disastrous confusion. But the sun still shines in the centre, and the goodly company of stars hold on their luminous road. The elections of the last year were full of inauspicious omens. The immense meetings of the people would be a fatal precedent. The voice of reason would be drowned in the uproar of a multitude. But the constitution and the country came out of the conflict without any serious defacement. It was certainly a sublime spectacle to see two or three millions of men meet together, with strong political preferences, and elect peaceably, without the loss of a single human life, and without anything which could be termed a riot, a fellow-citizen to preside over them, whom most of them had never seen, and who resided hundreds or thousands of miles from them; and then, in the course of a few days, to behold all parties quietly acquiesce in the will of the majority. It shows, that, with all our degeneracy, there is some self-control among us, some true love of country. It demonstrates that our Constitution is not that miserable parchment, which some men would call it. It proves that our fathers’ God has not wholly deserted the people whom he once blessed with his presence.
To one test, however, our institutions had never been subjected. There was one fire into which their metal had never been thrown. No President had ever died in office. No one, for any reason, had ever vacated his seat. A provision of the Constitution is now, for the first time, practically applied. For fifty years the vice-president, as such, as a cipher in our system. A slumbering article of the immortal instrument awakes into life. We have a President, not by the choice of even a minority of the people. He assumes his office, by the immediate dispensation of Almighty God. There is not, however, the slightest jarring in the system. When Alexander of Russia died—the only one of the monarchs of Europe who was styled an autocrat—there were serious disturbances. His legitimate successor soon abdicated his office, and the present emperor succeeded, not without hazard of the most fearful insurrections. But in our country, which is full of the fiery elements of freedom, there has been a succession to the chief magistracy, without the slightest desire or whisper of those changes, which sometimes perplex hereditary monarchs. This noiseless and admirable working of our system must, we should suppose, exert some influence in Europe in favor of republican and representative governments. We are aware, that the people of Europe do not like to take lessons of us. They are much more apt to chronicle our misdemeanors, than to study patiently our invaluable civil polity. Still, our country is, in this respect, like a city set on a hill. The eagerness with which our faults are scanned shows that our example, be it good or bad, is felt among the old despotisms of Europe. Every great and successful struggle which we pass through is welcomed by all the friends of human improvement from the cliffs of Norway to the rock of Gibraltar. Several of the Northern and central governments of Europe are gradually extending to their people the benefits of representative forms. Whether this improvement shall advance any further depends essentially upon us. Dishonesty, want of integrity, misgovernment here, will certainly put an end to the generous aspirations which are breathed forth there. We cannot but believe, that the severe tests to which our civil institutions are subjected, from time to time, in the Providence of God, are intended to demonstrate the superiority of our system, for the benefit of other nations.
We are aware, that the common doctrine is, that one form of government is as good as another. What is best for us could not be administered in Austria. Some tribes of men are born to be the tools of a despot. All these fond and ardent expressions about freedom and popular governments are but idle prating. The Cossacks and the Tartars must be taught, as the men of Succoth were, with the thorns and briers of the wilderness. But we suppose that the Russian emperor is not always to rule over a nation of rein-deer or of wolves. A despotic government is as good as any other, provided the people do not know the difference between it and any other. But the moment you enlighten them, you infuse a doubt into their minds whether an irresponsible monarchy is the best form of human government. And just according to the degree in which you enlighten them, to that degree you make a popular government indispensable for them. The reason why Nicholas is an autocrat is, that his subjects are boors. England and France are becoming more enlightened every year, and they are approximating, indisputably, to the American theory. Therefore it is, that our example is of immeasurable importance. Therefore it may be that God afflicts us, that he may benefit our brethren over the waters.
It is, however, objected, that our form of government, by its leveling tendencies, annihilates all that wholesome reverence which every people should manifest towards their rulers. This feeling sickens and dies except under the sun-light of a monarchy. We deny the position altogether. The observance of this day is a refutation of it, borne upwards by voices like the sound of many waters, from the Southern Gulf to the Lake of the Woods. Yes, the simple observance of this day is a tribute of mingled love and reverence from a people towards a ruler, sublime than was ever chanted in royal cathedral, or listened to in the precincts of courts. It was not ordered, it was recommended; it is not a hard service; it is a spontaneous outflow. And it is not a solitary instance. What sovereign in Europe was ever honored as Washington is now, and as he will be till the republic which he founded shall cease to exist?
V. One lesson, we might say, the great lesson, to be learned from this bereavement is, the necessity of a profounder conviction that God is the Governor of the world.
If there be one truth on the pages of the Bible more luminous than any other it is this, that Jehovah is King of kings. The Jewish theocracy is sometimes spoken of as if God’s Providence were confined to it, and as if he permitted the contemporary nations to live as they listed. Nothing, however, is plainer, than that they felt his punishing arm, or heard his cheering voice, according as they sinned or feared before Him; and this too when their conduct had no special reference to his chosen race. The cry of the oppressed in Nineveh and in Jerusalem alike clothed Him in vengeance. Repentance was equally opportune with both. Monuments of his consuming wrath met you in the Holy City and in the fastnesses of Edom. They jut out from under the second temple, they rise up from the sands of Egypt, and from the banks of the Euphrates.
All history is full of like examples. Evidences of God’s supremacy, and of his anger with nations, are chronicled on every shore. The lightning has scorched them into the eternal rocks on every part of the globe.
Fifty years ago, men wondered at the events which were transpiring in the French capital. There appeared to be no cause adequate to the tragedy. France was suffering a punishment, not only greater than she could bear, but greater than she deserved. Demons could hardly merit a heavier infliction. But men forgot the age of Louis XIV. And the night when the great bell of St. Bartholomew tolled.
So when the storm of war swept over the central and northern kingdoms of the continent, near the beginning of the present century. Why were the old capitals of Europe sacked? Why were the hoary thrones of despotism like the chaff before the wind? Why were the Francises and the Gredericks compelled to flee, like the veriest thieves, under cover of midnight? Because God was remembering Poland. When the sun went down upon Austerlitz and Jena, thoughtful men recurred to Warsaw and Kosciusko. “Righteous are thy judgments,” might have been written on “the ocean of flame” which rose up from the old palace of the czars. Spain too—she suffers a long time, for it will take a long time to expiate the innocent blood which her viceroys poured out on this continent, for ages, like water.
May we not learn a lesson from the honest page of history? Can we safely neglect the warning voice? Has not God a controversy with us? May not our long-continued commercial embarrassments, which have brought ruin into so many families, and disgrace upon our national character, have a deeper cause than our worldly-wise men are apt to imagine? May they not be foretokens of more bitter afflictions to come? Behind this visible scene of things, there is One, “who shutteth up a man and there can be no opening;” “who leadeth away” the most sagacious financiers, the most sharp-sighted statesmen, “spoiled;” “who discovereth deep things out of darkness, and bringeth out to light the shadow of death;” “who enlargeth the nations, and straiteneth them again.” In the sad event which we this day mourn, is there not some other agency than the course of nature, or the ministry of a disease?
Lay not, therefore, upon thy soul any atheistic unction by practically denying the Providence of God, by referring to accident or to nature what was meant as a pointed admonition. Beware, that thou do not hide thyself under any indistinct generalities. If God speaks to the whole people, he speaks to thee. Interrogate thyself, personally, under this national bereavement. Break off the sins which make a part of the vast national aggregate. Beware, lest thou provoke God to withdraw in anger from thy country. See to it, that the cry of the oppressed does not arm Him in wrath. Pollute not his holy Sabbath. Profane no more his awful name, for he is a jealous God. Take heed, lest thy thoughtless ingratitude, thy abuse of favors and of afflictions alike, prove the ruin of the fairest inheritance which the sun in his circuit beholds; lest the friends of freedom and the rights of conscience in other lands should curse thee as miserably faithless to the most precious hopes ever entrusted to man.
[i] Rev. William Bradford Homer.
[ii] See the details in the English newspapers, Nov. 1817.
[iii] Se the Sermon of Rev. Thomas Brainerd of Philadelphia.
[iv] See the Journals of Mr. Madison.