The Divine right of Government:
On the Day of
The Annual State Fast,
April 10, 1851,
By WM. P Lunt,
Minister of the First Congregational Church in Quincy.
WM. Crosby and H. P. Nichols,
111, Washington Street,
To William P. Lunt, D. D. Quincy,
Quincy, April 12, 1851.
Dear Sir, –In the belief, that, in times like the present, the pulpit may find a useful auxiliary in the press, the undersigned, with many others who had the good fortune to hear your Fast-day Sermon on the 10th inst. are desirous of obtaining a copy for publication. Your kind compliance with their and our wishes in this regard will much oblige, dear Sir,
Yours very truly,
S. G. Williams
George W. Beale
Gideon F. Thayer
To Messrs. S. G. Williams, Josiah Brigham, and others.
Quincy, April 17, 1851.
Gentlemen, – I place at your disposal a copy of the Discourse which you have done me the honor to ask for publication, and am, with great regard,
Your friend and servant,
Wm P. Lunt.
Titus III. 1, 2.
“Put them in mind to be subject to principalities and powers, to obey magistrates, to speak evil of no man, to be no brawlers.”
It appears, then, from the text, that there is such a virtue, in the judgment of a Christian apostle, as allegiance to human authority, and that obedience to magistrates is to be found on the catalogue of Christian duties. It may be well for us to keep this fact in mind; because, in the estimation of many at present day, the only test of virtue seems to lie in resistance to the execution of laws, and in disrespect to rulers.
It also appears from the text, that one of the vices against which Christian morality laid an injunction in apostolic times was the vice of an evil-speaker or a brawler. This, too, it may be well for us to bear in mind; because this part of morality seems to be obsolete in the consideration of many in our generation. A man is in no esteem now, if he be not a brawler and an evil-speaker. The Apostle Peter, in one of his epistles, speaks of a class of “presumptuous, self-willed” persons, who “are not afraid to speak evil of dignities.” If the Apostle Peter were alive now he would find a class who are not only “not afraid,” but who esteem it quite commendable, to “speak evil of dignities.” They vilify their magistrates from principle. They appear to regard it as their peculiar mission, and the service which they are sent into the world to perform, to malign the motives and characters of those opposed to them. They set about the service quite deliberately. They have furnished a good deal, by their ingenuity and invention, to enlarge the vocabulary of abuse. Probably the people’s English was never so rich in terms and phrases suited to the purpose of defamation, as, through the contributions of such persons, it has grown to be. What will become of the next generation, if they use faithfully all these weapons of tongue-welfare, which are laid up in the armories of the fashionable philanthropy, and add to them others of their own forging, perhaps of keener edge than any they inherit, it is impossible for our foresight to determine. Certainly there is not a prospect of the earth being possessed by a very amiable society.
By they are doing a good work, they say; they are working for God and for humanity; and this will excuse, they imagine, any methods and instruments that may be employed. Doubtless they are so sincere, and so intent upon the object at which they are aiming, that they are not observant of the consequences of the course they pursue. And they will not, therefore, take it ill, if one who is standing by a cool spectator should undertake to suggest, by way of caution, that their mode of reforming the world may possibly resemble a case which is recorded in the Bible. The unclean spirit against which they are striving may be cast out; but the mischief is, that seven other spirits, more wicked than the one ejected, enter in, and the last state is worse than the first. If we must purchase exemption from one undeniable social evil by the introduction into the system of seven more virulent diseases, surely the world will not be very much of a gainer by the use of such remedies.
Another suggestion may not be regarded inapplicable to those persons who are so fond of “speaking evil of dignities.” The Apostle Jude, in his brief epistle, relates an interesting and instructive incident. He tells us that “Michael the archangel, when contending with the devil” (it was a kind of habeas corpus process served upon the evil one for the body of Moses), “durst not bring against even him a railing accusation, but said, The Lord rebuke thee.” If this was treating the devil altogether too well, there is very little danger of the Archangel Michael’s example being followed in our day.
It may therefore be deemed not inappropriate to the present occasion, called together as we are by the recommendation of the public authorities, “to consider, in the spirit of Christianity, the private and public sins of this community;” to give our attention specially to the two which are named in the text, –Resistance to the Laws, and Evil-Speaking.
With regard to the first of these sins, – resistance to the laws, – I am aware that there are two classes of persons who will be likely to object to the remarks now to be offered. First, there is the class containing those who will be ready to say that there is no disposition in our community to resist the laws; that, however much opposed our people may be to a particular enactment, they have no wish and entertain no purpose to act in any other than a regular way, through discussion and the ballot-box. It is to be hoped that this course will be pursued. Our people generally have been marked by a love of order, as much as by an inbred, if not an inborn, hatred of oppressions. But we are all composed of inflammable materials; and it is not unlikely that those who kindle into a flame most slowly may burn with the greater fierceness, and keep their unsafe heat for the longer time. When, too, we hear it said, as it has been said among us not once, but repeatedly, and as deliberately as the persons uttering it were capable of, that, Constitution or no Constitution, a certain law shall not be executed; when we hear the most violent language used by those who are looked to as guides, and witness the natural influence of such language upon the temper of persons who are ignorant and impressible; when the pulpit is denounced, if it says a word to support of the Government and Union under which we live; when the coarsest abuse is poured out upon the Judiciary, because they dare to refuse to be made use of for party purposes; – when these things are said and done, surely the coolest may see reason to be alarmed, and the conviction must be forced upon them, that there are some unmistakable symptoms in the midst of our community, of resistance to the laws. The danger is not imaginary, as some are disposed to allege. Nor is it wholly a pretext thrown before the public by designing politicians, who wish to divert attention by sounding a false alarm. There is a factious element in our community; and it will be found far more material to put down, at all hazards, this turbulent spirit, than to oppose any law, however objectionable.
But, besides those who maintain that there is no ground for fearing resistance to the laws, there is among us another class composed of persons who make resistance, passive if not active, to the laws a matter of principle. They assume the right to bring any act of statue of the government to the bar of their individual judgment or conscience; and, if the statute in question does not square with their private notions of justice, they claim the liberty to set it aside. This doctrine has been broached among us; and it finds able, eloquent, earnest advocates. The doctrine in question, it will be observed, goes far beyond any nullification that has been heretofore proposed. The dogma set up in this new school is, – that, without waiting for State action, without the necessity of calling any convention, every individual is competent to consider and pronounce the final judgment upon the laws of the land; that the rule hitherto adopted in our communities – that the majority shall govern – is a false rule; that King Majority is as great a tyrant as King George; that every individual, when he enters into society, promises to obey the Constitution of such society, as he understand that Constitution, not as others interpret it for him; that he is bound to submit only to such laws as he approves, and finds a warrant for in his own judgment. The practical operation of such a dogma is, – that, if any statute conflicts with the conscience of an individual, he will not entertain the question whether his conscience is right, but assume that it is infallible; nor will he entertain the question whether it would be practicable to submit every public act to twenty million consciences, with all the variety that may be found ranging from the inmates of the State’s prison up to the most enlightened and righteous in the land; but that, if the statute in question is pronounced wrong in the court of his private mind, he will set it aside; he will trample upon it; he will annul it. When Louis Fourteenth of France abruptly interrupted some one of his courtiers, who presumed to mention in his hearing the State, – “The State! I am the State,” – it has been thought to indicate the highest point of arrogance that a human being could reach. The pretensions of absolute power, it has been supposed, would be carried no farther. The doctrine of the tyrant is, “My will is law. My conscience is the public judgment. There shall be no appeal from my edicts.”
But is it any less arrogant and assuming for a private individual to say, – “Constitution! I am the Constitution. There shall be no appeal from my conscience to any tribunal or instrument on earth.” Who would have looked, a few years since, to find the most extravagant and high-toned doctrine of absolutism adopted by individuals nominally republicans?
Now, against every doctrine of this kind, against every species of nullification, – that which would bring State laws into conflict with the laws of the nation, as well as that more extreme but equally ungrounded species which would set the decisions of the mind of an individual, call them decrees of conscience or assertions of will, in opposition to the deliberate expression of the public mind, – against every form of nullification, both reason and religion alike protest. Man, in his private relations, may and should be governed by his own sense of right. And if all the separate members that compose society were as scrupulous to apply this inward light, each one to his private walk and personal character, as some are officious in thrusting their peculiar judgments upon the community, it would be well for the world.
But when men come to act together, a multitude of consciences and wills, there must of necessity be some umpire to settle unavoidable differences. There must of necessity be some limits beyond which the freedom of the individual shall be restrained. There must be some standard, some central authority, which shall be sovereign, and beyond which, for the purposes of society, there shall be no appeal. For the purposes of society, I say, this limitation of the individual’s prerogative is indispensable. Thought may still be free; but, when thought expresses itself in overt acts, those acts must be restrained within some fixed and definite bounds. This seems to be unavoidable, if we would maintain any form of human association.
The simple questions, then, for men to ask are, Who shall be the umpire? What power shall fix the limits beyond which the individual shall not go? And what shall be the standard from which no appeal is allowable? These questions, it is well known, have been variously answered in different countries; and, according to the answer given to them, the forms of society, and the political institutions under which men have lived, have varied. In one country the settled polity is, that a single individual, as the autocrat of Russia for example, or the Pope of Rome, called infallible, shall be umpire. He shall arbitrarily, and according to his good pleasure, fix the limits beyond which the wills of his subjects shall not transgress. His mind shall be the standard from which there shall be no appeal. In another country, the aristocracy – those who are accounted the wisest and best in the land – are the ultimate judges of what is right and binding.
Now, we reject both of these standards. We deny the divine right of kings; we deny the infallibility of the Pope. But yet we allow, as all reflecting men must allow, the necessity of some ultimate standard, if we would avoid anarchy, and uphold the order and stability of a social system. How is this problem met and solved in the theory and practice of our free forms of government? We say, – and this is the fundamental principle of our systems, – that the will of the majority, deliberately expressed, and embodied according to wholesome, prescribed forms agreed upon beforehand, and described in written Constitutions, – that this will of the majority shall rule, and that nothing shall set it aside but itself revising and reversing its own acts. This fundamental principle of our institutions has always heretofore been esteemed the best, the safest, the most reasonable rule for determining public questions; and, if we look at the working of this principle, the influence it has actually exerted, the results which have flowed from it, the prosperity and happiness, public and private, to which it has contributed, we must be convinced that it has proved itself by its fruits and beneficent principle. The amazing spectacle which our favored land presents, stretching as it does from ocean to ocean, is a proof that may be seen of all men to the same effect.
It is not maintained by any, that the principle is a perfect one, either theoretically or practically. Doubtless, the majority in any community are liable to error. They may, and sometimes do, commit mischievous mistakes. They may be driven by passion or by interest; or, by the dissemination of false doctrine, may be led deliberately into unjust and pernicious measures. But with all this liability to error, inseparable from the will of the majority, should we be ready to exchange the popular rule, judging of its character by its influence on the whole, for the principle upon which absolute governments are founded? If the action of the majority is wrong in any instance, being grounded in false doctrines whether moral in any instance, being grounded in false doctrines whether moral or political, the only remedy open to us, short of revolution, is to set about rectifying public opinion, so that at some future period the wrong measures may be repealed. If the expressions of the popular will were to be regarded as irreversible decrees which it were unlawful to consider and discuss, in that case there would be some valid reason for complaint. It is true, that, when public opinion gets bent and fixed in any wrong direction, it is no easy matter, and it is not the work of a day or of a year, perhaps not in some cases the work of a single generation or century, to rectify the errors that have been committed, and to put society upon the right track. But is this any reason why a being so short-lived as the individual man is upon the earth should fret and work himself into a passion, and distrust Providence, and oppose his will to the public will, and, if he cannot have his own way, impede, as much as in him lies, the working of social institutions?
Government, therefore, as we may easily convince ourselves, grows out of the necessity of human affairs, although its form may and does vary in different countries and periods of time. But whatever form it may assume, and however much it may be improved, it will always be an imperfect instrument, involving evils of greater or less magnitude, and for ever failing to correct social inequalities, and to bring the condition of mankind upon the earth to that point of absolute justice and right of which the human mind can form an ideal conception. Nor is this any good reason why men should give over all effort to better their condition, and to bring the actual state of society more nearly up to the level of their ideal standard. Let such efforts be unceasingly made by the wise and benevolent of successive generations. But, in laboring for a good which they have not attained, let them not put to hazard the manifold blessings they already possess. With all its imperfections, and failing, as it does, to accomplish much that the heart of man earnestly desires to attain, there is yet a sacredness attached to government which is a wholesome sentiment; and although there are cases when rulers may be rightfully resisted, and when revolution is a duty, yet these are extreme cases, and require for their justification the most imperative necessity.
The sentiment of the sacredness of government is expressed and enforced in the Scriptures very emphatically. The words of the Apostle Paul, for example, are often quoted to enforce this sentiment, “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God.” Although these words have too often been misinterpreted, as if they were designed to uphold and justify absolute governments, and to inculcate passive, unresisting submission to laws, however unjust and oppressive; one sentiment they do at least convey, namely, the divine right of government, the majesty and sacredness of public law, and the consequent venerableness of those who are invested and authority. He who allows himself to speak evil of magistrates dishonors himself as one of the people from whom those magistrates derive their delegated power. And therefore it is a just and well-grounded maxim for every good citizen, that a magistrate, when he has been fairly chosen to office, whether we ourselves helped to elect him or not, is entitled to respect until he may forfeit it by some unworthy act.
The Divine Right of Government! This is eminently a Christian sentiment. The divine right of kings is a fiction formerly entertained very widely by the human mind, but which has vanished before the clear light of intelligence and Christian truth. The divine right of any particular form of government, in preference to any other form, will not bear the test of examination. But the divine right of government as opposed to anarchy; the necessity, established by God himself in our constitution and condition, for some restraint upon the wills of individuals; the essential sanctity of law, – this is a sentiment which no changes to which the human mind is subject can impair. Reason and Scripture, with united voice, say to men: “Choose you, as wisdom may dictate, under what form of civil society you will live. Determine, as you like best, where the sovereign authority shall be lodged from which there shall be no appeal. If you are oppressed by intolerable burthens and unjust exactions, rise up against the tyranny, and shake it off; do this calmly, in the fear of God, and not without a prudent calculation of the hazards. However, do the work, hazardous as it is, if you are convinced that it must be done, and strive to place yourselves in a position more favorable for your happiness.” But Reason and Scripture add this caution to the liberty which is granted to men: “Remember, you cannot choose whether you will live under some government or none at all. This is not – this never has been– this never will be the alternative offered to mankind.” Nor, because a government fails to come up to the ideal standard we form in our minds, and to accomplish all the unmixed good we could desire, are we at liberty to disallow its claims, and to fall back upon our own individual judgments. It is with government as with all earthly blessings, even the best: we take it, and we take them all, “for better or for worse,” “until death do us part.” Authority supreme, from which there shall be allowed not appeal, must reside somewhere. God, who desires the highest good of communities, has instituted government for the promotion of that good. Government, therefore, is not only to be submitted to as a necessity, nor merely to be look upon as an institution quite useful to society, but the Christian citizen will look upon it as a shield which Heaven has interposed between what he most loves and what he most dreads; he will regard it with veneration, as type, however imperfect, of that divine sovereignty which rules the universe; as a branch of that law whose “seat is the bosom of God.” This is the doctrine in regard to governments, magistrates, and laws which Christianity plainly inculcates.
And assuredly there never was a time when our community stood more in need than now of the influence of this great conservative sentiment of the divine right of government, and of such precepts as those contained in the text, to moderate the excitement which exists against an obnoxious law. To examine with the utmost freedom, consistent with decorum, all public measures, is a clear and indisputable right, which none of us would willingly surrender. To discuss the laws of the land, to point out their defects, to argue their inconsistency with the Constitution, to criticize their details, or to object to the principle they involve; to point out, by fair reasoning, their opposition to natural justice and to the duties of religion; to urge their repeal on the ground either of their transcending the powers lodged with the lawmaking branch, or if clearly within the scope of their authority, yet as unadvisable exercises of that authority, under a complex system which depends very much for its harmonious working on compromise, concession, and forbearance, – all this is allowable surely. But while this process for rectifying public sentiment, necessarily slow, requiring long periods of time it may be, and calling for much patience before the object is gained, – while this process is going on, the obnoxious law must be executed, or there must be a revolution. And amidst the complicated affairs of this world, where nothing corresponds to the principles which we are apt to regard best, we are forced to decide between submitting to a wrong for which we are not responsible, or hazarding the existence of those social safeguards upon which all our most valued blessings rest.
It should be borne in mind, too, that there are consciences on both sides of such a question as now divides our community; that there are convictions equally strong, equally enlightened, equally pure and honest, on both sides. It is neither justifiable nor sufferable for a person to assume, that the motives of himself and of those who agree with him are right, and that all opposed to him are acting under the influence of interested, immoral, and unchristian motives. The only fair view of the case is, that there is a conflict of consciences equally honest. And, in such an exigency, what can be done, what do the necessary imperfections of the social state allow to be done, except to submit to the umpire which we have voluntarily and deliberately adopted, – the will of the majority; to defer to the best judgment touching the matter in dispute, which the body of the community is capable of arriving at for the present, and to trust to the enlightening influence of causes now at work, to produce a better state of public opinion hereafter?
This conflict of consciences among men that think at all, and that are able to exercise the faculty of judgment on moral subjects, demonstrates the imperative necessity of some government, that is, of some established umpire, whose decisions, if not always wise and right, if even they may at times be unjust, are far better fore society than infinite wranglings among those who will consent neither to give over their disputes, nor to refer their differences to any earthly tribunal. What society needs, in order that the great interests of man which are aimed at in social institutions should be promoted, is some chance for repose. It were but poor amends for the evil of never-ending, bitter strife, to say that the combatants are conscientious. If they are conscientious in quarrelling, there ought to be some power somewhere in the world that shall be conscientious in putting a stop to their quarrels. We are bound to consider what must be the consequence, if, in every collision that occurs between private conscience and public law, we apply the doctrine that we may set aside a portion of that public law. Where can this doctrine end but in the sovereignty of every individual? – a state of things very much resembling that which is described in the Book of Judges, – “In those days there was no king in Israel; but every man did that which was right in his own eyes.” And as the wise man tells us, “Every way of a man is right in his own eyes.” There is not an article in any Constitution that now exists upon earth, or in any Constitution that could be devised by the wit or wisdom of man, to which the honest or the contentious conscience of some individual might not be found to object. If a person should feel impelled by his conscience to aim a murderous weapon at my life, or to appropriate to himself a portion of my substance, or to vilify and slander my good name (and all these things have been done very conscientiously), I should pray to be protected from that man’s conscience.
What other conclusion, then, can wise, practical men come to, but to allow the laws of the land, which have been enacted in due form, to have their course and be executed, until we can so far change the current of public opinion that what is objectionable in those laws may be corrected?
Among the great, wise, and good men who met in convention more than sixty years since to frame the Constitution of the United States, under which we have lived and prospered thus far, was Benjamin Franklin, known all over the world for his genius, his virtue, and his usefulness. At that time, he was eighty-one years old. He had learned all that he was likely to learn upon earth. He had all but finished his mortal career, and therefore was not open to the charge, from the most captious, of being influenced by interested motives. In a speech that he made at the close of the convention, he said, among other good remarks; “I consent to this Constitution, because I expect not better, and because I am not sure that it is not the best. The opinions I have had of its errors I sacrifice to the public good. On the whole, sir, I cannot help expressing a wish, that every member of the convention who may still have objections to it would with me on this occasion doubt a little of his own infallibility, and, to make manifest our unanimity, put his name to this instrument.” Such was the language of Franklin on a memorable occasion. I would seek to strengthen the good sense and practical wisdom of his words, not by any language of my own, but by the inspired world of Holy Writ: “Put them in mind to be subject to principalities and powers, to obey magistrates, to speak evil of no man, to be no brawlers.” This is the charge given to a Christian teacher and minister in early times; and the same charge is given, as I understand the matter, to the servants of the altar now. If the time shall ever come when it shall be deemed the legitimate office of the Christian pulpit to preach revolutionary doctrines, and to instigate the minds of men to resistance to the laws of the land, it will be time, too, for the people to consider whether the pulpit is worth upholding. God grant that that time may never come!