A Sermon Delivered before His Excellency Levi Lincoln, Governor, His Honor Thomas L. Winthrop, Lieutenant Governor, the Hon. Council, the Senate, and House of Representatives of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, on the day of General Election, May 28, 1828 by Walker, James
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Transcriber's Note: Minor typographical errors have been corrected without note. Irregularities and inconsistencies in the text have been retained as printed. Words printed in italics are noted with underscores: _italics_.
A SERMON DELIVERED BEFORE
HIS EXCELLENCY LEVI LINCOLN GOVERNOR,
HIS HONOR THOMAS L. WINTHROP LIEUTENANT GOVERNOR,
THE HON. COUNCIL, THE SENATE, AND HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES
OF THE COMMONWEALTH OF MASSACHUSETTS, ON THE DAY OF
GENERAL ELECTION, MAY 28, 1828.
BY JAMES WALKER.
Boston: DUTTON AND WENTWORTH, PRINTERS TO THE STATE.
Commonwealth of Massachusetts
IN HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES, May 28, 1828.
_Ordered_, That Messrs. THAYER of Braintree, GOODWIN of Charlestown, and FULLER of Boston, be a Committee to wait on the REV. JAMES WALKER, and present to him the thanks of this House, for the Discourse delivered by him this day, before the Executive and the Legislature, and to request a copy of the same for the press.
P. W. WARREN, _Clerk_
EXODUS, XVIII, 21.
Thou shalt provide out of all the people able men, such as fear God, men of truth, hating covetousness; and place such over them to be rulers.
The public business, the excitements of the day, and all the circumstances in which we are assembled, make it imperative on me to be brief, and almost entirely occasional. You have not come here prepared to sit down and listen to a learned discussion, fearfully long, and fearfully dull; and I do not mean you shall be troubled with one. I only ask your attention, while I throw out a few hints on the responsibility the people of this country are under, to take care that the men whom they raise to authority, are honest and capable.
In those countries where the accident of birth determines who shall rule over them, the people are not responsible for the character and capacities of the men in power. It is true, a corrupt administration is a national calamity in all governments; but in ours it is at the same time a national calamity, and a national sin. From the freedom and frequency of our elections, our public men exist but in the breath of the people; and if power is put into unworthy hands, or suffered to remain there an hour after it is abused, the people are responsible. It is a fair inference that the whole people have degenerated. It would not be fair to judge the morals of the people of England, or of France, by the morals of the court; but it is perfectly fair to judge the morals of the people of this country by the morals of the men, whom they elevate by their voluntary suffrages to represent the majesty of the nation. It is of unspeakable importance, that we should feel that we are implicated, in a manner in which no other people are in the character of our rulers and the duties resulting from this peculiarity of our constitution are weighty and solemn.
Consider too, the effect, which the political observation of a bad man will have on public opinion, and through public opinion on the public morals. We preach about conscience, the dignity of human nature, the power of religion and divine influences; and all this is well. Experience teaches us, however, that all this is nothing, or next to nothing, unless countenanced and sustained by public opinion; which fixes the practical standard in every place, and few rise much above it, or sink much below it. The history of legislation on such subjects as dueling, lotteries, and the Lord's day, shows us also, that laws, human laws, are an absolute nullity, are no better than so much blotted parchment, unless countenanced and sustained by public opinion. God forbid that I should speak of virtue as not having its foundation in human nature; still I cannot but think, that this is a subject on which we may be a little too refined, a little too enthusiastic, a little too eloquent for practical purposes. Generally and practically speaking, I believe that men are just as good, as they think public opinion requires; and no better. Let it be understood, therefore, that notorious vices will not lose a man the confidence of the people; let it be understood, that the vicious are not only tolerated, but trusted and honored, and the great practical restraint on the bad passions is compromised, and all others will be eluded, or defied.
A mischievous prejudice prevails, that a man's private character has but little to do with his public character. Undoubtedly a man may want some of the qualities necessary to a good father, or a good son, or a good neighbor, and yet make an excellent magistrate or judge. Even these defects however, though they may not operate directly, must operate indirectly to injure him in his public capacity; because, by lessening the regard felt for him as a man, they must do something, at least, to lessen the regard felt for him as a public officer. And this, in a government like ours, is no trifling consideration; where official dignity depends in so small a measure on the pomp and circumstance of office, but almost entirely on the personal qualities of the incumbent. Besides, the reasons why some defects in a man's private character do not unfit him for a public station is, that though criminal in themselves, they do not imply him to be, nor make him to be, absolutely unprincipled. A man may have a very bad temper, for example, and be addicted to many bad habits, without being absolutely unprincipled. Let a man become absolutely unprincipled as a private man; and I can see no reason for supposing, that he will not be equally so as a public man. Libertinism in private life may be consistent, perhaps, with a scrupulous observance of the rules of an artificial and conventional honour; but it is the grave of sentiment, and gradually induces that moral heartlessness and skepticism, which is fatal to the higher virtues, and not more so to religion and true friendship, than to a disinterested patriotism.
Besides, in well informed and well disposed communities, nothing is more common than to overrate the talents, and real efficiency of bad men. We see it every where; for even in a number of brothers, if there is one of them who gives himself up to vicious and profligate courses, he almost always passes for the genius of the family. We judge a man's power to do good by what we see of his power to do evil; not reflecting that the latter is a very vulgar accomplishment, which seldom implies even so much as the perversion of a great mind. There is the more occasion that topics like these should be pressed in a government like ours, as it is essentially popular, and on this account more likely to be carried away by qualities that are merely striking and popular, in contradistinction to such as are solid and useful. If there is any one mark admitted by all to be peculiarly indicative of real greatness of mind, it is originality; nor do we object to this criterion when properly applied. But it unfortunately happens, that unprincipled men, not having the least particle of real originality, may easily gain a reputation for in the popular mind merely by being, or affecting to be singular in their ways of thinking and acting. Let a man of nothing more than ordinary powers strike away from the common track, advance a few startling paradoxes, and defend them with as much plausibility as he can, and straightway he becomes, in the eyes of the million at least, a wonderful genius.
Such were not the men, who have raised this country to its present enviable place among the nations of the earth. There was not a wonderful genius among them all; but they were able men, and such as feared God, men of truth, hating covetousness. This point was secured in the first settlement of New England by the strict and puritanical principles, which our forefathers brought over with them from the parent country; and also by the idea they were continually holding up to one another of establishing here a Christian commonwealth. It is also true of the leaders of the Revolution, throughout the country, that they were remarkable alike for their public and private virtues, and owed their elevation, in most cases, to this circumstance, and I may add, their power and consequence afterwards. The war broke out, and a time of difficulty and sacrifice began; the pecuniary resources of the nation were drained to the last drop, continual levies of men to recruit the army operated all over the country with the effect of a military conscription, and meanwhile the enthusiasm which marked the opening scenes of the struggle, was rapidly subsiding. In this state of things, if there had been the slightest pretext for believing that the leading men were false to their pledges, had but the shadow of a suspicion passed across the singleness and purity of their intentions, the new and ill constituted government would not have lived for an hour. We often speak of the virtue and intelligence of the people, as the great security of our liberties; and in quiet times, and under a well established government, they are perhaps a great and sufficient security. But in the shock of a great political revolution the legal restraints and natural landmarks of authority are broken up; and the mind is pained at the bare contemplation of the possible consequences, if at this crisis in our country's destiny the supreme command had devolved on a Cromwell, instead of a Washington.
It is difficult to do justice to that assemblage of qualities in the character of this great man, which makes his name almost equally dear to the lovers of liberty in both hemispheres; and the reason is, that no one of these qualities is very striking, considered apart from the rest. His writings do not show him to have been a very original or profound thinker; military men do not speak of his campaigns as evincing the highest order of talents in this service; and he is understood as a statesman to have availed himself of the aid of the distinguished men he called about him. His fame does not rest on any one quality, but on a wonderful union and blending of qualities, in which there was none that detracted at all from the confidence and admiration the whole inspired. Those who think there can be no true greatness, where there is nothing dazzling, startling; those who are smitten with a foolish admiration of heroes, may pronounce his character tame and commonplace; but much of this appearance originates in what really constitutes the chief glory of his character; its exact proportions, its perfect harmony. Above all, there was his sacred regard to principle, and the solemn resolve with which he devoted himself to the service of his country, that gave a moral finish and sublimity to his character, and makes us speak of him, as we speak of religion. Yes, we can hardly stand in the presence of that noble form in the almost speaking marble, without something of the feeling with which the pagans were impressed, when they stood before the statues of their gods. You have done well to place it where it is; for there is something in that look, which a public man can hardly pass without being reminded of his obligation to go, and do likewise.
One of the worst tendencies of our political dissensions is, that they make us indifferent or blind to the personal qualifications of the candidates for office. I am aware that parties are to be expected in a free country; and that they answer many useful and important ends, particularly by being a watch and check on one another, so as to prevent the party in power from abusing that power. I know, too, that where a party is founded on a real difference of opinion on important national questions, no one is at liberty to compromise this difference, except, perhaps, in great emergencies which can seldom occur, threatening the very existence of the state. Party, however, becomes faction, a mischievous and unprincipled faction, when the great national interests are forgotten, and the canvass at elections is made to turn on points which have nothing to do with the questions, Is he honest? Is he capable? There is no danger to this country so long as a free and unbiassed expression of public sentiment governs; but there is danger, and great danger, if every thing is to be done by party, and if the impulse of party is to be given by a few hollow and artful men. It is not to be denied that many men, who would not have attracted a moment's attention from any fair view of their natural or acquired abilities, have yet been drawn into the lists by party considerations solely, and elevated to high and responsible posts, merely that they might expose their incompetency, and disgrace the nation. Can it be that the people are deceived; that the virtue and intelligence of the people, of which we hear so much, are deceived? Do they not consider in such cases, do they not know, that they are the instruments, the mere tools of ambitious and intriguing demagogues; who are seeking, in this way, to avail themselves of the popular delusions and discontents, and turn them to selfish and sinister purposes?
The manner in which the characters of our public men are treated, is another practice likely to disgust the virtuous and high minded with the service; end induce them to withdraw altogether. It is necessary to our liberties, I admit, that a jealous and vigilant watch should be kept on the conduct of men in power. But it is not necessary, I am sure, that that mighty engine the press, on both sides, instead of endeavoring to enlighten the community by a fair and manly discussion of the great questions at issue, should teem with nothing but gross personalities, and vulgar and unfounded abuse. It certainly cannot be necessary, that this spirit should find its way into the grave and solemn debates of our legislative assemblies, and make a man's success there, depend on the possession of qualities, which ought rather to exclude him from all decent society. Consider the demoralising effect it must have on our own people, pouring this flood of wrath and bitterness through a community already too much excited. Consider, too, the influence it will have on the national character in the eyes of foreigners, who will always judge us by our public men, and our public men by these calumnies. Besides, what do political distinctions promise a man in this country, supposing him to be successful, but the feverish life of an expectant until the office is gained; and then, though it may be the highest office in the state, to hold it but a few years, and be thrown back into society a common man, broken, perhaps, in health and fortune. Is there any thing here to induce one to give up his good name, his private history, and the feelings of his family and connections, to be the sport and prey of hireling incendiaries?
Your Excellency, and the gentlemen associated with you in the government, will receive our respectful salutations. Entering, as you do this day, on a new political year, it is unnecessary for me, perhaps it would be accounted officiousness, to remind you of the expectations of your constituents. They point you to the example of your illustrious predecessors, to a Hancock, a Bowdoin, and the Adamses of other days; they refer you to the Constitution, that charter of our rights and liberties which must never be violated, or touched but with reverence; they appeal to your consciences, which are as the echo of the divine mind. They also put under your protection and patronage their literary, moral and religious institutions, with a solemn injunction that you should be faithful to this charge. Sad presage will it be of coming evil, should prosperity ever make the people of this country blind or indifferent to the sources, whence that prosperity has been derived.
It is a melancholy reflection, that we can have no certainty of the continuance of any earthly blessing. Governments, even the best governments often contain in them the seeds of decay and death. It is by no means impossible, that our own may ere long be numbered among the republics, that have been. Let us then learn to put our trust in Him by whom nations rise and fall; and as we have no abiding city here, anxiously look for one hereafter which hath foundations, whose builder and maker is God.