"Where the Spirit of the Lord is there is Liberty"
Second Corinthians 3:17
As it is a great happiness to a people when their civil constitution and laws are favorable to civil and religious liberty; so there is perhaps no part of the world more happy in this respect, than these United States, or that have been called by Divine Providence to the possession and enjoyment of such a degree of liberty as we have been.
If what has been offered under this first head should seem too long, abstruse, and speculative, I will endeavour to make some atonement by being shorter, plainer, and more practical in what remains.
Our second general point is, “That they who are called to liberty should be careful not to abuse it for an occasion to the flesh.” They should not run wild because they are free; or take encouragement to indulge themselves in a lawless and licentious temper and practice.
It is great evidence of the weakness and folly of men that they, in general, can no better bear that state of freedom to which they are called; and when they have such a price in their hands, they so seldom use it wisely and soberly, and to advantage. Their lusts and passions are ready to break out into wild excesses when they find themselves free from outward restraint. The apostle, well aware of the danger, has left this caution in the text, “use not liberty for an occasion to the flesh.” And St. Peter also speaks to the same effect; “As free, but not using your liberty for a cloak of maliciousness.” We are pleased with the thought of being free; but how often do we show that we have not a heart rightly to improve our privileges? When we get the helm into our own hands, what wild courses do we often steer? When we find ourselves at liberty to direct our steps, how prone are we to turn aside into crooked paths?
We cannot therefore be too much on our guard against these licentious abuses: for, besides our liableness thereto, it should be considered that they are highly criminal. When we make an ill use of liberty, we show ourselves most unworthy to have it, and deserve to have our talent taken from us. It is ungrateful to GOD, and injurious and uncharitable to men. It turns our glory into shame, and exposes to reproach that perfect law of liberty by which we profess to be governed.
The abuse of liberty draws after it also a train of the worst consequences. It is, we may say, “the root of all evil.” It makes our privileges become our grievances, and turns our blessings into curses: yea, it destroys liberty itself, and is an inlet to tyranny and slavery. True liberty is a tender thing: it languishes and dies under licentious abuses. Rulers, by abusing their liberty, betray their trust; and their authority degenerates into tyranny. And when subjects abuse their privileges, and become disorderly, ungovernable, undutiful, factious, and irreligious, their social union is greatly weakened; and they suffer the worst effects of slavery, while they have only an empty shadow of freedom. It is true virtue, and religion, and subjection to the laws and ordinances of GOD, that can only preserve the liberty of any people. Without this, declarations of rights and forms of government are vain: And I know not whether it be not better for a licentious people to be under a despotic government than any other. Such a people may well expect to come under such a government as the natural and penal effect of their vices—Thus it befell the Israelites as they had been forewarned: “That if they would not serve the Lord they should serve their enemies, who would put a yoke of iron on their necks.”
No less prejudicial is the abuse of religious liberty to the spiritual interests of the Christian church. From this source an inundation of infidelity, and manifold corruption in doctrine, discipline, worship, and practice, with most uncharitable contentions, and schisms, have issued, which have made terrible havoc in God’s in God’s heritage. Hence—But I must leave it to my hearers to pursue these reflections. The evils flowing from this source are so many, that it is impossible to give a detail of them.
For the like reason I can only suggest a few short and general hints, respecting the several ways in which we might be in danger of abusing our liberty; a point highly worthy of special attention, and which I had thought to have considered more particularly: But on such a subject one would hardly know where to stop. I shall therefore only say, we should take heed that Liberty of thinking for ourselves, or the right of private judgment become not an occasion of infidelity, or skepticism, or of our being carried away with unfound doctrines, and our minds corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ. Liberty of speaking our thoughts must not be abused to the dishonor of God, and religion and virtue to the encouragement of vice, or hurtful errors to the detriment of the commonwealth; or to the injury, grievance, or scandal of any one. Liberty of conscience must not be abused into a pretence for neglecting religious worship, prophaning God’s Sabbath and ordinances, or refusing to do our part for the support of government and the means of religious instruction. In a word,--as we would avoid the abuse of liberty, let us all take heed that we use it not irreligiously, by transgressing God’s commands, or by neglecting or prophaning his worship and ordinances: nor undutifully, by refusing due honor and subjection to rightful authority, in families, churches or commonwealth: nor injuriously, unkindly, and uncharitably, to the wrong, the damage, the grief and offense of our brethren: nor inordinately, exceeding the bounds of moderation, sobriety and expediency, even in things that are in themselves lawful.
As a preservative from these, and all other abuses, let it be our care thoroughly to imbibe the spirit of the gospel, “that perfect law of liberty,” and have our sentiments, our temper, and manners, formed by its divine doctrines and rules. Let us cherish in our hearts the fear and love of God, with that benevolence and charity which is the fulfilling of the law, and which only can effectually correct the inordinancy of those selfish affections which are the malignant root of these abuses. And, to add no more, let it be our care to understand, distinctly, the nature and extent of our liberty, and of our duty, in their connection and consistency with each other; and that our freedom can no otherwise be maintained and exercised, so as to be any real privilege, than by our being the servants of God, and “by love serving one another.”
This was the third point contained in our text, viz.—That it is our duty, and no infringement of our liberty, to serve one another in love. Thought God has made us free, yet it is not disparagement to be, in a liberal sense, servants to each other; nay, it is our honor to be so—this gives true dignity to men of the highest rank. It is a very honorable character given to David, a great and excellent King, that he Served his generation by the will of GOD – And a far greater King, even David’s Lord, and the heir of all things, when he affirmed our flesh, and dwelt among us, “came to minister,” and “was with us as one that serveth.” We ought, as the apostle directs to “be all of us subject one to another.” Rulers, as has been observed, are all of them Fellow Subjects with other members of the civil body, and hold their authority under the state. They who exercise the highest ordinary powers of government do it as the trustees and servants of the people; and it is their duty to serve the Commonwealth faithfully, and not tyrannize over any. And it is no less the duty of every one, whatever his rank may be, to perform the services properly incumbent on him, with like fidelity. But as the duty of mutual subjection was considered at large upon the last anniversary of this kind, I shall insist no further upon it.
There is one thing, however, our text suggests, relative to the mutual service required of us, which should not be passed over unnoticed and that is the principle by which we are therein to be moved and actuated. “By Love serve one another.” Love must be the vital spring to put every member of the body in motion, and set the whole system at work in a circulation of services, and then they will be all free. We act most freely when we are prompted by love. If we have a sincere and warm affection one to another, our services will not be performed with slavish reluctance, but in the full enjoyment of liberty. A ruler, or a subject, who is of a truly public spirit, who tenders the interest of his fellow citizens, and sympathizes with them in their joys and sorrows, will rejoice in an opportunity of serving them; nor will he grudge the pains it costs him. Love makes his services easy, pleasant and free: and he never enjoys his liberty more to his own satisfaction, than when he is most engaged in the service of his generation.
The reflections with which it is time to close this discourse must be confined to the present occasion.
We in this land have great reason to bow our knee before God in humble thankfulness that he has called us to liberty. He has not only given us a right to natural and civil liberty in common with others of our fellow men, but has also given us the possession of this invaluable blessing, and that in such a degree as few in the world are favored with. – It is an happiness almost peculiar to these United States, for an enlightened people to have the opportunity of deliberately forming and freely choosing the plan of government under which they are to live. And thought we do not presume to say that there is nothing amiss or defective in our civil constitution; (it is the prerogative of God alone to have his work all perfect) yet the form of our government, and spirit of our laws are, to speak modestly, favorable to the free enjoyment of our natural rights, so far as can consist with our political union, and the interest of the Commonwealth. And we should be unthankful to GOD and man, not to be sensible of, and own the wisdom and fidelity of those who had the chief hand in this important and arduous work. Besides the ample civil privileges which are secured to all orders of citizens, we rejoice to find that the right of enslaving our fellow men is absolutely disclaimed. That inhuman monster SLAVERY, which has too long been tolerated, is at length proscribed, and is no longer suffered to live with us. And it is devoutly wished, that the turf may lie firm upon its grave. The rights of conscience also, in matters of religion, are strongly guarded, and the door is happily shut and fast barred against ecclesiastical establishments by human laws, which have done so much hurt in the world. Everyone is now fully at liberty to worship GOD in the way which he judges to be most acceptable to him, while he demeans himself as a good citizen. Nor should we forget our Christian privileges in having the ordinances of the gospel administered among us, which we may with all freedom attend upon for our spiritual edification, if it be not our own fault. Add to this the sovereignty and prerogatives of Free and Independent States, which at length are acknowledged and solemnly recognized as belonging to us. How much reason have we to account ourselves happy that our lot has fallen to us in pleasant places, and we have so goodly an heritage. Blessed are our eyes which see the things we see, and our ears which hear the things we hear. And blessed be the Lord who hath visited and redeemed his people; who hath called them to liberty, and granted them the blessings of peace, that we, being delivered out of the hand of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him, all the days of our life.
And is it not then our duty to stand fast in this liberty to which GOD hath called us? We should show ourselves most unworthy of our birthright, if, like Esau, we should sell it for a contemptible price; nay, if we should sell it at any rate. Liberty is a pearl of too great price to be bartered. We may fitly accommodate the words of Solomon; “She is more precious than the rubies; and all the things thou canst desire are not to be compared to her. Length of days are in her right hand, and in her left are riches and honor. Her ways are ways of pleasantness, and all her paths are peace. She is a tree of life to them that lay hold upon her; and happy is every one that retaineth her,” We have done ourselves great and lasting honor by our brave, vigorous, and by the blessing of GOD, successful and effectual defense of our civil liberty. Though in respect of right, we were free born, as every man is; yet it is with a great sum that we have obtained the possession of this our inheritance, clear of the encumbrance of being dependent on, and subject to the control of foreign power. To secure the continued enjoyment of the prize which has been won with so much expense of blood and treasure, is surely an object worthy of the attention of everyone. And we can do nothing better for this purpose than to make it our most serious care to use our liberty aright, that is, piously, equitably, charitable, and soberly; and that we abuse it not for an occasion to the flesh.
This caution against the abuse of liberty ought to sink deep into our hearts; for here seems to be our greatest danger. Our conduct, at the time when attempts were made to wrest our privileges from us, is a witness for us, that we were not insensible to the value and importance of them. By the blessing of Almighty GOD our struggle is now happily terminated; and we are now unbuckling the harness, having accomplished our warfare with desired success. WE ARE A FREE PEOPLE. We have maintained our claim to liberty effectually against those who disputed it; and have indeed more liberty than we at first thought of claiming. And if we are so wise and sober as not to abuse it, we trust in God that we shall be happy ourselves, and leave this fair inheritance to succeeding generations. But we flatter ourselves, if we think that our having legal securities of civil and religious liberty will insure our prosperity. Nay, if our privileges are licentiously abused, we shall have no solid advantages of them, but they will rather prove, as was said, intolerable grievances. The name itself of liberty has been reproached, I had almost said blasphemed, on account of these abuses, which have given occasion to some to call it a popular idol. And we shall make an idol of it indeed, if it draws away our hearts from the service of God, and emboldens us to “strengthen ourselves in wickedness, and bless ourselves in our own hearts, saying, we shall have peace though we walk in the imagination of our hearts.” That people only can be truly free and happy who have the Lord for their God, their law-giver, and king, and who demean themselves as his obedient servants. “O that there were such an heart in us, that we might fear the Lord, and keep all his commandments always, that it might be well with us, and with our children forever.”
Our honored Rulers will consider themselves, as, under God, the guardians of this Precious Depositum, which divine providence has put into our hands. In this light we view them, and not with an evil eye of malignant jealousy, as those who would willingly rob the commonwealth of its crown, or steal the jewels out of it; that is, abridge our privileges to extend their own prerogatives. As the places of highest authority are disposed of by the free suffrage of the people, they are to be considered as marks of great confidence in the wisdom and fidelity of those whom they call to fill them and as public testimonies to their merit. Nor will they take it amiss to be styled the servants of the people; but will accept the title as it is meant, for a title of distinguished honor. For it holds equally true in a free commonwealth as in the church, that “He who is greatest, is most eminently servant of all.”
We have confidence in our civil fathers, that their upright and faithful endeavours will not be wanting to secure and perpetuate the blessings of peace and liberty, which God hath given us, and to promote the true interest of this people and that their integrity will preserve them and us. While the measures of righteousness are faithfully observed in their administrations, we doubt not but that they well, by the blessing of God, be crowned with good success. “Unto the upright ariseth light in the darkness,” to direct, cheer, and comfort them, in their greatest difficulties and straits. It is “by righteousness that the throne of government is established, and the nation is exalted.” And indeed the grand secret of political wisdom is to maintain a steady, thorough and untainted integrity: a secret hidden fro those serpentine politicians, who think it necessary to turn a side into crooked paths to compass their designs. Unfair articles and intrigues may sometimes answer a present turn; but they do more hurt that good: they breed whole distempers than they remedy or prevent. Whatever designs cannot be carried by fair measures, had better not be carried at all. God will curse that policy which sets the rules of righteousness at defiance. If this sentiment should be ascribed to the simplicity of one who is inexperienced in the affairs of the world, it may be confirmed by the attestation of the great Harrington, who says, “That the pretended depth and difficulty in matters of state is a mere cheat. From the beginning of the world to this day you never found a commonwealth where the leaders having honestly enough wanted skill enough to lead her to her true interest, at home and abroad.” And, that I may not seem to have gone beyond my own line, a yet greater authority may be adduced; even that of the wise and inspired king Solomon, who says, “He that walketh uprightly walketh surely; and the integrity of the upright shall guide him.”
Alas! for that people whose rulers think it can be good policy to break over the sacred rules of justice. We hope in God that the conduct of our public affairs will never fall into the hands of those who are given up to such an awful infatuation. If indeed we could persuade ourselves that the world was governed by chance, such a strict adherence to these rules might not seem needful, or fit to be instilled on. But under the government of a righteous GOD, we may be sure that unrighteous measures can never be for the true interest of a people. It is the blessing of GOD that must render the means successful we make use of to answer our ends. What madness then must be in their hearts who imagine that GOD will annex a blessing to the presumptuous transgression of his own laws – It is ordered indeed for the trial and discipline of virtue; that it should sometimes have to struggle with great difficulties and opposition, which might be avoided if we would let go our integrity: but the avoiding these difficulties in this way, will without fail, run us into much worse ones. The advantages of unrighteousness are dearly bought. If our country, nay, if the world can no otherwise be preserved than by violating the rules of truth and righteousness, In The Name Of All That Is Sacred Let It Sink. But while the throne of GOD stands unshaken, we may trust in him, and not fear that we shall ever be losers by our fidelity and obedience to his laws.
That corrupt craft, and those cunning contrivances, which politicians have often had recourse to in state affairs, when they were resolved to carry a favorite point at any rate, have been the disgrace of policy, and the pest of states. They who turn aside into these crooked ways, will soon find themselves in a perfect labyrinth. Tricking will soon sink a man’s credit and reputation, and lose him the confidence of mankind, which is of the utmost importance in order to a successful prosecution of designs of public concernment. Unfair artifices are an insult upon the moral government of GOD, who knows how to take the wise in their own craftiness and turn to foolishness the counsels of the Abitophels, who applaud themselves most in their skill and address.
It may well discourage wise observers from attempting to promote the public interest by iniquity, that such attempts are constantly found to be of unhappy and pernicious consequence. The laws by which GOD governs the world must be quite altered, the course of nature must be reversed, before it can reasonably be hoped that unrighteous schemes will operate for the real advantage of a people. And it is the fervent wish of those who have the true interest of their country most at heart, that there may be a full and fair experiment made what effect a strictly righteous and equitable administration of government will have upon the national interest. And they have raised expectations, that in that case we should soon see our public affairs in a situation much to our satisfaction and honor, and the honor of virtuous policy, which would appear in its proper dignity after such a triumph over its intriguing rival. The eyes of the world are turned to observe our conduct at this important period, which will be likely to fix the stamp of honor, or the brand of infamy, on our national character. We hope our rulers will not be less tender of the honor of the commonwealth than of their own, or that of their families: and that they will not give occasion to any to apply to them what has been observed by some, “That such deeds have been often done by bodies or communities of men, as most of the individuals of which such communities consisted, acting separately, would have been ashamed of,” And it is also to be remembered (which ought much more to move us) that the eye of the great King of Nations is upon us to observe whether we will be obedient to his laws; and he is, as it were, saying to us in the words of the prophet, “Prove me now herewith, whether I will not open you the windows of heaven, and pour you out a blessing.”
As for those who sneer at righteous policy, integrity and public spiritedness, and who represent all men as being alike perfectly selfish, I shall only say, that if the picture of mankind which they give us was taken from their own hearts, we will not dispute their skill in drawing, but will own it may be a striking, yea, a shocking likeness of the persons who sat for it. But let them go – My honorable hearers know, as every honest man does, that there is such a thing in the world as integrity, and virtue, and public spirit, and that it is no hypocritical pretence.
As righteousness is the root and basis of liberty, I have not, I hope, wandered from my subject in inculcating a due regard thereto in the administration of government. And it is also hoped that the freedom of speech which has been used on this occasion, (a freedom which the presence of those before whom it has been taken, has no tendency to check, but rather to inspire and animate,) will not be deemed an abuse of liberty. But if more has been said than may be thought needful, or if any expressions should seem too warm or bold, they will I hope, be candidly imputed to and honest zeal for public virtue, and for the liberty, the interest, and the honor of my dear country; and to an earnest and inexpressible desire that this vast political structure, which to the wonder of the world has rose so suddenly as a temple of liberty in North America, the building of which has been carried on so far with such happy success, may receive the finishing touch to the utmost advantage, and may stand as a glorious and lasting Monument to the honor of those by whom, under God, it has been erected: -- a monument far more grand and magnificent than Mausoleums, Pyramids, or Triumphal Arches.
The present state of our affairs is such as calls
for the utmost attention of our civil rulers, and affords them uncommon
opportunities for services of the most important kind. It is, I think,
needless, and might seem presumptuous, for me to go into a detail of
those objects which claim their special attention: their own more just,
penetrating, and comprehensive views, will readily suggest the vastness
of their trust, in having the care of the liberties and properties, the
religion and morals, the means of education and literary improvement,
of this people; besides such regulations as are necessary to maintain
and strengthen that connection between the several parts of this united
system of states, which is of so much importance to the welfare of the
whole. We are not insensible of the difficulties they have to struggle
with, -- and sympathize with them on that account. But these should
rather animate than discourage them. These are
the trials and proofs of virtue, whereby it is distinguished
from counterfeit preferences, and is found unto praise, and honor, and
glory. If they are faithful they may expect to displease some: but they
will have the applause of their own consciences, and of the best
friends of their country: their children will rise up and call them
blessed, and GOD himself will think on them for good. “The armour of
light” will repel the darts of calumny? which may be thrown at them.
They will only need to stand forth in open day. The light will render
them invulnerable; and their being known will be their security. – And
GOD forbid that any of us should be backward to support them in their
faithful endeavours, or that we should cease to pray for them, that GOD
would be with them: that their hearts may be encouraged, and their
hands strengthened with a double portion of his spirit: that they may
be inspired with the wisdom, integrity, fortitude, and unfainting
resolution necessary to prosecute and accomplish their designs for the
public good. “We with them a blessing from the house of the Lord; yea,
we bless them in the name of the Lord.”