Leonard Withington.

The Puritan : a series of essays, critical, moral, and miscellaneous (Volume 2) online

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spection. I suspect that most people have approached
public life with the same wonder, that the young pupil
of anatomy approaches the dissecting room aston
ished at the indifference with which the old practi
tioner can cut up the relics of mortality, and deal
out his axioms over corruption and death. Our edu
cation teaches us to embrace only abstract truth ; that
truth is to be sought out and collected from all the
combinations in which it is found in the world. We
are told we must not suffer our prejudices or interests
to warp us in the search of truth ; but that she is a
sovereign power which we are to acknowledge and
adore, wherever we find her. Such is the lesson of
the school ; but the moment we step into the world,
we find it divided into parties. Principles must be
taken in the mass ; and the very idea of forming
new combinations, is scouted at as presumptuous and
absurd. The public ear is already occupied ; the
section is already formed ; and if you modify one of
the principles, you injure the cause. We are taught
in youth, that a good cause can only be promoted by
good means. But real life is scarcely any thing else
but the use of very suspicious means. Take the man
versed in the world, and how changed ! How little
scrupulous does he become ! I am afraid that re
publics are no exceptions to these remarks. The
polished courtier and the stern republican, may seem


at first view to differ. But the one flatters the mon
arch and the other the crowd ; and both of them are
in the same danger of substituting policy for truth.
The work of Sir Robert Walpole, is that of almost
every politician ; to beat down the standard of morality
to a political level ; to ridicule all the sublimities of
the moral creed ; to displace the earliest sympathies
of the heart; and to make a cold and calculating self
ishness, the pivot of our actions and the measure of
our virtues.

But what makes this state more dangerous, is, that
it is supported by several plausible reasons ; which,
backed by interest, are strong enough to convince a
willing mind.

The first originates in the tyrant s plea ; that is, as
the politician will tell you, in the necessity of the case.
How are we, he will say, to move man, except by the
tools which have always moved him 1 What signify
your fine-spun theories, when we are struggling for
existence in the rush of life 1 Consult the nature of
man, and consult history, and see if the crowd have
ever been governed by simple truth. No ! In deal
ing with mankind, a certain quantum of deception is
necessary. King James found it so in his king-craft ;
the demagogue has found it so in his schemes ; and
even the best patriot has mixed some dross with his
gold before he could work it into coin, and give it
currency in the world. To-day, there is some popular
measure abroad, which runs like wild-fire through the


land. The whole world is giddy. To oppose it, is
certain death to your influence. Your lips are sealed
up in inevitable silence. You must fall into the
current and turn it when you can. To-morrow, fac
tion is awake; the parties are formed ; the lines are
drawn ; an absorbing interest sweeps every creature
in the shape of a man, to the one side or the other.
Truth may lie in the middle ground ; but if you take
your stand there, you will be shot down by the first
fire of the advancing ranks. Now, a demagogue
starts up, whose smooth eloquence and plausible pro
fessions have stolen the influence of every better man.
At another time, some contingent advantage bribes
the public opinion, and renders the people fierce for
breaking over the rules which themselves have es
tablished. Such is the world on which we are thrown.
It is just as impossible for a politician to keep a strait
course and carry his plans, as it would be for a general
to march on a mathematical line and win the fight.
Now necessity, it is said, has no law. We must suc
cumb to the laws of nature, which are but another
name for the decrees of God.

But second, it is pretended that the very rules of mo
rality themselves, refract and deviate as they pass into
the denser medium of public life. They are no longer
the same things ; the lines of duty can no longer be
drawn with the same precision. Political rights, for
example, are very different things from private rights.
Abstractly speaking, no man has a right to an office ;


and yet all agree that the best offices should be occu
pied by the best men. But who are the best men ?
There is no certain measure of abilities. You cannot
carry the surveyor s chain over a man s mind, as you
can over his field. There are no needles and theod
olites to take the heights and bearings of a man s
wisdom and integrity. What wonder then, if in these
uncertain claims to an office, a man should sometimes
prefer himself to his neighbor, and depreciate his
character simply in justice to his own. In a public
struggle, a man is driven in self-defence, to that policy
by which he is assailed. He is sorry, but he must
meet his enemy on equal ground. He despises the
whole code of crooked arts; but (unhappy man!) he
must use them. Just as our duellists tell us how
much they despise the laws of honor, how tender and
benevolent were their hearts, as they drew the pistol
to shoot their antagonist dead. A libel is a dreadful
thing, in private life; but in a public station it is
a lawful weapon of self-defence.

It is said in the third place, that it would give an
immense advantage to total wickedness, if the good
patriot did not borrow some of the bad man s arts,
and not leave him to all his advantages. Actions must
not be estimated by their intrinsic nature ; but by the
character and intentions of the men from whom they
proceed. Why should the honest man suffer the
knave to usurp all the influence, merely because he
is too scrupulous to tread in his footsteps, or copy his


arts. This is certainly violating the old maxim, that
virtue is its own reward it is discouraging the best
men from serving their country ; and forcing integrity
to commit a kind of suicide. No man scruples to
shoot a robber with his own weapon, or to entrap a
swindler in his own arts.

It surely will not be expected that I shall pause to
answer these sophistries, which, merely to state, is to
confute them. Suffice it to say, that when one suffers
his conscience to depart from the strict line of recti
tude drawn by God, the whole ocean of policy is be
fore him ; and he has not a star or a chart to steer
by, but his interest and his will. We have melan
choly proof of this in the case of Cromwell a man,
whose character has been blackened by hands far less
clean than his own. We are told by Burnet, that he
found from some of Cromwell s confidential friends,
that he was a man by no means without his morality
meaning, on the whole, to maintain the strictest
principles of virtue and religion. In private life, he
did so ; his character was without a stain. But in
his public capacity, he considered himself as a man
thrown on great exigencies encompassed around
with political necessities ; and in this connection, ab
solved from the rules which govern meaner mortals in
lower stations. Thus he shed blood ; thus he took the
full sweep of ambition, without conscience and with
out remorse. So have reasoned far worse tyrants than
Cromwell, and this reasoning has justified all their


Such are the dangers which enclose a man s in
tegrity, when he steps from the private shade to the
public forum. These are the temptations which urge
him to violence and to policy. On the other hand,
there are great difficulties in the cool and impartial

In the first place, it is hard for an impartial friend
to truth to make himself understood. Parties have
their watchwords, and the people always take all
opinions in a lump. The idea of discriminating and
limiting, is what they cannot or will not understand.
It is not uncommon for some politic leaders in order to
make a measure succeed, to overstate it ; to exagger
ate its importance ; to mix it up with some measures
addressed to the popular prejudices ; and to surround
it with the false and baleful flowers of a spurious rhet
oric ; so that even truth itself cannot prevail, without
being mixed with many a lie. Indeed, I hardly ever
knew a good cause carried with the multitude, on its
naked merits. Now when an honest man is called
upon to support this suspicious mixture, he hesitates ;
he is for limiting the propositions and paring off the
deceitful rhetoric, and telling the world, in a long
discourse, which they have not patience to hear, what
he does believe and what he does not. The conse
quence is, he becomes suspected. All that is under
stood of him by the majority is, that he is not hearty in
the cause. The only question put to him by the warm
partizans is, Will you join us ? and the only answer


they wish to hear is, yes or no. To talk of limitations
and consequences, and doubts and fears, in such a
world as this ! Away with such a fellow from the
face of the earth. And it must be confessed it is
hard to make the people understand the value of a
moderate goodj or the force of a limited proposition.
In high party times, it is almost impossible. Here is
the advantage which the violent man, however erro
neous, has over the just. His sweeping assertions
electrify and charm the public ear He arouses ; he
deceives ; he conquers ; while poor forsaken truth, on
her lame feet, comes limping far behind. I have
not resigned my crown," said Buonaparte, when he
was forced to abdicate ; " but with limitations." " Ah,
Sire," said one of his marshals, ** soldiers never un
derstand limitations." It is just so with the people.
If you once work them into a ferment, they will not
understand a single limitation. They must be kept

In the second place, the impartial man is easily
confounded with a very different character ; to which,
though his face may have some resemblance, his
heart is wholly unlike. Moderation, in politics or re
ligion, is the best or the worst thing, according to the
state of the times, or the motives of the individual who
assumes it. There is a class of men, no doubt, who
veil their selfish purposes, under the guise of belonging
to no party; who love to rise in an assembly surround
ed by wondering eyes, because no man can divine


whether they will espouse or oppose a measure ; who
never commit themselves to any party, because they
are wedded to their own selfish interests ; and who
mean to choose their side just when the victory is
won. Such men pay the same honor to moderation,
that a hypocrite does to religion. They acknowledge
its worth, by counterfeiting its form. They are spirits
too independent to follow a multitude even to do good.
There is another class not so despicable, but equally
inefficient. Souls that are too timid ever to act.
They would know how to make up their opinion, if
all men would only think alike. They are sorry
that there should be differences and contentions, and
wish, whether the wind falls or not, to hush the waves
to peace. There are some too, so perfectly good
natured, that they never can oppose any man or meas
ure minds born to be overwhelmed. All these will
pass for moderate men. But though the weakest and
basest minds have abused the name, it does not follow
that there is no such thing as honest moderation. In
a turbulent age it must exist ; it is the last cable to
keep us from swinging to the rocks. In an inflated
assembly, it is only the steady minds, who look through
the tempest to the sunshine beyond it, that can guide
you through. I venture to say that no one ever broke
through the outworks of a party to the central leader,
if he had the least claim to his station, who did not
find him ten times more cool and impartial than the
tools he used in his cause. Federalism never blinded


the mind of Hamilton ; nor democracy that of Jeffer
son. They sat on a hill above the smoke of the battle,
and saw the whole prospect around. Shall we then
give ourselves up to the deceptions which make the
master spirits smile, who reap the profit of our delu
sions ?

But the greatest difficulty after all, is in the moral
cowardice of good men. They have flinched from
their station ; they have abandoned their cause too
soon. Impressed with the melancholy idea, that the
cause of truth was lost, and that this world was only
made for cheats and scoundrels, they have retired
from the post of action, and left the world to be gov
erned by the world s law. This was the fault of the
discouraged prophet, when he said I have been very
jealous for the Lord God of Hosts, because the chil
dren of Israel have forsaken thy covenant, thrown
down thine altars, and slain thy prophets by the
sword ; and I, even I only, am left ; and they seek
my life to take it away. This was the fault of Brutus
when he slew himself, pronouncing virtue to be an
empty name. This was the capital error of the best
men in the French revolution they fled when they
should have staid ; and left their country to all
the horrors of violence and Jacobinism ; and if there
is one quality which stands out to noble admiration
in the character of Washington, it is his cool perse-
verence, when the tongues of a thousand zealous


friends were silenced, and a thousand hearts suspected
him. This, O venerable spirit, this was thy glory.

Thus I have endeavored to show, that much more
good would have been done, if the best men had not
too soon abandoned their cause.

Lastly, They ought to persevere and support each

It is the duty of a good man never to despair. The
power of truth, after all, is great in our world. It
comes on slowly, like the rising of the sun ; you can
not hasten it by your impatience ; but it will shine
at last, and the clouds must break away before its
light. There are no secrets of a party w r hich have
not finally been detected ; no motives that have not
at last been seen ; no public characters which have
not been appreciated. The false laurels have faded,
and the true have flourished, matured by time. I am
aware that this w y ork of deception is always beginning
anew. New deceivers arise to play off their errors,
and new generations are misled. But the percussion
of the last blow which truth strikes, is terrible indeed.
She is a dreadful power, and will march to her final
victory. She begins her course, to be sure, without
pomp or pretensions ; she is patient ; she waits some
times for years to elapse ; she suffers the motley crowd
of folly and error, to play off their tricks, and exhaust
their pretensions. But she lies watching, in ambush,
like the lion, and is sure of her prey. Not one of the
puny tribe that have sported with their own deceiving,


can escape the flashings of her dreadful eye. Truth
sometimes retires and weeps but her tears turn to
sparks of fire, and the world is illumined by their
light. There is no estimating the force of a well-
proved point, frequently and earnestly repeated. Let
the deceiver, then, tremble, and let not the just man
despair. Without looking to the final judgment,
when all purposes shall be detected, you may rest
assured there is a noble reversion in coming time.

Bad times are never so bad as they appear to be ;
and good times never so good. When we look over
the agitated surface, in a period of violence and ex
citement, we are apt to say, Surely human nature is
transformed, the sparks of truth and reason have be
come extinct, an universal frenzy seems to have seized
on every mind. We grow superstitious, and almost be
lieve that the moon has wheeled her course too near
the earth, and unsettled the brains on her sister planet.
No remonstrating voice is heard; wisdom and mod
eration seem to have hid themselves in the dens of
the earth. But on a little research, we find the
secret suspicion is cherished, that all is not right.
We find lurking in one corner and another, the friend
of man and the friend of God, mourning over these
abominations ; and wanting nothing but a little union
and a little encouragement, to come forth and stem
the torrent. I make no doubt, that during the popish
plot, in the days of king Charles II., and during the
reign of terror in France, that there were thousands


and thousands, who might have encouraged each
other, and been united ; had they but known each
other s sentiments. These delusions are never so
general as they appear to be. The truth is, a few
maniacs have burst their prison, and usurped a place
which they do not deserve ; and the mass of society
are confounded and astonished at their noise. Con
sider .he case of the prophet, when he declared that
every altar was thiown down and he alone was left.
It is the declaration of God himself, Yet have I left
me seven thousand in Israel, all the knees that have
not bowed unto Baal.

But in all such circumstances, in one thing you
must copy your enemies you must borrow their un-
slumbering activity. You must step forward and make
your opinions known. You must burst from every
connection but that which binds you to the sacred
cause of truth and righteousness. The disposition
sometimes to sacrifice party attachments to higher
obligations, becomes more necessary, because when
it is most needed it is hardest to be done. Impartial
justice is the greatest crime, when two parties both
become so violent, that it is absolutely necessary that
some one should arbitrate between them. When men
become inflamed, they act on each other ; they are re
pelled from the central ground of truth ; the future
is lost in the present; and no parties ever acted long
in warm opposition to each other, but in their various
evolutions both were wrong. In fact, they are con-


demned by their own maxims; so that what was
claimed by one side, as a right in one period, is denied
to their opponents in another. It is melancholy to
find how little long debating sometimes conduces to
truth. I have often thought, if some celestial messen
ger could hover over our political assemblies, (I say
nothing here of our religious ones,) when warm with
conflict and fierce with opposition ; if some angel of
GOD could unfold a scroll, written by the finger of
truth, declaring the question as some future day must
decide it to a silenced world how few there would
be who would receive the mandate ; in some cases,
perhaps not one. So true is the language of Scrip
ture, that when God looks down from heaven to see
the children of men, he sometimes finds that all have
gone aside there is none that doeth good ; no, not
one. To strip off a single exaggeration ; to weaken
a single argument ; to attempt to give precision to a
single ambiguity, are, in some instances, unpardona
ble crimes. The fog has a kind of halo of glory
thrown over it, which the infatuated wanderers mis
take for light.

Be it remembered, too, that the danger of such
dissent is always greater in proportion as the govern
ment is more free. I speak, to be sure, of the moral
danger. Racks and prisons are out of the question.
But in a state of anarchy, it is instant death to oppose
the wishes of the crowd; and the danger is always
greater in proportion as the government leans over


towards anarchy, or verges towards the highest free
dom. Men will find the energy somewhere ; and if
it is not given them in the theory of their laws, they
will supply it by the violence of their manners. A
republic does not destroy the social power ; it often
only veils it from the general view, and artfully shirts
its place. Parties have no other arms to enforce
their measures, than violent expulsion ; outcries of re
venge ; blackening scandal ; engines which rack the
mind, while they spare the body ; and talons which
tear the character until they reach the soul. Men
will always have some instruments to accomplish their
purposes ; and when the legal ones are denied them,
they will use others, sanctioned by no law, either of
God or man. Besides, parties are held together by
voluntary assent ; the flinching of one member seems
to endanger the union of the whole. They must
therefore hew down the first man that moves from his
post, that others may tremble. I say not these things
to reproach any body of men. But such are the laws
of human nature. Such is the constant course of
events. How important is it then, that some men
should preserve a clear perception of unchanging
truth, and with that perception, a willingness to sup
port each other. He is the noblest martyr, who dares
to lay his dearest reputation on the public altar, as
Abraham offered his only son.

I am sure that politics, in themselves, are very cool
concerns. Separate them from their unfortunate at-


tendants interest and ambition and the problems of
mathematics are hardly more remote from touching
the passions. The great question in politics is, how
much alleviation of human infelicity can come from
government. This is the great problem of statesmen ;
and it is from losing sight of it, or not solving it, that
all political errors originate. It is a complex question
which must be worked out like the equations of Alge
bra. There is a certain line drawn by the great
Founder of society, to which the evil waves of social
life must come ; and all attempts to beat them back,
is like stopping the tide. If you seem to expel them
in one point, they will break in upon you in another.
The very question now before the public mind, of im
prisonment for debt, may be taken as an example. To
imprison an honest man because he is poor, is doubt
less a great evil, and the government ought to relieve
him, if it can. But here comes the question Will it
be any relief to deny the creditor this security for his
loan ? and will not the poor man suffer as much from
being never trusted, as from thirty days confinement
in the yard of a prison? And as to making a distinc
tion between the honest debtor and the fraudulent ;
will it not impose an entangling question on your
courts of law, which no human sagacity can ever
decide 1 I merely propose these questions. I do not
answer them. They are merely specimens of the
great problem, How much can government do for us?
So no government can supersede the necessity of in-


dividual industry and self-exertion ; no government
can feed all its population ; no government can give
prosperity to the profligate and idle ; no government
can raise all the ambitious to office and renown.
There is a certain degree of rigor necessary in im
posing taxes and punishing crimes ; because a lenity,
which forgets justice, is sure to end in greater pain.
In removing human ills, you can level down to a
certain base ; beyond which, if you think to go, your
efforts become forever impotent and vain. They are
worse than vain ; for under the mockery of relief, the
evil breaks in upon you in another form and a greater
degree. The old evil is measured and known ; but
the new has all the indefinite horrors of an untried
experiment. Now I ask, what have passion and pride
to do in settling these complex problems ? It is one
of the coolest subjects which can possibly meet the
human mind. There should be nothing to stir the
passions, for it is a point in which all men have one
interest. Nothing is wanted but a few cool heads to
sit down, and compare the items until they can come
to a result. Such are politics in the abstract. But
alas ! where am I ? I have wandered from our world.
A righteous cause is never totally defeated ; and
even the feeble efforts of one solitary individual, in
doing good, are never entirely lost. In this world of
violence and sin, the only permanent victories, (strange
as it may seem,) are the victories of principle. I hope
it is not too serious in this assembly to make a transi-

VOL. II. 13


tion to the death of Christ. When he left his primi
tive glory, and veiled his divinity in the form of flesh
and blood, he laid aside the greatness of his power,
and chose to oppose the hostility of the world, in the
weakness of a man. He addressed himself to the
minds of mankind, and met them with no other
weapons but those of principle. Instructive example!
See how Omnipotence renounces its own might
pleased with no other victories than the captivity of
willing hearts. For a while this force, even in the

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Online LibraryLeonard WithingtonThe Puritan : a series of essays, critical, moral, and miscellaneous (Volume 2) → online text (page 10 of 15)