Orville Dewey.

Moral views of commerce, society, and politics : in twelve discourses online

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Entered according to an Act of Congress, in the year 1838,
byOrville Dewey, in the Clerk's office of the District Court of
the Southern District of New- York.



On the Moral Laws of .Trade, 9

On the Moral Law of Contracts, 48


On the Uses of Labor, and a Passion for a Fortune, . 74


On the Moral Limits of Accumulation, .... 99


On the Natural and Artificial Relations of Society, . 117


On the Moral Evils to which American Society is ex-
posed, . . . . . , . . . 145

On Associations, 170

On Social Ambition, 190


On the Place which Education and Religion must have in

the Improvement of Society, . . . .210


On War, . .235

On Political Morality, 257

The Blessing of Freedom, 280

1,1 iw tAlix

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The character of some of the following Discourses will,
doubtless, be thought unusual for the pulpit. The subjects
themselves, indeed, are out of the ordinary course of preaching.
I might say in their defence, that such topics have been some-
times admitted into occasional Sermons ; and that Commercial
Morality, in particular, has been made the subject of, at least,
one entire volume of Religious Discourses, which has not offend-
ed the popular taste. But this defence, I must confess, does not
satisfy me. In justice to my own convictions, I must be allow-
ed to place the following discussions on a broader ground than
that of exception. If I deserve blame, I cannot fairly escape
on such a plea. For I am persuaded, not only that such discus-
sions are entirely proper for the pulpit, but that it is the bounden
duty of the pulpit to entertain them.

If, indeed, I have violated the proper decorum of religious
discourse, such an error is capable of no defence. But I must
be allowed to say, that when I had determined that it was my
duty as a preacher, to discuss certain subjects, I could not allow
any formality or fastidiousness of the pulpit, to prevent me from
doing so with as much thoroughness and detail, as were com-
patible with the gravity of the place. Thus, with regard to
the first discourse-^-on the Moral Law of Contracts knowing,
as I did know, that the consciences of men around me, were
deeply involved in the questions that arose, I could not hesitate
about going into the necessary specifications, however unusual, in
preaching; the serious business of such a discourse, would not
allow me to stand on pulpit ceremony, as to terms and phrases
and instances. I could not well be understood without them ;
and as the object of speaking is to be understood, I knew of na



sanctity of time or place, that was to contravene the laws of
that very instrument, speech, which I was using.

I am not ignorant, at the same time, in what manner any
thing unusual in the subjects or style of religious discourses is
likely to be received. I know that there will be some readers,
as there have been hearers of these discourses, to say, that a
part of them would be more suitable for the Lyceum and lec-
ture-room. Nay, I will confess, that in delivering them, I have
had certain feelings of reluctance to contend with, in my own
mind ; so powerful are old prepossessions against new or singu-
lar views of duty. Since I understand the feeling of objection,
therefore, will the kind reader who may entertain the same feel-
ing, permit me to reason the matter a little with him and with
myself, in the remainder of this preface ?

Let me ask, in the first place, if our ideas of propriety in th'u
case, are not very much matters of convention and usage ? If we
had always been accustomed to hear discussions in our churches,
on such subjects as the Morals of Traffic, of Politics, and of our
social well-being as a nation if the terms and phrases appro-
priate to such subjects had found a place in the pulpit, should
we ever have doubted their propriety ? It is observable, in-
deed, that certain topics have forced their way into the pulpit,
within the last quarter of a century, which, it is probable, sound-
ed as questionably and strangely in ears accustomed only to the
old scholastic preaching, as any grave moral topics can now. I
allude to discussions on War and Peace, on Temperance, Abo-
lition, and the various religious enterprises of the day.

The question then is what is the proper range of the pulpit ?
What is the appropriate business of preaching ? The answer
is plain to address the public mind on its moral and religious
duties and dangers. But what are its duties and dangers, and
where are they to be found ? Are they not to be found wherev-
er men are acting their part in life ? Are human responsi-
bility and exposure limited to any one sphere of action to the
church or to the domestic circle or to the range of the gross
and sensual passions ? Are not men daily making shipwreck of
their consciences in trade and politics ? And wheresoever con-
science goes to work out its perilous problem, shall not the
preacher follow it ? It is not very material, whether a man's
integrity forsakes him at the polls in an election, or at the board
of merchandise ; or at the house of rioting, or the gates whose


way leadeth to destruction. Outwardly it may be different, but
inwardly it is the same. In either case, the fall of the victim is
the most deplorable of all things on earth ; and most fit, there-
fore, for the consideration of the pulpit. I must confess, I can-
not understand, by what process of enlightened reasoning and
conscience, the preacher can come to the conclusion, that there
are wide regions of moral action and peril around him, into
which he may not enter, because such unusual words as, Com-
merce, Society, Politics, are written over the threshold.

Nay more ; is not the greatest possible disservice done to the
highest interests of mankind, by this limitation as to subjects, un-
der which the pulpit has laid itself. The confined and techni-
cal character which belongs to the common administration of
religion, does more than any thing else, in my apprehension, to
disarm it of its power. I am not insensible, when I say this, to
the greatness of those obstacles in the human heart and in hu-
man life, with which it has to contend. I am not, now, measu-
ring the strength of those obstacles, but simply considering the
force that is brought to bear upon them. That force is moral,
spiritual force ; and the leading form of it, in the public estima-
tion, is preaching. The pulpit is the authorised expositor to
men, of their duties. Those duties, it will not be denied, press
upon every action and instant of human life. But what now, is
the consideration which the pulpit generally, gives to this wide
and busy field of duty ? Are not whole spheres of human ac-
tion left out of the account ? With the exception of some occa-
sional and wholesale denunciations, are not business, politics,
amusements and fashionable society, passed by entirely ? Are
not men left to say, when engaged in those scenes " religion has
nothing to do with us here ?" Do they not, naturally enough,
feel that these engagements are, in a manner, set apart from all
sense of duty ? Is it strange, then, that the public conscience is lax
in these matters ? It seems to me, I must confess, rather a hard
measure that the pulpit deals out to these departments of life.
It never recognizes them as spheres of duty : it does nothing
for the correction or culture of men's minds in them ; and yet,
every now and then, it comes down upon their aberrations with
cold, bitter and unsparing censure.

Let me not be supposed to forget, that the pulpit has to deal
with topics and questions of duty, that go down into the depths
of the human heart with faith, and repentance, and love, and


self-denial, and disinterestedness and that its principal busi^
ness is thus to make the fountain pure. But religion has an out-
ward form, as well as an inward spirit. That form is the whole
lawful action of life. And to cut off half of that action from all
public and positive recognition what is it but to consign it over
to irreligion, to unprincipled license, and worldly vanity ?

There is time enough in the pulpit for all things. Nay, it
wants variety. It is made dull by the restriction and reitera-
tion of its topics. It would gain strength by a freer and fuller
grasp of its proper objects. What it can do, I believe, yet re-
mains to be seen. We complain of the corruptions of fashion
and amusement, of business and politics. The calm, consider-
ate, concentrated, universal attention of the pulpit, to these things,
would, in one year, I believe, produce a decided and manifest

But the great evil, I am sensible, lies deeper too deep for any
sufficient consideration, within the narrow limits of a preface.
The pulpit not only fails in this matter, but it fails on firincifile x
and on a principle almost universally adopted. The evil is, that
sermons, pulpits, priests all the active agents that are laboring
in the service of religion are, by the public judgment as well
as by their own choice, severed from the great mass of humai\
actions and interests

'I-,.,. vft I-



I THESSALONIANS IV. 6. That no man go beyond and


I propose to invite your attention in a series of
three or four Sabbath evening discourses, to the moral
laws of trade, the moral end of business, and to the
moral principles which are to govern the accumulation
of property. The first of these subjects, is proposed
for your consideration this evening ; and it is one, as I
conceive, of the highest interest and importance.

This country presents a spectacle of active, absorb-
ing, and prosperous business, which strikes the eye of
every stranger, as its leading characteristic. We are
said to be, and we are a people, beyond all others,
devoted to business and accumulation. This, though
it is often brought against us as a reproach, is really
an inevitable result of our political condition, I trust
that it is but the first development, and that many bet-
ter ones are to follow. It does, however, spring from
our institutions ; and I hold, moreover, that it is hon-
orable to them. If half of us were slaves, that half
could have nothing to do with traffic. If half of us
were in the condition of the peasantry of Europe, the


business transactions of that half would be restricted
within a narrow sphere, and would labor under a
heavy pressure. But where liberty is given to each
one to act freely for himself, and by all lawful means to
better his condition, the consequence is inevitably
what we see an universal and unprecedented activ-
ity among all the classes of society, in all the depart-
ments of human industry. The moral principles then,
applicable to the transaction of business have strong
claims upon our attention ; and seem to me, very pro-
per subjects of discussion in our pulpits.

There are moral questions too, as we very well
know, which actually do interest all reflecting and con-
scientious men who are engaged in trade. They are
very frequently discussed in conversation ; and very
different grounds are taken by the disputants. Some
say that one principle is altogether right, and others,
that another and totally different one is the only right
principle. In such circumstances, it seems to me not
only proper but requisite, for those whose office it is
to speak to men of their duties, that they should take
up the discussion of these as they would any other
moral questions. I am obliged to confess that we are
liable, scholastic and retired men as we are, to give
some ground to men of business, for anticipating that
our reasonings and conclusions will not be very prac-
tical or satisfactory. I can only say, for myself, that I
have, for some time, given patient and careful atten-
tion to the moral principles of trade ; that I have
often conversed with men of business that I might
understand the practical bearings and difficulties
of the subject ; that I have also read some of the
books in which the morality of contracts is discussed ;


and although a clergyman, I shall venture, with some
confidence as well as modesty, to oner you my
thoughts on the points in question. I say the points
in question ; and I have intimated that there are points
in debate, questions of conscience in business, which
are brought into the most serious controversy. I have
even known conscientious and sensible men, them-
selves engaged in trade, to go to the length of assert-
ing, not only that the principles of trade are immoral
and unchristian, but that no man can acquire a pro-
perty in this commerce without sacrificing a good con-
science ; that no prosperous merchant can be a good
Christian. I certainly think that such casuists are
wrong ; but whether or not they are so, the principles
which bring them to a conclusion so extraordinary,
evidently demand investigation.

In preparing to examine this opinion, and indeed to
discuss the whole subject, it will not be improper to
observe in the outset, that trade in some form, is the
inevitable result of the human condition. Better, it
has been said, on the supposition already stated bet-
ter that commerce should perish than Christianity ;
but let it be considered whether commerce can per-
ish. Nothing can be more evident than that the
earth was formed to be the theatre of trade. Not on-
ly does the ocean facilitate commerce, but the diver-
sity of soils, climes, and products, requires it. So long
as one district of country produces cotton, and another
corn ; so long as one man lives by an ore-bed which
produces iron, and another, on pasture-lands which
grow wool, there must be commerce. In addition to
this, let it be considered that all human industry inevi-
tably tends to what is called " the division of labor."


The savage who roams through the wilderness, may
possibly, in the lowest state of barbarism, procure with
his own hand all that suffices for his miserable ac-
commodation, the coat of skins that clothes, the food
that sustains, and the hut that shelters him. But the
moment that society departs from that state, there ne-
cessarily arise the different occupations of shepherd,
agriculturist, mechanic, and manufacturer ; the pro-
ducts of whose industry are to be exchanged ; and
this exchange is trade. If a single individual were to
perforin all the operations necessary to produce a
piece of cloth, and yet more a garment of that cloth,
the process would be exceedingly slow and expensive.
Human intelligence necessarily avails itself of the
facility, the dexterity, and the advantage every way,
which are to be obtained by a division of labor. The
very progress of society is indicated by the gradual
and growing development of this tendency.

Besides, it has been justly observed by a celebrated
writer on this subject,* that " there is a certain propen-
sity in human nature to truck, barter, and exchange
one thing for another. It is common to all men," he
says, " and to be found in no other race of animals,
which seem to know neither this nor any other spe-
cies of contracts. Nobody," he observes, " ever saw
a dog make a fair and deliberate exchange of one bone
for another, with another dog. Nobody ever saw one
animal by its gestures and natural cries signify to an-
other, this is mine, that yours ; I am willing to give
this for that."

Trade, then, being a part of the inevitable lot of
cultivated humanity, the question is, not about abolish-

*Adam Smith.


ing, but about the moral principles that are to regulate
it. And the grand question which I propose now to
examine is, the only one that presses upon the con-
science, and therefore proper for discussion in the pul-
pit ; and one, too, of daily recurrence the question,
that is, about the moral law of contracts. The ques-
tion, to state it more definitely, is, whether, in making
contracts, it is right for one party to take any advan-
tage, or to make any use, and if any, what, of his supe-
rior sagacity, information, or power of any kind ?

Let us first inquire, how we are to settle this ques-
tion ? What is the process of mind by which we are
to ascertain and establish the moral laws of trade ?

Does the natural conscience declare them? Is
there any instinctive prompting of conscience, that can
properly decide each case as it arises in the course of
business ? Is there any voice within, that says clearly
and with authority, " thou shalt do thus, and so ?" I
think not. The cases are not many, in any depart-
ment of action, where conscience thus reveals itself.
But in business they are peculiarly rare, because the
questions there, are unusually complicated. You offer
to sell to your neighbor an article of merchandise.
You are entitled of course i. e. in ordinary circum-
stances to some advance upon what it cost you. But
what that is, depends on many circumstances. Con-
science will hardly mark down the just price in your
account-book. Conscience, indeed, commands us to
do right ; but the question is, what is right ? This is
to be decided by views far more various and compre-
hensive, than the simple sense of right and wrong.

The Scriptures, like conscience, are a general direc-
tory. They do not lay down any specific moral laws



of trade. They command us to be upright and hon-
est ; but they leave us to consider what particular
actions are required by those principles. They com-
mand us to do unto others as we would have them do
to us ; but still this is not specific. A man may un-
reasonably wish that another should sell him a piece
of goods at half its value. Does it follow that he him-
self ought to sell on those terms ? The truth is, that
the golden rule, like every other in Scripture, is a gen-
eral maxim. It simply requires us to desire the wel-
fare of others, as we would have them desire ours.
But the specific actions answering to that rule, it leaves
us to determine by a wise discretion. The dictates of
that discretion, under the governance of the moral law,
are the principles that we seek to discover.

Neither, on this subject, can I accept without ques-
tion the teachings of the common law ; because, I find,
that its ablest expounders acknowledge that its deci-
sions are sometimes at variance with strict moral prin-
ciple. I do not think it follows from this, that the gen-
eral principles of the common law, are wrong, or abet
wrong. Nay, I conceive that they may approach as
near to rectitude as is possible in the circumstances,
and yet necessarily involve some practical injustice in
their operation. This results, in fact, from their very
utility, their very perfection, as a body of laws. For it
is requisite to their utility, that they should be general,
that they should be derived from precedents and formed
into rules ; else, men will not know what to depend
upon, nor how to govern themselves ; and there would
neither be confidence, nor order, nor society. But
general rules must sometimes bear hard upon indivi-
duals ; the very law which secures justice in a thou-


sand cases, may, and perhaps must, from the very na-
ture of human affairs and relationships, do injustice in
one. Indeed, the law of chancery, or of equity, has
been devised on purpose to give relief. But oven
chancery has its rules which sometimes press injuri-
ously upon individual interests ; and no human laws
can attain to a perfect and unerring administration of
justice. For this perfect justice, however, we seek.
We are asking what it is to do no wrong to our fel-
low-man, whether the law permits it or not. We are
asking how we shall stand acquitted, not merely at the
bar of our country, but at the bar of conscience and
of God.

I must add, in fine, that questions about right and
wrong in the contracts of trade, are not to be decided
by any hasty impulses of feeling, or suggestions of a
generous temper. I have often found men, in conver-
sation on this subject, appealing to their feelings ; but
however much I have respected those feelings, it has
seemed to me, that they were not the proper tribunal.
Nay, they have often appeared to me to mistake the
point at issue. If a merchant has a large store of pro-
visions in a time of scarcity, would it not be a very
noble and praise- worthy thing, it is said, for him to dis-
pose of his stock, without enhancing the price ? But
the proper question is not, what is generous, but what
is just. And besides, he cannot be generous, or what
is the same thing in effect, he cannot establish a gen-
erous principle in the distribution of his store. For if
he sells in large quantities, selling, that is, at a low
rate, it will avail nothing, because the subordinate
dealers will raise the price. Or, if he undertakes to sell
to each family what it wants ; any one of them may


take the article to the next warehouse, and dispose of
it at the enhanced price. On the contrary, there are
circumstances, undoubtedly, in which a man may take
undue advantage of a monopoly; but this will be a
case for future consideration. For the present, it is
sufficient to observe, what I think must be obvious, that
the great question before us is to be decided, not by
any enactments of law, nor any immediate dictate of
conscience, or specific teaching of Scripture, or single
impulse of good feeling, but by broad and large views
of the whole subject. Conscience, and Scripture, and
right feeling are to govern us ; but it is only under the
guidance of sound reasoning.

Let me beg your indulgence to one or two further
preliminary observations. The questions to be dis-
cussed are of great importance, and scarcely of less dif-
ficulty. It is hardly possible to overrate the impor-
tance of a high, and at the same time, just tone of com-
mercial morality. I am addressing merchants and
young men, who are to be the future merchants of this
city and country. I am addressing them on the moral-
ity of their daily lives, on the principles that are to
form their character for time, and eternity ; and while
I task myself to speak with the utmost care and de-
liberation, I shall not be thought unreasonable, I trust,
if I invite the patient attention of those who hear me,
to share in the task.

There is then, on this subject, a distinction to be
made between principles and rules. Principles, the
principles that is to say of truth, justice and benefi-
cence, are clear and immutable ; the only difficulty is
about the application of them i. e. about rules. Prin-
ciples, I say, are to be set apart, at once and entirely.


from all doubt and uncertainty. They hold their place
on high, like unchanging lights in the heavens. The
only question is, how, in obedience to their direction,
we are faithfully and surely to work our traverse across
the troubled ocean of business. Here, I say, is all the
difficulty. Rules, I repeat, result from the application
of principles to human conduct, and they must be
affected by the circumstances to which they relate.
Thus; it is an immutable principle in morals, that I
should love my neighbor, my fellow-being, and desire
to promote his happiness v This principle admits of
no qualification ; it can suffer no abatement in any
circumstances. But when I come to consider what I
shall do in obedience to this principle ; what I shall do
for the poor, the sick, or the distressed ; by what acts
I shall show my kindness to my neighbor, or my inter-
est in the welfare of the world, when, in other words,
I come to consider the rules of my conduct, I am
obliged at once to admit doubts and difficulties. The
abstract principle cannot be my law, without any re-
gard to circumstances, though some moral reformers
would make it such. I must go on the right line of
conduct, it is true, but where that line shall lead me,
is to be determined by a fair consideration of the cases

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Online LibraryOrville DeweyMoral views of commerce, society, and politics : in twelve discourses → online text (page 1 of 21)