Samuel Willard.

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Nos. 17 and 19 CornhiU








Damrell & Moore, Printers, 16 Devonshire Street.

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U i2 '06


When human law comes, or appears to come, into direct
and inevitable conflict with the Divine law, which is to
control the conduct of good citizens 1 This, I think, is
emphatically the question of our day and country, under-
lying most of the discussions, which for years have agi-
tated the public mind ; and is the main issue between the
opponents and the abettors, or passive instruments, of
slavery. It is indeed denied that there is any such ques-
tion now pending. All, it is said, confess the supremacy
of the Divine law, even while they contend for implicit
and active obedience to tlrose human laws, which are
opposed to natural justice, and the revealed will of God.
The doctrine, and the argument by which it is sustained,
so far as I can understand them, may be thus stated : —
" Civil government is an appointment of heaven, for the
purpose of securing those social benefits for mankind,
which could not otherwise be secured ; and such govern-
ment cannot be maintained, without making implicit
obedience to all its edicts and commands a universal duty.
If disobedience were ever permitted, it would introduce
such a principle as would tend to demolish all govern-
ment, and lead to universal anarchy. Hence, it is the will
of God that the law of the land should be obeyed, even
when it contradicts his will." If this be not a ftxir state-
ment, I am wholly unable to understand what is meant

by those who are ready to cry out, " Treason ! " agamst
such as contend that there is a law above the Constitution ;
and if it is a fair representation of their sentiments, and
the argument on which they are founded, it would seem
that an explicit statement should be in itself a sufficient
refutation. Still, it seems to be a lamentable fact, that,
for want of due attention, multitudes of good men, and
some whom we are accustomed to call greats are bewil-
dered and perverted by the sophism involved in the argu-
ment. I would therefore invite my reader to look atten-
tively at the subject, first in the perspective of reason,
and then in the light of Holy Scripture.

First, then, let us examme the argument for passive
obedience to unrightous and impious laws in the light
of reason. It is said, " We must obey the laws of the
land, without inquiring whether they be consistent or
inconsistent with the law of Heaven, or we shall estab-
lish a principle of disobedience, which will tend to the
destruction of all human government." There is in this
an assumption of something, which is neither self-evident,
nor capable of proof; something absolutely false ; viz.:
That obedience to all human laws, not excepting those
contradictory to the Divine law, or the subversion of all
human government, is a necessary alternative. This is the
sophism suggested above. In regard to this point, I
would put the question to the candid, and even to the
lyrcjudiced reader ; Is it not conceivable that a man
should refuse obedience to a civil law, which seems to
require of him disloyalty to Heaven, and still submit
so quietly to the severest penalties of that law, as to leave
the wheels of Government to roll on, with no other
obstructions or' frictions, than what are purely moral, and
consequently peaceful ? Still farther, I would ask, Would
such examples, connected, as of course they would be,
with prom]:)t and cheerful obedience to all human laws.

which appear to be in harmony with the beneficent will
of God, tend either directly or indirectly to subvert all
human government, whether bad or good ] Would they
not, on the contrary, tend to strengthen and perpetuate
those which are most entitled to support, and exert
a reforming influence on those which are capable of
reformation, without a resort to those violent and bloody
commotions, which often aggravate, instead of correcting
inveterate and deep-rooted abuses ?

There is another point in the argument we are consid-
ering, which requires a momentary glance from the eye of
reason. It is assumed that, for certain purposes and to
a certain extent, the Supreme Lawgiver sanctions by his
own authority those human laws, which are directly
opposed to his authority. It seems, if I may be allowed
without impiety to state the doctrine in explicit terms,
that the infinite God finds such difficulty in regulating
the social interests of mankind, that he thinks it wise or
prudent to call in the aid of man to relieve him of his
embarrassments, although that aid may be at war with
the fundamental principles of his righteous government.
Alas ! for the infirmities, the perversity of the human
mind ! Is it possible for a man of any intelligence, who
is not blinded by prejudice, to look for a moment on this
assumption, without seeing that it is hard, very hard to
be reconciled either with sound reason, or with that rever-
ence, which is certainly due from finite, feeble creatures,
to their infinite Creator 1

The error, which appears so repugnant to reason, and
which is alike horrid in its aspect and its legitimate
effects, may, I think, be traced in many minds to a one-
sided view, and consequently to a misconstruction of
Scripture. I would, therefore, in the second place, invite
the reader to a candid examination of those Scriptures,
which have been supposed to favor a doctrine so much at

variance with the rights of private judgment and the
duty of man as man ; and I hope to show clearly that
the argument in favor of this doctrine has no real support
from Scripture; that the Scriptures furnish no warrant
whatever for human government to interpose itself be-
tween the Supreme Ruler of the world and his individual
subjects on earth ; and, on the other hand, that it does
not allow, and much less require any individual to do
wrong, or refrain from doing what would otherwise be
right, because the law of the land commands or forbids.
I am perfectly aware that passages may be quoted, which,
separately viewed, seem to enjoin absolute and unreserved
submission to the laws of the land, be those laws what
they may. Some of these passages I shall bring to view
in the connections in which they stand, and by which
they must be interpreted.

My first citation is from 1 Peter, ii, 13, 14. "Submit
yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord's sake,
whether it be to the king as supreme, or unto governors,
as unto them that are sent by him for the punishment of
evil doers, and for the praise of them that do w^ell." One
other passage will suffice, inasmuch as it is the strong-
hold of our opponents, their very citadel. It is found in
Romans, xiii, 1 — 5. " Let every soul be subject unto the
higher powers. For there is no power but of God : the
powers that be are ordamed of God. Whosoever, there-
fore, resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God ;
and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation.
For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil.
Wilt thou, then, not be afraid of the power ] Do that
which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same ;
for he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if
thou do that which is evil, be afraid, for he beareth not
the sword in vain ; for he is the minister of God, a
revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.

Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath,
but also for conscience' sake."

From several parts of these citations we learn the char-
acter of those rulers, who are warranted in calling in the
Divine authority in support of their own. According to
Peter, they are such as are " sent for the punishment of
evil doers, and the praise of those that do well." In the
descriptions of Paul, they are such as " are not a terror to
good works, but to the evil ; ministers of God for good,
who bear not the sword in vain."

Still it may be asked, Are we not required in the
quotation from Paul to obey rulers, or be subject to them,
whatever their character or laws 1 With the exception of
some extreme cases, I frankly answer. Yes. There is a
qualified obedience enjoined by Christian principle to the
laws of the land, however unreasonable or cruel those
laws may be. We are to obey them as far as we can,
without renouncing our allegiance to the King of kings
and Lord of lords ; and where we cannot do what is
required, or refrain from doing what is forbidden, w^e are
to maintain our allegiance to the Great Supreme, and
quietly suffer any penalties which man may inflict for
the violation of his law. In all such cases I conceive
the true doctrine is non-obedience and non-resistance
combined. To prove this, it is sufficient, I think, to bring
into view the examples of those holy men, who have
delivered to us the oracles of God. Plow did they carry
out their doctrine in their own practice %

What the apostle Peter meant by the injunction,
" Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the
Lord's sake," we may learn from what he said to the
Jewish Sanhedrim, which, to a certain extent, was the
legitimate government of Jerusalem and Judea, Acts, iv,
18, 19. "And they called them, and commanded them
not to speak at all, nor teach in the name of Jesus. But


Peter and John answered and said unto them, "Whether it
be right in the sight of God to hearken unto you more
than imto God, judge ye:" &c. Acts, v, 29 ; "Then Peter
and the other apostles answered and said, We ought to
obey God rather than men." On this principle Peter
and his brother apostles persisted in the violation of the
express commands of their constituted rulers ; and in all
this they were expressly supported by the authority of
Heaven, as appears from Acts, v, 19, 20. " The angel
of the Lord by night opened the prison doors, and brought
them forth, and said, Go, stand and speak in the temple to
the people all the words of this life."

The conduct of Paul in regard to the point we are
considering is not so plain a commentary on his own pre-
cepts, as that of Peter. It is to be remembered, however,
that idolatry was blended with the fundamental laws of the
whole Roman empire, which was then spoken of as compris-
ing the whole civilized world. Of course it was impossible
to preach the doctrines of Christianity, without coming mto
immediate conflict with civil rulers, so far as they insisted
on the preservation of their fundamental laws. This Paul
did through the whole course of his apostleship, in Rome
itself, as well as in the provinces.

As the highest authority for the doctrine I am endeav-
oring to maintain, I make my last appeal to Him, " who
spake as never man spake," and always did the will of
Him that sent him. He did indeed enjoin obedience to
" the powers that be," Matt, xxiii, 2, 3. " The scribes
and the Pharisees sit in Moses' seat. All, therefore,
whatsoever they bid you observe, that observe and do."
Still, our Pattern and Guide did not himself refrain
from miracles of mercy on the Sabbath-day, though the
priests and elders insisted on such an interpretation of
the Divine law, as would make these acts of mercy in the
highest degree penal. In support of this position, it is


unnecessary to make any citations, as the fact is notorious
to every one that is acquainted with the Gospel history.
It is farther observable that our Saviour justified his disci-
ples in the non-observance of that traditionary law, which
required every man in all cases to wash his hands before
he eat. Matt, xv, 2, 11.

Having, as I trust, fully sustained and defended my first
position taken above, viz. : That human rulers are not
allowed to avail themselves of Divine authority in carry-
ing into effect any laws which are evidently opposed to
that authority, as manifested in nature or revelation, I
now proceed to the second proposition, under which I
shall endeavor to show, from the clearest expressions of
our Saviour himself, that no private individual can safely
allow any human ruler to interpose himself between him
and his God ; or, in other words, that he cannot do what
is forbidden by the Supreme Ruler, or neglect to do what
is required by him, without becoming personally responsi-
ble for the act or omission, whatever human law may
come in opposition to his supreme allegiance. No bribe,
no menace from " the powers that be," will furnish an
adequate excuse at the bar of the final Judge. Our
Saviour's admonition is awfully solemn, and should make
every one tremble at the thought of disobeying his su-
preme command in hope of gain, or fear of any earthly
loss. " Fear not them who kill the body, but are not
able to kill the soul ; but rather fear Him Avho is able to
destroy both soul and body in hell. Yea, I say unto you,
fear Him. He that findeth his life shall lose it, and he
that loseth his life for my sake, shall find it." Matt, x, 28,
39. If any suppose that these admonitions had reference
to the unauthorized persecutions to which the disciples of
Christ were exposed, I would observe that the whole, of
the 10th chapter appears to be closely connected, and I
would call their particular attention to the 18th verse;


" Ye shall be brought before governors and kiyigs for my
sake, for a testimony against them and the Gentiles ; "
which plainly implies that those who would maintain their
allegiance to Christ would be brought into conflict with
national authorities, to which, on the peril of their salva-
tion, they were to pay no other obedience than that of
suffering any penalty which might be inflicted.

An argument to the same effect may, I think, be drawn
from Matt., vi, 24. " No man can serve two masters ; for
either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he
will hold to the one and despise the other. Ye cannot
serve God and mammon." In view of these solemn decla-
rations, I would ask those who deny that there is any law
above the Constitution, How do you avoid the conclusion
that while you " love or hold to man," you either " hate or
despise GodT'

Again it appears from Acts, ix, 4, 5, that the Lord
Jesus, the constituted Governor of the world, holds all
men personally responsible to him, whatever human laws
may oppose: " Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me % And
he said. Who art thou, Lord ? And the Lord said, I am
Jesus, whom thou persecutest." Saul had been commis-
sioned by the legitimate authorities of Judea, to inflict the
penalties of their commands on the disciples of Jesus ;
and still He regarded Saul as not only opposing, but
persecuting him. The same view was entertained by Paul
himself, who, as appears from several of his Epistles, ever
after considered it as a sin against God.

In the 25th chapter of Matthew, near the close, our
Saviour has taught us that our final acquittal or condem-
nation will depend on the fulfilment or non-fulfilment
of that great law of love between man and man, that
universal neighborhood among all the nations, and tribes,
and individuals of mankind, which he came to establish
on earth ; for which he lived, labored, and died. " I was


a stranger, and ye took me in." " I was a stranger, and
ye took me not in." " Inasmuch as ye did it, or did it
not, to one of the least of these my brethren," — and in his
view there is no difference between the bond and the free,
— " ye did it, or did it not, unto me."

To bring the argument to bear with its full force on the
particular point which I have had in view in all that
I have said, I now ask, "What real Christian can pay
any other regard to the recent law for the restoration of
fugitive slaves, than that of quietly submitting to its
penalties 1 If we have the slightest faith in Christ as the
present Governor and final Judge of the world, we cannot
without infinite presumption shut our doors against him,
when he comes pleading for shelter, as he may do in the
person of a fugitive slave. For myself, I will not boast of
an invincible resolution. The example of Peter should
teach us not to presume on our own strength. But, if
sustained by Almighty grace, I will perform toward the
fugitive slave all the acts of kindness that I should do if
there were no prohibition against it ; and I will quietly
endure the consequences, though enormous fines or exac-
tions should deprive me of my last cent, and though I be
thrown into prison for six months, or six years, or all the
residue of life ; and I will not put the Government of my
country to the expense of a single lock and key for my
safe keeping. Though the doors be open day and night,
I will not come out, till the magistrates come themselves
and bring me out. I do not say that all this submissive-
ness to human authority is clearly required by any Divine
principle. I am not now deciding a question of casuistry
for others, nor even for myself; but so important in my
view is the maintenance of civil order, that I am willing,
so far as I alone am involved in the consequences, to
make all the concessions expressed above.

Still it was the direction of our Saviour to his disciples.


"When they persecute you in one city, ilee ye to an-
other ; " and none but a fanatic will court persecution, or
expose himself to penal sufferings or privations, any
farther than the unchangeable laws of piety and univer-
sal love may seem to require. It becomes, therefore, a
most interesting question, how the tremendous alternative,
into which myriads of sober and conscientious men are
brought by the Fugitive Slave law, may best be removed.
Doubtless it would contribute much to this object, if
a majority of our National Legislators, or of their con-
stituents, could be reasonably convinced that the Consti-
tution, rightly and consistently interpreted, neither re-
quires nor permits any action of Congress on the subject
of recovering fugitive slaves. This, though it may seem a
chimerical and hopeless undertaking, I shall attempt,
leaving the issue with Him who, and who alone, is able
to give a favorable result to any good endeavor. I know
I am entering on very delicate ground, and, that I may
hope for a candid hearing, I must first dispose of two or
three objections, which will doubtless be thrown in my way.
First, it will be regarded as arrogant for a person, who
has no pretensions to extraordinary talents, or any legal
science, to offer an opinion at variance with those of the
profoundest lawyers and statesmen, and especially to
question the decisions of that supreme tribunal, whose
special duty it is to decide on all matters of this kind.
In reply to this objection, I would say that I should be
among the last to withhold from that august bench a
single iota of the respect which the good order of the
community requires, while I would leave to legal and
political science the settlement of all intricate questions
relating to the subject. But still I would ask. Is it
unreasonable to suppose that there are some points of
paramount importance in the Constitution, of which
ordinary minds are as competent judges, as the most


gigantic and profound 1 In natural history there may be
questions, which require the greatest learning to settle
correctly ; but the simplest peasant in the land is as com-
petent to say that a wolf is not a sheep, though they be
in contiguous pens, or in the same pen, as the most
thorough anatomist, or the most erudite zoologist.

The second objection that will probably be offered is,
that these sentiments are radical ; and this with many a
conservative will be a sufficient reason why they should
receive no attention. But is it not frequently recom-
mended that in political discussions and transactions we
often recur to first principles, in order to prevent or
correct abuses % This is all I wish for, provided that
what we call first principles be really such. Many
maxims, that have been called by that name in almost
every science and profession, have, in the progress of
light and investigation, been proved to be not only not first
principles, but no principles at all ; perhaps utterly false ;
and the history of the past should teach us not to regard
anything as a first prmciple, which is not self-evident.

Another objection is likely to be urged against some of
the arguments I have to offer ; viz. : That they reflect
on the wisdom or the virtue of our fathers, who framed
or adopted the Constitution. Such a reflection I would
be one of the last to throw on the memory of those great
and good men, did not truth and the best interests of our
country and the world seem to require it. Many of them
I have always regarded as pre-eminent for wisdom and
disinterested virtue, faithful in the discharge of what they
believed to be their duty to posterity, and consequently
worthy of the love and veneration of their descendants.
But the history of the world demonstrates that great and
good men are not always exempt from intellectual and
moral errors ; and perhaps our fathers, to whom we are
so much indebted for their generous labors and sacrifices,


may have been misled by political maxims, which the
experience of succeeding ages may prove to be not only
unsound, but fallacious ; and I think we may do them
higher honor by imitating their independent spirit, than
we should do by blindly following their footsteps, when,
through the infirmities of human nature, they wandered
from the right course.

With these preliminaries, I am prepared to enter on the
discussion proposed above; and my first position is the one
which is taken by some of our first lawyers: that the
article of the Constitution on which the Fugitive Slave
law is grounded, gives no such power to Congress as that
which is claimed, either expressly or tacitly, and of course
that no warrant for Congress to legislate on this subject
can be inferred from that provision of the Constitution,
which authorizes them to pass any law which may be
necessary, in order to carry into effect the powers which
are given to them ; while it is expressly said that those
powers, which are not vested in Congress, are reserved to
the several States. A plausible answer may, perhaps, be
given to this argument ; but it does appear to me that it
must involve some fallacy, though it may be deeply hidden.
Let the Constitution be read a hundred times over, and I
think it will be difficult to find anything like a clear
warrant for Congress to act on the subject. If any suppose
that the oath taken by members of Congress, implies either
obligation or power in them to provide for the recovery of
those who have fled from slavery, I would request them to
consider the consequences of such a claim or admission.
That oath must be limited to the peculiar powers and
duties assigned to those by whom it is taken. There are
different departments of government, on which different
duties are imposed ; and one cannot in all instances com-
pel another to discharge its obligations to the full intention
of the Constitution. Many duties, fbr instance, are re-


quired of the President, which may either be neglected,
or inadequately discharged, without giving Congress a
right to interfere, either by impeachment, or otherwise ;
and so it must be in regard to the duties of States. I
know that a different decision has once been given by a
majority of our Supreme Court ; but, although a decision
of that august bench is to be treated with great respect,
the doctrine of infallibility, in Church or State, is no part
of our creed. We need not question the competency or
integrity of our Supreme Judges. " To err is human."
Constituted as that Court is, to suppose it impossible that
from self-interest, or some unbalanced influence of educa-
tion or association, the majority of them may have taken
different views of this peculiar subject from what they
otherwise would have done, is to suppose them something
more than men ; something more than great and good
men are generally found to be.

My second position against the power of Congress to
legislate on the subject of restoring fugitive slaves, is
founded on the following prohibition of the Constitution :
" Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment
of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." "Why
this prohibition'? On what principle was it founded'?
Doubtless on this : — that human government cannot
rightfully interpose its authority between the individual

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Online LibrarySamuel WillardThe grand issue : an ethico-political tract → online text (page 1 of 3)