William Ellery Channing.

The complete works of W.E. Channing: with an introduction online

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Alexander, turned to the Macedonian soldier,
and said to him, " Are you not, too, a greater
robber than I ? Have not your hands been
busier in pillage? Are they not dyed more
deeply in innocent blood?" The uncon-
scious soklier, like his master, would have
repelled the title; and why? **I am a sub-
ject," he would have replied, "and txxmd to
obey my sovereign ; and, in fulfilling a duty,
I cannot be savk to the level ol the most
hated criminaL" Thns king and sul^ject take
refuge in the right <rf war which inheres in
soverdgnty, and thus the most terrible crimes
are perpetrated with little reproach.

I need not tdl you that there are Christians
who, to strip war of this pretext or extenua-
tion, deny that this right exists ; who teach
that Jesus Christ has wrested the sword from
the magistrate as truly as from the private
man. On this point I shall not now enter.
I t)elicve that more good may be done in the
present instance by allowing to government
the right of war. I still maintain that most
wars bring the guilt of murder on the govern-
ment by whom they are dedared, and on the
soldier Ir^ whom they are carried on, so that
our sensibitity ought in no degree to be im-
paired by the supposed legitimacy of national

I will allow that government has the right
of war. But a right has bounds, and when
these axe transgr^sed bv us, it ceases to
exist ; and we are as culpable as if it had
never existed. The private citizen, it is
generally acknowledged, has the right of
taking lilb in self-defence ; but if, tmder plea
of this right, he should take life without
cause, he would not stand absolved of
murder. In like maimer, though government
be authorized to make war in selMefence, it
still contracts the guUt of murder if it pt<y
claim war from policy, amt>itioQ. or revenga

By the Constitution erf this country, various
rights are conferred on Congress for the
public good ; and should they extend these
rights beyond the limits prescribed by the
national charter, for pnirposes of cruelty,
rapacity, and arbitrary power, they would be
as treacherous, as criminal, as if they bad
laid claim tounconceded rights. Now. stricter
bounds are set to the right of war than those
which the Constitution nas prescribed to the
rulers. A higher authority than man's de-
fines this terrible prerogative. Woe \ woe to
him who impatiently, selfishly spurns the
restraints of God. ana who winks out of sight
the crime of sending forth the sword to de-
stroy, because as a sovereign he has the right
of war.

From its very nature, this right should be
exercised above all others anxiously, delibe-
rately, fearfully. It is the right of passing
sentence of death on thousands of our fellow-
creatures. If any action on earth ought to
be performed with trembling, with deep pros-
tration before God. with the most solemn
inquisition into motives, with the roost reverent
consultation of conscience, it is a dedaratkn
of war. This stands alone among acts of
legislation. It has no parallel. These few
words, "Let war be," have the power of
desolation which belongs to earthqt£akes and
lightnings ; they mav stain the remotest seas
with blood ; may wake the echoes of another
hemisphere with the thimders of artillery;
may carry anguish into a thousand human
abodes. No scheme of aggrandizement, no
doubtful claims, no uncertain fears, no anxiety
to establish a balance of power, will justify
this act. It can find no justification but in
plain, stem necessity, in unquestionat^ jus-
tice, in persevering wrongs, which all otba:
and long-tried means have failed to avert.
Terrible is the responsibiUty, beyond that of
all others, which rails on bizn who involves
nations in war. He has no exc\»e for rash-
ness, passion, or private ends. He ought at
such a moment to forget, to annihilate himsetf.
The spirit of God and justice should alone
speak and act through him. To commit this
act rashly, passionately, selfishly, is to bring
on himself the damnation of a thousand
murders. An act of legislation, commaudil^
fifty thousand men to ht assembled on yonder
common, there to be shot, stabbed, tran^^cd
under horses' feet until their shrieks «&d
agonies should end in death, would thrill us
with horror ; and such an act is a <fedanttioft
of war; and a govenmient which caa petfutio
it, without the most solemn sense of respoi^
sibility and the clearest admonitions of dt^
deserves, in expiation of its crime, to endDfe
the whole amount of torture which it f
flicted on its fellow-creatures.

I have said a declaration of w 1

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alone. There is one act which approaches it, citizen bound to fight at the call of his govem-
and which indeed Is the very precedent on ment ? Docs not his commission absolve him
waich it is founded. I refer to the signing of from the charge of murder or enormous crime ?
R deatli-warrant by a chief magistrate. In Is not obedience to the sovereign power the
this case, how anxious is society that the very foundation on which society tests ?" I
guilty only should suffer! The offender is answer, *'Has the duty of obeying govern-
first tried bv his peers, and allowed the bene- ment no bounds ? Is the human sovereign a
fit of skliaa counsel. The laws are expounded God? Is his sovereignty absolute? If he
and the evidence weighed by learned and command you to slay a parent, must you
upright judges; and when, after these pro- obey? If he forbid you to worship God,
tections of innocence, the unhappy man is must you obey? Have you no right to judge
convicted, he is still allowed to appeal for his acts ? Have you no self-direction ? Is
mercy to the highest authority of the State, there no unchangeable right which the ruler
and to enforce his own cry by solicitations of cannot touch ? Is there no higher standard
friends and the people ; and when all means than human law?" These questions answer
of averting his doom fail, religion, through themselves. A declaration of war cannot
her ministers, enters his cell, to do what yet sanction wrong, or turn murder into a virtu-
caa be done for human nature in its most ous deed. Undoubtedly, as a general rule,
fallen, miserable state. Society does not cast the citizen is bound to obey the authorities
trom its bosom its most unworthv member under which he lives. No difference of
without relucUnce, without grief, without opinion as to the mere expediency of mca-
fcar of doing wrong, without care for his sures will warrant opposition. Even in cases
happiness. But wars, by which thousands of of doubtfiil right he may submit his judgment
the unoffending and worthiest perish, are to the law. But when called to do what his
continually proclaimed by rulers, in madness, conscience clearly pronounces wrong, he must
through ambition, through infernal policy, not waver. No outward law is so sacred as
from motives which should rank them with the voice of God in his own breast. He
the captains of pirate-ships, or leaders of cannot devolve on rulers an act so solemn
banditti. as the destruction of fellow-beings convicted

It is time that the right of war should not of no offence. For no act will more solemn
shield governments from the infamy due to inquisition be made at the bar of God.
hostilities, to which selfish, wicked passions ' I maintam that the citizen, before fighting,
give birth. Let rulers learn that, for this fa bound to inquu^ into the justice of the
right, they are held to a fearful responsibility, cause which he is called to maintain with
Let a war, not founded in plain justice and blood, and bound to withhold his hand if his
necessity, never be named but as Murder, conscience condemn the cause. On this point
Let the Christian give articulate voice to the he is able to judge. No political question,
blood that cries from the earth against rulers indeed, can be determined so easily as this
by whom it has been criminally shed. Let of war. War can be justified only by plain,
no soft terms be used. On this subject a new palpable necessity ; byunquestionable wrongs,
moral sense and a new language are needed which, as patient trial has proved, can in no
throughout the whole civilized and Christian other way be redressed ; by the obstinate,
world; and just in proportion as the truth shall persevering invasion of solemn and unques-
find a tongue, war will cease. tionable rights. The justice of war is not a

But the right of war, which is said to be- mystery for cabinets to solve. It is not a
long to sovereignty, not only keeps out of state-secret which he must take on trust. It
sight the enormous guilt of rulers in almost lies within otir reach. We arc bound to
aU national conflicts. It also hides or ex- examine it.

fenuates the frequent guilt of subjects in We are especially bound to this examina-
taking part in the hostilities which their tion, because there is always a presumption
rulers declare. In this way, much of the against the justice of war ; always reason to

erevalcnt insensibility to the evils of war is fear that it is condemned bv impartial con-
iduced, and perhaps on no point is light science and God. This solemn truth has
more needed. The ferocity and cruelty of peculiar claims on attention. It takes away
armies impress us little, because we look on the plea that we may innocently fight, be-
tbem as doing a work of duty. The subject cause our rulers have decreed war. It strips
or citizen, as we think, is bound to obev his off the most specious disguise from the hor-
rulers. In his worst deeds as a soU ter ne is rors and crimes of nations! hostilities. If hos-
discharghig his obligations to the State ; and tilities were, as a general rule, necessary and
thus murder and pillage, covered with a cloak just, if an unjust war were a solitary excep-
of duty, excite no deep, unaffected rcproba- tion, then the citizen might extenuate his
tion and horror. Share hi the atrocities of military life, bv

I know it will be asked, "And is not the urging his obligation to the state. But u

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there is always reason to apprehend the exis-
tence of wrong on the part of rulers, then
he is bound to pause and ponder well his
path. Then he advances at his peril, and
must answer for the crimes of the unjust,
uimeoessaiy wars in which he shares.

The presumption is always against the jus-
tice and necessity of war. Thb we learn from
the spirit of all rulers and nations towards
foreign states. It is partial, unjust Indivi-
duals may be disinterested; but nations have
no feeling of the tie of brotherhood to their
race. A base selfishness is the principle on
which the affidrs of nations are commonly
conducted. A statesman is expected to take
advantage of the weaknesses and wants of
other countries. How loose a morality
governs the intercourse of states 1 What
falsdioods and intrigues are licensed diplo-
macy! What nation regards another with
true friendship? What nation makes sacri-
fices to another's good 7 What nation is as
anxious to perform its duties as to assert its
rights ? What nation chooses to suffer wrong
rather than to inflict it? What nation lays
down the everlasting law of right, casts itself
fearlessly on its principles, and chooses to be
poor or to perisn rather than to do wrong ?
Can communities so selfish, so unfriendly, so
unprincipled, so unjust, be expected to wage
righteous wars? Especially if with this selfish-
ness ore joined national prejudices, antipa-
thies, and exasperated passions, what else can
be expected in the public policy but inhu-
manity and crime? An individual, we know,
cannot be trusted in his own cause, to measure
his own claims, to avenge his own wrongs;
and the civil magistrate, an impartial umpire,
has been substituted as the only means of
justice. But nations are even more imfit than
individuals to judge in their own cause ; more
prone to push their rights to excess, and to
trample on the rights of others; because
nations are crowds, and crowds are unawed
by opinion, and more easily inflamed by sym-
pathy into madness. Is there not, then, always
a presumption against the justice of war ?

This presumption is increased, when we
consider the false notions of patriotism and
honour which prevail in nations. Men think
it a virtuous patriotism to throw a mantle, as
they call it, over their country's infirmites, to
wink at her errors, to assert her most doubt-
ful rights, to look jealously and angrily on
the prosperity of rival states ; and they place
her honour not in unfaltering adherence to
the right, but in a fiery spirit, in quick re-
sentment, in martial courage, and especially
in victory ; and can a good man hold nimseu
bound and stand prepared to engage in war
at the dictate of such a state?

The citizen or subject, you say, may inno-
cenUy fight at the caU of'^his rulers; and I

ask. who are his rulers ? Perhaps an absolute
sovereign, looking down on his people as
another race, as created to toil for hb pleasure,
to fight for new provinces, to bleed for his
renown. There are, indeed, republican govern-
ments. But were not the republics of antiquity
as greedy of conquest, as prodigal of hiunaxi
hfe, as steeled against the cries of humanity;
as any despots who ever lived ? And if wc
come down to modem republics, are th^r to
be trusted with our consciences? What docs
the Congress of these United States repKj-
sent ? Not so much the virtue of the cotmtrf
as a vicious principle, the spirit of party. U
acts not so much for the people as for parties;
and are parties upright? ^xt. parties merci-
ful ? Are the wars, to which party commits a
country, generally just ?

Unhappily, public men under all govern-
ments are of all moral guides the most unsafe,
the last for a Christian to follow. Public
life is thought to absolve men from the strict
obligations of truth and justice. To wrong
an adverse party or another country, vi not
reprobated as are wrongs in private life.
Thus duty is dethroned; thus the majesty
of virtue insulted in the administration of
nations. Public men are expected to think
more of their own elevation than of their
country. Is the city of Washington the
most virtuous spot in this republic? Is it the
school of incorruptible men? The hall of
Congress, disgrac^ by so many brawls,
swayed by local interest and party intrigues,
in which the right of petition is trodden
under foot, is this the oracle from which the
responses of justice come fc»th? Public
bodies want conscience. Men acting in
masses shift off responsibility on one ancSher.
Multitudes never blush. If these things be
true, then I maintain that the Christian has
not a right to take part in war blindly, con-
fidingly, at the call of his rulers. To sl^
the blood of fellow-creatures is too solemn a
work to be engaged in lightlv. Let him not
put himself, a tool, into wicked hands. Let
him not meet on the field his brother XDan,
his brother Christian, in a cause on which
Heaven frowns. Let him bear witness a^nst
unholv wars, as his country's greatest crimes.
If called to take part in them, let him delibe-
rately refuse. If martial law seixe on him,
let him submit If hurried to prison, let him
submit. If tonight thence to be shot. Set
him submit. There must be martyrs to peace
as truly as to other principles of our rs^oti.
The first Christians chose to die rather than
bbey the laws of the state which commftnded
them to renounce their Lord. " Death raUMt
than crime; " such is the good roan's watdH
word, such the Christian's vow. Let binrte
faith^ unto death.

Undoubtedly it will be objected, fhst tf «oe

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law of tlie state may in any way be resisted,
then all maybe, and so government must fall.
ITiis is precisely the argument on which the
doctrine of passive obedience to the worst
tyrannies rests. The absolutist says, " If one
government may be overturned, none can
stand. Your right of revolution is nothing
but the right of anarchy, of universal mis-
rule." The reply is in both instances the
same. Extreme cases speak for themselves.
We must put confidence in the common
sense of men, and suppose them capable of
distinguishing between reasonable laws and
those which require them to commit manifest
crimes. The objection which we are con-
sidering rests on the supposition that a decla-
ration of war is a common act of le^^islation,
bearing no strong marks of distinction from
other laws, and consequently to be obeyed
as implicitly as all. But it is broadly dis-
tinguished. A declaration of war sends us
forth to destroy our fellow-creatures, to carry
fire, sword, famine, bereavement, want, and
woe into the fields and habitations of oiir
brethren ; whilst Christianity, conscience, and
all the pure affections of our nature call us to
love our brethren, and to die, if need be. for
their good. And from whence comes this
declaration of war? From men who would
rather die than engage in unjust or unneces-
sary conflict? Too probably from men to
whom Christianity is a name, whose highest
law is honour, who are used to avenge their
private wrongs and defend their reputations
by shedding blood, and who. in public as in
private life, defy the laws of God. Who-
ever, at such men's dictation, engages in war
without solemnly consulting conscience and
inquiring into the justice of the cause, con-
tracts great guilt; nor can the "right of
war," which such men claim as rulers, ab-
solve him from the crimes and woes of the
conflict in which be shares.

I have thus considered the second cause of
the prevalent hasensibilitj to war, namely,
the common vague belief that, as the right
of war inheres in government, therefore mur-
der and pillage in national conflicts change
their nature, or are broadly distinguished
from the like crimes in common hfe. This
topic has been so extended that I must pass
over many which remain, and can take but a
gkmce at one or two which ought not to be
wholly overkxdced. I observe, then, thirdly,
that men's sensibility to the evil of war has
been very much bltmted by the deceptive
show, the costume, the splendour in which
war is arrayed. Its horrors are hidden under
its dazxling dress. To the multitude, the
senses are more convincing reasoners than
the consdenoe. In youth — the period which
so often recdves impressions for life— we can-
not detect, in the heart-stirring fife and drum,

the true music of war— the shriek of the
newly wounded or the feunt moon of the
dying. Arms glittering in the sunbeam do
not remind us of bayonets dripping with
blood. To one who reflects, there is some-
thing very shocking in these decorations of
war. If men must fight, let them wear the
badges which become their craft. It would
shodc us to see a hangman dressed out in
scarf and epaulette, and marching with merry
music to the place of punishment The
soldier has a sadder work than the hangman.
His oflice is not to despatch occasionally a '
single criminal ; he goes to the slaughter of
thousands as free from crime as himself.
The sword is worn as an ornament ; and yet
its use is to pierce the heait of a fellow-
creature. As well might the butcher parade
before us his knife, or the executioner his
axe or halter. Allow war to be necessary,
still it is a horrible necessity, a work to fill a
good man with anguish of spirit. Shall it be
turned into an occasion of pomp and merri-
ment? To dash out men's brains, to stab
them to the heart, to cover the body with
gashes, to lop off the limbs, to crush men
under the hoof of the war-horse, to destroy
husbands and fathers, to make widows and
orphans, all this may be necessary ; but to
attire men for this work with fuitastic tra]>
pings. to surround this fearful occupation
with all the circumstances of gaiety and
pomp, seems as barbarous as it would be
to deck a gallows, or to mnke a stage for
dancing beneath the scaffold. I conceive
that the military dress was not open to as
much reproach m former times as now. It
was then less dazzhng, and acted less on the
imagination, because it formed less an excep-
tion to the habits of the times. The dr^
of Europe, not many centimes ago. was
fashioned very much after what may be called
the harlequin style. That is, it affected
strong colours and strong contrasts. This
taste belongs to rude ages, and has passed
away very much with the progress of civili-
zation. The military dress alone has escaped
the reform. The military man is the only
harlequin left us from ancient times. It is
time that his dazzling finery were gone, that it
no longer corrupted the young, that it no
longer threw a pernicious glare over his terri-
ble vocation.

I close with assigning what appears to me
to be the most powerful cause of the pre-
valent insensibility to war. It is our blind-
ness to the dignity and claims of human
nature. We know not the worth of a man.
We know not who the victims are on whom
war plants its foot, whom the conqueror leaves
to the vulture on the field of battle, or carries
captive to grace his triumph. Oh ! did we
know what men are, did we see in them tl.o

o o

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qjiiitual, immortal children of God, what a
voice should we lilt a|:ainst war t How in-
dignantly, how torrownilly should we invoke
Heaven and earth to right our inuslted, in-
jured brethren 1

I dose with asking, ** Must the sword
devour for ever?" Must force, fear, pain,
always rule the world? Is the kingdom of
Qod, the reign of truth, duty, and love never
to prevail? Must the sacred name of brethren
be only a name among men? Must the
divinity in man's nature never be recognized
with veneration? Is the earth always to
steam with human blood shed by man's
hands, and to eoho with groans wrung from
hearts which violence has pierced ? Can you
and I, my friends, do nothing-^nothing to
impress a different character on the future
history of our race? You say we are weak ;
and why weak? It is from inward defect,
not from outward necessity. We are in-
efficient abroad, because faint within— faint
in love, and trust, and holy resolution. In-
ward power always comes forth, and works
without. Noah Worcester, enfeebled in
body, was not weak. Qeoige Fox. poor and
uneducated, was not weak. They had Ught
and life within, and therefore were strong
abroad. Their spirits were stirred by Christ's
truth and spirit ; and, so moved, they spoke
and were heard. We are dead, and there*

fore cannot act. Perhaps we speak against
war; but if we speak from tradition, if we
echo what we hear, if peace be a cant on our
lips, our words are unmeaning air. Our own
souls must bleed when our brethren are
slaughtned. We must feel the infinite
wrong done to man by the brute force which
treads him in the dust We must see in the
authors of unjust, selfish, ambitious, revenge-
ful wars, monsten in human fonn, incarna-
tions of the dread enemy of the human race.
Under the inspiraUon of such feelinss, we
shall speak, even the humblest of us, with
somethmg of prophetic force. This is the
power which is to strike awe into the coun-
sellors and perpetrators of now licensed
murder ; which is to witha the laurelled
brow oi now worshipped heroes. Deep
moral convictions, unfeigned reverence and
fervent kive for man, and living faith in
Christ, are mightier than armies; mighty
through God to the pulling down of the
strongholds of oppression and war. Go
forth, then, friends of mankind, peaceful
soldiers of Christ 1 and in vour various rela-
tions at home and abroad, in priYate life,
and, if it may be, in more pubUc sphnes,
give faithful utterance to the principles of
universal justice and love, give utterance to
your deep, solemn, jneooncilable hatred of
the spirit of war*


Bxtrtuts from Swrmons preached om Days of
HumiliaHon and Prayer, afpointea in
eonseptetue of the Declaratum of War
against Great Britain,

In all eircumstances, at all thnes, war is to
be deprecated. The evil passions whic^ it
excites, its ravages, its bloody conflicts, the
distress and terror which it carries into do-
mestic life, the tears which it draws from the
widow and fatherless, all render war a tre-
mendous scourge.

There are indeed conditions in which war is
justifiable, is necessary. It may be the last
and only method of repelling lawless ambition*
and of defending invaded liberty and essential
rights. It may be the method which God's
providence points out by furnishing the means
of success. In these cases we must not shrink
from war; though even in these we shoiild

Online LibraryWilliam Ellery ChanningThe complete works of W.E. Channing: with an introduction → online text (page 123 of 169)