William Ellery Channing.

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

. (page 35 of 169)
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ment is the most conspicuous of human in-
stitutions, and were moral rectitude written
on its front, stamped conspicuously on all
its operations, an immense power would be
added to pure principle in the breasts of in-

To be more particular, a government may.
and should, ennoble the mind of the citizen,
by continually holding up to him the idea of
the genoal good. This idea should be im-
prest in characters of light on all legisla-
tion ; and a government directinr itself reso-
lutdy and steadily to this end. becomes a
minister of virtue. It teaches the citixen to
attadi a sanctity to the public weal, carries
him beyond selfish regard^ nourishes mag-

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nanimity. and the purpose of sacrificing him-
self, as far as virtue will allow, to the com-
monwealth. On the other hand, a govern-
ment which wields its power for selfish in-
terests, which sacrifices the many to a few, or
the state to a partv, becomes a public preacher
of crime, taints the mind of the citizen, does
its utmost to make him base and venal, and
prepares him, by its example, to sell or be-
tray that public interest for which he should
be ready to die.

Again, on government, more than on any
Institution, depends that most important prin-
ciple — the sense of justice in the community,
lb promote this, it should express in all its
laws a reverence for right, and an equal
reverence for the rights of high and low, of
rich and poor. It should choose to sacrifice
the most dazzling advantages rather than
break its own faith, rather than unsettle the
fixed laws of property, or in any way shock
the sentiment of justice in the community.

Let me add one more method by which
government is to lift up and enlsuge the
minds of its citizens. In its relations to other
governments it should inviolably adhere to the
principles of justice and philanthropy. By its
moderation, sincerity, uprightness, and pacific
spirit towards foreign states, by abstaining
from secret arts and unfair advantages, fay
cultivating free and mutually beneficial inter-
course, it should cherish among its citizens
the ennobling consciousness of belonging to
the human family, and of having a common
interest with the whole human race. Govern-
ment only fulfils its end when it thus joins
with Christianity in inculcating the law of
universal love.

Unhappily, governments have seldom re-
cognized as the highest duty the obligation of
strengthening pure and noble principle in the
community. I fear th^ are even to be
numbered among the chief agents in corrupt-
ing nations. Of all the doctrines by which
vice has propagated itself, I know none more
pernicious than the maxim that statesmen are
exempted from the common restraints of
morality, that nations are not equally bound
with individuals by the eternal laws of justice
and philanthropy. Through this doctrine
vice has lifted its head imblushingly in the
most exalted stations. Vice has seated itself
on the throne. Tlie men who have wielded
the power and riveted the gaze of nations,
have lent the sanction of their greatness to
crime. In the very heart of nanons, in the
cabinet of rulers, has been bred a moral
pestilence whkh has infiected and contami-
nated all orden of the state. Through the
example of rulers, private men have learned
to regard the everlasting law as a temporary
conventional rule, and been blinded to the
supremacy of \1itiie.

That the prosperity of a people is inti-
mately connected with this reverence for
virtue which I have inculcated on legislators,
is most true, and cannot be too deeply felt.
There is no foundation for the vulgar doctrine,
that a state may flourish by arts and crimes.
Nations and individuals are subjected to one
law. The moral principle is the life of com-
munities. No calamity can befall a people
so great as temporary success through %
criminal policy, as the hope thus cherished
of trampling with impunity on the authority
of God. Sooner or later, insulted virtue
avenges itself terribly on states as well as on
private men. We hope, indeed, security and
the quiet enjoyment of our weahh from our
laws and institutions. But civil laws find
their chief sanction in the law written within
by the finger of God. In proportion as a
people enslave themselves to sin, the fountain
of public justice becomes polluted. The most
wholesome statutes, wanting the support of
public opinion, grow impotent. Self-seekers,
unprincipled men, by flattering bad passions
and by daricening the public mind, usurp the
seat of judgment and places of power and
trust, and turn free institutions into lifdess
forms or instruments <rf oppression. I
especially believe that communities suffd*
sorely by that species of immorality which
the herd of statesmen have industriously
cherished as of signal utility ; I mean, l^
hostile feeling towards other countries. The
common doctrine has been, that prejudice
and enmity towards forei^ states are means
of fostering a national spirit, and of confinn-
ing union at home. But bad passions, once
instilled into a people, will never cjcfaaust
themselves abroad. Vice never yields the
fruits of virtue. Injustice to strangers does
not breed justice to our friends. Malignity
in every form is a fire of hell, and the policy
which feeds it is infernal. Domestic feud^
and the madness of party are its natural and
necessary issues ; and a people hostile to
others will demonstrate, in its history, that no
form of inhumanity or injustice escapes its
just retribution.

Ojir great error as a people is that we put
an 4aolatTous trust in our free institutions ; as
if these by some magic power must secure
our rights, however we enslave ourselves to
evil passions. We need to learn that the
forms of liberty are not its essence; that
whilst the letter of a free constitutkm h
preserved its spirit may be lo^ ; that even
Its wisest provisions and most giiarded
powers may be made weapons of tyranny.
In a country called free, a majority may be-
come a faction, and a proscribed minority
may be insulted, robbed, and oppressed.
Under elective governments a dominant
party may become as truly a usurper, and

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ds treasonably consinre against the state, as
an individual who forces his way by anns
to the throne.

r know that it is supposed that political
wisdom can so form institutions as to extract
from them freedom, notwithstanding a peo-
ple's sins. The chief expedient for this
purpose has been to balance, as it is called,
men's passions and interests against each
other; to use one man's selfishness as a check
against his neighbour's ; to produce peace by
the counteraction and equilibrium of hostile
forces. This whole theory I distrust. The
vices can by no management or skilful poising
be made to do the work of virtue. Our own
history has already proved this. Our govern-
ment was founded on the doctrine of checks
and balances ; and what does experience
teach us ? It teaches what the principles of
our nature might have taught, that whenever
the country Is divided into two great parties,
the dominant party will possess itself of both
branches of the legislature, and of the dif-
ferent departments of the state, and will move
towards its objects with as little check, and
with as determined purpose, as if all powers
were concentrated in a single body. There
is no sut)stitute for virtue. Free institutions
secure rights only when secured by, and when
invigorating that spiritual freedom, that moral
power and Novation, which I have set before
you as the supreme good of our nature.

Acoording to these views, the first duty of
a statesman is to build up the moral enei^
of a people. This is their first interest ; and
he who weakens it inflicts an injury which no
talent can repair; nor should any splendour
of s e r v i ce s , or any momentary success, avert
from him the inmmy which he has earned.
Let public men learn to think more reverently
of their ftinction. Let them feel that they
are touching more vital interests than pro-
perty. Let them fear nothing so much as to
sap the moral convictions of a people by un-
righteous legislation or a selfish policy. Let
them cultivate In themselves the spirit of
religion and virtue, as the first requisite to
public station. Let no apparent advantage
to the community, any more than to them-
selves, seduce them to the infraction of any
moral law. Let them put faith in virtue as
the strength of nations. Let them not be
disheartened by temporary ill success in up-
right exertion. Let them remember that,
while they and their contemporaries live but
for a day, the state is to live for ages ; and
that Time, the unerring art>iter. will vindicate
the wisdom as well as the magnanimity of the
public man who, confiding in the power of
truth, justice, and philanthropy, asserts their
claims, and reve r ently follows their monitions,
amidst general disloyalty and conniption.

1 have hitherto spoken of the general in-

fluence which government should exert on the
moral interests of a people, by expressing
reverence for the moral law in its whole policy
and legislation. It is also bound to exert a
more particular and direct influence. I refer
to its duty of preventing and punishing crime.
This is one of the chief ends of government,
but it has received as yet very little of the
attention which it deserves. Government,
indeed, has not been slow to punish crime,
nor has society suffered for want of dungeons
and gibbets. But the prevention of crime and
the reformatkm of the offender have nowhere
taken rank among the first objects of legis-
Ution. Penal*codes, breathing vengeance, and
too often written m blood, have bc«n set in
array against the violence of human passions,
and the legislator's conscience has been satis-
fied with enacting these. Whether by shocking
humanity he has not muhiplied offenders, is a
question into whk:h he would do wisely to

On the means of preventing crime I want
time, and still more ability, to enlarge. I
would only say that this object should t>e kept
ill view through the whole of legislation. For
this end, laws should be as few and as simple
as may be ; for an extensive and obscure code
multiplies occasions of offence, and brings the
citizen unnecessarily into collision with the
state. Above all, let the laws bear broadly
on their front the impress of justice and
humanity, so that the moral sense of the
community may become their sanction. Arbi-
trary and oppressive laws invite offence, and
take from disobedience the consciousness of
guilt. It is even wise to abstain from laws
which, however wise and good in themselves,
have the semblance of inequality, which find
no response in the heart of the citizen, and
which will be evaded with little remorse. The
wisdom of legislation is especially seen in
grafting laws on conscience. I add, what
seems to me of great importance, that the
penal code should be brought to bear with the
sternest impartiality on the rich and exalted
as well as on the poor and fallen. Society
suffers from the crimes of the former not less
than by those of the latter. It has been truly
said, that the amount of property taken by
theft and forgery is small compared with what
is taken by dishonest insolvency. Yet the
thief is sent to prison, and the dishonest
bankrupt Hves perhaps in state. The moral
sentiment of the community is thus corrupted ;
and, for this and other solemn reasons, a
reform is greatly needed in the laws which
respect insolvency. I am shocked at the
imprisonment of the honest debtor ; and the
legislation which allows a creditor to play the
tyrant over an innocent man would disgrace,
I think, a barbarous age. I am not less
shocked by the impunity with which criminal

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iosolvenU continttally escape, and by the leni^ he aUured into the path of destruction. Still
of the community towards these transgressors more, I cannot but remember how much the
of its most essential laws. guilt of the convict results from the general

Another means of preventing crime is to corruption of society. When I reflect how
punish it wisely; and by wise punishment I much of the responsibility for crimes rests on
mean that which aims to reform the offender, the state, how many of the offences which
I know that this end of punishment has beoi are most severely punished are to be traced
questioned by wise and good men. But what to neglected education, to early squalid want,
higher or more practicable end can be pro- to temptations and exposures which society
p(^ed? You say we must punish for ex- might do much to relieve. — I feel that a spirit
ample. But history shows that what is called of mercy should temper legislation ; that we
exemplary punishment caimot boast of great should not sever ourselves so widely from our
efficiency. Crime thrives under severe pe- fallen brethren ; that we should recognize in
nalties, thrives on the blood oA offenders, them the countenance and claims of hu-
The foequent exhibition of such punishments manity ; that we should strive to win them
hardens a people's heart, and produces de- back to God.

fiance and reaction in the guilty. Until re- I have thus spoken of the obligation of
cently, government seems to have laboured government to contribute by various means
to harden the criminal by throwing him into to the moral elevation of a people. I close
a crowd of offenders, into the putrid atmo- this head with expressing sorrow that an in-
sphere of a common prison. Humanity ce- stitution. capable of such purifying influences,
joices in the reform which, in this respect, is should so often be among the chief engines
spreadin|f through our country. To remove of a nation's corruption,
the convict from bad influences is an essential ^ In this discourse I have insisted on the
step to his moral restoration. It is. however, supreme importance of virtuous principle, of
but a step. To place him under the aid of moral force, and elevation in the community ;
good influence is equally important; and and I have thus spoken, not that I might
here individual exertion must come to the conform to professional duty, but from deep
aid of legislative provisions. Private Chris- personal conviction. I feel— as I doubt not
tians, selected at once for their judiciousness many feel — that the great distinction of a
and philanthropy, must cotmect themselves nation, the only one worth possessing, and
with the solitary prisoner, and by manifesta- which loings.after it all other blessings, is
tions of a sincere fraternal interest, by con- the prevalence of pure principle amoiig the
versation. books, and encotuagement, must cidzens. I wish to belong to a state in the
touch within him chords which have long character and institutions (jf^hich I may find
ceased to vibrate ; must awaken new hopes ; a spring c»f improvement, which I can speak of
must show him that aU is not lost— that God, with an honest pride, in whose records I may
and Christ, and virtue, and the friendship of meet great and honoured names, and which
the virtuous, and honour, and immortality is making the world its debtor by its disco-
may yet be secured. Of this glorious mi- series of truth, and by an example of virtuous
nistry of private Christianity I do not despair, freedom. Oh, save me from a country which
I know I shall be told of the failure of all worships wealth and cares not for true glory ;
efforts to reclaim criminals. They have not in which intrigue bears rule; in which patriot-
always failed. And besides, has philan- ism borrows its zeal from the prospect of
thropy. has eenius. has the strength of hu- office; in which hungry sycophants besiege
mamtpr, been fairly and fervently put forth with supplications all the departments of
in this great concern? 1 find in the New state; in which public men bear the brand of
Testament no class of human beings whom vice, and the seat of government is a noisome
charity is instructed to forsake. I find no sink of private licentiousness and political
exception made by Him who came to seek corruption 1 Tell me not of the honour of
and save that which was lost. I must add belonging to a free coimtry. 1 ask, does our
that the most hopeless subjects are not always liberty bear generous fruits? Does it exalt us
to be found in prisons. That convicts are in manly spirit, in public virtue, above coim-
dreadfully corrupt, I know; but not more tries trodden under foot by despotism ? Tell
corrupt than some who walk at large, and are me not of the extent of our territory. I care
not excluded from our kindness. The rich not how lam it is if it multiply degenerate
man who defrauds is certainly as criminal as men. Speak not of our [>ro^)erity. Better
the poor man who steals. The rich man who be one of a poor people, plain in maimers.
drinJa to ei^ess contracts deeper guilt than revering God and respecting themselves, than
he who sinks into this vice under the pressure belong to a rich country which knows no
of want The young man who seduces in- higher good than riches. Earnestly do I de-
nocence deserves more richly the House of sire for this country that, instead of copying
Cornection than the unhappy female whom Euiope with gn undisccming servility, it may

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Jiave a character of ''^ 0^71, corresponding to
tlic freedom and equality of our institutions.
One Europe is enough. One Paris is enough.
How much to be desired is it that, separated as
we are from the eastern continent by an ocean,
we should be still more widely separated by
simplicity of maimers, by domestic purity, by
inward piety, by reverence for hiunan nature,
by moral independence, by withstanding that
subjection to ^tshion and that debilitating
sensuality, which characterize the most civil-
ized portions of the old world.

Of this countxy I may say with peculiar
empha.^s that its oappiness is bound up in ^t$
virtue. On Ibis our union can alone stand
firm. Our union is not, like that of other
nations, confirmed by the habits of ages and
riveted by force. It is a recent, and sail more
a voluntary union. It is idle to talk of force
as binding us together. Nothing can retain
a member of this confederacy when resolved
on separation. The only bonds that can per-
manently unite us are moral ones. That there
are repulsive powers, principles of discord,
in these states, we all feel. The attraction
which is to counteract them is only to be
found in a calm wisdom controlling the pas-
sions, in a spirit of equity and regard to the
common weal, and in virtuous patriotism
dinging ;U> union as the only pledge of free-

don^ and peace. The union is threatened by
sectional jealousies and collisions of local
interests, which can be reconciled only by a
magnanimous liberality. It is endangered
by the prostitution of executive patronage,
through which the public treasury is tumel
into a fountain of corruption, and by the lust
for power which perpetually convulses the
country for the sake of throwing office into
new hands ; and the only remedy for these
evils is to be found in the moral mdignation
of the community, in a pure, lof^ spirit,
which will overwhelm with infamy this selfish

To the Chief Magistrate of this Common-
wealth, and to those associated with him in
the Executive and Legislative departments, I
respectfully commend the truths which have
now been delivered ; and, with the simplicity
becoming a minister of Jesus Christ, I would
remind them of their solenm obligations to
God, to their fellow-creatures, and to the
interests of humanity, freedom, virtue, and
religion. We trust that, in their high stations,
they win seek, not themselves, but the pubUc
weal, and will seek it by inflexible adherence
to the principles of the Constitution, and still
more to the principles of God's Everlasting

Discourse at the Installation of the Rev. M. I. Motte^ Boston, 1828.

aTlMOTHV^L 7\*'y^S^^^ ?5?J|^''?"*y** .**}*?

orr«ar ; bnt of power, aad of ore, and

Why was Christianity given? Why did
Christ seal it with his blood? Why is it to
be preached? What is the ^reat happiness
\i con/as? What is the chief blessing for
which it is to be prixed ? What is its pre-
eminent giory* its first claim on the gratitude
of mankind? These are great questions. I
wish to answer them plainlv, according to the
light and ability which God has given me. I
read the answer to them in the text. There
I learn the great good which God confers
through Jesus Christ "He hath given us,
not the spirit of fear, but of power, and of
love, and of a sound mind." The glory of
Cbristiaxiitjf is the pure and lofty action which
it communicates to the human mind. It does
not brcaithe a timid, abject spirit. If it did it
would deserve no praise. It gives power,
energy, courage, constancy to the will ; love,
disinterestedness, enlarged afiEection to the
heart ; soundness, clearness, and vigour to
the understanding. It rescues him who

receives M from sin, from the sway of the
passions ; gives him the friU and free use of
his best powers; brings out and brightens the
divine image in which he was created ; and
in thb way not only bestows the promise but
the beginning of heaven. This is the excel-
lence of Christianity.

This subject I propose to illustrate. Let
me begin it with one remark which I would
willingTv avoid, but which seems to me to be
demanded by the drcmnstances in which I am
placed. I beg vou to remember that in this
discourse I speuc in my own name and in no
other. I am not giving you the opinions of
any sect or body of men, but my own. I hold
myself alone responsible for what I utter.
Let none listen to me for the purpose of
learning what others think. I indeed belong
to that class of Christianswhoare distinguished
by believing that there is one God, even the
Father, and that Jesus Christ is not this one
God, but his dependent and obedient Son.
But my accordance with these is far from
being universal, nor have I any desire to

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extend it. What other men believe is to me
of little moment. Their arguments I grate-
fully hear. Their conclusions I am free to
receive or reject. I have no anxiety to wear
the livery of any party. I indeed take cheer-
fully the name of a Unitarian, because un-
wearied eflforts are us^ to raise against it a
popular cry; and I have not so learned Christ
as to shrink from reproaches cast on what
1 deem his truth. Were the name more
honoured I should be glad to throw it off; for
I fear the shackles which a party connection
imposes. I wish to regard myself as belong-
ing not to a sect, but to the community of
free minds, of lovers of truth, of followers of
Christ, both on earth and in heaven. I
desire to escape the narrow walls of a particu-
lar chureh, and to live under the open sky, in
the broad light, looking far and wide, seeing
with my o%vn eyes, hearing vrith my own ears,
and following Truth meekly but resolutely,
however arduous or solitary be the path in
which she leads. I am, then, no organ of
a sect, but speak from myself alone ; and I
thank God that I live at a time and under
circumstances which make it my duty to lay
open my whole mind with freedom and sim-

I began with asking, What is the main
design and glory of Christianity? and I repeat
the answer, that its design is to give, not a
spirit of fear, but of power, of love, and of
a sound mind. In this its glory chiefly con-
sists. In other words, the influence which it
is intended to exert on the human mind
constitutes its supreme honour and happiness.
Christ is a great Saviour, as he redeems or
sets free the mind, cleansing it from evil,
breathing into it the love of virtue, calling
forth its noblest faculties and affections,
enduing it with moral power, restoring it to
order, health, and liber^. Such was his great
aim. To illustrate these views will be the
object of the present discourse.

In reading the New Testament I every-
where meet the end here ascribed to Jesus
Christ. He came, as I am there taught,
not to be an outwaitl but inward deliverer ;
not to rear an outward throne, but to esta-
blish his kingdom within us. He came,
according to the express language and plain
import of the sacred writers, "to save us
from sin," "to bless us by turning us
from our iniquities," "to redeem ns" from
corruptions "handed down by tradition,'* to

Online LibraryWilliam Ellery ChanningThe complete works of W.E. Channing: with an introduction → online text (page 35 of 169)