William Lloyd Garrison.

Selections from the writings and speeches of William Lloyd Garrison. With an appendix .. online

. (page 21 of 33)
Online LibraryWilliam Lloyd GarrisonSelections from the writings and speeches of William Lloyd Garrison. With an appendix .. → online text (page 21 of 33)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook

be its absurdity or its profligacy what it may. Thus, he
surrenders his understanding, conscience and heart to the
will of men, and, consequently, deems it his duty to obey
men rather than God. He knows not, from one session of
the Legislature to another, what he may be called to do.
If, by a decree of that body, he must now send a person to
prison, who will not give his testimony on oath or afiirma-
tion, for conscience sake ; by another decree, he may be
called to send to the stake, any one who refuses, in time of
war, to march to the battle-field, for conscience sake. He


may plead, that he is not responsible for the laws ; that it is
his duty simply to expound them ; that the legislative and
judicial departments of the government are not identical ; —
but the plea is worthless. He holds to the doctrine, that
might makes right ; that the majority have a right to rule
over the minority, and to make such laws and to affix such
penalties to them as they please ; that the laws must be
obeyed and executed ; that the legislature may properly
enact those laws ; that the judicial station which he fills is
indispensable to the administration of the government.
Hence, he is to be held responsible for the legitimate results
of his own principles, and cannot shield himself from con-
demnation, on the plea that it is not for him, as a judge, to
decide on the moral character of the laws.

Why should the custom of administering and taking
oaths be universally abandoned ? For the following, among
other reasons : —

1. Those who profess to have ' put on Christ,' and to be
governed by the Christian law, are assuredly prohibited from
taking oaths. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught
nothing more explicitly or more emphatically than the crim-
inality of this practice. Mark his language : — 'Ye have
heard that it hath been said by them of old time, Thou shalt
not forswear thyself, but shalt perform unto the Lord thy
oaths. But I say unto you. Swear not at all : neither
by heaven ; for it is God's throne : nor by the earth ; for it
is his footstool : neither by Jerusalem ; for it is the city of
the great King. Neither shalt thou swear by thy head,
because thou canst not make one hair white or black.' It
will be observed, that the prohibition covers the whole
ground. It does not merely refer to what is sometimes
called unnecessary or profane swearing, nor to swearing
falsely, but to swearing at any time, or for any purpose,
even truly. It reads, ' Swear not at all' — but before he


lays it down, Jesus quotes the passage, ' Thou shah not
forswear thyself, but shaU perform unto the Lord thine
oaths' — (see Leviticus 19:12; Numbers 30:2; Deuter-
onomy 23 : 23) — and then repudiates each and all of them,
however sacredly they might be performed unto the Lord.
' For it is manifest, that if truth may not be attested by an
oath, no oath may be taken.'

But Jesus did not stop here. He proceeded as follows: —
' But let your communication be, Yea, yea ; Nay, nay.'
' This,' says Dymond, in his able essays on this subject, ' is
remarkable : it is positive superadded to negative commands.
We are told not only what we ought not, but what we ought
to do. It has indeed been said, the expression, " your com-
munication," fixes the meaning to apply to the ordinary
course of life. But to this there is a fatal objection : the
whole prohibition sets out with a reference, not to conver-
sational language, but to solemn declarations on solemn
occasions. Oaths " to the Lord " are placed at the head of
the passage ; and it is too manifest to be insisted upon, that
solemn declarations, and not every-day talk, were the sub-
ject of the prohibition.'

The grand reason for this prohibition is given in the declar-
ation — ' Whatsoever is more than these, cometh of evil.'
Evil, then, is the foundation of oaths ; and that v.hich is built
upon evil cannot be good.

Similar were the views of the early Christians. ' The
old law,' says Basil, ' is satisfied with the honest keeping of
the oath, but Christ cuts off the opportunity of perjury.' ' I
say nothing of perjury,' says Tertullian, ' since swearing
itself is unlawful to Christians.' Chrysostom says, ' Do not
say to me, I swear for a just purpose ; it is no longer lawful
for thee to swear, either justly or unjustly.' ' He who,' says
Gregory of Nysse, 'has precluded murder by taking away
anger, and who has driven away the pollution of adultery


by subduing desire, has expelled from our life the cause of
perjury by forbidding us to swear; for where there is no
oath, there can be no infringement of it.'

2. It is an irreverent act for a court, or any other body
of men, to summon God as a witness to their dealings, for
purposes of vengeance, as though he could be made a party
in the case at their bidding, and could know nothing of the
matter without their calling upon him ! The obligation to
speak the truth cannot be enhanced by any form or device,
however ' legally ' resorted to.

3. Good men — the honest and truthful — do not need to
be put under oath. Bad men — the immoral and aban-
doned — will not regard an oath, and can never be trusted in
giving evidence, beyond the probabilities of the case. Be-
sides : when was it ever known that the latter objected to
taking an oath, for conscience sake ? They are always
ready to be sworn ! It is invariably men of true self-
respect, of deep conscientiousness, of strong religious prin-
ciple, who object to this degrading and unchristian practice.

4. To take an oath implies that, were it not administered,
it would not be so wicked to testify falsely. But this is to
strike at the basis of moral rectitude, and to make the duty
of probity dependant upon circumstances. What can be
more pernicious than the prevalence of this idea in society ?

5. It is wrong to make a man swear that he will tell ' the
truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth,' while on
the stand ; because he may be at a loss to know how much
is implied by that promise ; because his memory may be
seriously defective, so as to involve him in apparent and
even real contradiction, while his intentions are perfectly
upright ; because his position, as a witness, may be to hini
embarrassing beyond expression, questioned and cross-ques-
tioned as he is liable to be in the most Jesuitical and merci-
less manner by the counsel employed, so that he is not in a


calm and rational state of mind, but feels bewildered, often
alarmed, at the extraordinary array that meets his troubled
gaze ; because his anxiety to be literally correct in his tes-
timony nr^ay be the very cause of his giving it in an incohe-
rent manner. Now, it is wrong to cause any man's mem-
ory, veracity or self-possession to pass through this terrible
ordeal, ' under the pains and penalties of perjury.' The prac-
tice, moreover, is as useless as it is pernicious — no possible
good resulting from it to any one, but much positive evil —
and therefore it ought no longer to be tolerated among a
ipeople claiming to be civilized, to say nothing of 'the Chris-
tian law.'

But as, in this Commonwealth, the Legislature has not
made it imperative that the oath shall be taken, where there
are conscientious scruples against taking it, but allows an
affirmation to be given in its place, it is not necessary to
dwell any longer on this question of oaths, as though the
consciences of good men were not regarded on that partic-
ular point. For a long time, however, I have felt some
scruples in regard to affirming in the manner required by
■law, — not for all the reasons which influence me to refuse
to take an oath, but because it seems to me equally at war
with the spirit of Christ's prohibition, and equally deroga-
tory to the character of every honest man. I iiave no
doubt that there are many others who cherish the same ob-
jections, and that their number is steadily increasing. All
'these, be it remembered, are constantly liable to be sum-
moned as witnesses, in which case, as the law now is, they
may be sent to prison for constructive ' contempt of Court.'
Is there any necessity for such a law ?

It may be argued, that as there is a wide difference
between the act of taking an oath and that of affirming — as
the former is an appeal to God, and the latter nothing more
than a promise to tell the truth, ' under the pains and penal-


ties of perjury ' — as the Quakers, who have always borne
a faithful testimony against oaths, do not object to the form
of affirmation legally prescribed — it is absurd to have any
conscientious scruples respecting the latter, and therefore
the law ought not to be abrogated to gratify the religious
whims of individuals as to what constitutes ' the Christian

To this mode of reasoning it is sufficient to reply, that
though there is a difference between the oath and the affirm-
ation, as alleged, it is a difference more in the form than in
the substance or design — they being regarded by the gov-
ernment and the people as equally essential to the procuring
of true evidence, equally binding upon the conscience of
the witness, equally safe for the Commonwealth. The one
keeps in countenance and perpetuates the other — just as
the moderate use of intoxicating liquor perpetuates intem-

Again : there are those who conscientiously believe, that
the same Christian law which prohibits swearing, also for-
bids the inflicting of ' pains and penalties ' on the wrong-
doer. It is as explicit in the one case as in the other. ' Ye
have heard that it hath been said. An eye for an eye, and a
tooth for a tooth. But I say unto you, that ye resist not
evil: but whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek,
turn to him the other also,' &c. Now, to affirm as the law
requires, implies something more than a passive acquies-
cence in the infliction threatened, in case of being detected
in testifying falsely : it is virtually sanctioning that infliction
as just and right on the part of the government, which
many good men cannot do : hence, to compel them to
affirm, on peril of imprisonment — nay, more, to force ihcm
to invoke that punishment upon themselves — is palpably an
oppressive act.

The fact, that the Quakers do not object to taking an


affirmation, proves nothing more than that they have no
conscientious scruples in the case. 1 am not yet convinced
that their conscience is to be the guide of my own, or that
it is necessarily innocent to perform that which they see no
evil in doing. To their own Master they stand or fall. I
honor them greatly for the many noble testimonies which
they have borne against moral and legal wrong ; and I have
no doubt that they will be led to see that, in consenting to
be put under affirmation, they have departed from the sim-
plicity of the law of Christ — ' Let your communication be.
Yea, yea : Nay, nay : for whatsoever is more than these,
[whether oath or affirmation,] cometh of evil.'

To say, that it is a religious whim to object to affirming,
is to say that conscience is to be governed by the statute
book, and punished severely whenever it interferes with
popular usage. Hence, that it must not bow to its own con-
viction of the will of God, and has no higher duty to perform
than to obey the State.

Many think the Quakers unnecessarily squeamish in
refusing to be sworn ; but no one now thinks they ought to
be imprisoned on that account. The Constitution very
properly respects their conscientious feelings, and provides
a remedy. Let that body go one step further, and allow all
those to testify who are scrupulously unwilling to take an
■oath or to affirm, without any legal form.

This is indeed a serious matter. By an absurd require-
ment, eminendy conscientious persons are now prevented
from giving testimony in cases where human life and prop-
erty are at stake, and placed on a level with felons.

But I argue for the abolition of oaths and affirmations, not
only for conscience sake, but because they are wholly
USELESS. Of what avail is the plea of the prisoner, ' Not
guilty,' in determining his criminality ? None. Neither
the judge nor the jury are influenced by it. They proceed


to ascertain the facts as carefully as though he had not made
any response. It is a mere form, but one not less perni-
cious than it is useless ; for it tempts the guilty to lie, that
he may have a chance to escape through some legal tech-
nicalities, or defect in the evidence. It ought to be abol-
ished, for its iniquity and folly.

Of what avail is it that the witnesses have affirmed or
taken the oath ? Is their testimony rendered more credible
on that account ? No. The court proceeds to try the case
precisely as though they had complied with no such requisi-
tion. The verdict is rendered, not upon the fact that they
testified under oath or affirmation, but upon the coherency of
the evidence, the probabilities of the case, and the general
character of the witnesses for probity. By no other stand-
ard could there ever be a verdict rendered ! For, if the
fact, that the witnesses on the one side have been sworn,
makes their evidence decisive, then the fact, that the wit-
nesses on the other side have been sworn, proves them to
have testified truly; and as ihey utterly contradict each
other, it proves that both the plaintiff and defendant are in
the right ! Such are some of the absurdities of the law.

If, then, the administering or taking of oaths and affirm-
ations fails to elicit or determine the truth ; if it conflicts
with the consciences of many enlightened and upright per-
sons, and exposes them, through contumacy, to the punish-
ment of felons; if it implies (as it docs) that man may im-
pose upon his brother man, by the enforcement of a partic-
ular ceremony, a higher obligation to speak the truth than his
Creator has affixed to his moral nature ; if its tendency is
to demoralize rather than to elevate society ; and if it is not
necessary for private security or the public good ; then let
it be at once and for ever abrogated.


England ! I grant that thou dost justly boast

Of splendid Geniuses beyond compare ;

Men great and gallant — Women good and fair —
Skilled in all arts, and filling every post
Of learning, science, fame — a mighty host ;

Poets divine, and Benefactors rare —

Statesmen — Philosophers — and they who dare
Boldly to explore Heaven's vast and boundless coast.
To one alone I dedicate this rhyme.

Whose virtues with a starry lustre glow ;
Whose heart is large, whose spirit is sublime,

The friend of Liberty, of Wrong the foe :
Long be inscribed upon the roll of Time,

The name, the worth, the works of Harriet Martineau !


A NATIVE dignity and gentle mien ;

An intellect expansive, clear and strong ;

A spirit that can tolerate no wrong ;
A heart as large as ever yet was seen ;
A soul in every exigence serene,

In which all virtuous excellencies throng ;

These, best of women ! all to thee belong :
What more of Royalty has England's Queen ?
Thy being is absorbed in doing good,

As was thy Lord's, to all the human race ;
With courage, faith, hope, charity endued,

All forms of wretchedness thou dost embrace ;
Still be thy work of light and love pursued,

And thy career shall angels joy to trace.


It is not possible that the late celebration on Bunker Hill
can have been either pleasing to God, or honorable to the
people of the United States. Failing in these particulars, it
is to be regarded as an exhibition of national hypocrisy, only
faintly illustrated by the conduct of the Jewish people, who,
at the very moment they were pretending to seek God daily,
' as a nation that did righteousness, and were asking of him
the ordinances of justice, and affectedly taking delight in
approaching to God,' were smiling with the fist of wicked-
ness, and tightening the bands of oppression. Surely, it
would not be more absurd than monstrous, for a people,
given over to all uncleanncss of mind and body, to erect a
monument in honor of Purity, and to join in celebrating its
completion. Not less absurd, not less monstrous, was the
pageant witnessed on Bunker Hill, on the 17th of June ; for
in that pageant were embodied all forms of national dissimu-
lation, cant, bombast, effrontery. The festivity was gen-
eral — the commemoration a universal act. It is to constitute
a part of the history of these United States ; not simply of
Massachusetts. The leading participants in it were the Presi-
dent and his Cabinet, and other distinguished officers of the
Government. All parts of the republic were represented
by accredited delegates. An ' uncounted multhude ' came
from the broad savannas of the South, from the newer
regions of the West, from the rich valley of the Genesee 7
and along the chain of the Lakes, from the mountains of
Pennsylvania, and the thronged cities of the coast. The
battle of June 17, 1775, was for a national object, involved
national consequences, and led to national deliverance from
a foreign yoke. The erection of a monument was made an
affair of national importance, interest and honor.



If there be any trait of character specially detestable in
the sight of God or men, it is that of hypocrisy. It is the
wolf in sheep's clothing — it is Satan in the garb of an angel
of light. This nation is infected with it. How, in words, it
recognises the freedom, the equality, the inalienable rights
of mankind ! How, in acts, it annihilates those rights,
denies that equality, and scoffs at that freedom ! How great,
in profession, is its reverence for liberty ! How strong, in
practice, is its attachment to slavery ! The celebration on
Bunker Hill constitutes the climax of its inconsistency.

I turn to the Address of Mr. Webster, delivered on that
memorable occasion. It is not for an intellect so vigorous
and a mind so capacious as his own, to make a feeble effort
under circumstances so spirit-stirring. Yet I am disappoint-
ed, on a careful perusal of it. It contains few passages of
robust thought, or expansive love, or rhetorical power.
Marked by his usual simplicity of style, it yet lacks the
declamatory fire, the axiomatic form of speech, the over-
powering unction of feeling, that have characterized some
of his other productions. Its exordium, though certainly
pertinent in any account of the origin, progress and comple-
tion of the monument, is common-place, occupied as it is
with the petty details of individual merit, in relation to the
building of this stupendous granite pile. What strikes me
as somewhat singular is, that more space is given to record
the death and worth of George Blake, ' a man of wit and
talent,' and twenty times as much to emblazon the virtues of
Thomas H. Perkins, an eminent merchant of Boston, than
is conceded to a notice of the life and death of Lafayette !
Indeed, all that is said by the orator, respecting the latter,
is — ' Lafayette sleeps in his native land.' Strange that,
in view of the fact that this distinguished champion of Ameri-
can freedom was present at the laying of the corner-stone
of the monument, and that the project for building it was


conceived and announced to the people during his last
sojourn among us — strange, I say, that Mr. Webster should
have left wholly unimproved so rare and apposite an oppor-
tunity to bestow an elaborate eulogium on his revolutionary
services and eventful life !

The Address is too purely historical for such an occasion.
It is an effort to please, rather than to benefit the people ; it
distributes praise with a liberal hand, but finds nothing to
censure in our past or present career. Acting as the histo-
rian of the country, justice and verity demanded of Mr.
Webster, that he should record its evil, as well as its good
deeds. But to do this requires moral courage, insensibility
to public anger, reverence for truth, and deep solicitude for
the welfare of the republic. These traits are not percepti-
ble in the character of Mr. Webster. He knows well how
to play the flatterer, but in him are seen none of the
elements of a reformer. Morally, he is a colossal coward.
In the light of reason, the selection of such a man to be
the orator on Bunker Hill was a biting satire on repub-
lican liberty, and a shameful insult to the memories of
those who perished in ' the first great battle of the revolu-
tion.' He, the man of men, the first choice of a nation of
freemen — the one pre-eminently qualified, among seven-
teen millions of people, to deliver the Address on such an
occasion ! The man who travelled to Richmond, Virginia,
on an electioneering tour in 1840, and then and there, ' in
the face of an October sun,' and in the presence of a great
crowd of cradle-plunderers and men-stealers, basely gave
a pledge, in behalf of himself and the people of New Eng-
land, to stand by the Southern slave system, and to frown on
the Anti-Slavery enterprise ! The man, who, as the lead-
ing Senator in Congress from Massachusetts, saw the sacred
right of petition cloven down, session after session, and
raised no note of remonstrance, no voice of warning, against


the tyrannous deed ! The man who lias seen millions of his
countrymen chained, enslaved, without any hope or prospect
of redemption ; and yet has never shed one tear of sympa-
thy for their fate, never felt one throb of indignation in view
of their terrible treatment, never once opened his mouth to
plead their cause ! The man who has prostituted his great
talents in negotiating with the British government, to cause
the self-emancipated, heroic slaves of the Creole to be given
up to our own government, that they may be put to an igno-
minious death, as rebels and murderers, merely for imitat-
ing the example of Washington, Hancock and Warren !
He, the chosen orator for the 17th of June, 1843, on Bunker
Hill, to expatiate on the blessings of civil and religious lib-
erty, and to eulogize those who resisted unto death ' a three-
penny tax on tea ' ! Assuredly, if the people of New
England, of Massachusetts, had been true to themselves,
and loyal to the cause of liberty, they never would have
consented to the appointment of Daniel Webster as the
orator on the occasion alluded to. But the whole affair was
a sublime mockery, and it was perfectly in character to place
him at the head of it.

What the occasion demanded was, not merely a retrospect
of the past, but a sober, careful, faithful survey of the pres-
ent condition of the country ; not only a picture of what
had been achieved by revolutionary valor and self-sacrifice,
but a description of what remained to be done by other and
higher instrumentalities, to give peace, security, permanency
to the republic. Nothing can be more dangerous than to
administer compliments to national vanity ; for every nation
had an abundance of this commodity, even for exporta-
tion, and none appears to be so well supplied with it as our
own. It is true, in the peroration of his discourse, Mr.
Webster speaks of duties and obligations to be performed ;
bids us remember ' the sacred trust, attaching to the rich in-


heritance which we have reccivecl from our fathers ' ; tells us
lo feel our personal responsibility for the preservation of our
institutions of civil and religious liberty ; invokes us to
' remember that it is only religion, and morals, and knowl-
edge, that can make men respectable and happy, under any
form of government ' ; and reminds us of ' the great truth,
that communities are responsible, as well as individuals.''
But a homily like this defines nothing, and is not intended
to be applied to any thing. It is nothing more than a sop to
the religious sentiment, and an unsuccessful effort to appear
virtuous. Neither the man who gave utterance to it, nor the
people who heard it, comprehended its actual meaning.
' No government,' said Mr. Webster, ' is respectable, which
is not just.' Did he mean to say that the American govern-
ment is unjust, and therefore degraded ? Not he ! Did the
assembled multitude understand him as impeaching the integ-
rity and honor of the country ? Not they ! Had he so

Online LibraryWilliam Lloyd GarrisonSelections from the writings and speeches of William Lloyd Garrison. With an appendix .. → online text (page 21 of 33)