Burke was one of the greatest political thinkers whom England has produced, and all his writings, like his speeches, are characterised by the welding together of knowledge, thought, and feeling. Unlike most orators he is more successful as a writer than as a speaker. He rose too far above the heads of his audience, which the continued splendour of his declamation, his inordinate copiousness, and his excessive vehemence, often passing into fury, at length wearied, and even disgusted: but in his writings are found some of the grandest examples of a fervid and richly elaborated eloquence. Though he was never admitted to the Cabinet, he guided and influenced largely the policy of his party, while by his efforts in the direction of economy and order in administration at home, and on behalf of kindly and just government in India, as well as by his contributions to political philosophy, he laid his country and indeed the world under lasting obligations. This is volume seven out of twelve of his works, this volume containing fragments of speeches, an essay towards an abridgment of the English history, and others.
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The Works of Edmund Burke
The Works of E. Burke Volume 7
Jazzybee Verlag Jürgen Beck
86450 Altenmünster, Loschberg 9
FRAGMENTS AND NOTES OF SPEECHES.1
SPEECH ON THE ACTS OF UNIFORMITY FEBRUARY 6, 1772.1
SPEECH ON A BILL FOR THE RELIEF OF PROTESTANT DISSENTERS. MARCH 17, 1773.10
SPEECH ON A MOTION MADE IN THE HOUSE OF COMMONS 19
SPEECH ON THE MOTION... 29
SPEECH ON A BILL FOR SHORTENING THE DURATION OF PARLIAMENTS. MAY 8, 1780.33
SPEECH ON A MOTION... 42
SPEECH ON A MOTION... 50
SPEECH ON A BILL FOR THE REPEAL OF THE MARRIAGE ACT. JUNE 15, 1781.61
SPEECH ON A MOTION MADE IN THE HOUSE OF COMMONS, FEBRUARY 17, 1772,64
HINTS FOR AN ESSAY ON THE DRAMA.67
AN ESSAY TOWARDS AN ABRIDGMENT OF THE ENGLISH HISTORY. IN THREE BOOKS.74
During the period of Mr. Burke's Parliamentary labors, some alterations in the Acts of Uniformity, and the repeal of the Test and Corporation Acts, were agitated at various times in the House of Commons. It appears from the state of his manuscript papers, that he had designed to publish some of the Speeches which he delivered in those discussions, and with that view had preserved the following Fragments and detached Notes, which are now given to the public with as much order and connection as their imperfect condition renders them capable of receiving. The Speeches on the Middlesex Election, on shortening the Duration of Parliaments, on the Reform of the Representation in Parliament, on the Bill for explaining the Power of Juries in Prosecutions for libels, and on the Repeal of the Marriage Act, were found in the same imperfect state.
The following Speech was occasioned by a petition to the House of Commons from certain clergymen of the Church of England, and certain of the two professions of Civil Law and Physic, and others, praying to be relieved from subscription to the Thirty-Nine Articles, as required by the Acts of Uniformity. The persona associated for this purpose were distinguished at the time by the name of "The Feathers Tavern Association," from the place where their meetings were usually held. Their petition was presented on the 6th of February, 1772; and on a motion that it should be brought up, the same was negatived on a division, in which Mr. Burke voted in the majority, by 217 against 71.
Mr. Speaker,—I should not trouble the House upon this question, if I could at all acquiesce in many of the arguments, or justify the vote I shall give upon several of the reasons which have been urged in favor of it. I should, indeed, be very much concerned, if I were thought to be influenced to that vote by those arguments.
In particular, I do most exceedingly condemn all such arguments as involve any kind of reflection on the personal character of the gentlemen who have brought in a petition so decent in the style of it, and so constitutional in the mode. Besides the unimpeachable integrity and piety of many of the promoters of this petition, which render those aspersions as idle as they are unjust, such a way of treating the subject can have no other effect than to turn the attention of the House from the merits of the petition, the only thing properly before us, and which we are sufficiently competent to decide upon, to the motives of the petitioners, which belong exclusively to the Great Searcher of Hearts.
We all know that those who loll at their ease in high dignities, whether of the Church or of the State, are commonly averse to all reformation. It is hard to persuade them that there can be anything amiss in establishments which by feeling experience they find to be so very comfortable. It is as true, that, from the same selfish motives, those who are struggling upwards are apt to find everything wrong and out of order. These are truths upon one side and on the other; and neither on the one side or the other in argument are they worth a single farthing. I wish, therefore, so much had not been said upon these ill-chosen, and worse than ill-chosen, these very invidious topics.
I wish still more that the dissensions and animosities which had slept for a century had not been just now most unseasonably revived. But if we must be driven, whether we will or not, to recollect these unhappy transactions, let our memory be complete and equitable, let us recollect the whole of them together. If the Dissenters, as an honorable gentleman has described them, have formerly risen from a "whining, canting, snivelling generation," to be a body dreadful and ruinous to all our establishments, let him call to mind the follies, the violences, the outrages, and persecutions, that conjured up, very blamably, but very naturally, that same spirit of retaliation. Let him recollect, along with the injuries, the services which Dissenters have done to our Church and to our State. If they have once destroyed, more than once they have saved them. This is but common justice, which they and all mankind have a right to.
There are, Mr. Speaker, besides these prejudices and animosities, which I would have wholly removed from the debate, things more regularly and argumentatively urged against the petition, which, however, do not at all appear to me conclusive.
First, two honorable gentlemen, one near me, the other, I think, on the other side of the House, assert, that, if you alter her symbols, you destroy the being of the Church of England. This, for the sake of the liberty of that Church, I must absolutely deny. The Church, like every body corporate, may alter her laws without changing her identity. As an independent church, professing fallibility, she has claimed a right of acting without the consent of any other; as a church, she claims, and has always exercised, a right of reforming whatever appeared amiss in her doctrine, her discipline, or her rites. She did so, when she shook off the Papal supremacy in the reign of Henry the Eighth, which was an act of the body of the English Church, as well as of the State (I don't inquire how obtained). She did so, when she twice changed the Liturgy in the reign of King Edward, when she then established Articles, which were themselves a variation from former professions. She did so, when she cut off three articles from her original forty-two, and reduced them to the present thirty-nine; and she certainly would not lose her corporate identity, nor subvert her fundamental principles, though she were to leave ten of the thirty-nine which remain out of any future confession of her faith. She would limit her corporate powers, on the contrary, and she would oppose her fundamental principles, if she were to deny herself the prudential exercise of such capacity of reformation. This, therefore, can be no objection to your receiving the petition.
In the next place, Sir, I am clear, that the Act of Union, reciting and ratifying one Scotch and one English act of Parliament, has not rendered any change whatsoever in our Church impossible, but by a dissolution of the union between the two kingdoms.
The honorable gentleman who has last touched upon that point has not gone quite so far as the gentlemen who first insisted upon it. However, as none of them wholly abandon that post, it will not be safe to leave it behind me unattacked. I believe no one will wish their interpretation of that act to be considered as authentic. What shall we think of the wisdom (to say nothing of the competence) of that legislature which should ordain to itself such a fundamental law, at its outset, as to disable itself from executing its own functions,—which should prevent it from making any further laws, however wanted, and that, too, on the most interesting subject that belongs to human society, and where she most frequently wants its interposition,—which should fix those fundamental laws that are forever to prevent it from adapting itself to its opinions, however clear, or to its own necessities, however urgent? Such an act, Mr. Speaker, would forever put the Church out of its own power; it certainly would put it far above the State, and erect it into that species of independency which it has been the great principle of our policy to prevent.
The act never meant, I am sure, any such unnatural restraint on the joint legislature it was then forming. History shows us what it meant, and all that it could mean with any degree of common sense.
In the reign of Charles the First a violent and ill-considered attempt was made unjustly to establish the platform of the government and the rites of the Church of England in Scotland, contrary to the genius and desires of far the majority of that nation. This usurpation excited a most mutinous spirit in that country. It produced that shocking fanatical Covenant (I mean the Covenant of '36) for forcing their ideas of religion on England, and indeed on all mankind. This became the occasion, at length, of other covenants, and of a Scotch army marching into England to fulfil them; and the Parliament of England (for its own purposes) adopted their scheme, took their last covenant, and destroyed the Church of England. The Parliament, in their ordinance of 1648, expressly assign their desire of conforming to the Church of Scotland as a motive for their alteration.
To prevent such violent enterprises on the one side or on the other, since each Church was going to be disarmed of a legislature wholly and peculiarly affected to it, and lest this new uniformity in the State should be urged as a reason and ground of ecclesiastical uniformity, the Act of Union provided that presbytery should continue the Scotch, as episcopacy the English establishment, and that this separate and mutually independent Church-government was to be considered as a part of the Union, without aiming at putting the regulation within each Church out of its own power, without putting both Churches out of the power of the State. It could not mean to forbid us to set anything ecclesiastical in order, but at the expense of tearing up all foundations, and forfeiting the inestimable benefits (for inestimable they are) which we derive from the happy union of the two kingdoms. To suppose otherwise is to suppose that the act intended we could not meddle at all with the Church, but we must as a preliminary destroy the State.
Well, then, Sir, this is, I hope, satisfactory. The Act of Union does not stand in our way. But, Sir, gentlemen think we are not competent to the reformation desired, chiefly from our want of theological learning. If we were the legal assembly....
If ever there was anything to which, from reason, nature, habit, and principle, I am totally averse, it is persecution for conscientious difference in opinion. If these gentlemen complained justly of any compulsion upon them on that article, I would hardly wait for their petitions; as soon as I knew the evil, I would haste to the cure; I would even run before their complaints.
I will not enter into the abstract merits of our Articles and Liturgy. Perhaps there are some things in them which one would wish had not been there. They are not without the marks and characters of human frailty.
But it is not human frailty and imperfection, and even a considerable degree of them, that becomes a ground for your alteration; for by no alteration will you get rid of those errors, however you may delight yourselves in varying to infinity the fashion of them. But the ground for a legislative alteration of a legal establishment is this, and this only,—that you find the inclinations of the majority of the people, concurring with your own sense of the intolerable nature of the abuse, are in favor of a change.
If this be the case in the present instance, certainly you ought to make the alteration that is proposed, to satisfy your own consciences, and to give content to your people. But if you have no evidence of this nature, it ill becomes your gravity, on the petition of a few gentlemen, to listen to anything that tends to shake one of the capital pillars of the state, and alarm the body of your people upon that one ground, in which every hope and fear, every interest, passion, prejudice, everything which can affect the human breast, are all involved together. If you make this a season for religious alterations, depend upon it, you will soon find it a season of religious tumults and religious wars.
These gentlemen complain of hardship. No considerable number shows discontent; but, in order to give satisfaction to any number of respectable men, who come in so decent and constitutional a mode before us, let us examine a little what that hardship is. They want to be preferred clergymen in the Church of England as by law established; but their consciences will not suffer them to conform to the doctrines and practices of that Church: that is, they want to be teachers in a church to which they do not belong; and it is an odd sort of hardship. They want to receive the emoluments appropriated for teaching one set of doctrines, whilst they are teaching another. A church, in any legal sense, is only a certain system of religious doctrines and practices fixed and ascertained by some law,—by the difference of which laws different churches (as different commonwealths) are made in various parts of the world; and the establishment is a tax laid by the same sovereign authority for payment of those who so teach and so practise: for no legislature was ever so absurd as to tax its people to support men for teaching and acting as they please, but by some prescribed rule.
The hardship amounts to this,—that the people of England are not taxed two shillings in the pound to pay them for teaching, as divine truths, their own particular fancies. For the state has so taxed the people; and by way of relieving these gentlemen, it would be a cruel hardship on the people to be compelled to pay, from the sweat of their brow, the most heavy of all taxes to men, to condemn as heretical the doctrines which they repute to be orthodox, and to reprobate as superstitious the practices which they use as pious and holy. If a man leaves by will an establishment for preaching, such as Boyle's Lectures, or for charity sermons, or funeral sermons, shall any one complain of an hardship, because he has an excellent sermon upon matrimony, or on the martyrdom of King Charles, or on the Restoration, which I, the trustee of the establishment, will not pay him for preaching?—S. Jenyns, Origin of Evil.—Such is the hardship which they complain of under the present Church establishment, that they have not the power of taxing the people of England for the maintenance of their private opinions.
The laws of toleration provide for every real grievance that these gentlemen can rationally complain of Are they hindered from professing their belief of what they think to be truth? If they do not like the Establishment, there are an hundred different modes of Dissent in which they may teach. But even if they are so unfortunately circumstanced that of all that variety none will please them, they have free liberty to assemble a congregation of their own; and if any persons think their fancies (they may be brilliant imaginations) worth paying for, they are at liberty to maintain them as their clergy: nothing hinders it. But if they cannot get an hundred people together who will pay for their reading a liturgy after their form, with what face can they insist upon the nation's conforming to their ideas, for no other visible purpose than the enabling them to receive with a good conscience the tenth part of the produce of your lands?
Therefore, beforehand, the Constitution has thought proper to take a security that the tax raised on the people shall be applied only to those who profess such doctrines and follow such a mode of worship as the legislature, representing the people, has thought most agreeable to their general sense,—binding, as usual, the minority, not to an assent to the doctrines, but to a payment of the tax.
But how do you ease and relieve? How do you know, that, in making a new door into the Church for these gentlemen, you do not drive ten times their number out of it? Supposing the contents and not-contents strictly equal in numbers and consequence, the possession, to avoid disturbance, ought to carry it. You displease all the clergy of England now actually in office, for the chance of obliging a score or two, perhaps, of gentlemen, who are, or want to be, beneficed clergymen: and do you oblige? Alter your Liturgy,—will it please all even, of those who wish, an alteration? will they agree in what ought to be altered? And after it is altered to the mind of every one, you are no further advanced than if you had not taken a single step; because a large body of men will then say you ought to have no liturgy at all: and then these men, who now complain so bitterly that they are shut out, will themselves bar the door against thousands of others. Dissent, not satisfied with toleration, is not conscience, but ambition.
You altered the Liturgy for the Directory. This was settled by a set of most learned divines and learned laymen: Selden sat amongst them. Did this please? It was considered upon both sides as a most unchristian imposition. Well, at the Restoration they rejected the Directory, and reformed the Common Prayer,—which, by the way, had been three times reformed before. Were they then contented? Two thousand (or some great number) of clergy resigned their livings in one day rather than read it: and truly, rather than raise that second idol, I should have adhered to the Directory, as I now adhere to the Common Prayer. Nor can you content other men's conscience, real or pretended, by any concessions: follow your own; seek peace and ensue it. You have no symptoms of discontent in the people to their Establishment. The churches are too small for their congregations. The livings are too few for their candidates. The spirit of religious controversy has slackened by the nature of things: by act you may revive it. I will not enter into the question, how much truth is preferable to peace. Perhaps truth may be far better. But as we have scarcely ever the same certainty in the one that we have in the other, I would, unless the truth were evident indeed, hold fast to peace, which has in her company charity, the highest of the virtues.
This business appears in two points of view: 1st, Whether it is a matter of grievance; 2nd, Whether it is within our province to redress it with propriety and prudence. Whether it comes properly before us on a petition upon matter of grievance I would not inquire too curiously. I know, technically speaking, that nothing agreeable to law can be considered as a grievance. But an over-attention to the rules of any act does sometimes defeat the ends of it; and I think it does so in this Parliamentary act, as much at least as in any other. I know many gentlemen think that the very essence of liberty consists in being governed according to law, as if grievances had nothing real and intrinsic; but I cannot be of that opinion. Grievances may subsist by law. Nay, I do not know whether any grievance can be considered as intolerable, until it is established and sanctified by law. If the Act of Toleration were not perfect, if there were a complaint of it, I would gladly consent to amend it. But when I heard a complaint of a pressure on religious liberty, to my astonishment I find that there was no complaint whatsoever of the insufficiency of the act of King William, nor any attempt to make it more sufficient. The matter, therefore, does not concern toleration, but establishment; and it is not the rights of private conscience that are in question, but the propriety of the terms which are proposed by law as a title to public emoluments: so that the complaint is not, that there is not toleration of diversity in opinion, but that diversity in opinion is not rewarded by bishoprics, rectories, and collegiate stalls. When gentlemen complain of the subscription as matter of grievance, the complaint arises from confounding private judgment, whose rights are anterior to law, and the qualifications which the law creates for its own magistracies, whether civil or religious. To take away from men their lives, their liberty, or their property, those things for the protection of which society was introduced, is great hardship and intolerable tyranny; but to annex any condition you please to benefits artificially created is the most just, natural, and proper thing in the world. When e nova you form an arbitrary benefit, an advantage, preëminence, or emolument, not by Nature, but institution, you order and modify it with all the power of a creator over his creature. Such benefits of institution are royalty, nobility, priesthood, all of which you may limit to birth; you might prescribe even shape and stature. The Jewish priesthood was hereditary. Founders' kinsmen have a preference in the election of fellows in many colleges of our universities: the qualifications at All Souls are, that they should be optime nati, bene vestiti, mediocriter docti.
By contending for liberty in the candidate for orders, you take away the liberty of the elector, which is the people, that is, the state. If they can choose, they may assign a reason for their choice; if they can assign a reason, they may do it in writing, and prescribe it as a condition; they may transfer their authority to their representatives, and enable them to exercise the same. In all human institutions, a great part, almost all regulations, are made from the mere necessity of the case, let the theoretical merits of the question be what they will. For nothing happened at the Reformation but what will happen in all such revolutions. When tyranny is extreme, and abuses of government intolerable, men resort to the rights of Nature to shake it off. When they have done so, the very same principle of necessity of human affairs to establish some other authority, which shall preserve the order of this new institution, must be obeyed, until they grow intolerable; and you shall not be suffered to plead original liberty against such an institution. See Holland, Switzerland.
If you will have religion publicly practised and publicly taught, you must have a power to say what that religion will be which you will protect and encourage, and to distinguish it by such marks and characteristics as you in your wisdom shall think fit. As I said before, your determination may be unwise in this as in other matters; but it cannot be unjust, hard, or oppressive, or contrary to the liberty of any man, or in the least degree exceeding your province. It is, therefore, as a grievance, fairly none at all,—nothing but what is essential, not only to the order, but to the liberty, of the whole community.
The petitioners are so sensible of the force of these arguments, that they do admit of one subscription,—that is, to the Scripture. I shall not consider how forcibly this argument militates with their whole principle against subscription as an usurpation on the rights of Providence: I content myself with submitting to the consideration of the House, that, if that rule were once established, it must have some authority to enforce the obedience; because, you well know, a law without a sanction will be ridiculous. Somebody must sit in judgment on his conformity; he must judge on the charge; if he judges, he must ordain execution. These things are necessary consequences one of the other; and then, this judgment is an equal and a superior violation of private judgment; the right of private judgment is violated in a much greater degree than it can be by any previous subscription. You come round again to subscription, as the best and easiest method; men must judge of his doctrine, and judge definitively: so that either his test is nugatory, or men must first or last prescribe his public interpretation of it.
If the Church be, as Mr. Locke defines it, a voluntary society, &c., then it is essential to this voluntary society to exclude from her voluntary society any member she thinks fit, or to oppose the entrance of any upon such conditions as she thinks proper. For, otherwise, it would be a voluntary society acting contrary to her will, which is a contradiction in terms. And this is Mr. Locke's opinion, the advocate for the largest scheme of ecclesiastical and civil toleration to Protestants (for to Papists he allows no toleration at all).
They dispute only the extent of the subscription; they therefore tacitly admit the equity of the principle itself. Here they do not resort to the original rights of Nature, because it is manifest that those rights give as large a power of controverting every part of Scripture, or even the authority of the whole, as they do to the controverting any articles whatsoever. When a man requires you to sign an assent to Scripture, he requires you to assent to a doctrine as contrary to your natural understanding, and to your rights of free inquiry, as those who require your conformity to any one article whatsoever.
The subscription to Scripture is the most astonishing idea I ever heard, and will amount to just nothing at all. Gentlemen so acute have not, that I have heard, ever thought of answering a plain, obvious question: What is that Scripture to which they are content to subscribe? They do not think that a book becomes of divine authority because it is bound in blue morocco, and is printed by John Baskett and his assigns. The Bible is a vast collection of different treatises: a man who holds the divine authority of one may consider the other as merely human. What is his Canon? The Jewish? St. Jerome's? that of the Thirty-Nine Articles? Luther's? There are some who reject the Canticles; others, six of the Epistles; the Apocalypse has been suspected even as heretical, and was doubted of for many ages, and by many great men. As these narrow the Canon, others have enlarged it by admitting St. Barnabas's Epistles, the Apostolic Constitutions, to say nothing of many other Gospels. Therefore, to ascertain. Scripture, you must have one article more; and you must define what that Scripture is which, you mean to teach. There are, I believe, very few who, when Scripture is so ascertained, do not see the absolute necessity of knowing what general doctrine a man draws from it, before he is sent down authorized by the state to teach, it as pure doctrine, and receive a tenth of the produce of our lands.
The Scripture is no one summary of doctrines regularly digested, in which, a man could not mistake his way. It is a most venerable, but most multifarious, collection of the records of the divine economy: a collection of an infinite variety,—of cosmogony, theology, history, prophecy, psalmody, morality, apologue, allegory, legislation, ethics, carried through different books, by different authors, at different ages, for different ends and purposes. It is necessary to sort out what is intended for example, what only as narrative,—what to be understood literally, what figuratively,—where one precept is to be controlled and modified by another,—what is used directly, and what only as an argument ad hominem,—what is temporary, and what of perpetual obligation,—what appropriated to one state and to one set of men, and what the general duty of all Christians. If we do not get some security for this, we not only permit, but we actually pay for, all the dangerous fanaticism which, can be produced to corrupt our people, and to derange the public worship of the country. We owe the best we can (not infallibility, but prudence) to the subject,—first sound doctrine, then ability to use it.
This speech is given partly from the manuscript papers of Mr. Burke, and partly from a very imperfect short-hand note taken at the time by a member of the House of Commons. The bill under discussion was opposed by petitions from several congregations calling themselves "Protestant Dissenters," who appear to have been principally composed of the people who are generally known under the denomination of "Methodists," and particularly by a petition from a congregation of that description residing in the town of Chatham.
I assure you, Sir, that the honorable gentleman who spoke last but one need not be in the least fear that I should make a war of particles upon his opinion, whether the Church of England should, would, or ought to be alarmed. I am very clear that this House has no one reason in the world to think she is alarmed by the bill brought before you. It is something extraordinary that the only symptom of alarm in the Church of England should appear in the petition of some Dissenters, with whom, I believe very few in this House are yet acquainted, and of whom you know no more than that you are assured by the honorable gentleman that they are not Mahometans. Of the Church we know they are not, by the name that they assume. They are, then, Dissenters. The first symptom of an alarm, comes from some Dissenters assembled round the lines of Chatham: these lines become the security of the Church of England! The honorable gentleman, in speaking of the lines of Chatham, tells us that they serve not only for the security of the wooden walls of England, but for the defence of the Church of England. I suspect the wooden walls of England secure the lines of Chatham, rather than the lines of Chatham secure the wooden walls of England.
Sir, the Church of England, if only defended by this miserable petition upon your table, must, I am afraid, upon the principles of true fortification, be soon destroyed. But, fortunately, her walls, bulwarks, and bastions are constructed of other materials than of stubble and straw,—are built up with the strong and stable matter of the gospel of liberty, and founded on a true, constitutional, legal establishment. But, Sir, she has other securities: she has the security of her own doctrines; she has the security of the piety, the sanctity, of her own professors, —their learning is a bulwark to defend her; she has the security of the two universities, not shook in any single battlement, in any single pinnacle.
But the honorable gentleman has mentioned, indeed, principles which astonish me rather more than ever. The honorable gentleman thinks that the Dissenters enjoy a large share of liberty under a connivance; and he thinks that the establishing toleration by law is an attack upon Christianity.
The first of these is a contradiction in terms. Liberty under a connivance! Connivance is a relaxation from slavery, not a definition of liberty. What is connivance, but a state under which all slaves live? If I was to describe slavery, I would say, with those who hate it, it is living under will, not under law; if as it is stated by its advocates, I would say, that, like earthquakes, like thunder, or other wars the elements make upon mankind, it happens rarely, it occasionally comes now and then upon people, who, upon ordinary occasions, enjoy the same legal government of liberty. Take it under the description of those who would soften those features, the state of slavery and connivance is the same thing. If the liberty enjoyed be a liberty not of toleration, but of connivance, the only question is, whether establishing such by law is an attack upon Christianity. Toleration an attack upon Christianity! What, then! are we come to this pass, to suppose that nothing can support Christianity but the principles of persecution? Is that, then, the idea of establishment? Is it, then, the idea of Christianity itself, that it ought to have establishments, that it ought to have laws against Dissenters, but the breach of which laws is to be connived at? What a picture of toleration! what a picture of laws, of establishments! what a picture of religious and civil liberty! I am persuaded the honorable gentleman, does not see it in this light. But these very terms become the strongest reasons for my support of the bill: for I am persuaded that toleration, so far from being an attack upon Christianity, becomes the best and surest support that possibly can be given, to it. The Christian religion itself arose without establishment,—it arose even without toleration; and whilst its own principles were not tolerated, it conquered all the powers of darkness, it conquered all the powers of the world. The moment it began to depart from these principles, it converted the establishment into tyranny; it subverted its foundations from that very hour. Zealous as I am for the principle of an establishment, so just an abhorrence do I conceive against whatever may shake it. I know nothing but the supposed necessity of persecution that can make an establishment disgusting. I would have toleration a part of establishment, as a principle favorable to Christianity, and as a part of Christianity.
All seem agreed that the law, as it stands, inflicting penalties on all-religious teachers and on schoolmasters who do not sign the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion, ought not to be executed. We are all agreed that the law is not good: for that, I presume, is undoubtedly the idea of a law that ought not to be executed. The question, therefore, is, whether in a well-constituted commonwealth, which we desire ours to be thought, and I trust intend that it should be, whether in such a commonwealth it is wise to retain those laws which it is not proper to execute. A penal law not ordinarily put in execution seems to me to be a very absurd and a very dangerous thing. For if its principle be right, if the object of its prohibitions and penalties be a real evil, then you do in effect permit that very evil, which not only the reason of the thing, but your very law, declares ought not to be permitted; and thus it reflects exceedingly on the wisdom, and consequently derogates not a little from the authority, of a legislature who can at once forbid and suffer, and in the same breath promulgate penalty and indemnity to the same persons and for the very same actions. But if the object of the law be no moral or political evil, then you ought not to hold even a terror to those whom you ought certainly not to punish: for if it is not right to hurt, it is neither right nor wise to menace. Such laws, therefore, as they must be defective either in justice or wisdom or both, so they cannot exist without a considerable degree of danger. Take them which way you will, they are pressed with ugly alternatives.
1st. All penal laws are either upon popular prosecution, or on the part of the crown. Now if they may be roused from their sleep, whenever a minister thinks proper, as instruments of oppression, then they put vast bodies of men into a state of slavery and court dependence; since their liberty of conscience and their power of executing their functions depend entirely on his will. I would have no man derive his means of continuing any function, or his being restrained from it, but from the laws only: they should be his only superior and sovereign lords.
2nd. They put statesmen and magistrates into an habit of playing fast and loose with the laws, straining or relaxing them as may best suit their political purposes,—and in that light tend to corrupt the executive power through all its offices.
3rd. If they are taken up on popular actions, their operation in that light also is exceedingly evil. They become the instruments of private malice, private avarice, and not of public regulation; they nourish the worst of men to the prejudice of the best, punishing tender consciences, and rewarding informers.
Shall we, as the honorable gentleman tells us we may with perfect security, trust to the manners of the age? I am well pleased with the general manners of the times; but the desultory execution of penal laws, the thing I condemn, does not depend on the manners of the times. I would, however, have the laws tuned in unison with the manners. Very dissonant are a gentle country and cruel laws; very dissonant, that your reason is furious, but your passions moderate, and that you are always equitable except in your courts of justice.
I will beg leave to state to the House one argument which has been much relied upon: that the Dissenters are not unanimous upon this business; that many persons are alarmed; that it will create a disunion among the Dissenters.
When any Dissenters, or any body of people, come here with a petition, it is not the number of people, but the reasonableness of the request, that should weigh with the House. A body of Dissenters come to this House, and say, "Tolerate us: we desire neither the parochial advantage of tithes, nor dignities, nor the stalls of your cathedrals: no! let the venerable orders of the hierarchy exist with all their advantages." And shall I tell them, "I reject your just and reasonable petition, not because it shakes the Church, but because there are others, while you lie grovelling upon the earth, that will kick and bite you"? Judge which of these descriptions of men comes with a fair request: that which says, "Sir, I desire liberty for my own, because I trespass on no man's conscience,"—or the other, which says, "I desire that these men should not be suffered to act according to their consciences, though I am tolerated to act according to mine. But I sign a body of Articles, which is my title to toleration; I sign no more, because more are against my conscience. But I desire that you will not tolerate these men, because they will not go so far as I, though I desire to be tolerated, who will not go as far as you. No, imprison them, if they come within five miles of a corporate town, because they do not believe what I do in point of doctrines." Shall I not say to these men, Arrangez-vous, canaille? You, who are not the predominant power, will not give to others the relaxation under which you are yourself suffered to live. I have as high an opinion of the doctrines of the Church as you. I receive them implicitly, or I put my own explanation on them, or take that which seems to me to come best recommended by authority. There are those of the Dissenters who think more rigidly of the doctrine of the Articles relative to Predestination than others do. They sign the Article relative to it ex animo, and literally. Others allow a latitude of construction. These two parties are in the Church, as well as among the Dissenters; yet in the Church we live quietly under the same roof. I do not see why, as long as Providence gives us no further light into this great mystery, we should not leave things as the Divine Wisdom has left them. But suppose all these things to me to be clear, (which Providence, however, seems to have left obscure,) yet, whilst Dissenters claim a toleration in things which, seeming clear to me, are obscure to them, without entering into the merit of the Articles, with what face can these men say, "Tolerate us, but do not tolerate them"? Toleration is good for all, or it is good for none.
The discussion this day is not between establishment on one hand and toleration on the other, but between those who, being tolerated themselves, refuse toleration to others. That power should be puffed up with pride, that authority should degenerate into rigor, if not laudable, is but too natural. But this proceeding of theirs is much beyond the usual allowance to human weakness: it not only is shocking to our reason, but it provokes our indignation. Quid domini facient, audent cum talia fures? It is not the proud prelate thundering in his Commission Court, but a pack of manumitted slaves, with the lash of the beadle flagrant on their backs, and their legs still galled with their fetters, that would drive their brethren into that prison-house from whence they have just been permitted to escape. If, instead of puzzling themselves in the depths of the Divine counsels, they would turn, to the mild morality of the Gospel, they would read their own condemnation:—"O thou wicked servant, I forgave thee all that debt because thou desiredst me: shouldest not thou also have compassion on thy fellow-servant, even as I had pity on thee?"
In my opinion, Sir, a magistrate, whenever he goes to put any restraint upon religious freedom, can only do it upon this ground,—that the person dissenting does not dissent from the scruples of ill-informed conscience, but from a party ground of dissension, in order to raise a faction in the state. We give, with regard to rites and ceremonies, an indulgence to tender consciences. But if dissent is at all punished in any country, if at all it can be punished upon any pretence, it is upon a presumption, not that a man is supposed to differ conscientiously from the establishment, but that he resists truth for the sake of faction,—that he abets diversity of opinions in religion to distract the state, and to destroy the peace of his country. This is the only plausible,—for there is no true ground of persecution. As the laws stand, therefore, let us see how we have thought fit to act.
If there is any one thing within the competency of a magistrate with regard to religion, it is this: that he has a right to direct the exterior ceremonies of religion; that, whilst interior religion is within the jurisdiction of God alone, the external part, bodily action, is within the province of the chief governor. Hooker, and all the great lights of the Church, have constantly argued this to be a part within the province of the civil magistrate. But look at the Act of Toleration of William and Mary: there you will see the civil magistrate has not only dispensed with those things which are more particularly within his province, with those things which faction might be supposed to take up for the sake of making visible and external divisions and raising a standard of revolt, but has also from sound politic considerations relaxed on those points which are confessedly without his province.
The honorable gentleman, speaking of the heathens, certainly could not mean to recommend anything that is derived from that impure source. But he has praised the tolerating spirit of the heathens. Well! but the honorable gentleman will recollect that heathens, that polytheists, must permit a number of divinities. It is the very essence of its constitution. But was it ever heard that polytheism tolerated a dissent from a polytheistic establishment,—the belief of one God only? Never! never! Sir, they constantly carried on persecution against that doctrine. I will not give heathens the glory of a doctrine which I consider the best part of Christianity. The honorable gentleman must recollect the Roman law, that was clearly against the introduction of any foreign rites in matters of religion. You have it at large in Livy, how they persecuted in the first introduction the rites of Bacchus; and even before Christ, to say nothing of their subsequent persecutions, they persecuted the Druids and others. Heathenism, therefore, as in other respects erroneous, was erroneous in point of persecution. I do not say every heathen who persecuted was therefore an impious man: I only say he was mistaken, as such a man is now. But, says the honorable gentleman, they did not persecute Epicureans. No: the Epicureans had no quarrel with their religious establishment, nor desired any religion for themselves. It would have been very extraordinary, if irreligious heathens had desired either a religious establishment or toleration. But, says the honorable gentleman, the Epicureans entered, as others, into the temples. They did so; they defied all subscription; they defied all sorts of conformity; there was no subscription to which they were not ready to set their hands, no ceremonies they refused to practise; they made it a principle of their irreligion outwardly to conform to any religion. These atheists eluded all that you could do: so will all freethinkers forever. Then you suffer, or the weakness of your law has suffered, those great dangerous animals to escape notice, whilst you have nets that entangle the poor fluttering silken wings of a tender conscience.
The honorable gentleman insists much upon this circumstance of objection,—namely, the division amongst the Dissenters. Why, Sir, the Dissenters, by the nature of the term, are open to have a division among themselves. They are Dissenters because they differ from the Church of England: not that they agree among themselves. There are Presbyterians, there are Independents,—some that do not agree to infant baptism, others that do not agree to the baptism of adults, or any baptism. All these are, however, tolerated under the acts of King William, and subsequent acts; and their diversity of sentiments with one another did not and could not furnish an argument against their toleration, when their difference with ourselves furnished none.
But, says the honorable gentleman, if you suffer them to go on, they will shake the fundamental principles of Christianity. Let it be considered, that this argument goes as strongly against connivance, which you allow, as against toleration, which you reject. The gentleman sets out with a principle of perfect liberty, or, as he describes it, connivance. But, for fear of dangerous opinions, you leave it in your power to vex a man who has not held any one dangerous opinion whatsoever. If one man is a professed atheist, another man the best Christian, but dissents from two of the Thirty-Nine Articles, I may let escape the atheist, because I know him to be an atheist, because I am, perhaps, so inclined myself, and because I may connive where I think proper; but the conscientious Dissenter, on account of his attachment to that general religion which perhaps I hate, I shall take care to punish, because I may punish when I think proper. Therefore, connivance being an engine of private malice or private favor, not of good government,—an engine which totally fails of suppressing atheism, but oppresses conscience,—I say that principle becomes, not serviceable, but dangerous to Christianity; that it is not toleration, but contrary to it, even contrary to peace; that the penal system to which it belongs is a dangerous principle in the economy either of religion or government. The honorable gentleman (and in him I comprehend all those who oppose the bill) bestowed in support of their side of the question as much argument as it could bear, and much more of learning and decoration than it deserved. He thinks connivance consistent, but legal toleration inconsistent, with the interests of Christianity. Perhaps I would go as far as that honorable gentleman, if I thought toleration inconsistent with those interests. God forbid! I may be mistaken, but I take toleration to be a part of religion. I do not know which I would sacrifice: I would keep them both: it is not necessary I should sacrifice either. I do not like the idea of tolerating the doctrines of Epicurus: but nothing in the world propagates them so much as the oppression of the poor, of the honest and candid disciples of the religion we profess in common,—I mean revealed religion; nothing sooner makes them take a short cut out of the bondage of sectarian vexation into open and direct infidelity than tormenting men for every difference. My opinion is, that, in establishing the Christian religion wherever you find it, curiosity or research is its best security; and in this way a man is a great deal better justified in saying, Tolerate all kinds of consciences, than in imitating the heathens, whom the honorable gentleman quotes, in tolerating those who have none. I am not over-fond of calling for the secular arm upon these misguided or misguiding men; but if ever it ought to be raised, it ought surely to be raised against these very men, not against others, whose liberty of religion you make a pretext for proceedings which drive them into the bondage of impiety. What figure do I make in saying, I do not attack the works of these atheistical writers, but I will keep a rod hanging over the conscientious man, their bitterest enemy, because these atheists may take advantage of the liberty of their foes to introduce irreligion? The best book that ever, perhaps, has been written against these people is that in which the author has collected in a body the whole of the infidel code, and has brought the writers into one body to cut them all off together. This was done by a Dissenter, who never did subscribe the Thirty-Nine Articles,—Dr. Leland. But if, after all this, danger is to be apprehended, if you are really fearful that Christianity will indirectly suffer by this liberty, you have my free consent: go directly, and by the straight way, and not by a circuit in which, in your road you may destroy your friends; point your arms against these men who do the mischief you fear promoting; point your arms against men who, not contented with endeavoring to turn your eyes from the blaze and effulgence of light by which life and immortality is so gloriously demonstrated by the Gospel, would even extinguish that faint glimmering of Nature, that only comfort supplied to ignorant man before this great illumination, —them, who, by attacking even the possibility of all revelation, arraign all the dispensations of Providence to man. These are the wicked Dissenters you ought to fear; these are the people against whom you ought to aim the shaft of the law; these are the men to whom, arrayed in all the terrors of government, I would say, You shall not degrade us into brutes! These men, these factious men, as the honorable gentleman properly called them, are the just objects of vengeance, not the conscientious Dissenter,—these men, who would take away whatever ennobles the rank or consoles the misfortunes of human nature, by breaking off that connection of observances, of affections, of hopes and fears, which bind us to the Divinity, and constitute the glorious and distinguishing prerogative of humanity, that of being a religious creature: against these I would have the laws rise in all their majesty of terrors, to fulminate such vain and impious wretches, and to awe them into impotence by the only dread they can fear or believe, to learn that eternal lesson, Discite justitiam moniti, et non temnere Divos!
At the same time that I would cut up the very root of atheism, I would respect all conscience,—all conscience that is really such, and which perhaps its very tenderness proves to be sincere. I wish to see the Established Church of England great and powerful; I wish to see her foundations laid low and deep, that she may crush the giant powers of rebellious darkness; I would have her head raised up to that heaven to which she conducts us. I would have her open wide her hospitable gates by a noble and liberal comprehension, but I would have no breaches in her wall; I would have her cherish all those who are within, and pity all those who are without; I would have her a common blessing to the world, an example, if not an instructor, to those who have not the happiness to belong to her; I would have her give a lesson of peace to mankind, that a vexed and wandering generation might be taught to seek for repose and toleration in the maternal bosom of Christian charity, and not in the harlot lap of infidelity and indifference. Nothing has driven people more into that house of seduction than the mutual hatred of Christian congregations. Long may we enjoy our church under a learned and edifying episcopacy! But episcopacy may fail, and religion exist. The most horrid and cruel blow that can be offered to civil society is through atheism. Do not promote diversity; when you have it, bear it; have as many sorts of religion as you find in your country; there is a reasonable worship in them all. The others, the infidels, are outlaws of the constitution, not of this country, but of the human race. They are never, never to be supported, never to be tolerated. Under the systematic attacks of these people, I see some of the props of good government already begin to fail; I see propagated principles which will not leave to religion even a toleration. I see myself sinking every day under the attacks of these wretched people. How shall I arm myself against them? By uniting all those in affection, who are united in the belief of the great principles of the Godhead that made and sustains the world. They who hold revelation give double assurance to their country. Even the man who does not hold revelation, yet who wishes that it were proved to him, who observes a pious silence with regard to it, such a man, though not a Christian, is governed by religious principles. Let him be tolerated in this country. Let it be but a serious religion, natural or revealed, take what you can get. Cherish, blow up the slightest spark: one day it may be a pure and holy flame. By this proceeding you form an alliance offensive and defensive against those great ministers of darkness in the world who are endeavoring to shake all the works of God established in order and beauty.
Perhaps I am carried too far; but it is in the road into which the honorable gentleman has led me. The honorable gentleman would have us fight this confederacy of the powers of darkness with the single arm of the Church of England,—would have us not only fight against infidelity, but fight at the same time with all the faith in the world except our own. In the moment we make a front against the common enemy, we have to combat with all those who are the natural friends of our cause. Strong as we are, we are not equal to this. The cause of the Church of England is included in that of religion, not that of religion in the Church of England. I will stand up at all times for the rights of conscience, as it is such,—not for its particular modes against its general principles. One may be right, another mistaken; but if I have more strength than my brother, it shall be employed to support, not to oppress his weakness; if I have more light, it shall be used to guide, not to dazzle him....
BY THE RIGHT HON. C.J. FOX, MAY 11, 1793, FOR LEAVE TO BRING IN A BILL TO REPEAL AND ALTER CERTAIN ACTS RESPECTING RELIGIOUS OPINIONS, UPON THE OCCASION OF A PETITION OF THE UNITARIAN SOCIETY
I never govern myself, no rational man ever did govern himself, by abstractions and universals. I do not put abstract ideas wholly out of any question; because I well know that under that name I should dismiss principles, and that without the guide and light of sound, well-understood principles, all reasonings in politics, as in everything else, would be only a confused jumble of particular facts and details, without the means of drawing out any sort of theoretical or practical conclusion. A statesman differs from a professor in an university: the latter has only the general view of society; the former, the statesman, has a number of circumstances to combine with those general ideas, and to take into his consideration. Circumstances are infinite, are infinitely combined, are variable and transient: he who does not take them into consideration is not erroneous, but stark mad; dat operam ut cum ratione insaniat; he is metaphysically mad. A statesman, never losing sight of principles, is to be guided by circumstances; and judging contrary to the exigencies of the moment, he may ruin his country forever.
I go on this ground,—that government, representing the society, has a general superintending control over all the actions and over all the publicly propagated doctrines of men, without which it never could provide adequately for all the wants of society: but then it is to use this power with an equitable discretion, the only bond of sovereign authority. For it is not, perhaps, so much by the assumption of unlawful powers as by the unwise or unwarrantable use of those which are most legal, that governments oppose their true end and object: for there is such a thing as tyranny, as well as usurpation. You can hardly state to me a case to which legislature is the most confessedly competent, in which, if the rules of benignity and prudence are not observed, the most mischievous and oppressive things may not be done. So that, after all, it is a moral and virtuous discretion, and not any abstract theory of right, which keeps governments faithful to their ends. Crude, unconnected truths are in the world of practice what falsehoods are in theory. A reasonable, prudent, provident, and moderate coercion may be a means of preventing acts of extreme ferocity and rigor: for by propagating excessive and extravagant doctrines, such extravagant disorders take place as require the most perilous and fierce corrections to oppose them.
It is not morally true that we are bound to establish in every country that form of religion which in our minds is most agreeable to truth, and conduces most to the eternal happiness of mankind. In the same manner, it is not true that we are, against the conviction of our own judgment, to establish a system of opinions and practices directly contrary to those ends, only because some majority of the people, told by the head, may prefer it. No conscientious man would willingly establish what he knew to be false and mischievous in religion, or in anything else. No wise man, on the contrary, would tyrannically set up his own sense so as to reprobate that of the great prevailing body of the community, and pay no regard to the established opinions and prejudices of mankind, or refuse to them the means of securing a religious instruction suitable to these prejudices. A great deal depends on the state in which you find men....
An alliance between Church and State in a Christian commonwealth is, in my opinion, an idle and a fanciful speculation. An alliance is between two things that are in their nature distinct and independent, such as between two sovereign states. But in a Christian commonwealth the Church and the State are one and the, same thing, being different integral parts of the same whole. For the Church has been always divided into two parts, the clergy and the laity,—of which the laity is as much an essential integral part, and has as much its duties and privileges, as the clerical member, and in the rule, order, and government of the Church has its share. Religion is so far, in my opinion, from being out of the province or the duty of a Christian magistrate, that it is, and it ought to be, not only his care, but the principal thing in his care; because it is one of the great bonds of human society, and its object the supreme good, the ultimate end and object of man himself. The magistrate, who is a man, and charged with the concerns of men, and to whom very specially nothing human is remote and indifferent, has a right and a duty to watch over it with an unceasing vigilance, to protect, to promote, to forward it by every rational, just, and prudent means. It is principally his duty to prevent the abuses which grow out of every strong and efficient principle that actuates the human mind. As religion is one of the bonds of society, he ought not to suffer it to be made the pretext of destroying its peace, order, liberty, and its security. Above all, he ought strictly to look to it, when men begin to form new combinations, to be distinguished by new names, and especially when they mingle a political system with their religious opinions, true or false, plausible or implausible.
It is the interest, and it is the duty, and because it is the interest and the duty, it is the right of government to attend much to opinions; because, as opinions soon combine with passions, even when they do not produce them, they have much influence on actions. Factions are formed upon opinions, which factions become in effect bodies corporate in the state; nay, factions generate opinions, in order to become a centre of union, and to furnish watchwords to parties; and this may make it expedient for government to forbid things in themselves innocent and neutral. I am not fond of defining with precision what the ultimate rights of the sovereign supreme power, in providing for the safety of the commonwealth, may be, or may not extend to. It will signify very little what my notions or what their own notions on the subject may be; because, according to the exigence, they will take, in fact, the steps which seem to them necessary for the preservation of the whole: for as self-preservation in individuals is the first law of Nature, the same will prevail in societies, who will, right or wrong, make that an object paramount to all other rights whatsoever. There are ways and means by which a good man would not even save the commonwealth.... All things founded on the idea of danger ought in a great degree to be temporary. All policy is very suspicious that sacrifices any part to the ideal good of the whole. The object of the state is (as far as may be) the happiness of the whole. Whatever makes multitudes of men utterly miserable can never answer that object; indeed, it contradicts it wholly and entirely; and the happiness or misery of mankind, estimated by their feelings and sentiments, and not by any theories of their rights, is, and ought to be, the standard for the conduct of legislators towards the people. This naturally and necessarily conducts us to the peculiar and characteristic situation of a people, and to a knowledge of their opinions, prejudices, habits, and all the circumstances that diversify and color life. The first question a good statesman would ask himself, therefore, would be, How and in what circumstances do you find the society? and to act upon them.
To the other laws relating to other sects I have nothing to say: I only look to the petition which has given rise to this proceeding. I confine myself to that, because in my opinion its merits have little or no relation to that of the other laws which the right honorable gentleman has with so much ability blended with it. With the Catholics, with the Presbyterians, with the Anabaptists, with the Independents, with the Quakers, I have nothing at all to do. They are in possession
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