IN the years 1837 and 1838 the general sentiment of the English people in favour of the national Establishment of religion was very powerfully aroused. When an access of strong public feeling has taken place, upon a subject related to the permanent institutions of the country, it is pretty certain that the emotion will clothe itself in some intellectual forms; but it is not similarly to be assumed that it will discover and appropriate to itself those which are most conformable to truth.
It appeared to me a contingency greatly to be feared, that the affections then called into such vivid action, in a great degree through political circumstances, might satisfy themselves with a theory which teaches, indeed, that the State should support religion, but neither sufficiently explores the grounds of that proposition, nor intelligibly limits the religion so to be supported; and which also seems relatively to assign too great a prominence to that kind of support which taxation supplies. Such a theory would probably be found to guarantee neither purity of faith, nor harmony nor permanence of operation.
In these circumstances is to be found my apology for having presumed to tender to the public a volume on the relations of the State to the Church, with a free and deeply sincere confession of what must indeed have been obvious to every one else, even if on my own part unavowed, namely, that it had no pretensions to the character of an adequate* development of the profound and comprehensive question to which it relates.
Lamenting, as I then did, in part the insufficiency! for practical purposes, but much more the grave and positive faults which had appeared to me to attach to the theories of some earlier and much abler writers upon the relations between the Church or religion on the one hand, and the State on the other, I was perfectly aware that my own effort could not be otherwise than obnoxious in many respects to merited censure. In the tone with which such censure has been pronounced I find nothing to complain of. In some most important misapprehensions of my meaning I see no cause for surprise, and I think it right to set them down in far greater proportion to my own account than to that of my readers.
It has been a prominent objection, that the doctrine of a conscience in the nation or the State implies or has a tendency towards exclusion, and even persecution. In this place I only answer by the following general question. What political or relative doctrine is there, which does not become an absurdity when pushed to its extremes? The taxing power of the State, the prerogatives of the Crown to dissolve Parliaments and to create peers, the right of the House of Commons to withhold supplies, the right of the subject, not to civil franchises only, but even to security of person and property,-all these, the plain uncontested rules of our constitution, become severally monstrous and intolerable when they are regarded in a partial and exclusive aspect. I do not wonder that the same effect should follow, when the doctrine of conscience in the State is viewed without regard to its limiting conditions.
Attention should be directed to social principles in such modes and measures as may be most adapted to neutralise the besetting dangers of each particular period. In an age which leant towards a rigidly ecclesiastical organisation of the State, it was wise and laudable to plead warmly for the rights of the individual conscience. In an age which inclines to secularise the State, and ultimately to curtail or overthrow civil liberty by the subtraction of its religious guarantees, to declaim against intolerance becomes a secondary duty, and it is infinitely more important, and as it seems to me more rational, to plead earnestly for those great ethical laws under which we are socially constituted, and which economical speculations and material interests have threatened altogether to subvert. I do not therefore repent my effort; but I repent of its numberless imperfections, and deplore the prejudicial results which they must have .had in obstructing my general design.
The lapse of time and the opportunities it has given for reflection, and the remarks both of those friendly to my general view and of those opposed to it, have brought out into much clearer consciousness the confession I made two years and a half ago, with a strong but less determinate conviction of its truth; and have rendered me fully aware of obscurities that required to be cleared up, and of omissions that it was needful to supply. My best care and labour have been bestowed upon this task, inadequate as they are to its due fulfilment.
I am not ashamed to own, that the material changes now effected in the form of this work are in the nature of practical acknowledgments in detail of its former faults as a book upon a portion of political science. I am not ashamed, further, to repeat my full belief that it is still most defective; although I trust that it is now brought somewhat nearer to the form of such kind of demonstrative process as the subject-matter will admit, and although I see no reason to suppose that it will be hereafter my duty to repeat anything like the operation which I have now performed. If there be any, however, who think that no man should write upon a subject of political science until he is so completely master of it as to give it vice simplici a perfect development, I would remind him of the opinion of Lord Bacon, who says that politics are, of all subjects, "most immersed in matter, and hardliest reduced to axiom:" and of that of Algernon Sidney, a masculine and powerful, though far less profoundly philosophic mind, that "the political science... of all others is the most abstruse and variable, according to accidents and circumstances." [Sidney on Government, ch. ii. sect. 8.]
I have only to add, that while, warned by experience, I have been careful to guard against some misapprehensions of my meaning, the spirit and intention of the book, and the principles upon which its whole argument was constructed, remain altogether unchanged. Nor am I aware that a single sentence or expression has been added, which at the time of its first publication I should have been inclined to disavow.
London, April 3, 1841.