Project Canterbury


The Duties of Justice:


















Transcribed by Wayne Kempton, 2007


The subscribers, members of the congregation of St. Peter's Church, heard with great satisfaction your sermon, delivered in that church yesterday morning, and believing that a general dissemination of the principles therein inculcated would do much towards correcting the errors and rebuking the vicious doctrines now Unblushingly promulgated, even in our legislative halls, we respectfully solicit a copy of it for publication.

We feel persuaded that its general distribution will tend to arrest the dishonesty which now prevails, and arouse every honest and patriotic heart to a sense of the duty so forcibly and eloquently inculcated by you, of "doing justice--loving mercy--and walking humbly before God."

We are, Rev'd and Dear Sir,

Your faithful friends and servts.

WATTS SHERMAN,                    D. D. BARNARD.
ORLANDO MEADS,                    J. B. PLUMB,
JAS. STEVENSON,                      JNO. TAYLOR COOPER,
THOMAS HUN,                           GEO DEXTER,
JAMES KIDD,                              GILBERT L. WILSON,
WM. NESSLE,                              J. C. POTTS,
JOHN MEADS,                             W. DANIELS,
JOHN C. SPENCER,                     JOHN TAYLOR per
JOHN GOTT.                                 J. R TAYLOR,
G. W. PORTER,                            JAMES DEXTER,
AARON HILL,                              ROBT. WHITLOCK.


March 21, 1850.


It is a consolation to me to learn, as I do from your kind communication, and from other sources, that in the painful duty which I felt called upon to discharge on Sunday morning, I had, as I never doubted that I should have, your cordial approbation, and the approbation of the great body of the congregation. Any reference in the pulpit to political occurrences is always distasteful to me, and becomes particularly painful when the words to be used must needs be other words than those of applause and gratulation. That the expression of feeling in the congregation should have been so prompt, so general, and so emphatic, is a circumstance upon which I cannot reflect without extreme gratification, for reasons far higher than any that are merely personal; I confess it imparts new warmth to the pride and affection with which I have long ministered to this spiritual household. Though the publication of this discourse was not at all contemplated, when it was prepared, and though my wish always is to step as little as possible beyond my private sphere of duty, yet on the present occasion, I do not feel that I have any right to decline your request for a copy for the press. I trust I shall be pardoned for adding, that in preaching this discourse, as in consenting to its publication, the especial object of my concern has been, no particular private interest, no narrow or temporary political occurrences, but those great interests of justice, of public and private morality, which must be dear to all, who have any regard for truth and rectitude, or for their country.

With much regard,
I am, gentlemen, your friend and pastor.




What doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God.--MICH. 6c. 8v.

WERE it desired to exhibit in one brief sentence of holy scripture, a view of human duty, at once sublime and comprehensive, a view which should reveal at a glance, the perfect reasonableness, the transcendent importance in the nature of things, of all that the Lord our God has required of man in the way of duty and obedience, perhaps no words more appropriate and complete could be found than these of the Prophet: "What doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God? "Justice, which is a stedfast and inflexible disposition to give to each one all that belongs to him--to leave every other human being in the unmolested enjoyment of all the means of happiness conferred upon him by his creator; justice, which is the sacred bond of all human society, the only foundation of its repose [5/6] and of its well-being: Mercy, the love of mercy, that divine charity which goes beyond mere justice, carrying succour to the distressed, and consolation to the afflicted; which looks with sorrow and with pity upon all the sin and woe that are in the world, and longs and toils for their removal but never in such a way as to conflict with the sacred principles of justice; prompting often individuals and states to forgive a portion of what in strict justice is due to them, but never impelling them to interfere with the faithful discharge and performance of what is due to others; and finally, humble, reverential walking with God: a fear and love of his holy name, and of his righteous will, of his awful justice and unspeakable mercy, a sense of religious truth and of religious obligation, which gives to the duties of justice and mercy a divine authority and sanction, and an infinitely powerful incentive; Justice, Mercy, Piety, what more can we require for the well-being of human society; what less in the way of duty and virtue could in reason have been exacted of man?

Such are the great out-lines of human duty as seen by the light of Nature--I say by the light of Nature; for no sooner do we look forth upon our fellow men, their complicated relations and interests and their manifold necessities; no sooner do we cast our eyes upward toward the [6/7] great Ruler of the world, than we become sensible, that to "do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God," are things indispensible, if we would stand justified before our own conscience, or fill worthily and fitly the places assigned to us in the moral universe. Christianity, however, fills out and perfects the teaching of Natural Religion; prescribing specific rules and measures, exalting human virtue to something nobler and more far reaching, proposing higher motives and sanctions, and superadding to the whole positive institutions and precepts and supernatural grace. Still we may take the words of my text in a christian sense; we may extend and fill up their meaning according to the instructions of the Gospel; and consider that they represent now all that is taught by Revelation, as they were originally intended to cover all that was enjoined by natural reason and conscience. "What doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy and to walk humbly with thy God?"

Observe the gradation of duty: justice, mercy, piety. It is a sublime Pyramid, having its broad and deep foundations laid on the earth, in the principles of justice, and lifting its summit, with all who ascend thither by the practice of piety, far into the Heaven of Heavens. It is the only tower, which we can build high enough to reach [7/8] those awful, yet blessed, abodes. Justice, upon the lowest view, which we can take of man and of society, is a duty of primary and universal obligation; it is a duty of all times and places, a debt due to all with whom we have any relations; we cannot eat or sleep; we cannot use our time or our talents, our property, or our gift of speech, without having occasion every moment to consider whether we "render unto all their dues," whether we may not be interfering with something which belongs to our neighbors. Mercy, on the other hand, seems to be less in the nature of a common debt, due, as a matter of course, to all with whom we communicate, than of a free and extraordinary gift; it is favour and kindness, and is deemed to argue more goodness than mere justice; it is something superadded to justice, rising above it in the scale of virtue, as, in the Pyramid, the superior portions rise above and rest upon the inferior. And so again Piety, as it looks directly up into the Heavens, deriving from thence all its inspirations, and sending thither all its offerings, seems to hold a rank high above both justice and mercy, and to constitute that crowning virtue, which gives lustre, as well as life and power, to all the others. As there can be no edifice without a foundation, so is it altogether impossible that any of the superior virtues should exist, in truth and in sincerity, where the [8/9] inferior and fundamental virtues are wanting. How preposterous for a man to pretend to love mercy, when he has not attained even to so much virtue as to show himself inflexibly and constantly just!--and how empty and frivolous is every profession of piety, of love to God, when the individual is notoriously deficient in those great attributes of justice and mercy, which are the especial glory of the Being whom he professes to adore!--"Love worketh no ill to his neighbors," and "whoso loveth not his brother, whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen"? The language of' the Apostle is very strong: "if a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar"; he deceives himself, or wishes to deceive others; because, if justice and mercy are not indispensable prerequisites to piety, as I believe in some degree they are; but if they need not of necessity pre-exist in maturity before piety can spring up in the heart, yet certainly, the very first existence and motions of genuine piety, will be instantly accompanied and made manifest by demonstrations of justice and mercy, just as the existence of the solid opaque body of the sun, were it to be first created to-day, would be instantly certified to all our world by emanations of light and heat. Man cannot be so new created as to love God, as to be made truly pious, without being made, at the same [9/10] time, both just and merciful. Indeed there is a certain order established by God in the dispensation of His gifts, from which He never departs. We all know that grace presupposes nature; that faith is grafted upon the reason; and in like manner that Religion is based upon probity. Destroy nature, and there can be no grace; take away the reason, and there can be no such thing as faith; remove from society, or suffer to perish, that which we call probity, and the very existence of religion is at once rendered impossible. When the hearts of men are filled with the spirit of injustice, when their hands are busy with wrong and violence, when there is no pity in their souls, how can they open their bosoms to the influences of religion? or how can the All-Holy smile on the offerings which they dare to present? That which is not good in the sight of men, how can it be acceptable before God? To be just, to be disinterested, to be without reproach in the estimation of the world, or at least to wish and to labour to be so, and to sustain and sanctify all these virtues, to have religion, to have piety towards God, such is the order to which human virtue must be conformed.

"What doth the Lord require of thee, but to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?" Now if to love mercy be so great and indispensable a qualification, that [10/11] without it we cannot hope to obtain mercy from God; and if humble reverential piety be that one thing, without which it would be a monstrous contradiction to suppose, that the soul could be exalted to eternal blessedness in the divine favour in Heaven, then what must we think of the necessity, of the importance of justice, the foundation as it were, on which all virtue and piety must be erected. If we are required to "love mercy and to walk humbly with our God," if nothing less can be expected to avail us, in the great day when the secrets of all hearts shall be laid open, then what will be said of us, if we shall be found, not even to have "done justly."? If the character of an ungodly and unmerciful man seems to be something debased and monstrous, what must be the condition of that spirit in which there is no regard even for justice, no respect for the rights, the character, the feelings, the happiness of others, when they stand in the way of its passions and aspirations.

I confine myself, then, for the present to the contemplation of justice; and without pretending to go through so vast a subject in the brief space allotted to this discourse, let me invite your attention to a few thoughts, touching the exercise and maintainance of justice, as those duties affect individual character, and social well-being. Were there but one human being on the earth, [11/12] there would be nothing, but the duty which he owed to himself, of observing the proportions of temperance, and the duty which he owed to his Creator, to restrain him in the enjoyment of the good things of the world, or to deter him from any action or enterprise in which he might be pleased to embark his energies; but the moment there is a second human being on the earth, the privileges and duties of the first are changed. The fruit which the one has gathered for his own use, the other may not take from him; the ground which the one has occupied and improved, may not be invaded by the other. Instead of being at liberty to range over the whole earth as at first, and to appropriate to his own use, whatever was capable of relieving his necessities, or of contributing to his enjoyment, he is now restricted to such a use of the good things of the world, as will not interfere with that interest in temporal things, which has been fairly acquired by the other. His liberty of action is restrained by the fact that the earth, instead of being wholly given up to the enjoyment of himself alone, is to be enjoyed also by others--and that not in common, but, in the order of Providence, by each one being allowed to acquire a property in those things upon which he bestows his labour, being left and secured in the uninterrupted enjoyment of that property, and being permitted to transmit [12/13] it to his children and friends. Once he might have acted as he pleased: but now his actions may affect the interests of another being; and he must do as he would be done by; he must love his neighbor as himself; he must restrain all those desires, the indulgence of which would be injurious to his brother; he must be faithful to his engagements though it were to his own hindrance. The earth comes to be thronged with a busy and eager population; its good things are appropriated; flocks and herds, fields and forests, all that man can fabricate, all that he can reap from the ground, or gain from the sea, or dig from the bowels of the earth, is divided among men and held in various proportions as private property. They buy and sell; they institute government and laws for the regulation of their intercourse, for the protection of their respective rights; and so crowded together are they in town and country; so intimate and delicate and multifarious are their relations with each other; so liable are they to have conflicting interests or desires; so many questions constantly arise respecting the terms on which they are having to do with each other; so hard is it, in such a throng, for any one to take a step, or do an act which will not seriously affect the feelings, the interests, the welfare of others; that care to "work no ill to our neighbor," to give to every one that which [13/14] belongs to him, to leave every other human being in the unmolested enjoyment of all the means of happiness conferred upon him by his Creator; in a word, scrupulous care to "do justly," becomes the first great social duty and concern of every day, I may say, of every hour of our lives. At every turn, if we are heedless, or passionate, or extremely selfish, we are in danger of trenching upon the rights and interests of our neighbors. The "wicked love of having," which is always striving to rise up in the heart of man, how it threatens all around him with injustice! Let these inordinate desires be allowed to have free course on all sides, and society must be torn in pieces; and all individual virtue must perish in the general rage and conflict of the passions. It is only when governments rigorously enforce respect for justice, and individuals impose upon themselves a severe self-restraint, and a sacred regard for every the least right or interest of others, it is only then that men can be so secure in the enjoyment of their rights as to be encouraged to exertion; it is only then that the surface of society can be in such a state of tranquility, as to allow of the development and growth of any human virtue.

Now when we consider how very large a part, of all our agency in this world, has some bearing upon the rights of others, how much we are [14/15] occupied with pecuniary interests, in all our dealings with men, how incessantly conscience and virtuous self-restraint, and self-denial, are to be exercised in rigidly observing the measures of justice, we see at once, that if men are studiously just, the continual care and steadfast effort to be so, must be a great and hourly exercise of high principle; and in the progress of the life, must have a vast effect in developing and strengthening virtuous character; while, on the contrary, an habitual disregard of the obligations of justice, must involve hourly violations of conscience, and must lead to an utter moral debasement of the whole man. It was a saying of the Ancients, that whoever possessed one virtue completely, must possess all the others; because they mutually nourish and protect one another; and a little consideration will teach us that there is scarcely any virtue of the human character, whether patience, or temperance, or forbearance, or self-denial, or humility, or meekness, which is not kept in continual exercise, by daily efforts to be scrupuously and exactly just in all things--just in our judgments and speeches concerning others, as well as in all actions which can affect their pecuniary interests; and on the contrary, there is scarcely one virtue, which is not continually outraged and trampled on, by those who are in the habit of allowing their passions, or their selfish desires to [15/16] hurry them, ever and anon, into acts of injustice.

When we reflect, therefore, what a great and never ceasing discipline of virtue the strict observance of justice is; how by it the character is made capable of all virtue, and how without it the character becomes incapable of any virtue; and when we reflect how utterly society is unhinged by injustice; how its prosperity and its energies are blighted together; how it becomes so convulsed as to be incapable of bringing forth any good, or of affording any enjoyment, we seem to see more clearly why it was that former nations rose to greatness by the scrupulous observance of justice, and why they perished through the general overflow of injustice. When Rome began to decay, it was said of her that "all things were become venal," and that her hands were full of blood and robbery. And to Jerusalem, when she was in humiliation and distress, the Prophet proclaims the reason why her glory was departed: "judgment is turned away backward, and justice standeth afar off: for truth is fallen in the street, and equity cannot enter; Yea, truth faileth; and he that departeth from evil maketh himself a prey; and the Lord saw it, and it displeased him that there was no judgment."

But human nature is infirm and corrupt; individual judgment is liable to err, especially under [16/17] the influence of passion and self-interest; misunderstandings arise; outbreaks of individual wrong will constantly need to be repressed; and so the principles and methods of justice are embodied in Constitutions and Laws--and the State, supposed to be free from passion and partiality, the perfection of intelligence and justice, desiring nothing but the common and equal good of all her citizens, becomes, through her legal code, through the spirit of her Legislatures, and her courts of justice, a lofty example and teacher of rectitude to all her people. What an impression is made upon the heart of a nation, upon the virtuous sentiments of every citizen, upon individual conscience, by the great spectacle constantly before their eyes, of public justice impartially weighed and distributed, inflexibly maintained against all encroachments, no human tongue can tell. And how much is done to debauch the heart of a people by continual examples of public fraud and hypocrisy, it were equally impossible to describe. If with all the predisposition of individuals to wrong, from passion and self-interest, even the State herself become a teacher and encourager injustice, where shall truth and virtue find support and protection! The universal sense entertained by mankind of the importance of these considerations is seen in the awful reverence which they have thrown around all [17/18] their courts of justice. What more detestable in the estimation of the world, than a corrupt Judge! The Juror and the Witness, too, how careful we are to see that they are biased by no prejudice, by no private interest! The fountains of justice must be preserved pure.

Now in different states of society the great tendencies to injustice come from opposite quarters. In a despotic government the course of encroachment and oppression is downward from the powerful few upon the helpless many: and then legislatures, equal laws, upright judges, impartial juries of peers interpose, to stay the hand of power, and to give to the peasant the same protection as to the noble. In a popular government, where all officers are elective, and where all classes elect, and have a share in the sovereignty, the danger is from the opposite quarter; it comes in the shape of popular prejudice and combination among the many against the few; passions excited among the poor against the rich; and as the many possess all the power, a power upon which there is absolutely no check, (for they can alter at their pleasure the whole frame work of the laws and constitution); as their sympathies, under the influence of the appeals to which they are subjected, are not apt to be with the opulent, we may easily see how popular passion and injustice may invade our legislatures, change our [18/19] laws, so as to make them unequal and oppressive, and so cast their influence over the Judicial and Executive departments, so intimidate some and inflame the passions of others, so breathe upon Legislators and Judges, and jurors and witnesses, and states attorneys, as to corrupt, in the particulars now in question, the whole administration of justice. The evil may grow to such a magnitude that no power in the State shall be able to arrest it--and political agencies may go on inflaming and ministering to these base passions until that may be said of us, which was spoken of Jerusalem before her fall: "truth faileth; and he that departeth from evil maketh himself a prey!"

And, my brethren, can any condition of things in a State be more calamitous, more replete with wickedness, than that condition which subjects every public man to violent temptations to do wrong, which deters him from manly efforts to vindicate justice, or which tends to the exclusion of upright persons from public employments. [* One would suppose that in a christian country the words of Cicero concerning private friendships, might, without any great extravagance be considered applicable to political associations: "Haec igitur lex in amicitiâ Sanciatur, ut neque rogemus res turpes, nec faciamus rogati. Turpis enim excusatio est, et minime accipienda, cum in coeteris peccatis' tum si quis contra rempublicam se amici causâ fecisse fateatur."--Cicero de Amicitia. Sec. 12. See also Sec. 17.]. Such is the common interest in the maintainance of public justice, that in a healthy condition of the body politic we look to see the whole community arouse itself to oppose and repress every particular outbreak of wrong as it occurs--for every hurt done to an individual is an injury done to the laws and to the whole State; and that comes to be a monstrous condition of things when the community itself--when the State itself--instead of resisting injustice, favors it with encouragement and co-operation. Such an assembly as this needs not to be reminded, that when a popular State is threatened with evils such as I have hinted at, it must seek a remedy--it must look for safety--to the virtue of its citizens; there is no other resource; every individual citizen must be made to feel that upon him depends, in no unimportant measure, the purity of public morals, and the conservation of public justice. He cannot retain the conciousness of having "done justly" in all his relations, unless he has frowned openly and severely, upon every act of official or popular injustice, and unless he has been careful to give his voice for none but those candidates for office whom he had good reason to believe to be disinterested and inflexibly just.

Liberty has been defined to consist in security against wrong, ["The description of Liberty which seems to me the most comprehensive," says Sir James McIntosh, in his elegant "DISCOURSE ON THE LAW OF NATURE AND NATIONS," "is that of security against wrong. Liberty is therefore the object of all government. Men are more free under every government, even the most imperfect, than they would be if it were possible for them to exist without any government at all: they are more secure from wrong, more undisturbed in the exercise of their natural powers, and therefore more free, even in the most obvious and grossest sense of the word, than if they were altogether unprotected against injury from each other. But as general security is enjoyed in very different degrees under different governments, those which guard it most perfectly are by way of eminence called free. Such governments attain most completely the end which is common to all government. A free constitution of government and a good constitution of government, are therefore different expressions for the same idea."] a condition of things, in which [20/21] every individual, however humble, or however exalted, is equally and impartially protected in the enjoyment of his rights. We are in the habit of speaking of ourselves, as being distinguished by that glorious liberty, above all other nations on the earth. We look with pride and complacency upon our own land, as pre-eminently a land of justice and equal rights. So susceptible are we to resentment against wrong, even in those who are afar off, that we send forth our denunciations against what we regard as the tyranny of foreign princes; and we are almost ready, as many think, to disregard the restrictions of our own noble constitution, in our excessive zeal to emancipate the poor slave from the injustice by which he is oppressed. In beautiful conformity to all these sentiments and principles, we have enthroned upon the summit of the capitol of our own state, the figure of Justice, holding forth in her hand the even scales, and [21/22] turning her serene but inflexible countenance toward the east. Were that noble figure endowed with life and intelligence, looking toward the east as she does, what would she behold? What scenes would gladden her eyes? Is it too much to say, my brethren, that she would look forth upon as open and flagrant a denial of justice, a denial tolerated if not encouraged by the state over which she is supposed to preside, as was ever known within the limits of a civilized christian community! New legal questions are pretended to be raised--are allowed by the state to be raised--at which every intelligent and impartial person would smile, were it not for his indignation; innocent private persons are defrauded and ruined; the public morals are debauched; political considerations threaten to pervert all the courses of justice; and while all these things are passing, the classes who awaken all the sympathy and concern of the state, are just the very classes who have placed themselves in the predicament of criminals and felons. What can we do, but mourn over the prostrate honor of the state; and make a solemn appeal to every public and private person to remember, that the God whom we profess to adore is a God of justice--that the glory of our beloved country is its liberty, the security it affords against wrong; and that if we would serve our country, or vindicate [22/23] our own integrity, or save our souls, we must make it our great concern, in public matters as well as in private, to "do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly before" HIM, who is a Lover of Truth and Righteousness.

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