THOU ME?--John, 18th c. 23d v.
It is proper to state, that the following discourse, written in haste, and without the slightest view to publication, is now sent to the press on the sole responsibility of the author. Attached as he is from temperament and from habit to the most unobtrusive walks of duty, averse as he always is to any connection with the agitating topics of the day, he has felt, that the time had arrived, when as a patriot and a Christian it became him to speak out--to speak plainly. The duty has been a painful one, but he trusts it has been discharged in a Christian spirit; and whatever may be the consequences, however trying to his personal feelings, he will carry with him the mens conscia recti, a sufficient solace in the darkest hour.
He must be permitted to add, that he sympathizes, deeply sympathizes, with his brethren at the south. If he has uttered unwelcome words, it is not that he loves them less, but that he loves civil and religious liberty more. Let it be remembered, that with the language and the measures of local societies he has nothing to do. It is in defence of the fundamental rights of man, liberty of speech and liberty of the press, that he ventures to step forth. Let not the two things be confounded. They are totally distinct. Men may think what they please of the temper and the movements of the Anti-Slavery Society, but there can be but one opinion respecting that inheritance of principles and rights which comes down to us through the blood and sacrifices of our revolution. Of that every true hearted American must echo the sentiment, esto perpetua.
DISCOURSE. If I have spoken evil, bear witness of the evil, but if well, why smitest thou me?--John, 18th c. 23d v.
Such was the reply of Jesus to a blow from one of the officers of the High Priest, before whom he had been brought to answer for his life. Instead of calling witnesses to establish the truth of the charges preferred against him, the High Priest had asked Jesus to become a witness in his own cause, and to give an account of his disciples and of his doctrine. To this singular proposition, the Saviour replies with a superior calmness and dignity, referring Caiaphas to the multitudes who had often heard him teach in public--"I ever spake in the synagogue and in the temple, whither the Jews always resort, and in secret have I said nothing. Why askest thou me? Ask them which heard me, what I have said unto them: behold, they know what I said. And when he had thus spoken, one of the officers which stood by, struck Jesus with the palm of his hand, saying, answerest thou the High Priest so? Jesus answered him, If I have [3/4] spoken evil, bear witness of the evil, but if well, why smitest thou me?
It is not a little remarkable, that amid the closing-scenes of our Saviour's life, subsequent to the occasion here before us, when subjected to every species of injury and indignity, as no important instruction remained to be conveyed, as nothing was left but to afford an example of meekness and fortitude, he offered no remonstrance or complaint, but was content to encounter the violence of his enemies in silence, save when he uttered a prayer for their forgiveness. But here, in a court of justice, standing before the High Priest, his reasoning, his calm and rational appeal to the testimony of impartial witnesses answered with a blow, with physical violence, he will not lose the opportunity of asserting a great principle, which lies at the very foundation of intellectual and religious liberty--namely: the principle, that error is to be refuted, that truth is to be made manifest and its influence extended not by external force, but by reasoning, not by that physical energy which we possess in common with the brutes, but by that intellectual power, which likens us to the God of truth--"if I have spoken evil, bear witness of the evil, but if well, why smitest thou me?" Produce your strong reasons--employ your intellect to shew wherein my intellect has erred, or led others into error, but abstain from violence, which can prove only that you are powerful and vindictive, without proving that you have truth and justice on your side.
To investigate truth, to collect facts, to determine [4/5] their authenticity and relative importance to the object of inquiry, to weigh evidence, to compare arguments, to examine the successive steps in a chain of reasoning, to distinguish that which is real from that which is only an appearance, to deduce a general conclusion from particular instances, and finally to apprehend and embrace an ultimate truth--all this is the prerogative of the intellect; it is the work of the spiritual, thinking part of man's nature; and if you would help him on in this pursuit--if you would bring him back from error to the straight and narrow way of truth, you must apply yourself to his mind--to that part of his nature which thinks and apprehends; you must employ not your arm, but your intellect; and you must approach him not with a blow but with a thought. If you would prevail with him to embrace a proposition which you have presented to his understanding, and enabled him to comprehend, you must give him a sufficient reason; you must adduce the requisite evidence; you must remove his prejudices, conciliate his feelings, so as to induce him to contemplate the evidence long enough and favorably enough to feel its full force. Before he can receive a proposition, he must understand it, and he must examine the reasoning by which it is supported. From the very constitution of his nature, he cannot believe except upon evidence which either is or appears to be sufficient. You cannot command him to believe, you cannot force him to believe. You may agitate and intimidate his mind by violence, you may render him incapable of thinking at all, but to believe without [5/6] previous inquiry is not in his power--to believe the truth without something like honest and unprejudiced inquiry, is equally impossible; and this is a disposition, this is a mental effort that must be induced by the exhibition of motive, by the presentation of argument, by an appeal to the mind, and not by the use of the scourge or the rack. His unbelief may be culpable; because corrupt feelings may prevent him from giving heed to the truth, from considering its claims and its evidence; but still, there is no remedy; if the resources of argument and moral appeal have been exhausted in vain, nothing remains but to leave him in his error; or rather, to continue the exhibition of truth for his benefit, while at the same time we endeavor, by the diffusion of light, to prevent others from being injured by his opinions. To inflict blows upon the body because the mind has erred in a process of reasoning, what is this but to seek a remedy in the physical world, when the evil to be cured is in the moral and intellectual world! This is as appropriate and rational as it would be to send for a surgeon to amputate a limb, or apply a caustic, because the intellect has failed to determine aright of two events, which is the cause and which the effect; has failed to determine aright, whether the apparent motion of the sun is to be ascribed to the revolution of the heavens, or to the revolution of the earth on its axis. And when the illustrious Galileo was condemned by the Romish doctors as a heretic, and thrust into prison for asserting that the earth did revolve on its axis in twenty-four hours, who does not [6/7] perceive that they utterly mistook the appropriate means of exposing and refuting the supposed error! Who does not perceive that it was one thing to shew the world they possessed the greater power, and were disposed to use it, and quite another thing to demonstrate, that in astronomy they thought truly, and their illustrious victim erroneously! What is it that makes them appear so ridiculous as the guardians of learning and truth, but the incongruity of replying to a philosophical statement, not with facts and arguments, not with weapons appropriate to that intellectual province where the controversy lay, but with an application of brute force! We look to see them throw over the mind of the philosopher the light of superior knowledge and genius, when lo! they come with a legion of armed soldiers, and thrust his body into a dungeon! We wait to see them produce an argument, and they inflict a blow!
But these efforts are as impotent as they are absurd. "With all their power," said the illustrious Pascal, "they will never prevent the earth from turning, nor themselves from turning with it;" and when we see the venerable Galileo rising from his knees before the cardinals and prelates, his judges, where he has been compelled to renounce and detest opinions which nature sanctions, and which his whole life has been employed in establishing, and saying, as he rises, with ill suppressed indignation, "for all that it turns"--notwithstanding my forced renunciation, the truth is as I have maintained--what an illustration is presented of the influence of physical power and [7/8] violence, when arrayed against freedom of opinion! It may repress convictions, it may lead to insincerity, it may teach men to disregard the intellect and the conscience, it may retard the progress of truth, but it can never change the belief, nor contribute one thought to the sum of human wisdom. It employs instruments which have nothing to do with truth, and which cannot influence the efforts of mind in the pursuit of it.
Violence convicts no man of error or dishonor, it vindicates no man's conduct or opinions. After he has slain his antagonist, after he has dragged his opponent to the block, he is just where he was before as to any question of truth or character; save that now he is stained with murder. He has appealed to the wrong tribunal--a tribunal which may determine the relative strength of their muscles, but which can take no cognizance of any thing that concerns them as men. Else, if this be not so, if truth is to be maintained by force of arms, then the blood of martyrs refutes christianity, and the death of Christ, instead of being a glorious proof of love and compassion, stamps him as a deceiver. In that case, too, the ancient trial by combat was a rational mode of establishing the guilt or innocence of the accused. In short, on this supposition, might makes the right, and a tiger can reason better than a man!
But this monstrous incongruity is not the only reason why errors in opinion are not to be visited with physical punishment. There is another arising from the uncertainty attending the inquiries of the human mind. He must have paid little attention to the [8/9] operations of his own mind, or of the minds of others, who is not deeply sensible of the fallibility of man's reason. What a contradiction to himself! How great in the investigation of truth, and yet how liable to error! How many brilliant discoveries, and yet how many egregious mistakes! What a corrupt mixture of truth and falsehood! How much vigor and penetration, and yet how many prejudices of education and sect and party, of the country and the age--how many little passions--how many idols of the understanding to seduce him from his allegiance to truth! How many systems have been built up only to be overthown! How many wise men, yea, and good men, have been deceived! Human judgment, then, is fallible. We may stretch a man on the rack for a supposed error of opinion, and after all he may turn out to have been right. The injury we inflict is positive, palpable, certain; but the opinion is doubtful--it may be correct. Galileo, as we have seen, was thrust into prison in his old age, for maintaining that the earth revolved on its axis. Cranmer perished in the flames, because he could not believe that a little piece of wafer was the real body of Christ. And yet, these great men were in the right, and their enemies, though more powerful, were in the wrong. Now if a man be convicted of murder or theft, the case is different; there is an offence which admits of no uncertainty--an offence, too, against the peace of society. It is an overt act; and by a similar act must we interpose for the protection of the community. But a supposed error of opinion is [9/10] doubtful, and therefore we can only send forth along with it what we believe to be the truth, and let them struggle together for the mastery. Truth is mighty, and will ultimately prevail.
Connected, therefore, with freedom of opinion, and resting on the same basis, are freedom of speech and freedom of the press--rights, without which, freedom of opinion, is but a name and a mockery. For let a tyrannical government usurp the control of all presses and popular assemblies, and what becomes of the freedom of the mind? Shut out from all but partial views of principles and policy, how are the people to arrive at that truth which is essential to the freedom of the mind? Said our Saviour, "ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free," But without freedom of discussion the human intellect must be enslaved, fettered by those sophistries, those partial views, those false principles, which suit the caprice or the policy of the despot--the very calm would be unfriendly to the progress of truth, which is often struck out by the conflict of opposing principles.
I know, indeed, it has been alleged that "if every skeptic in theology may teach his follies, there can be no religion" [Dr. Johnson]--but the assertion is refuted by the history of Christianity, which grew and extended its influence, not only unaided by civil power, but in opposition to it; and what is most to the point, and most remarkable, in opposition to every possible form [10/11] of error--error too in firm alliance with the interests, the inveterate prejudices and the corrupt passions and inclinations of men. See too at the reformation, how the truth worked its way out, the moment the revival of letters enabled it to go abroad, even at disadvantage, to contend with its enemies. What more glorious examples can we need to establish our confidence in the innate power of truth to triumph over all errors, when left free to oppose them in her own way! But to attempt to protect her by restraining the liberty of the press, or the liberty of speech, to call in for her support the civil power or popular violence, not only betrays an ignoble distrust of her native energy, but embarrasses her with aid unsuited to her nature, and more likely to impede than to accelerate her triumph. Nay more. When we see a man assail with violence all who controvert his opinions--when we see him attempt to crush them with the weight of popular odium, attempt to silence opposing presses and to stifle opposing discussion, by mere brute force, what is this, but evidence irresistible, that he loves his own opinions, his own interests or his own party, better than he loves free discussion and the fundamental rights of man? What is it but proof that he wants confidence in the justice of his cause, and is afraid of the light? "Men love darkness rather than light, because their deeds are evil. For every one that doeth evil hateth the light, neither cometh to the light, lest his deeds should be reproved. But he that doeth truth cometh to the light, that his deeds may be made manifest, that they are wrought [11/12] in God." To court discussion is of course no certain proof that we are right; but to be afraid of it, is a conclusive indication that we suspect at least we may be wrong.
"If I have spoken evil, bear witness of the evil, but if well, why smitest thou me?" If I have erred expose my error--throw around it the light of truth, but do me no personal injury, abstain from illegal violence. There are various ways, my brethren, in which the great principle contained in this text may be outraged. There is a dexterous use of epithets and colouring--a kind of cunning misrepresentation, by which a man may be rendered obnoxious to public odium, and more effectually injured, than by the grossest personal violence. Give a man a bad name, and however little of real dishonour it may involve, if it be obnoxious to popular prejudice, you have raised up against him a host of untiring persecutors. They will have little to do with argument but they will shoot out against him poisoned arrows, even bitter words. Let popular feeling be wrought up a little more highly, and the multitude will proceed to open violence, not only in contempt of law and order, but in utter disregard of the principle contained in the text--in utter disregard of all rational modes of serving the truth as well as of the fundamental rights of man.
In order to judge of such a procedure, let us advert to a particular case. Within a few years public assemblies have been held in many parts of our country, in which the most corrupt disorganizing doctrines [12/13] have been boldly and openly maintained. The Saviour of the world has been scoffed at as an imposter--the marriage institution attempted to be subverted, and not a few of the pillars of religion and of civil society, assailed with the utmost violence by polluted atheistical outcasts. Nay, they have not stopped here--they have established presses, and sent out their tracts and their newspapers far and wide to blaspheme our God, to poison the fountains of domestic felicity, and to corrupt the principles of our youth. This was a great outrage--this was a severe trial of our faith in the power of truth. Now, what if popular indignation had broken in upon these assemblies, and dispersed them? What if popular violence had seized upon these prostituted presses--these noble instruments made to be the ministers of truth, but now so grossly abused--had ground them to powder, and scattered them to the four winds? What if the people, the husbands and fathers of the land, transported beyond all bounds of reason and patience, had levelled their instruments of death against the unhappy, misguided proprietor, as he was endeavoring to defend his property, and without warrant of the law, without adequate cause, had taken away his life? Who would not have mourned over such a violation of the laws and of the rights of man? Who would not have blushed for the honor of his country, and trembled for the interests of truth, which are always endangered when supported by unlawful means? Who would not have said, that great as had been the abuse, the injury, the provocation, these were not [13/14] remedies fit for Christians, least of all, for American Christians, proud of their reverence for law, and for the right of free discussion? Who would not have said, that men are reponsible to the law for the abuse of the liberty of speech and of the press, and that when these abuses elude the punishment of the law, they must be patiently endured, for the sake of the principle? [If the truth be not able to maintain itself against error--if the people may not be trusted to discuss questions of morals and politics ad libitum--if the government or the majority may use force instead of argument--what becomes of the whole theory of our institutions, based as they are upon the principle, that the people are capable of self government? The idea that the majority must govern in matters of reason--that the majority may restrain the liberty of speech or the liberty of the press, is a monstrous doctrine, fit not for a free state, not even for a despotic government, fit only for an uncivilized horde living without law or order.] Yes! from Maine to Louisiana there would have been a cry of shame and indignation, and this great nation would never have been appeased, till the guilty had been brought to condign punishment. My brethren, let us rejoice that this great outrage was not perpetrated; let us be thankful that this dishonour was not brought upon our country. The injury was great--the provocation was extreme; but we evinced our attachment to great principles in the most signal manner, by respecting them even when they were most grossly abused. But, my brethren, is it a greater crime to question the title of the slaveholder, than to blaspheme the Saviour of the world? Is it a greater outrage upon the feelings of a Christian community to condemn the institution of slavery, than to denounce the institution of marriage? The man who utters a word in behalf of the suffering [14/15] slave, no matter how injudiciously, does he forfeit all title to the sympathy of his fellow-citizens, all claim to the protection of the sacred principles of civil liberty? The portentous apathy with which the tidings of a popular murder have recently been received, would seem to answer these questions in the affirmative. [That of the Rev. Mr. Lovejoy of Alton, shot down by a mob, on the 7th of Nov. 1837, while defending his printing press.]
I need scarcely say, that I approve not of the language or of the policy of the persons to whom I have now adverted. But, my brethren, there are great principles more important to the well being of this country, than any body of men or any set of measures. Let us rally around these principles. We want no increase of excitement any where, least of all, in the pulpit; but it seems to me, that we do need to revert to first principles, to those sacred rights and duties which belong to us as American citizens, and to maintain them in a firmer, loftier spirit, amid the agitations of party, and the conflict of local passions. The subject just referred to, one of the most difficult ever presented to any country or any age, has varied and conflicting claims; none of which should be overlooked--none of which should we be unwilling or afraid to contemplate. Without forgetting, therefore, the consideration due to the embarrassing situation of the slave-holder, as well as to the claims and interests of the government, a government, which is one of conciliation and compromise--whose constitution has by agreement left the whole or nearly the [15/16] whole subject with the respective states, let us not refuse to think sometimes of the poor slave, whose rights to the products of his own labour, to the care of his own happiness, to the direction of his own physical, intellectual and moral energies are all invaded. Let us remember, that if there be no room for active personal agency, there still remains the privilege and the duty of speaking the truth on a great moral question, provided we speak it in love; and while we give our sanction to no rash, uncharitable, ill-judged schemes, let us not sit down contentedly with the thought, that this train of misery and guilt, this national blot, is to be perpetuated forever.