« PreviousContinue »
On a motion for leave to bring in a bill to repeal and alter certain acts respecting religious opinions; May 11, 1792.*
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 every thing 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 instoniott—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 for ever.
I go on this ground, that government, representing the society, has a general superintending controul 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 op
* This motion was made by Mr. Fox; and was chiefly grouaded upon a petities presented to the house of commons by the unitarian society.
pressive 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 rigour; 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 judgments, to establish a system of opinions and practices directly contrary to those ends, only because some majority of the !." 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 any thing 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. # * * * :k 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 of 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 ; may, factions generate opinions in order to become a center of union, and to furnish watch-words 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 diversity and colour life. The first question a good states:
man 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 honourable 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, a great title in all human affairs. The tenor and spirit of our laws, whether they were restraining or whether they were relaxing, have hitherto taken another course. The spirit of our laws has applied their penalty or their relief to the supposed abuse to be repressed, or the grievance to be relieved ; and the provision for a catholic and a quaker has been totally different according to his exigence ; you did not give a catholic liberty to be freed from an oath, or a quaker power of saying mass with impunity. You have done this, because you never have laid it down as an universal proposition, as a maxim, that nothing relative to religion was your concern, but the direct contrary; and therefore you have always examined whether there was a grievance. It has been so at all times; the legislature, whether right or wrong, went no other way to work but by circumstances, times and necessities. My mind marches the same road ; my school is the practice and usage of parliament. Old religious factions are volcanoes burnt out; on the lava and ashes and squalid scoriae of old eruptions grow the peaceful olive, the cheering vine, and the sustaining corn. Such was the first, such the second condition of Vesuvius. But when a new fire bursts out, a face of desolation comes on, not to be rectified in ages. Therefore, when men come before us, and rise up like an exhalation from the ground, they come in a questionable shape, and we must exorcise them, and try whether their intents be wicked or charitable; whether they bring airs from heaven or blasts from hell. This is the first time that our records of parliament have heard, or our experience or history given us an account of any religious congregation or association known by the name which these petitioners have assumed. We are now to see by what people, of what character, and under what temporary circumstances, this business is brought before you. We are to see whether there be any and what mixture of political dogmas and political practices with their religious tenets, of what nature they are, and how far they are at present practically separable from them. This faction (the authors of the WOL. V. [ 37
petition) are not confined to a theological sect, but are also a political faction. 1st. As theological, we are to show that they do not aim at the quiet enjoyment of their own liberty, but are associated for the express purpose of proselytism. In proof of this first proposition, read their primary association. 2d. That their purpose of proselytism is to collect a multitude sufficient by force and violence to overturn the church; in proof of the second proposition, see the letter of Priestley to Mr. Pitt, and extracts from his works. 3d. That the designs against the church are concurrent with a design to subvert the state. In proof of the third proposition, read the advertisement of the Unitarian Society for celebrating the 14th of July. 4th. On what model they intend to build, that it is the French. In proof of the fourth proposition, read the correspondence of the Revolution Society with the clubs of France; read Priestley’s adherence to their opinions. 5th. What the French is with regard to religious toleration, and with regard to, 1. Religion— 2. Civil happiness—3. Virtue, order, and real liberty—4. Commercial opulence—5. National defence. In proof of the fifth proposition, read the representation of the French minister of the home department, and the report of the committee upon it.
Formerly, when the superiority of two parties contending for dogmas and an establishment was the question, we knew in such a contest the whole of the evil. We knew, for instance, that calvinism would prevail according to the Westminster catechism with regard to tenets. We knew that presbytery would prevail in church government. But we do not know what opinions would prevail if the present dissenters should become masters. They will not tell us their present opinions, and one principle of modern dissent is not to discover them. Next, as their religion is in a continual fluctuation, and is so by principle and in profession, it is impossible for us to know what it will be. If religion only related to the individual, and was a question between God and the conscience, it would not be wise, nor in my opinion equitable, for human authority to step in.— But when religion is embodied into faction, and factions have objects to pursue, it will and must, more or less, become a question of power between them. If, even when embodied into congregations, they limited their principle to their own congregations, and were satisfied themselves to abstain from what they thought unlawful, it would be cruel, in my opinion, to molest them in that tenet and a consequent practice. But we know
that they not only entertain these opinions, but entertain them.
with a zeal for propagating them by force, and employing the power of law and place to destroy establishments, if ever they