Two Tracts


Two Tracts
Civil Liberty,
the War with America,
The Debts and Finances of
the Kingdom:
A General Introduction and

General Introduction

The first of the following tracts was published in the beginning of the year 1776 and the second in the beginning of last year.

The principal design of the first part of the second tract was ... to remove the misapprehensions of my sentiments on civil liberty and government into which some had fallen. It gives me concern to find that it has not answered that end in the degree I wished. I am still charged with maintaining opinions which tend to subvert all civil authority. I paid little regard to this charge while it was confined to the advocates for the principles which have produced the present war; but as it seems lately to have been given the public from the authority of a writer of the first character, it is impossible I should not be impressed by it; and I find myself under a necessity of taking farther notice of it.

There are two accounts, directly opposite to one another, which have been given of the origin of civil government. One of them is that 'civil government is an expedient contrived by human prudence for gaining security against oppression, and that, consequently, the power of civil governors is a delegation or trust from the people for accomplishing this end'.

The other account is that 'civil government is an ordinance of the Deity, by which the body of mankind are given up to the will of a few, and, consequently, that it is a trust from the Deity, in the exercise of which civil governors are accountable only to him'.

The question 'which of these accounts we ought to receive' is important in the highest degree. There is no question which more deeply affects the happiness and dignity of man as a citizen of this world. If the former account is right, the people (that is, the body of independent agents in every community) are their own legislators. All civil authority is properly their authority. Civil governors are only public servants, and their power, being delegated, is by its nature limited. On the contrary, if the latter account is right the people have nothing to do with their own government. They are placed by their Maker in the situation of cattle on an estate, which the owner may dispose of as he pleases. Civil governors are a body of masters, constituted such by inherent rights, and their power is a commission from Heaven, unbounded in its extent and never to be resisted.

I have espoused, with some zeal, the first of these accounts; and in the following tracts endeavoured to explain and defend it. And this is all I have done to give countenance to the charge I have mentioned. Even the masterly writer who, after a croud of writers infinitely his inferiors, seems to have taken up this accusation against me, often expresses himself as if he had adopted the same idea of government. Such indeed is my opinion of his good sense, and such has been the zeal which he has discovered for the rights of mankind, that I think it scarcely possible his ideas and mine on this subject should be very different. His language, however, sometimes puzzles me, and particularly when he intimates that government is an institution of divine authority; when he scouts all discussions of the nature of civil liberty, the foundation of civil rights, and the principles of a free government; and when he asserts the competence of our legislature to revive the High-Commission Court and Star-Chamber, and its boundless authority not only over the people of Britain, but over distant communities who have no voice in it.

But whatever may be Mr. Burke's sentiments on this subject, he cannot possibly think of the former account of government that 'it is a speculation which destroys all authority'. Both accounts establish an authority. The difference is that one derives it from the people and makes it a limited authority; and the other derives it from heaven and makes it unlimited. I have repeatedly declared my admiration of such a constitution of government as our own would be, were the House of Commons a fair representation of the kingdom and under no undue influence. The sum of all I have meant to maintain is, 'that legitimate government as opposed to oppression and tyranny, consists in the dominion of equal laws made with common concent or of men over themselves and not in the dominion of communities over communities, or of any men over other men'. How then can it be pretended, that I have aimed at destroying all authority? Does our own constitution destroy all authority? Is the authority of equal laws made with common consent no authority? Must there be no government in a state that governs itself? Or, must an institution, contrived by the united counsels of the members of a community for restraining licentiousness and gaining security against injury and violence, encourage licentiousness and give to every one a power to commit what outrages he pleases?

The Archbishop of York [William Markham] (in a sermon preached before the Society for Propagating the Gospel in Foreign Parts, 21 Feb. 1777) has taken notice of some loose opinions, as he calls them, which have been lately current on civil liberty; some who mean delinquency having given accounts of it 'by which every man's humour is made to be the rule of his obedience, all the bad passions are let loose, and those dear interests abandoned to outrage for the protection of which we trust in law'. It is not difficult to guess at one of the delinquents intended in these words. In opposition to the horrid sentiments of liberty which they describe, but which in reality no man in his senses ever entertained, the Archbishop defines it to be simply the supremacy of law, or government by law, without adding to 'law' as I had done, the words 'equal and made with common consent'; and without opposing a government by law to a government by men, as others had done. According to him, therefore, the supremacy of law must be liberty, whatever the law is, or whoever makes it. In despotic countries government by law is the same with government by the will of one man, which Hooker has called 'the misery of all men'; but, according to this definition, it is liberty. In England formerly the law consigned to the flames all who denied certain established points of faith. Even now, it subjects to fines, imprisonment and banishment all teachers of religion who have not subscribed the doctrinal articles of the church of England; and the good Archbishop, not thinking the law in this case sufficiently rigorous, has proposed putting Protestant Dissenters under the same restraints with the Papists. And should mis be done, if done by law, it will be the establishment of liberty.

The truth is that a government by law, is or is not liberty, just as the laws are just or unjust; and as the body of the people do or do not participate in the power of making them. The learned prelate seems to have thought otherwise, and therefore has given a definition of liberty which might as well have been given of slavery.

At the conclusion of his sermon, the Archbishop adds words which he calls comfortable, addressed to those who had been 'patient in tribulation', and intimating that they might 'rejoice in hope', 'a ray of brightness then appearing after a prospect which had been long dark'. And in an account which follows the sermon, from one of the missionaries in the province of New-York, it is said that, 'the rebellion would undoubtedly be crushed, and that then will be the time for taking steps for the increase of the church in America, by granting it an episcopate'. In conformity to the sentiments of this missionary the Archbishop also expresses his hope, that the opportunity which such an event will give for establishing episcopacy among the colonists, will not be lost; and advises that measures should be thought of for that purpose, and for thereby rescuing the church from the persecution it has long suffered in America.

This is a subject so important, and it has been so much misrepresented, that I cannot help going out of my way to give a brief account of it.

It does not appear that the lay members themselves of the church in America have ever wished for bishops. On the contrary, the assembly of Virginia (the first episcopal colony) some years ago returned thanks to two clergymen in that colony who had protested against a resolution of me other clergy to petition for bishops. The church here cannot have a right to impose bishops on the church in another country; and, therefore, while churchmen in America are averse to bishops, it must be persecution to send bishops among them. The Presbyterians and other religious sects there are willing, from a sense of the reasonableness of toleration, to admit bishops whenever the body of episcopalian laity shall desire them, provided security is given that they shall be officers merely spiritual, possessed of no other power, than those which are necessary to the full exercise of that mode of religious worship. It is not bishops, as spiritual officers, they have opposed; but bishops on a state-establishment; bishops with civil powers; bishops at the head of ecclesiastical courts, maintained by taxing other sects, and possessed of a pre-eminence which would be incompatible with the equality which has long subsisted among all religious sects in America. In this last respect, the colonies have hitherto enjoyed a happiness which is unparalleled, but which the introduction of such bishops as would be sent from hence would destroy. In Pensilvania (one of the happiest countries under heaven before we carried into it desolation and carnage) all sects of Christians have been always perfectly on a level, the legislature taking no part with any one sect against others, but protecting all equally as far as they are peaceable. The state of the colonies north of Pensilvania is much the same; and, in the province of Massachusett's Bay in particular, civil authority interposes no farther in religion than by imposing a tax for supporting public worship, leaving to all the power of applying the tax to the support of that mode of public worship which they like best. This tax the episcopalians were, at one time, obliged to pay in common with others; but so far did the province carry its indulgence to them, that an act was passed on purpose to excuse them. With this let the state of Protestant Dissenters in this country be compared. Not only are they obliged to pay tithes for the support of the established church, but their worship is not even tolerated unless their ministers will subscribe the articles of the church. In consequence of having long scrupled this subscription, they have lost all legal right to protection, and are exposed to the cruellest penalties. Uneasy in such a situation, they not long ago applied twice to Parliament for the repeal of the penal laws against them. Bills for that purpose were brought into me House of Commons, and passed that House. But, in the House of Lords, they were rejected in consequence of the opposition of the Bishops.[a] There are few I reverence so much as some on the sacred bench, but such conduct (and may I not add the alacrity with which most of them support the present measures?) must leave an indelible stain upon them, and will probably exclude them for ever from America.

On this occasion, I cannot help thinking with concern of the learned prelate's feelings. After a prospect long dark, he had discovered a ray of brightness shewing him America reduced, and the church triumphant. But lately, that ray of brightness has vanished, and defeat has taken place of victory and conquest. And what do we now see? What a different prospect, mortifying to the learned prelate, presents itself? A great people likely to be formed in spite of all our efforts into free communities under governments which have no religious tests and establishments?[1] A new aera in future annals, and a new opening in human affairs beginning, among the descendants of Englishmen, in a new world; A rising empire, extended over an immense continent, without bishops, without nobles, and without kings.

O the depth of the riches of the wisdom of God! How unsearchable are his judgments!

1. I am sorry to mention one exception to the fact here intimated. The new constitution for Pennsylvania (in other respects wise and liberal) is dishonoured by a religious test. It requires an acknowledgement of the divine inspiration of the Old and the New Testament, as a condition of being admitted to a seat in the House of Representatives; directing however, at the same time, that no other religious test shall for ever hereafter be required of any civil officer. This has been, probably, an accommodation to the prejudices of some of the narrower sects in the province, to which the more liberal part have for the present thought fit to yield; and, therefore, it may be expected that it will not be of long continuance.

Religious tests and subscriptions in general, and all establishments of particular systems of faith, with civil emoluments annexed, do inconceivable mischief, by turning religion into a trade, by engendering strife and persecution, by forming hypocrites, by obstructing the progress of truth, and fettering and perverting the human mind; nor will the world ever grow much wiser, or better, or happier, till, by the abolition of them, truth can gain fair play, and reason free scope for exertion.

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