This is an excerpt from a sermon from Dr. Samuel Langdon in 1775 after being named president of Harvard College and given before the Congress of the colony of Massachusetts Bay.
And I will restore thy judges as at the first, and thy Counsellors as at the beginning: afterward thou shalt be called the City of Righteousness, the faithful City. – Isaiah 1:26
We have lived to see the time when British Liberty is just ready to expire;—when that constitution of government which has so long been the glory and strength of the English nation, is deeply undermined and ready to tumble into ruins;—when America is threatened with cruel oppression, and the arm of power is stretched out against New-England, and especially against this Colony, to compel us to submit to the arbitrary acts of legislators who are not our representatives, and who will not themselves bear the least part of the burdens which, without mercy, they are laying upon us. The most formal and solemn grants of Kings to our ancestors are deemed by our oppressors as of little value; and they have mutilated the Charter of this Colony in the most essential parts, upon false representations▪ and new invented maxims of policy, without the least regard to any legal process. We are no longer permitted to fix our eyes on the faithful of the land, and trust in the wisdom of their counsels, and the equity of their judgment; but men in whom we can have no confidence,—whose principles are subversive of our liberties,—whose aim is to exercise lordship over us, and share among themselves the public wealth:—men who are ready to serve any master, and execute the most unrighteous decrees for high wages,—whose faces we never saw before, and whose interests and connexions may be far divided from us by the wide atlantick,—are to be set over us as counsellors and judges, at the pleasure of those who have the riches and power of the nation in their hands, and whose noblest plan is to subjugate the Colonies first, and then the whole nation to their will.
That we might not have it in our power to refuse the most absolute submission to their unlimited claims of authority, they have not only endeavored to terrify us with fleets and armies sent to our Capital, and distressed and put an end to our trade, particularly that important branch of it, the fishery; but at length attempted, by a sudden march of a body of troops in the night, to seize and destroy one of our magazines, formed by the people merely for their own security; if, after such formidable military preparations on the other side, matters should be pushed to an extremity. By this, as might well be expected, a skirmish was brought on; and it is most evident, from a variety of concurring circumstances, as well as numerous depositions both of the prisoners taken by us at that time, and our own men then on the spot only as spectators, that the fire began first on the side of the King’s troops. At least five or six of our inhabitants were murderously kill’d by the Regulars at Lexington, before any man attempted to return the fire, and when they were actually complying with the command to disperse: and two more of our brethren were likewise kill’d at Concord-Bridge by a fire from the King’s soldiers, before the engagement began on our side. But whatever credit falsehoods transmited to Great-Britain, from the other side, may gain, the matter may be rested entirely on this,— that he that arms himself to commit a robbery, and demands the traveller’s purse, by the terror of Instant death, is the first aggressor, though the other should take the advantage of discharging his pistol first and killing the robber.
The alarm was sudden; but in a very short time spread far and wide: the nearest neighbours in haste ran together, to assist their brethren, and save their country. Not more than three or four hundred met in season and bravely attacked and repulsed the enemies of liberty, who retreated with great precipitation. But by the help of a strong reinforcement, notwithstanding a close pur|suit, and continual loss on their side, they acted the part of Robbers and Savages, by burning, plundering, and damaging almost every house in their way, to the utmost of their power, murdering the unarmed and helpless, and not regarding the weaknesses of the tender sex▪ until they had secured themselves beyond the reach of our terrifying arms…
We have used our utmost endeavors, by repeated humble petitions and remonstrances,— by a series of unanswerable reasonings published from the Press, in which the dispute has been fairly stated, and the justice of our opposition clearly demonstrated,—and by the mediation of some of the noblest and most faithful friends of the British constitution, who have powerfully plead our cause in Parliament,—to prevent such measures as may soon reduce the body politic to a miserable, dismembred, dying trunk, though lately the terror of all Europe. But our King, as if impelled by some strange fatality, is resolved to reason with us only by the roar of his Cannon, and the pointed arguments of musquets and bayonets. Because we refuse submission to the despotic power of a ministerial Parliament, our own Sovereign, to whom we have been always ready to swear true allegiance,—whose authority we never meant to cast off,—who might have continued happy in the cheerful obedience of as faithful subjects as any in his dominions,—has given us up to the rage of his Ministers, to be seized at sea by the rapacious commanders of every little sloop of war and piratical cutter, and to be plundered and massacred by land by mercenary troops, who know no distinction betwixt an enemy and a brother, between right and wrong; but only, like brutal pursuers, to hunt and seize the prey pointed out by their masters.
We must keep our eyes fixed on the supreme government of the ETERNAL KING, as directing all events, setting up or pulling down the Kings of the earth at his pleasure, suffering the best forms of human government to degenerate and go to ruin by corruption; or restoring the decayed constitutions of kingdoms and states, by reviving public virtue and religion, and granting the favorable interpositions of his providence. To this our text leads us; and though I hope to be excused on this occasion from a formal dis|course on the words in a doctrinal way, yet I must not wholly pass over the religious instruction contained in them.
Let us consider—That for the sins of a people God may suffer the best government to be corrupted, or entirely dissolved; and that nothing but a general reformation can give good ground to hope that the public happiness will be restored, by the recovery of the strength and perfection of the state, and that divine providence will interpose to fill every department with wise and good men.
Isaiah prophesied about the time of the captivity of the ten tribes of Israel, and about a century before the captivity of Judah. The kingdom of Israel was brought to destruction, because its iniquities were full; its counsellors and judges were wholly taken away, because there remained no hope of reformation. But the sceptre did not entirely depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, till the Messiah came: yet greater and greater changes took place in their political affairs; their government degenerated in proportion as their vices increased, till few faithful men were left in any public offices; and at length, when they were delivered up for seventy years into the hands of the king of Babylon, scarce any remains of their original excellent civil polity appeared among them.
The Jewish government, according to the original constitution which was divinely established, if considered merely in a civil view, was a perfect Republic. The heads of their tribes, and elders of their cities, were their counsellors and judges. They called the people together in more general or particular assemblies, took their opinions, gave advice, and managed the public affairs according to the general voice. Counsellors and judges comprehend all the powers of that government; for there was no such thing as legislative authority belonging to it, their complete code of laws being given immediately from God by the hand of Moses. And let them who cry up the divine right of Kings consider, that the only form of government which had a proper claim to a divine establishment was so far from including the idea of a King, that it was a high crime for Israel to ask to be in this respect like other nations; and when they were gratified, it was rather as a just punishment of their folly, that they might feel the burdens of court pageantry, of which they were warned by a very striking description, than as a divine recommendation of kingly authority.
Every nation, when able and agreed, has a right to set up over themselves any form of government which to them may appear most conducive to their common welfare. The civil Polity of Israel is doubtless an excellent general model, allowing for some peculiarities; at least some principal laws and orders of it may be copied, to great advantage, in more modern establishments.
When a government is in it’s prime, the public good engages the attention of the whole; the strictest regard is paid to the qualifications of those who hold the offices of the state; virtue prevails; every thing is managed with justice, prudence, and frugality; the laws are founded on principles of equity rather than mere policy; and all the people are happy. But vice will increase with the riches and glory of an empire; and this gradually tends to corrupt the constitution, and in time bring on it’s dissolution. This may be considered not only as the natural effect of vice, but a righteous judgment of heaven, especially upon a nation which has been favor’d with the blessings of religion and liberty, and is guilty of undervaluing them, and eagerly going into the gratification of every lust.
In this chapter the prophet describes the very corrupt state of Judah in his day, both as to religion and common morality; and looks forward to that increase of wickedness which would bring on their desolation and captivity. They were a sinful nation, a people laden with iniquity, a seed of evil doers, children that were corrupters, who had forsaken the Lord, and provoked the holy One of Israel to anger. The whole body of the nation, from head to foot, was full of moral and political disorders without any remaining soundness. Their religion was all mere ceremony and hypocrisy, and even the laws of common justice and humanity were disregarded in their public courts. They had Counsellors and Judges, but very different from those at the beginning of the common wealth. Their Princes were rebellious against God, and the constitution of their country, and companions of thieves, giving countenance to every artifice for seizing the property of the subjects into their own hands, and robbing the public treasury. Every one loved gifts and followed after rewards; they regarded the perquisites more than the duties of their office; the general aim was at profitable places and pensions; they were influenced in every thing by bribery; and their avarice and luxury were never satisfied, but hurried them on to all kinds of oppression and violence, so that they even justified and encouraged the murder of innocent persons to support their lawless power, and increase their wealth. And God in righteous judgment left them to run into all this excess of vice to their own destruction, because they had forsaken him, and were guilty of wilful inattention to the most essential parts of that religion which had been given them by a well attested Revelation from heaven.
The Jewish nation could not but see and feel the unhappy consequences of so great corruption of the state. Doubtless they complained much of men in power, and very heartily and liberally reproached them for their notorious misconduct. The public greatly suffered and the people groan|ed, and wished for better rulers and better management. But in vain they hoped for a change of men and measures and better times, when the spirit of religion was gone, and the infection of vice was become universal. The whole body being so corrupted, there could be no rational prospect of any great reformation in the state, but rather of its ruin; which accordingly came on in Jeremiah’s time. Yet if a general reformation of religion and morals had taken place, and they had turned to God from all their sins; if they had again re|covered the true spirit of their religion; God, by the gracious interpositions of his providence, would soon have found out methods to restore the former virtue of the state, and again have given them men of wisdom and integrity, according to their utmost wish, to be Counsellors and Judges. This was verified in fact, after the nation had been purged by a long captivity, and returned to their own land humbled, and filled with zeal for God and his law.
By all this we may be led to consider the true cause of the present remarkable troubles which are come upon Great-Britain and these Colonies; and the only effectual remedy.
We have rebelled against God. We have lost the true spirit of christianity, tho’ we retain the outward profession and form of it. We have neglected and let light by the glorious gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, and his holy commands and institutions. The worship of many is but meer compliment to the Deity, while their hearts are far from him. By many the gospel is corrupted into a superficial system of moral philosophy, little better than ancient Platonism. And after all the pretended refinements of Moderns in the theory of christianity, very little of the pure practice of it is to be found among those who once stood fore|most in the profession of the Gospel. In a gene|ral view of the present moral state of Great Britain it may be said—There is no truth, nor mercy, nor knowledge of God in the land. By swearing, and lying, and killing, and stealing, and commiting adultery, their wickedness breaks out; and one murder after another is committed, under the connivance and encouragement even of that authority by which such crimes ought to be punished, that the purposes of oppression and despotism may be answered. As they have increased, so have they sinned; therefore God is changing their glory into shame. The general prevalence of vice has changed the whole face of things in the British government.
The excellency of the constitution has been the boast of Great-Britain, and the envy of neighbouring nations. In former times the great departments of the state, and the various places of trust and authority, were filled with men of wisdom, honestly, and religion, who employed all their powers, and were ready to risque their for|tunes, and their lives for the public good. They were faithful counsellors to Kings; directed their authority and majesty to the happiness of the nation; and opposed every step by which despotism endeavoured to advance. They were Fathers of the people, and sought the welfare and prosperity of the whole body. They did not exhaust the national wealth by luxury and bribery, or convert it to their own private benefit, or the maintenance of idle useless officers and dependents; but im|proved it faithfully for the proper purposes, for the necessary support of government, and defence of the kingdom. Their laws was dictated by wisdom and equity; and justice was administred with impartiality. Religion discover’d it’s general influence among all ranks, and kept out great corruptions from places of power.
But in what does the British nation now glory?—In a meer shadow of it’s ancient political system?—In titles of dignity without virtue?—In vast public treasures continually lavished in corruption, till every fund is exhausted, notwithstanding the mighty streams perpetually flowing in?—In the many artifices to stretch the prerogatives of the crown beyond all constitutional bounds, and make the king an absolute monarch, while the people are deluded with a meer phantom of liberty? What idea must we entertain of that government, if such an one can be found, which pretends to have made an exact counterbalance of power between the sovereign, the nobles and the commons, so that the three branches shall be an effectual check upon each other, and the united wisdom of the whole shall conspire to promote the national felicity; but which, in reality, is reduced to such a situation that it may be managed at the sole will of one court favorite? What difference is there betwixt one man’s choosing, at his own pleasure, by his single vote, the majority of those who are to represent the people; and his purchasing in such a majority, according to his own nomination, with money out of the public treasury, or other effectual methods of influencing elections?—And what shall we say, if in the same manner, by places, pensions, and other bribes, a minister of state can at any time gain over a nobler majority likewise, to be intirely subservient to his purposes; and moreover persuade his royal master to resign himself up wholly to the direction of his counsels? If this should be the case of any nation from one seven years end to another, the bargain and sale being made sure for such a period, would they still have reason to boast of their excellent constitution?— Ought they not rather to think it high time to restore the corrupted dying state to its original perfection?—I will apply this to the Roman senate under Julius Caesar, which retained all its ancient formalities, but voted always only as Caesar dictated. If the decrees of such a senate were urged on the Romans as fraught with all the blessings of Roman liberty, we must suppose them strangely deluded, if they were persuaded to believe it…
Into what fatal policy has the nation been impelled by its public vices! To wage a cruel war with its own children in these colonies, only to gratify the lust of power, and the demands of extravagance! May God, in his great mercy recover Great Britain from this fatal infatuation; shew them their errors; and give them a spirit of re|formation, before it is too late to avert impending destruction. May the eyes of the King be opened to see the ruinous tendency of the measures into which he has been led, and his heart inclined to treat his American Subjects with justice and clemency, instead of forcing them still farther to the last extremities! God grant some method may be found out to effect a happy reconciliation, so that the colonies may again enjoy the protection of their Sovereign, with perfect security of all their natural rights, and civil and religious liberties.
But, alas! have not the sins of America, and of New-England in particular, had a hand in bringing down upon us the righteous judgments of heaven? Wherefore is all this evil come upon us? Is it not because we have forsaken the Lord?…