Posted by: Democratic Thinker | September 9, 2010

Samuel Williams: State of Society (Freedom)

American Thought

The Reverend Samuel Williams, a Congregational minister, Professor of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy at Harvard, and a founder of the University of Vermont, writes in 1809 on freedom and the current state of society following the Revolution.

Ye people of the United States of America, behold here the precarious foundation upon which ye hold your liberties. They rest not upon things written upon paper, nor upon the virtues, the vices, or the designs of other men, but they depend upon yourselves; upon your maintaining your property, your knowledge, and your virtue.

The Natural and Civil History of Vermont.
Chapter XIII.


STATE OF SOCIETY. Freedom: Destroyed in some Countries by the State of Society, produced by the Settlement of America, the Cause and Effect of the American War, cannot be preserved by Government, depends on the State find Condition of the People.

THE employments, the government, the religion, the customs, habits, manners, and condition of the people, constitute their state of society. In the state of society which had taken place in America, the foundations of her freedom were laid, long before the nations of Europe had any suspicion of what was taking place in the minds of men. Conquest, religion, law, custom, habits, and manners, confirmed by military power, had established a state of society in Europe, in which the rights of men were obliterated and excluded. The property and power of a nation had passed into the hands of the sovereign, nobility and church. The body of the people were without property, or any chance or prospect of securing any; and without education or knowledge to form them to any rational principles and sentiments. Without property and without principle, they were of little or no consequence, in the view of government. When the contest was whether the king or the commons should gain more power, the meaning was not at all whether the body of the people should be raised out of their degraded state of ignorance, poverty, and insignificance but whether that part of the nation, which had acquired much wealth and property, should have more influence in the affairs of government. The body of the people were esteemed as mere mob, wholly inadequate and unfit for the affairs of government. The king, lords, and commons were agreed in viewing the mass of the people in this light. And as they had neither property, principle, or knowledge, it is probable that the opinion which their rulers formed of them, was but too just.

Such had been the state of society in Europe, for many centuries. Time, law, religion, and power, had combined with every other circumstance, to degrade the people; and to reduce the body of them to the lowest state of abasement, and contempt. In a state of society, in’ which everything had so long deviated from the design and law of nature, it could not be, but that the rights of men should be lost; and the idea of them had nearly perished. Nothing was to be seen but one general degradation of the body of the people, and an unnatural and excessive exaltation of those who had acquired power; every where tending to corrupt both, and to give the most unfavorable idea of the capacity of the former, and of the disposition of the latter. It required the daring spirit of Milton and Sydney, and the abilities of Locke and Montesquieu, to discover the rights of men, when men themselves for many centuries, had made the state of society wholly opposite and contrary to the state of nature. The philosopher had to deduce them from the creation, and nature of man. In this inquiry, the progress, like discoveries in other sciences, was extremely slow and precarious. Interest and reputation were against the progress of this kind of knowledge. The law, the church, and the government, were not only opposed to it, hut they punished the discoverers and writers, by whipping, imprisonments, heavy fines, and death. None but the greatest and most virtuous of men, were either able to investigate, or would dare to assert what belonged to the nature of man, and what was derived from the nature of society.

In America, every thing had assumed a different tendency and operation. The first settlers of the colonies, had suffered severely under the bigotry and intolerance of ecclesiastical power, in the days of Elizabeth, James, and Charles the first. They had not at first, any more knowledge of the rights of human nature than their neighbors, and they were as far from the spirit of candor and toleration. But when they were exposed to severe sufferings on account of their religion, they were placed in a, situation, in which their feelings would perform, for them, what their reason had not acquired sufficient force to effect. They felt, and of course saw, that there was no reason or righteousness in the punishments which were inflicted upon them, on account of their religion. In such a situation, truth occurred to them every moment; and their situation and sufferings effectually taught them what were the rights of men; They could at once discern and understand the voice of nature, which had no effect upon those in power, and probably would have had none upon them, had they been in the same state. With these views they came into America. Situation and employment immediately operated to enlarge and confirm the sentiments which their sufferings had first produced. The wilderness was to be cleared up, habitations were to be built, the means of living were to be procured: These occupations were so necessary, that they became unavoidable; and every man who did not mean to perish, was obliged to engage in them. This similarity of situation and employment, produced a similarity of state and condition; at that time unknown to the rest of the world: The effects of which the first settlers did not at all comprehend themselves. The greater part of them reverenced monarchy, as a sacred institution of heaven; but they felt at the same time that the honors and distinctions it produced, were of no avail to them. To be wise, strong, industrious, and healthy, to have rulers, judges, and generals, the distinctions which nature urged, they found to be of the highest importance. But to be called a duke, an earl, or a marquis, the distinctions, which society had set up against nature, they found could be of no importance to them, and denoted nothing valuable in themselves, Nothing was left for them but to pursue the line and course of nature, which was that of utility and safety. And this could produce nothing but similarity of situation, rights, privileges, and freedom. Every new settlement, was a confirmation of the same state of society; and notwithstanding the perpetual interference of royal authority, every thing operated to produce that natural, easy, independent situation, and spirit, in which the body of the people were found, when the American war came on. In such circumstances, the common farmer in America had a more comprehensive view of his rights and privileges, than the speculative philosopher of Europe, ever could have of the subject. The one was in a situation, where the language, dictates, and designs of nature, were perpetually occurring to his views: The other was in a situation, where every thing in society had deviated from nature; and with infinite labor and study, the first principles, must be deduced from theory and reasoning. Learning their principles from the state of society in America, Paine, and other writers upon American politics, met with amazing success: Not because they taught the people principles, which they did not before Understand; but because they placed the principles which they had learned of them, in a very clear and striking light, on a most critical and important occasion.

When the war came on, the leaders of mobs, and the mobs which they created, appeared in their true light.: The former sunk into contempt, and the latter were soon suppressed. The enlightened, virtuous, substantial body of uncorrupted citizens, took up the business. Unacquainted with the state of society here, Europe saw with wonder, the spirit of freedom unconquerable in America: Rising, the more it suffered, the more superior to all the attempts of the wisest and most powerful nation of Europe. The ministers of Britain at that time, were men of great eminence and abilities, in managing business, upon the European system: But they had no ideas of the state of things in America, or of a system in which nature and society had combined to produce and to preserve freedom. What they called rebellion, was only the tendency of nature and society towards freedom, made more active, by their opposition. Mistaking the cause, they perpetually mistook in their measures: And what could not have happened from any other cause but total mistake, it was their singular ill fortune never to judge right, either through design, or by mistake. The result was the natural effect of things. It did not partake of the nature of miracles, of the extravagant spirit of chivalry, or of the madness of religious or political enthusiasm. It was nothing more than the natural effect, of natural causes. Freedom, for a century and an half, had been the constant product and effect, of the state of society in the British colonies: And when the decisive trial was to be made, this state of society produced its natural effect; a firm, steady, unabating, and unceasing contest, which could not admit of any other period, but the total destruction, or complete establishment of freedom.

No other cause but that which first produced the freedom of America, will prove sufficient to Support and preserve it. It is in the state of society that civil freedom has its origin, and support. The effect can never be more pure or perfect, than the causes from whence it arises; and all those causes terminate in the state and condition of the people. The form of government by which the public business is to be done, a bill of rights to ascertain the just claims of the people, a constitution to direct and restrain the legislature; a code of laws to guide and direct the executive authority, are matters of high importance to any people; and are justly esteemed among the wisest productions, of ancient or modern times; But no people ought to expect that any thing of this nature will avail to secure; or to perpetuate their liberties. Such things are consequences, not the causes; the evidences, not the origin of the liberties of the people. They derive their Whole authority and force, from the public sentiment; and are of no further avail to secure the liberties of the people, than as they tend to express, to form, and to preserve the public opinion. If this alters and changes, any bill of rights, any constitution or form of government, and law, may easily be set aside; be changed, or be made of none effect. For it will never be dangerous for the government of any people, to make any alteration or changes, which the public opinion will either allow, justify, or support. Nor ought any people to expect, that their legislators or governors will be able to preserve their liberties, for a long period of time. Any body of men who enjoy the powers and profits of public employments, will unavoidably wish to have those profits and powers increased. The difficulties they will meet with in the execution of their office, the unreasonable opposition that will be made by many to their wisest and best measures, and the constant attempts to displace them, by those whose only aim and wish is to succeed them; Such things, joined with a natural love of power and profit, will not fail to convince all men in public employments, that it would be best for the public to put more confidence and power in them. While they thus wish and aim to increase and add strength to their own powers and emoluments, those powers and emoluments will be called the powers and the dignity of government. It may be doubted whether men are much to blame, for wishing and aiming at that, which their situation and employment naturally leads to. The effect seems to be universal. It has ever been the case that government has had an universal tendency, to increase its own powers, revenues, and influence. No people ought to expect that things will have a different tendency among them: That men will cease to be men, or become a more pure and perfect order of beings, because they have the powers of government committed to them.

Upon what then can the people depend, for the support and preservation of their rights and freedom? Upon no beings or precautions under heaven, but themselves. The spirit of liberty is a living principle. It lives in the minds, principles, and sentiments of the people. It lives in their industry, virtue, and public sentiment: Or rather it is produced, preserved, and kept alive, by the state of society. If the body of the people shall lose their property, their knowledge, and their virtue, their greatest and most valuable blessings are lost at the same time. With the loss of these, public sentiment will be corrupted: With the corruption of the public sentiment, bills of rights, constitutions written upon paper, and all the volumes of written law, will lose their force, and utility. Their government will immediately begin to change: And when the people have themselves lost the cause, the principle, and the spirit of freedom, they will no longer be capable of a free government: They are better suited for the restraints of aristocracy, or what is far better, for the regulations of monarchy. The constitutions and the laws of such a people, will no more preserve their freedom, than the tombs And the coffins of Montesquieu and Franklin, will retain their abilities and virtues.

There is not any thing, which in its own nature is more variable, than the state of society. When the minds of men are roused up by great objects to great pursuits, and their ambition is guided by a sense of honor and virtue, a nation rises to the highest attainments, and to the most dignified appearance, that the human race ever assumes; but when little motives, influence little minds, to pursue little objects, by little measures, the event will be the minimum; the lowest state of depression, to which society can descend: And of both these states, every nation and every government is susceptible. Voltaire has somewhere said, that no one would suspect the Swedes in his day, were the same people that performed such exploits in the time of Charles the twelfth. We cannot expect that republican virtue and honor will ever arise to a more solid or brilliant appearance, than it put On, in the long and arduous struggle for American Independence; and in the duplicity, intolerance, avarice and insolence of party politicians, there is something extremely humbling, mortifying, and degrading. Let it be remembered, the American people are not corrupted, emaciated, or enervated; and whensoever the state of their country shall require it, they are capable of all the vigor, energy, hardihood, and virtue, that appeared in their fathers at any former period.

Ye people of the United States of America, behold here the precarious foundation upon which ye hold your liberties. They rest not upon things written upon paper, nor upon the virtues, the vices, or the designs of other men, but they depend upon yourselves; upon your maintaining your property, your knowledge, and your virtue. Nature and society have joined to produce, and to establish freedom in America. You are now in the full possession of all your natural and civil rights; under no restraints in acquiring knowledge, property, or the highest honors of your country; in the most rapid state of improvement, and population; with perfect freedom to make further improvements in your own condition. In this state of society, every thing is adapted to promote the prosperity, the importance, and the improvement of the body of the people. But nothing is so established among men, but that it may change and vary. If you should lose that spirit of industry, of economy, of knowledge, and of virtue, which led you to independence and to empire, then, but not until then, will you lose your freedom: Preserve your virtues, and your freedom will be perpetual!