Duties of the Citizen in Times of Trial or Danger

by William Ellery Channing, 1780-1842

[Source: The Works of William E. Channing. Imprint: New York, B. Franklin, 1970, pp. 679-684. The paragraph numbers and other bracketed comments have been added by me. -- Dr. Jan Garrett]

Extracts from Sermons preached, on Days of Humiliation and Prayer, appointed in consequence of the Declaration of War against Great Britain. [Though no exact date is given in the source, it is clear that the following remarks were written during the War of 1812, i.e., while the war was still going on.]

[1] In all circumstances, at all times, war is to be deprecated. The evil passions which it excites, its ravages, its bloody conflicts, the distress and terror which it carries into domestic life, the tears which it draws from the widow and fatherless, all render war a tremendous scourge.

[2] There are, indeed, conditions in which war is justifiable, is necessary. It may be the last and only method of repelling lawless ambition, and of defending invaded liberty and essential rights. It may be the method which God's providence points out by furnishing the means of success. In these cases we must not shrink from war; though even in these we should deeply lament the necessity of shedding-human blood. In such wars our country claims and deserves our prayers, our cheerful services, the sacrifice of wealth, and even of life. In such wars we have one consolation, when our friends fall on the field of battle; we know that they have fallen in a just cause. Such conflicts, which our hearts and consciences approve, are suited to call forth generous sentiments, to breathe patriotism and fortitude through a community. Could I view the war in which we are engaged in this light, with what different feelings, my friends, should I address you! We might then look up to God and commit to him our country with a holy confidence. But, in our present state, what can I say to you I would, but I cannot, address you in the language of encouragement. We are precipitated into a war which, I think, cannot be justified, and a war which promises not a benefit, that I can discover, to this country or to the world.

[3] A solemn question now offers itself. What conduct belongs to a good citizen in our present trying condition? To this subject I call your serious attention.

[4] Our condition induces me to begin with urging on you the important duty of cherishing respect for civil government, and a spirit of obedience to the laws. I am sensible that many whom I address consider themselves as called to oppose the measures of our present rulers. Let this opposition breathe nothing of insubordination, impatience of authority, or love of change. It becomes you to remember that government is a divine institution, essential to the improvement of our nature, the spring of industry and enterprise, the shield of property and life, the refuge of the weak and oppressed. It is to the security which laws afford that we owe the successful application of human powers. Government, though often perverted by ambition and other selfish passions, still holds a distinguished rank among those influences by which man has been rescued from barbarism, and conducted through the ruder stages of society to the habits of order, the diversified employments and dependencies, the refined and softened manners, the intellectual, moral, and religious improvements of the age in which we live. We are bound to respect government, as the great security for social happiness, and we should carefully cherish that habit of obedience to the laws without which the ends of government cannot be accomplished All wanton opposition to the constituted authorities; all censures of rulers, originating in a factious aspiring, or envious spirit, all unwillingness to submit to laws which are directed to the welfare of the community, should be rebuked and repressed by the frown of public indignation.

[5] It is impossible that all the regulations of the wisest government should equally benefit every individual; and sometimes the general good will demand arrangements which will interfere with the interests of particular members or classes of the nation. In such circumstances the individual is bound to regard the inconveniences under which he suffers as inseparable from a social, connected state, as the result of the condition which God has appointed, and not as the fault of his rulers; and he should cheerfully submit, recollecting how much more he receives from the community than he is called to resign to it. Disaffection towards a government which is administered with a view to the general welfare is a great crime; and such opposition, even to a bad government, as springs from and spreads a restless temper, an unwillingness to yield to wholesome and necessary restraint, deserves no better name. In proportion as a people want a conscientious regard to the laws, and are prepared to evade them by fraud, or to arrest their operation by violence,-in that proportion they need and deserve an arbitrary government [a government able to exercise considerable discretion?--JG], strong enough to crush at a blow every symptom of opposition.

[6] These general remarks on the duty of submission are by no means designed to teach that rulers are never to be opposed. Because I wish to guard you against that turbulent and discontented spirit which precipitates free communities into an anarchy, and thus prepares them for chains, you will not consider me as asserting that all opposition to government, whatever be the occasion or whatever the form, is to be branded as a crime. The citizen has rights as well as duties. Government is instituted for one and a single end,-the benefit of the governed, the protection, peace, and welfare of society: and when it is perverted to other objects, to purposes of avarice, ambition, or party-spirit, we are authorized and even bound to make such opposition as is suited to restore it to its proper end, to render it as pure as the imperfection of our nature and state will admit.

[7] The Scriptures have sometimes been thought to enjoin an unqualified, unlimited subjection to the "higher powers"; but in the passages which seem so to teach, it is supposed that these powers are "ministers of God for good," are a terror to evil-doers, and an encouragement to those that do well. When a government wants this character, when it becomes an engine of oppression, the Scriptures enjoin subjection no longer. Expediency may make it our duty to obey, but the government has lost its rights; it can no longer urge its claims as an ordinance of God.

[8] There have, indeed, been times when sovereigns have demanded subjection as an inalienable right, and when the superstition of subjects has surrounded them with a mysterious sanctity, with a majesty approaching the divine. But these days have past. Under the robe of office, we, my hearers, have learned to see a man like ourselves. There is no such sacredness in rulers as forbids scrutiny into their motives, or condemnation of their measures. In leaving the common walks of life, they leave none of their imperfections behind them. Power has even a tendency to corrupt, to feed an irregular ambition, to harden the heart against the claims and sufferings of mankind. Rulers are not to be viewed with a malignant jealousy ; but they ought to be inspected with a watchful, undazzled eye. Their virtues and services are to be rewarded with generous praise and their crimes and arts and usurpations should be exposed with a fearless sincerity to the indignation of an injured people. We are not to be factious, and neither are we to be servile. With a sincere disposition to obey, should be united a firm purpose not to be oppressed.

[9] So far is an existing government from being clothed with an inviolable sanctity, that the citizen, in particular circumstances, acquires the right, not only of remonstrating, but of employing force for its destruction. This right accrues to him when a government wantonly disregards the ends of social union; when it threatens the subversion of national liberty and happiness: and when no relief but force remains to the suffering community. This, however, is a right which cannot be exercised with too much deliberation. Subjects should very slowly yield to the conviction that rulers have that settled hostility to their interests which authorizes violence. They must not indulge a spirit of complaint, and suffer their passions to pronounce on their wrongs. They must remember that the best government will partake the imperfection of all human institutions, and that if the ends of the social compact are in any tolerable degree accomplished, they will be mad indeed to hazard the blessing's they possess for the possibility of greater good.

[10] Resistance of established power is so great an evil, civil commotion excites such destructive passions, the result is so tremendously uncertain, that every milder method of relief should first be tried, and fairly tried. The last dreadful resort is never justifiable until the injured members of the community are brought to despair of other relief, and are so far united in views and purposes as to be authorized in the hope of success. Civil commotion should be viewed as the worst of national evils, with the single exception of slavery. I know that this country has passed through one civil war without experiencing the calamitous consequences of which I have spoken. But let us not forget that this was a civil war of a very peculiar character. The government which we shook off was not seated in the midst of us. Our struggle was that of nation with nation, rather than of fellow-citizens with one another. Our manners and habits tended to give a considerateness and a stability to the public mind which can hardly be expected in a future struggle, And, in addition to these favorable circumstances, we were favored by heaven with a leader of incorruptible integrity, of unstained purity,-a patriot who asked no glory but that of delivering his country, who desired to reign only in the hearts of a free and happy people, whose disinterestedness awed and repressed the selfish and ambitious, who inspired universal confidence, and thus was a centre and bond of union to the minds of men in the most divided and distracted periods of our country. The name of Washington I may pronounce with reverence even in the temple of the Almighty; and it is a name which revives the sinking spirits in this day of our declining glory. From a revolution, conducted by such a man, under such circumstances, let no conclusions be hastily drawn on the subject of civil commotion.

[11] It becomes us to rejoice, my friends, that we live under a constitution, one great design of which is to prevent the necessity of appealing to force, to give the people an opportunity of removing, without violence, those rulers from whom they suffer or apprehend an invasion of rights. This is one of the principal advantages of a republic over an absolute government. In a despotism, there is no remedy for oppression but force. The subject cannot influence public affairs but by convulsing the state. With us, rulers may be changed without the horrors of a revolution. A republican government secures to its subjects this immense privilege, by confirming to them two most important rights,-the right of suffrage, and the right of discussing with freedom the conduct of rulers. The value of these rights in affording a peaceful method of redressing public grievances cannot be expressed, and the duty of maintaining them, of never surrendering them, cannot be too strongly urged. Resign either of these, and no way of escape from oppression will be left you but civil commotion.

[12] From the important place which these rights hold in a republican government, you should consider yourselves bound to support every citizen in the lawful exercise of them, especially when an attempt is made to wrest them from any by violent means. At the present time, it is particularly your duty to guard with jealousy the right of expressing with freedom your honest convictions respecting the measures of your rulers. Without this, the right of election is not worth possessing. If public abuses may not be exposed, their authors will never be driven from power. Freedom of opinion, of speech, and of the press, is our most valuable privilege, the very soul of republican institutions, the safeguard of all other rights. We may learn its value if we reflect that there is nothing which tyrants so much dread. They anxiously fetter the press; they scatter spies through society, that the murmurs, anguish, and indignation of their oppressed subjects may be smothered in their own breasts: that no generous sentiment may be nourished by sympathy and mutual confidence. Nothing awakens and improves men so much as free communication of thoughts and feelings. Nothing can give to public sentiment that correctness which is essential to the prosperity of a commonwealth but the free circulation of truth from the lips and pens of the wise and good. If such men abandon the right of free discussion; if, awed by threats, they suppress their convictions; if rulers succeed in silencing every voice but that which approves them; if nothing reaches the people but what would lend support to men in power, farewell to liberty. The form of a free government may remain, but the life, the soul, the substance is fled.

[13] If these remarks be just, nothing ought to excite greater indignation and alarm than the attempts which have lately been made to destroy the freedom of the press. We have lived to hear the strange doctrine, that to expose the measures of rulers is treason; and we have lived to see this doctrine carried into practice. We have seen a savage populace excited and let loose on men whose crime consisted in bearing testimony against the present war; and let loose riot merely to waste their property, but to tear them from the refuge which the magistrate had afforded, and to shed their blood. In this, and in other events, there have been symptoms of a purpose to terrify into silence those who disapprove the calamitous war under which we suffer; to deprive us of the only method which is left of obtaining a wiser and better government. The cry has been that war is declared, and all opposition should therefore be hushed. A sentiment more unworthy of a free country can hardly be propagated. If this doctrine be admitted, rulers have only to declare war, and they are screened at once from scrutiny. At the very time when they have armies at command, when their patronage is most extended, and their power most formidable, not a word of warning, of censure, of alarm must be heard. The press, which is to expose inferior abuses, must not utter one rebuke, one indignant complaint, although our best interests and most valuable rights are put to hazard by an unnecessary war! Admit this doctrine, let rulers once know that, by placing the country in a state of war, they place themselves beyond the only power they dread,-the power of free discussion,-and we may expect war without end. Our peace and all our interests require that a different sentiment should prevail. We should teach our present and all future rulers that there is no measure for which they must render so solemn an account to their constituents as for a declaration of war; that no measure will be so freely, so fully discussed; and that no administration can succeed in persuading this people to exhaust their treasure and blood in supporting war, unless it be palpably necessary and just. In war, then, as in peace, assert the freedom of speech and of the press. Cling to this as the bulwark of all your rights and privileges.

[14] But, my friends, I should not be faithful were I only to call you to hold fast this freedom. I would still more earnestly exhort you not to abuse it. Its abuse may be as fatal to our country as its relinquishment. If undirected, unrestrained by principle, the press, instead of enlightening, depraves the public mind; and, by its licentiousness, forges chains for itself and for the community. The right of free discussion is not the right of uttering what w^ please. Let nothing be spoken or written but truth. The influence of the press is exceedingly diminished by its gross and frequent misrepresentations. Each party listens with distrust to the statements of the other; and the consequence is, that the progress of truth is slow, and sometimes wholly obstructed. Whilst we encourage the free expression of opinion, let us unite in fixing the brand of infamy on falsehood and slander, wherever they originate, whatever be the cause they are designed to maintain.

[15] But it is not enough that truth be told. It should be told for a good end; not to irritate, but to convince; not to inflame the bad passions, but to sway the judgment and to awaken sentiments of patriotism. Unhappily the press seems now to be chiefly prized as an instrument of exasperation. Those who have embraced error are hardened in their principles by the reproachful epithets heaped on them by their adversaries. I do not mean by. this that political discussion is to be conducted tamely, that no sensibility is to be expressed, no indignation to be poured forth on wicked men and wicked deeds. But this I mean, - that we shall deliberately inquire whether indignation be deserved before we express it; and the object of expressing it should ever be, not to infuse ill-will, rancor, and fury into the minds of men^ but to excite an enlightened and conscientious opposition to injurious measures.

[16] Every good man must mourn that so much is continually published among us, for no other apparent end than to gratify the malevolence of one party by wounding the feelings of the opposite. The consequence is, that an alarming degree of irritation exists in our country. Fellow-citizens burn with mutual hatred, and some are evidently ripe for outrage and violence. In this feverish state of the public mind, we are not to relinquish free discussion, but every man should feel the duty of speaking and writing with deliberation. It is the time to be firm without passion. No menace should be employed to provoke opponents, no defiance hurled, no language used which will, in any measure, justify the ferocious in appealing to force.

[17] The sum of my remarks is this. It is your duty to hold fast and to assert, with firmness those truths and principles on which the welfare of your country seems to depend; but do this with calmness, with a love of peace, without ill-will and revenge. Use every opportunity of allaying animosities. Discourage, in decided and open language, that rancor, malignity, and unfeeling abuse, which so often find their way into our public prints. Remember, that in proportion as a people become enslaved to their passions, they fall into the hands of the aspiring and unprincipled; and that a corrupt government, which has an interest in deceiving the people, can desire nothing more favorable to their purposes than a frenzied state of the public mind.

[18] My friends, in this day of discord, let us cherish and breathe around us the benevolent spirit of Christianity. Let us reserve to ourselves this consolation, that we have added no fuel to the flames, no violence to the storms, which threaten to desolate our country. Though dishonored, though endangered, it is still our country. Let us not forsake it in this evil day. Let us hold fast the inheritance of our civil and religious liberties, which we have received from our fathers, sealed and hallowed by their blood. That these blessings may not be lost, let us labor to improve public sentiment, and to exalt men of wisdom and virtue to power. Let it be our labor to establish in ourselves and in our fellow-citizens the empire of true religion. Let us remember that there is no foundation of public liberty but public virtue, that there is no method of obtaining God's protection but adherence to his laws.

[19] Let us not despair of our country. If all that we wish cannot be done for the state, still something may be done. In the good principles, in the love of order and liberty, by which so many of our citizens are distinguished; in the tried virtue, deliberate prudence, and unshaken firmness of the chief magistrate whom God in his great goodness has given to this Commonwealth; in the value of the blessings which are at stake ; in the peculiar kindness which God has manifested towards our fathers and ourselves, we have motives, encouragements, and solemn obligations to resolute, persevering exertion in our different spheres, and according to our different capacities, for the public good. Thus faithful to ourselves and our country, and using vigorously every righteous means for restoring peace and confirming freedom, we may confidently leave the issue to the wise and holy providence of Him who cannot err, and who, we are assured, will accept and reward every conscientious effort for his own glory and the good of mankind.