« AnteriorContinuar »
property, and it is distributed among different classes and individuals in society, as the local situation, the manners, and habits of the several nations require. Laws are never arbitrary rules, but spring naturally from circumstances that have previously existed. We shall find therefore in every nation, the distribution of property regulated by what is, or is supposed to be, the common good. In most of the nations of Europe, the lands of the father descend to the eldest son, to the exclusion of younger sons; and to the remotest male relative to the exclusion even of daughters. Under the feudal system there was a good reason for this arrangement. The possessor of lands was bound to perform military service; and an elder son was generally better able to be a soldier, from his age and experience, than younger children. For the same reason, females were always excluded. But personal property, consisting chiefly of household goods and provisions, was divided equally among all; for all equally needed the means of present subsist
When, in the fifteenth century, the Turk first encamped in Europe, he came at the head of a hostile army, seized the countries of the vanquished, and reduced their inhabitants to slavery. It was inconsistent with the discipline of a military life, to permit the soldiers to acquire a permanent property in land, and to settle as peaceful farmers. The whole land therefore was seized as the common property of the whole, and the Sultan parcelled it out from year to year, as the wants or the merit of his soldiers required. At the present day, the Grand Seignior is proprietor of all the soil,
and every subject pays him an annual rent for its posses
Two centuries ago, when our ancestors came to this country, they brought with them more enlightened views of the public good, and permitted every individual to retain whatever portion of the bounties of nature he could appropriate to his own use; but still subject to the simple regulations which the majority imposed.
I have brought these examples to prove that property every where belongs to the whole society, and never absolutely to individuals; and that the mode of distributing property among individuals is every where regulated by the circumstances of the whole society. In England, the eldest son inherits the whole property, because a wealthy aristocracy is necessary for the support and regulation of the monarchy; and a monarchy is thought essential to the public good. In this country, property is divided equally among all the children, because a wealthy aristocracy would be fatal to our republican institutions, and a republic is thought necessary for the public good. Property then is every where subject to the claims of the whole society; and no tax is an infringement of the rights of property, which is levied for the promotion of a public good, and is assessed equally upon all.
Is then the existence of public worship a public good? This is the first question to be answered. When men assemble in a Christian country to join in public worhip, they recognise the existence and moral government of the Deity. I shall not waste your time by attempting to prove,
what will at once be granted, that a belief in these doctrines is essential to the security of society, and lies at the foundation of all our institutions; and that a recognition of these principles, at stated intervals, does much to impress them upon the mind. I wish to go farther. Public worship
among us is an expression of belief in the Christian revelation; and I consider Christianity as a means of moral and intellectual improvement, as the great source of civilization and refinement, and of course as the principal branch of public education. It is one of the glories of Christianity, and, to my apprehension, one of the proofs of its divine origin, that it is always in advance of society. Go to the humblest Caffre or New-Zealander, who has scarcely intelligence enough to construct a rude habitation, or prepare for himself wholesome food, and Christianity has precepts and motives for him, which he can understand and feel; and it has something, too, which elevates him above his former condition, which gives him new thoughts, new hopes, and urges him forward to higher attainments. Ascend from him through the several gradations of talent and knowledge, till you come to the strongest powers and the most unclouded intelligence, to Locke and Newton, and I can go no higher, and Christianity is still beyond them. It has still something to tell of the nature and attributes of the Deity, of the moral character and future destiny of man, and of the past history of the human race, which even they have not discovered. When their minds were excited to the highest activity, and extended to the utmost stretch of their powers, Christianity still retained its original grandeur. They had
risen above others, but they were still as far as ever from grasping it in its whole extent; as one who climbs a mountain finds the arch of heaven as broad and as grand, as when viewed from the humble valley from which he ascended.
Nor is Christianity merely the source of intellectual advancement; it is equally the spring of moral and social improvement. Who is there among us, to whom it does not prescribe duties which we have not yet performed? What benevolence is so active, as to have explored all the aveaues of Christian charity? To Christianity, we are indebted for hospitals, asylums, retreats for the insane; for free schools; for charitable societies. None of these were known before the promulgation of Christianity, or are found at present in heathen countries. To Christianity we owe the Bible Societies and Sunday Schools and Savings Banks of the present age. These were unknown in the last generation; and think you that we have already attained to Christian perfection? that there is nothing beyond us? that no institutions can be founded, no associations be formed, no plan be devised for the further improvement of society? Oh no ;-let every man, or even let a small body of men act out the Christian character in its full ex
tent, and see. The time is coming, when the necessary progress of Christian intelligence and benevolence will give rise to institutions and produce effects upon society, of which we cannot now conceive. Consider what has already been done. Our ancestors confined all their cares to the relief of bodily suffering. The first founder of a hospital probably thought that he had done every thing that
could be done for the alleviation of human misery. It did not enter his mind that any thing could be done to prevent evil. Yet we have become familiar with free schools and savings banks; which have already done more for society than all the hospitals that ever were endowed.
After all, the only mode of producing permanent improvement is by acting upon the mind. Relieve the wants of a miserable man, and you do good, indeed; but it is a transient good. He dies, and it is over. But impart one new thought, impress one new principle,
and it continues for ever. It affects, in some way or other, his conversation or behaviour. He imparts it to those around him, he communicates it to his children, he becomes the centre of a circle perpetually enlarging; and the leaven has been insensibly diffused through society, when even its existence was scarcely suspected. In our estimation of human character and improvement, we ascribe too much to great events and splendid examples. Great events are always the consequence of a thousand little events that have previously occurred; or are only the simultaneous effect of a thousand little events; as the explosion of a magazine is only the separate burning of minute particles of powder. When a striking reformation is produced in society, it is not the reformer who effects it; he is merely the instrument by which society reforms itself; the organ by which it collects, combines, and expresses the thoughts which have been floating for many years, in innumerable minds. At the commencement of our revolution, when the tea-ships arrived at Boston, the cry of liberty and resistance to oppression resounded