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Sermon - People Responsible for Character of Rulers - 1895
Henry Van Dyke - 2//1895

Henry Van Dyke (1852-1933) graduated from Princeton with a B.A (1873) and an M.A. (1876), and was a student in Germany (1877-1878). He become an ordained minister in 1879 and was pastor of the United Congregational Church in Newport, RI (1879-1882) and of the Brick Presbyterian Church in New York City (1883-1901). He was a professor of English literature at Princeton (1900-1908; 1919-1923), and a visiting lecturer at the University of Paris (1908). He also served as minister to the Netherlands and Luxembourg, being appointed by friend and former classmate Woodrow Wilson in 1913. Van Dyke joined the U.S. Naval Reserve chaplain’s corps (1918) after retiring from his diplomatic post. He was the author of several books and poems - including the hymn "Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee.” The sermon below was preached in New York in 1895 by Rev. Van Dyke.

The People Responsible

For The

Character Of Their Rulers

A Sermon Delivered By The

Rev. Henry Van Dyke, D.D.

Before The



Sons of the Revolution

In The

State of New York

February 24th, 1895

“Now therefore behold the king whom ye have chosen, and whom ye have desired! and behold, the Lord hath set a king over you.” -I. Sam. xxii. 13,

The Sons of the Revolution are honored and hereditary guests in the Brick Presbyterian Church. Many of the fathers of the Revolution worshipped here in olden time. For this is a church of that Presbyterian order, which was rightly judged to be so favorable to liberty that a Tory wrote of it, a hundred and twenty-five years ago, “The Presbyterians must not be allowed to grow too great; they are all of republican principles.” The first Bishop of this church, the Rev. Dr. John Rodgers, was a chaplain in the Revolutionary Army, and its first edifice, at the corner of Beekman and Nassau Streets, had the distinction of being confiscated and turned into a hospital and military prison by the enemies of our country. Its walls, which once echoed to the groans of those who were imprisoned for the cause of freedom, have crumbled into dust; but its ministers and its people hold fast to the faith of their forefathers, and this church has still a welcome, and a message from the Word of God for the Sons of the Revolution.

You will find a truth appropriate for our consideration at this service commemorative of Washington’s Birthday in the declaration of Samuel to the Hebrew people at the coronation of their first king: “Now therefore behold the king whom ye have chosen and whom ye have desired! and behold, the Lord hath set a king over you.” – I. Sam. xii. 13.

Saul in Israel, and Nebuchadnezzar in Babylon, and Nero in Rome, and William the Silent in Holland, and Philip II in Spain, and George III in Great Britain, and George Washington in America, – all the powers that be, or have been, were ordained of God. And yet in every case the forces that have created them, and the causes that have exalted them, are to be sought in the character of the nations over which they have ruled. God ordains the power but He ordains it to fit the people. A bandit-chief for a tribe of brigands, a tyrant for slaves, an inquisitor for bigots, a sovereign tax-collector for a nation of shop-keepers, and a liberator for a race of freemen. The ruler is but the exponent of the inmost thoughts, desires, and ambitions of the ruled; sometimes their punishment and sometimes their reward.

Therefore we advance (subject to those limitations and exceptions that are always understood among intelligent people when the speak in broad terms) the general law which is the theme of this sermon: The people are responsible for the character of their rulers.

There are some complications which obscure the operations of this law in monarchy, an empire or an oligarchy. A hereditary crown, a sword transformed into a scepter, a transmitted title, gives an opportunity to usurp or extend unrighteous power. And yet even here, a keen, clear eye can discern the people in the sovereign. Napoleon raised his empire of conquest cemented with blood, on a prepared foundation in the heart of France filled with the lust of military glory. George III obtained the power to nominate his own ministers of incompetent arrogance to carry out his policy of colonial oppression from a national conscience dulled by commercial rapacity and a fat-witted spirit of Toryism fallen into a contemptuous indifference for the rights of others. But in a republic the truth emerges distinct and vivid, so that a child can read it. The rulers are chosen from the people by the people. The causes which produce the men and raise them to office, and clothe them with authority, are in the heart of the people. Therefore in the long run, the people must be judged by, and answer for, the kind of men who rule over them.

When we apply this law to the beginning of our history it gives us ground for gratitude and noble pride of birth. George Washington is the incarnation of the Spirit of ’76, and the conclusive answer to all calumniators of the Revolution. No wild fanatic, no reckless socialist or anarchist, but a simple, sober, sand God-fearing, liberty-loving gentleman, who prized uprightness as the highest honor, and law as the bulwark of freedom, and peace as the greatest blessing, and was willing to live and die to defend them, – this is the typical American. He had his enemies who accused him of being an aristocrat, a conservative, a friend of the very England he was fighting and who would have defamed and cast him sown if they could. But the men of the Revolution held him up, because he was in their hearts, their hope and their ideal. God ordained him as a power, and because the people chose him as their leader. And when we honor his memory, we honor theirs. “We praise famous men and our fathers that begat us.”

But shall our children and our children’s children have the same cause to thank and esteem us? Shall they say of us, as we say of our fathers, “They were true patriots, who loved their country with a loyal, steadfast love and desired it to be ruled by the best men”?

That depends on one thing, my brethren, and on one thing only and unalterable. Not on the chance of war, the necessity of revolution, the coming of a national crisis. The obligation of patriotism is perennial and its occasion comes with every year. In peace or war, in prosperity or in adversity, the true patriot is he who maintains the highest ideal of honor, purity, and justice for his country’s laws and rulers and actions. The true patriot is he who as willing to sacrifice his time and strength and prosperity to remove political shame and reform political corruption, as he would be ready to answer the bugle-call to battle against a foreign foe. The true patriot is he who works and votes, with the same courage that he would fight, in order that the noblest aspirations of a noble people may be embodied in the noblest rulers. For, after all, when history completes the record and posterity pronounces the verdict, it is by the moral quality of their leaders and representatives that a people’s patriotism must be judges.

It is true that the sharp crisis of war flashes light upon this judgment. In the crisis of liberty we see Washington has the proof that the revolution was for justice, not for selfishness; for order, not for anarchy. In the crisis of equality we see Lincoln as the proof that the heart of the American nation was not like the King of Dahomey [an African kingdom that existed from 1600-1900], who desired that the slave-trade should be suppressed everywhere else and tolerated in his dominion, and that the war of the Union was not a war of conquest over the South, but a war to deliver the captive and let the oppressed go free. Those two men were the central figures in the crises; but the causes which produced them, and supported them in the focus of light, while men of violence raged, and partisans imagined a vain thing, were hidden in the secret of the people’s life and working in secret through years of peace and preparation.

And when the third crisis comes, - the crisis of fraternity, in which it shall be determined whether a vast people of all sorts and conditions of men can live together in liberty and brotherhood, without standing armies or bloody revolts, without unjust laws which discriminate between the rich and the poor, and crush the vital force of individuality, and divide classes, in the liberty and fraternity, I say, with the least possible government and the greatest possible security of life and property and freedom of action, - when the imminent crisis comes in which this great hope of our forefathers must be destroyed or fulfilled, the leaders who shall wreck or rescue it and the ultimate result of that mighty conflict will simply represent the moral character and ideals of the American people.

Now the causes which control the development of national character are threefold: domestic political and religious: the home, the state, and the church.

The home comes first because it is the seed-plot and nursery of virtue. A noble nation of ignoble households is impossible. Our greatest peril today is in the decline of domestic morality, discipline, and piety. The degradation of the poor by overcrowding in great tenements and the enervation of the rich by seclusions in luxurious palaces, threaten the purity and vigor of old-fashioned American family life. If it vanishes nothing can take its place. Show me a home where the tone of life is selfish, disorderly, or trivial, jaundiced by avarice, frivolized by fashion, or poisoned by moral skepticism; where success is worshipped and righteousness ignored; where there are two consciences, one for the private and one for public use; where the boys are permitted to believe that religion has nothing to do with citizenship and that their object must be to get as much as possible from the State and to do as little as possible for it; where the girls are suffered to think that because they have as yet no votes they have therefore no duties to the commonwealth, and that the crowning glory of an American woman’s life is to marry a foreigner with a title – show me such a home, and I will show you a breeding-place of enemies of the Republic.

It has not hitherto, e4ven in this favored land, seemed fit to that Almighty Being who rules over the universe to entrust the responsibility of suffrage to the hands of women. But (it may be to test and qualify them for its use, or it may be to more than compensate them for its absence), he has given to the daughters of the Revolution the far higher trust of training great men for their country’s service. A great general like Napoleon may be produced in a military school. A great diplomatist like Metternich may be developed in a court. A great philosopher like Hegel may be evolved in a university. But a great Man like Washington can only come from a Christian home. The greatness, indeed, parental love cannot bestow; but the manliness is often a mother’s gift. Teach your sons to respect themselves without asserting themselves. Teach them to think sound and wholesome thoughts free from prejudice and passion. Teach them to speak the truth, even about their own party, and to pay their debts in the same money in which they were contracted and to prefer poverty to dishonor. Teach them to worship God by doing some useful work, to live honestly and cheerfully in such a station as they are fit to fill, and to love their country with an unselfish and uplifting love. Then they may not all be Washingtons, but to be their ruler and leader in

“The path of duty and the way to glory.”
And in the coming conflict between corporate capital and organized labor, if come it must, they will stand fast as the soldiers, not of labor nor of capital, but of that which is infinitely above them both, the commonwealth of law and order and freedom. They will be men of the spirit of that latest Hero of the Sons of the Revolution the young captain in the 12th Regiment of the National Guard of the State of New York, who marched out the other day with hundreds of the best youth of this city – not gilded youth, but golden youth – to defend the peace and liberties of a demoralized sister-city, and lost his life through exposure and exhaustion on the field of duty: Capt. Frank Roosevelt, - as true a martyr-patriot as though he had fallen at Bunker Hill or Gettysburg.

But the character of the people is not only molded by the tone of domestic and social life, it is also expressed and influenced by the tone of political life, by the ideals and standards which prevail in the conduct of public affairs. And here, it must be confessed, our country discloses grave causes for anxiety. Our political standards have undoubtedly shifted from that foundation on which Washington placed them in his first inaugural , “the principles of private morality.” Take for example the appearance of Governors of sovereign states who excuse and defend the destruction of life and property which would be called murder and arson if it were the work of individuals because it is committed by great labor-unions which control public sentiment and votes. Take for example the unblushing audacity of legislators who propose that the Government shall pay a debt of a dollar with forty-six cents. Take for the great example the system of distributing public office as party spoils.

Let me concentrate here, and speak plain words. I say without hesitation that the Spoils System is an organized treason against the Republic and transgression against the moral law. It is a gross and sordid iniquity. Its emblem should not be the eagle, but the pelican, because it has the largest pouch. It shamelessly defies three of the Ten Commandments. It lies, when it calls a public office a spoil. It covets, when it desires to control that office for the benefit of party. It steals, when it converts that office from the service of the commonwealth, into a gift to “reward” a partisan, or a sacrifice to “placate” a faction. And for how many indirect violations of the other commandments, in Sabbath-breaking, blasphemy, adultery and murder, the Spoils System is indirectly responsible, let the private history of the “rings” and “halls” which it has created, answer.

But it is an idle amusement for clever cynics in the newspapers, and amiable citizens in their clubs, to vituperate the Ring and the Boss, while we approve, sanction, or even tolerate the vicious principle “To the victors belong the spoils.” This principle is the root of the evils which afflict us. There can be no real cure except one which is radical. Police investigations and periodical attempts to “drive the rascals out” do not go deep enough. We must see and say and feel that the whole Spoils System from top to bottom is a flagrant immorality and a fertile mother of vices. The ring does not form itself out of the air; it is bred in the system. A Boss is simply a boil, an evidence of bad blood in the body politic. Let it out and he will subside.

Sons of The Revolution kindle their indignation by contemplating the arrogance of the Tea-Tax and the Stamp-Act which tyranny attempted to impose on freemen. I will tell you of two more arrogant iniquities nearer home. The people of the largest state in the Union not long ago made a law that their civil service should be taken out of the domain of spoils and controlled by merit and efficiency. A committee appointed last year to investigate the working of the law, reported that it had been systematically disregarded, evaded and violated, by the very Governor elected and commissioners appointed to carry it into execution, so that the number of offices distributed as spoils had steadily increased, and the proportion of appointments for ascertained merits and fitness had decreased twenty-five per cent. in a year and a half. That is the first instance. And the second is like unto it. The people of the largest city in the Union, regardless of party, joined hands last fall in successful effort to drive out a corrupt and oppressive organization which had long fastened on the spoils of municipal office. They elected a chief magistrate pledged to administer the affairs of the city on a business basis, with a single eye to the welfare of the city, and without regard to partisan influence. To this chief magistrate now appears that man from the rural districts, like Banquo’s ghost [from William Shakespeare’s Macbeth], but without crown and with plenty of “speculation in his eyes,” demanding that his counsel shall be taken, and his followers rewarded, and his faction “placated,” in the distribution of the offices of this great city of which he is not even a citizen. I say that is as impudent an iniquity as George III and his ministers ever proposed towards their American colonies.

But who is responsible for it? I will tell you. The corporations from whom the Boss gets his gains in payment for his protection. The office-seekers, high or low, who go to the Boss for a place for themselves of for others. And the citizens who, by voting or not voting, have year after year filled our legislative chambers with men who were willing to do the Bosses’ bidding, for a consideration. “Ah” but you say, “this year it is not going to work. This year we have found

“The still strong man in a blatant land’
who is going to give us a clean city government.” I thank God it looks as if that were true. but if the cleansing is to be radical and permanent, if it is to pervade the entire fabric of government in state and nation, it can only be by breaking up and eradicating the whole system of irresponsible and haphazard appointment to office (which has gone far towards killing our best men like Cleveland and Harrison, and which has gone still father in corrupting our worst men), and by substituting for it the system of appointment for merit and fitness, under wise and just rules which throw the whole civil service of nation, state, and city open, on equal terms, to every citizen who can prove that he is qualified to serve.

Think for a moment of what we have gained and what we have still to gain in this direction. There are 200,000 places in the Civil Service of the United States. (In Washington’s day they were counted by hundreds; and yet he groaned under the burden of filling them, and declared that he would make, “when the pretensions of every candidate are brought to view, so far as my judgment shall direct me, justice and the public good the sole objects of my pursuit.”) Of these places 47,975 have been classified under the rules. Since March 46th, 1893, 8164 have been added to the classified list. There are still 154,848 places which are outside of the classified service. It should be the desire and object to remove these places as rapidly and as completely as possible from all chance of occupation or use by the Spoils System. Burn the nests, and the rats will evacuate. Clean the sewers, and the malaria will abate. Let it be understood that our chief elective officers are no longer to be sent into the fields to feed place-hunters, and it will no longer be difficult to get the most conscientious men to serve. Let the people once thoroughly repudiate and disown the “spoils system,” and then the spoilsman and the boss, the ring and the hall,

“Shall fold their tents like the Arabs
And as silently steal away.”

But what has all this to do with religion and the Church? Just this: a free church in a free state must exercise a direct and dominant moral influence upon the tone of domestic and political life. If not, then may God have mercy upon such dumb, impotent, and useless parody on Christianity. The Church is set as a light in the world. Let it not be change into a dark lantern and turned backwards upon the Scribes and Pharisees. Set it on a candle stick that it may give light unto all that are in the house. Let the Church shed the light of warning and reproof upon the immoral citizen who enjoys the benefits of citizenship and evades its responsibilities; the dishonest merchant who uses part of his gains to purchase political protection and his good reputation to cover the transaction; the recreant preacher who denounces the corruptions of government “down in Judee” and ignores the same corruptions in the United States; the lawyers who study the laws in order to defend their clients in evading them; and the officials who profess to serve the State then add, “The State – that’s me.” Above all let the Church shed the light of honor and glory upon the true heroes of the republic, the brave soldiers, the loyal citizens, the pure statesmen, that all men may know that the Church recognizes these men as servants of the most high God because they were in deed and in truth the servants of the people.

Let us not forget how the American Church Bore her part in the Revolution inspiring, purifying and blessing the struggle for justice and liberty. Let us not forget that she has a duty, no less sacred, in the conflicts of these latter days; to encourage men in the maintenance of that liberty which has been achieved and in the reform of all evils which threaten the purity of private and public life; to proclaim that our prosperity does not depend upon the false maxims of what is called “practical politics,” but as Washington said, upon “Religion and morality, those great pillars of human happiness, those firmest props of the duties of men and citizens.” When the church evades or neglects this office of public prophecy, When she gives her strength to theological subtlety, and ecclesiastical rivalry, and clerical millinery, and stands silent in the presence of corruption and indifferent to the progress of reform, her own bells will toll the death knell of her influence, her sermons will be the funeral discourses of her power, and her music will be a processional to the grave of her own honor. But when she proclaims to all people, without fear or favor, the necessity of a thorough-going conscience and regenerating Gospel in every sphere of human life, the reverence of men and the favor of God will crown the walls of Zion with perpetual and living light.

As the servant of a Church which has been loyal to this ideal in the past, I deliver her message in the present to the Sons of the Revolution.

Be not the Sons of the Revolution after the flesh only but also after the spirit. Be true to the principles of you forefathers, and to the responsibilities of the citizenship which they bought with their blood. Hold fast to the great quadrilateral of their patriotic faith: the greatest possible liberty for the individual; the equality of taxation and representation; the purity and simplicity of republican government; and adherence to God’s moral law as the only basis of national security. And remember, brethren, as we judge and honor of our fathers by their choice of Washington to be their commander, even so will our children measure and esteem us by the character of the men whom we desire and choose to be our rulers in this free republic.

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