Nathaniel Thayer (1769-1840) graduated from Harvard in 1789. He was a pastor in Wilkeshare, PA and in Lancaster, MA (1795-1840). The following artillery election sermon was preached by Thayer in Boston on June 4, 1798.
ANCIENT AND HONORABLE
IN BOSTON, JUNE 4, 1798;
ELECTION OF OFFICERS
BY NATHANIEL THAYER,
MINISTER OF THE CHURCH IN LANCASTER
Proverbs xvi. 32.
He that is slow to anger, is better than the mighty; and he that ruleth his spirit, than he that taketh a city.
Solomon wisely decided the comparative merit of characters. Viewing through an impartial medium their moves, plans of conduct, and respective influence on the public manners and happiness, “he weighed them in an even balance,” and suffered intrinsic excellence only to preponderate.
The contrasts, exhibited in the text, bring to view a respectable proportion of every community. Either impetuosity or moderation, rashness or courage, pusillanimity or fortitude, contentment or ambition, generosity or avarice are leading features in the character of the principal members. These virtues or vices, according to their natural tendency, lead to the elevation or debasement of personal virtue to the promotion or destruction of national honor and happiness.
Men, who lust after power, and are ambitious of extensive dominion, are justly characterized partial in reflection, hasty in resentment, precipitate in decision and instead of acting on the broad scale of virtue of public utility, solely aim after personal aggrandizement. Blindly pursuing their mad schemes, they forget, that an equitable exercise of powers is the offspring of a well-regulated heart, and that to check the turbulency of passion, is the best assistant in effecting honorable conquests. Strangers to consistency, deaf to the voice of conscience, and enemies to reason, they impetuously press forward to the accomplishment of a favorite object, and rely for the purest felicity on the subjugation of millions to their despotic sway.
On the other hand, a perfect control and deliberate indulgence of passion lead to justness and extent of thought, coolness of decision, and a proper estimate of the views, purposes and provocations of individuals and of communities. The man, who is slow to anger, suffers no ill-founded prejudice, superficial examination, hasty opinion or wild resolution to direct his conduct. But relying on the deliberate conclusions of unbiased reason, his chief employment is the discovery of what is right and fit, and the public benefit is the grand object of his pursuit. These attainments are evidently the result of laudable proficiency in self-government. When opposed to the petulant, to unprincipled seekers after power, or too such as are desirous of laying a foundation for universal empire this description of characters is entitled to high applause. In their practice is implied a respect for the dictates of reason and the precepts of the Gospel, a commendable solicitude for the harmony and happiness of society, and an active purpose to extend the knowledge to promote the principles of the divine government.
The observations already made, exhibit the outlines of the characters of those members of society who give unbounded license to passion, and of such as restrain it within reasonable limits. To display more explicitly the properties of personal discipline, as opposed to an insatiable thirst for power or extensive conquest; to deduce a preference in favor of the former, from the good effects it tends to produce; to confirm our remarks by historical examples; and to offer some reflections suggested by the situation and prospects of our country, form the design of the ensuing part of the discourse.
The general characteristic of personal discipline is the honorable supremacy it preserves over passion, and the subserviency it extorts from it, to the elevated desires, purposes and pursuits of reason.
No conflict is ever more dangerous, violent or eventful, than this, maintained between these two essential and important parts of every human character. It is dangerous, because reason is likely to be wounded and overcome in the contest. It is violent, because the “casting of fire-brands, arrows and death” is the natural product of excessive passion. It is eventful, because there is no empire so despotic, no tyranny so oppressive, no victory so haughty and insolent, as that which is supported or gained by passion A rising superior to this danger, a successful opposition to this violence, and an entire defeat of the hope of obtaining a victory can only be effected by the man who habitually “ruleth his own spirit.”
A criminal error in the ambitious, in men aspiring after power, whose wishes are scarcely limited by the universe, and who cherish the intention to conquer and oppress its inhabitants, is that they neither estimate the design, dignity, nor capacity of reason . hurried blindfold by lust, pride or avarice, personal elevation is the motive, riches or grandeur the object, and deathless fame the anticipated reward of their unbaiting enterprise. Alexander and Julius Caesar are striking examples of the despotic influence of passion. Ignorant of self-command, and fearful of attacking so rough, untried and formidable a fortress as their own hearts, they wandered abroad in pursuit of something which could equal their ambitious views. Wrapped in the illusions of fancy, these insolent and overbearing demagogues vainly hoped, that idiots, with respect to the first principles of government, might honorably aspire after, and sustain universal empire. These are two of numberless instances of the frenzy and distraction, occasioned by checking the exercise, and resisting the authority of reason.
A distinguishing property of personal discipline is fortitude, which enables the mind to bear insolent treatment originates just conceptions of its nature, and dictates the exercise of patience in devising means of redress.
To oppose insolence with forbearance is an important Christian attainment. This is the genuine fruit of fortitude, which is a chief promoter of the dignity and usefulness of man.
Rightly to comprehend an injury, to conceive of its tendency, and to judge of the intended extent of it, are exceedingly necessary, to proportion wisely our resentment to its deserts. Precipitancy, jealousy or petulance entirely prevent these acquirements. They delude the fancy, contract the understanding, warp the judgment, and fear the conscience. Certainly then, a perfect self-command will totally exclude these vices as enemies to liberal investigation and opposers of truth.
Fortitude is the desirable and happy medium between insensibility and rashness. It is not inconsistent with a keen sense of injuries, neither is it superior to resentment. It wisely discriminated between a hasty and inconsiderate sally of passion, and a deliberate provocation.
Equally distant is this virtue from cowardice as from insensibility. Although it is not hasty to resent an injury, it is prepared to repel it although it admits every honorable expedient to redress a grievance, to be preferable to sudden and open hostility, yet faith it’s brave and pious patron, “Though an host should encamp against me, yet will I not fear.”
Diametrically opposed to the condescending qualities of this amiable and Christian virtue, are the impetuosity, violence and pride of persons whose ambition is solely directed to the taking of cities. In an opposite scale with the prudence, forbearance, patient inquiry, firmness and magnanimity of such as cultivate the former, may be placed the inconsiderateness, temerity, avarice and insolence of those who cherish the latter, and this will lead to an impartial opinion of this part of their respective characters.
As self-government begets a nobleness and elevation of soul, to estimate and endure injuries, it also originates a boldness of sentiment, an animated, rational and inextinguishable courage.
Temperance and perseverance in the moment of severe trial are prominent features in the heroism of a truly valiant man. Neither appalled by the approach of danger, nor alarmed by its probable consequences, have his manly firmness and intrepidity served for a shield, which the impetuous ardor of a hostile foe can never penetrate.
True courage is distinguished from its counterfeit by a constant preparedness for the severest conflict, by a noble contempt of life and it’s most valued comforts, when the interests of liberty, virtue or religion are at hazard. Every partial or interested consideration is sacrificed to the advancement of the public good.
A man of courage exhausts not his ardor on trifling, ludicrous, or unimportant occasions, but wisely apportions it to the value of the object, and the urgency of the season.
This virtue is especially distinguished from the licentious fury of an avaricious pursuer of power or conquest, as it is restrained by reason, and receives additional and well-directed fervor from exercise.
Having taken this view of some of the discriminating properties of personal discipline, let us contemplate it’s most important effects, and ascertain their preference to the disgraceful consequences of an ungoverned lust of empire.
Undisturbed reflections, equanimity and rational comfort are the streams, incessantly flowing from this pure source, to refresh the individual.
Entertaining only moderate views and reasonable expectations, having enlightened reason for his unerring and sure guide, he is not precipitated into the transports of passion, which occasion a departure from a steady course of virtuous practice. Always having command of his understanding and reflection, he is not fickle in his inclinations, nor unstable in his purposes. Being settled, resolute and conscientious, his mind is undisturbed, his conscience calm, and all his reflections cheerful.
This perfect self-command is also a very happy mean of promoting the true dignity of man. It preserves in their proper subordination the inferior qualities of his nature. It gives full scope to the active energies of the mind. It completes the social, moral and religious character.
On the other hand, an ambition for power or conquest is always restless. Originating in selfish and avaricious views, exercising the corrupt and perverse dispositions of the heart, and having for it’s object the establishment of universal despotism, it tends to enervate the mind, to produce a constant fermentation in the heart, and lastingly to check the exercise of every social and pure sentiment.
The efficacy of self-government when exercised by the members of a community, is also particularly noticeable, as it’s tendency is, to promote and preserve harmony and order.
As personal comfort is the fruit of a peaceful and undisturbed mind, so the welfare and happiness of a nation must depend on a freedom from the excesses of unbridled passion. A restless and peevish, an irritable and turbulent temper a principal cause of the uneasinesses and contentions, the tumults and commotions, which have defaced the beauty, and in interrupted the order of the moral kingdom of God.
Private grudges and public contests, in connection with the long train of calamities, resulting from war, may be traced to this impure and corrupt source.
Individuals and nations, who have lusted after conquests, have mistaken their tendency, and the effects, they have generally produced. Instead of enriching, they impoverish, instead of strengthening, they weaken a government. The resources, extensively distributed, are beyond the reach of being suddenly called into action, or assisting to ward off any unexpected or unforeseen disaster. The Romans therefore, are the only ancient nation, who have grown rich by their ancient nation, who have grown rich by their conquests, and this because they exacted very little in the form of tribute. 1
This disposition, which has often proved ruinous, and laid a foundation for national degradation and disgrace, it was an express purpose of the Jewish dispensation to prohibit. They were forbidden to undertake any wars through caprice, ambition or a disposition for conquest6, and as a check to the unnecessary waste and havoc, which are authorized by the practice of other nations, were asked this simple question; Are the trees enemies, which can fight against you, so that you must cut them down? 2
The disposition, example and instructions of our Divine Master and his immediate followers tend to undermine this corrupt principle. The numberless precepts, to guard against ostentation, envy, pride, and to “take heed, and beware of covetousness,” are so many moral lectures on the importance of personal discipline, and are intended to prevent the growth of a tyrannical and domineering temper.
Hitherto in this country little encouragement has been found for the indulgence of an unreasonable desire of power, or a spirit of conquest. The early education and habits of its inhabitants, the laws, the government, and especially the Christian religion are peculiarly favorable to the extinction of an ambitious and dissocial spirit, and give all possible patronage to the mild, peaceful and unaspiring qualities of the heart.
It should neither be charged to ostentation nor ambition, if, from the history of the present age, we adduce examples for an unequivocal illustration of the sentiment, we are endeavoring to establish.
To avail ourselves of a decided proof, that personal discipline is preferable to a lust of empire, we need only contrast the meek, contented, firm courageous, unambitious and unassuming disposition of a WASHINGTON, with the proud ostentatious, lustful, and aspiring temper of a Bonaparte.
We may also successfully oppose the unexampled patience and perseverance, magnanimity and well regulated independence of an ADAMS, to the headstrong lusts and passions, or even to the most respectable attainments of all the proud plunderers and conquerors of the world.
Still more forcibly to demonstrate the idea, we may pursue the analogy between the moderation, forbearance, justice and unvaried inflexibility of the SUPREME EXECUTIVE of our Nation, and the precipitancy, inconstancy, violence and outrage, which have prevailing dictated the measures of the Directory of France.
The event of the present contest for dominion in the elder world, it is impossible certainly to predict. It seems however that no limits are fixed to their desires, nor any bounds set to their efforts. If an opinion may be formed from the past dispensations of providence it appears, that a nation, which presumes to wage war with the universe, and in effect to assume the prerogatives of its SUPREME FORMER and GOVERNOR, must be humbled.
After their wanton avowal of being in quest of universal empire, and of its being their fixed purpose to fraternize and subjugates this western world, the sons of freedom must be seized with more than lethargic stupidity, not to be aroused. When reminded of the political annihilation of Venice 3 as an example of their future debasement, and when the insolent and perfidious treatment of Italy, Holland, and Switzerland 4 are candidly considered, the native energy of independe34nt Americans will no longer sleep. The love of rational liberty, for which they are deservedly characterized, and a just appreciation of the earnings of honest and laborious industry, will command an obedient attention to the calls of their country, and a willingness to make every reasonable sacrifice for it’s permanent security.
In a season of common danger, the benefit of associations, formed to extend a knowledge of the military art, is readily perceived. There is then in reserve a competency of the skill, dexterity, firmness and heroism, which are indispensably requisite to the successful defense of an invaded country. A hopeful prospect then presents, of finding experienced veterans, who resolutely resist the first transports of passion, and who are impelled to action by a nobler motive than a love of conquest. In such schools, a knowledge of tactics is acquired, a spirit of enterprise encouraged, and patterns of patience and intrepidity uniformly displayed.
The exemplary attention, which has been paid to the diffusion of military skill, reflects honor on our rulers, as it is a demonstration of their unabating vigilance, and is a consoling circumstance at the present interesting period. It inspires a sanguine belief, that “if imperious necessity urge,” we shall not be found encumbered by a stupid languor, neither hurried to action by an impetuous zeal, but persuaded, that our resentment is authorized by the cool discussions of reason, and possessed of the fortitude, which is the best and most impregnable armor, the anticipated hour of danger will be realized by us, to be a season of perfect security.
Neither Lacedaemonian folly or superstition shall ever regulate the vibrations of the hearts of Americans. Being satisfied that the measure of aggression and insolence is filled up, whether the moon shall have just commenced it’s course, is totally eclipsed, or shines in its full brightness, if our country call, we must obey.
While the general attention of our citizens to the making of laudable acquirements deserves highly to be applauded, it is with particular pleasure, Gentlemen of the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company, that we recognize the purpose of your institution, witness it’s present flourishing condition, and assure you of our firm reliance on your experience, fortitude and courage.
Educated in the belief, that temporary amusement or pleasure is but a secondary consideration in the establishment of such a seminary, you will consider it’s primary purpose to be a school, in which you may imbibe the principles, cherish the views, and form the habits, which re calculated to render you eminently serviceable to your country.
The distinguishing traits of a good soldier are skill in his profession, a perfect control over his passions, calmness in the hour of trial, and an enlarged patriotism. Regulated by these, you will never suffer your regard to the public interests, to vet itself in a furious or overheated zeal, neither when difficulty approaches, will you want the courage, resolutely to embrace every necessary mean for the defense of your dear-bought privileges. As a love of power or conquest is a debasing passion, when cherished as any other than a subordinate motive, you will evidence it to be your prevailing principle, to contend rather for safety than triumph, for the common good than personal glory.
To the friends of America it is an exhilarating circumstance, that in your number is perceived some of the temperate, yet inflexible resolute and active supporters of the late glorious revolution. An equally generous principle with that, which then glowed in your bosom, we doubt not, if circumstances require, will again stimulate you to action. On you we rely for an example of prudence to our youth, of restraint to check their natural impetuosity, and of wisdom to direct their ardor into its proper channel may the efficacy of your exertions be perceived, the respectability of your institution increase, and numbers in future be found, worthy of being added to your fair catalogue of Patriots.
My Fellow Countrymen will permit me to congratulate them on the mixed moderation and perseverance, coolness and decision, wisdom and uprightness, which dignify the transactions of our government. These truly form a splendid exhibition of the glorious triumphs of reason.
Every honest member of the community will feel indispensably obliged, to cultivate the same pacific and condescending temper. Such are the present limits of our country, that extent of territory can be no motive with us, to endeavor to increase our power, or to enlarge our conquests. Our affluence and prosperity have so rapidly increased, that it would be madness to apply to this source for a valuable addition. Unless therefore the dignity of our government, or our rights as an independent nation are implicitly or openly disputed, it will be honorable in us, to “study the things, which make for peace,” and to be anxious to obtain “other conquests, but those of the passions, and no other triumphs, but those of justice and humanity.”
For the acquiring of this disposition we are to remember, that the adventurer in the Christian warfare is required to be “temperate in all things.” The licentiousness of ungoverned passions and the visionary projects of insatiable ambition do not accord with the requisitions of the gospel, or the spirit of it’s Divine Author. When pointed to “the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them” which are happily suited to nourish the vanity of a corrupt heart, so perfect was his self-command, that he viewed them as a gilded trifle, and the felicity they promised, empathy and delusive.
In attempting to copy this perfect pattern of subjection to the discipline of reason, it will be laudable in us, to aim after a humble but the greatest possible resemblance. The season of combating our appetites and passions, and endeavoring to subject them to the suggestions of our understanding, and the laws of the gospel, will be but short. “Eternity will be long enough to repay us.” There will then be a full display of the conquests of reason.
The fading glories of this world will soon lose their attraction. Uncorrupting palms of victory are promised to the perseveringly patient, resolute and intrepid. The faithful subjects of communities and empires are then to be admitted into “a kingdom, which cannot be moved;” where the SUPREME LORD of the universe maintains an equitable and impartial dominion, and the righteous shall come off conquerors, and “more than conquerors” over the enemies of their spiritual comfort, “through Him, who hath loved, and who hath given himself for us.”
1. Priestly’s Lectures on History. (Return)
2. Jews’ Letters in answer to Voltaire. (Return)
3. See the dispatches from our Envoys Extraordinary in France, to the Executive of the United States. (Return)
4. A judicious, impartial and interesting detail of the conduct of France towards these nations, is contained in the “Observations on the Dispute between The United States and France, addressed by Robert Goodloe Harper of South Carolina, to his constituents.” Every candid peruser will be satisfied, that such instance of wantonness and insincerity should inspire the inhabitants of these States with caution and firmness. (Return)