Preached in the 1st Congregational church,
New London, Conn.
On the Day of Thanksgiving
November 28, 1850
By Abel M’Ewen,
“Whether it be right in the sight of God to hearken unto you more than unto God, judge ye.”
Acts iv. 10
This Scripture has been selected as the theme for a discourse on this occasion, for the purpose of canvassing the question: How ought the people of the Free States in this country to deport themselves in relation to that law of the United States, called the “Fugitive Slave Law?”
Occasion for preaching on this subject is found in existing facts. The law is producing great and dangerous agitation in the land; the consciences of many people are tried by the demands of the law in question, as they understand it; while the consciences of others are unsettled as to what they ought to do in circumstances into which this law may bring them. The danger is great, that not a few, acting by a misguided conscience, and that others, acting without heed to conscience, may produce national calamities which will beget regret and remorse, which will be as bitter as they will be unavailing. All people will think and feel, if they do not speak on this subject. It is one, touching so vitally, the interests of this country, so jeopardizing the interests of every individual, of every family, and of the Church of God; and so pressing itself into contact with the conscience and duty of all people, that silence on the part of preachers may look more like non-committal than like prudence.
In their relation to this law, some people would regulate their duty by looking exclusively at the Constitution of these United States, without regard to the counsels of divine revelation; others would give themselves up to abstract dictates of the Bible, refusing to modify these, or to restrict the import of detached portions of the Scripture, even by principles, by which God himself has qualified and limited his own laws, in conformity to circumstances in which the subject of these laws were involved. This question of duty cannot be candidly settled, without looking at our whole condition, in which the word and providence of God have placed us.
Though it may not be practical to make out a course which every person in the Free States should tread, providing him guidance on every emergency which may betide him; I shall attempt to do something toward this provision.
- By an examination of some scriptural counsels, which warrant mankind, on some occasions, to disregard the injunctions of civil rulers, that they may obey the revealed will of God.
- By adverting to other parts of sacred Scripture, in which obedience of civil rulers is made obedience of God.
- By remarks upon an express prohibition of God, which some people in the Free States, conceive interdicts their compliance with the “Fugitive Slave Law.”
- By noticing the obligations which the Constitution of the government of the United States imposes upon all the citizens of these States.
1. By an examination of some scriptural counsels, which warrant mankind, on some occasions, to disregard the injunctions of civil rulers.
A number of texts of Scripture might be cited; sufficient however, it will be to do justice to the occasion, and to the consciences of men, to examine candidly, and in their various bearings, two authorities, which set before us, men inspired and true to their duty, who disregarded the injunctions of civil rulers that they might obey God.
The first case is that of the apostles, Peter and John, when they commenced their ministry after the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ. They had wrought a miracle, healing a cripple, by a word; they stated publicly that it was done by the power of God in the name of Jesus. Because they preached the gospel, and confirmed it by miracles, the rulers of the Jews thrust them into prison; the High Court of the nation brought them forth to its bar, and asked them by what authority they wrought miracles. Expressly and without disguise, the apostles answered, “by the name of Jesus of Nazareth.” Among themselves, the rulers said that they could not deny that a miracle had been wrought; “but,” said they, “that it spread no further among the people, let us straightly threaten them, that they speak henceforth to no man in this name.” And they called them and commanded them not to speak at all, nor to teach in the name of Jesus. Here is the law. It was an injunction from the highest rulers in the nation, forbidding the Apostles, and of course, all other men, from preaching the Gospel. The reply of the two Apostles follows: “But Peter and John answered and said unto them, whether it be right in the sight of God to hearken unto you more than unto God, judge ye.” This appeal in the form of a question to the understanding and conscience of the rulers, and of the world, was a declaration of Peter and John, that their determination was to disobey the civil edict, and to obey the command of the Divine Savior, in this specific matter of preaching the Gospel; that further than this, they should disregard civil law, they gave not the slightest insinuation. “We cannot,” said they, “but speak the things which we have seen and heard.” Nor did they relieve their conscience by empty words. Forthwith, and with perseverance and until death, they did preach the Gospel. In the spirit of this disregard of a civil edict, all the Apostles and early preachers uniformly disobeyed civil rulers in this specific thing, whenever and wherever they, directly or indirectly, interdicted the preaching of the Gospel.
Inconsiderately, and without analyzing their zeal, many people seize upon this scriptural authority, as their warrant for disobedience of every civil law, which they conceive to be in letter or in principle inconsistent in any degree with a divine precept.
Justice to this investigation demands that some duties suggested by this action of the apostles be noticed, and that some mistakes made in the use of this example be detected and exposed.
The command of the rulers was a prohibition of action which had been made the main duty of the apostles and Christians, by a recent and specific command of Jesus risen from the dead, and about to ascend to heaven. This action of the apostles is an example for ministers who are commanded to preach the Gospel, to preach it though forbidden by civil rulers to do this. To regard this, however, as an example which warrants men to transgress all civil law which is inconsistent in some respect, as they conceive, with divine law, is an abuse of the example. All human laws are imperfect; the administration of them is imperfect. A human law often in some principle, or in the application of it, conflicts with divine law. Subjects of civil law are not on this account to rebel and transgress. A tax is by law laid upon the people, but it is so made that it operates unrighteously. It lays the burden comparatively upon some, and spares others from it. Divine law incumbent upon rulers and people is, “Do justly,” “Defraud not.” Hundreds perceive the iniquitous operation of the tax law. Poor widows and orphans are oppressed by it. Some rich people are exempted from its demands. Shall these hundreds take their stand and refuse to pay the tax? Shall they advise the oppressed not to pay it, and to arm themselves against the collection? Shall the advisers join the sufferers with force and arms, raising mobs to resist the collection? Shall senators and orators instruct the people to disobey such law, because they conceive it conflicts with divine injunctions to justice, and with divine prohibitions of iniquity? Shall these insurgents take words out of the mouth of Peter and say to the rulers of the land, “Whether it be right in the sight of God to hearken unto you more than unto God, judge ye?” And shall they claim that they make a legitimate use of this scriptural counsel? No, this specific action of the apostles is to be heeded and plead only as a specific example for doing the precise thing which the apostles did. Had the makers of our civil constitution, had the congress of the United States conspired to enact a law forbidding all the ministers and people of this country to preach and hear the gospel at all, doubtless it would be pertinent for us to say to these civil rulers, “Whether it be right in the sight of God to hearken unto you more than unto God, judge ye;” and doubtless the authority of this example would justify us in adopting methods for practically exercising the rights of conscience and of private judgment, in doing God’s will to save the soul. If this example might be carried away from its specific application, and be plead to justify insurrection against civil authority and law, in every case in which individuals and clubs of people think they see, that they or others are called to submit to some law, which in some particulars conflicts with divine law, against hundreds of laws it may be used to justify insurrection. No human government can stand under such an exposition and use of this specific text of Scripture.
Will it be said that every man has a natural right to personal liberty? He has. So has every man a natural right to all the property he can get. But men have found the necessity of restricting men in the exercise of their natural liberty to do many things, which, but for law, they might do; and might, but for law, obey their conscience and the dictates of kind affection, in doing. Were it not for law, I might go into my neighbor’s house when he forbids me, to teach his children the Gospel, when he is teaching them infidelity and the arts of seduction and villainy. The law which prohibits me, is said, perhaps, to be oppressive upon me, a kind man, or upon my neighbor’s family, made up as it is, of moral and immoral beings. Much law must, adventitiously, in many of its operations be oppressive, for the sake of the general benefit of law, as in this instance. I must submit to this restriction from my neighbor’s house, that I and all my countrymen may, by law, be protected in closing our doors against a thousand ruinous intrusions. The law which makes a man a slave is a very oppressive law; of course, the law which restores a fugitive from slavery, is a very oppressive law. Any law which introduces slavery into the world, into a nation, into any community, is an unscriptural law. But when the evil of slavery exists, some laws regulating it, are not unscriptural; for God himself has made such laws. The laws of divine enactment which regulated slavery in the Hebrew commonwealth, were very oppressive some men. The evil of slavery existed; it had originated, not by divine law or authority, but from the corrupt passions of men; and God regulated it. The people of Israel would not have been justified in rebelling against the laws of that country, touching slavery, because they were oppressive. Those laws were, for the benefit of the community, necessary slave laws emanated from the source of all Hebrew law. This was enough to impose the duty of submission while these were laws.
Any law which would have introduced polygamy into the world, would have been a law, emanating not from the will or enactment of God. God found polygamy in Israel, which the vile hearts of men had originated. And Moses, or rather God by Moses, enacted a law suffering men to repudiate wives not guilty of adultery, and to take others. This law was oppressive upon the repudiated and upon their friends. But the sore evil of polygamy existed, making the hearts of husbands hard and cruel towards wives who were not objects of affection; and God, by a law unavoidably oppressive, regulated the evil until the coming of Christ. Had men or women in Israel rebelled against this law because it was oppressive, their conduct would have been wickedness, and they would have been punished by divine authority. They might have plead for their justification in this rebellion an abstract principle, right in itself; nevertheless in their present circumstances, they would have been guilty of rebellion against divine authority. Though our fugitive slave law is, of necessity, oppressive, we cannot rebel against it, and say for our justification, it is right in the sight of God to hearken unto Him, more than unto our rulers who made this law. If we concede that it is such a law as they ought not to have made, still it is a law, made by us, by our representatives, in whose hand God has placed the authority of legislation; and it is not God’s revealed will that we use the example of Peter and John to justify ourselves in disregarding any law, emanating from this legislative authority, except law, thence coming, which interdicts us from the specific action, from which the apostles were indicted by the Sanhedrin.
We speak of the example of Peter and John, as furnishing a warrant for preachers of the Gospel, to preach it, though forbidden by rulers, in this specific action. Though the apostles conceived it to be their duty, in this isolated and great work, to obey the command of Jesus, though civil rulers imposed silence upon them; still, even this action—so important to this lost world, so peremptorily commanded, and forbidden so manifestly by human malice against Christ and his salvation—the apostles modified, and were conscious of liberty and obligation thus to act. If forbidden to preach the Gospel in one city, they fled to another; simply bearing their testimony against those who interdicted and rejected the divine message. Their ministry was thus modified in accordance with circumstances, because their commission was modified to meet such embarrassment. The servant of Christ was not to strive. The command of the Sanhedrin was, “Speak not, nor teach at all in the name of Jesus.” This command, putting the Gospel out of the world, was not to be obeyed. If the apostles were forbidden to preach in the synagogue or temple, they retired to a place more humble, and less obnoxious to the indignation of the civil magistrates, and of the people, actuated by unhallowed prejudice and zeal. They made no noisy and showy demonstrations of their conscientiousness and rights—no fiery and vindictive denunciation did they utter against opposition; but in meekness they exhibited truth against error.
Much less did the apostles, to sustain a cause which they were not at liberty to relinquish, or action which they were forbidden to suspend, arm themselves, or advise others, by force to withstand those who they knew were conscious of setting themselves, with selfishness and hostility, against God himself, and his commands. Christ had taught his followers, and all men, that, “They who take the sword, shall perish by the sword;” that subjects of civil law—interdicted even from even this specific action, preaching the Gospel, which it was right for them to perform—might not, neither they nor their adherents, as insurgents, arm themselves to resist. What a stretch of civil disobedience, then, it is, for those who lament and abhor slavery, and who feel a compassion for fugitives from it, to plead the example of Peter and John to justify armed resistance of civil law, to form armed combination—for what? To resist officers of the law in the administration of existing law. And they advise those whom they regard as sorely oppressed by the law, by arms to resist the officers of the law, even to the taking of their lives. Had the early Christians taken the life of a magistrate who imprisoned Peter and John, and who bound and scourged Paul, and Slew James and Stephen—the Record of this armed resistance, and of this perpetration of murder, would have stamped the Gospel and practical Christianity with the spirit of crime, and the world would have shrunk from it, as from a religion horrid with blood.
Some of these intemperate counselors have, manifestly, some misgivings as to the wholesomeness of their advice; and they have said that they would suffer, to any extent, under oppressive law, but that they would not, by such law, be coerced to perform acts of wickedness. Will they abide by their principle? The counsel which they adopt for the guidance of their own action, will they extend as advice to others? Without sacrifice or danger, these men of noise may engage to suffer all the evils which the fugitive slave law has in store for hem, which are just none at all. But will they advise the fugitives to submit to all the suffering which oppressive law brings to them? In giving counsel to them, these advisers lose sight of their principle of avowed subordination to civil law, to the extent it shall deal out suffering; and, instead of counseling these poor victims of oppression not to be coerced, by law, into acts of wickedness, they advise them to defend themselves from suffering, even to the extent of assault and battery, and even of murder, perpetrated upon the officers of law.
The other scriptural counsel to which I propose to advert, is, that of Daniel, who disobeyed the decree of king Darius, which was, that any man who should, for thirty days, ask any petition of any god or man, save of Darius himself, should be cast into the den of lions. Daniel, in disregard of the prohibition, continued to pray, openly, to the God of heaven. The record approves his conduct. His example is good authority for the disregard of civil law, in this specific case. Were the Congress of these States to issue such a decree, it would, on the authority of Daniel, be the duty of the people of this nation to continue their prayers to God.
But to carry the authority of this example away from the specific action concerning which it counsels us, and to plead it in justification of rebellion against any law which is thought to be oppressive, or inconsistent with some precept or principle of revealed religion—is impertinent.
Daniel meditated no violence—practiced no violence—recommended none—would have discouraged all violence, in defense of his privilege of prayer. He prayed, in disregard of civil laws, and he expected to submit; and he did submit to the powers of government, which cast him into the den of lions. Shall fugitives from slavery, take counsel from his disregard of civil law? They, in slavery, thought the law, subjecting them to bondage, was oppressive; and, to get their rights, fled. Their conduct, in this particular, resembles that of Daniel—peaceably taking their rights. Pursued by the law, which follows them to carry them back, not to the lion’s den, but to dens sufficiently terrific and cruel, we admit; will they go, like him, without resistance to existing law?
One view, which may be taken of these two instances of disregard of civil law, nullifies them effectually, as divine authority, which men may plead to justify themselves in violation of existing laws which perpetuate slavery. Persia, like all the Eastern nations in the days of Daniel, had in it, slavery. He and all the children of the Captivity were slaves. No doubt, he thought slavery was oppression and cruelty, on the part of the government and masters. He was a most favored slave; still, we know that he sighed for his liberty, for the liberty of his fellow slaves, and for their restoration to their father-land. He was a most influential slave, and was therefore, under uncommon obligations to do what it was right and proper to do, for the emancipation of himself, and of those in bonds with him. They had been carried into bondage, not from a Pagan land into a land of revealed religion, but the reverse of this. Daniel however, did not take the principle, on which he disregarded the edict, respecting prayer, and justify himself, or others, in raising an insurrection against the slave laws of Persia. If he used not his own example, his own principles for such a purpose, under all his personal temptations, and all the solicitations of his kindred and countrymen, who can make such a use of it, without perverting it from its legitimate application? Doubtless Daniel would have been himself highly gratified, and would have done, in his own estimation, a favor to Persia, and an unspeakable one to the slaves of that country, could he, by a legal operation, have abolished all slavery there, and all slave laws. To have attempted this however, by insurrection, would have been an adventure, too wicked, and too costly, as it would have been a general sacrifice of the slaves, and a subjection of the whole population to the violence, misery, and despair of anarchy.
Let us take a similar view of the other authority, which is plead for the justification of rebellion against civil authority, in the disregard of the fugitive slave law of this country. The apostles, forbidden to preach the gospel at all, said to the rulers, “whether it be right in the sight of God, to hearken unto you, more than unto God, judge ye.” Slavery was at this time prevalent among the Jews, regulated by the Levitical code, and prevalent in other parts of the Roman Empire, regulated by the laws of Rome. The apostles, espousing the righteous and merciful principles and precepts of the gospel, could not have owned slaves. They regarded slavery, doubtless, a great oppression, and a great sin, and they would have advocated the legal extermination of slavery.
As they had found it to be their duty to preach the gospel, though forbidden by civil authority, why did they not carry out the principle adopted for action in this isolated case, and undertake, as some modern reformers do, to rid their country of all sin, sanctioned by human law, by preaching and practicing insurrection against all oppressive and corrupt laws. By Roman law, the power even, of taking the life of a slave belonged to his master. The apostles, however, uttered not a note, moved not a finger to encourage insurrection, even against a law so grievous. Hear Paul’s advice to a slave. “Art thou called (i.e. to be a Christian,) being a servant? Care not for it, but if thou mayest be made free, use it rather; for he that is called in the Lord, being servant is the Lord’s freeman.”
Facts speak louder than theories. Men may now take the action of Peter and John, preaching the gospel, when interdicted by rulers, and on the authority of this action construct a theory, which shall encourage insurrection against every existing law, which is conceived to contravene some precept, or principle of revealed religion; but the practical comment of the apostles shows, that they did not carry out this principle to justify insurrection, even against the unchristian laws, which were conservative of slavery. Senators in their places, animated by a zeal for liberty, or something else, may sound the note of rebellion against the Constitution, which they have made oath to support, and against laws, made by the legislature, of which they are a part, proclaiming to the ignorant, the fanatical, and the insubordinate, that the law of God is higher than human laws; but would these dignitaries examine the Scripture, from which, as they pass they take a maxim, they would see, that they build at least one of their political theories on other foundation than that of Christ and the apostles.
2. Some light may be gained to regulate our conduct in relation to the fugitive slave law, by adverting to parts of sacred Scripture in which obedience to civil rulers is made obedience of God.
Not to be tedious, I will confine my quotation to one broad and pertinent injunction given by Paul in his epistle to the Romans, xiii. 1—5. “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers, for there is no power but of God; the powers that be, are ordained of God; Whoever resisteth the power resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist receive to themselves damnation. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? Do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same; for he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain; for he is the minister of God; a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil. Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but for conscience sake.”
This injunction to obey magistrates is general, referring to all people in nation; and to all laws under which they live; and providing no dispensation from obedience to existing law, inculcated by this injunction, except what is found in express exceptions, made and particularized by authority tantamount to this general and unqualified statute, which prescribes the subordination of every soul to law. Throughout the New Testament I know of liberty in but one case given or claimed, by divine authority, for transgressing civil law. That was liberty to preach the gospel, as claimed by Peter and John, though interdicted by civil rulers. Speaking and teaching in the name of Jesus implied, doubtless, reading the Bible, worship regulated by the gospel, and the inculcation of gospel truth by writing. With this single exception, the unqualified injunction of God, by Paul, enforcing as a matter of conscience, and as a religious duty, or, as obedience of God himself, practical subjection of every soul to every existing law, under which, in the providence of God, he is placed, stands unrepealed and unqualified. A man may think a law of the country is unwise, oppressive, and inconsistent with divine law. No matter. It is the decree, the mandate of the powers that be. Wrath from civil authority will come upon him, if he disobey, and not only to avoid that, but for conscience sake, a regard for God, whose ordinance, the powers that be, is he must obey every law. Nero’s laws were bad, cruel; the laws of the Sanhedrin were bad. Paul knew it; God knew it; and he knew that many future laws would be bad. Nevertheless, he gave the broad injunction upon all men to be subject to all law, and this injunction God has never repealed. Some people affect tenderness of conscience for obeying divine law in preference to human law. A tender conscience will not be perverse; it will cherish tenderness for this law of God, given by Paul, precisely as God has qualified it, and precisely as he has maintained it, and left it in force.
3rd. Remarks are to be made upon an express prohibition of God, which some people, in the free States, conceive interdicts their compliance with the fugitive slave law.
The prohibition, to which allusion is now made, is found in the Levitical statutes, Deut. Xxiii, 15, 16: “Thou shalt not deliver, unto his master, the servant which is escaped from his master, unto thee. He shall dwell with thee, even among you, in that place which he shall choose, in one of thy gates, where it liketh him best; thou shalt not oppress him.”
The question before us is: does this prohibition constitute a dispensation, to the people of the Free States, from the general injunction upon them, to obey all existing laws, under which they live, particularly a dispensation from a practical compliance with the demands of the fugitive slave law?
This law, recorded in Deuteronomy manifestly was a municipal law of the Jews. How far it is binding upon us, how far it excuses us, in withholding ourselves from the execution of our fugitive slave law, depends not a little, on what it was, in its application to the duties required by it of the people of Israel. They had slaves, some who were of their own blood, Jews; others whom they purchased of the heathen living around them, or in the midst of them. The language of the statute indicates that id did not regulate the conduct of the Jews, in relation to their own slaves. Occasionally some of these escaped from their masters. To whom did they flee? The language of the statute is, “The servant who is escaped from his master unto thee.” Who is designated by the word thee? The law was addressed to the commonwealth, not to a particular individual. A slave in Israel who had escaped from his master did not flee from him to that nation, he was before he absconded already in that land, under that government. The additional provisions of that statute show satisfactorily that the word thee designates the nation, and not the individual. “He (the servant) shall dwell with thee, even among you, in that place which he shall choose, in one of thy gates.” Was any person, any family obliged to keep a slave who had fled to him, whatever he was, however he might conduct, and whatever might be the circumstances of the person to whom he fled, as to age, sex, health, sickness, or poverty? Must this individual, upon whom the fugitive quartered himself, keep him in such of his gates, that is, in such of his houses, rooms, yards, or fields, as the fugitive should choose? Something must have been meant by gates, different from any such thing, pertaining to an individual. “He shall dwell with thee, even among you, in that place which he shall choose, in one of thy gates.” Among whom? In the family; in the room which he should select? This could not have been enjoined. The word thee, designated the nation; the word gates designated the cities or towns of the land, in one of which the fugitives might choose to dwell. The word among directs that the fugitives should be permitted to dwell among the nation, not among the family of a particular individual. The nation, undeniably, was addressed by the words of the statute. The word thee meant the state. If a servant had escaped from his master to the commonwealth of Israel, he had come from a pagan nation, where the master had the disposal of the slave’s life, and he kept him in idolatry. Such a fugitive from such a foreign nation, come to the land of Israel, might dwell in some one of its cities, or towns, he should not be delivered up. Mark another provision of this statute concerning the treatment of the fugitive: “Thou shalt not oppress him;” that is, enslave him nor make his residence in Israel, onerous. The Jews might buy slaves of the heathen, but they might not enslave a fugitive from heathen bondage. Provision was made, by law, for the holding of slaves in Israel, whether the slaves were Jews or heathen, and also for the emancipation of slaves. It could not be, that in this statute, concerning fugitives, provision was made, for all slaves in Israel, to emancipate themselves by escaping and ensconcing themselves in a neighboring family, or in any in Israel.
If, then, it be settled that this statute forbade the delivery only of fugitive slaves from masters of foreign, heathen countries, what bearing has it upon our duty in relation to slaves who escape to us from masters in our own land? We have made a constitutional compact with masters who are our own countrymen, not to obstruct the recovery of persons, who by law, owe them services. It is to be lamented, that when the Constitution of the United States was made, there was any necessity for making such a compact. It was made. The fugitive slave law is based upon that compact. The statute in Deuteronomy, though it forbids us to make a covenant with foreign, pagan masters to restore a fugitive, and forbids us to restore them, does not touch our responsibilities towards masters who are our countrymen; and who, though living in the great national sin of slavery are a part of our own Christian community. It may be that our fugitive slave law is an unwise and oppressive law. It is, in substance, the same law as that, which in 1793, was made for the benefit both of the North and the South. It may be that this law, now in force ought to have more intelligibly given to those apprehended under it, what the Attorney General of the United States says it has given, the right of habeas corpus: it may be, that this law ought to have given to the apprehended, trial by jury in the State where they are arrested; it might have prevented clamor, had the law explained that the fee of the judge was doubled, on the condition of his decision that the person tried before him was a slave, because such a decision subjected himself to double Labor in the preparation of subsequent papers. Possibly the law amerces too heavily marshals and citizens who may be concerned in the apprehension of fugitives, for delinquencies, or for some interference prompted by humanity: nevertheless, the law is a law of the land, made by our representatives; therefore made mediately by ourselves. There is no dispensation from obedience of it to be got for us, from the statutes in Deuteronomy; nor from anything else. If we would get rid of it, or of something objectionable in it, at the proper time we must get it repealed or amended by a legal legislative process. He who prevents the execution of the law, while it is in force, or by withholding himself from a service which the law may demand of him, exposes his country, himself, and the fugitives too, to all the miseries of anarchy. We may show great kindness to fugitives from slavery. But by urging them to rebellion against existing law, or by indulging ourselves in such rebellion, we expose them to destruction. From government or from anarchy it must come. God saith to rebels, “Wilt thou not be afraid of the power?” “he is the minister of God: a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.”
4. Notice is to be taken of the obligations which the constitution of the United States imposes upon all the citizens of these States.
The section of the Constitution which pertains to the restoration of fugitive slaves is as follows: “No person held to service or labor in one State, under the laws thereof, and escaping into another, shall, in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labor; but he shall be delivered up on claim of the party to whom such service or labor is due.”
It may be said that no such Constitution ought to have been made. The reply is, the evil of slavery then existed in all the States, as it existed in Israel, when God made for that nation its laws for slavery. Without this Constitution, the government of these States could not have been established. As God saw that slavery could not then be abolished in Israel, and therefore regulated it; so, the fathers of our nation thought slavery could not then be abolished here; they consequently made a Constitution to regulate it. A law has been made, and it ought to have been made, to carry out this provision of the Constitution; a law officially pronounced by the Attorney General of the United States to be constitutional. If the existing law be not constitutional, the Court of the United States legally appealed to will so decide; and the legislature, and the people by it, may revise, correct and perfect the law. If the Constitution be too wicked and cruel to be endured, the nation has powers reserved to it in the Constitution, to amend and perfect that. The present generation, by their oaths, have adopted the Constitution and laws of the United States, and engaged to support them as they are or as they shall be, when constitutionally and legally amended. The people cannot annul a single law be rebellion; nor venture upon a rebellious act toward such nullification, without violating their consciences and exposing themselves to all the horrors and miseries of anarchy. If the North in this way undertakes to nullify this obnoxious law, the South may retaliate; and by the same means destroy any other law. Refractory people all over the land, following the inconsiderate and wicked example, will be emboldened by insubordination to abrogate all law.
It is unnecessary and irrational for any person in this country, because he abhors the fugitive slave law, to turn his thoughts toward revolution as a remedy. Occasion may exist in a nation for a revolution. When a foreign power holds dominion over a nation, and by law or orders in council oppresses it, transporting, it may be, its citizens out of their country for trial—or, when a domestic tyrant or a tyrannical oligarchy have repudiated written Constitutions, monopolized governmental power, appropriated all public revenues to the gratification of their own lusts, and oppressed the people by burdens and irritating privations, cutting them off not only from all participation in the government but from all redress by law—then, revolution, if it be feasible and if it promise success and relief, is justified.
But if the people of a country be, as we have already noticed, under divine injunction to be subject to the powers that be, how in circumstances of wrong, and ;peril, and suffering, can a nation justify itself in revolution? The reply is, the command of God that men be in subjection to the civil government existing over them, applies to them as separate citizens, acting not nationally, but on their private responsibility, When the nation, impelled by intolerable oppression, rises in mass, and nationally disowns its government, that government ceases to be the civil power, which, by the ordinances of God, existed to rule and protect that nation. God ordains and sanctifies every government which gets and maintains a being by, and only by, a nation’s will. The subordination which God, by Paul inculcated, was subjection on which the nation retained. A nation is not, by this edict of heaven, bound to retain, obey and honor a government which perpetrates extensive robbery and murder, or even crimes of less magnitude. When the government of a nation has become a monster of iniquity and cruelty, that nation is bound, if it can, to succor its suffering people, by throwing of the galling tyranny. Cast into abandonment and impotency by the nation’s solemn verdict, the oppressor is seen by the people; but it is no longer among the powers that be. Thus revolution may find justification.
But, for a people who hold the government of their country in their own hands, and who are at liberty to amend, and change, and perfect its constitution and laws through their own representatives, to seek revolution is idiocy or madness. It is a revolt form themselves.
“Woe to thee, O land, when thy king is a child, and thy princes eat in the morning!” Woe, an hundred fold to thee, O nation, when thou art thyself a child! Renounce, annihilate all existing government! This is easy. But to establish a government, to frame one for a people of diverse and conflicting interests, to agree upon one and adopt it; for a nation, in the process of all this work, to save itself in the end from the grasp of some military chieftain, or to save itself in the end from the desolation of anarchy—this is labor. Let senators and ministers of the Gospel, journalists and declaimers, conventions and all citizens understand, that if by force they resist the execution of the fugitive slave law, or produce such resistance, they wage war against the United States, and are guilty of treason!