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ART. V.-PROGRESS OF LIBERAL PRINCIPLES.
LIBERAL principles lie at the foundation of man's real good. Without freedom of thought, belief, speech, and action, there can be little or no human improvement: hence the anxiety always felt by Christians and philanthropists for the progress of liberty. Often has it appeared that the power of tyranny was about to be broken, never more to have the ascendency, but almost as often have these encouraging prospects been blasted. Many—in contemplating the long-protracted bondage of the masses of mankind, in considering how often they fail in striking for their rights, and the little progress consequently made in human amelioration-have been led to conclude, that, on the whole, the cause of freedom gains no ground, and the world grows no better. We know that while there is progress in some things there is retrogression in others—that while mankind have improved in some periods or places, they have deteriorated in others; but a careful review in history will show, we think, that in the main liberal principles have ever been advancing, and the world steadily improving. Though the standard of freedom has been struck down in every nation of Europe, France excepted, (if, indeed, we may except that nation) where it has been so hopefully unfurled within the last few years, yet the philanthropist has no cause for despair. History, as well as reason and revelation, teaches that right must eventually triumph. While the present holds up so gloomy a picture in respect to freedom and progress, let us examine the past, and see if we cannot find in its annals ground to hope for the future.
In times previous to the advent of the Saviour, hardly anything appears but wrongs, violence, and oppression. All is one dismal Sahara with but here and there an oasis. Egypt is thought to have enjoyed, to some extent, the blessings of liberty in some parts of her existence. But that Egypt ever had a government under which the people were free, or a government such as a limited monarchy is generally understood to be, does not appear from history. It is doubtful, indeed, whether the mass of the Egyptians, in any age, were qualified, in point of intelligence, for such a government. It appears from some things in Xenophon, that Persia, before it was united with the Median kingdom, had a government similar to a limited monarchy. But in reference to most Oriental nations of antiquity, we gather nothing from history but what leads us to suppose that they were incessantly subjected to tyranny. We find it different, however, when we turn our attention to the more Western nations.
Greece and Rome were not unmindful of liberty. A portion of the people were really free in some periods of the history of these nations, but in other periods the same was not true of any of the people, and at all times a considerable portion of the inhabitants were doomed to slavery. The Greeks and Romans acted upon principles most destructive of liberty. These principles taught that the prisoner taken in war had forfeited his life—that the conqueror had absolute control of it, and might take it at pleasure. If the victor chose to preserve the life of the captive, the latter became the slave, the absolute property of the former. From the result of these principles, Greece and Rome teemed with a population deprived of every right, and subjected to every species of indignity and cruelty. Italy in particular abounded with the victims of oppression; almost every nation and tribe of Europe contributed to their supply. The fair-skinned Angles, as well as the swarthy Iberians, were sold in the shambles of Rome. Captives taken in war were not alone the articles of this commerce; but so general had the traffic become, and so hardened and darkened was the ancient European mind in regard to it, that even parents sold their own children into bondage.
Thus we see that the Greeks and Romans, so eager for liberty themselves, were ever ready to set their iron feet upon others. But the day of reckoning at length came—the enslavers became enslaved. If we may learn of their history, it teaches, in the plainest manner, that those who wrest freedom from others must themselves lose it; and from the maledictions of Scripture against oppression, we should be led to conclude, that they are destined to lose it as a just judgment from Heaven. But if we seek for a philosophical solution of this truth, it will be found in the fact that slavery, if permitted to exist for successive generations, is sure to work moral corruption among the governing portions of the people, that must necessarily lead to national ruin.
The freest government of antiquity, nay doubtless the freest that ever existed, our own not excepted, was that which God gave to his chosen people. Under that government the Israelites had unparalleled prosperity for some three hundred years. They attained to distinguished greatness, notwithstanding their territory was quite limited. Solomon, their third king, was able to accomplish the wonders which distinguished his reign, only in consequence of the prosperity of the nation during its democracy. Samuel, the prophet of the Lord, made known to the people the evils that would come upon them if they established a monarchy, (1 Samuel viii, 11-18;) but evil counsels prevailed, and their republic was changed to a
kingdom. Their glory then departed. Ever after they continued to decline, till finally their land became “a perpetual hissing,” and they "an astonishment, a proverb and a byword among all nations."
The Christian era may be regarded as the true time when liberal principles began to gain ascendency and permanence. But human nature was the same before that it was afterwards. Mankind had always sighed for liberty, and occasionally some ineffectual, spasmodic efforts were made to obtain it. Whenever the blow was struck for freedom, myriads were found who were not only ready to pour out their blood for so great a boon, but readily chose to die rather than submit to the will of a conqueror. When Julius Cæsar was staining the soil of Europe with the blood of her inhabitants, that he might have the glory of conquering and enslaving them, such was the resistance he encountered, that he exclaimed in his Commentaries, “Omnes homines natura libertati studere, et conditionem servitutis odisse.”* All men naturally love liberty and hate the condition of servitude. But though all men loved liberty, and thought, and said, and did much in reference to this great good for which they instinctively longed, its benefits were but indifferently realized till the inspired apostles opened their message to mankind. Then, and not till then, did liberal principles begin to be so clearly understood, and so generally embraced, as to render it impossible for tyrants to extinguish or suppress them.
At the commencement of the Christian era, despotism was holding universal sway. The glory of Greece's freer days had long before departed. The liberal government of the Roman republic had been changed to a military despotism, or to what was well nigh such. The Roman emperor, whose power was then felt by almost every nation, stood ready with his mailed legions to suppress the first risings of liberty. Still human nature was the same: all men loved liberty and hated servitude. What mankind needed was something to call out and direct the inherent principles of their nature something that would hold up to their view their true interests, and direct in pursuit of them. Christianity supplied this stupendous desideratum. The Roman power seems to have descried this inevitable tendency of the system established by Jesus of Nazareth, and became at once jealous of the rising Church. Hence persecution followed upon persecution. But the noblest spirits were found in the Christian Church; their blood was poured out like water, not on the field of battle in murderous conflict, but calmly and passively in testimony, and we may say in defence of their faith. In spite of the allied powers of earth and hell, Christianity extended through
Cæsar's Com., lib. 3, cap. 10.
the west of Asia, the north of Africa, and the south and west of Europe, instructing mankind as to their destinies, duties, and relations, laying down and enforcing the most important principles. One fact connected with the establishment of Christianity should have our particular attentionthat is, it gave rise to the representative principle in the formation of its councils, which were often made up of delegates that represented different sections of the Church, in different and distant countries. State legislative bodies, similarly formed, had their exemplar in the Christian Church, and it need not be affirmed how much this principle has done, and is destined still to do, to harmonize, free, and elevate the human race. Finally, in tracing the progress of Christianity we trace the progress of liberal principles.
It is greatly to the praise of the Christian religion that it contributed, as some historians represent, to the fall of the Roman empire, and thereby to the destruction of despotism. At the time the Roman empire ceased to be, the principles of liberty were better understood and more widely diffused than ever before; but the Roman hierarchy had already gained powerful ascendency. Having engrafted upon itself the essential features of the ancient paganism, it became an engine for darkening, rather than enlightening mankind. Popes and bishops allied themselves to emperors and kings, and gained such power over them, and made their selfish interests so mutually dependent, that they all took advantage of the people's ignorance to lay upon them the chains of slavery.
In surveying historical facts that relate directly to our subject, we may notice some that are well known; but by following events through the middle ages, we shall be afforded the pleasure-notwithstanding there was so much of darkness and gloom-of contemplating the steady progress of light, truth, and liberty. We see the people during these periods beginning to enjoy some of the benefits of liberty; but there was mingled with those benefits much of anarchy and confusion. Principally out of this state of things, historians suppose, grew the feudal system—a system fraught with oppression and cruelty. But chivalry now arose amid the mass of adverse influences, and struck for “the right and the true.” It must be acknowledged that there was much to be condemned in its votaries, and that it was sometimes turned to the account of despotism is true; but it is equally true that the spirit of chivalry, embracing as it did the principles of valour, generosity, and charity, exerted an important influence throughout Europe, in behalf of liberty.
The world, however, is principally and primarily indebted to
Christianity for the blessings of liberty. While the Roman hierarchy was darkening, degrading, and enslaving the people, the pure principles of the Christian religion were not extinct, but were preserved in great purity among the Waldenses, and doubtless elsewhere, and were exerting their power. While papacy and the feudal system, while spiritual and temporal princes, were all combined to exterminate the liberties of the people, the principles of freedom were operating, the people were restless, active, and moving for their rights. But we see no very rapid advance made in liberal principles, at any one time, for the long period of a thousand years subsequent to the fall of the Roman despotism. But during those long and dismal ages, tyranny with all its aids was never able to gain entire ascendency-it could never entirely subdue the spirit of liberty. In the latter part of this protracted period, in the times of Wiclif and of Huss, we see some signal promotions of those momentous reforms that commenced in the beginning of the sixteenth century.
When these reforms commenced, there arose a tremendous struggle between oppression and freedom, between light and darkness.
This great era dates not simply a reformation in religion, as it is sometimes regarded, but a reformation in the whole system of social order. Martin Luther was not, as he is commonly considered, simply a reformer in ecclesiastical affairs. He was, to be sure, the first among the great ecclesiastical reformers of that memorable age; but his influence rested not alone with the Church-it reached the state. Though his movements were aimed at the corruptions of the Church, they told against all oppression. His giant blows drove “his Saxon steel” to the very vitals of the tyranny of state. He taught civil as well as religious liberty. He showed the people to what extent they had been robbed of their rights, and called their attention to revealed truth, as the only sure guarantee of their liberties. "The word of God” he declared to be “the true source whence all liberty flows.” Having rescued this invaluable treasure from monastic seclusion, and having given it to the people in their own language, and copies of it being indefinitely multiplied through the facilities of printing, a blow was struck, from the effects of which all oppression must eventually die.
A more rapid progress was then made in liberal principles than ever before. We see them gaining substantial vantage ground, from which they never can be driven. The settlement of our country followed close upon the establishment of the principles of the Reformation. Enlightened and guided by them, she enjoyed a great measure of liberty, and in reality governed herself, even during her colonial