An Election Sermon
May 29, 1771
I Peter II, 13, 14, 15, 16.
Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake: Whether it be to the King as supreme, or unto Governors, as unto them who are sent by him, for the punishment of evil-doers, and for the praise of them that do well.
For so is the will of God, that with well-doing ye may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men: As free, and not using your liberty for a cloak of maliciousness, but as the servants of God
THE great and wise Author of our being, has so formed us, that the love of liberty is natural. This passion, like all other original principles of the human mind, is, in itself perfectly innocent, and designed for excellent purposes, though, like them, liable, through abuse, of becoming the cause of mischief to ourselves and others. In a civil state, the genius of whose constitution is agreeable to it, this passion, while in its full vigor, and under proper regulation, is not only the cement of the political body, but the wakeful guardian of its interests, and the great animating spring of useful and salutary operations; and then only is it unjurious to the public, or to individuals, when, thro’ misapprehension of things, or by being overbalanced by self-love, it takes a wrong direction.
CIVIL and ecclesiastical societies are, in some essential points, different. Our rights, as men, and our rights, as christians, are not, in all respects, the same. It cannot, however, be reasonably supposed, but that this useful and important principle, must, in its genuine influence and operation, be friendly to both: For although our Saviour has assured us, his kingdom is not of this world; and it be manifest from the Gospel, which contains its constitution and laws, that his subjects stand in some special relation, and are under some peculiar subjection to him, distinct from their relation to, and connection with civil societies, yet we justly conclude, that as this divine polity, with its sacred maxims, proceeded from the wise and the benevolent Author of our being, none of its injunctions can be inconsistent with that love of liberty, he himself has implanted in us, nor interfere with the laws and government of human societies, whose constitution is consistent with the rights of men.
CHRIST came to set up a kingdom diverse, indeed, from the kingdoms of this world, but it was no part of his design to put down, or destroy government and rule among men. He came to procure liberty for his people, and to make them free in the most important sense, yet not to exempt them from subjection to civil powers, or to dissolve their obligations to one another, as members of political bodies.
AS to things of this nature, all ecclesiastical constitutions and laws, as coming from GOD, must leave men just as they were; because all civil societies, founded on principles of reason and equity, are, as well as the peculiar laws of Christianity, agreeable to the Deity, and certainly, intimations from the all-perfect mind cannot be contradictory.
THESE things, seem not to have been rightly apprehended, and well understood by men at all times and in all places. The Jews, some of whom were early proselyted to the christian faith, had imbibed high notions of their liberty and superiority to all others, as the peculiar people of GOD; and were loth to own subjection to the Romans, as a civil state, when they were actually under their dominion. And some converts from among the Gentiles, tho’ they had not these national prejudices, yet from their subjection to Jesus Christ, as their King and Ruler, and, as ’tis probable, from mistaking the meaning of some apostolic declarations asserting their freedom as christians, disclaimed likewise all human authority over them.
MEN of this cast, gave no small trouble both to Church and State, in the early days of the Gospel. Of such, the Apostle Peter speaks where he says-They despise government: Presumptuous are they. Self-willed they are not afraid to speak evil of dignities.
SUCH men as these, and their seditious, turbulent behaviour, I doubt not, this same Apostle had in view, when he delivered the instructions in my text, by which he endeavoured to guard christians against their evil practices.
BUT, as all authority, demanding submission, and all submission, due to such authority, are likely to be best understood, by having these things reduced to their first principles; by having the foundation of such authority fairly produced, and its just boundaries, which must be the measure of submission due to it, clearly marked out: And as such submission is most likely to be duly yielded, by having the reasons and motives thereof plainly exhibited, so these are things which seem here aimed at by the Apostle: Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake: whether it be to the King as supreme; or unto Governors, as unto them who are sent by him for the punishment of evil-doers, and for the praise of them that do well. For so is the will of God, that with well-doing ye may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men. As free, and not using your liberty for a cloke of maliciousness, but as the servants of God.
IN these words he gives us a compendium of civil government; representing its origin and great design; that submission, or obedience which is due to it; and the true principles from which such obedience should flow.
UPON this general view of the subject, it is obvious, that if handled with any degree of propriety, it may offer useful instructions, both to Rulers, and those under their government-A modest attempt to do this, will not, it is hoped, be disagreeable to this respectable audience, by whom I ask to be heard with patience and candor.
THE FIRST thing offered to our consideration is, the ORIGIN of civil government, from whence all authority in the state must take its rise. And this is said to be from man. Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man, etc. More intelligibly, perhaps, it might be rendered, “to every human institution or appointment.” And this may be justly understood, as having respect to every kind of civil government, under whatever form it is administered:-It is the ordinance,-the institution or appointment of man.
THIS does not imply, however, that civil government is not from God; for thus it is sometimes represented, and is expressly said to be the ordinance of God. So St. Paul declares-There is no power but of God. The powers that be, are ordained of God. Who ever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God [Romans XIII, I, 25] CIVIL government is not, indeed, so from God, as to be expressly appointed by him in his word. Much less is any particular form of it there delineated, as a standing model for the nations of the world: Nor are nay particular persons, pointed out, as having, in a lineal descent, an indefeasible right to rule over others.
BUT civil government may be said to be from God, as it is he who qualifies men for, and in his over-ruling providence, raises them to places of authority and rule; for by him Kings reign:-As he has given us, in his word, the character of Rulers, and pointed out both their duty, and the duty of those under their authority; which supposes, not only the existence of civil government, but that it is agreeable to His will: And especially and chiefly, as civil government is founded in the very nature of man, as a social being, and in the nature and constitution of things. It is manifestly for the good of society:-It is the dictate of nature:-It is the voice of reason, which may be said to be the voice of God.
IT being only thus that civil government is the ordinance of God, there is no impropriety in asserting likewise that it is the ordinance of man. For though it is founded in the nature of man, and in the constitution of things, which are from God, yet nothing is plainer, than that it proceeds immediately from men. It is not a matter of necessity, strictly speaking, but of choice. This is the case, as to the government in general:-This is most evidently the case, as to any particular form of government.
ALL men are naturally in a state of freedom, and have an equal claim to liberty. No one, by nature, nor by any special grant from the great Lord of all, has any authority over another. All right therefore in any to rule over others, must originate from those they rule over, and be granted by them. Hence, all government, consistent with that natural freedom, to which all have an equal claim, is founded in compact, or agreement between the parties;-between Rulers and their Subjects, and can be no otherwise. Because Rulers, receiving their authority originally and solely from the people, can be rightfully possessed of no more, than these have consented to, and conveyed to them.
AND the fundamental laws, which are the basis of government, and form the political constitution of the state;-which mark out, and fix the chief lines and boundaries between the authority of Rulers, and the liberties and privileges of the people, are, and can be no other, in a free state, than what are mutually agreed upon and consented to. Whatever authority therefore the supreme power has, to make laws, to appoint officers, etc. for the regulation and government of the state, being an authority derived from the community, and granted by them, can be justly exercised, only within certain limits, and to a certain extent, according to agreement.
TO suppose otherwise, and that without a delegated power and constitutional right, Rulers may make laws, and appoint officers for their execution, and force them into effect, i.e. according to their own arbitrary will and pleasure, is to defeat the great design of civil government, and utterly to abolish it. It is to make Rulers absolutely despotic, and to subject the people to a state of slavery; because it will then be in the power of Rulers, by virtue of new laws and regulations, they shall please to make, to subvert and annihilate the present constitution, and to strip the subject of every kind of privilege.
THIS may be briefly evidenced by a single instance.
IT is essential to a free state, for without this it cannot be free, that no man shall have his property taken from him, by his own consent, given by himself or by others deputed to act for him. Let it be supposed then, that Rulers assume a power to act contrary to this fundamental principle, what must be the consequence? If by such usurped authority, they can demand and take a penny, by the same authority they may a pound, and even the whole substance of the subject, so as to make him wholly dependent on their pleasure, having nothing that he can call his own; and what is he then but a perfect slave?
THIS, at first view, is manifestly inconsistent with all just conception of freedom; and is the very essence of arbitrary and tyrannical power.
NOW, all Rulers in a state, and all power and authority with which they are vested;-the very being, and form of government, with all its constitutional laws, being thus from the people, hence civil government, is called, and with great propriety, the ordinance of man,-an human institution.
THIS is the case, as to the British government in particular, under which we have the happiness to live. Its constitutional laws are comprized in Magna-Charta, or the great charter of the nation. This contains, in general, the liberties and privileges of the people, and is, virtually, a compact between the King and them; the reigning Prince, explicitly engaging, by solemn oath, to govern according to these laws.-Beyond the extent of these then, or contrary to them, he can have no rightful authority at all.
IF the preceeding positions, and the reasonings from them are just, the following things may be noticed, as deducible therefrom, or closely connected therewith,-That it is highly requisite, for the good of the state, that both Rulers and people be well acquainted with, and keep in mind the constitutional laws of government-Rulers, that they may be directed and guided thereby, and not depart from, or counteract the design of their institution, to the injury, or disquietude of the people,-And people, that knowing the bounds of submission, and the extent of their privileges, they may be guarded against transgression, and yield a ready and full obedience.
EQUALLY requisite it must be likewise, for the same end, that there be no mysteries in the governing plan: That all laws and rules of government, be as plain as possible, and easy to be understood, to prevent contentious disputes between Rulers and their subjects;-to preclude the former, from tyrannical oppression, under colour of lawful authority, and the latter from rebellious disobedience, under pretence of privilege.
FOR, it follows from what has been said, that as all disobedience in subjects, to constitutional authority, is rebellion against government, and merits punishment adequate to the crime, so all assumed power in Rulers, not granted them by the constitution, is without just authority, and so far forth, can claim no submission. “As usurpation,” says the great and judicious Mr. LOCKE, “is the exercise of power which another hath a right to, so Tyranny is the exercise of power beyond right, which no body can have a right to.” And again, “Where-ever law ends, Tyranny begins, if the law be transgressed to another’s harm. And whosoever in authority exceeds the power given him by law, and makes use of the force, he has under his command, to compass that upon the subject, which the law allows not, ceases in that to be a magistrate: And acting without authority, may be opposed as any other man, who by force invades the right of another.”
AND tho’ it may not always be prudent and best, to resist such power, and submission may be yielded, yet that the people have a right to resist, is undeniable; otherwise the absurd and exploded doctrines of passive obedience, and non-resistance, must be admitted in their utmost extent, and their consequences patiently borne. And it must be granted  finally, that the people as well as their Rulers, are proper judges of the civil constitution they are under, and of their own rights and privileges; else, how shall they know when these are invaded;-when submission is due to authoritative requisitions, and when not?