Liberty Described

Posted: September 3, 2012 in Category - Sermons of Revolutionary Era, Liberty Defined

Levi Hart 1738-1808

Liberty Described and Recommended: in a Sermon Preached to the Corporation of Freemen in Farmington

Hartford, 1775

Levi Hart occupied the pulpit of a Congregational church in Preston, Connecticut, for forty-six years. He appears to have commanded a high regard for eloquence and good judgment, for an unusual number of his sermons were printed for wider distribution by the members of his congregation; however, few of them dealt with political subjects. In this one, Hart echoes the preoccupation of the time—the concept of liberty. Written to raise one more voice against slavery, Hart places his recommendation in a theoretical context that carefully refines the various definitions in use for the term at that time, and nicely summarizes the basic assumptions of American political theory that underlay not only the Revolution but also the state constitutions that were shortly to be written.

Though the author of the following discourse might avail himself of the common apology for publishing Sermons, viz The importunity of friends; yet he should have been averse to this publication had it not been that the subject and occasion gave him opportunity to cast in his mite for the relief of the opressed and injured Africans, whose cause he thought himself bound to plead, and to bear his testimony against the cruel and barbarous Slave Trade. He is sensible the arguments on that subject might be treated, more at large, and to better advantage; he designed to treat the subject only in a moral and religious view, and he could only hint a few thoughts on that branch of the argument, in a short discourse in which several other things were considered.

The author pretends not to pronounce on the impropriety of the Slave Trade in a political view—this would be out of his province: but he would submit to the gentleness of the law, whether the admission of slavery in a government so democratical as that of the colony of Connecticut, doth not tend to the subversion of its happy constitution. Be this as it may, if the Slave Trade is contrary to the law of nature, which is the law of God, it is more than time it was effectually prohibited, and until that is done we are accountable to God for all the sufferings which we bring upon the unhappy Negroes; for whatever difficulties there may be in the way of freeing the slaves already among us (as there are confessedly some) these cannot be reasonably advanced, against prohibiting the importation of more. Should it be objected [vi] that preaching and printing against the slave trade will tend to encourage servants in disobedience to their masters and support them in disorder and rebellion, the author can only reply, that though he is fully convinced that there is no more reason or justice in our enslaving the Africans than there would be in their enslaving us, yet he thinks the Negro slaves among us are bound by motives of duty and interest to “be obedient to their own masters,” and to “shew all good fidelity” in their service, agreeable to apostolic direction, and as the most probable method to make their yoke less, and pave the way for obtaining their freedom, or, if not their own, that of their posterity.

He would be sorry to be, even the innocent, occasion of disorders in families, but should this be the case it is no sufficient objection against asserting the truth on this subject: there is, perhaps, scarce any doctrine of christianity but what hath been made the occasion of sin, through the perversness of wicked men, especially hath this been true of the doctrine of grace. Must the doctrines of grace therefore not be preached?

II. Peter ii, 19.

While they promise them Liberty, they themselves are the servants of corruption; for of whom a man is overcome, of the same is he brought into Bondage.

To assert and maintain the cause of Liberty, is far from being peculiar to the British colonies in North-America, at the present day: our venerable Ancestors fought and found it in this western world, and at no small expense of their treasure and blood, purchased it for, and conveyed it down to us. The most distinguished and worthy characters in Great-Britain have patronized, spoke and written, and some of them even died, in defence of the sacred rights of Liberty. Those ancient, renowned States of Greece and Rome, in their most flourishing condition, received their greatest stature from a set of public spirited, patriotic men whose hearts glowed with the love of liberty, who were her defenders and supporters, and whose names and writings are venerable to distant ages and nations of men, even long after those mighty empires are gone to decay, and perished through neglecting to follow the maxims of those wise men, the patrons of liberty, who pointed out the path to lasting empire and glory.

Indeed, the sacred cause of liberty ever hath been, and ever will be venerable in every part of the world where knowledge and learning flourish, and men are suffered to think and speak for themselves. Yet, it must be added, that Heaven hath appeared in the cause of liberty, and that in the most open and decisive manner. For this, the Son of God was manifest in the flesh, that he might destroy the tyranny of sin and satan, assert and maintain the equal government of his Father, redeem the guilty slaves from their more than Egyptian bondage, and cause the oppressed to go free.

The whole plan of Redemption, which is by far the greatest and most noble of all the works of God made known to us, to which they all tend and in which they cease, is comprised in procuring, preaching and bestowing liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to the bound. And the gospel of our salvation is principally taken up in defending that glorious liberty which is prefaced forever by the Son of God—the bondage from which he redeems us—the ransom which he paid for our redemption—the way to obtain and enjoy this Liberty, and in stating and urging the most cogent and endearing arguments, and motives, to persuade us to come out of our bondage, and accept of the Liberty wherewith Christ maketh his people free. It is on this account nominated Gospel of Good News; and is to the sinner, like the jubilee trumpet to the enslaved Israelite.

But it must be remembered, that in proportion as Liberty is excellent, and to be desired on the one hand, so slavery or bondage is terrible and to be avoided on the other. These are justly esteemed the two extremes of happiness and misery in Society. It will not therefore be thought foreign to our subject, or an unsuitable attempt upon the present occasion, to enquire into the various significations of these two opposite terms, as they are used in the several kinds of society with which we are concerned, especially as they are introduced in our text as opposed to each other, and it is intimated that the most fond assertors of liberty may after all, be themselves in a state of the most abject slavery and bondage.

Liberty may be defined in general, a power of action, or a certain suitableness or preparedness for exertion, and a freedom from force, or hindrance from any external cause.Liberty when predicated of man as a moral agent, and accountable creature, is that suitableness or preparedness to be the subject of volitions, or exercises of will, with reference to moral objects; by the influence of motives, which we find belongeth to all men of common capacity, and who are come to the years of understanding.

This Liberty is opposed to that want of capacity, by which there is a total ignorance of all moral objects, and so, a natural incapacity of choosing with regard to them. Again, the term Liberty is frequently used to denote a power of doing as we please, or of executing our acts of choice; this refers principally to external action, or bodily motion; and is opposed to force or opposition:—thus the prisoner who is bound in fetters, and secured with bolts and bars in a prison, is not at liberty to go out, he is deprived of this kind of liberty, and is in bondage.

Again, Liberty may be considered and defined with reference to society:—Mankind in a state of nature, or considered as individuals, antecedent to the supposition of all social connections, are not the subjects of this freedom, but it is absolutely necessary to the well being of society.

Human society is founded originally in compact, or mutual agreement. All the larger circles of society originate from family connection or mutual compact between husband and wife, and mutual compact necessarily implieth certain rules and obligations which neither of the parties may violate with impunity.

In the early ages of the world, before vice and wickedness had corrupted and destroyed the original natural form of civil government, as a fine writer of our own nation expresseth it,—“each patriarch sat king, priest and prophet of his growing state”* But when the wickedness of man was become exceeding great, and every imagination of his heart evil, the earth was filled with violence: by the daring efforts of wicked men to subvert the original excellent form of society, and introduce despotic rule where the lives and happiness of many, even whole kingdoms should depend on the will, and be subservient to the pleasure of one man.** But as a society evidently originates from mutual compact or agreement, so it is equally evident, that the members who compose it, unite in one common interest; each individual gives up all private interest that is not consistent with the general good, and interest of the whole body: And, considered as a member of society, he hath no other interest but that of the whole body, of which he is a member: The case is similar to that of a trading company, possessed of a common stock, into which every one hath given his proportion, the interest of this common stock is now the property of the whole body, and each individual is benefited in proportion to the good of the whole, and is a good or bad member in proportion as he uniteth to, or counteracteth the interest of the body. And thus it is in the present case: civil society is formed for the good of the whole body of which it is composed. Hence the welfare and prosperity of the society is the common good, and every individual is to seek and find his happiness in the welfare of the whole, and every thing to be transacted in society, is to be regulated by this standard.—In particular, all the laws and rules formed in such society must tend to promote the general welfare, this is the test by which they must be tried, and by which they must stand or fall; all regulations in the body, and all rewards and punishments to individuals, must be determined agreeable to this.—Those who seek and promote the public interest, are to be esteemed and rewarded; and those who counteract and oppose it, must be punished in proportion to the injury aimed or committed against the public welfare.

We may add, that as the good of the public is the end and design of all good laws and rules, established in a well regulated society, so they must be enacted by the public, i.e. by the wisest and best men in the society, appointed by the body for this purpose.—Men who best understand the public good, and have a common interest with the body, and who are above the narrow pursuits of private interest.—If Laws and rules in society are established by any man, or body of men, who have not a common interest with the whole body of the members, but the contrary, it is evident at first view, they will be exposed to act in opposition to the general good.—None therefore but the representatives of the whole body, in whom as far as possible, the interest of all ranks is contained, are proper to make laws for the regulation of society. For the same reason, those who are to execute the laws, should be appointed in such a manner, and by such authority, as in the best possible way secures their attachment to the general good: And, the members of civil community who are disobedient to such laws and oppose the administration of such authority agreeable to them, deserve punishment according to the degree of their opposition, and their opportunity to promote, or counteract the general good. The crime of every private member in opposing the interest of society, is greater than that of opposition to the interest of an individual, as much (other things being equal) as the interest of the society is greater and of more worth than that of an individual.

In this view of our subject, we may form some conception of the crime of a civil ruler, who sacrificeth the public interest committed to his trust by society, for the sake of his own private gain;—who betrayeth that sacred deposit, to gratify his narrow, sordid thirst of wealth or honour:—We may form some conceptions of his crime, but we want words to paint the horror of it.—If a private man is without excuse, and is justly doomed to die as a traitor and rebel, when he deserts his country’s cause, or basely betrays it, though to save his life, what epithets of lasting infamy are black enough to draw the picture of the inhuman paricide, who basks in the glare of riches and grandeur, at the expence of the public welfare: Yea, may we not depend that heaven itself will assert the cause of liberty, defend the injured innocent, and discharge its thunderbolts on the guilty head of the oppressor, red with uncommon wrath, to blast the man that owes his greatness to his country’s ruin?

From this general view of society, we are led to observe, that civil liberty doth not consist in a freedom from all law and government,—but in a freedom from unjust law and tyrannical government:—In freedom, to act for the general good, without incurring the displeasure of the ruler or censure of the law:—And civil slavery or bondage consisteth in being obliged either by a bad set of laws, or bad and tyrannical rulers, to act in opposition to the good of the whole, or suffer punishment for our steady attachment to the general good.

Religious liberty is the opportunity of professing and practising that religion which is agreeable to our judgment and consciences, without interruption or punishment from the civil magistrate. And religious bondage or slavery, is when we may not do this without incurring the penalty of laws, and being exposed to suffer in our persons or property.—

Ecclesiastical liberty, is such a state of order and regularity in christian society, as gives every member opportunity to fill up his place in acting for the general good of that great and holy society to which the true church of Christ belongs, and of which they are a part. And ecclesiastical slavery, is such a state as subjects some branches of this society to the will of others, (not to the good of the whole glorious kingdom) and punisheth them with the loss of some, or all of the priviledges of ecclesiastical society, if they disobey such tyrannical will, however they may act for the good of the whole, and so, agreeable to the law of Christ.

Finally, there is another kind of liberty and bondage, which deserve particular attention in this place, only as they are especially pointed to in our text, but as being of principleconcern to men, they may be denominated spiritual liberty and bondage:—This liberty is spoken of by our Lord, John viii, 32, 36. Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free,—if the Son make you free, ye shall be free indeed. And, by the Apostle, Rom. vi, 18. Being then made free from sin, ye became the servants of righteousness. Gallat. v. 1. Stand fast in the liberty wherewith Christ has made us free. 2. Gen. iii, 18. Where the spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.

Spiritual liberty then, is freedom or readiness and engagedness of soul in the love and service of God and Christ, and discharge of the various branches of christian duty.

Spiritual bondage, takes place in the dominion of sin and satan in the soul, or that state of allienation from God and Christ, to which all impenitent sinners are subject.

This brief view of the various significations of the terms liberty and slavery, might be usefully improved in many inferences and remarks. I will detain you only with those which follow. Inference first.

If civil liberty consisteth in acting freely, and without constraint, or fear of punishment, for the public good, and tyranny and slavery are the reverse of this,—it followeth, that every one who acts for the general good of society, is entitled to the approbation and assistance of the body. None can justly fall under the frowns of society, but those who prefer some private benefit to the public welfare: And every society which suffers, or even connives at the practice, in any of its members, of taking away the liberty or property of those who have done nothing against the public interest, connives at injustice, and is so far guilty of tyranny and oppression.

Of all the enjoyments of the present life that of liberty is the most precious and valuable, and a state of slavery the most gloomy to the generous mind—to enslave men, therefore, who have not forfeited their liberty, is a most attrocious violation of one of the first laws of nature, it is utterly inconsistent with the fundamental principle and chief bond of union by which society originally was, and all free societies ever ought to be formed. I mean that of a general union for the common good, by which every individual is secure of public approbation so long as he acts for the public welfare.

Could it be thought then that such a palpable violation of the law of nature, and of the fundamental principles of society, would be practised by individuals and connived at, and tolerated by the public in British America! this land of liberty where the spirit of freedom glows with such ardour.—Did not obstinate incontestible facts compel me, I could never believe that British Americans would be guilty of such a crime.—I mean that of the horrible slave trade, carried on by numbers and tolerated by authority in this country. It is not my design to enter largely into the arguments on this subject; all who agree to the general principles already laid down, will join in pronouncing the African slave trade a flagrant violation of the law of nature, of the natural rights of mankind. What have the unhappy Africans committed against the inhabitants of the British colonies and islands in the West Indies, to authorize us to seize them, or bribe them to seize one another, and transport them a thousand leagues into a strange land, and enslave them for life? For life did I say. From generation to generation to the end of time! However the cruel bondage is somewhat lightened in these northern colonies, through the kindness and lenity of the masters—kindness and lenity, I mean as far as these terms are applicable in the present case; I say, however the cruel bondage of the poor Africans is somewhat lightened among us, if we would [ask] for a just estimate of the nature of the slave trade we must be acquainted with the method of procuring the slaves—transporting them, and their treatment in the West Indies, to which, and the southern colonies a great part of them are transported, and where the nature of the slave trade is consistently displayed.

When the Guinea traders arrive on that coast if the trading natives are not already supplied with a proper number of slaves, they go into the back settlements and either by secret ambush, or open force, seize a sufficient number for their purpose, in accomplishing which great numbers, many times are slain, and whole towns laid in ashes. When taken they are driven like cattle to the slaughter, to the sea shore, and sold to our Guinea traders, often for a small quantity of that soul and body destroying liquor, rum, qualified however with a large proportion of water, by which the ignorant natives are imposed upon, cheated, and disappointed.—The poor slaves are bound and thrust into the filthy holds of the ship—men, women, fathers, daughters, mothers, sons, without distinction; where they are obliged to rot together thro’ a long sea passage, which happily relieves numbers from more intolerable sufferings on the shore.—

When they are arrived at the West Indies they are again exposed in the markets, and sold like beasts of burden to the inhuman planters, by whose cruelty many more of them perish. It is supposed that out of near an hundred thousand which are computed to be transported from Africa annually, almost one third perish on the passage and in seasoning; and those unhappy numbers whose hard lot it is to be doomed to longer slavery, wear out their wretched lives in misery which wants a name. The Egyptian bondage was a state of liberty and ease compared with the condition of these unhappy sufferers; and for a trifling offence their barbarous masters will seize and butcher them, with as little, and in many instances, perhaps less ceremony or regret than you would take away the life of one of your domestic animals. It would be an affront to your understandings to enter on a long course of reasoning to prove the injustice and cruelty of such a trade as this. Let us for once put ourselves in the place of the unhappy Negroes. Suppose a number of ships arrived from Africa at a neighbouring sea port to purchase slaves, and transport them to that distant and to us inhospitable climate and those burning sands—put the case that a prevailing party in the neighbouring towns were so lost to all sense of public welfare and to the feelings of humanity as to accept their bribes and join with them to effect the ruin of their fellow men. Let this be the devoted town—and even now while you are met to assert and exercise that invaluable liberty which is the distinguished glory of Englishmen, the honour and safety of Connecticut; in this destined hour while your hearts glow with the love of liberty and exult in her possession, behold this house surrounded, whole armies from the neighbouring towns rush on you, those who resist are at once overpowered by numbers and butchered, the survivors, husbands, wives, parents, children, brethren, sisters, and ardent lover and his darling fair one, all seized, bound and driven away to the neighbouring sea port, where all ranged on the shore promiscuously, in a manner that pity and modesty relent to name; you are sold for a trifling sum, and see your inhuman purchasers rejoicing in their success. But the time is come for a last farewell, you are destined to different ships bound to different and far distant coasts, go husbands and wives, give and receive the last embrace; parents bid a lasting adieu to your tender offspring. What can you say? What do to comfort or advise them? Their case and yours admit not of consolation—go, mothers, weep out your sorrows on the necks of your beloved daughters whom you have nursed with so much care, and educated with such delicacy; now they must go to a distant clime, to attend the nod of an imperious mistress, covered with rags and filth (if coverd at all) they must descend to the most servile and intolerable drudgery, and every the least symptom of uneasiness at their hard usage, meet the frowns and suffer the merciless lash of a cruel master.—But why ruminate on this; behold the inhuman monsters tear you from your last embrace, bound in chains you are hurried to different vessels, crouded in their holds and transported away forever from the sight of all you love, to distant cruel lands, to live and die in slavery and bondage, without the smallest hope of ever enjoying the sweets of liberty, or revisiting your dear native country, with this only consolation, that your sons and daughters are suffering the same cruel bondage, and that from you a race of abject slaves will, probably be propagated down for hundreds of years! Such are the sweets of this beloved slave trade! It is the same to the unhappy sufferers now, that it would be to us if it was our own case, and the reasons against it are as strong and powerful as they would be then—in short the man that can deliberately attend to this subject and not feel the emotions of pity, or indignation, or both, appears to be sunk quite below the feelings of humanity. Is it not high time for this colony to wake up and put an effectual stop to the cruel business of stealing and selling our fellow men, so far as it can be stopped by one province?

With what a very ill grace can we plead for slavery when we are the tyrants, when we are engaged in one united struggle for the enjoyment of liberty; what inconsistence and self contradiction is this! Who can count us the true friends of liberty as long as we defend, or publicly connive at slavery.—

The general assembly of the neighbouring colony have prohibited the importation of Negro slaves under a large penalty, and have enacted that such slaves shall be free as soon as they set foot on the shore within the colony. Can this Colony want motives from reason, justice, religion, or public spirit, to follow the example? When, O when shall the happy day come, that Americans shall be consistently engaged in the cause of liberty, and a final end be put to the awful slavery of our fellow men? Then may we not expect that our liberties will be established on a lasting foundation and that British America and English liberty will flourish to the latest posterity!

Inference 2. If civil liberty consisteth in acting freely and without constraint or fear of punishment for the public good, and so, agreeable to the laws formed to promote and secure it, and civil bondage or slavery is the reverse of this. We learn the importance of intrusting those, and none but those, with the guardianship of our civil liberties who are themselves free, who are not under the dominion of this sordid selfishness and narrowness of soul by which they will betray their country, our dear Colony for a little private profit or honor to themselves.

Men who know the worth of public liberty, and are able and willing defenders of it, be the consequences what they may to their private interest, are the only proper persons to be rulers or representatives of this free and happy colony. In such the votes of the freemen should unite, without the least regard to party, interest, or any private views, agreeable to the nature and solemnity of their oath, and as they value their inestimable liberties, and would dread to fall a helpless prey to tyranny and oppression.

Inference 3. If it is of such importance that we enjoy and secure civil liberty, which respects only a comparatively small circle of society which must disband, at the latest, with the close of fleeting time, at what moment is it to us all, that we are the subjects of that spiritual liberty, which unites us to, and interests us in the good of the whole kingdom of God our Saviour, and which shall last forever.

It is a just way of reasoning in the present case, from the less to the greater, let me say then, with what astonishment and abhorrence should we look on a person who chuses slavery and bondage under the most cruel tyrant, with the certain prospect of a shameful, painful death, by the hand of the executioner, rather than all the sweets of English liberty!

But with what an unspeakable greater madness is he chargable who prefers the guilty slavery of sin and satan, to the glorious, perfect liberty of the children of God! Yet how many make this fatal choice! How many too, who are at great expence and trouble in the cause of civil liberty and zealous assertors of it! What self-contradiction and inconsistence is here! Is not this to strain out a gnat and swallow a cammel? What is English liberty? What is American freedom? When compared with the glorious liberty of the sons of God? And what is slavery under the gauling yoke of oppression, to the hard bondage of sin and satan! Let the hitherto, willing slaves of sin and satan then rouse up, there is now an opportunity to escape from bondage; there is one come to preach deliverance to the captives, and the opening the prison to them who are bound. Jesus Christ the mighty king and Saviour, the scourge of tyrants, and destroyer of sin and satan, the assertor, the giver and supporter of original, perfect freedom; he sets open your prison doors, knocks off your chains, and calls you to come forth. Oh! What a prisoner who will not leap for joy at the sound of this jubilee trumpet, accept the offered pardon, embrace the given freedom,—bid adieu to slavery and bondage, and stand fast in the liberty wherewith Christ makes his subjects free. Here the most perfect liberty may be enjoyed. The exalted king seeks and secures the public interest, to this all the branches of his good government and wise administration tend, and in this they center, for this joy which was set before him, he came into our nature and world, and even endured the cross and dispised the shame.—All the subjects in this happy kingdom are united in the same honourable cause, to them there is neither Barbarian, Scythian, Greek, or Jew, bond or free, they are all one, in one cause, and pursue it animated by one spirit; they feel how good and pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity.—In vain shall the tyrant satan vent his impotent rage against these happy sons of liberty: be wise in reason then, bid adieu to the kingdom of darkness, the cause of tyranny and oppression, inlist under the Captain of the Lords host, fight under his banner, you may be sure of victory, and liberty shall be your lasting reward, for whom the son maketh free shall be free indeed.

FINIS.

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