Monday, April 16, 2018

Gerrit Smith: The True Office of Civil Government, April 14, 1851

[Delivered at Troy, New York, April 14, 1851.]

The legitimate action of Civil Government is very simple. Its legitimate range is very narrow. Government owes nothing to its subjects but protection. And this is a protection, not from competitions, but from crimes. It owes them no protection from the foreign farmer, or foreign manufacturer, or foreign navigator. As it owes them no other protection from each other than from the crimes of each other, so it owes them no other protection from foreigners, than from the crimes of foreigners. Nor is it from all crimes, that Government is bound to protect its subjects. It is from such only, as are committed against their persons and possessions. Ingratitude is a crime: but, as it is not of this class of crimes, Government is not to be cognizant of it.

No protection does Government owe to the morals of its subjects. Still less is it bound to study to promote their morals. To call on Government to increase the wealth of its subjects, or to help the progress of religion among them, or, in short, to promote any of their interests, is to call on it to do that, which it has no right to do, and which, it is probably safe to add, it has no power to do. Were Government to aim to secure to its subjects the free and inviolable control of their persons and property — of life and of the means of sustaining life — it would be aiming at all, that it should aim at. And its subjects, if they get this security, should feel that they need nothing more at the hands of Government to enable them to work their way well through the world. Government, in a word, is to say to its subjects: “You must do for yourselves. My only part is to defend your right to do for yourselves. You must do your own work. I will but protect you in that work.”

That, the world over, Government is depended on to instruct, improve, guide, and enrich its subjects, proves, that, the world over, there is little confidence in the democratic doctrine of the people’s ability to take care of themselves: and that the opposite doctrine, that the many must be taken care of by the aristocratic and select few, is well nigh universally entertained. The people’s lack of confidence in themselves is not only proved, but it is accounted for, by this dependence on Government. This dependence of the people on the policy, providence, and guidance of Government, as well in peace as in war, has necessarily begotten in them a distrust of their ability to take care of themselves.

One of the consequences of this self-distrust on the part of the people is, that Government is employed, for the most part, in doing what it belongs to the people to do. And one of the consequences of this illegitimate work of Government is, that Government has become too great, and the people too little — that Government has risen into undue prominence, and the people sunk into undue obscurity. This is evident, wherever we look. The British Government overshadows the British people, and is their master, instead of their servant. It is in France as in Britain. The French Government owns, instead of being owned by, the French people.

The people of every nation are annoyed, enthralled, debased by this meddling of Government with the people’s duties! And never will the liberty, dignity, and happiness of the people be what they should be, until the people shall have risen up, and driven back Government from this meddling. In other words, the people will never be in their proper place, and Government will never be in its proper place, until the work of the people is done by the people.

Whenever the work of the people is taken out of their hands by the Government — or, since the people are quite as ready to shirk their work, as Government is to usurp it — I might as well say, whenever the people devolve it on Government, it is, of course, badly done. This is true, because every work to be well done must be done by its appropriate agent. Whenever Government builds railroads and canals, it builds them injudiciously and wastefully. So too, whenever Government meddles with schools, it proves, that it is out of its place by the pernicious influence it exerts upon them. And to whatever extent churches are controlled by Government, to that extent are they corrupted by it.

That Government does the work of the people badly is not, however, my chief objection to this meddling. There are two other objections to it, on which I lay greater stress than on this. One of these is — that Government, being allowed to do the work of others, fails, for this reason, to do its own work — or, in other words, being allowed to do what it should not do, it fails to do what it should do. The other of these objections is, that the doing by Government of the work of the people has the effect to degrade and dwarf the people.

I said, that Government has naught to do, but to protect its subjects from crimes. The crimes, however, which it permits against them — and, still more, the crimes, which it authorizes, and even perpetrates against them, show how extensively it fails of its duty. We will glance at a few of these crimes.

Slavery is one of them. And who needs to be told, that slavery is a crime? ay, the highest crime against both the body and the soul. Nevertheless, Government, not only permits its subjects to be enslaved, but it actually enacts laws for their enslavement.

Land monopoly is another of these crimes. The right of every man to his needed share of the soil, is as inborn, inalienable, and absolute, as his right to life itself: and the world has suffered more wrong and wretchedness from the violations of this right than it has even from slavery. Indeed, the robbing of men of their liberty is but a consequence of robbing them of their land. The poverty and impotence of the landless masses make them an inviting and easy prey of slavery. The masses, who fall under the yoke of slavery, fall under it because they are poor. Well does the Bible say: “The destruction of the poor is their poverty.” But were the equal right to the soil practically acknowledged, there would be no masses of poverty: and, hence, there would be little or no slavery — almost certainly no slavery. Stupendous, however, and everywhere-practised robbery, as is land monopoly, Government, nevertheless, does not forbid it. Nay, it positively and expressly permits it. Still worse, it does itself practise it. Government is itself the great land monopolist.

The compelling of one generation to pay the debts of another is among these crimes. Government not only suffers its subjects to be robbed of their earnings, in order to pay the debts of former generations, but it actually compels them to submit to such robbery.

There are wrongs done to woman, which fall in this class of crimes. Such is the wrong of denying her the right to control her property. Such is the wrong of denying her the right to participate in the choice of civil rulers. But Government, so far from defending these rights, does itself rob her of them.

The violation of the right to buy and sell freely, whenever and wherever we please, is another of these crimes. Government does, by its Tariffs, annihilate this right.

Now, why is it, that Government is engaged in all this, and, also, in a still greater, variety of nefarious work? It is, because having been allowed to neglect, and go beyond, its own proper and good work, no effectual limits can be set to its improper and bad work. And our answer to the question, why Government fails to perform its appropriate work of protecting its subjects from crimes, is that its meddling with the work, which is not its own, has unfitted it to appreciate and perform the work, which is its own. Let the lawyer dabble with merchandise, and he will be like to lose both his relish and his competency for his law business. Let the doctor annex to his province that of the lawyer, and, ten to one, he will be more interested in his briefs than in his pills. And, so too, if Government shall intrude itself into the province of the people, and usurp the work of the people, one consequence of such intrusion and usurpation will be its growing indifference and infidelity to its own duties — to its own proper work. “Ne sutor ultra crepidam” is an adage quite as applicable to Civil Government, as to an individual.

I referred to two of my objections to the meddling by Government with the work of the people. One of them I have now explained; and I need say no more to show, that it is well founded, and that the misdoing and no-doing of the proper work of Government are a necessary consequence of its meddling with the work of the people. Equally well founded is the other objection. The unhappy effect on the Government is a no more certain consequence of this meddling, than is its unhappy effect on the people.. The character of the people suffers as much from it, as does the character of the Government. The people, who consent to have their proper duties meddled with, and usurped by, Government, are shrivelled in self respect and manly spirit, and are fast tending to impotence. They are the servants and hangers-on of Government. They are swallowed up by it. To a great extent this is true of every people, who crave the guiding and sustaining hand of Government in their farming and manufacturing; in their road-building and canal-building; in their schools and churches. When smarting under the effect of their own follies, they will, instead of manfully undertaking to retrieve themselves, invoke the help of Government. What right-minded person has forgotten the humiliating spectacle, which the American people presented, some fourteen years ago, when they cried out to Government to relieve them of the consequences of that haste to be rich, which had then been prevailing throughout our country? The National Executive was implored: —— a special session of Congress was called for: — and all this, because so many thousands had got swamped in corner-lot and other speculations!

There are several points, on which an explanation may, perhaps, be desired of me.

1st. Do I mean, that Government shall invariably and absolutely forbid slavery? Yes — as invariably and absolutely, as it forbids murder. God no more creates men to be enslaved than to be murdered. And that does not deserve the name of Civil Government, which permits its subjects to be enslaved. And he is a pirate, instead of a Civil Ruler, who lays his hand on men to enslave them. And that is not law, but anti-law, which is enacted to reduce men to slavery, or to hold them in slavery. Hence, they are pirates, mobocrats, and anarchists, who are for the “Fugitive Slave law;” and they are law-abiding, who trample it under foot.

Law is for the protection of rights. And they, who believe, that enactments for the destruction of rights are law, know not what are the elements of true law. The American people in their folly, and madness, and devilishness, are busied, under their Fugitive Slave Law, in trying the questions, whether this man and that man are slaves — whether this being and that being, “made in the image of God,” are chattels and commodities. As well, (and not one whit more blasphemously,) might they try the question, whether God is entitled to His throne, or whether God shall be permitted to live. The American people proudly imagine, that theirs is the highest style of Christian civilization. And, yet, where shall we look for ranker atheism, or more revolting features of barbarism?

2d. Do I mean, that men have an equal right to the soil?

Yes — as equal as to the light and the air: and Government should, without delay, prescribe the maximum quantity of land, which each family may possess. In our country, as its population is so sparse, this quantity might go as high as a couple of hundred acres. A century hence, however, and the population may have increased so far, as to make it the duty of Government to reduce this quantity to a hundred acres. Two centuries hence, and it may, for a similar reason, be necessary to bring it as low as fifty acres. The population in Ireland is already so dense, that not more than some ten or twenty acres should be allowed to each family in that island.

To the question, whether I would have the landless claim improved land, I answer — not until the stores of wild land are exhausted. The people of Ireland should be put in immediate possession of the soil of Ireland, “vested rights” to the contrary notwithstanding. In our country, such rights may be spared, for a while longer. But the day is not distant, when, if they have not been previously and peacefully disposed of by Homestead Exemption and Land Limitation laws, they will be compelled to give way before that paramount natural right to the soil, which inheres as fully in every man, as does his right to himself.

3d. Do I mean, that a People may repudiate their national debt? I do. The debt of Great Britain is an average burden on each of her families of, say, one thousand dollars. That of Holland imposes a greater burden. These debts are crushing. The masses groan, and despair, and perish under them. All obligation to pay them should be promptly disavowed. So far is the present generation from being morally bound to lie under this burden, it is morally bound not to lie under it. No generation is bound to begin its career under burdens. No generation is bound to enter upon the race of life, incumbered with the dead weights of debt, which former generations have entailed upon it. On the contrary, if it would fill its page in the world’s history with usefulness and honor, (and no less than this does God require of it,) it must insist on having a free and a fair start.

But we are told, that a national debt is incurred in carrying on patriotic wars. To this we reply, that wars, which the people, who are carrying them on, believe to be just, they are willing to pay for: and that, therefore, every generation may, reasonably, be expected, and required, to pay for its own wars. Far fewer would be wars, if they, who wage them, had to pay for them. Had President Polk sent round the hat for contributions to carry on the Mexican war, the sum total would have been insufficient to pay for one volley. His noisiest partizans and the most bloated patriots would have cast in not more than Sixpence apiece. They loved the war; but they would have others pay for it. They delighted in the entertainment; since it was to be left to others to bear the expense of it. Right glad were they of a chance to dance; if others could be compelled to pay the fiddler.

What, however, it is asked, if the national debt has been created, or increased, by expenditures on “internal improvements” — such as railroads and canals? We answer, that each generation must be left free to choose what wars it will engage in, and, also, what canals and roads it will build: — with the proviso, nevertheless, as well in the one case, as in the other, that it shall pay, as it goes — or, to say the least, that if it makes debts, it shall pay them. But, it may be said, that a single generation, could not build and pay for, an Erie Canal. Then, let one generation build it as far West as Utica ; and the next extend it to Rochester; and the next to Buffalo. But, whether it shall be built by one, or by several, generations, let Government have no part in building it — let not Government be the owner of it, or of any canal, or of any railroad. Were there no other objection to such ownership, it is sufficient, that it puts into the hands of Government a power and a patronage of corrupting influence on both the Government and the people. No small objection to such ownership is, that it occasions so much legislation, and consumes so much of the time of our public councils. (Let it not be inferred from what I have here said, that I would not have our State finish its canals. It should finish them with the least possible delay, or sell them. It has no moral right to keep them unfinished any longer than is necessary.)

Pennsylvania owes forty millions of dollars for her State works. They cannot be sold for one-third of that sum. Now, to compel the payment of the remaining two-thirds from any other generation than the one, which had the fingering of the moneys, that these works cost — than the one, whose demagogues and log-rollers contrived and carried forward these works—is downright robbery. Nevertheless, these demagogues and logrollers were regarded, in their day, as the benefactors of posterity. Pretty benefactions to posterity are those, which posterity has to pay for! and which are generally worth less than half their cost!

A conclusive objection to national debts is the vast increase of Governmental power, which they occasion. Without reflection, one might say, that Government is weak in proportion to the amount of debt, which the nation owes. But, with reflection, he will say, that Government is strong in proportion to such amount. It is true, that the nation is weak in proportion to the extent of the national debt — but it does not follow, that the Government is. The debt due from a nation is a mortgage upon all its wealth and industry. Now, the collecting of this debt is in the hands of the Government. All the persons employed in collecting it are servants of Government. All the power wielded in collecting it is power of the Government — as much so, as if the Government were the creditor, as well as the collector. If, then, the power of Government is to be kept within due limits, the nation must be kept out of debt.

4th. Do I mean to be understood condemning all Tariffs? I do. I would not have a Custom-House on the face of the earth. But, what if our nation should grow rich with a Tariff, and poor without it? Then, let it grow poor. Whatever may be the effect on its wealth, every nation is to cultivate the freest, fullest, friendliest intercourse with every other nation. The nations of the earth constitute, and should feel, that they constitute, a brotherhood. But, restrictions on trade build up frowning barriers across this brotherhood, and are fruitful sources of estrangement and war. In the words of the poet, they

“Make enemies of nations, who had else
Like kindred drops been mingled into one.”

Great, very great, is the crime of Government in imposing these restrictions. Would I send a barrel of flour to the starving family of my Canadian brother? Would he send a roll of cloth to my freezing family? The arresting, by an individual, of this mutual beneficence would be held by all to be very criminal. But the arresting of it by Government is surely no less criminal. The case here supposed is one, which fairly illustrates the inhumanity and irreligion of Tariffs.

But the profit, the profit, of Tariffs is still urged upon our regards. We deny the fact of such profit. We believe, that, even in a pecuniary point of view, truth and justice and benevolence are gain. What, however, were we convinced of such profit? We must not suffer ourselves to be influenced by it. Even to look upon it, is to expose ourselves to be seduced from our opposition to the inhumanity and sin of Tariffs. We must not go so far into the way of temptation, as even to contemplate a motive for doing wrong. The bare contemplation of the motive may bring us to yield to its power, and to do the wrong.

What can be more unjust than Tariff-taxation? Instead of taxing the rich, in proportion to their riches, it taxes the poor, in proportion to their poverty. That they are thus taxed is obvious. For the poor man is poor, in proportion to the number of children he has to bring up; and, in that proportion, is the amount of Tariff-taxed supplies, which he needs for their subsistence. It often occurs, that a poor man pays, under Tariff-taxation, a greater amount of taxes than a rich man pays under it. One-quarter of the wealth of the nation pays a greater amount of Tariff-taxes than do the other three-quarters.

In addition to what we have said, is the consideration, that Tariff-taxes are so much greater than would be the direct taxes in their stead. We now pay, even in time of peace, thirty millions a year to defray the expenses of the General Government. Let its expenses, however, be defrayed by direct taxes, and the thirty millions would be brought down to three:—and, moreover, the South would pay, far more nearly than now, her full proportion of the nation’s taxes. We have spoken of the reduction of taxes in time of peace. What would be the reduction in time of war we scarcely need estimate: for when direct taxes shall have come into the place of Tariff-taxes, and the expenses of war shall, as well as other national expenses, have to be met by direct taxes, there will, probably, be no war.

Never, never, will there be an honest or frugal Government, until it is sustained by direct taxation: — for never, never, will the people be duly watchful of the conduct of Government, until the cost of Government shall be directly felt by them.

The Government, which taxes the poor, as this Government taxes them, is a robber of the poor, instead of discharging the Governmental duty of protecting the poor.

And I would not be content with the mode of taxation, which the free-trade men propose. They ask, that the people shall be taxed according to their property. But I ask for a still further concession to justice and humanity. I ask, that they shall be taxed according to their ability. Now, his ability to pay taxes, who has ten times as much property as his poor neighbor, is not but ten fold as great. It is infinitely greater. The poor man, Who has but two hundred dollars a year, on which to subsist his family, pays his taxes from the little store, every copper of which is urgently negded for their subsistence. But, the rich man by his side, whose income is two thousand dollars a year, pays his taxes from his superfluity. Equity and fraternity do, therefore, claim, that this rich man should pay taxes both for himself and his poor neighbor.

I close my argument with regard to Tariffs by remarking, that if Government will, at all events, sustain and enrich the manufacturers against foreign competition, it should do so by giving them bounties. These bounties I would, of course, have produced by assessments on property, or rather on ability, instead of taxes on consumption.

5th. Do I meant, that Government shall have nothing to do with Schools? I do. In this country, nearly every person admits, that Government should not have aught to do with churches. Why, then, should it have aught to do with schools? Because, says the answerer, schools are the places, in which to get education, whilst churches are the places, in which to get religion. But, in the esteem of many of us, there is great danger, that the education will prove worthless, nay positively and frightfully pernicious, which does not include religion; which is not, at every step of its progress, blended with religion, and identical with religion, and designed to promote religion. Moreover, in the esteem of many of us, the school, in its legitimate use, is, quite as emphatically as even the church itself, the place to get religion. Our school-years constitute that impressible period of life, which is far more hopeful than any or all after years to the plastic hand of the religious teacher. How important, then, that the school-teacher — that every schoolteacher — be also a religious teacher! Is it said, that religion can be taught during our school-years, and yet not in school?

We admit, that it can: — but it will be with comparatively little hope of success, unless it be taught in school also. Is it said, that religion may be gotten, after our school-years are ended? But, not to say, that the heart may, by that time, be imperviously and forever closed against religion, there is but too much reason to fear, that the religion, which is gotten after our school-years are ended, will, in general, be found to be a picked-up, superficial, and easily-parted-with religion, contrasting very widely, in this respect, with the religion of childhood — with the religion, which incorporates itself with, and becomes an inseparable part of, the very being of its possessor. Certain it is, as a general truth, that the religion, which we would fasten in the heart, must be put there in childhood. Do we wonder, that the Roman Catholic is so tenacious of his religion? We will not, if we reflect, that he imbibed it in his childhood. Do we wonder, that Roman Catholics are so strenuously opposed to our common school system? We will not, if we reflect, how deeply they believe in their religion, and how determined they are to imbue everything with it, and how conscientiously opposed they are, therefore, to excluding school-hours, or any portion of school-hours, from the influence of religion. And, in all this, Roman Catholics are right. And, in compelling them to uphold a system of education, which is an infidel system, or which, to say the least, is, to whatever extent it is religious, opposed to their religion, they are cruelly wronged. We call it an infidel system: — and such it virtually is. For, at the most, it contemplates but the toleration, instead of the inculcation, of religion: — and, what is more, it will not even tolerate any other than a conventional and nominal religion. What positive and earnest religion there is among the people of a school district must, so far as the school is concerned, be held in abeyance. Were such a religion allowed to enter our district schools, it would break them up. The doctrine, that “a man’s a man,” whatever his condition, or color, is an essential, fundamental religious doctrine: — and I add, that the current religion of our country is spurious, because it lacks the practical recognition of this doctrine. Now, the honest and hearty attempt to teach this doctrine in our district schools would be resisted to the last degree. It would be held to be a gross and unendurable violation of that religious neutrality, which is a confessed part — nay, the very corner-stone — of the common school structure. The instance has occurred in my own county, where the presence of an antislavery book in the school-library produced great commotion. It was voted out. I have heard of warm indignation in an adjoining county at the discovery in a school-library of William Jay’s history of the Mexican war. The proslavery histories of that war are welcome to our school-libraries. But William Jay’s is an antislavery history. The common school compromise in regard to religion tolerates proslavery, but not antislavery. The common school neutrality in regard to religion permits the praising, but not the condemning, of our war against Mexico.

A popular argument for Government or district schools is, that they are a cheap police. I admit, that good schools are. And so are good churches. Why, then, should not Government take upon itself the care of the churches, as well as of the schools? And since good family-government is, also, a cheap police, and a thousand fold more important to this end than either schools or churches, or both put together, why should not Government take under its supervision our family affairs also? In this cheap-police plea for Government schools, there is, at least, one thing taken for granted, which should not be. It is, that without the help of Government, there would not be schools, or, at least, not so many: whereas the probability is, that, were there no interference of Government, our schools would not only be better than they now are, but quite as numerous also.
It is asked — what will the poor do to get their children educated, in case Government aid is withdrawn? We answer, let them do anything rather than hang upon Government for an education — for an education, which, because it is Governmental, is emasculated of all positive, earnest, hearty religion — for an education, in which, because it is Governmental, the substance of morality is exchanged for the show of morality — and in which what is honest and uncompromising and robust and manly in character is made to give place to pusillanimity, effeminacy, calculation, baseness.

The Government of Prussia sees to it, that the children of Prussia are educated. Nevertheless, it forbids them, when educated, to exercise their education on certain proscribed topics. But, how much worse is this than the system of education, which shuts out vital topics, and the stern demands of principle from the process of education? If my child may not, whilst in the course of his education, be freely instructed in the most radical political and moral truths, and in the duty of their most faithful application, the chances are a hundred to one, that he will not relish such instruction in after years. And, if he has not, whilst in school, been permitted and encouraged to be true to his convictions, the strong probability is, that he will be false to them in subsequent life. Not having been allowed to be a true boy, he will not prove to be a true man. Why is it, that the great mass of the people in this land are ready to make, and uphold laws for chasing down and enslaving the poor? It is because they were taught no better in their childhood. It is because they were cursed with a compromising education. New England boasts much of her common schools. But, what have her people learned in them? To spell, read, write, and cipher, is the answer. But have they learned in them to respect and uphold human rights? They have not. On the contrary, they have learned in them to use their spelling, reading, writing and ciphering, against human rights. It is but a day or two since, that an innocent man was sent publicly from the very capital of New England to the doom of perpetual slavery. This single fact is a sufficient reply to all the beasts of New England schools. The people, who can perpetrate such a crime, are badly educated, and their schools — not to say churches also — are worse than worthless. Is it said, that they consented to this most atrocious sacrifice of their fellow man out of their respect to law? This apology for their case only makes it worse. The people, who can respect as law, who can even know as law, that, which calls for the most horrible form of murder, are, beyond all doubt, educated more into folly than into wisdom, more into falsehood than into truth, more into demons than into men, more into fitness for the society of the under than the upper world. I will not believe all this of our New England brethren. Hence, I will not accept the apology for them, to which I have here referred.

I think it was the mighty John Knox of Scotland, who inscribed over his door: “Love God with all thine heart and thy neighbor as thyself.” Ah, how much better off would New England be, though without so much as one Government school, but with this inscription over her every door and upon her every heart, than she is with all her fulness of learning, and her equal fulness of moral cowardice and of treachery to God and man! But this universal inscription she will never have, so long as her schools are founded on an accommodating policy in respect to fundamental morality, and on that compromise between righteousness and wickedness, which “splits the difference ” between God and the Devil.

Do not suppose from what I have said, that I believe New England to be worse than other parts of our country. I believe her to be quite as good, as any other part of our country.

I have, now, given one answer to the question — what will the poor do to get their children educated, in case Government aid is withdrawn? I have another to give to it. It is, that if Government will protect its subjects in their natural and absolute right to personal liberty, and to the soil, and to buy and sell where they please, and to choose their civil rulers — there will be but few poor.

What, however, if these few poor should be tenfold as numerous, as I suppose they would be — nay, even as numerous as the present poor? — private benevolence would, nevertheless, make abundant educational provision for them. The voluntary principle is found to be sufficient in the case of churches. Why should it be distrusted in the case of schools? But, it has proved itself worthy of reliance in the case of schools. The free gifts made in New England and New York to aid the cause of education would not compare unfavorably in amount with what the laws extort for this object.

If there are poor to be helped, it is voluntary, and not compelled help, that they need. Compelled help is of little worth either to the helper or the helped. Such help is not the twice blessed mercy, of which the great poet speaks:—

“It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.”

Whether, however, our schools, if left, as are our churches, to the voluntary principle, would be sustained or not, I, nevertheless, protest against the doctrine of compelling men to sustain them. Compulsion to this end is, as I view schools, and as ten thousand others view them, a no less invasion, and a no less offensive invasion, of the rights of conscience and of the liberty of religion, than is the compelled support of churches. In our esteem, the school is, in its true character, as fully identified with religion, as is the church: and, hence, when Government interferes with the school, it makes itself, in our esteem, as obnoxious to the charge of meddling with religion, as when it interferes with the church.

My concern respecting the compelled support of schools is not for the religious man only. It is for the infidel also. If I would not have the Roman Catholic compelled to support schools, whose religion is repugnant to his own, neither would I have the infidel compelled to support schools of any religion. The rights of the infidel are to be held as sacred, as the rights of the christian: and Government is to leave both infidels and christians at full liberty to build up such schools, as they may respectively prefer.

But, it is said, that our schools will be as diversified and sectarian, as our churches, if Government, instead of insisting on running them all into the Government-mold, and making them all after one pattern, shall allow its subjects to have whatever variety of schools they will. In the name of consistency then, why not set Government at work to purge our churches of sectarianism? Now, I admit, that sectarianism, whether in schools or in churches, is a very pernicious error. But I deny, that it is an error, which Government is either to correct, or prevent. Government has nothing at all to do with it.

I do not object to charity — though, I confess, that I do not think there would be much occasion for it, were Government to do its part toward a right construction of society. Charity does not cure the ills, which spring from our false social state. It is but a present, and a very superficial palliation of them. Our eleemosynary institutions are busy with the leaves, instead of striking at the roots, of our multiform disorders.

But, though I do not object to all charity, I am totally opposed to charity at the hands of Government. It is justice, and not charity, which the people need at the hands of Government. Let Government restore to them their land, and what other rights they have been robbed of, and they will, then, be able to pay for themselves — to pay their schoolmasters as well as their parsons. The best way to defend Government for undertaking to educate the children of the poor is on the ground, that this is a slight return for its robberies of the poor. The highwayman does, sometimes, compound with his conscience by giving back enough of the spoil to furnish his victim with a supper, or a night’s lodging. But better than all such generosity of the Government and the highwayman would be their ceasing from their robberies.

I said, it is justice, and not charity, which the people need at the hands of Government. Ay, one crumb of justice is worth more than a whole loaf of charity. I would have the people delivered from all necessity of begging. But, so long as they must beg, let them beg, not of Government, but of one another. Let them never consent to gather into groups of mendicants around the almsgiving hand of Government. It is the of Government, which bribe the people into acquiescence in the loss of their rights — of the very rights, which Government is bound to maintain, but of which it has robbed them — or suffered others to rob them. What is worse, these gifts to the people have the power to blind the people to their loss. They are robbed, without knoowing, that they are robbed.

The last thing, which I have to say on the subject of schools, is to refer to the fact, that the American people are ever and deeply deprecating the union of Church and State. I admit, that they cannot deprecate it too earnestly, or too constantly. It is among the greatest of all evils. But, let me here say, that every admitted interference of Government with the duties and business of the people, is a step toward its union with the church, since every such interference prepares the way for another. I add, that the union of Government with the common school is a step, which lacks but one more step of bringing the Government into union with the church: and I add, that this lacking step would soon be taken, if the people had a common religious faith. It is the intolerant diversity of their religious belief — or, in other words, their division into sects — which saves the people of this nation from the union of Church and State. The common impression, that there is an invincible repugnance among us to the union of Church and State — to the thing itself — is not founded in truth. The man, who is willing to have Government sustain, and take care of the schools, can easily be made willing to have it sustain and take care of the churches also; provided only, that the churches are of his faith. Were this a Catholic, or Presbyterian, or Baptist, or Methodist, or an Episcopalian nation — that is to say, were the mass of the people of one religious creed — and were the present false views of the office of Government still to obtain — the nation would speedily be cursed with a union of Church and State. Let it not be inferred, from what I have here said, that I regard sectarianism, in any case, as a good. I have before condemned it. I now add, that it is an unmixed evil. It is “only evil continually.” A crime against Christ and the christian brotherhood is it to go into any sect whatever. By Divine arrangement, the christians of a place are the church of such place. Very presumptuous and guilty therefore are they, who would supplant this with a human arrangement. All, that can be said in favor of sectarianism in the present instance is, that it is one evil counteracting another — one disease preventing another.

The truth is, that Government has got into the sanctuary of the people’s business and interests; and, that, whilst it is suffered to be there, no limits can be set to its meddling and mischief. To-day, it lays its hand upon the school. To-morrow, it lays it on the church. The only safety consists in expelling the intruder from this sanctuary, and in keeping him outside of it, where he may stand sentinel to it, and so fulfil the only office of Civil Government.

I said, that the only province of Government is to protect from crimes the persons and possessions of its subjects. Some of you may think, that this is making the province of Government too narrow to include all its duties. But, which of its duties would be left outside of these limits? Perhaps, it will be asked, if the duty of abolishing the traffic in intoxicating drinks would not be. I answer, that it would not. I ask Government to abolish this traffic, not because I would have Government enact sumptuary laws — for I would not. Nay, I go so far, as to say, that if the drinkers of intoxicating liquors would do no more than kill themselves, I would not have Government interfere with their indulgence. It is murder, not suicide, that I would have Government concern itself with. Nor do I ask Government to abolish this traffic, because I hold, that Government is charged with the care of the public morals. As I have already shown you, I hold to no such thing. Why I ask Government to abolish this traffic is because it is fraught directly, immensely, necessarily, with wide and awful peril to person and property. Neither property, nor life, is safe from the presumption, the blindness, and the fury of the drunken maniac. The drunken driver upsets the stage. The drunken engineer blows up the steamboat. It is a drunkard, who has ravished our wife, or daughter, or sister. It is a drunkard, who has burned our dwelling. It is a drunkard, who has murdered our family.

What is a crime then, if the traffic in intoxicating drinks is not one? And what crime is there, from which Government should be more prompt to shelter the persons and possessions of its subjects?

Perhaps, it will be asked, whether Government, under my definition of its province, would be at liberty to carry the mail; build asylums; improve harbors; and build light-houses? I answer, that nothing of all this is, necessarily, the work of Government. The mail can be carried, as well without, as with, the help of Government. Some of the best and most extensive asylums in our country are those with which Government has nothing to do. And the interest and humanity of individuals and communities might be relied on to improve harbors and build light-houses, as well as to keep bridges and roads in repair. I admit, that harbors and light-houses are an indispensable protection to life and property, and that the failure to supply them is a crime against mankind, and a crime, of which Government should be cognizant. But Government would, probably, never have to compel the merchants of Portland and Boston and New Bedford &c., to supply the New England coast with harbors and light-houses. It certainly would not, were it to allow them the privilege of imposing a reasonable tax for these securities on the vessels, that enjoy them. And, here, let me add, that, inasmuch as Government has undertaken their care and improvement, and supplied itself, at the people’s expense, with the means therefor, the neglected condition of the harbors upon our lakes is among the evidences, that ours is a faithless and dishonest Government.

I close with saying, that the work of Civil Government is not so much to take care of its subjects, as to leave them in circumstances, in which they may take care of themselves: — and not so much to govern its subjects, as to leave them free to govern themselves. Civil Government is to hold a shield over the heads of its subjects, beneath which they may, in safety from one another, and from all others, pursue their respective callings, and discharge their respective duties. Whilst confining itself to this employment, it is a blessing above all praise — above all price. But, when it forsakes its own work to usurp that of the people; and, especially, when, as it has been recently known to do, it arrays itself against the great and holy God, who ordained Civil Government, and blasphemously enacts laws, which are opposed to His laws, then is it a curse and a monster, which deserves to be hated with all our hatred, and resisted at every hazard.

SOURCES: Gerrit Smith, The True Office of Civil Government: A Speech in the City of Troy, p. 5-30; Octavius Brooks Frothingham, Gerrit Smith: A Biography, p. 181-4

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