Monday, November 21, 2016

Speech of Jacob Henry

Though I will not conceal the surprise I felt, that the gentleman should have thought proper yesterday to have moved my expulsion from this house, on the alleged grounds that I “disbelieve in the divine authority of the New Testament,” without considering himself bound by those rules of politeness, which, according to my sense of propriety, should have led him to give me some previous intimation of his design: yet, since I am brought to the discussion, I feel prepared to meet the object of his resolution.

I certainly, Mr. Speaker, know not the design of the declaration of Rights made by the people of this State in the year ‘76, if it was not to consecrate certain great and fundamental Rights and Principles, which even the Constitution cannot impair: For the 44th section of the latter instrument declares, that the declaration of Rights ought never to be violated on any pretense whatever - If there is any apparent difference between the two instruments they out if possible to be reconciled. But if there is a final repugnance between them, the declaration of Rights must be considered paramount: For I believe that it is to the Constitution, as the Constitution is to a Law: it controls and directs it absolutely and conclusively. If, then, a belief in the Protestant religion is required by the Constitution to qualify a man for a seat in this House, and such qualification is dispensed with by the declaration of Rights, the provision of the Constitution must be altogether imperative, as the language of the Bill of Right is, “that all men have a natural and unalienable right to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of their own conscience.” It is undoubtedly a natural right, and when it is declared to be an unalienable one, by the people, in their sovereign and original capacity, any attempt to alienate it either by the Constitution or by Law, must be vain and fruitless. It is difficult to conceive how such a provision crept into the Constitution, unless it was from the difficulty that human mind feels in suddenly emancipating itself from fetters by which it has long been enchained. If a man should hold religious principles incompatible with the freedom and safety of the State, I do not hesitate to pronounce that he should be excluded from the public councils of the same; and I trust if I know myself, no one would be more ready to aid and assist than myself. But I should really be at a loss to specify any known religious principles which are thus dangerous. It is surely a question between a man and his Maker, and requires more human attributes to pronounce which of the numerous sects prevailing in the world, is most acceptable to the Diety. If a man fulfils the duties of that religion, which his education or his conscience has pointed to him as the true one, no one, I hold, in this land of liberty has a right to arraign him at the bar of any inquisition - And the day I trust is long past when principles merely speculative were propagated by force, when the sincere and pious were made victims, and the light-minded bribed into hypocrites.

The proud monuments of liberty knew that the purest homage man could render to the Almighty was in the sacrifice of his passions, and in the performance of his duties; that the Ruler of the universe would receive with equal benignity, the various offerings of man’s adoration, if they proceeded from an humble spirit and sincere mind; that intolerance in matters of faith, had been from the earliest ages of the world, the severest torments by which mankind could be afflicted; and that governments were only concerned about the actions and conduct of man, and not his speculative notions. Who among us feels himself so exalted above his fellows, as to have a right to dictate to them his mode of belief? Shall this free country try set an example of persecution, which, even the returning reason of enslaved Europe would not submit to? Will you bind the conscience in chains, and fasten conviction upon the mind, in spite of the conclusions of reason, and of those ties and habitudes which are blended with every pulsation of the heart? Are you prepared to plunge at once from the sublime heights of moral legislation, into the dark and gloomy caverns of superstitious ignorance? Will you drive from your shores and from the shelter of your constitutions, all who do not lay their oblations on the same altar, observe the same ritual, and subscribe to the same dogmas? If so, which amongst the various sects into which we are divided, shall be the favored one?  I should insult the understanding of this House to suppose it possible that they could ever assent to such absurdities. For all known, that persecution in all its shapes and modifications, is contrary to the genius of our government, and the spirit of our law; and that it can never produce any other effect, than to render men hypocrites or martyrs. When Charles V. Emperor of Germany, tired of the cares of government, resigned his crown to his son, he retired to a monastery, where he amused the evening of his life in regulating the movements of watches, endeavoring to make them keep the same time, but not being able to make any two go exactly alike, it led him to reflect upon the folly and crimes he had committed, in attempting the impossibility of making them think alike!

Nothing is more easily demonstrated than that the conduct alone is the subject of human laws, and that man ought to suffer civil disqualification for what he does, and not for what he thinks. The mind can receive laws only from Him of whose divine essence it is a portion; He alone can punish disobedience; for who else can know its movements, or estimate their merits? The religion I profess, inculcates every duty which man owe to his fellow men; it enjoins upon its votaries the practice of every virtue, and the detestation of every vice it teaches them to hope for the favor of Heaven exactly in proportion as their lives are directed by just, honorable and beneficent maxims. This then, gentlemen, is my creed; it was impressed upon my infant mind it has been the director of my youth, the monitor of my manhood, and will, I trust, be the consolation of my old age. At any rate, Mr. Speaker, I am sure that you cannot see any thing in this religion to deprive me of my seat in this House. So far as relates to my life and conduct, the examination of these I submit with cheerfulness to your candid and liberal construction. What may be the religion of him who made this objection against me, or whether he has any religion or not, I am unable to say. I have never considered it my duty to pry into the belief of other members of this House, if their actions are upright and their conduct just, the rest is for their own consideration, not for mine. I do not seek to make converts to my faith, whatever it may be esteemed in the eyes of my officious friend, nor do I exclude any man from my esteem or friendship, because he and I differ in that respect - The same charity therefore it is not unreasonable to expect will be extended to myself, because in all things that relate to the State and to the duties of civil life, I am bound by the same obligations with my fellow citizens: nor does any man subscribe more sincerely than myself to the maxim, “whatever ye would that men should do unto you, do ye so even unto them, for such is the Law and Prophets.”

Copied from The American Orator: Selected Chiefly from American Authors; for the Use of Schools and Private Families by Samuel Clark, printed at the Intelligencer Office, 1828.

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