« PreviousContinue »
lying dormant, and brought forth their old opinions with increased strength. England had never been without some few speculative republicans since the time of the Restoration; their tenets had become to a certain degree fashionable in the early part of the present reign. The most distinguished poet of his age breathed a spirit of Grecian freedom throughout his writings with an impassioned and stately eloquence which was at once adapted to elevate youthful minds and impress youthful imaginations. Books were printed with the cap of liberty in the title-page, and a lady favoured the world with what she was pleased to call a History of England, written upon republican principles,—for which the rector of St. Stephen's, Wallbrook, placed her statue while she was yet living in the chancel of his church. All persons who partook of these opinions wished well of course to the Americans in their resistance to the mother-country. In that Life of Washington which was compiled from his own papers, it is said, that at the commencement of the resistance the popular leaders were greatly encouraged by their zealous friends in England, who exaggerated the divisions and discontents at home, exhorted them to persevere, and assured them that perseverance would crown their patriotic efforts with success. Thus they were stimulated to proceed, in expectation that government must yield, till they were actually engaged in a war, from the thought of which in the first instance they would have shrunk with horror. During the progress of that war Washington constantly enumerated English disturbances among his grounds of hope, dwell
this when he had almost ceased to hope; and there was a secret committee in America empowered by Congress to correspond with their friends in Great Britain and Ireland. Some of the treason which was committed during that war may perhaps appear hereafter when other collections of American state-papers shall be published: --that it existed to a great degree is beyond all doubt.
As there were some persons who favoured the American cause on account of their republican predilections, there were many more who acquired a predilection for republicanism because they favoured the American cause. Indeed it was searcely possible to consider the character of Washington without feeling some degree of prepossession for whatever opinions might be entertained by so wise and excellent a man. The Constitution of the United States was extolled as the noblest work of human intellect, and it was believed that all which philosophers had devised in their ideal fabrics of society was realized in America. Little did the enthusiasts who thought thus know what was passing in the mind of Washington himself,
--for Washington, seeing the strong tendency of the Americans towards licentiousness and anarchy, confessed to his friends his fears that the great cause in which they had embarked would be dis
honoured and betrayed, and the last and fairest experiment in favour of the rights of human nature turned against them.
An American officer of distinction who had served during the war with La Fayette and Kosciusko, and came to Europe with them in the same vessel after peace had been concluded, when lie took leave of the latter at Paris, said to him, I suppose you are going to see what can be done in your own country?” The Pole shook bis head, and replied, that the people were not in a fit state for such a revolution. Well had it been for France if La Fayette bad had the same wisdom! But the intellectual atmosphere had received its taint: and as an influenzu beginning in Tartary travels from China throughout the whole inhabited part of the old continent, so was this moral pestilence to run its course.
The trumpet had sounded-Woe, woe, woe to the inhabitants of earth! and the vial of wrath was poured out.'
If it had been proposed to establish kingdoms in America, and introduce hereditary nobility, with all those gradations of rank which have grown out of the feudal system, and been softened and matured into their present form, men would have perceived the unfitness and impossibility of creating such an order of things in agricultural and commercial colonies. They would have seen that it was as absurd as to erect a modern citadel upon the plan of a baronial castle, or build a cotton-mill upon the model of a cathedral: but they saw no absurdity in reducing Europe to the standard of America, plucking up all her venerable institutions by the roots, and levelling the whole platform of society by the rule and line of trans-Atlantic equality. This was à portentous error, though in its origin not altogether without excuse: for the evils of inequality in Europe, from causes which will presently be adverted to, were every day becoming more grievous and more glaring. No generous heart could contemplate those evils without an ardent desire of relieving, and if possible removag them. But men fell into the strange mistake of believing that the facilities of subsistence in America were owing to its form of government, and that the abolition of the privileged orders was all that was needful for placing us in the same condition with the inhabitants of a new country, where hands were wanting to till the ground, and consequently where the wealth of every family was in some degree in proportion to its numbers. Under this delusion, they mistook the means of bettering the cũndition of the poor, and supposed that the best way to elevate and improve the lower classes was to pull down all above them.
When these principles began to spread, it so happened that our literary journals were almost wholly in the hands of dissenters, and more particularly of those dissenters who prided themselves upon the
freedom of their opinions. No sooner had the genuine philosophy of the fathers of the English church given place to the flimsy inetaphysics of the material school, than it was evinced, by the growth of heretical opinions, with what wisdom our ancestors had asserted sound and orthodox learning to be the same. The old religious disputes related almost exclusively to the discipline, the rites, or the ceremonies of the church;-episcopacy or presbytery, adult or infant baptism, the mode of administering the sacrament,-ihe use of the cross in baptism, the surplice and the altar, with other such points of controversy, in which the disputants argued from the same premises, and held the same essential faith. Even when doctrines were disputed, they were such as in no ways affected the fundamental principles of Christianity. It was otherwise when Ariavism, which, for more than a thousand years, liad disappeared from the Christian world, was revived in England. In the Establishment it called forth able defenders of the established truth, and the question there was laid at rest. But among the dissenters, say their historians, • the case was widely different. The people concerned themselves as much about religion as their teachers, and many of them understood as well the doctrines of the Gospel. When the heresy found an entrance here, it created a convulsion in the body, and produced in the adherents to the ancient faith paroxysms of horror and anguish, and roused their most vigorous energies to expel the
Yet these historians admit that during this period ' error was the destroying angel of dissenting congregations. They impute the revival of Arianism to the devil himself. " When it filled ihe pulpit,' they say, “it invariably emptied the pews. This was the case not only where a part of the congregation, alarmed by the sound of heresy, fled from the polluted house to a separate society, but where no opposition was made, and all remained without a murmur in the original place. In numerous instances the preacher, full of the wisdom of the serpent, sought, by hiding the monster from their view, to draw them over by stealth to the new theology; and unveiled his sentinients only as the people were able to bear them without a frown. Though at last his wishes were crowned with success, yet the decay gradually consumed the growth, the strength and the life of the society, till a large congregation was reduced to a handfull. When Socinianism found an entrance, its operations were quicker than those of the Arian creed, and more effectual : flourishing societies were reduced to a few families, which, being animated with zeal for the new opinions, or indifferent about any, chose to continue to support the mode of worship to which, from education, or use, they were attached. In many places, Socinianism was the abomination of desolation, and consigned what had been formerly the house of prayer, and of the
assemblies of the saints, an undisturbed abode to the spiders and the bats.'-Old Daniel Burgess used to say that he dreaded a Christless Christianity,
The nature of Socinianism has been exposed with consummate ability by Mr. Coleridge in his second Lay Sermon. Here we have briefly to notice. its growth and progress in England. It grew out of Arianism, and so entirely destroyed the system from which it sprung, that there is not (we believe) a single Arian congregation at this day existing in Great Britain. And as the Arian ended in the Socinian heresy, so did Socinianism tend with equal, or more rapidity, toward uubelief. It is well known that the socinian academy at Hackney was given up, notwithstanding the high character and learning of some of its conductors, because almost all the students pushed the principles in which they were educated farther than their tutors. The dry-rot was in the foundation and the walls, as well as in the beams and rafters, and the unfortunate pupils came away believers in blind necessity and gross materialism —and in nothing else. The literary journals, at the commencement of the French Revolution, were in the hands of those dissenters, among whom this change during half a century had been taking place. The writers therefore were men in all stages of disbelief, -for every thing was tolerated except orthodoxy.
We happen to have at hand the Monthly Review of the “ Inquiry concerning Political Justice, and its influence on general Virtue and Happiness, by William Godwin.' The manner in which this work was treated by what was then, without competition, the most accredited journal of the age, will shew in what spirit the journal was conducted. It was announced' with no small degree of pleasure,' as a work which, from the freedom of its inquiries, the grandeur of its views, and the fortitude of its principles,' was eminently deserving of attention. The writers, indeed, would by no means be understood to subscribe to all the principles,'-—but they took care not to specify any from which they dissented. Knowledge, they said, ' was not yet arrived at that degree of certainty which is requisite for any two men to think alike on all subjects ; neither had language attained that consistent accuracy, which can enable them to convey their thoughts, even when they do think alike, in a manner perfectly correct and intelligible to both.' In this manner they excused themselves from offering any objections to a system of politics and ethics, which laid the axe to the root of every social institution, human and divine, and of every domestic virtue!-Many of the opinions which the work contained, they said, were bold, some of them were moral, and some doubtless were erroneous ;-but its patient and philosophic manner ought to endear it even to those whose principles it might offend.' The
farther they proceeded in their examination of this ' bold and original work,' (for it was continued in three numbers, the more they were convinced that it was proper, at that particular period (1793,) to present their readers with a clear analysis of its contents rather than obtrude any decided opinion of their own. When the minds of men were so much agitated, they thought it their duty thus to limit themselves. The opinions of the author respecting governinent were indeed highly interesting to society;' at least they deserved a serious and deep investigation, since the conclusions to which they led were fascinatingly attractive; and, if false, deserved to be clearly, fully, and immediately exposed. The task was too unwieldy and mighty for their limits : but they earnestly recommeuded it' as a labour worthy of all inquiring minds to examine the work itself, in order that they may confute these new doctrines, if in opposition to virtue and truth; or if in agreement with them, that they may further elucidate, strengthen, and expand the writer's principles.'—Whether the author's opinions should prove to be truths, which time and severe scrutiny would establish, or the visions of an over-zealous mind, which strict examination would dissipate, it was certain that his intentions were friendly to man. The tone of virtue was uniform, and predominated throughout the work. It need not here be stated what were the sentiments which were promulgated under this tone of virtue in Mr. Godwin's work a work in which the existence of the Deity was spoken of as an hypothesis, and in which the ethics were worthy of the religion ! Of the author himself we have no wish to speak with asperity; miserably mistaken as he was, he is entitled to full credit for sincerity and fair intentions. He erred from vanity, not from any principle of evil.
During the seventeenth century, every man had his place in society, and vone of the ways of life were crowded. • All honour in England,' says an old writer,came a Marte or Mercurio, from learning or chivalry, from the pen or the pike, from priesthood or knighthood.' If a boy who was born in the lower ranks discovered a decided disposition for learning, patronage was obtained for him, by the help of endowed schools, exhibitions, or scholarships ; he made his way through college, and rose perhaps to high offices in the church or in the law. But unless this aptitude was strongly marked, parents in general were well content that their sons should fill the same station which they themselves had filled before them. Long after the Reformation, there was even a difficulty in finding a sufficient number of clergy for the service of the establishment. But when our institutions, civil and ecclesiastical, assumed a character of stability, and the commerce of the nation increased, the ambition as well as the wealth of individuals increased also, and