Political Exercise.

From: Essays on the Principles of Morality, and on the Private and Political Rights and Obligations of Mankind (1834).
Author: Jonathan Dymond
Published: Harper & Brothers 1834 Philadelphia


  It has been said by a Christian writer, that “the science of politics is but a particular application of that of morals;” and it has been said by a writer who rejected Christianity, that “the morality that ought to govern the conduct of individuals and of nations is, in all cases, the same.” If there be truth in the principles which are advanced in the first of these Essays, these propositions are indisputably true. It is the chief purpose of the present work to enforce the supremacy of the moral law; and to this supremacy there is no exception in the case of nations. In the conduct of nations this supremacy is practically denied; although, perhaps, few of those who make it subservient to other purposes would deny it in terms. With their lips they honour the doctrine, but in their works they deny it. Such procedures must be expected to produce much self-contradiction, much vacillation between truth and the wish to disregard it. much vagueness of notions respecting political rectitude, and much casuistry to educe something like a justification of what cannot be justified. Let the reader observe an illustration: A moral philosopher says,—“The Christian principles of love, and forbearance, and kindness, strictly as they are to be observed between man and man, are to be observed with precisely the same strictness between nation and nation.” This is an unqualified assertion of the truth. But the writer thinks it would carry him too far, and so he makes exceptions. “In reducing to practice die Christian principles of forbearance, &c., it will not be always feasible, nor always safe, to proceed to the same extent as in acting towards an individual.” Let the reader exercise his skill in casuistry by showing the difference between conforming to laws with “precise strictness,” and conforming to them in their “full extent.”—Thus far Christianity and expediency are proposed as our joint governors.—We must observe the moral law,—but still we must regulate our observance of it by considerations of what is feasible and safe. Presently afterward, however, Christianity is quite dethroned; and we are to observe its laws only “so far as national ability and national security will permit.”1—So that our rule of political conduct stands at length thus: obey Christianity with precise strictness—when it suits your interests.

  The reasoning by which such doctrines are supported is such as it might be expected to be. We are told of the “caution requisite in affairs of such magnitude,”—“the great uncertainty of the future conduct of the other nation,”—and of “patriotism.”—So that because the affairs are of great magnitude the laws of the Deity are not to be observed! It is all very well, it seems, to observe them in little matters, but for our more important concerns we want rules commensurate with their dignity,—we cannot then be bound by the laws of God! The next reason is, that we cannot foresee “the future conduct” of a nation.—Neither can we that of an individual. Besides this, inability to foresee inculcates the very lesson that we ought to observe the laws of Him who can foresee. It is a strange thing to urge the limitation of our powers of judgment as a reason for substituting it for the judgment of Him whose powers are perfect. Then “patriotism” is a reason; and we are to be patriotic to our country at the expense of treason to our religion!

  The principles upon which these reasonings are founded lead to their legitimate results: “In war and negotiation,” says Adam Smith, “the laws of justice are very seldom observed. Truth and fair dealing are almost totally disregarded. Treaties are violated, and the violation, if some advantage is gained by it, sheds scarce any dishonour upon the violator. The ambassador who dupes the minister of a foreign nation is admired and applauded. The just man, the man who in all private transactions would be the most beloved and the most esteemed, in those public transactions is regarded as a fool and an idiot, who does not understand his business; and he incurs always the contempt, and sometimes even the detestation, of his fellow-citizens.”2

  Now, against all such principles,—against all endeavours, to defend the rejection of the moral law in political affairs, we would with all emphasis protest. The reader sees that it is absurd: can he need to be convinced that it is unchristian? Christianity is of paramount authority, or another authority is superior. He who holds another authority as superior rejects Christianity; and the fair and candid step would be avowedly to reject it. He should say, in distinct terms—Christianity throws some light on political principles; but its laws are to be held subservient to our interests. This were far more satisfactory than the trimming system, the perpetual vacillation of obedience to two masters, and the perpetual endeavour to do that which never can be done serve both.

  Jesus Christ legislated for man,—not for individuals only, not for families only, not for Christian churches only, but for man in all his relationships and in all his circumstances. He legislated for states. In his moral law we discover no indications that states were exempted from its application, or that any rule which bound social did not bind political communities. If any exemption were designed, the onus probandi rests upon those who assert it: unless they can show that the Christian precepts are not intended to apply to nations, the conclusion must be admitted that they are. But in reality, to except nations from the obligations is impossible; for nations are composed of individuals, and if no individual may reject the Christian morality, a nation may not. Unless, indeed, it can be shown that when you are an agent for others you may do what neither yourself nor any of them might do separately,—a proposition of which certainly the proof must be required to be very clear and strong.

  But the truth is that those who justify a suspension of Christian morality in political affairs are often unwilling So reason distinctly and candidly upon the subject. They satisfy themselves with a jest, or a sneer, or a shrug; being unwilling either to contemn morality in politics, or to practise it: and it is to little purpose to offer arguments to him who does not need conviction but virtue.

  Expediency is the rock upon which we split,—upon which, strange as it appears, not only our principles but our interests suffer continual shipwreck. It has been upon expediency that European politics have so long been founded, with such lamentably inexpedient effects. We consult our interests so anxiously that we ruin them. But we consult them blindly: we do not know our interests, nor shall we ever know them while we continue to imagine that we know them better than He who legislated for the world. Here is the perpetual folly as well as the perpetual crime. Esteeming ourselves wise, we have, emphatically, been fools,—of which no other evidence is necessary than the present political condition of the Christian world. If ever it was true of any human being, that by his deviations from rectitude ho had provided scourges for himself, it is true at this hour of every nation in Europe.

  Let us attend to this declaration of a man who, whatever may have been the value of his general politics, was certainly a great statesman here: “I am one of those who firmly believe, as much indeed as a man can believe any thing, that the greatest resource a nation can possess, the surest principle of power, is strict attention to the principles of justice. I firmly believe that the common proverb of honesty being the best policy is as applicable to nations as to individuals.”—“In all interference with foreign nations justice is the best foundation of policy, and moderation is the surest pledge of peace.”—“If therefore we have been deficient in justice towards other states, we have been deficient in wisdom.”3

  Here, then, is the great truth for which we would contend,—to be unjust is to be unwise. And since justice is not imposed upon nations more really than other branches of the moral law, the universal maxim is equally true,—to deviate from purity of rectitude is impolitic as well as wrong. When will this truth be learned, and be acted upon? When shall we cast away the contrivances of a low and unworthy policy, and dare the venture of the consequences of virtue? When shall we, in political affairs, exercise a little of that confidence in the knowledge and protection of God which we are ready to admire in individual life?—Not that it is to be assumed as certain that such fidelity would cost nothing. Christianity makes no such promise. But, whatever it might cost, it would be worth the purchase. And neither reason nor experience allows the doubt that a faithful adherence to the moral law would more effectually serve national interests, than they have ever yet been served by the utmost sagacity while violating that law.

  The contrivances of expediency have become so habitual to measures of state, that it may probably be thought the dreamings of a visionary to suppose it possible that they should be substituted by purity of rectitude. And yet I believe it will eventually be done; not perhaps by the resolution of a few cabinets,—it is not from them that reformation is to be expected,—but by the gradual advance of sound principles upon the minds of men; principles which will assume more and more their rightful influence in the world, until at length the low contrivances of a fluctuating and immoral policy will be substituted by firm, and consistent, and invariable integrity.

  The convention of what is called the Holy Alliance was an extraordinary event; and little as the contracting parties may have acted in conformity with it, and little as they or their people were prepared for such a change of principles, it is a subject of satisfaction that such a state paper exists. It contains a testimony at least to virtue and to rectitude; and even if we should suppose it to be utterly hypocritical, the testimony is just as real. Hypocrisy commonly affects a character which it ought to maintain; and the act of hypocrisy is homage to the character. In this view, I say, it is subject of some satisfaction that a document exists which declares that these powerful princes have come to a “fixed resolution, both in the administration of their respective states and in their political relations with every other government, to take for their sole guide the precepts of the Christian religion,—the precepts of justice, Christian charity, and peace:” and which declares that these principles, “far from being applicable only to private concerns, must have an immediate influence on the councils of princes, as being the only means of consolidating human institutions, and remedying their imperfections.”

  The time, it may be hoped, will arrive when such a declaration will be the congenial and natural result of principles that are actually governing the Christian world. Meantime, let the philosopher and the statesman keep that period in their view, and endeavour to accelerate its approach. He who does this will secure a fame for himself that will increase and still increase as the virtue of man holds its onward course, while multitudes of the great, both of past ages and of the present, will become beacons to warn rather than examples to stimulate us.

1 Gilborne’s Moral Philosophy.
2 Theory of Moral Sentiments.
3 Fell’s Memoir of the Public Life of C.J. Fox.

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