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Sermon Podcast | Audio | Video : Christian Books : DISCOURSE IV. THE SYMBOLS OF THE REPUBLIC.

Humanity In The City by E. H. Chapin



Thou art a great people, and hast great power. -- JOSHUA, xvii.17.

These words, originally addressed by the Hebrew Leader to the children of Joseph -- the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh -- have been applicable to many nations which, since that time, have risen, and flourished, and fallen. But when we consider the circumstances of its origin, its marvellous growth in all the attributes of civilization, and especially the immense possibilities which it involves; without even being chargeable with a natural vanity, we may say, that to no country on the face of the earth have they ever been more fitted than to this. For, my friends, we know that it is a dictate of our nature to magnify that which is our own. However insignificant it really is, man spreads an ideal glory over the land of his birth. Perhaps its historical importance compensates for its geographical narrowness, or its material poverty is hidden by its intellectual wealth. From its stock of mighty men -- its heroes, and bards, and sages -- who have brightened the roll of fame; or from its memorable battle-fields, on rude heath and in mountain defile; or from its achievements which have swelled the tides of human enterprise, and made the world its debtor; he draws the inspiration, he carries away the conviction of greatness -- so that wherever its emblems come before his eyes, they touch the deep springs of reverence and pride. Nor let us condemn this feeling as merely a selfish and exaggerating one. This spirit of nationality exists for wise purposes, embosoms the richest elements of loyalty and faith, and is one of those profound sentiments of our nature that cannot be driven out by any process of logic.

But, if a nation really inherits the description in the text, it must possess something more than an illustrious history and an ideal glory. We must determine its greatness by its symbols; yet these must be not merely signs of things, but instruments of achievement; not merely the illustrations of dead works or patriotic enthusiasm, but the agents of actual power and of living performance. Now, in looking over the world at the present time, there are other nations to which the words of Joshua might be applied as well as to our own, and with as little assumption of national vanity. Other people are great and have great power, by virtue of political importance, vast possessions, and strong institutions. To say nothing of the rest, consider that huge domain which at this hour confronts the troubled principalities of Europe. It stretches itself out over three continents. The waves of three oceans chafe against its shaggy sides. The energies of innumerable tribes are throbbing in its breast. It clasps regions yet raw in history as well as those that are grey with tradition, and incloses in one empire the bones of the Siberian mammoth and the valleys of Circassian flowers. And it is great not only by geographical extent, but by political purpose -- great by the idea which is involved with its destiny -- an idea austere as the climate, tremendous as the forces, indomitable as the will of the gigantic north. It would set the inheritance of the Byzantine Emperors in the diadem of Peter the Great. It would make the Sea of Marmara and the ridges of the Caucasus, paths to illimitable empire and uncompromising despotism. It moves down the map of the world, as a glacier moves down the Alps, patient and relentless, startling the jealous rivals that watch its course, and granting contemptuous peace to the allies that shiver in its shadow.

In considering, therefore, the symbols which prove that we also are a great people, having great power, we should select those which indicate the possession of a peculiar power. This peculiarity is not in our geographical extent or material greatness. But it is, I think, in our institutions, in the tendency of our national ideas, and in the legitimate result of these. It is in conceptions and elements the direct opposite of those that work in the destiny of the mighty empire just referred to -- and for this reason I have referred to it.

In taking up a subject, then, which is especially connected with the conditions of humanity in the city, because in the city the conception of a people -- of a public -- is especially illustrated, let us inquire -- What are the symbols of our republic; the signs and agents of our greatness as a nation? And, for the sake of avoiding too many specifications, I propose to consider these under two or three general classes.

In the first place, then, I would select as a symbol of the Republic, Whatever represents the privilege of Free Thought. As to whatever gives full play to the intellect, whatever diffuses the intelligence, whatever wakes up and assists the entire spiritual nature of individuals and communities, I think there is really more opportunity here than anywhere else on the face of the earth. And, as a sign and instrument of this, I would point to some District School-house; rough, weather-worn, standing in some bleak corner of New York or New Hampshire; through whose closed windows the passer-by catches the confused hum of recitation, or at whose door he sees children of all conditions mingling in motley play. Of all conditions, so far as external peculiarities go; for the laws of nature and the ordinances of Providence cannot be dispensed with even here; but of one condition as the recognized possessors of immortal mind. Those who have helped mould the Republic have clearly seen that, although intelligence is not the foundation of national greatness -- for there is something deeper than that -- still it is the discerning and directing power upon which depends the right use even of moral elements. They have scouted the notion that there is any ultimate evil in diffused knowledge; any such thing as |a dangerous truth;| and have affirmed that the best way to winnow the false from the true, is to equip and set a-going the intellectual machine by which God has ordained that the work shall be done. It has been felt, that, if the State can properly extend its influence anywhere beyond the restrictive limits of evil, or the punishment of overt wrong; if anywhere it may exercise a positive ministration for good; it is here, where it does not interfere on the one hand with those outward pursuits which should be left to individual choice and aptitude, nor on the other, with those inward sanctities which pertain to conscience and to God; it is here, in that region of our personality from which we can best discern our duty and fill our place. For the intellect is the most neutral of all our qualities. Man is swayed by the animal propensities of his nature; he is swayed by the moral and religious elements of his nature; but the intellect, by itself, is not a motive power. It is a light; and no one will object to its being kindled except those who, by that objection, virtually confess that they fear the light. And this work of kindling is just what the state purposes to do for a child; leaving his religious convictions to such helps as conscience has chosen, and his position in life to the decision of circumstances. And there is no way in which it can show so much impartiality, and exercise practically the most essential conception of freedom. For thus, as I have already said, it recognizes a common inheritance -- something which all have -- the possession of mind -- something which is of more importance than any external condition, for it influences external condition; (whoever saw an educated community of which anything like a large fraction were paupers and criminals?) something on which rests the claim of human freedom; for the charter of man's liberty is in his soul, not his estate. It says to the poorest child -- |You are rich in this one endowment, before which all external possessions grow dim. No piled-up wealth, no social station, no throne, reaches as high as that spiritual plane upon which every human being stands by virtue of his humanity; and from that plane, mingling now in the Common School with the lowliest and the lordliest, we give you the opportunity to ascend as high as you may. We put into your hands the key of knowledge; leaving your religious convictions, with which we dare not interfere, to your chosen guides. So far as the intellectual path may lead, it is open to you. -- Go free!| And when we consider the great principles which are thus practically confessed; when we consider the vast consequences which grow out of this; I think that little District School-house dilates, grows splendid, makes our hearts beat with admiration and gratitude, makes us resolve that at all events, that must stand; for, indeed, it is one of the noblest symbols of the Republic -- a sign and an instrument of a great people, having great power.

Or, if you would behold another of these symbols, go through this city, and pause wherever you hear the rumbling of the Printing-Press. As I have dwelt upon the characteristics of this great power in another place, I only allude to it here as a vehicle of that expression which is so essential to all genuine freedom of thought. Mere education is no evidence of this freedom. It may be made, it has been made in one of the most intelligent but despotic countries in Europe, an instrument for drilling the human mind into an absolute routine of state policy. Mere liberty of speculation is nothing, though it has the boundless firmament of abstraction for its own, so long as it is not allowed to strike the solid ground of fact or touch one organized abuse. Let us be thankful for a free-press -- the electric tongue of thought, which at every stroke is felt throughout a continent, which no dictator dares to chain, and over whose issues no censor sits in judgment -- or only that great censor, public opinion. Everybody is aware of its evil as well as its good -- the errors, the crudities, the abominations it sends out. But we must remember that it is only the representative, the voice, of elements that actually exist in human minds and bosoms; and, surely, it is better that they should come out into the free air, and be sprinkled by the chloride of truth, than to work darkly and infectiously out of sight. It is the hidden, not the open evil that is dangerous.

Or, still again, you might have seen a true symbol of the Republic in the spectacle which has been presented this very day -- the spectacle of a Free Worship. The great stream of religious impulse has poured through these streets, and separated into its rills of distinctive opinion, without trepidation and without challenge. Every man has had the opportunity to commune with his God, and approach the Cross of his Redeemer, with no established barriers between. Neither the cathedral nor the chapel rest upon the patronage of the state, but in the deep foundations of individual conviction. To be sure, here and there, there is a little assumption; but it is dramatic rather than substantial, and does not amount to much. Here and there breaks out an unjust prejudice or a spiteful calumny, but it shames the source more than the object, and soon dies away in the atmosphere of tolerance and investigation. It looks doubtful sometimes, but I verily believe that the real spirit, as well as the mere form of Religious equality, is beginning to prevail. Every day, it is more and more practically acknowledged that Christianity is profounder than any name, and exists under strange and despised names; that there really is decent observance in every church, and holy living in every communion; and a man finds that his neighbor has the same essence of righteousness as himself, though he has not half so many links in his creed. And something more than tolerance grows out of this practical liberty. It is not easy to measure the moral sincerity, the moral principle, which results from it; which is far more precious than mere intelligence; which is the perennial spring and assurance of national welfare.

But I proceed to observe, in the second place, that we may select as a symbol of the Republic -- a sign and an instrument of a great people, having great power -- whatever illustrates the principle of Political Equality. I am speaking, at present, not of our deficiencies, but of our possessions; not of the instances in which this doctrine of equality is practically contradicted, but of those in which it is practically acknowledged. The sovereignty of every man is a fundamental principle in our institutions; it is essential to the conception of a Republic; and so far as it is legitimately a Republic, we shall find this principle in operation. And, looking around for some extant symbol of this, let me select that which is the object of so much strife and agitation -- the Presidential Chair. I do not, by any means, consider this the most comfortable seat in the nation, or that the most deserving man is sure to get there; but, as an emblem, I believe it illustrates the noblest privileges, and the proudest supremacy, on the face of the globe. And I refer to it as a possibility for the poorest and humblest child in the land. No hereditary gallery leads to it -- only the broad road of the people. And, as the highest seat in the nation, it illustrates all the honors of the nation. They are possible to anybody. And I trust the time has not yet arrived when this can be said only by way of satire; can be true only because the waves of political corruption carry the meanest and unworthiest into office; but as a grand fact, a fact with which are involved the springs of our national greatness and power, it may be said that here there are no barriers of caste, no terms of descent, no depths so low that enterprise cannot rise out of them, no heights so exalted that genius cannot attain them; for, on a platform as level to the peasant's threshold as to the nabob's door, stand the judge's bench, the senator's seat, and the President's chair.

As another symbol of this political equality, I would name the Ballot-Box. I am aware that this is not everywhere a consistent symbol; but to a large degree it is so. I know what miserable associations cluster around this instrument of popular power. I know that the arena in which it stands is trodden into mire by the feet of reckless ambition and selfish greed. The wire-pulling and the bribing, the pitiful truckling and the grotesque compromises, the exaggeration and the detraction, the melo-dramatic issues and the sham patriotism, the party watch-words and the party nick-names, the schemes of the few paraded as the will of the many, the elevation of men whose only worth is in the votes they command -- vile men, whose hands you would not grasp in friendship, whose presence you would not tolerate by your fireside -- incompetent men, whose fitness is not in their capacity as functionaries, or legislators, but as organ pipes; the snatching at the slices and offal of office, the intemperance and the violence, the finesse and the falsehood, the gin and the glory; these are indeed but too closely identified with that political agitation which circles around the Ballot-Box. But, after all, they are not essential to it. They are only the masks of a genuine grandeur and importance. For it is a grand thing -- something which involves profound doctrines of Right -- something which has cost ages of effort and sacrifice -- it is a grand thing that here, at last, each voter has just the weight of one man; no more, no less; and the weakest, by virtue of his recognized manhood, is as strong as the mightiest. And consider, for a moment, what it is to cast a vote. It is the token of inestimable privileges, and involves the responsibilities of an hereditary trust. It has passed into your hands as a right, reaped from fields of suffering and blood. The grandeur of History is represented in your act. Men have wrought with pen and tongue, and pined in dungeons, and died on scaffolds, that you might obtain this symbol of freedom, and enjoy this consciousness of a sacred individuality. To the ballot have been transmitted, as it were, the dignity of the sceptre and the potency of the sword. And that which is so potent as a right, is also pregnant as a duty; a duty for the present and for the future. If you will, that folded leaf becomes a tongue of justice, a voice of order, a force of imperial law; securing rights, abolishing abuses, erecting new institutions of truth and love. And, however you will, it is the expression of a solemn responsibility, the exercise of an immeasurable power for good or for evil, now and hereafter. It is the medium through which you act upon your country -- the organic nerve which incorporates you with its life and welfare. There is no agent with which the possibilities of the Republic are more intimately involved, none upon which we can fall back with more confidence, than the Ballot-Box.

But there is a symbol which represents the power and greatness of a Republic more significantly than all the rest, and is comprehensive of all the rest. It is the fruit of unfettered thought and political equality, of intelligence and virtue, of private sovereignty and public duty -- it is a free, true, harmonious Man. As the crown or the sceptre is the symbol of a Monarchy; as heraldic honors are the symbols of an Oligarchy; so, I repeat, the most expressive symbol of a Republic is a man -- a man free in limb and soul, a man intelligent and self-governed, a man whose spiritual vision is clear, and in whose breast the voice of conscience is peremptory, with whom the conception of duties is deeper even than the conception of rights; in short, a man who embodies all the elements, and represents to the world the best results of Liberty. Laws are nothing, institutions are nothing, national power and greatness are nothing, save as they assist the Moral purpose of God in the development of humanity. To this test we must bring the symbols of the Republic, and judge whether they are fitting and consistent. No matter what else they accomplish, no matter what else they signify, if they do not serve this end they are either incomplete instruments, or vain forms. For, Man is of more worth than Institutions; Religion is greater than politics; and the designs of Providence are wider than the cycles of National destiny.

I turn, then, to the signs of our own national greatness; I turn to these symbols of spiritual freedom and political equality; and I ask -- how completely do they develop this most significant symbol of all -- how completely do they serve the purposes of God in History -- by securing the welfare, the culture, the moral elevation of humanity? And the reply is -- that, by our institutions and our endeavors, these ends have been served in various ways. There is here, to-day, a more enlightened, free, self-governed humanity -- and we say it without arrogance -- than anywhere else on the globe. Our benefits are of the kind that are not realized, because they are so great and familiar -- like the light and the air; but take them away, or transfer us to some other atmosphere, and how we should miss them, and pine and dwindle! Let no man, in his zeal for bold rebuke or needed reform, overlook what has been done, and what is enjoyed here, as to the noblest results of national greatness and power.

But every sincere man must say likewise that, with us, the possibilities are far greater than the performance; that these symbols are the splendid tokens of what may be, rather than what is. And, that I may bring this discourse to a practical conclusion, let me say that two things, at least, are necessary to convert these possibilities into the noblest achievement.

In the first place, it is essential that every citizen of the republic should recognize his own manhood; the sacredness of his own personality; and should recognize this especially in relation to his duties, which are inextricably involved with his rights. For here it is true in a special sense, that the mass is but an aggregate of personalities -- that public sin is but the projection of your sin and mine. A man will often say that he is responsible to his country, and responsible to his constituents; but upon no claim, by no sophistry, should he suffer himself to forget that he is also responsible to his God. He does forget this, when he acts for political interests, and as one of a party, as he never would act in his private affairs. And does he suppose that there is a corporate vice, or virtue, differing from his private vice or virtue, as a gentleman's purse differs from the public fund? There is no such distinction in moral qualities. It is your own coin that helps swell the amount; it bears your stamp, and you are responsible for the product. If the party lies, then you are guilty of falsehood. If the party -- as is very likely -- does a mean thing, then you do it. It is surely so, so far as you are one of the party, and go with it in its action. God does not take account of parties; party names are not known in that court of Divine Judgment; but your name and mine are on the books there. There is no such thing -- and this is true, perhaps, in more senses than one -- there is no such thing as a party conscience. It is individual conscience that is implicated. Party! Party! Ah! my friends, here is the influence which, it is to be feared, balks and falsifies many of these glorious symbols. Men rally round musty epithets. They take up issues which have no more relation to the deep, vital, throbbing interest of the time, than they have to the fashions of our grandfathers. They parade high-sounding principles to cover selfish ends; interpret the Constitution by a doctrine of loaves and fishes; while individual independence and private conviction are whirled away in the political maelstrom, and the party-badge is reverenced and hugged as the African reverences and hugs his fetish. And surely it is a case for congratulation, when some great, exciting question breaks out and jars these conventional idols, and so sweeps and shatters these party organizations and turns them topsy-turvy, that a man is shaken out of his harness, does not know exactly what party he does belong to, and begins to feel that he has a soul of his own. I am not denying the use and the necessity of parties as instruments, but protest against them as ends, especially when principle is smothered under their platforms, and they absorb the moral personality of a man.

It may not seem so strange that the political field should so often be the field of a lax and depressed morality, when we consider that here is the great theatre where human ambition struggles for its aims; here are enlisted the strongest passions of the soul; here throng some of its fiercest temptations; here the stakes played for are the kingdoms of this world, and the glory of them. And this, I suppose, is the reason why the most authentic type of human depravity is a thoroughly unprincipled politician. Such an instance, at least, may strike us more forcibly, because we see the perversion of great faculties, and capabilities are contrasted with performance; while, on the other hand he may be confirmed in his moral bankruptcy by the fact that, in playing upon the passions of men he sees the worst side of humanity. But, surely, there have been those who passed this ordeal, and came out with brighter lustre; who have kept the eye of conscience elevated above the ecliptic of political routine; who have made politics identical with lofty duties and great principles; whose patriotism was not a clamorous catch-word, but a breathing inspiration, a silent heart-fire. In private life they have felt the great privilege of their citizenship; the magnitude of the obligation which bound them to virtue and to consistency; while, in public life, they have kept their trust firm as steel, bright as gold; have felt, with due balance on either side, the beatings of the popular heart and the dictates of the everlasting Right; and in themselves have represented the union of liberty and law, the real greatness of a nation. Without such men, the nation has no greatness; for its significance and its power are in the moral worth of its citizens.

The second condition necessary to the fulfilment of the great results indicated by these symbols, is consistent action upon the ideas that constitute the basis of our own institutions. If many of the privileges and peculiarities which I have specified in this discourse are possessed by other nations, in one respect we differ from them all. These privileges and peculiarities are legitimately ours. They have not been grafted on hereditary antagonisms. They have not grown up in spite of our institutions, but as the fruit of our institutions. These ideas, entwined with the very roots of our Republic, shooting through every fibre, running into every limb, bind us to a recognition of human brotherhood; to sympathy with Liberty wherever it struggles; and to stedfast opposition to whatever crushes the rights, hinders the development, or denies the humanity of man. If these symbols of the Republic mean anything, they mean just this; and whatever is inconsistent with this, is inconsistent with the terms of our national birthright. Depend upon it, not the assertion of Liberty, but whatever is opposed to Liberty, is the innovating and agitating element in this country. It interrupts the legitimate current of our destiny. It shocks the popular heart with inconsistency. It becomes mixed with the ashes of the old heroes, and the land keeps heaving with the fermentation. One assumption is too impudent, too nakedly in contradiction with the fundamental ideas of our Republic ever to be admitted -- the assumption that the man who speaks for freedom, who sympathizes with the broadest doctrine of human rights, and sets around these the eternal barriers of justice, is an innovator and an agitator. I ask -- what made our Revolution legitimate? What were the central ideas that throbbed in the breasts of its heroes and martyrs? Take down the old muskets bent in the hot encounter, and printed with many a death-gripe; take down the old uniforms, clipped by Hessian sabres and torn by British bullets; take down the dusty muster-rolls, scrawled with those venerable names -- names that now |are graven on the stone,| names that are buried in the sod, names that have gone up to immortality -- and ask, for what was this great struggle? Was it not for freedom, based upon the conception of the right and supremacy of freedom? And is this the legitimate conclusion of that sublime postulate -- this other Fact which, never retreating, always advancing, follows the steps of Freedom over the continent like a shadow, looms up like a phantom against the Rocky Mountains, and darkens the fairest waters? On the contrary, is not Freedom that old truth, that conceded premise that does not agitate? Liberty, Human Rights, Universal Brotherhood, was it not for these ideas ye fought -- was it not these ye planted in the soil, and laid with the corner-stone of our institutions? My friends, I know, and you know, could those men give palpable sign and representation, the answer that would come, as in one quick flash from bayonet to bayonet, in one long roll of drums, from Lexington to Yorktown.

These peculiar privileges, then, to which I have referred, differ from those of other nations inasmuch as they are not grafted expedients, but legitimate fruits. Unless we change the premises of our Republic, and shift the foils in our historical argument, these are necessary conclusions. They are necessary conclusions, if our symbols represent realities. Russia is consistent with its national idea. It pours forth its legions and moves to its work with a terrible consistency. And if we -- also a great people, having great power -- are equally consistent, we shall fall back upon no selfish conservatism, but aid whatever tends to fulfil the Providential purpose of our existence, and whatever helps and advances man.

One thing is certain. So long as any nation truly lives, it unfolds its specific idea and lives according to its original type. When it fails to do this, the sentence of decay is already written upon it. If it fails to illustrate God's purpose in its obedience, it illustrates His control in retribution. For there is nothing supreme, nothing finally triumphant, nothing of the last importance, but His Law. It penetrates, and oversweeps, and survives all charters and institutions and nationalities, like the infinite space that encompasses Alps and Andes, and planets and systems. It is this that successive generations illustrate. It is this that all history vindicates. If a nation runs parallel to this Divine Law, it is well; if false to its purpose and its control, down it goes. The prophet Isaiah, in one of the most terrific and sublime passages of the Bible, represents the king of Babylon, while passing into the under-world, saluted by departed rulers, by dead kings, rising from their shadowy thrones, and exclaiming, |Art thou become weak as we? Art thou become like unto us?| Thus has many a nation gone down to its doom. Shall it be so with this Republic, because false to its ideal? Shall it descend to the shades of perished pomp and greatness, and see Nineveh with dusty, hieroglyphic robes rising up to meet it; and Persia, with the empty wine-cup of its luxury; and Rome, with the shadow of universal empire on its discrowned head; and hear them say -- |Art thou become weak as we? Art thou become like unto us?|

My friends, I look at the eager enterprise, the young, hopeful vigor, the tides of possibility that flow through this great city; I look at the symbols of this Republic; and I cannot believe that such is to be the result. I look back upon our history, and cannot argue such a future from such a past. A great light lay upon the wake of those frail ships that bore our fathers hither; the wake of past ages, the following of good men's prayers and brave men's deeds, the mingling currents of martyr-blood and prophet-fire. And methinks, as they struck the shore, and met the savage wilderness, a Voice saluted them; a voice not of profane ambition and of selfish hope, but of Divine promise, intending Divine results -- proclaiming, |Thou art a great people, and hast great power.| And He will fulfil this prophecy, Who leads the course of history over the broad deep and through mysterious ways, and Who unfolds His own glory in the destinies of men.

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