Law and Liberty--As Seen in 1804


A congregational minister in 1804 reflects on the balance of government and individual liberty.

Like all other blessings, which are our portion in this world, civil freedom is liable to gross perversion and abuse.  It is the nature of man to be dissatisfied with present advantages and to seek for those which are ideal; or which are incompatible with social and moral obligation...Without the restrictions of law and government, this important boon would become the scourge of mankind; and the world would be converted into a theatre of violence and blood.                                              --Alden Bradford, 1804

Alden Bradford was a descendant of William Bradford of Plymouth Colony and a Congregational Minister who in 1812 became Secretary of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.  You can read his full biography here.  He was one of the founders of the Massachusetts Bible Society in 1809. 

In 1804, on the fourth of July, he delivered an address in Wiscasset, Maine to commemorate American Independence.  While the full oration reflects some of the religious and social sentiments one might expect from a minister in 1804 (including a swipe at the Deism of then President Thomas Jefferson), his broader points are surprisingly relevant to the current political climate in America.  With tyranny on one side and extreme libertarianism on the other, Bradford tries to find the middle ground.

The original is difficult to read and available only in rare book collections, so I have transcribed it in full here for those who would like to spend time thinking about the proper balance between government and personal liberty.  Special thank you to the Cumberland (RI) Public Library for obtaining the copy for me.

Note:  Click here for definitions of his use of the word Republicanism.

Here follows An Oration, Pronounced at Wiscasset, on the Fourth of July, 1804, in Commemoration of American Independence. By Alden Bradford.  Wiscasset: Babson and Rust, 1804.  I have not included the publisher's commendation or the notes.


The great events which give interest to this day--which call for mutual gratulations among ourselves, and for our devout acknowledgements to heaven--are too well known to require particular recital.  One may behold many now present who were active in our late struggles for freedom, in the hazardous scenes connected with the Independence of our Country.  And those of us who bore no part in the magnanimous exertions and sacrifices, which, through the blessing of providence, preserved our civil liberties, have often heard the eventful story of the revolution from our aged Sires.  History has also taken charge of the subject; and faithfully records the interesting circumstances, which terminated in the establishment of our rights as an independent Nation.  Nor can the people of America ever forget the important period when our country indignantlyy opposed the tyranny of a foreign kingdom, and assumed the privileges, which heaven had destined we should enjoy.  It will always be a memorable era in the annals of our nation.

The principles which actuated the illustrious patriots of seventy-five, in defence of our civil liberties, we trust, are yet highly appreciated by the citizens of America.  The love of freedom we continue to cherish with sincerity and zeal.  Accustomed from our earliest years to enjoy the benefits and to approve the principles of a free government, we must look back with satisfaction and exultation to those perilous times, when the heroes of our country successfully resisted the encroachments of arbitrary power, and secured for themselves and posterity the rich blessings of national freedom and independence.  By the recollection of those important events, which this joyful anniversary brings to view, we are confirmed in our attachment to civil liberty, and our pious gratitude to heaven is excited for its favors toward us as a nation.

Liberty is our birth-right.  The inheritance is derived to us from our revered ancestors.  They were ever its zealous friends and advocates.  To these once wild and inhospitable shores, they voluntarily fled, that they might here enjoy its blessings, unmolested by the severe restraints of despotism.--And though attempts were frequently made to oppress and inslave them, they nobly stood forth in defence of their inestimable privileges; and heaven crowned their virtuous exertions with success.

We fully justify them in their zealous attachment to liberty: For we are not insensible of its value.  In the estimation of Americans, it ranks highest among social and political blessings.  We should consider no exertions too great to promote its interests, or to secure its benefits.  We have known and enjoyed so much of its privileges, that no considerations can induce us to relinquish them.  We should readily place our property and lives at hazard in defence of freedom, whenever invaded by the ruthless hand of tyranny.

But strong as is our affection for liberty and determined as we are to combat oppression and despotism, we are yet liable to the loss of our civil and political privileges.  And the danger is in truth the more alarming, as we appear ignorant of the means by which the evil will probably be effected.  From the open and direct attacks of tyranny, we have little to apprehend.  Our feelings would at once take the alarm; and we should make a bold and resolute stand against its progress.  But we are not sufficiently aware of the hazard, to which our liberty is exposed from the insiduous conduct of its pretended friends, and from our inattention to the means necessary to its preservation.

Like all other blessings, which are our portion in this world, civil freedom is liable to gross perversion and abuse.  It is the nature of man to be dissatisfied with present advantages and to seek for those which are ideal; or which are incompatible with social and moral obligation.  Impatient of reasonable and just restraints, and actuated by a spirit of insubmission to all external authority and power, we frequently oppose measures essential to the support of true freedom and the rights of our fellow-men.  We often imbible false opinions respecting the nature of civil liberty, which are productive of the most fatal consequences.  The extreme of liberty, for which many have contended, always leads to licentioiusness and anarchy; the evils of which are equally deleterious as those of the severest despotism.  Without the restrictions of law and government, this important boon would become the scourge of mankind; and the world would be converted into a theatre of violence and blood.

The liberty, which virtuous minds approve, is in perfect harmony with the rights of others, with the tranquility of society and the obligations of virtue.  Never did our illustrious ancestors disregard these considerations.  Never did they act in repugnance to such correct principles.  In their most zealous struggles to support the liberties of the country, the legitimate powers of government were respected and maintained.  Whilst they disdained to be the vassals of a despotic Prince, they were satisfied with the enjoyment of rational freedom, and anxiously guarded against licentiousness and insubordination.

If we be solicitous, at the present day, to preserve the blessings of our free, republican governments, we must, like our respected ancestors, guard against the abuse and the extreme of liberty; and contend for our rights as individual citizens, consistently with the authority of the Constitution and the laws.  Should we suffer our passions to be inflamed by groundless clamours, and pursue fallacious schemes of liberty, the consequences will prove destructive to the peace and happiness of the nation.  Popular governments, both in ancient and modern times, have been destroyed by the intrigues of a few aspiring individuals, who have imposed on the credulity and ignorance of the common people; and afterwards raised themselves to supreme power by trampling on the rights of those, for whose welfare they had professed particular regard.

From this quarter the real friends of republicanism have much to fear.  Calculating upon the jealousy of the people towards their Rulers, and their natural impatience under the restraints of government, the disappointed and ambitious excite unreasonable alarms in the minds of their fellow-citizens; and thus deprive them of confidence in their superiors and render them disaffected to the lawful authority of the state.  They deceive the people with wild theories of civil liberty altogether imaginary and impracticable.  The most viruous and worthy--men who have long been devoted to the good of the country--are represented as tyrants: And the public confidence is unustly transferred to those, whose merit consists in specious promises and professions.  And having obtained the good opinion of the people by boasting and flattery, their great object is, not to promote the interests, but to secure the favor of the public.  An occasion is thus presented for intrigue and corruption.  Integrity and virtue are neglected, and favors are lavished on the importunate and obsequious.  In the various contentions for power, true freedom is disregarded; and unlimited power is established in the person of some fortunate individual; or anarchy succeeds with all its horrid effects, leveling the barriers of government and rioting on the property and rights of mankind.

In ways and by means like these, if we may credit the most authentic histories, free governments have been overturned and the civil liberties of mankind destroyed.  The Republics of Greece and Rome were annihilated by the intrigues of ambitious individuals, whose thirst for power stimulated them to the most dishonorable and deceptive conduct.  The character of Magistrates regularly clothed with authority, were basely traduced; and specious promises bestowed on the people to obtain their affections and confidence.  And destitute as they were of real patriotism and virtue, upon their elevation to office, corruption and misery prevailed, and liberty was but an empty name.  The Jewish nation in ancient days, exhibited a similar picture of intrigue, of ambition and ingratitude.  The men, whom Jehovah had expressly delegated to govern, were censured and opposed in the faithful performance of their duty by those who coveted the powers of government for themselves.  The profligate Absolum [Absalom, King David's son], who aspired to the throne of his father, attempted to gain the object of his ambition by calumniating the virtuous monarch, and by deceiving the people with flattering professions of attachment to their welfare.

The like arts of delusion were put in requisition in the earliest period of our world, when the first human pair were placed in the delightful garden of Eden.  Though surrounded with all the blessings which their nature capacitated them to enjoy, and indulged with every favor which infinite wisdom and goodness saw fit to bestow, they suffered themselves to be beguiled from the abodes of happiness and peace by the plausible but false doctrines of the Prince of darkness, the enemy of all authority except his own, and the great disturber of the moral and intellectual world.  Assenting to his suggestions, that their freedom was arbitrarily abridged, and foolishly imagining that his directions would lead to greater degrees of felicity, they ungratefully rebelled against their lawful Soveriegn; and thus forfeited substantial good, and exposed themselves to all the evils of corrupt and unbridled passions.

In our own times, we have witnessed the dire mischiefs produced by an inordinate lust of power and by the influence of erroneous opinions respecting the rights of man.  We have seen the people of a great nation in Europe [France] become the dupes of designing men, who made uncommon pretences to patriotism merely with the view of promoting their own power and aggrandizement.  The cry of liberty and equality was reiterated to please the populace, at the same time that the most cruel deeds were perpetrated, and measures adopted most hostile to true freedom.  The infatuated multitude were made to believe they were free, whist impious tyrants, under the mask of republicanism, were riveting their chains more firmly than they were ever bound in the reign of monarchy.

The mistakes and errors of other countries afford to the people of America a useful and instructive lesson.  From their history, we may learn the danger and the evils, to which our republican governments are exposed.  Whilst we zealously cherish a love of freedom, which cannot indeed be too deeply rooted in our hearts, and firmly resist any usurpations and any arbitrary conduct of our rulers, it is necessary that we pay a sacred regard to the principles of the Constitution and to the lawful authority of government.  This is indispensible to the perfect enjoyment of our civil rights and privileges--Neither liberty, property nor life would be secure without the friendly aid of government.

That the people are the proper source of power, and that it is delegated from them to the magistrate for the security and advancement of the common good, is undoubtedly a just and correct position.  But nothing can be more dangerous to the true interests of freedom than the novel doctrine of new-fashioned republicans, that the hasty opinions of the populace are infallible; especially when imbibed under the influence of passions inflamed by artful men, and of misconceptions respecting the motives and conduct of their Rulers, in consequence of ungrounded and false reports.  Should we admit this opinion and practice conformably, our patriotic and upright rulers would be frequently censured for the most wise and salutary measures.  They would be driven from office by the breath of popular prejudice: and the doors of honor and profit burst open to those, who should stoop to the arts of flattery and deception.  The name, rather than the spirit of liberty would be regarded; and our free and happy governments gradually undermined by corruption and cabals.

To present such an unhappy state of things and to preserve the blessings of rational freedom, it becomes important that we give power and confidence to none but enlightened and virtuous characters, who can discern the best means of promoting the interests of the nation; and who possess patriotism and fortitude sufficient to pursue them.  We should frown upon the officious disturbers of the public harmony, and endeavor to check the baneful spirit of calumny and falsehood, which threatens the destruction of social order and good government.

It is requisite also to the preservation of true freedom, that the people be well informed and virtuous.  Free governments cannot long exist, unless morality and virtue generally prevail; and the people have information to distinguish between their real and pretended friends.  A corrupt and vicious people will be likely to elevate those of the same character to places of authority and power in the State: and heaven in its just visitations for their crimes will not permit them long to enjoy blessings, of which they shall have rendered themselves utterly unworthy.

It is importnat likewise to recollect that the principles and institutions of our holy religion afford a most happy influence in favor of civil liberty.--They are essential to the support of a pure morality:  And they have a tendency to strengthen all the benevolent and social affections, without which the privilege, we so highly value, would only prove an occasion for oppression, violence and outrage.  If we be anxious, then, to enjoy and to perpetuate the blessings of freedom, we must respect the religion of our fathers, and with sincerity conform to its divine precepts.

To accustom the irregular passions of youth to the wholesome restraints of reason and virtue--to inculcate on their expanding minds the necessity of subordination and obedience to their superiors--teaching them to respect the aged and to esteem the honorable--is another mean of incalculable advantage towards preserving the blessings of equal liberty to our country.  And here is an opportunity for the exercise of the talents and for the display of the virtues of the female sex.  On them principally devolve the labors of this painful, but pleasant duty.  And by their exertions directed to this important object, they will deserve well of their country, and prove that they are essential to the welfare of social, as well as to the happiness of domestic life.

But a correct and faithful view of the present state of manners in our country, would furnish a picture, I apprehend, in many respects the reverse of this.  Sufficient attention is not bestowed on these means of preserving our social and civil privileges.--To gain our affections and applause, the unprincipled politician flatters us with an exaggerated account of our virtues; and would persuade us to assent to the modern and dangerous opinion, that the profligate and immoral in private life are equally qualified to direct our national and public concerns, as the most deserving and worthy.  A more erroneous and mischievous sentiment was never, perhaps, suggested by the ingenuity of man.  For with all their professions of philanthropy, it is impossible that men destitute of moral principles and enemies to Christianity should ever be the friends of human happiness.  Our divine religion is also treated with scoffing opposition or silent disregard.  And in some instances the profane and impious are loaded with favors and clothed with the high authority of civil government.--Should evils like these increase--should irreligions and infidelity about--should merit be neglected and persecuted--should flattery and intrigue be the only means of securing the public favor--should hypocrisy and ambition under the garb of patriotism, enable men to ascend the heights of honor and power--we may bid farewell to the liberties of our country and to the blessings of true republicanism.  Nor does it require the spirit of prophecy to foresee, that should the ark of our freedom once be committed to the tempestuous sea of anarchy, it will be driven about by the storms of ambitious passions and finally buried in the gulph of despotism.

“Do I forbode impossible events
And tremble at vain dreams?  Heaven grant I may!
But th’ age of virtuous politics is past,
And we are deep in that of cold pretence.
Patriots are grown too shrewd to be sincere,
And we too wise to trust them.  He who takes
Deep in his soft credulity the stamp
Designed by loud declaimers on the part
Of liberty, themselves the slaves of lust,
Incurs derision for his easy faith
And lack of knowledge; and with cause enough
For when was public virtue to be found,
Where private was not?  Can he love the whole,
Who loves no part?  He be a nation’s friend,
Who is in truth the friend of no man there?
Can he be strenuous in his Country’s cause
Who slights the charities, for whose dear sake,
That Country, if at all, must be beloved.”
                        [William Cowper, The Task, Book V]

But with all these impressions of alarm--with all these presentiments of impending evils, it would ill become the friends of liberty and virtue to despair.  We still enjoy some evidences of the divine favor.  The altars of God are not yet profanely overturned.  Many remain in our Country who have not bowed the knee to Baal; nor have yet been persuaded to give up the glorious and consoling truths of christianity for wild theories engendered in the corrupt imaginations of men, tho' dignified with the name of Deism.

As in the former tranquil and happy days of our Country, we are still blest, we trust, with some Rulers of sincere patriotism and piety.  The present Cheif Magistrate of Massachusetts [Caleb Strong] would have been considered an ornament to the high office he sustains, even in the best days of the Commonwealth.

It belongs to us, fellow citizens, to respect the pure principles and the excellent characters of our fathers, who, under the smiles of heaven, secured to us our present invaluable privileges; and to aim at a faithful imitation of their civic and moral virtues.  We should anxiously appreciate the services of the illustrious Washington and his worthy co-adjutors in the cause of freedom, and live under the influence of their wise and excellent maxims.  Vain and ineffectual are our professions of attachment to liberty, if we do not subdue the unsocial and selfish passions, and cultivate patriotic and virtuous principles.  We should endeavour to check the violence of party contentions and to restore harmony to social intercourse, so far as is consistent with independent minds and our convictions of truth.  In a word, the great duty, which devolves on us as citizens and as christians, is to unite our exertions to arrest the progress of infidility and vice--to restrain the vile spirit of calumny--to disseminate correct principles of civil liberty--to oppose the swelling torrent of licentiousness--and to restore and perpetuate the triumphs of political truth and federal republicanism.

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