On Public Morality
To punish public outrages on morals and religion is unquestionably within the competence of rulers.   But when a government, not content with requiring decency, requires sanctity, it oversteps the bounds which mark its proper functions.   And it may be laid down as a universal rule that a government which attempts more than it ought will perform less.   A lawgiver who, in order to protect distressed borrowers, limits the rate of interest, either makes it impossible for the objects of his care to borrow at all, or places them at the mercy of the worst class of usurers.   A lawgiver who, from tenderness for laboring men, fixes the hours of their work and the amount of their wages, is certain to make them far more wretched then he found them.   And so a government which, not content with repressing scandalous excesses, demands from its subjects fervent and austere piety, will soon discover that, while attempting to render an impossible service to the cause of virtue, it has in truth only promoted vice.

For what are the means by which a government can effect its ends? Two only, reward and punishment; powerful means, indeed, for influencing the exterior act, but altogether impotent for the purpose of touching the heart.   A public functionary who is told that he will be promoted if he is a devout Catholic, and turned out of his place if he is not, will probably go to mass every morning, exclude meat from his table on Fridays, shrive himself regularly, and perhaps let his superiors know that he wears a hair shirt next his skin.   Under a Puritan government, a person who is apprised that piety is essential to thriving in the world will be strict in the observance of the Sunday, or, as he will call it, Sabbath, and will avoid a theatre as if it were plague stricken.   Such a show of religion as this the hope of gain and the fear of loss will produce, at a week's notice, in any abundance which a government may require.   But under this show, sensuality, ambition, avarice, and hatred retain unimpaired power, and the seeming convert has only added to the vices of a man of the world all the still darker vices which are engendered by the constant practice of dissimulation.   The truth cannot be long concealed.   The public discovers that the grave persons who are proposed to it as patterns are more utterly destitute of moral principle and of moral sensibility than avowed libertines.   It sees that there Pharisees are farther removed from real goodness than publicans and harlots.   And, as usual, it rushes to the extreme opposite to that which it quits.   It considers a high religious profession as a sure mark of meanness and depravity.   On the very first day on which the restraint of fear is taken away, and on which men can venture to say what they think, a frightful peal of blasphemy and ribaldry proclaims that the short-sighted policy which aimed at making a nation of saints has made a nation of scoffers...

We are by no means unmindful of the great debt which mankind owes to the Puritans..., the delivers of England, the founders of the American Commonwealths.   But in the day of their power, those men committed one great fault, which left deep and lasting traces in the national character and manners.   They mistook the end and overrated the force of government.   They determined, not merely to protect religion and public morals from insult, an object for which the civil sword, in discreet hands, may be beneficially employed, but to make the people committed to their rule truly devout.   Yet, if they had only reflected on events which they had themselves witnessed and in which they had themselves borne a great part, they would have seen what was likely to be the result of their enterprise.   They had lived under a government which, during a long course of years, did all that could be done, by lavish bounty and by rigorous punishment, to enforce conformity to the doctrine and discipline of the Church of England.   No person suspected of hostility to that church had the smallest chance of obtaining favor at the court of Charles.   Avowed dissent was punished by imprisonment, by ignominious exposure, by cruel mutilations, and by ruinous fines.   And the event had been that the Church had fallen, and had, in its fall, dragged down with it a monarchy which had stood six hundred years.   The Puritans might have learned, if from nothing else, yet from his own recent victory, that governments which attempt things beyond their reach are likely not merely to fail, but to produce an effect directly the opposite of that which they contemplate as desirable.

--from "Leigh Hunt"    

Previous | Front Page | Next