The Bible And The Presidency

Galatians 3:23 “Brethren, ye have been called unto liberty: only use not liberty for an occasion to the flesh.” 

We are in the midst of the quadrennial Presidential excitement, and this Sabbath morning and next Sabbath morning as a Christian patriot I have some earnest words to address you. I have no partisan fetter on either hand or either foot. I get my instructions neither from Chicago nor Cincinnati, but from the throne of God.

It is a fortunate thing that in this country we are not tempted as ministers of religion by governmental patronage. In some lands, the Church is supported by the State. St. Peter’s at Rome has cost the government two hundred millions of dollars. Xerxes took from the Temple of Belus a hundred millions of dollars. The English Government pays annually to the Archbishop of Canterbury seventy-five thousand dollars salary, seven hundred and seventy thousand to all the bishops, and eighteen thousand of her clergy are supported by government. In this country we have less temptation to surrender private judgment to State dictation. Still there is a mighty pressure brought to bear upon ministers of religion here to make them think this way or that, vote this way or that, preach this way or that; but they must rise out of all such prejudices, and higher than any instructions from their congregations, or from the printing-press, and take their commission from the Lord.

There is in my text one word that stirs the blood of every genuine man. That is, LIBERTY. “Brethren, ye have been called unto liberty.” That word was written during the reign of Nero, the tyrant, detested of all ages; going incognito through the streets at night for the mere pleasure of robbing passengers; bedaubing Christians with tar and pitch and setting them on o fire to light up the parks; kicking his wife until she died; ordering his own mother to be assassinated, and then committing suicide. Of course under such a tyrant the word liberty cost Paul his head; but while the emperor slew the man, the word was indestructible, and it has remained the most arousing and revolutionary word of the ages. It got into the Magna Charta and England was free; into the Declaration of American Independence, and started our nation on its high career; into the speech of Garibaldi and the pronunciamento of Victor Emanuel, and Italy shook off the dust of the grave; into France, and overthrew the Napoleonic dynasty; under a hundred despotic thrones, and will keep them rocking until they fall flat. It took hold of the printing-press and broke off its shackle, and made it the mightiest agency for intelligence and evangelization the world has ever known. And that word will keep on its rounds until in all the earth there will not be a tyrant’s scepter or a slave’s chain or an oppressed workman or a benighted intellect.

Liberty for the State. Liberty for the Church. Liberty for the printing-press. Liberty for the pulpit. Liberty for the platform. Liberty for all continents, all islands, all zones, all ages. “Brethren, ye have been called unto liberty.”

But there is not only in my text a driving-wheel, there is a brake; not only an inspiration, but a limitation. “Brethren, ye have been called unto liberty: only use not liberty for an occasion to the flesh.” Liberty, but not wild license. Liberty, but not moral recklessness.

First, I charge you, so far as I have any influence as your pastor and teacher, that while you exercise full liberty in political discussion, you do not surrender to the spirit of license which shows itself in slanderous implications of public men. Take down the newspaper files of the last eighty years, and you will find that, in presidential elections especially, the public seemed to have felt that they were called upon for wide abuse of dignitaries. All those men who have gone up into the gallery of national and political saint- hood, while they lived went chin deep through the slush of lampoonery and pasquinade, and there was no exception. Thomas Paine wrote and published a letter to George Washington, in which he said:  “Treacherous in all private friendship, and a hypocrite in public morals, the world will be puzzled to know whether we had better call you an apostate or an impostor, and whether you abandoned good morals or never had any.” All that about Washington! John Quincy Adams consoled himself with the fact that he had not more misrepresentation and scandal to endure than his father, John Adams, and declared that in that Presidential election it seemed as if there were men who did nothing but manufacture lies about him. On the 4th of March, 1801, the day on which Thomas Jefferson was inaugurated as President of the United States, the Sentinel, of Boston, wrote this derisive epitaph:  “Yesterday expired, deeply regretted by millions of grateful Americans, and by all good men, the Federal administration of the government of the United States; animated by Washington, Adams, Hamilton, Knox, Pickering, McHenry, Marshall, Stoddard, and Dexter, aged twelve years. Its death was occasioned by the secret arts and open violence of foreign and domestic demagogues. As one tribute of gratitude during these times, this monument to the talents and service of the deceased is raised by the Sentinel.”

During the candidacy of Andrew Jackson for the Presidency of the United States, the whole country was flooded with coffin handbills representing six dead men, referring to the fact that General Jackson had during the war ordered six militiamen shot for desertion, and in other places he was pictorialized as he entered the Presidential chair as receiving his scepter from the devil. President Martin Van Buren was always caricatured in his time as a rat. Thomas H. Benton and Amos Kendall were pictorialized as robbers hurling a battering-ram against the door of the United States bank.

Last summer, in a museum at Put-in-Bay, Ohio, I saw a prominent newspaper, published in 1844, which represented Henry Clay as a libertine, a murderer, and a gambler; and how much that man endured from the public may be inferred from his eulogy of Kentucky: “When I seemed to be assailed by all the rest of the world, she interposed her broad and impenetrable shield, repelled the poisoned shafts that were aimed for my destruction, and vindicated my good name from every malignant and unfounded aspersion.” On the same ticket with Henry Clay ran Theodore Frelinghuysen, called in those times “the vinegar-faced Presbyterian,” although a more genial man never lived.
From political assault and neglect Daniel Webster died of a broken heart at Marshfield. At the time of his nomination, the derisive cry was, “Who is James K. Polk?” although he had been a long while in the councils of the nation and Speaker of the House of Representatives. I will tell you, at this late age of the world, who James K. Polk was. He was the man who annexed Texas, one of the richest States of the Union, and, more than any other man of this century, made it possible for us to own everything between the Atlantic and the Pacific coast. And yet, during his administration, there were millions of men who never spoke of him but with a sneer of contempt.

Those of you who are in mid-life remember the obloquy thrown upon Abraham Lincoln. “The Filthy Joker,” “The Wholesale Butcher,” “The Buffoon,” “The Gorilla of the White House,” the more refined epithets and more gentle of those used in regard to him. The others I cannot quote. All these great men of the past have been apotheosized, and they have gone into history honored and radiant.

But we are now busy with the old business of base travesty. We have our dictionaries down, hunting up some new term of political denunciation. Two men are nominated for President of the United States in our time, both of them eminent, the one in the field, and the other in the councils of the nation, and so far as I know, both of them good.
Now, I would like to gather up all the anathemas about the first man I mentioned and put them in a grave, and lift a monument with this epitaph : “Here rest the large family of Republican falsehoods. Requiescat in Pace.” Then I would like to gather up all the anathemas about the other man, and put them in a grave, and lift a monument with this epitaph : “Here rest the great family of Democratic falsehoods. Requiescat in Pace.” Do you think that by maligning the men of the opposite party you can forward your own ? I tell you no. There is in human nature something that puts it in sympathy with the traduced. Falsehood does more harm to the one who utters it than to the one against whom it is uttered. If I had a scale delicate enough to weigh defamation, I would tell you in one minute who will positively be the next President of the United States. I would take all the scurrility about the one candidate and put it on one side the scales, and I would take all the scurrility about the other candidate and put it on the other side the scales — scurrility against scurrility — and having found out which was the heavier, I would make a very good prophecy.

The fact is, that when a man is up for any office in Brooklyn, New York, or the United States, he becomes a target. The fact that he is up seems to be proof that he ought to be brought down! We put all his public affairs and all his private affairs under scrutiny, and we turn on the electric lights, and if there be anything that we can twist into seeming wrongdoing, there are multitudes of people as much delighted as though they had discovered a new star or found a new invention. And the air now, in this country— the air is full of carrion crows scenting carcasses. Caw! Caw! Caw !

And in this connection let me say that there are newspapers in the United States which seem to mistake wild license for liberty. There are some newspapers whose whole business is calumny. Their columns are stuffed with it, their editorials reek with it, they seem to demand that their reportorial corps shall bring home chiefly putrefaction. They would give more for one quillful of filth than a hogsheadful of healthy product. They tip the end of the city sewer into their editorial inkstands. They breakfast and dine and sup on indecency. They roll in it, swine in the mire. Those unclean political and literary wretches write with a quill not plucked from the stupid goose, or the sublime eagle, but from the turkey-buzzard. Ghouls ! Ghouls! The only alleviating fact is that it sometimes produces a recoil of righteousness, or a reaction. The best commendation some men can have is to have certain papers assail them. Their assault is a positive eulogy. I want no better commendation of certain men than that certain papers are antagonistic to them. Such papers are bad enough at other times, but in Presidential elections they quadruple their wickedness. The time will come when respectable men will not patronize such papers, will not be seen having them in their hand; and when literary and political sins cease to pay, then the publications will cease. Have nothing to do, pen, tongue, or type, with slanderous malediction of public men. Can it be possible that any of you are so dim of sight that you cannot see in this great national contest there are tremendous principles involved? I call you away from the work of the political scavenger to the work of the Christian patriot.

The best commendation some men can have is to have certain papers assail them.

You see in this first sermon of the two sermons I am to preach on the Presidential contest, I have two designs: the one to bring you away from slanderous implications of public men, and the other to concentrate your attention upon the best way of obliterating sectional antipathies. You and I ought to do our best for this country. There are three reasons why: our fathers’ graves, our own cradle, our children’s birthright.

When I say your fathers’ graves, your pulses run quicker. Whether they sleep in city cemetery or in village graveyard, their ashes are precious to you. They lived well and they died right. You will not submit to have their tombs dishonored by the reign of any government other than that under which they lived and died. Then, this land has been our cradle. It may have rocked us roughly, but it was a good cradle to be rocked in. Oh, how much we owe it. Dear land of our boyhood and girlhood days! And it is to be our children’s birthright. We will soon be through with it. We will see only a few more of the blossoms of the spring, we will gather only a few more of the harvests of the summer, we will pluck only a little more of the fruits of the autumn; but our children, they must get it from us as we got it from our fathers — a free land, a happy land, a Christian land. We cannot have them trodden of despotisms or lashed of cruelties or affrighted of anarchy. We must hand this country to them over the ballot-box, over the school desk, over the church altar, and charge them to put their life between it and any keen stroke that would destroy it.

And thou, Lord God Almighty, we lay hold of thee in a thousand –armed prayer. Remember our fathers’ bleeding feet at Valley Forge. Remember Marion and Kosciusko. Remember the hunger and the cold and the thirst, the long march and the fever hospital. Remember the fearful charge up Bunker Hill. Remember Lexington and Yorktown and King’s Mountain and Gettysburg. Remember the lake where Perry fought, and the Hampton Roads where the Cumberland went down. Remember Washington’s prayer by the camp-fire. Remember Plymouth Rock and the landing among the savages. Remember Independence Hall, and how much it cost our fathers to sign their names. Remember all the tears and the blood of three wars—1776, 1812, 1861. Remember a groan that was mightier than all other groans, a thirst that stung worse than any other thirst, a death that was ghastlier than all other deaths — the mount on which Jesus died to make all men happy and free. And for the sake of all this sacrifice, human and divine, deliver this nation, O God! And whosoever would blot it out, and whosoever would cut it down, and whosoever would turn it back, let him be accursed.

Preached by Thomas De Witt Talmage during the Presidential campaign preceding the 1880 election.

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