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LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, The subject that is intended to occupy our attention this evening is designated “ liberty of conscience ;" and I wish, as far as I am able, to discuss it rather histori. cally than dogmatically-rather deriving illustrations from the facts of distant history, than from either the principles of philosophy or what may be called the reasoning of the logician.
The subject is in itself exceedingly interesting, well suited as a theme of discussion in the debating society, the forensic hall, or the schools of philosophy. It might occupy us profitably to set forth its rational congruity, to trace its application to religious sanctions and moral obligations, and to develope its relation to truth and righteousness in the progress of knowledge and sentiment. It is my design, however, to proceed more directly in the consideration of its practical influences.
It will be my sincere effort to avoid every thing like asperity in such discussions, whilst claiming liberty for myself, avoiding what might be considered the sacrifice of the liberties of others ; deeming it as much the duty of others to think for themselves as it is my duty, and as much their right to think in opposition to what I think, as I claim it to be my right to think as I do.
I do not need to tell my friends now present, that I am an ardent adherent of the Evangelical Alliance, and that I have the pleasure of associating in that confederacy, with men of very different sentiments, in some things, from those which I hold as a Nonconformist Dissenter. But if I thought that I sacrificed the principle of that Alliance by my presence here, and my engagements this evening, I should either renounce that connexion or give up the work in which I am now employed. I trust, therefore, that you will receive every thing I say as designed to be uttered in the spirit of charity and good-will.
I come this evening not to discuss the subject of liberty in general. Liberty has been the theme of the poet in his most rapturous songs. Liberty has been the subject of the orator in his most exalted declamations. And liberty, too, has oft times occupied the pen of the historian. All men are ready to boast of their liberty, or to declare their adherence to its principles.
The patriot has bled, suffered ignominy, imprisonment, or expatriation, and died for liberty, and has consecrated it with his expiring breath, as a legacy to his country and posterity. Liberty is dear to all who ever enjoyed its wholesome atmosphere; and it is only not dear to those who are ignorant of its blessings. I am not, therefore, required to discuss that subject.
There is, besides, what may be called political liberty,where there is freedom to discuss a political or social right, as well as to seek to establish it, and to maintain its enjoyment;- the liberty of the philosopher and the liberty of the historian. The liberty of the philosopher is liberty to pursue any particular subject which he may consider attractive, or useful, or fitted to expand his own mind—to pursue philosophical studies to their utmost stretch, and to propound what he may count his philosophical discoveries without fear of punishment. It required liberty for the philosopher to trace
LIBERTY OF PHILOSOPHY.
yonder starry firmament, and to mark the movements of the glorious orbs of light which traverse its extent; to listen to the sweet harmony of the spheres, and to give forth from the depth of his soul the sweet melody of that harmony as it responded from his profoundest thoughts. You all remember that Galileo, who traced in the relations of the heavenly bodies the orbit in which the earth moves, and its position as a planet to the sun, was exposed to the persecution of the Inquisition, was brought under its terrors, and induced, by the fear of its more appalling and cruel torture, its dark and horrid dungeon, to sign his retraction of the philosophy he had discovered. But yet the yearning of the philosophical mind broke out in aspirations for liberty, and after he had signed the document, looking up in mental agony he muttered, “Still, it moves-it moves.” Desiring to please the powers that then ruled, he yet was constrained by his convictions of the truth to utter this sentence, and yield homage to liberty. I remember when Sir Humphrey Davy's safety lamp was first exhibited in Austria, a more modern illustration of this liberty. It was presented to the emperor, and the person who described it, represented it as the discovery of a philosopher in England, who had produced a great revolution in science. “Revolution," said the emperor, “the King of England should not suffer that man to remain in his dominions, or else keep him under surveillance. The man that will produce a revolution in science, is very likely to produce a revolution in politics." I hold, however, whatever be the offence to men, either religious, as in the case of the Inquisition, or political, as in the case of the Emperor of Austria, the philosopher ought to be at liberty to pursue, not only his studies and discoveries, but also to choose the best nieans of promulgating them, and making men know what things are, and how they exist. Liberty of history is something different from liberty of philosophy ; and I rather think that in our day the historian has not yet fully attained to that liberty. It is not long -- no, not long ago — that the liberty of the historian has been enjoyed, even in happy England. It is a singular fact, that till recently, the man who would venture to tell the truth, in the annals of his beloved country, and to set forth the true character of the men and the times of past ages, was sure to meet with obloquy from those who had patronage—was sure to meet with neglect from those who ought to have countenanced truth and liberty, and that his works sunk as it were into obscurity, because he ventured to exercise the liberty of the historian. The historians, till very modern times have been shall I say bribed ?-I may say fettered and restrained ; and so of consequence we have only faintly heard the mutterings of truth on one side, while on the other, the swelling billows of prejudice have roared, as with the voice of many waters, to drown the sentiments and the testimony of truth and liberty. I remember some years ago writing to a friend, who was the editor of a quarterly review, congratulating him on the appearance of an article that he had prepared for that review. It was a sort of sketch of the character of Oliver Cromwell. I had understood it was his intention to follow
that sketch with a whole-length portrait-with a biography of the great protector. He replied, that he was indeed so engaged, but that he had issued the article to which I had referred rather as a feeler, with some reserve, than as a full and correct index of the thoughts he had on the subject. He was desirous of ascertaining what the judgment and tendency of the community were, before he would venture so far as to give all that he thought of the great Oliver Cromwell.
And he said he was sorry to find, by communications made to himself, that the public were not prepared to appreciate a just estimate of the virtues and achievements of the Protector of England.