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which ushers in the act, demonstrates, with unrivaled grandeur, and with the emphasis of mathematical certainty, the premises upon which the stupendous proposition was founded; “and the disciple of truth,” says a writer,” “on beholding this temple of refuge, must feel a holier awe from the magnificence of the vestibule.” Taking into consideration the infancy of political science, at that period, the feeble advances, in particular, which had been made on the subject of religious liberty, the bigoted adhesion of the mind to traditional scruples in spiritual concerns, and the high fermentation of the Church party, smarting under the recent loss of government power and patronage, the erection, by law, of this memorable bulwark of human freedom, may be regarded as the proudest triumph of reason and philosophy, of which that, or any other age, can boast. The following is the Preamble, with the accompanying Act.
“Whereas Almighty God hath created the mind free; that all attempts to influence it by temporal punishments or burthens, or by civil incapacitations, tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and are a departure from the plan of the Holy Author of our religion, who being Lord both of body and mind, yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either,as was in his Almighty power to do; that the impious presumption of legislators and rulers, civil as well as ecclesiastical, who, being themselves but fallible and uninspired men, have assumed dominion over the faith of others, setting up their own opinions and modes of thinking, as the only true and infallible, and as such, endeavoring to impose them on others, hath established and maintained false religions over the greatest part of the world, and through all time; that to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves, is sinful and tyrannical; that even the forcing him to support this or that teacher of his own religious persuasion, is depriving him of . the comfortable liberty of giving his contributions to the particular pastor,whose morals he would make his pattern, and whose powers he feels most persuasive to righteousness, and is withdrawing from the ministry those temporary rewards, which, proceeding from an approbation of their personal conduct, are an additional incitement to earnest and unremitting labors for the instruction of mankind; that our civil rights have no dependence upon our religious opinions, any more than our opinions in physics or geometry; that therefore the proscribing any citizen as unworthy the public confidence, by laying upon him an incapacity of being called to offices of trust and emolument, unless he profess or renounce this or that religious opinion, is depriving him injuriously of those privileges and advantages,
* S. H. Smith. -
to which in common with his fellow citizens he has a natural right; that it tends only to corrupt the principles of that religion it is meant to encourage, by bribing with a monopoly of worldly honors and emoluments, those who will externally profess and conform to it; yet though indeed these are criminal who do not withstand such temptation, yet neither are those innocent who lay the bait in their way; that to suffer the civil magistrate to intrude his powers into the field of opinion, and to restrain the profession or propagation of principles on supposition of their ill tendency, is a dangerous fallacy, which at once destroys all religious liberty, because he being of course judge of that tendency will make his opinions the rule of judgment, and approve or condemn the sentiments of others only as they shall square with or differ from his own; that it is time enough for the rightful purposes of civil government, for its officers to interfere when principles break out into overt acts against peace and good order; and finally, that truth is great and will prevail if left to herself, that she is the proper and sufficient antagonist to error, and has nothing to fear from the conflict, unless by human interposition disarmed of her natural weapons, free argument and debate, errors ceasing to be dangerous when it is permitted freely to contradict them :
“Be it enacted by the General Assembly, That no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry, whatsoever, nor shall beenforcedorestrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.
“And though we well know that this Assembly, elected by the people for the ordinary purposes of legislation only, have no power to restrain the acts of successive Assemblies, constituted with powers equal to our own, and that therefore to declare this act to be irrevocable would be of no effect in law; yet we are free to declare, and do declare, that the rights hereby asserted are of the natural rights of mankind, and that if any act should be hereafter passed to repeal the present, or to narrow its operation, such act will be an infringement of natural right.”
The above is the form in which it received the sanction of the Legislature, and varies somewhat from the original draught. ‘The variations,’ says the compiler of the Virginia statutes, ‘rend&ed the style less elegant, though they did not materially affect the sense.” The Bill was not acted upon until the year 1785, nor carried then, but with considerable difficulty.
“I had drawn it,” says the author, “in all the latitude of reason and right. It still met with opposition; but, with some mutilations
in the preamble, it was finally passed; and a singular proposition proved, that its protection of opinion was meant to be universal. Where the preamble declares, that coercion is a departure from the plan of the Holy Author of our religion, an amendment was proposed, by inserting the words “Jesus Christ, so that it should read, a departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the Holy Author of our religion; the insertion was rejected by a great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew, and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hin. doo, and Infidel of every denomination.” This celebrated Act has been the standing model of legislation for the security of religious freedom, in all parts of the Union, from that day to the present; and there is not, we believe, a State, that has legislated at all upon the subject, which has not incorporated, either in its Constitution, or its Statutory Code, the substance of its provisions, and, in some instances, its phraseology to a considerable eXtent. On its promulgation, in 1785, it excited unbounded admiration, and was copied into every newspaper, which made any pretensions to liberality, with enthusiastic comments. In Europe, it produced a considerable sensation. It was translated into all the principal languages, copied into the newspapers, reviews, and encyclopedias, and applauded beyond measure by the statesmen and philosophers of the ancient world. Mr. Jefferson was in France when the intelligence was received in Europe, resident Minister at the Court of Versailles; and in his private letters to America, of that date, frequent mention is made of the admiration expressed for the Act of Religious Freedom, and the Revised Code generally. In a letter to Mr. Wythe, dated Paris, August 13, 1786, he thus writes: “The European papers have announced, that the Assembly of Virginia were occupied on the revisal of their code of laws. This with some other similar intelligence, has contributed much to convince the people of Europe, that what the English papers are constantly publishing of our anarchy, is false; as they are sensible, that such a work is that of a people only, who are in perfect tranquillity. Our act for freedom of religion is extremely applauded. The ambassadors and ministers of the several nations of Europe, resident at this court, have asked of me copies of it, to send to their sovereigns, and it is inserted at full length in several books now in the press; among others, in the new Encyclopedie. I think it will produce considerable good, o in these countries, where ignorance,
superstition, poverty, and oppression of body and mind, in every form, are so firmly settled on the mass of the people, that their redemption from them can never be hoped. If all the sovereigns of Europe were to set themselves to work, to emancipate the minds of their subjects from their present ignorance and prejudices, and that, as zealously as they now endeavor the contrary, a thousand years would not place them on that high ground, on which our common people are now setting out. Ours could not have been so fairly placed under the control of the common sense of the people, had they not been separated from their parent stock, and kept from contamination, either from them, or the other people of the old world, by the intervention of so wide an ocean. To know the worth of this, one must see the want of it here.”
Again, in a letter to Mr. Madison, dated Paris, Dec. 16, 1786, he communicates the same information, in such a manner, that it loses no interest by the repetition.
“The Virginia act for religious freedom has been received with infinite approbation in Europe, and propagated with enthusiasm. I do not mean by the governments, but by the individuals who compose them. It has been translated into French and Italian, has been sent to most of the courts of Europe, and has been the best evidence of the falsehood of those reports, which stated us to be in anarchy. It is inserted in the new Encyclopedie, and is appearing in most of the publications respecting America. In fact, it is comfortable to see the standard of reason at length erected, after so many ages, during which the human mind has been held in vassalage by kings, priests, and nobles: and it is honorable for us to have produced the first legislature who had the courage to declare, that the reason of man may be trusted with the formation of
his own opinions.”
The next distinguishing and fundamental change recommended by the Revisal, regarded the freedom of the unhappy sons of Africa; and proposed, directly, the Emancipation of all Slaves born after the passage of the act. The Bill reported by the Revisors, did not itself contain this proposition; but an amendment containing it, was prepared, to be offered to the Legislature, whenever the bill should be taken up. “It was thought better,” says the Author, “that this should be kept back, and attempted only, by way of amendment.” It was further agreed, to embrace in the residuary proposition a clause, directing, that the after born Slaves should continue with their parents to a certain age, then be brought up at the public expense, to tillage, arts or sciences, according to their geniuses, till the females should be eighteen, and the males twenty-one years of age, when they should be colonized to such place as the circumstances of the time should render most proper, sending them out with arms, implements of household and the handicraft arts, seeds, pairs of the useful domestic animals, &c.; to declare them a free and independent people, and extend to them our alliance and protection, till they should have acquired strength; and to send vessels, at the same time, to other parts of the world for an equal number of white inhabitants, to induce whom to migrate thither, proper encourage. ments were to be proposed. But when the Bill was taken up by the Legislature, in 1785, neither Mr. Jefferson, nor Mr. Wythe, his chief coadjutor in the undertaking, were members; the former being absent on the Legation to France, and the latter, an officer of the judiciary department; so the contemplated amendment was not proposed, and the Bill passed unaltered, being a mere digest of the existing laws on the subject, without any intimation of a plan for future and general emancipation. If there was any one question connected with the freedom and happiness of mankind, on which the genius of Mr. Jefferson kindled into an extravagance, seemingly incompatible with sobriety and right reason, it was that of the Emancipation of Slaves. It was hardly possible for him, as he declared, to write and be temperate on the subject. The quotations already given to the reader, exhibit abundant evidence of the intensity with which he yearned, to use his own language, “for the moment of delivery to this oppressed description of men.” The following vehement exhortation was penned in France, on learning the passage of the Slave Bill, in Virginia, without the adoption of his concerted amendment. “What a stupendous, what an incomprehensible machine is man' who can endure toil, famine, stripes, imprisonment, and death itself, in vindication of his own liberty, and, the next moment, be deaf to all those motives whose power supported him through his trial, and inflict on his fellow men a bondage, one hour of which is fraught with more misery, than ages of that which he rose in rebellion to oppose ! But we must await, with patience, the workings of an overruling Providence, and hope that that is preparing the deliverance of these our suffering brethren. When the measure of their tears shall be full, when their groans shall have involved heaven itself in darkness, doubtless a God of justice will awaken to their distress, and by diffusing light and liberality among their oppressors, or at length, by his exterminating thunder, man