ON THE ABSURDITY OF UNALTERA∣BLE ESTABLISHMENTS. FROM PRIESTLY ON GOVERNMENT.
HIGHLY as we think of the wisdom of our ancestors, we justly think ourselves, of the present-age, wiser, and, if we be not blinded by Page 93the prejudice of education, must see, that we can, in many respects, improve upon the institutions they have transmitted to us. Let us not doubt, but that every generation in posterity will be as much superior to us in political, and in all kinds of knowledge, and that they will be able to im∣prove upon the best civil institutions that we can prescribe for them. Instead then of adding to the difficulties which we ourselves find, in making the improvements we wish to introduce, let us make this great and desireable work easier to them than it has been to us.
However, such is the progress of knowledge, and the enlargement of the human mind, that, in future time, notwithstanding all obstructions thrown in the way of human genius, men of great and exalted views will undoubtedly arise, who will see through, and detest our narrow politics; when the ill-advisers, and ill-advised authous of these illiberal and contracted schemes, will be re∣membered with infamy and execration: When notwithstanding their talents as statesmen or wri∣ters, and though they may have pursued the same mind enslaving schemes by more artful and less sanguinary methods, they will be ranked among the Bonners and Gardeners of past ages; they must have been worse than Bonners and Garden∣ers, who could pursue the same ends by the same means, in this more humane and more enlighten∣ed age.
England hath hitherto taken the lead, in almost every thing, great and good, and her citizens stand foremost in the annals of fame, as having shaken off the fetters which hung upon the human mind, and called it forth to the exertion of its noblest powers. And her constitution has been so far from receiving any injury from the efforts of these her free-born enterprising sons, that she is in part, indebted to them for the unrivalled repu∣tation Page 94she now enjoys, of having the best system of policy in Europe. After weathering so many real storms, let us not quit the helm at the appre∣hension of imaginary dangers, but steadily hold on in what, I trust, is the most glorious course that a government can be in. Let all the friends of li∣berty and human nature join to free the minds of men from the shackles of narrow and impolitic laws. Let us be free ourselves, and leave the blessings of freedom to our posterity.
In short, it seems to have been the intention of Divine Providence, that mankind should be, as far as possible, self-taught; that we should attain to every thing excellent and useful, as the result of our own experience and observation; that our judgment should be formed by the appearances which, are presented to them, and our hearts in∣structed by their own feelings. But by the unna∣tural system of rigid, unalterable establishments, we put it out of our power to instruct ourselves, or to derive any advantage from the lights we ac∣quire from experience and observation; and there∣by, as far as in our power, we counteract the kind intentions of the Deity in the constitution of the world, and in providing for a state of constant, though slow improvement in every thing.
In spite of all the fetters we can lay upon the human mind, notwithstanding all possible discou∣ragements in the way of free enquiry, knowledge of all kinds will encrease. The wisdom of one generation will be folly in the next. And that, though we have seen this verified in the history of near two thousand years, we persist in the absurd maxim of making a preceding generation dictate to a succeeding one, which is the same thing as making the foolish instruct the wise; for what is a lower degree of wisdom but comparatively folly?
Were any more laws restraining the liberty of the press in force, it is impossible to say how far Page 95they might be construed to extend. Those already in being are more than are requisite, and inconsist∣ent with the interests of truth. Were they to ex∣tend further, every author would lie at the mercy of the ministers of state, who might condemn, in∣discriminately, upon some pretence or other, every work that gave them umbrage; under such cir∣cumstances; might fall some of the greatest and noblest productions of the human mind, if such works could be produced in those circumstances. For, if men of genius knew they could not pub∣lish the discoveries they made, they would not give free scope to their faculties, in making and pursuing those discoveries. It is the thought of publication, and the prospect of fame, which is generally the great incentive to men of genius to exert their faculties, in attempting the untrodden paths of speculation. In those unhappy circum∣stances, writers would entertain a dread of every new subject. No man could safely indulge him∣self in any thing bold, enterprising, and out of the vulgar road; and in all publications we should see a timidity incompatable with the spirit of disco∣very. If any towering genius should arise in those unfavourable circumstances, a Newton in the na∣tural world; or a Locke, a Hutchinson, a Clarke, or a Harley in the moral, the only effectual method to prevent their defusing a spirit of enterprize or innovation, which is natural to such great souls, could be no other than that which Tarquin so sig∣nificantly expressed, by taking off the heads of all those poppies which overlooked the rest. Such men could not but be dangerous, and give umbrage in a country, where it was the maxim of the go∣vernment, that every thing of importance should for ever remain unalterably fixed.