The miscellaneous essays and occasional writings of Francis Hopkinson, Esq. Volume I[-III].
Hopkinson, Francis, 1737-1791.
Page  13

* ON PEACE, LIBERTY, AND INDEPENDENCE.

THE present topic of conversation, the ob|ject of universal attention, and the idols before which the unthinking multitude prostrate them|selves in superstitious adoration, are the late most glorious peace, as it is called, and the freedom and independence of the United States of America established thereby. Peace, liberty, and indepen|dence, have been echoed from one end of this great continent to the other, and their praises set to e|very note in the scale of music: they have been be|prosed, and be-rhymed, and be-fiddled out of all measure, and out of all tune, as if the prosperity— nay, the salvation of our country, had no other foundation whereon to rest.

FOR my part, I do not find myself disposed to throw my judgement into the common stock, to be Page  14 carried down by the undistinguishing current of popular opinion—Peace, liberty, and independence! Very pretty words indeed; they look exceedingly well on paper; whether they be written in round hand, Italian hand, square text, German text, or a|ny other text, provided they be fairly written. This may please the eye; but let us consider a little how they will satisfy the understanding; how far they are calculated to meet the approbation of an inqui|sitive, penetrating mind: and this will best be as|certained by taking a view of the consequences and effects which they are likely to produce.

AS to the first—Can any thing be more absurd than to suppose that peace is really productive of happiness? Is not the contrary demonstrable? Let us, for a moment, imagine that all the inhabitants of the world should remain for a whole century in perfect peace and harmony. That no such thing as public war, or private quarrels, should exist in that period, a situation, to be sure not pos|sible, nature having wisely ordered matters other|wise; but suppose it to be so, What would be the consequence? The uninterrupted friendly inter|course between nations by commerce, and between individuals by contract, would soon reduce the wealth of the world to a level. All emulation would cease, and every spur to industry be blunted, Page  15 or done away. Luxury and insolence would, like a general plague, infect communities, and spread their baneful influences every where. The course of human life, running on in even channels and an unbroken calm, would become insupport|ably tedious, and engender green melancholy, and four discontent, unless accidental discoveries of artificial gratifications, for artificial appetites, should now and then occasion some slight varia|tions in the disgusting scene, by affording a tem|porary but fatal relief. A miserable corruption of morals, debauchery, and consequent languor and disease, would reduce the human species to a state of degeneracy; insomuch, that for aught I know, a second deluge would be necessary to purge the earth of its filthy inhabitants. No, it is war— spirited war, the clashing of interests, interfer|ing passions, public contests, and private animosi|ties, that give energy to the pursuits of men, and furnish a theatre whereon the heroic virtues of the heart, and the active powers of the mind, may ex|hibit themselves to advantage. Look round, and you will find that nature, in all her works, shews a fondness for contest, having made opposition the life of the world. What is animal health but a due mixture of contending qualities? Solids melting into fluids, and fluids coagulating into so|lids; acids and alkalies maintaining perpetual war, and rushing together in esservesing conflict; vio|lent Page  16 intestine motions from fermentation and diges|tion; muscles contracted by muscles, pulling in opposite directions, and every property balanced by another of a contrary nature: let all this in|ternal conflict be composed; let the animal mi|crocosm be in perfect peace, and the certain con|sequence will be death and putrefaction. So also in the elements: showers of rain, storms of wind, thunder and lightning, are absolutely necessary in the oeconomy of our atmosphere. Without these, the healthful air would soon become a pestilential vapour, and the vast ocean, a stagnant pool of corruption. It is manifest, therefore, that nature delights in contest; and never intended that either the moral, or material world should remain in un|interrupted peace.

AS to liberty, it is difficult to say in what it really consists. Men having not yet affixed any precise idea to the word. The people of different coun|tries have very different notions of it. What a European would call liberty, a Cherokee Indian would consider as a most cruel restraint. If the word be taken in its fullest extent, viz. a right and power to do whatever we please, it is a privilege which no man ever did or could enjoy; an imagi|nary state of nature, in which men are supposed to have lived without control, and in which every Page  17 individual was a sovereign, has served as the foun|dation of many ingenious systems, and learned dis|sertations, by civilians, moralists, and metaphysici|ans; but even these profound philosophers are so far from esteeming such a state a blessing, that they derive all the advantages of civil society, and the good of mankind from a resignation of this natu|ral liberty, which they assure us is altogether in|compatible with the security and happiness of the individual.

BUT if we take the word in a more limited sense, as it is generally considered, when the terms civil or political liberty are used, I would ask, what are the great advantages derived from it? or, rather, what inconveniences does it not bring with it? Civil liberty consists, chiefly, in a people's being go|verned by no laws, but such as they have themselves made or assented to; in not being obliged to part with their property without their consent; and in holding their lives and estates secure from the ca|pricious resentments of arbitrary power, or the grasping hand of over-weening avarice: but should not a prudent man consider that all this liberty brings with it a deal of trouble and expence?

HAD Great-Britain succceded in her views with respect to this country, we should not have been Page  18 put to the laborious task of framing laws for our own government, a task which we seem but in|differently qualified to perform; we should have been rid of the intolerable plague, the heart-burn|ings, feuds, cabals, and chicaneries attending popu|lar elections, and we should have been eased of the enormous expence of assemblymen's wages, com|missions, fees and salaries to the officers of govern|ment, and a thousand other charges and inconve|niences to which we must now be subjected: we should have had nothing more to do, but to pay when called upon, and obey when commanded. This further consideration ought also to have some weight, that if we had been cruelly and unjustly oppressed by a people three thousand miles off, all the world would have pitied our situation, which is no small consolation in trouble, and exclaimed against the tyranny of our oppressors: whereas, should things go wrong now, we shall have none to blame but ourselves▪ and when we complain, the natural answer will be, if you have placed men in power who abuse their trust, it is your own fault:—why did you not make a better choice? Your sufferings are the effect of your own folly, and therefore you deserve no pity. These are se|rious considerations. As to property being secured by political liberty, I would observe that this is a position more specious perhaps than true. The Page  19 payment of no taxes, but such as are levied by our own consent, form a pretty arrangement of words and ideas; but, strictly speaking, the fact is seldom really so. No man pays a tax with his own con|sent, that is, he would rather not pay it, if he could refuse with honour and safety. The payment of taxes is always attended with some reluctance of mind, and often with open murmurings and com|plaints, either as to the time, purpose, or propor|tion of the tax. The case is quite otherwise when money is taken from us by the strong hand of ar|bitrary power: all reasoning, all deliberation is out of the question—we have nothing to do but pay—and so the mind is saved a deal of trouble and vexation. This paying may, indeed, have a ten|dency to poverty—and so much the better; for poverty incites industry, and industry is the mother of health and contentment.

TO illustrate my meaning by a familiar instance: suppose a traveller meets a friend on the road, who requests him to give or lend him a small sum of money for a present purpose: the traveller he|sitates; he cannot decently refuse; and yet he would rather the request had not been made: in this conflict his mind suffers no small anxie|ty. But should a highwayman present a pistol to his breast, and with oaths and imprecations de|mand Page  20 his cash, with what chearfulness, with what expedition will he produce his purse? and think himself happy in coming off so well.

WITH respect to life's not being secure under a despotic government, I have only to observe, that no one can justly complain of an injury he ne|ver suffered; and that after the evil hath hap|pened, the party will not be in a condition to complain. So much for civil liberty.

BUT independence, cries the American; What have you to say against independence? The glory of our country, the reward of our va|lour, and the fruit of our seven years sufferings, and bloody contest. This is mere popular excla|mation. Let us view the thing in its true light, and we shall find that all the disadvantages atten|ding civil liberty, some of which I have enume|rated, are applicable to independence, together with many additional consequences.

WHILST we were dependent upon Great Bri|tain, we had no trouble in studying the characters, customs, and manners of foreign nations; the English were so kind as to furnish us with all their ideas on these subjects. They told us, that the French are a trifling and contemptible nation; Page  21 that the Spaniards are proud, sullen, and re|vengeful; the Germans, ostentatious; the Ho|landers, boors; the Russians, savages; and, in short, that the English were themselves the only people fit to live and govern the word, as if all other nations held their dominions by usurpation. How easy was it to believe all this? Implicit faith saves an infinity of trouble. How happy were we in submitting to the government, adopting the prejudices, and aping the manners of a nation, which we conceived to be the glory of the world, and the perfection of human nature?

WHEREAS, now, we are under the painful ne|cessity of altering our sentiments. We are compel|led by actual experience to acknowledge, that the French are a brave, generous, and polished peo|ple: and that none of the other nations are, in truth, such as they have been represented to us. Our commercial connections will convince us that human nature is fundamentally the same in every country. That good and bad men are to be found in every climate; and that the people of England have not actually monopolized all the virtue and wisdom of the world. Every convic|tion of error, is a violence done to the mind, in|asmuch as the forcible eradication of a preju|dice Page  22 must be attended with a painful sensation. The blind man is happy in his blindness, and the ignorant content with his ignorance. The wisest of men, has some where told us, that the en|crease of wisdom is the encrease of sorrow.

ANOTHER inconvenience attending our indepen|dence is this—The imposts and duties heretofore laid on our commerce, contributed to the revenue of a prince three thousand miles distant, it was therefore not thought disreputable for the mer|chant to evade the payment of those duties, if he could. How delightful was it to exercise every species of ingenuity and craft in bilking collectors and customhouse officers! And how sweet was the enjoyment of the profits so obtained! But our independence has deprived us of all these commercial advantages; as it would be dishonour|ble, and even wicked, to evade the duties laid by our own laws, and for the support of our own go|vernment.

I have now discharged my conscience, and shall leave the decisi•• to your own judgments. If, notwithstanding all I have said, and all I might have said, you will be so blind as to prefer a state of freedom, with all its cares and troubles, to a state of dependence and slavery, which requires nothing but implicit faith, and implicit obedience: Page  23 if you will persist in maintaining a right to make your own laws, and levy your own taxes, al|though a foreign power so kindly offers to take this trouble off your hands, you must e'en abide by the consequence, and enjoy the event as well as you can.