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Such was the state of the public mind, that though few dared to engage in the transaction, many more desired that it might be accomplished, and all, all permitted it to be done.
I would not be thought to imply, that I believe that the people of Massachusetts, or any considerable portion of them, would have deliberately sanctioned such an act. No; if it could have been previously put to vote, not one hand do I believe would have been held up in its favor, not even in Middlesex, or in Suffolk, or wherever the infected district was, - unless, indeed, by the perpetrators themselves. Upon nobody but them do I charge deliberate wrong, or malice aforethought. But we all know something of the influences by which events are brought to pass. Some men speak daggers which they will not use, - nay, which they may not intend or expect that any body else shall use. A few warmer and less prudent spirits take them at their word, and deal home the blow. If, Sir, as I am disposed to think, it was as common a thing before the 11th of August, to say, that "the Convent ought to come down," as it has been since to say, that
we are glad it is down,” reserving, perhaps, in this latter case, some faint and feeble salvo as to the manner of its destruction, it is only a wonder that it was permitted so long to cumber the ground on which it stood.
It is this view of the matter, Sir, which, to my mind, makes it reasonable that the whole community should contribute to repair the losses which have been sustained. Asleep in my bed, though I was, when the act was committed, I can hardly help feeling a personal share in its guilt, and would gladly contribute my proportion of the indemnity.
But we are told, Sir, that if we make an indemnification, or grant any gratuity, in this case, it will be recorded as a precedent, and will thus involve the State in endless responsibilities. Why, if it only be right, equitable, and just, to do this, the sooner it is recorded as a precedent, the better; and the more such precedents there are upon our records, the more will it be for the honor of the State, and the welfare of the people.
But do not gentlemen perceive the horror with which this idea is fraught; and what a fearful looking for in all time to come it implies ? Recorded as a precedent! This indemni. fication, or this gratuity, can never be fairly adduced as a precedent, except when the outrage itself has been followed as a precedent. And will gentlemen not only contemplate, but calculate, upon its recurrence? I can only say for one, Sir, that if I believed that this event were about to be a precedent in our history, and other acts of a similar character were about to be perpetrated within the borders of Massachusetts, I should be for plucking up at once such small stakes as I may have planted in her soil, for fleeing from the protection of her free and enlightened government, and for seeking shelter under any, the sternest tyranny, the darkest despotism on earth. Yes, upon the same principle that I would sooner pitch my tent at the foot of a volcano, whose friendly quake or monitory rumbling would warn me when its flames were about to burst above my head, than maintain a residence in one of your clear and balmy atmospheres, where ruin, ruin like this, might blaze down upon me at any moment, as lightning from a cloudless sky!
But, Mr. Speaker, if we are wise, if we do our duty, no such event will again occur. The fires of that fatal night have displayed to us our danger. They have made manifest the insufficiency of our laws and the insecurity of our possessions. They have shone in upon and illumined a fearful chasm in our system, yawning at our very feet; and if we do not neglect our duty, we shall fill it up, or bridge it over, before we quit these seats. Its first victims will thus be its last; and if we should pay them to the uttermost farthing of their loss, we shall have cheaply purchased the experience. *
But if the laws are to be left in their present impotent condition, let the House look well to another consideration. Do gentlemen flatter themselves that the Roman Catholics are to be the only sufferers ? Are there to be no losses but what light on their shoulders; no sighs but of their breathing; no tears but of their shedding? Sir, if the spirit of violence is to have free vent; if religious, or moral, or political intolerance is to rage unchecked ; if every now and then some portion of the people are to cry havoc, and let slip the brands of their vengeance upon the objects of their suspicion or their hate, who of us is safe? What one man is there in this House, or in this whole State, who may not be glad that such a precedent has been established ? If, Sir, we are to be warned out of our beds at midnight, and our wives and children sent shivering from beneath our blazing roofs, who is there that does not pray God that he may be able to point to a precedent somewhere, which shall ensure him a covering from the storm ?
* The Legislature of Massachusetts, in 1839, passed a Law making towns and cities responsible to the amount of three quarters of the value of any property within their limits destroyed by rioters.
In stating my views of this question, Mr. Speaker, I have thus far made little allusion to the particular character of the institution in question. I have no partiality for the Roman Catholic creed. I have no fondness for convents, or monastic institutions of any kind. I wish sincerely that not an inch of ground on the whole continent of America was covered by them. But this is no part of this question. Justice is no respecter of persons. Equity is blind and bandaged to all distinctions of creed as well as of condition.
But, as there are doubtless some members of the House who cannot rid themselves of the prejudice which the peculiar tenets of these petitioners are calculated to excite, I put to them one simple question. Do intolerance and persecution tend to eradicate heresy? Is this the maxim which history has taught us ? No! Persecution, if it does not crush at once, creates new strength; if it does not kill, it gives fresh life; and I call upon every individual in this assembly, who deprecates the spread of Roman Catholicism in this country, to disarm its propagators of the powerful weapon which persecution has now placed in their hands.
Mr. Speaker, I cannot conclude without presenting one more consideration to all who hear me. This act it is too late to prevent. It is already upon the records of the irrevocable past. And wherever the name of Massachusetts shall be known or heard in all ages to come, wherever the story of the Pilgrims, the struggles of the Colonists, or the great battles of Independence shall be described, there, also, this dreadful deed, with all its circumstances of cowardice and cruelty, will bear them company.
It is of a character never to be lost sight of by those who perpetuate the memory of human events. The poet will embalm it in deathless song. The novelist will embody it in immortal story. Will, do I say? He has already done so. Who is there, henceforth, who can read again the Abbot of Walter Scott, without thinking that the same spirit of superstition and bigotry, which revelled and rioted in that scene of moral and religious darkness, has risen again from its sleep of ages,
and having found no foothold among its ancient haunts, has crossed the wide-spread ocean to find, on the soil of free and enlightened Massachusetts, a stage for the reënactment of its terrible tragedies? And even on the page of history, sober and truth-telling history, softened and palliated as it may be by some fond and filial hand, it will still overtop the level of ordinary incident, and cast a deep shade over our brightest and proudest achievements.
In behalf, then, of this ancient Commonwealth, unused to any association but with the great and generous of the earth;in behalf of her living children, and in behalf of her dead fathers, whose names will be alike bound up with that of the State itself, for honor or dishonor, for glory or shame, in all future time;- I invoke this House to do something to rescue her from this otherwise inevitable reproach.
THE TESTIMONY OF INFIDELS.
A SPEECH DELIVERED IN THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES OF MASSA
CHUSETTS, FEBRUARY 11, 1836.
Allow me, Mr. Speaker, before entering upon the discussion of the general merits of the bill under consideration, to set the House right with regard to the laws of Connecticut upon this subject. That State has long enjoyed a most enviable reputation for holding fast to that which is good. And it was not, I confess, without some alarm that I heard her example appealed to in favor of the bill. But upon subsequent investigation, I am entirely willing that her example should be followed. She has passed no such law. Her last statute upon the subject, the statute of 1830, has carried her not a jot beyond the point at which our common law now stands. It declares every man to be a competent witness who believes in a Supreme Being, and our courts have declared the same.
But I wish not to rest my opposition to this bill upon either example or authority ; much less am I disposed to defend the present rule of law, merely because it happens to be an ancient rule. I agree with the gentleman from Gloucester, (Mr. Rantoul,) that principles are none the better for their antiquity. But let me remind him, too, that they are none the worse either. Let me remind him that there are at least two classes of minds in this House, with reference to this matter of antiquity. And that, while some may be disposed to adhere too blindly and cling too closely to whatever is old or established, adopting, as he says, the maxim of the poet — “ Whatever is,
“ Whatever is, is right," —