Imágenes de páginas
PDF
EPUB

there are others who leap a little too easily to the opposite of whatever is old and established, adopting, as their motto, the very reverse of that maxim — "Whatever is, is wrong." Sir, there are men here who seem to find their sole and sufficient reason for attacking any principle or any practice, in the mere fact that it did not originate in their day, or was not the offspring of their own brain ; — who, while they profess great respect for the wisdom of their fathers, place no dependence upon any but their own;- who seem to consider our Government, its institutions and its principles, free, prosperous, and pure though they be, as the subjects, — not of the whole people's sober enjoyment, but of their own fanciful experiments; and who hunt out the imperfections which are inseparable from all human works, with the same eagerness and zeal with which sportsmen run down their game, — not for any advantage to others, but only to enjoy their own agility and skill.

For one, Sir, I care not in what age, before the flood or since, any practice or any principle drew breath, or with what barbarous systems it was once intermingled ; if it be good in itself, and works well in our own system, it is all that can be asked. Our own Massachusetts Bill of Rights contains more than one article from an instrument more than six hundred years old, and almost in the very words in which it was extorted from the lips of King John at Runnymede by his brave though barbarous barons. But do we rely on those articles any the less confidently on that account, or sleep any the less soundly under their protecting influence ?

But there is one thing which antiquity affords, which even the gentleman himself must acknowledge to be valuable, experience - experience - a teacher compared with which the brainspun theories of men are but stumbling-blocks and foolishness; and let me say that neither industry nor ingenuity have been able to torture from her any response in favor of this bill.

And now, Mr. Speaker, I beg leave to recall the attention of the House to the real reason of the existing rule of law as to this inquiry into a man's religious belief, as it is falsely called. Gentlemen seem to regard it as an independent and arbitrary rule, established for no other purpose than to exclude atheists from the witness-stand. This is wholly false.

This is wholly false. An atheist is not excluded simply because he is an atheist. There is another most material and massy link in the chain which shuts him out. The rule of law is now, and has been for centuries, that no testimony shall be received in courts of justice except under the sanction of an oath ; - a rule which has never been relaxed except in favor of the Quakers, whose conscientious scruples about oaths have stood the test of two centuries of trial, and, during a part of the time, of the sharpest persecution. But an atheist cannot take an oath, and that, not because he has any conscientious scruples about swearing, but because he has no God to swear by. There is nothing in his breast upon which the obligations of an oath can take hold. Its terms are wholly unmeaning to him — its sanctions wholly unbinding upon him. He cannot, therefore, as he must, if he give it at all, give testimony under oath. It is the oath, then, and not his religious belief, which excludes him.

And here, Sir, I advance this proposition, — that so long as oaths are administered in our courts, so long it is essential to the ends of justice that this right of inquiry should be maintained ;

and so long it is the religious duty of society to maintain it. Why, what is an oath, and in what consists the taking of an oath? Is it the mere stepping upon a stand to be seen of men, the assumption of an arbitrary attitude, and the repetition of a formula of words to render one liable to the pains and penalties of perjury? I fear it is too often considered so. I have often regretted the hasty and careless manner in which oaths are administered and taken. I have often desired that some change might be made, which would assign to the taker something more than a mere raising of the hand and a bending of the head. But what is an oath? It is a religious obligation, and, in taking it, a man is supposed to lift himself above the level of men, and to speak, as it were, in the presence of God, to raise, not only his hand, but his heart, to heaven, — to invoke the attestation of God to truth, and to imprecate his vengeance upon falsehood.

Seriously considered, Sir, there is no more awful act performed by man on earth than this. No form of prayer or of

sacrament surpasses it in solemnity. And is it not the right, then, is it not the imperative duty, of society, to take good heed that it be not lightly or vainly administered ? Nay, does not society make its officers, (and through them, itself,) not only witnesses, but parties, to the most shocking mockery, to the most profane blasphemy, by suffering oaths to be administered to those who deny the existence of the God in whose name they are couched ?

Gentlemen will tell me, that the second section of this bill will provide against such an event. But wide as that section reaches, extraordinary and extravagant as its provisions are, allowing every man to affirm who may object to being sworn, whether his objection arise from conscience or from caprice, whether from a weak superstition, or from a wicked design to escape the imprecation of Divine wrath upon a deliberate and premeditated perjury, - it does not go far enough to prevent the profanation to which I have referred.

Suppose, Sir, a bold and barefaced infidel, an open and notorious infidel, to be summoned as a witness in our courts, and that, declining to avail himself of the privilege of the second section of this bill, and resisting all inquiry into his religious belief under the first, he should insist, for the mere purpose of ridiculing religion and mocking God, or for any other reason you choose, on having the oath administered to him, - is there any thing in this bill, or out of it, if the bill passes, to hinder him from doing so? Nothing. And if gentlemen tell me that I suppose an extreme case, I reply that it is an extreme case in more senses of the word than one, and that the very possibility of its occurrence ought to be scrupulously guarded against. And to this end, until all oaths are abolished, the right of inquiry which this bill proposes to do away, must be preserved.

Again, Sir, I maintain that the right of inquiry is essential to the ends of justice. Why are oaths administered at all? Is it not because they are believed to have peculiar efficacy to elicit and extort truth from those who might otherwise speak falsely ? And is it not a mere imposition on both judges and jury, and a most gross injustice to those interested in any suit, to introduce testimony under the form of an oath, without giving them the

means of knowing whether it were taken by one who was capable of feeling its force, or by one to whom it was mere mummery and jargon ? And how but by this very inquiry can such knowledge be ascertained ? I repeat the proposition, then, that while oaths continue to be administered, it is essential to the ends of justice, as well as a religious duty of society, to maintain the right of making this inquiry. If the second section of this bill be adopted, it is not difficult to foresee that oaths will be in a considerable degree discontinued in our courts, but if the first section prevail they ought forthwith to be entirely abolished.

And here, Mr. Speaker, we are brought to the question, whether we are willing, either in whole or in part, to give up oaths as the instruments of investigation in our courts of justice? Are we ready to substitute, as the sanctions of testimony on which not only the properties, but the liberties and lives of men may depend, the uncertain and merely momentary penalties of man, for the sure and fearful looking-for of Divine judgment? I appeal to those who haply may be something more than witnesses in our courts, - to those who, by some turn of fortune, by some sudden heat of passion in their own breasts, or of prejudice or persecution in the breasts of others, may, as any one of us may, stand one day or other at the bar of their country, with the awful issue to be determined whether they shall stand next at the bar of their God. Are they quite willing to take men as they come, under the influence of such motives as happen to be uppermost in their minds, and to unseal those lips upon which the name of the God of Truth never rested but in derision or as a curse? For myself, Sir, I must bow to the decision of the majority, but I protest while I can, against one hair of my head being harmed, against one day of my life being cut off or doomed to darkness, upon the mock oath or even the conscientious affirmation of an atheist.

I must be pardoned, Sir, if I put no faith in him who puts no faith in his God,- if I refuse to risk all that is valuable to me here, upon the word of one who knows nothing valuable hereafter. It may be called bigotry or intolerance, or what you please. When I regard infidelity as a state of mind wholly independent of the

sacrament surpasses it in solemnity. And is it not the right, then, is it not the imperative duty, of society, to take good heed that it be not lightly or vainly administered ? Nay, does not society make its officers, (and through them, itself,) not only witnesses, but parties, to the most shocking mockery, to the most profane blasphemy, by suffering oaths to be administered to those who deny the existence of the God in whose name they are couched?

Gentlemen will tell me, that the second section of this bill will provide against such an event. But wide as that section reaches, extraordinary and extravagant as its provisions are, allowing every man to affirm who may object to being sworn, whether his objection arise from conscience or from caprice, whether from a weak superstition, or from a wicked design to escape the imprecation of Divine wrath upon a deliberate and premeditated perjury, — it does not go far enough to prevent the profanation to which I have referred.

Suppose, Sir, a bold and barefaced infidel, an open and notorious infidel, to be summoned as a witness in our courts, and that, declining to avail himself of the privilege of the second section of this bill, and resisting all inquiry into his religious belief under the first, he should insist, for the mere purpose of ridiculing religion and mocking God, or for any other reason you choose, on having the oath administered to him,- is there any thing in this bill, or out of it, if the bill passes, to binder him from doing so? Nothing. And if gentlemen tell me that I suppose an extreme case, I reply that it is an extreme case in more senses of the word than one, and that the very possibility of its occurrence ought to be scrupulously guarded against. And to this end, until all oaths are abolished, the right of inquiry which this bill proposes to do away, must be preserved.

Again, Sir, I maintain that the right of inquiry is essential to the ends of justice. Why are oaths administered at all? Is it not because they are believed to have peculiar efficacy to elicit and extort truth from those who might otherwise speak falsely? And is it not a mere imposition on both judges and jury, and a most gross injustice to those interested in any suit, to introduce testimony under the form of an oath, without giving them the

« AnteriorContinuar »