67. Whither the Republic?

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A 72-page pamphlet by Moses Mather (1719-1806), entitled “America’s Appeal to the Impartial World,” which mounted a vigorous defense of American rights against Great Britain, was published in the spring of 1775 by Ebenezer Watson in Hartford, CT, and advertised for sale in the April 3 edition of Watson’s paper, The Connecticut Courant. Mather, a native of Lyme, CT and a Yale College graduate, was ordained a Congregational minister in 1744. The pastor of the Congregational church in Darien, he later became an outspoken revolutionary and was imprisoned in 1779 and 1781 by British raiding parties from New York. After the war, he received a divinity degree from the College of New Jersey (today’s Princeton University) and continued his ministerial duties in Darien until his death.

In reading the above pamphlet, it struck me that one of his observations has particular relevance for this generation. Without seeking to make a partisan point (which would be at variance with the intent and purpose of this platform), I wanted to share the following, which I believe is especially deserving of our consideration:

Mather references the assertion of an anonymous “celebrated French writer, treating of the English, and the excellence of their constitution … that England could never lose its freedom, until parliament lost its virtue.”[1] It seems to me that we can contemporaneously echo that claim in regard to the status of American democracy going forward. We can never lose our freedom unless our government loses its virtue.

That point was essentially made by no less a luminary than the nation’s 16th president. On January 27, 1838, a youthful Abraham Lincoln, then a member of the Illinois General Assembly speaking before the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, opined as follows regarding any hypothetical threat to the republic:

At what point shall we expect the approach of danger? By what means shall we fortify against it? Shall we expect some transatlantic military giant, to step the Ocean, and crush us at a blow? Never! All the armies of Europe, Asia and Africa combined, with all the treasure of the earth (our own excepted) in their military chest; with a Bonaparte for a commander, could not by force, take a drink from the Ohio, or make a track on the Blue Ridge, in a trial of a thousand years.

At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach[es] us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.[2]

He and his generation would be forced to grapple with just such a challenge a little over two decades later.


[1] Gordon S. Wood, ed. The American Revolution: Writings from the Pamphlet Debate, 1773-1776. vol. 2 (New York: The Library of America, 2015), 598-599.

[2] Mario M. Cuomo and Harold Holzer, eds. Lincoln on Democracy (New York: A Cornelia & Michael Bessie Book, 1990), 16.