Friday, April 23, 2010

Limits of Civil Authority

Daniel Webster developed his love for penknives at an early age. In fact, Master James Tappan, one of Daniel’s first schoolteachers, told the story of how Daniel received his first penknife:

Daniel was always the brightest boy in the school. . . . He would learn more in five minutes than any other boy in five hours. . . . One Saturday, I remember, I held up a handsome new jack-knife to the scholars and said the boy who would commit to memory the greatest number of verses in the Bible by Monday morning should have it. Many of the boys did well; but when it came to Daniel’s turn to recite, I found that he had committed so much [to memory] that after hearing him repeat some sixty or seventy verses, I was obliged to give up, he telling me [still] that there were several chapters yet that he had learned. Daniel got that jack-knife.

Daniel Webster learned early to love the Bible, and his love for that Book never waned. In fact, on the Fourth of July, 1851, the year before his death, Webster stood just outside the Capitol on its east side and delivered the speech at the laying of the cornerstone for the additions to the Capitol that have now become the current chambers for the House and the Senate. Speaking to the thousands gathered there at the Capitol that day, Webster summed up not only what he had believed throughout his life but also what he believed must continue to be part of America’s public policy. He explained:

Man is not only an intellectual but he is also a religious being, and his religious feelings and habits require cultivation. Let the religious element in man’s nature be neglected – let him be influenced by no higher motives than low self-interest, and subjected to no stronger restraint than the limits of civil authority – and he becomes the creature of selfish passion or blind fanaticism. The spectacle of a nation [France], powerful and enlightened, but without Christian faith, has been presented . . . as a warning beacon for the nations. On the other hand, the cultivation of the religious sentiment represses licentiousness, incites to general benevolence and the practical acknowledgment of the brotherhood of man, inspires respect for law and order, and gives strength to the whole social fabric.

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