Page images



The right of defending ourselves against violence is easily deducible from the law of nature. There is, however, little need to deduce it, because mankind are at least sufficiently persuaded of its lawfulness. The question now most needful to discuss, is, whether every action whatever is lawful, provided it is necessary to the preservation of life? They who maintain the affirmative, maintain a great deal; for they maintain that, whenever life is endangered, all rules of morality are, as it respects the individual, suspended, annihilated, -every moral obligation is taken away by the single fact, that life is threatened.

Yet the language ordinarily held upon the subject, implies the supposition of all this. "If our lives,” says Grotius, "are threatened with assassination or open violence from the hands of robbers or enemies, any means of defence would be allowed and laudable.” “There is,” says Paley, “one case in which all extremities are justifiable, namely, when our life is assaulted, and it becomes necessary for our preservation to kill the assailant.” If any means of defence are laudable, if all extremities are justifiable, then they are not confined to acts of resistance against the assailing party. There may be other conditions upon which life may be preserved, than that of violence towards him. Some ruffians seize a man in the highway, and will kill him unless he will conduct them to his neighbor's property, and assist them in carrying it off. May this man unite with them in the robbery, in order to save his life, or may he not? If he may, what becomes of the law, Thou shalt not steal? If he may not, then not every means by which a man may preserve his life, is laudable or allowed. We have found an exception to the rule. There are twenty other wicked things which violent men may make the sole condition of not taking our lives. Do all wicked things become lawful because life is at stake? If not, such propositions as those of Grotius and Paley are untrue.

A pagan has unalterably resolved to offer me up in sacrifice on the morrow, unless I will acknowledge the deity of his gods, and worship them. The Christian must regard these acts as being, under every possible circumstance, unlawful. The night offers me an opportunity of assassinating him. Now I am placed in precisely the same situation, with respect to this man, as a traveller is with respect to a ruffian with a pistol. Life in both cases depends on killing the offender. Both are acts of self-defence. Am I at liberty to assassinate this man? Surely not. Here then is a case in which I may not take life in order to save my own. If any one doubts whether the assassination would be unlawful, let him consider whether an Apostle would have committed it in such a case.

[blocks in formation]

Here, at any rate, the heart of every man answers, No. And mark the reason because every man perceives that the act would have been palpably inconsistent with the Apostolic character, or, which is the same thing, with a Christian character.

Or put such a case in a somewhat different form. A furious Turk holds a scimetar over my head, and declares he will instantly despatch me, unless I adjure Christianity, and acknowledge the divine legation of " the prophet.” Now, there are two supposable ways in which I may save my life; one by contriving to stab the Turk, and one“ by denying Christ before men." You say I am not at liberty to deny Christ, but I am at liberty to stab the man. Why am I not at liberty to deny him? Because Christianity forbids it. Then we require you to show that Christianity does not forbid you to take his life. Our religion pronounces both actions to be wrong. You say that under these circumstances the killing is right. Where is your proof? What is the ground of your distinction? But, whether it can be adduced, or not, our immediate argument is established,—that there are some things which it is not lawful to do in orde to preserve our lives. This conclusion has indeed been practically acted upon. A company of inquisitors and their agents are about to conduct a good man to the stake. If he could by any means destroy these men, he might save his life. It is a question, therefore, of self-defence. Supposing these means to be within his power; supposing he could contrive a mine, and, by suddenly firing it, blow his persecutors into the air, would it be lawful and Christian thus to act ? No. The common judgments of mankind respecting the right temper and conduct of the martyr, pronounce it to be wrong. The conclusion, therefore, again is, that all extremities are not allowable in order to preserve life; that there is a limit to the right of selfdefence.

It would be to no purpose to say, that in some of these instances religious duties interfere with and limit the right of self-defence. Religious duties and moral duties are identical in point of obligation, for they are imposed by one authority. Religious duties are not obligatory for any other reason than that which attaches to moral duties also, namely, the will of God. He who violates the moral law, is as truly unfaithful in his allegiance to God, as he who denies Christ before men. So that we come at last to one single and simple question, whether taking the life of a person who threatens ours, is or is not compatible with the moral law. We refer for an answer to the broad principles of Christian piety and Chris

benevolence; that piety which reposes habitual confidence in the Divine Providence, and an habitual preference of futurity to the present time; and that benevolence which not only loves our neighbors as ourselves, but feels that the Samaritan or the enemy is a neighbor. There is no conjuncture in which the exercise of this benevolence may be suspended; none in which we are not required to maintain and practise it. Whether want implores our compassion, or ingratitude returns ills for our kindness; whether a fellow-creature is drowning in a river, or assailing us on the highway; every where, and under all circumstances, the duty remains.

Is killing an assailant, then, within or without the limits of this benevolence? As to the man, it is evident that no good-will is exercised towards him by shooting him through the head. Who indeed will dispute that, before we can destroy him, benevolence towards him must be excluded from our minds? We not only exercise no benevolence ourselves, but preclude him from receiving it from any human heart; and, which is a serious item in the account, we cut him off from all possibility of reformation. Is this an act that accords, and is congruous, with Christian love?

But an argument has been attempted here. “ That ve may kill the assailant,” says Paley, “is evident in a state of nature, unless it can be shown that we are bound to prefer the aggressor's life to our own, that is to say, to love our enemy better than ourselves; which can never be a debt of justice, nor any where appears to be a duty of charity." The answer is, that, although we may not be required to love our enemy better than ourselves, we are required to love him as ourselves; and therefore, in the supposed case, it would still be a question equally balanced, which life ought to be sacrificed; for it is quite clear, that if we kill the assailant, we love him less than ourselves, which does seem to militate against a duty of charity. But the truth is, that he who, from motives of obedience to the will of God, spares the aggressor's life even to the endangering of his own, does exercise love both to the

aggressor and to himself perfectly ; to the aggressor, because by sparing his life, we give him the opportunity of repentance and amendment; to himself, because every act of obedience to God is perfect benevolence towards ourselves; it is consulting and promoting our most valuable interests; it is propitiating the favor of him who is emphatically “ rich rewarder.” So that the question remains as before, not whether we shall love our enemy better than ourselves, but whether Christian principles are acted upon in destroying him; and if they are not, whether we should prefer Christianity to ourselves, -whether we should be willing to lose our life for Christ's sake and the gospel's.

And, after all, if it were granted that a person is at liberty to take an assailant's life, in order to preserve his own, how is he to know, in the majority of instances, whether his own would be taken? When a man breaks into a person's house, and this person shoots him, we are not to be told that the man was killed “in defence of life.” Or go a step further, and a step further still, by which the intention of the robber to commit personal violence, or inflict death, is more and more probable; you must at last shoot him in uncertainty whether your life was endangered or not. Besides, you can withdraw, you can fly. But perhaps you exclaim, « Fly! Ay, and leave my property unprotected!” Yes, unless you mean to say that preservation of property, as well as preservation of life, makes it lawful to kill an offender. This were to adopt a new and a very different proposition; but a proposition

which I suspect cannot be separated in practice from the former. He who affirms that he may kill another in order to preserve his life, and may endanger his own life in order to protect his property, does in reality affirm that he may kill another in order to preserve his property. But such a proposition no one surely will tolerate. The laws of the land do not admit it, but require that we should be tender even of the murderer's life, and fly rather than destroy it.

The conclusion, then, is, that he who kills another, even in selfdefence, does not do it in the exercise of Christian dispositions, in conformity with the Christian law. But this is very far from concluding, that no resistance may be made to aggression. We may make, and ought to make, a great deal. It is the duty of the civil magistrate to repress the viclence of one man towards another; and consequently it is the duty of the individual, when the civil power cannot operate, to endeavor to repress it himself. Many kinds of resistance to aggression come strictly within the fulfilment of the law of benevolence. He who, by securing or temporarily disabling a man, prevents him from committing an act of great turpitude, is certainly his benefactor; and if he be thus reserved for justice, the benevolence is great both to him and to the public. It is an act of much kindness to a bad man to secure him for the penalties of the law; or it would be such, if penal law were in the state in which it ought to be, and to which it appears to be making some approaches. It would then be very probable that the man would be reformed; and this is the greatest benefit both to him and the community.

The exercise of Christian forbearance towards violent men is not tantamount to an invitation of outrage. Cowardice is one thing; this forbearance is another. The man of true forbearance is of all men the least cowardly. It requires courage in a greater degree and of a higher order, to practise it when life is threatened, than to draw a sword, or fire å pistol. No; it is the peculiar privilege of Christian virtue to approve itself even to the bad. There is something in the nature of its calmness, and self-possession, and forbearance, which obtains, nay, almost commands, regard and respect. How different the effect upon the violent tenants of Newgate, the hardihood of a turnkey, and the mild courage of an Elizabeth Fry! Experience, incontestable experience has proved that the minds of few men are so depraved or desperate as to prevent them from being influenced by real Christian conduct. Let him who advocates taking the life of an aggressor, first show that all other means of safety are vain, that bad men, notwithstanding the exercise of true Christian forbearance, persist in their purposes of death; then he will have adduced an argument in favor of taking their lives, which will not indeed be conclusive, but which will approach nearer to conclusiveness than any that has yet been adduced.





War is a public, armed contest between nations in order to establish justice between thein. Lieber calls it “a mode of obtaining rights ;" Vattel defines it as “ that state in which we prosecute our rights by force ;" and Lord Bacon describes it as

one of the highest trials of right, when princes and states put themselves upon the justice of God for the deciding of their controversies by such success as it shall please him to give on either side.” No war can arise among Christian nations except to determine an asserted right. The wars usually but falsely called defensive, are appeals for justice to force, endeavors to redress evils by force. They spring from the sentiment of vengeance or honor. They inflict evil for evil, and vainly essay to overcome evil by evil. If, as has been happily said, because a man refuses to pay a just debt, I go to his house, and beat him, that is not self-defense ; but the object proposed in 1834 by war with France, was only to secure from her the payment of five millions of dollars. It is a mockery to call such contests defensive war.

But war is utterly ineffectual to secure or advance the object at which it aims. The misery it excites, contributes to no end, helps to establish no right, and therefore does in no respect determine justice between contending nations.

This inference results from the very nature of war. It is a resort to force, whereby each nation strives to overpower the other; a temporary adoption by men of the character of wild beasts, emulating their ferocity, rejoicing like them in blood, and seeking, as with a lion's paw, to hold an asserted right. This character of war is somewhat disguised in more recent days; but the early poets, in the unconscious simplicity of the world's childhood, make this strikingly apparent. All the heroes of Homer are likened in their rage to the ungovernable fury of animals ; and Hector himself, in whom cluster the highest virtues of polished war, is called “the tamer of horses.” Even our own Shakspeare makes Henry V. say to his troops,

" When the blast of war blows in our ears,

Then imitate the action of the tiger.The fruitlessness and vanity of war, moreover, appear in its actual results. After long struggles, in which each nation has inflicted and received incalculable injury, peace has been gladly obtained on the basis of the condition of things before the war status ante bellum. Let me refer for an example to our last war with Great Britain, the professed object of which was to obtain

* This tract is taken from Mr. Sumner's Oration before the City Authori. ties of Boston, July 4, 1845, on The True Grandeur of Nations.-G.C. B.

« PreviousContinue »