Page images




Our last lecture expatiated upon the literary mèrit of the sacred writings. We purpose at the present opportunity, to contemplate the influence this remarkable book has exerted upon human laws, upon the science of legislation, and the great principles of jurisprudence. From the nature of the subject, it will be seen that it will more tax the sober thought of my audience, than the previous lecture, if it does not even trespass somewhat upon their patience.

As a general remark, it is no doubt true, that, like every other science, law has advanced gradually to its present state of improvement. But this remark is to be received with some qualification. That the Mosaic code was the first written law ever delivered to any nation no man will deny. And yet it was delivered in a state of high perfection.

Theoretical philosophers who have set aside, or forgotten the inspiration of the Scriptures, have taught that the earlier codes of law,-codes designed for men in their wildest state, and at a period of the world when their wants were few and simple, their rights acknowledged, and their crimes had scarcely begun to be flagitious, were necessarily very limited and very imperfect. They tell us that the first regulations of human society were those domestic rules which the father of a family would have occasion to observe in the control of his household. When men began to unite in villages and cities, these more private regulations would be found inadequate to restrain a more numerous society; and a body of rules, as well as an authority accompanied by greater power than the paternal, became necessary. They tell us, that afterwards, when towns and cities united for their common convenience and defence, the judicial regulations necessarily became multiplied; and the supreme authority from which they emanated, and by which they were to be enforced, issued sooner or later in different forms of magistracy. And as the conduct of the wisest and most just men would naturally suggest a rule of conduct to others, so their counsels and advice would gradually acquire force, and be adopted as a general regulation. And hence they tell us, that sages and philosophers were the first authors of laws.

Now, all this proceeds upon an entirely gratuitous assumption; an assumption as contrary to sober, uninspired history, as it is to the word of God. That assumption is that the original state of man was exceedingly degraded; that he occupied a rank at first, little, if any, above the beasts of the field; and that having by his own exertions gradually escaped from the state of brutality in which he was originally found, he is in a constant course of improvement.” How far this hypothesis is at variance with facts, I leave believers, and indeed I might say, unbelievers, in divine revelation to determine. Since the fall of man from that state of primeval integrity and blessed

ness in which he was created, unaided by wisdom and laws revealed from heaven, the invariable tendency of his nature has been to sink deeper and deeper into darkness and lawless corruption. Hence God gave him law at his first creation; and by oral communications from heaven, guided and instructed him for the first twenty-five hundred years, until he gave the Hebrew nation their memorable code from Mount Sinai.

“If the foundations be destroyed, what can the righteous do ?” The enactment of wise laws, and the due administration of justice in any community, are so intimately interwoven with its best interests, and of such acknowledged importance, that they need not become the topics of remark. Law is the measure of right. It gives every man a rule of action, and prescribes a course of conduct which entitles him to the support and protection of society. It teaches men to know when they commit injury, and when they suffer it. Every just law is dictated by reason and benevolence. Of the authority to command and the obligation to obedience, the foundation, or principle, is the happiness of those to whom the rule is directed. “Salus populi suprema lex.” None will doubt that the goodness of all laws depends upon their intrinsic rectitude and benevolent influence.

“ The hand of time has been passing over the mighty fabric of human laws for four thousand years;” and yet little has been added to the stock of legal science, and little change has been made in the most improved principles of human jurisprudence since the

ays of Moses. As might have been justly supposed, there have been great improvements in commercial law, because the Hebrews were an agricultural, and not extensively a commercial people. And there have

[ocr errors]

been improvements in international law, because the Hebrews were, by divine command, separated from other nations. Laws also have been changed by the condition of the countries for which they have been enacted; they have been extended in their specifications; they have been modified by the character, customs, religion, soil, position, and pursuits of different nations; but the fundamental principles, the great outline of legislative science, are found in the civil polity of the Jews. The last four books of the Pentateuch contain the foundations of all wise legislation.

We have in the first instance the Moral Law, comprised within the short compass of ten commandments. This law contains the nucleus, the germ of all moral obligation, enforcing the claims of the one only living and true God, as the autocrat of the Hebrew nation, and at the same time presenting a comprehensive statement of the duties which maň owes to his fellow man.

It was given, not through the intermediate ministry of their legislator, but directly to the assembled nation; not by the voice of angels, but by the voice of the Almighty Lawgiver. It was stamped as his own, and he imparted to it a sacredness and authority suited to its high pre-eminence.

“ Concerning thy testimonies," says the Psalmist, “I have known that thou hast founded them for ever. I esteem all thy precepts concerning all things to be right.” The moral law is built upon firm and immutable foundations. It was not imposed by arbitrary will, but corresponds to truth, to the nature of intelligent beings, and the relations they sustain toward God and one another. It is adapted to all times, and places, and intelligences; is without change, or abatement; and is alike fitted to earth and to heaven. It requires what human laws may not require, perfect

holiness; and it forbids what man may not forbid, all sin. It has a province with which no human code may interfere ; for it controls the heart.

It may deserve inquiry, whether the moral law of the ten commandments was merely a moral law for the private government of individuals. Was it not a law contemplating man as about forming a community; and laying down certain rules, not merely fit for individual conscience, but also the indispensable requisites of a social state? In this sense, they are not merely rules of conduct as to internal conscience, and which make men responsible to God; but rules of social existence, without which human society cannot con tinue, and which make men responsible to the state. Do they not embody, both rules of conscience and the great principles of union among men, and constitute the vital basis of social organization ? These ten commandments are indeed a wonderful code. So comprehensive a summary of the indispensable principles of a social state, and so wonderful a summary of moral duty, never could have been of human invention. This great moral code deserves to stand at the head of all the Mosaic institutions, and through the people to whom it was originally proclaimed, to address its claims to all the nations of men.

Next to this great moral law, there are what may be called the Civil or Political Laws. They differ from the moral law in several important particulars; but in none more than this, that they do not require absolute perfection, nor forbid all sin. In other and plainer language, they tolerate what is wrong, and what the moral law does not tolerate. They tolerate imperfection at heart; for they do not profess to reach the heart. That is done by another law, and by no mere civil, political code. They tolerate imperfection

« PreviousContinue »