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"Without morals a republic cannot subsist any length of time; they therefore who are decrying the Christian religion...are undermining the solid foundation of morals, the best security for the duration of free governments."In anticipation of Independence Day, here is another quote in a continuing series on the Founding Fathers of the American Republic. This one, from Charles Carroll, demonstrates the commonly held view that the propagation of Christian concepts of morality is absolutely vital for the maintenance of liberty. This particular quote is taken from a letter of Charles Carroll, the only Catholic to sign the Declaration of Independence, as written to James McHenry on November 4, 1800.
—Charles Carroll, the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence
Following is some context. In the letter, Carroll sounds a prophetic warning of the dangers posed by the rational atheism of revolutionary France which, far from enshrining liberty for the French people, instead served as a prelude to despotism:
"If the people of this country were united, it would have nothing to fear from foreign powers; but unhappily this is not the case; many of the opposers of ye present administration, I suspect want change of the federal constitution; if that should be altered, or weakened so as to be rendered a dead letter, it will not answer the purposes of its formation and will expire from mere inanity: other confederacies will start up & ye scene of ye Grecian States, after an interval of more than two thousand years, will be renewed on this continent, & some British or Buonaparte will melt the whole of them into one mass of despotism.
"These events will be hastened by the pretended Philosophy of France: divine revelation has been scoffed at by the Philosophers of the present day, the immortality of the soul treated as the dreams of fools, or the invention of knaves, & death has been declared by public authority an eternal sleep: these opinions are gaining ground among us, & silently sapping the foundations of a religion the encouragement of ye good, the terror of evil doers, and the consolation of the poor, the miserable, and the distressed. Remove the hope and dread of future rewards & punishments, the most powerful restraint on wicked actions, & ye strongest inducement to virtuous ones is done away. Virtue may be said is its own reward; I believe it to be so and even in this life the only source of happiness; and this intimate & necessary connection between virtue & happiness here and between vice and misery is to my mind one of the surest pledges of happiness or misery in a future state of existence.
"But how few practice virtue for its own reward! Some of happy disposition & temperament, calm reflecting men, exempt in a great degree from the turbulence of passions may be virtuous for virtue's sake: small, however, is the number who are guided by reason alone, & who can always subject their passions to its dictates? He, who can thus act, may be said to be virtuous; but reason is often inlisted on the side of the passions, or at best, when most wanted, is weakest — Hence the necessity of a superior motive for acting virtuously; now, what motive can be stronger than ye belief, founded on revelation, that a virtuous life will be rewarded by a happy immortality?
"Without morals a republic cannot subsist any length of time. They therefore who are decrying the Christian religion, whose morality is so sublime & pure, who denounces against the wicked eternal misery, & insures to the good eternal happiness are undermining the solid foundation of morals, the best security for the duration of free governments.
"If there be force in this reasoning, what judgment ought we to form of our pretended republicans, who admire & applaud the proceedings of revolutionary France!
"These declaimers in favor of freedom & equality act in such a questionable shape that I cannot help suspecting their sincerity."As to this last sentence, I have often asked myself this same question regarding those who profess to the common libertarian viewpoints—who find talk of virtue tedious, but never tire of demanding that the law be loosened as regards to common vices of the most destructive sort.
Click here to read Charles Carroll's whole letter in The Life and Correspondence of James McHenry, Secretary of War under Washington and Adams by Bernard Christian Steiner.