essays

This is part of a series

Sep 20, 1774

An Antislavery, Revolutionary Preacher Defines Liberty

Levi Hart's "Liberty Described and Recommended," Part One

Levi Hart defines and describes the most essential types of liberty—a necessary precursor to his later attacks on all things slavery.

Editor’s Note

The Reverend Levi Hart was well enough liked in his time and place—revolutionary era Connecticut. He was born in 1738, a period of tumultuous spiritual reawakening and perhaps the peak of what can now be called “The First British Empire.” This first imperial model was based on the plantation of settler colonies, a complex and baroque mixing of cultures, interests, and institutions, and mercantilistic control over the flow of resources within the empire’s reach. The most important trade in the system—the force which gave life to corporations, armies, and navies alike—was the transatlantic slave trade. In the era of his birth, Britain competed with Spain for preeminence in this Early Modern version of “black gold.” British free marketeers successfully broke apart the Royal African Company’s legal monopoly on slaves in 1698 and British shippers obtained the asiento after the War of Spanish Succession in 1713. Virtually the entire Atlantic corporatist economy depended, at bottom, on the labor of African slaves.

From his relatively privileged vantage point in awakened Connecticut, Levi Hart was able to see the most glaring examples of slavery and freedom standing side-by-side; he saw glorious empires ruling over what were in fact self-governing republics; and colonial order emerged not from the king’s brow but from the innumerable little towns and villages organized more or less spontaneously wherever Man met Nature on the frontier. In the following sermon, composed at Hartford in 1775 and delivered “to the Corporation of Freemen in Farmington,” Hart describes the common (white) American’s experience with living freely and recommends that the privilege be extended to everyone without regard to race.

Hart defines liberty as “a power of action, or a certain suitableness or preparedness for exertion, and a freedom from force, or hindrance from any external cause.” We are at liberty whenever outside powers refrain from interference with our decisions or capacities. Hart then posits that all individuals are of one family split into various factions or societies “founded originally in compact, or mutual agreement,” but these earliest civilizations have long since turned rotten with “vice and wickedness,” such that modern government was thoroughly corrupted. Truly voluntary societies were based in a genuine group interest to maximize the general welfare. Small numbers of people joining together in an explicitly voluntary way did so because the association increased overall prosperity. Individuals could take care of themselves by seeing to the benefit of all.

In a machine like the First British Empire, though—a transoceanic factory built by and for the organized exploitation of millions—it often fell to humble, small-time men of god like Hart to show that liberty was something people built for themselves from the bottom-up. Armed with clear understandings of their rights, duties, and powers, Hart’s congregations could deliver themselves from new forms of slavery.

Anthony Comegna, PhD
Assistant Editor for Intellectual History

Liberty described and recommended; in a sermon, preached to the Corporation of Freemen in Farmington, at their meeting on Tuesday, September 20, 1774, and published at their desire.

By Levi Hart

II. PETER ii, 19.

“While they promise them Liberty, they themselves are the servants of corruption; for of whom a man is overcome, of the same is he brought into Bondage.”

 

To assert and maintain the cause of Liberty, is far from being peculiar to the British colonies in North-America, at the present day; our venerable Ancestors sought and found it in this western world, and at no small expense of their treasure and blood, purchased it for, and conveyed it down to us. The most distinguished and worthy characters in Great-Britain have patronized, spoke and written, and some of them even died, in defence of the sacred rights of Liberty!

Those ancient, renowned States of Greece and Rome, in their most flourishing condition, received their greatest luster from a set of public spirited, patriotic men, whose hearts glowed with the love of liberty, who were her defenders and supporters, and whose names and writings are venerable to distant ages and nations of men, even long after those once mighty empires are gone to decay, and perished through neglecting to follow the maxims of those wise men, those patrons of liberty, who pointed out the path to lasting empire and glory.

INDEED, the sacred cause of liberty ever hath been, and ever will be venerable in every part of the world where knowledge and learning flourish, and men are suffered to think and speak for themselves. Yea, it must be added, that Heaven hath appeared in the cause of liberty, and that in the most open and decisive manner: For this, the Son of God was manifest in the flesh, that he might destroy the tyranny of sin and satan, assert and maintain the equal government of his Father, redeem the guilty slaves from their more than Egyptian bondage, and cause the oppressed to go free.

THE whole plan of Redemption, which is by far the greatest and most noble of all the works of God made known to us, to which they all tend, and in which they centre, is comprised in procuring, preaching and bestowing liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to the bound: And the gospel of our salvation is principally taken up in describing that glorious liberty which is purchased for sinners by the Son of God—the bondage from which he redeem us—the ransom which he paid for our redemption—the way to obtain and enjoy this Liberty, and in stating and urging the most cogent and endearing arguments, and motives, to persuade us to come out of our bondage, and accept of the Liberty wherewith Christ maketh his people free. It is on this account denominated Gospel, or Good News; and is to the sinner, like the jubilee trumpet to the enslaved Israelite.

BUT it must be remembered, that in proportion as Liberty is excellent, and to be desired on the one hand, so slavery or bondage is terrible and to be avoided on the other. These are justly esteemed the two extremes of happiness and misery in Society. It will not therefore be thought foreign to our subject, or an unsuitable attempt upon the present occasion, to enquire into the various significations of these two opposite terms, as they are used in the several kinds of society with which we are concerned, especially as they are introduced in our text as opposed to each other, and it is intimated, that the most fond assertors of liberty, may after all, be themselves in a state of the most abject slavery and bondage.

LIBERTY may be defined in general, a power of action, or a certain suitableness or preparedness for exertion, and a freedom from force, or hindrance from any external cause; Liberty when predicated of man as a moral agent, and accountable creature, is that suitableness or preparedness to be the subject of volitions, or exercises of will, with reference to moral objects; by the influence of motives, which we find belongeth to all men of common capacity, and who are come to the years of understanding.

THIS Liberty is opposed to that want of capacity, by which there is a total ignorance of all moral objects, and so, a natural incapacity of chusing with regard to them. Again, the term Liberty is frequently used to denote a power of doing as we please, or of executing our acts of choice; this refers principally to external action, or bodily motion; and is opposed to force or opposition:— thus the prisoner who is bound in fetters, and secured with bolts and bars of a prison, is not at liberty to go out, he is deprived of this kind of liberty, and is in bondage.

AGAIN, Liberty may be considered and defined with reference to society:— Mankind in a state of nature, or considered as individuals, antecedent to the supposition of all social connections, are not the subjects of this freedom, but it is absolutely necessary to the well being of society.

HUMAN society is founded originally in compact, or mutual agreement. All the larger circles of society originate from family connection or mutual compact between husband and wife; and mutual compact necessarily implieth certain rules and obligations which neither of the parties may violate with impunity.

IN the early ages of the world, before vice and wickedness had corrupted and destroyed the original natural form of civil government, as a fine writer of our own nation expresseth it;—”each patriarch sat king, priest and prophet of his growing state.” But when the wickedness of man was become exceeding great, and every imagination of his heart evil, the earth was filled with violence: by the daring efforts of wicked men to subvert the original excellent form of society, and introduce despotic rule where the lives and happiness of many, even whole kingdoms should depend on the will, and be subservient to the pleasure of one man. But as society evidently originates from mutual compact or agreement, so it is equally evident, that the members who compose it, unite in one common interest; each individual gives up all private interest that is not consistent with the general good, the interest of the whole body: And, considered as a member of society, he hath no other interest but that of the whole body, of which he is a member: The case is similar to that of a trading company, possessed of a common stock, into which every one hath given his proportion; the interest of this common stock is now the property of the whole body, and each individual is benefited in proportion to the good of the whole, and is a good or bad member in proportion as he uniteth to, or counteracteth the interest of the body. And thus it is in the present case: civil society is formed for the good of the whole body of which it is composed. Hence the welfare and prosperity of the society is the common good, and every individual is to seek and find his happiness in the welfare of the whole, and every thing to be transacted in society, is to be regulated by this standard.—In particular, all the laws and rules formed in such society must tend to promote the general welfare; this is the test by which they must be tried, and by which they must stand or fall; all regulations in the body, and all rewards and punishments to individuals, must be determined agreeable to this.—Those who seek and promote the public interest, are to be esteemed and rewarded; and those who counteract and oppose it, must be punished in proportion to the injury aimed or committed against the public welfare.

WE may add, that as the good of the public is the end and design of all good laws and rules, established in a well regulated society, so they must be enacted by the public, i. e. by the wisest and best men in the society, appointed by the body for this purpose.—Men who best understand the public good, and have a common interest with the body, and who are above the narrow pursuits of private interest.—If Laws and rules in society are established by any man, or body of men, who have not a common interest with the whole body of the members, but the contrary, it is evident at first view, they will be exposed to act in opposition to the general good.—None therefore but the representatives of the whole body, in whom as far as possible, the interest of all ranks is contained, are proper to make laws for the regulation of society. For the same reason, those who are to execute the laws, should be appointed in such a manner, and by such authority, as in the best possible way secures their attachment to the general good: And, the members of civil community who are disobedient to such laws and oppose the administration of such authority agreeable to them, deserve punishment according to the degree of their opposition, and their opportunity to promote, or counteract the general good. The crime of every private member in opposing the interest of society, is greater than that of opposition to the interest of an individual, as much (other things being equal) as the interest of the society is greater and of more worth than that of an individual.

IN this view of our subject, we may form some conception of the crime of a civil ruler, who sacrificed the public interest committed to his trust by society, for the sake of his own private gain;—who betrayeth that sacred deposit, to gratify his narrow, sordid thirst of wealth or honour:—We may form some conceptions of his crime, but we want words to paint the horrors of it.—If a private man is without excuse, and is justly doomed to die as a traitor and rebel, when he deserts his country’s cause, or basely betrays it, though to save his life, what epithets of lasting infamy are black enough to draw the picture of the inhuman paricide, who basks in the glare of riches and grandeur, at the expence of the public welfare: Yea, may we not depend that heaven itself will assert the cause of liberty, defend the injured innocent, and discharge its thunderbolts on the guilty head of the oppressor, red with uncommon wrath, to blast the man that owes his greatness to his country’s ruin?

FROM this general view of society, we are led to observe, that civil liberty doth not consist in a freedom from all law and government,—but in a freedom from unjust law and tyrannical government:—In freedom, to act for the general good, without incurring the displeasure of the ruler or censure of the law:—And civil slavery or bondage consisteth in being obliged either by a bad set of laws, or bad and tyrannical rulers, to act in opposition to the good of the whole, or suffer punishment for our steady attachment to the general good.

RELIGIOUS LIBERTY is the opportunity of professing and practising that religion which is agreeable to our judgment and consciences, without interruption or punishment from the civil magistrate. And religious bondage or slavery, is when we may not do this without incurring the penalty of laws, and being exposed to suffer in our persons or property.—

ECCLESIASTICAL LIBERTY, is such a state of order and regularity in christian society, as gives every member opportunity to fill up his place in acting for the general good of that great and holy society to which the true church of Christ belongs, and of which they are a part. And ecclesiastical slavery, is such a state as subjects some branches of this society to the will of others, (not to the good of the whole glorious kingdom) and punisheth them with the loss of some, or all of the priviledges of ecclesiastical society, if they disobey such tyrannical will, however they may act for the good of the whole, and so, agreeable to the law of Christ.

FINALLY, there is another kind of liberty and bondage, which deserve particular attention in this place, only as they are especially pointed to in our text, but as being of principle concern to men, they may be denominated spiritual liberty and bondage.— This liberty is spoken of by our Lord, John viii. 32, 36. Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free,—if the Son make you free, ye shall be free indeed. And, by the Apostle, Rom. vi, 18. Being then made free from sin, ye became the servants of righteousness. Gallat. v. 1. stand fast in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free. 2. Cor. iii. 17. Where the spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty.

SPIRITUAL LIBERTY then, is freedom or readiness and engagedness of soul in the love and service of God and Christ, and discharge of the various branches of christian duty.

SPIRITUAL BONDAGE, takes place in the dominion of sin and satan in the soul, or that state of alienation from God and Christ, to which all impenitent sinners are subject.

THIS brief view of the various significations of the terms liberty and slavery, might be usefully improved in many inferences and remarks. I will detain you only with those which follow.

This is part of a series