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LEV. 24: 22. YE SHALL HAVE ONE MANNER OF LAW, AS WELL FOR THE STRANGER,
AS FOR ONE OF YOUR OWN COUNTRY: FOR I AM THE LORD YOUR God.
It is my very uncommon privilege and pleasure to speak to you, for once, from a text already fulfilled, and more than fulfilled in the observance. For we, as a people, or nation, have not only abstained from passing laws that are unequal, or hard upon strangers, which is what the rule of the text forbids, but we have invited them to become fellow-citizens with us in our privileges, and bestowed upon them all the rights and immunities of citizens. We have said to the strangers from Germany, France, Switzerland, Norway, Ireland, and indeed of every land, “ Come and be Americans with us, you and your children; and whatsoever right or benefit we have, in our free institutions and our vast and fertile domain, shall be yours.”
Thus invited, thus admitted to an equal footing with us, they are not content, but are just now returning our generosity by insisting that we must excuse them and their children from being wholly and properly American. They will not have one law for us and for themselves, but they demand immunities that are peculiar to themselves, and before unheard of by us; or else that we wholly give up institutions for their sake that are the dearest privileges of our birthright. They accept the common rights of the law, the common powers of voting, the common terms of property, a common privilege in the new lands and the mines of gold, but when they come to the matter of common schools, they will not be common with us there—they require of us, instead, either to give up our common schools, or else, which in fact amounts to the same thing, to handover their proportion of the public money, and let them use it for such kind of schools as they happen to like best; ecclesiastical schools, whether German, French, or Irish; any kind of schools but such as are American, and will make Americans of their children.
It has been clear for some years past, from the demonstrations of our Catholic clergy and their people, and particularly of the clergy, that they were preparing for an assault upon the common school system, hitherto in so great favor with our countrymen; complaining, first, of the Bible as a sectarian book in the schools, and then, as their complaints have begun to be accommodated by modifications that amount to a discontinuance, more or less complete, of religious instruction itself, of our "godless scheme of education;" to which (as godless only as they have required it to be) they say they can not surrender their children without a virtual sacrifice of all religion. Growing more hopeful of their ability, by the heavy vote they can wield, to turn the scale of an election one way or the other between opposing parties, and counting on the sway they can thus exert over the popular leaders and candidates, they have lately attempted a revolution of the school system of Michigan, and are now memorializing the legislatures of Pennsylvania and Ohio, and urging it on the people of these states to allow a change or modification of theirs that amounts to a real discontinuance; viz., to make a distri.bution of the public school money to all existing schools, of whatever description, according to the number of their scholars; and the moment this is done, plainly nothing will be left of the common school system but a common fund, gathered by a common tax on property, to support private schools.
Evidently the time has now come, and the issue of life or death to common schools is joined for trial. The ground is taken, the flag is raised, and there is to be no cessation, till the question is forever decided, whether we are to have common schools in our country or not. And accordingly, it is time for us all, citizens, public men and Christians, to be finding the ground on which we expect and may be able to stand. In one view the question is wholly a religious question ; in another it is more immediately a civil or political question. And yet the lines cross each other in so many ways that any proper discussion of the topic must cover both aspects or departments, the religious and the political. I take up the question at this early period, before it has become, in any sense, a party question, that I may have the advantage of greater freedom, and that I may suffer no imputation of a party bias, to detain me from saying any thing which pertains to a complete view of the subject.
As this day of fasting is itself a civil appointment, I have always made it a point to occupy the day, in part, with some subject that pertains to the public duties and religious concerns of the state or nation. I propose, therefore, now to anticipate, as it were, the pressure of this great subject, and discharge myself, once for all, of my whole duty concerning it; and I hope to speak of it under that sense of responsibility, as well as in that freedom from prejudice, which one of the greatest and most serious of all American subjects requires. I wish I might also speak in a manner to exclude any narrow and partial or sectarian views of it, such as time and the further consideration of years might induce a wish to qualify or amend.
I will not undertake to say that our Catholic friends have, in no case, any just reason for uneasiness or complaint. A great many persons and even communities will very naturally act, for a time, as power is able to act, and will rather take counsel of their prejudices than of reason, or of the great principles that underlie our American institutions. Consideration, as a rectifying power, is often tardy in its coming, and of course there will be something unrectified, for so long a time, in the matter that waits for its arrival.
Meantime the subject itself is one of some inherent difficulty, and can not be expected to settle itself upon its right foundation, without some delay or some agitation, more or less protracted, of its opposing interests and reasons. We began our history in all but the single colony of Baltimore, as Protestant communities; and, in those especially of New England, we have had the common school as a fundamental institution from the first in our view a Protestant institution-associated with all our religious convictions, opinions, and the public sentiment of our Protestant society. We are still, as Americans, a Protestant people, and many are entirely ignorant, as yet, of the fact that we are not still Protestant states also, as at the first; Protestant, that is, in our civil order, and the political fabric of our government. And yet we'very plainly are not. We have made a great transition; made it silently and imperceptibly, and scarcely know as yet that it is made. Occupied wholly with a historic view of the case, considering how the country and its institutions are, historically speaking, ours; the liberality and kindness we have shown to those who have come more recently to join us, and are even now heard speaking in a foreign accent among us; the asylum we have generously opened for them and their children; the immense political trust we have committed to them, in setting them on a common footing, as voters, with ourselves; and that now we offer to give a free education to their children, at the public expense, or by a tax on all the property of the state-considering all this, and that we and our fathers are Protestants, it seems to be quite natural and right, or even a matter of course, that our common schools should remain Protestant, and retain their ancient footing undisturbed.
But we shall find, on a second consideration, that we have really agreed for something different, and that now we have none to complain of but ourselves, if we have engaged for more than it is altogether pleasant to yield. Our engagement, in the large view of it, is to make the state or political order a platform of equal right to all sects and denominations of Christians. We have slid off, imperceptibly, from the old Puritan, upon an American basis, and have undertaken to inaugurate a form of political order that holds no formal church connexion. The properly Puritan common school is already quite gone by; the intermixture of Methodists, Quakers, Unitarians, Episcopalians, and diverse other names of Christians, called Protestants, has burst the capsule of Puritanism, and, as far as the schools are concerned, it is quite passed away; even the Westminster catechism is gone by, to be taught in the schools no more. In precisely the same manner, have we undertaken also to loosen the bonds of Protestantism in the schools, when the time demanding it arrives. To this we are mortgaged by our great American doctrine itself, and there is no way to escape the obligation but to renounce the doctrine, and resume, if we can, the forms and lost prerogatives of a state religion.
But there is one thing, and a very great thing, that we have not lost, nor agreed to yield; viz., common schools. Here we may take our stand, and upon this we may insist as being a great American institution; one that has its beginnings with our history itself; one that is inseparably joined to the fortunes of the republic; and one that can never wax old, or be discontinued in its rights and reasons, till the pillars of the state are themselves cloven down forever. We can not have Puritan common schools—these are gone already—we can not have Protestant common schools, or those which are distinctively so; but we can have common schools, and these we must agree to have and maintain, till the last or latest day of our liberties. These are American, as our liberties themselves are American, and whoever requires of us, whether directly or by implication, to give them up, requires what is more than our bond promises, and what is, in fact, a real affront to our name and birthright as a people.
I mean, of course, by common schools, when I thus speak, schools for the children of all classes, sects and denominations of the people ; so far perfected in their range of culture and mental and moral discipline, that it shall be the interest of all to attend, as being the best schools which can be found; clear too, of any such objections as may furnish a just ground of offense to the conscience or the religious scruples of any Christian body of our people. I mean, too, schools that are established by the public law of the state, supported at the public expense, organized and superintended by public au