The Oberlin Evangelist
July 13, 1859
Nonsense of the No-Higher Law Doctrine.
“There are some who oppose the execution of this law from a sense of conscientious duty. There is in fact a sentiment prevalent in the community, which arrogates to human conduct a standard of right above and independent of human law; and it makes the conscience of each individual the test of his own ACCOUNTABILITY to the laws of the land.” – Judge Willson’s Charge to the Grand Jury.
“Your Higher Law as interpreted by the saints of Oberlin, is just that law which makes every man’s conscience and private opinion his guide. Such doctrine would make chaos,” &c. – District Attorney Belden’s speech I the Bushnell case.
There is involved in these extracts a misrepresentation of the higher-law doctrine. That doctrine does not teach that the standard of right is “independent of human law,”—or that a man’s “private opinion” is to be arbitrarily formed without regard to the right to be derived from due attention to all sources of instruction, human legislation included. Nor does it, in the sense intended, teach that “the conscience of each individual is the test of his ACCOUNTABILITY to the laws of the land.” It teaches that each man’s conscience, duly enlightened by careful investigation, ought to be the guide of his own conduct. It teaches too that when his conduct does and must oppose itself to the consciences of all mankind, no government has a right to punish him for it. But it teaches also that all magistrates owe the same allegiance to conscience carefully enlightened, that private individuals owe, and that they must therefore, if they would be true men, regulate their official as well as their private conduct by the dictates of conscience. The higher-law doctrine teaches that when a magistrate conscientiously believes, after due study and reflection, that a human statute does not contradict God’s law by requiring what that forbids, he is to enforce it, if the public good demands its enforcement, or even if it admits of it. The magistrate is bound as far as possible to respect the consciences of other men, but other men’s convictions are not to be the rule of his conduct except so far as they may modify his own conscientious views. But it is difficult to conceive how a man possessing a conscience of his own, should from the judicial bench flout another man for obeying his conscience and refusing to express regret for doing so, and make this a reason for an “exemplary sentence.”
What is to be a man’s rule of conduct except his own conscience enlightened by all the sources of knowledge and judgment within his reach? If Judge Willson enforces the Fugitive Bill, does he profess to be actuated by no sense of duty? In what department of his nature does his professed sense of duty reside? Is it not in his conscience? If he is influenced by the opinions of great statesmen and lawyers, and has come to the conclusion that he ought to walk in their light, is it not his conscience, as the sole moral authority within him, that imposes the obligation? Is it not his private as well as public opinion that this is the line of duty for him? Even those who repudiate a law higher than human enactments, must still, if they pretend to any ideas of duty and retain the least grain of common sense, admit that each man’s conscience must determine his own line of moral conduct in all his relations, private and public. As each man sees with his individual eyes and hears with his individual ears, he must judge of his duty with his individual mind. The supposition of a common conscience excluding the individual moral faculty, reminds one of the three old women in Hawthorne’s Wonder Book, who had each an eye-socket in her head, but who had for them all only one eye, passed round in a laughable manner, when each had crying occasion to use the organ.
The denial of a higher law, or, which is the same thing, the affirmation that obedience to human legislation is always obligatory, is equally preposterous It is the same as to say that man cannot enact a statue which shall contain a precept too wicked to be fitly obeyed. Can any mortal have the assurance to call that anything better than nonsense? But the moment you admit the possible invalidity of any supposed human statue, irresistible logic compels you to go the whole length of admitting that every human statue must be submitted to comparison with the divine law, and that no obedience is due to any statue so far as it conflicts with divine requirements. The higher law itself, however, requires that where there is doubt, the legitimate human authority shall be respected and obedience rendered. But it is a contradiction in terms, a piece of the sheerest nonsense, to maintain that where God clearly requires one thing and human legislation, another, the human statues bind the conscience. To maintain this is far worse than nonsense – it is treason against God’s throne, rebellion against his sacred supremacy, and a fearful attempt to subvert his government. While it pretends great respect for the early “powers
That be,” it really saps the foundations of respect for all authority, and seeks to spread universal anarchy through heaven and earth. The only excuse that can be offered for magistrate or citizen that maintains this ruinous no-higher law doctrine is that he knows not what he is doing, nor what manner of spirit he is of – that possibly he conceits that he is building up, when he is only pulling down and destroying.
In writing this we do but echo the sentiments of the great body of philosophic lawyers and statesmen. The so called lawyers and statesmen who deny these verities demonstrate that they are ignorant of the first principles of that which ought to be their own science.