Sermon XXIV

Sermon XXIV
  • The following undated sermon was left by Dr. Johnson to be published by the Rev. John Taylor. The Johnson scholar Donald Greene noted of this sermon and another accompanying sermon: “That they were written by the Tory Johnson to be delivered by the Whig Taylor from his pulpit demonstrates to what a great extent, as Johnson said, ‘a wise Tory and a wise Whig will agree. Their principles are the same.’”
    The text is taken from
    The Works of Samuel Johnson, LL.D., volume 9 (Oxford: Talboys and Wheeler, 1825), pp. 506-516.


“When the righteous are in authority, the people rejoice.” Prov. xxix. 2.

That the institutions of government owe their original, like other human actions, to the desire of happiness, is not to be denied; nor is it less generally allowed, that they have been perverted to very different ends from those which they were intended to promote. This is a truth, which it would be very superfluous to prove by authorities, or illustrate by examples. Every page of history, whether sacred or profane, will furnish us abundantly with instances of rulers that have deviated from justice, and subjects that have forgotten their allegiance; of nations ruined by the tyranny of governours, and of governours overborne by the madness of the populace. Instead of a concurrence between governour and subjects for their mutual advantage, they seem to have considered each other, not as allies or friends, to be aided or supported, but as enemies, whose prosperity was inconsistent with their own, and who were, therefore, to be subdued by open force, or subjected by secret stratagems.

Thus have slavery and licentiousness succeeded one another, and anarchy and despotick power alternately prevailed. Virtue has, at one time, stood exposed to the punishments of vice; and vice, at another time, enjoyed the security and privileges of virtue. Nor have communities suffered more, when they were exposed to the passions and caprices of one man, however cruel, ambitious, or insolent, than when all restraint has been taken off the actions of men by publick confusions, and every one left at full liberty to indulge his own desires, and comply, without fear of punishment, with his wildest imaginations.

Man is, for the most part, equally unhappy, when subjected, without redress, to the passions of another, or left, without control, to the dominion of his own. This every man, however unwilling he may be to own it of himself, will very readily acknowledge of his neighbour. No man knows any one, except himself, whom he judges fit to be set free from the coercion of laws, and to be abandoned entirely to his own choice. By this consideration have all civilized nations been induced to the enactions of penal laws, laws by which every man’s danger becomes every man’s safety, and by which, though all are restrained, yet all are benefited.

Government is, therefore, necessary, in the opinion of every one, to the safety of particular men, and the happiness of society; and it may be considered as a maxim universally admitted, that “the people cannot rejoice, except the righteous are in authority;” that no publick prosperity, or private quiet, can be hoped for, but from the justice and wisdom of those, to whom the administration of affairs, and the execution of the laws, is committed. For corrupt governments operate, with equal force and efficacy, to the destruction of a people, as good governments to their preservation.

But that authority may never swell into tyranny, or languish into supineness, and that subjection may never degenerate into slavery, nor freedom kindle into rebellion, it may be proper, both for those who are entrusted with power, and those from whom obedience is required, to consider,

First: How much it is the duty of those in authority to promote the happiness of the people.

Secondly: By what means the happiness of the people may be most effectually promoted.

Thirdly: How the people are to assist and further the endeavours of their governours.

First: How much it is the duty of those in authority to promote the happiness of the people.

If it be true in general that no man is born merely for his own sake, to consult his own advantage or pleasure, unconnected with the good of others; it is yet more evidently true of those who are exalted into high rank, dignified with honours, and vested with authority. Their superiority is not to be considered as a sanction for laziness, or a privilege for vice. They are not to conceive, that their passions are to be allowed a wider range, or their appetites set more free from subjection to reason, than those of others. They are not to consult their own glory, at the expense of the lives of others; or to gratify their avarice, by plundering those whom diligence and labour have entitled to affluence. They are not to conceive that power gives a right to oppress, and to punish those who murmur at oppression. They are to look upon their power, and their greatness, as instruments placed in their hands, to be employed for the publick advantage. They are to remember they are placed upon an eminence, that their examples may be more conspicuous, and that, therefore, they must take care, lest they teach those vices which they ought to suppress. They must reflect, that it is their duty to secure property from the attempts of rapine and robbery, and that those whom they protect will be very little benefited by their care, if what they rescue from others they take away themselves.

It appears from those struggles for dominion, which have filled the world with war, bloodshed, and desolation, and have torn in pieces almost all the states and kingdoms of the earth, and from those daily contests for subordinate authority, which disturb the quiet of smaller societies, that there is somewhat in power more pleasing than in any other enjoyment; and, consequently, to bestow upon man the happiness of ruling others, is to bestow upon him the greatest benefit he is capable of receiving. Nothing then can equal the obligation of governours to the people, and nothing but the most flagrant ingratitude can make them careless of the interests, or unconcerned at the misfortunes, of those to whom they owe that, for which no danger has been thought too dreadful to be encountered, no labour too tedious to be undergone, and no crime too horrible to be committed.

Gratitude is a species of justice. He that requites a benefit may be said, in some sense, to pay a debt; and, of course, he that forgets favours received may be accused of neglecting to pay what he cannot be denied to owe. But this is not the only sense in which justice may be said to require from the governour an attention to the wants and petitions of the people. He that engages in the management of publick business, takes a trust upon him, which it was in his power to decline, and which he is, therefore, bound to discharge with diligence and fidelity; a trust which is of the highest honour, because it is of the greatest difficulty and importance, a trust which includes, not only the care of the property, but the morals of the people.

It is with the justest reason, that large revenues, pompous titles, and all that contributes to the happiness of life, are annexed to these high offices; for what reward can be too great for him, to whom multitudes are indebted for the secure enjoyment of their possessions? for him, whose authority checks the progress of vice, and assists the advancement of virtue, restrains the violence of the oppressour, and asserts the cause of the injured? These are, doubtless, merits above the common rate, merits which can hardly be too loudly celebrated, or too liberally rewarded.

But it is always to be observed, that he only deserves the recompense, who performs the work for which it is proposed; and that he who wears the honours, and receives the revenues, of an exalted nation, without attending to the duties of his post, is, in a very high degree, criminal, both in the eye of God and man.

It is, therefore, the certain and apparent duty of those that are in authority, to take care that the people may rejoice, and diligently to inquire, what is to be considered,

Secondly: By what means the happiness of the people may be most effectually promoted.

In political, as well as natural disorders, the greater errour of those who commonly undertake, either cure or preservation, is, that they rest in second causes, without extending their search to the remote and original sources of evil. They, therefore, obviate the immediate evil, but leave the destructive principle to operate again; and have their work for ever to begin, like the husbandman who mows down the heads of noisome weeds, instead of pulling up the roots.

The only uniform and perpetual cause of publick happiness is publick virtue. The effects of all other things which are considered as advantages, will be found casual and transitory. Without virtue nothing can be securely possessed, or properly enjoyed.

In a country like ours, the great demand, which is for ever repeated to our governours, is for the security of property, the confirmation of liberty, and the extension of commerce. All this we have obtained, and all this we possess, in a degree which, perhaps, was never granted to any other people. Yet we still find something wanting to our happiness, and turn ourselves round on all sides, with perpetual restlessness, to find that remedy for our evils which neither power nor policy can afford.

That established property and inviolable freedom are the greatest of political felicities no man can be supposed likely to deny. To depend on the will of another, to labour for that, of which arbitrary power can prohibit the enjoyment, is the state to which want of reason has subjected the brute. To be happy we must know our own rights; and we must know them to be safe.

But though this knowledge be necessary to happiness, this knowledge is not sufficient. Liberty, if not regulated by virtue, can be only license to do evil; and property, if not virtuously enjoyed, can only corrupt the possessour, and give him the power to injure others. Trade may make us rich; but riches, without goodness, cannot make us happy.

Let us, however, suppose that these external goods have that power which wisdom cannot believe, and which experience never could confirm; let us suppose that riches and liberty could make us happy. It then remains to be considered how riches and liberty can be secured. To this the politician has a ready answer, that they are to be secured by laws wisely formed, and vigorously executed. But, as laws can be made only by a small part of an extensive empire, and must be executed by a part yet far smaller, what shall protect us against the laws themselves? And how shall we be certain, that they shall not be made without regard to the publick good, or shall not be perverted to oppression by the ministers of justice?

But if prosperity, and laws, by which, as far as the mutability of this world permits, that prosperity is made permanent and safe, cannot make the people happy, what is it the governours can do? How far is their care to be extended, and what more can skill and vigilance perform? The wisdom of mankind has been exercised in inquiries how riches may be gained and kept; how the different claims of men may be adjusted without violence; and how one part of the community may be restrained from encroachments on the other. For this end governments have been instituted, in all their various forms, with much study, and too often with much bloodshed. But what is the use of all this, if, when these ends are obtained, there is yet so much wanting to felicity?

I am far from intending to insinuate, that the studies of political wisdom, or the labours of legislative patriotism, have been vain and idle. They are useful, but not effectual; they are conducive to that end, which yet they cannot fully gain. The legislator, who does what human power can attain towards the felicity of his fellow creatures, is not to be censured, because, by the imbecility of all human endeavours, he fails of his purpose; unless he has become culpable, by ascribing too much to his own powers, and arrogated to his industry, or his wit, that efficacy which wit and industry must always want, unless some higher power lends them assistance, and cooperates with them.

The husbandman may plough his fields with industry, and sow them with skill; he may manure them copiously, and fence them carefully; but the harvest must depend at last on celestial influence; and all his diligence is frustrated, unless the sun sheds its warmth, and the clouds pour down their moisture.

Thus, in all human affairs, when prudence and industry have done their utmost, the work is left to be completed by superiour agency; and in the security of peace, and stability of possession, our policy must at last call for help upon religion.

Human laws, however honestly instituted, or however vigorously enforced, must be limited in their effect, partly by our ignorance, and partly by our wickedness. Daily experience may convince us, that all the avenues by which injury and oppression may break in upon life, cannot be guarded by positive prohibitions. Every man sees and may feel evils, which no law can punish. And not only will there always remain possibilities of guilt, which legislative foresight cannot discover, but the laws will be often violated by wicked men, whose subtlety eludes detection, and whom, therefore, vindictive justice cannot bring within the reach of punishment.

These deficiencies in civil life can be supplied only by religion. The mere observer of human laws avoids only such offences as the laws forbid, and those only when the laws can detect his delinquency. But he who acts with the perpetual consciousness of the Divine presence, and considers himself as accountable for all his actions to the irreversible and unerring judgment of Omniscience, has other motives of action, and other reasons of forbearance. He is equally restrained from evil, in publick life, and in secret solitude; and has only one rule of action, by which “he does to others, what he would that others should do to him,” and wants no other enforcement of his duty, than the fear of future punishment, and the hope of future rewards.

The first duty, therefore, of a governour is to diffuse through the community a spirit of religion, to endeavour that a sense of the Divine authority should prevail in all orders of men, and that the laws should be obeyed, in subordination to the universal and unchangeable edicts of the Creator and Ruler of the world.

How religion may be most effectually promoted, is an inquiry which every governour ought diligently to make; and he that inquires, with real wishes for information, will soon know his duty; for providence has seldom made the same things necessary and abstruse.

That religion may be invigorated and diffused, it is necessary that the external order of religion be diligently maintained, that the solemnities of worship be duly observed, and a proper reverence preserved for the times and the places appropriated to piety. The appropriations of time and place are, indeed, only means to the great end of holiness; but they are means, without which the end cannot be obtained; and every man must have observed, how much corruption prevails, where the attention to publick worship and to holy seasons is broken or relaxed.

Those that have in their hands the disposal of riches or honours, ought to bestow them on persons who are most eminent for sanctity of life. For though no man ought to consider temporary goods as the proper rewards of religious duties, yet they, who have them to give, are obliged to distribute them in such a manner as may make them most useful to the publick; and they will be most useful, when they increase the beneficence, and enlarge the influence of piety.

It yet remains that governours cooperate with their laws by their own examples, and that as, by their height of place, they are always conspicuous, they exhibit to those eyes which are turned upon them “the beauty of holiness.”

The present state of the world, however, affords us little hope, that virtue can, by any government, be so strongly impressed, or so widely diffused, as to supersede the necessity of suppressing wickedness. In the most diligent cultivation of the happiest soil, weeds will sometimes appear among fruits and flowers, and all that vigilance and labour can do is to check them as they rise. However virtue may be encouraged or rewarded, it can never appear to all minds the shortest means of present good. There will always be those who would rather grow rich by fraud, than by diligence, and who will provide for vitious pleasures by violence, rather than by labour. Against the attempts and artifices of such men, whence have simplicity and innocence their defence and security? Whence but from the Lex armata, the vindictive law, that stands forth the champion of the weak, and the protectress of the innocent?

Nor is quiet and security in danger only from corrupt minds; for honest and beneficent men might often, were not the law to interpose, disturb society, and fill the country with violence. Two men, both of them wise, and both of them virtuous, may lay claim to the same possession, with pretensions, to the world specious, in their own thoughts just. Such disputes can be terminated only by force or law. Of force, it is apparent, that the exertion of it is an immediate evil, and that prevalence at last will be no proof of justice. Of law, the means are gentle and inoffensive, and the conclusion not only the confirmation of property, but the establishment of right. For this power of the law virtue itself will leave employment; for though crimes would hardly be committed but by predominance of passion, yet litigation must always subsist while there is difference of opinion. We can hope but faintly for the time when all men shall be honest; but the time seems still more remote in which all men shall be wise; and until we may be able to settle all claims for ourselves, let us rejoice that there is law to adjust them for us.

The care, however, of the best governour may be frustrated by disobedience and perverseness; and the best laws may strive in vain against radicated wickedness.

It is, therefore, fit to consider,

Thirdly: How the people are to assist and further the endeavours of their governours.

As all government is power exerted by few upon many, it is apparent, that nations cannot be governed but by their own consent. The first duty, therefore, of subjects is obedience to the laws; such obedience as is the effect, not of compulsion, but of reverence; such as arises from a conviction of the instability of human virtue, and of the necessity of some coercive power, which may restrain the exorbitances of passions, and check the career of natural desires.

No man thinks laws unnecessary for others; and no man, if he considers his own inherent frailty, can justly think them unnecessary for himself. The wisest man is not always wise, and the best man is not always good. We all sometimes want the admonition of law, as supplemental to the dictates of reason, and the suggestions of conscience. And he that encourages irreverence, in himself, or others, to publick institutions, weakens all the human securities of peace, and all the corroborations of virtue.

That the proper influence of government may be preserved, and that the liberty which a just distribution of power naturally supports may not operate to its destruction, it is always to be remembered, that even the errours and deficiencies of authority must be treated with respect. All institutions are defective by their nature; and all rulers have their imperfections, like other men. But, as not every failing makes a bad man, so not every errour makes a bad government; and he that considers how few can properly adjust their own houses, will not wonder that into the multiplicity of national affairs deception or negligence should sometimes find their way. It is likewise necessary to remember, that as government is difficult to be administered, it is difficult to be understood; and that where very few have capacity to judge, very few have a right to censure.

The happiness of a nation must arise from the combined endeavours of governours and subjects. The duties of governing can be the lot of few, but all of us have the duties of subjects to perform; and every man ought to incite in himself, and in his neighbour, that obedience to the laws, and that respect to the chief magistrate, which may secure and promote concord and quiet. Of this, as of all other virtues, the true basis is religion. The laws will be easily obeyed by him who adds to human sanctions the obligations of conscience; and he will not easily be disposed to censure his superiours, whom religion has made acquainted with his own failings.


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