Establishing and Preserving Constitutional Government
in Ancient Israel and the United States of America
Next month we will celebrate 223 years since the signing of the United States Constitution in 1787. It was ratified by the required nine states the next year in 1788. New Hampshire , the ninth state to ratify, was among those later states that hesitated and that eventually ratified the Constitution only by slim margins.
It was customary in New England , whenever a momentous election or decision was to be made, for a well-respected person to give what was called an “election sermon” prior to the vote. Such was the case in New Hampshire . The person chosen for this task was Samuel Langdon. He had graduated from Harvard in the class of 1740 with Samuel Adams. The two men shared the same political views. Samuel Adams became known as the father of the American Revolution. Samuel Langdon became a Congregational minister and provided powerful support for the revolutionary cause.
Eight states had ratified the Constitution, some with unanimous or near unanimous votes. Other states were very hesitant. It was at this time that Samuel Langdon delivered an election sermon called The Republic of the Israelites an Example to the American States. Not long afterwards New Hampshire ratified the Constitution by a vote of 57 to 46.
Ancient Israel Provides an Excellent Historical Example
Beginning his speech by quoting Deuteronomy 4:5-8, Langdon then says:
“…the Israelites may be considered as a pattern to the world in all ages; and from them we may learn what will exalt our character, and what will depress and bring us to ruin. Let us therefore look over their constitution and laws, enquire into their practice, and observe how their prosperity and fame depended on their strict observance of the divine commands both as to their government and religion.”
Langdon then recounts how Jethro helped Moses set up a republican form of government with leaders of the various groups of families of 10s, 50s, 100s, and 1000s and then 70 of the wisest men were called to assist Moses in national affairs. He explained how all the people had a voice and a vote and that most problems were solved on a local basis “with which Moses did not interfere.” Then he said:
“A government thus settled on republican principles, required laws; without which it must have degenerated immediately into aristocracy, or absolute monarchy. But God did not leave a people, wholly unskilled in legislation, to make laws for themselves: he took this important matter wholly into His own hands, and beside the moral laws of the two tables, which directed their conduct as individuals, gave them by Moses a complete code of judicial laws. They were not numerous indeed, but concise and plain, and easily applicable to almost every controversy which might arise between man and man, and every criminal case which might require the judgment of the court. … But far the greater part of the judicial laws were founded on the plain immutable principles of reason, justice, and social virtue; such as are always necessary for civil society. Life and property were well guarded, and punishments were equitably adapted to the nature of every crime.”
Israel's Meteoric Rise
“ How unexampled was this quick progress of the Israelites, from abject slavery, ignorance, and almost total want of order, to a national establishment perfected in all its parts far beyond all other kingdoms and states! From a mere mob, to a well regulated nation, under a government and laws far superior to what any other nation could boast! It was a long time after the law of Moses was given before the rest of the world knew anything of government by law.... must it not appear quite unaccountable, that the Israelites should so speedily attain to such an height of good policy and legislation, beyond all other nations? Are we not constrained to acknowledge an immediate interposition and direction of heaven? Had the inexperienced multitude been left to themselves to draw up a system of civil and military government for themselves, it would have been entirely beyond their abilities to comprehend so complicated a subject; they must have com mitted innumerable mistakes, in attempting to introduce and establish it; they would have been in danger of jarring opinions, tumults, and insurrections; and probably before the design could be effected, discouragement and confusion would have forced them to surrender into the hands of despotism. But their God provided everything necessary for their happiness, and nothing more was left to their own wisdom than to submit to his authority, and adhere strictly to his commands: by this, their reputation among the nations would have been equal to the excellency of their laws.”
Why didn't all Nations follow Israel 's Beautiful Example
of Peace, Prosperity and Freedom?
“But now you may say, Why then were they not universally celebrated? Why did not princes and politicians from all parts of the world visit them, to learn maxims of polity from so well regulated a nation? Why did not philosophers come, and enquire into that system of religion and morality which carried virtue to such an height of perfection? Surely a nation, of which all the parts were so firmly cemented, must be strong and formidable: a people, who enjoyed the most rational liberty, and yet were under the most voluntary and absolute subjection to authority, free from all the convulsions and revolutions which frequently arise from the raging folly of the populace, must become famous: a wise and impartial administration of justice, according to the most excellent laws, by which all were kept in perfect security and peace, could not but be admired: and the commerce of a people, whose morals were governed by the best precepts, whose word might be trusted, wh o practiced no kind of fraud, and whose behavior was always benevolent, sober, prudent, and sincere, must be highly valued by the world.”
He then answered:
“They received their law from God, but they did not keep it. They neglected their government, corrupted their religion, and grew dissolute in their morals, and in such a situation no nation under heaven can prosper…. [W]e find this remark repeatedly made in the book of Judges— “In those days there was no king in Israel, but every man did that which was right in his own eyes” —that is in plain terms, there was no authority anywhere, but every man was left to act as he pleased. No wonder therefore if they were weak in council and war, and exposed on every side to the insults of their neighbors, being unable to unite in their own defense…. If they were at a loss what to do, they had the greatest oracle in the world among them, and they ought to have enquired of God, their King, how to proceed and what persons to choose…. By all this we may plainly see that the general neglect of government is to be charg ed as the fault of the people…. And now we cannot wonder if courts of justice ceased, when the higher powers of government were wanting. These courts, which should have been continued in every walled city, dwindled way and came to nothing; crimes were unpunished, and the most abominable vices spread their infection through all ranks. No law was executed to deter men from murders, robberies, rapes, or any other kind of wickedness.”
Samuel Langdon Applies Israel's Lesson
to the United States of America
“And now, my fellow citizens, and much honored fathers of the State, you may be ready to ask “To what purpose is this long detail of antiquated history on this public occasion? ” I answer—Examples are better than precepts; and history is the best instructor both in polity and morals. I have presented you with the portrait of a nation, highly favored by heaven with civil and religious institutions, who yet, by not improving their advantages, forfeited their blessings, and brought contempt and destruction on themselves. If I am not mistaken, instead of the twelve tribes of Israel, we may substitute the thirteen states of the American union, and see this application plainly offering itself, viz.—That as God in the course of his kind providence hath given you an excellent constitution of government, founded on the most rational, equitable, and liberal principles, by which all that liberty is secured which a people can reasona bly claim, and you are empowered to make righteous laws for promoting public order and good morals; and as he has moreover given you by his son Jesus Christ, who is far superior to Moses, a complete revelation of his will, and a perfect system of true religion, plainly delivered in the sacred writings; it will be your wisdom in the eyes of the nations, and your true interest and happiness, to conform your practice in the strictest manner to the excellent principles of your government, adhere faithfully to the doctrines and commands of the gospel, and practice every public and private virtue. By this you will increase in numbers, wealth, and power, and obtain reputation and dignity among the nations: whereas, the contrary conduct will make you poor, distressed, and contemptible.”
Langdon further said that while God has not spoken to the people of the United States directly from a burning bush or written commandments in our day on stone tablets,
“but the signal interpositions of divine providence, in saving us from the vengeance of a powerful irritated nation, from which we were unavoidably separated by their inadmissible claim of absolute parliamentary power over us; in giving us a Washington to be captain-general of our armies, in carrying us through the various distressing scenes of war and desolation, and making us twice triumphant over numerous armies, surrounded and captivated in the midst of their career; and finally giving us peace, with a large territory, and acknowledged independence; all these laid together fall little short of real miracles, and an heavenly charter of liberty for these United States…. we cannot but acknowledge that God hath graciously patronized our cause, and taken us under his special care, as he did his ancient covenant people.”
Samuel Langdon's Testimony of the U. S. Constitution
“ Only one thing more remains to complete his favor toward us; which is the establishment of a general government, as happily formed as our particular constitutions, for the perfect union of these states. Without this, all that we glory in is lost; but if this should be effected, we may say with the greatest joy, “God hath done great things for us.” The general form of such a constitution hath already been drawn up, and presented to the people, by a convention of the wisest and most celebrated patriots in the land: eight of the states have approved and accepted it, with full testimonies of joy: and if it passes the scrutiny of the whole, and recommends itself to be universally adopted, we shall have abundant reason to offer elevated thanksgivings to the supreme Ruler of the universe for a government completed under his direction.”
Langdon's Plea for the Preservation of the Constitution
Samuel Langdon seemed to be looking down the corridor of time to our day in making his final plea:
“On the people, therefore, of these United-States it depends whether wise men, or fools, good or bad men, shall govern them; whether they shall have righteous laws, a faithful administration of government, and permanent good order, peace, and liberty; or, on the contrary, feel insupportable burdens, and see all their affairs run to confusion and ruin.
“Therefore, I will now lift up my voice, and cry aloud to the people; … Rise! Rise to fame among all nations, as a wise and understanding people! Political life and death are set before you; be a free, numerous, well ordered, and happy people! The way has been plainly set before you; if you pursue it, your prosperity is sure; but if not, distress and ruin will overtake you.
“Preserve your government with the utmost attention and solicitude, for it is the remarkable gift of heaven. From year to year be careful in the choice of your representatives, and all the higher powers of government. Fix your eyes upon men of good understanding, and known honesty; men of knowledge, improved by experience; men who fear God, and hate covetousness; who love truth and righteousness, and sincerely wish the public welfare. Beware of such as are cunning rather than wise; who prefer their own interest to everything; whose judgment is partial, or fickle; and whom you would not willingly trust with your own private interests. … Let not men openly irreligious and immoral become your legislators; for how can you expect good laws to be made by men who have no fear of God before their eyes, and who boldly trample on the authority of his commands? …If the legislative body are corrupt, you will soon have bad men for counselors, corrupt ju dges, unqualified justices, and officers in every department who will dishonor their stations; the consequence of which will be murmurs and complaints from every quarter. … Never give countenance to turbulent men, who wish to distinguish themselves, and rise to power, by forming combinations and exciting insurrections against government: for this can never be the right way to redress real grievances…”
Could there be a more impassioned plea today to try to save our nation from the turmoil that befell ancient Israel ? Surely, Samuel Langdon, who expressed the hope that the United States could do what Israel did not do, would give the same speech today, perhaps with even more intensity.
Earl Taylor, Jr.