Thursday [April 25, 1799] being the day appointed by the President of the United States for a general fast, the Court of Quarter Session at Sunbury, transacted no business on that day.
I confess myself ignorant by what part of the constitution or laws of the Union, the President is invested with the power of appointing a day of fasting or prayer. If it be a mere recommendation, it is of no more importance than that of any other person to the same purpose, being not within the pale of the President's constitutional authority. Indeed I should be inclined to pay still less attention to it, because it has more than a semblance of uniting two subjects that in my opinion ought never to be joined together, POLITICS and RELIGION. It is a recommendation, to which if authority be given by usage, when it can derive none by law, a commencement is formed in AMERICA as in the old corrupt and corrupting governments of Europe, of "an alliance between church and state," of which the President for the time being is the head.
I should pay more respect to the recommendation of the Clergy and Presbytery, because it is in the way of their profession; but I am jealous in a free government, of any gradual assumption on the part of persons high in office, of powers not given to them by the law of the land. What is now a recommendation, may be soon arrogated as a right, and Privilege and Prerogative may soon become as fashionable and as undefinable in this country, as in the old governments of Europe.
Nor do I like to see the examples of those governments pursued here, even to circumstances apparently trifling and minute. When the late Empress of Russia of notorious memory, heard that Suwarrow had immolated 40,000 Poles at the Shrine of Despotism, after the cruel siege of Cracow and Warsaw, she ordered a solemn day of religious exercise throughout her savage dominions. Louis the XIVth always sung Te Deum after the slaughter of the people whose territories he had invaded; and his most sacred Majesty George the IIId appointed a day of fasting and prayer immediately after it was determined to reject the offers of peace of the French Ministry. These solemnities have been frequently repeated at the command of that religious Monarch, in England during the present war; but as the Elector of Hanover has long ago made a treaty of peace with the French nation, I hear of nothing of this kind in that Electorate.
I have no objection, but much otherwise, to religious acts and exercises where they are voluntary and sincere. But I hope we shall never be drilled into them, or compelled to wheel to the east, or wheel to the west in religious discipline at the direction of any MAN whatever. "My kingdom is not of this world," says Jesus Christ; but we imitate too closely those who are determined that it shall be.
That devout frame of mind which leads a man to repress his passions, to become master of himself, to imitate on a small scale the conduct of his Infinite Maker, by cultivating dispositions of kindness and benevolence, of peace and good will toward men, is a frame of mind earnestly to be sought, and highly to be commended; but there appears to me something like impiety in making religion an engine of state, and much as I may approve of religion in its proper place, I am decidedly averse to POLITICAL RELIGION.
Nor do I see upon what ground the good sense of the Judges, can justify their well-meant omission of public duty on account of the President's appointment of a fast day. The highest act of tyranny under the despotic reign of Henry the VIIIth, was his inducement of parliament to give to his Proclamations the force of Law. In the present case, the Court have voluntarily done the same thing. The Law says to the Judges, you shall hear and decide causes, on that day — the President proclaims it a day of fasting and prayer — and Magistrates, appointed and sworn to execute the laws, think proper to dispense with them in favour of the President's proclamation! Nor is the expence and inconvenience the public are put to on this occasion a trifling object. The attendance of juries and witnesses is at all times a heavy tax on the community, and especially so in this time of general poverty. To increase it unnecessarily is a measure hardly to be approved.
Nor do these fast days answer even the ostensible purpose of appointing them. I appeal to the experience of my readers whether they are not generally days of idleness and of feasting? I doubt extremely if one man in the United States really and sincerely fasted on that day.
I believe Mr. Adams is a sincerely religious man, and that his motives may be good: the greater is the danger from the example. Proclamations for fasts may be issued hereafter, by persons who have no pretence to religion at all: for it is not necessary that a magistrate should be a true believer to convert religion into an instrument of state intrigue.
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