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A History of the United States by Cecil Chesterton

Like nearly all the eighteenth century Deists


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may be added that America affords the one conspicuous example of the Secular State completely succeeding. In France, where the same principles were applied under the same inspiration, the ultimate result was something wholly different: an organized Atheism persecuting the Christian Faith. In England the principle has never been avowedly applied at all. In theory the English State still professes the form of Protestant Christianity defined in the Prayer-book, and "tolerates" dissenters from it as the Christian States of the middle ages tolerated the Jews, and as in France, during the interval between the promulgation of the Edict of Nantes and its revocation, a State definitely and even pronouncedly Catholic tolerated the Huguenots. Each dissentient religious body claims its right to exist in virtue of some specific Act of Parliament. Theoretically it is still an exception, though the exceptions have swallowed the rule.

Moreover, even under this rather hazy toleration, those who believe either more or less than the bulk of their fellow-countrymen and who boldly proclaim their belief usually find themselves at a political disadvantage. In America it never seems to have been so. Jefferson himself, a Deist (the claim sometimes made that he was a "Christian" seems to rest on nothing more solid than the fact that, like nearly all the eighteenth-century Deists, he expressed admiration for the character and teaching of Jesus Christ), never for a moment

forfeited the confidence of his countrymen on that account, though attempts were made, notably by John Adams, to exploit it against him. Taney, a Catholic, was raised without objection on that score to the first judicial post in America, at a date when such an appointment would have raised a serious tumult in England. At a later date Ingersoll was able to vary the pastime of "Bible-smashing" with the profession of an active Republican wire-puller, without any of the embarrassments which that much better and honester man, Charles Bradlaugh, had to encounter. The American Republic has not escaped the difficulties and problems which are inevitable to the Secular State, when some of its citizens profess a religion which brings them into conflict with the common system of morals which the nation takes for granted; the case of the Mormons is a typical example of such a problem. But there is some evidence that, as the Americans have applied the doctrine far more logically than we, they have also a keener perception of the logic of its limitations. At any rate, it is notable that Congress has refused, in its Conscription Act, to follow our amazing example and make the conscience of the criminal the judge of the validity of legal proceedings against him.

Changes so momentous, made in so drastic and sweeping a fashion in the middle of a life and death struggle for national existence, show how vigorous and compelling was the popular impulse towards reform. Yet all the great things that were done seem dwarfed by one enormous thing left undone; the heroic tasks which the Americans accomplished are forgotten in the thought of the task which stared them in the face, but from which they, perhaps justifiably, shrank. All the injustices which were abolished in that superb crusade against privilege only made plainer the shape of the one huge privilege, the one typical injustice which still stood--the blacker against such a dawn--Negro Slavery.

It has already been mentioned that Slavery was at one time universal in the English colonies and was generally approved by American opinion, North and South. Before the end of the War of Independence it was almost as generally disapproved, and in all States north of the borders of Maryland it soon ceased to exist.


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