Article 6, Clause 3

[Volume 4, Page 636]

Document 9

Noah Webster, On Test Laws, Oaths of Allegiance and Abjuration, and Partial Exclusions from Office

Mar. 1787Collection 151--53

To change the current of opinion, is a most difficult task, and the attempt is often ridiculed. For this reason, I expect the following remarks will be passed over with a slight reading, and all attention to them cease with a hum.

The revisal of the test law has at length passed by a respectable majority of the Representativs of this State. This is a prelude to wiser measures; people are just awaking from delusion. The time will come (and may the day be near!) when all test laws, oaths of allegiance, abjuration, and partial exclusions from civil offices, will be proscribed from this land of freedom.

Americans! what was the origin of these discriminations? What is their use?

They originated in savage ignorance, and they are the instruments of slavery. Emperors and generals, who wished to attach their subjects to their persons and government; who wished to exercise despotic sway over them or prosecute villainous wars, (for mankind have always been butchering each other) found the solemnity of oaths had an excellent effect on poor superstitious soldiers and vassals; oracles, demons, eclipses; all the terrifying phenomena of nature, have at times had remarkable effects in securing the obedience of men to tyrants. Oaths of fealty, and farcical ceremonies of homage, were very necessary to rivet the chains of feudal vassals; for the whole system of European tenures was erected on usurpation, and is supported solely by ignorance, superstition, artifice, or military force. Oaths of allegiance may possibly be still necessary in Europe, where there are so many contending powers contiguous to each other: But what is their use in America? To secure fidelity to the State, it will be answered. But where is the danger of defection? Will the inhabitants join the British in Nova Scotia or Canada? Will they rebel? Will they join the savages, and overthrow the State? No; all these are visionary dangers. My countrymen, if a State has any thing to fear from its inhabitants, the constitution or the laws must be wrong. Danger cannot possibly arise from any other cause.

Permit me to offer a few ideas to your minds; and let them be the subject of more than one hour's reflection.

An oath creates no new obligation. A witness, who swears to tell the whole truth, is under no new obligation to tell the whole truth. An oath reminds him of his duty; he swears to do as he ought to do; that is, he adds an express promise to an implied one. A moral obligation is not capable of addition or diminution.

When a man steps his foot into a State, he becomes subject to its general laws. When he joins it as a member, he is subject to all its laws. The act of entering into society, binds him to submit to its laws, and to promote its interest. Every man, who lives under a government, is under allegiance to that government. Ten thousand oaths do not increase the obligation upon him to be a faithful subject.

But, it will be asked, how shall we distinguish between the friends and enemies of the government? I answer, by annihilating all distinctions. A good constitution, and good laws, make good subjects. I challenge the history of mankind to produce an instance of bad subjects under a good government. The test law in Pensylvania has produced more disorder, by making enemies in this State, than have cursed all the union besides. During the war, every thing gave way to force; but the feelings and principles of war ought to be forgotten in peace.

Abjuration! a badge of folly, borrowed from the dark ages of bigotry. If the government of Pensylvania is better than that of Great Britain, the subjects will prefer it, and abjuration is perfectly nugatory. If not, the subject will have his partialities in spite of any solemn renunciation of a foreign power.

[Volume 4, Page 637]

But what right has even the Legislature to deprive any class of citizens of the benefits and emoluments of civil government? If any men have forfeited their lives or estates, they are no longer subjects; they ought to be banished or hung. If not, no law ought to exclude them from civil emoluments. If any have committed public crimes, they are punishable; if any have been guilty, and have not been detected, the oath, as it now stands, obliges them to confess their guilt. To take the oath, is an implicit acknowlegement of innocence; to refuse it, is an implicit confession that the person has aided and abetted the enemy. This is rank despotism. The inquisition can do no more than force confession from the accused.

I pray God to enlighten the minds of the Americans. I wish they would shake off every badge of tyranny. Americans!--The best way to make men honest, is to let them enjoy equal rights and privileges; never suspect a set of men will be rogues, and make laws proclaiming that suspicion. Leave force to govern the wretched vassals of European nabobs, and reconcile subjects to your own constitutions by their excellent nature and beneficial effects. No man will commence enemy to a government which givs him as many privileges as his neighbors enjoy.

The Founders' Constitution
Volume 4, Article 6, Clause 3, Document 9
The University of Chicago Press

Webster, Noah. A Collection of Essays and Fugitiv Writings on Moral, Historical, Political and Literary Subjects. Boston, 1790. Reprint. Delmar, N.Y.: Scholars' Facsimiles & Reprints, 1977.