Superior Spirits and Fundamental Law

Commentary on Andrew Eliot’s Election Sermon

There’s a new resource up here at American Reformer: Andrew Eliot’s 1765 election day sermon. Comparatively, Eliot’s sermon is short and highly readable, and it presents a window into the religious and political expectations of New Englanders just prior to the war for independence. The historically interested and casual laymen alike will be interested in Eliot’s discourse. Albeit Eliot leans toward popular sovereignty, he demonstrates that it can be held in tandem, if in tension, with appreciation for monarchy. Read the brief introduction to the sermon for general background and context. Per usual, some highlights and brief commentary on a few themes in the sermon follows below.

Constitutions and Fundamental Law

“It is necessary they [i.e., rulers] should have a particular acquaintance with the constitution of the country they are called to govern. Reason we say dictates that there should be government; and the voice of reason is the voice of God.” “[C]onstitutions are a sort of fundamental laws, which cannot be violated without the greatest danger to a community.” Later Eliot adds, citing Romans 13, “submit yourselves to every human constitution for the Lord’s sake.” This applies to rulers and the ruled. As I’ve discussed elsewhere, “fundamental law” is a difficult early modern concept to nail down, but it certainly means no less than constitutional expectations, especially as to governmental form.

Constitutions, good constitutions, should be tailored to a people, a time, and a place. This is partly the reason why they should be considered fundamental law, especially if they, being well thought and well applied, are reasonable and conducive to a people’s good. The very thing that makes constitutions good can also cause them to expire, and, thereby, make change necessary.

“Perhaps the same constitution is not best for all societies, or for the same society at all times.” Hence, a key caveat from Eliot regarding the default respect for constitutional arrangements:

“I will not say, that they who are in government may not propose an alteration in the constitution, when they see manifest inconveniences; every member of the state may do this; and there may be extraordinary cases wherein it may be necessary to deviate from common rules; in such cases the safety of the people is to be preferred to every other consideration. But no wise ruler would desire a general power of dispensing with the laws; nor is it possible to proceed with too much caution in making any great alteration in the civil constitution of a state; especially when it has been long established, and the wisdom of ages has been employed to confirm it.”

This is true statesmanship Eliot is calling for. Fundamental law, preexisting constitutional structures should be respected and only cautiously tinkered with. Hence,

“where the constitution is tolerably good, it is generally the wisdom of those in power, to maintain a sacred regard to it themselves; and to endeavor that it may not be violated by others. This is their safety, and very often the safety of those they govern. When a humor of changing once begins, no mortal can tell where it will end.”

But the entire point of such arrangements is, or should be, the safety, good, and prosperity of the people to whom it applies as a mechanism for governance—all good governance must exist for these purposes. A true statesman, then, is not eager for change for its own sake, nor wanton innovation. Yet, the good of the people is paramount. To the extent that preexisting structures do not serve that end they can and should be dispensed with. This is ends-based governance as opposed to the procedural, means-based variety. Too many Americans instinctively appeal to and are pacified by the latter.

Religion and Virtue

“Rulers cannot come up to the character of the text, unless they are men of religion and virtue.” If they are not godly then the very skills and competencies that make men good rulers will degenerate into “cunning” and exploitation, pursuit of private interest over the common good. The temptation is simply too great for men of skill given such vast means. To be clear, by religion Eliot means Christianity. By virtue, he means true piety. Eliot genuinely thinks that a Christian is simply more capable of good and magnanimous rule.

“[The] Christian temper… will more than anything help us to distinguish between right and wrong; when private interests and private views are removed… When rulers have such a happy disposition, they will study the true interest of those they govern, which is the way to understand it; they will watch against a little party spirit and every selfish sinister view.”

And again, “When the love and fear of God reign in the heart, men will rise to nobler heights, and to more distinguished acts of virtue, than from any other motive. When they consider the whole community as brethren, they will naturally seek the common good.”

Of course, prudence, frugality, temperance, and industry are all qualities becoming of a good ruler. A non-Chrisitan may, on occasion, possess those virtues, but without true religion conditioning their expression, it is less likely just rule will result.

On “Superior Spirits”

After covering the ideal qualities of a good ruler, Eliot offers some realist commentary. In this “imperfect state” no one will embody them comprehensively or perfectly. The quest for the exemplar ruler is a fools errand.

That said, there are men who are more capable than others. Eliot clearly believes in some sort of natural hierarchy. Some men possess “a larger proportion of understanding and integrity.” They are “superior spirits, men who are born to guide, to instruct, and to preserve; their abilities and their virtues denote that they were formed for the public good.”

It’s what God made them for, and they are dutybound to serve their country. This is not the same as selfish pursuit of dignified station to which one does not actually belong. Indeed, we should reward and promote good, capable, great-souled men rather than castigating their good ambition, otherwise the vacancies created by our demotion of great men will be filled by evil and inept men who are fueled by selfish ambition. “[A] people who have any regard to their own safety, will endeavor to find out merit wherever it is hid, and to confer their honors on those who know how to improve them.”

Now, this will shock some readers. Many of them will dismiss Eliot as captive to his own context and moment in history (i.e., 1765 British colonial America). But consider the merits of the argument.  

“So far indeed, as government is by the constitution hereditary, a people are obliged to submit to the disposals of providence, and to pay homage to the lawful heir, whether his abilities are great or small: And in large communities, the advantage of hereditary monarchy is generally sufficient to balance every inconvenience; and where it is not, it is in their own power to do themselves justice, as they have generally done sooner or later. Witness among other instances, the glorious revolution in Britain, to which noble exertion of national virtue, we owe the preservation of our liberty, and the present happy establishment of the house of Hanover.

When a people immediately appoint their own rulers, they are to the last degree infatuated, if they fix on those, who are not capable of seeing with their own eyes, but are obliged to move by the direction of others, or who get into power to gratify their vanity, their luxury, or their avarice; and it requires no spirit of prophecy to foresee, that a community who are so lost to public virtue, are nigh to destruction. A people may be deceived, they may be betrayed, by men in whom they put confidence. But they deserve to be abandoned by providence, if they trust their interest with men, whom they know to be either weak or wicked.”

Two things here: 1) there is a certain providentialism present in a formally and explicitly monarchical polity on the part of the people that would be difficult to replicate in an environment where they perceive themselves to be exercising more direct political agency. Even if we think of someone who is fed up with the system today in the western world and has decided that most of their “agency” is a mirage intended to induce compliance, they are still angry about it. In their minds, because of their conditioning and expectations, it is not the way it’s supposed to be. But in a hereditary monarchy, citizens were never supposed to have a direct and immediate say in the rule of the kingdom anyway, at least not as to the personnel at Whitehall. 2) Where people do ostensibly enjoy more direct participation, they may become overly “infatuated,” and even overly critical, but more likely, their involvement will express their own vanity. All that is bad for public virtue on balance. Simply put, suffrage, participation is not an unalloyed good. As Jonathan Todd, who preached the election sermon in Connecticut about twenty years prior to Eliot’s sermon, put it, one tyrant is better than a thousand tyrants.


All that said, “passive obedience” or unqualified, absolute non-resistance is not tenable to Eliot. Opposition to authority is justified when those in authority act “contrary to the design of their institution, and are bent to ruin the society, which it is their duty to defend and promote.”

In other words, “The end for which God has placed men in authority is, that they may promote the public happiness: When they improve their power to contrary purposes, when they endeavor to subvert the constitution, and to enslave a free people, they are no longer the ministers of God; they do not act by his authority.”

This is a substantive, ends-based analysis. If government is conceived as teleological rather than proceduralist then such substantive assessment can be performed. If not, then who’s to say? Under a rational and anthropologically self-conscious conception of governance, “When ruler are wise and good, opposition is an high crime.” When they are bad, as described above, then the moral calculous changes. The default is obedience, not a wanton and perennially rebellious posture.

How do we know when the operative threshold has been crossed? “People are generally capable of knowing when they are well used. Public happiness is easily felt… When a people perceive, that they who have power in their hands still treat them as brethren, as partaking of the same common nature, and as having a right to their liberty and property; they will have a reciprocal affection to their rulers.” Good rulers not only rule well and for the common good, but are likewise sensitive to public perception and mood for this very reason. When a government indicates their indifference to public feeling, one can assume, at best, irrationality, and at worst, nefarious goings on. Of course, simple inconveniences do not justify disobedience; imperfect rulers do not license rebellion.

The assessment must consider the health and longevity of the polity itself, its structure and people. (For more on these topics, see David Henreckson’s excellent, The Immortal Commonwealth.)

Colonial Government

For sheerly historical purposes, consider Eliot’s description of Massachusetts colonial government at the time:

“The form of government in this province is a little model of the British constitution. Our commander in chief, who represents the King, is not elected by ourselves. We do not complain of this as an infringement of our liberties, it rather frees us from many inconveniencies, which would attend frequent popular elections. Especially may we esteem it a privilege, while we have a Gentleman at our head, who so well understands our civil constitution, and who, we persuade ourselves, sincerely aims at the happiness of the people he is appointed to govern.”

The rest of the sermon praises the home government and mother country. Already, at the time, resentment would have been swelling. But we have no textual reason to read Eliot as being disingenuous. He is consistent throughout his address in highlighting the “inconveniences” of “popular elections.” There are always tradeoffs between political models. Surely, we can understand that given the cyclical fervor corresponding to campaign season in our own polity.

What we should notice, however, is some of Eliot’s normative commentary from earlier in the sermon. He describes Israel as operating like a “convention of the states” and thereby, if not bestowing then confirming monarchical appointment on both David and Saul. Eliot then briskly enters discussion about the character and piety of a good ruler, but the import of his early comments was probably obvious to his audience.

Image Credit: King John of England obliged to sign the Great charter, or Magna Carta, at Runnymede, 1215, engraving.