A Discourse on the Love of Our Country Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

“By the Love of our country then, we are to understand a regard and affection to the common good; to the interest and welfare of that community, or body politic, of which we are a part.”

Summary Overview

As the relationship between the American colonies and Great Britain deteriorated toward a state of war, Reverend Samuel Williams presented a sermon that encouraged his listeners to love one another as well as their country. Williams, of Bradford, Massachusetts, presented the sermon on a day of thanksgiving on December 15, 1774, in Salem. The sermon used verbiage and ideals introduced in the New Testament as inspiration for encouraging Americans to love their nation. The sermon inspired Americans not only during the American Revolution but also afterward, particularly in the construction of the new American society and government.

Defining Moment

By the early 1770s, the relationship between the American colonies and the British Crown was steadily declining. England’s Parliament introduced a number of measures regarding the colonies that, in the eyes of a growing number of colonists, infringed on their rights and undermined their well-being. Between 1764 and 1765, for example, Parliament increased taxes on sugar and other goods that were imported from sources other than England, imposed a tax on paper used for formal documents in the colonies, and required the colonies to build and maintain barracks for British soldiers stationed in America (the Quartering Act). A few years later, similar taxes were imposed (including the broad-reaching Townshend Acts of 1767), and several colonial legislatures were dissolved for refusing to enforce a number of new British laws.

The colonial response to these measures was one of increased indignation. Organized protests and boycotts were somewhat successful, with parts of the Townshend Acts eliminated in 1770 and the Stamp Act of 1765 (the aforementioned tax on paper) repealed in 1765. However, by 1770, the British troop presence in the colonies had increased, and colonial complaints to Parliament went largely ignored. In 1770, a group of colonists protesting the New York legislature’s compliance with the Quartering Act (the legislature had been dissolved in 1768 and reestablished with a more submissive membership) rioted against British soldiers, with injuries reported but no deaths. In 1770, however, another confrontation between colonists and British troops resulted in three American deaths and other injuries.

In the early 1770s, the issue deepened with the Tea Act (which lowered taxes on imported British tea and thus gave merchants a competitive advantage in the colonies) and the resulting Boston Tea Party. During this protest, in December of 1773, colonists disguised as Mohawk Indians dumped several ships’ cargo of tea into Boston Harbor. In response, Parliament shortly thereafter passed a series of laws that tightened colonial trade restrictions and suspended colonial rights in favor of British rule. The Coercive Acts (or “Intolerable Acts,” as they were known among the colonists) led to even stronger protests by an increasingly unified set of American colonies.

A few months after the introduction of the Coercive Acts, Samuel Williams traveled to the town of Salem, Massachusetts, to celebrate a day of thanksgiving. He would use the December 15 event to encourage the colonists to express their love for their country, suggesting that the “country” was not England, of which Massachusetts was still a part, but a new, independent nation.

Author Biography

Williams was born in Waltham, Massachusetts, on April 23, 1743, to parents Abigail Leonard Williams and Reverend Warham Williams. At the age of eighteen, he graduated from Harvard College, having studied a wide range of sciences (including astronomy) in addition to religion. Four years later, Williams settled in Bradford, becoming pastor of the Congregational Church in that community. During his tenure, he ordained a number of other ministers to congregations throughout eastern Massachusetts. In 1768, he married Jane Kilborn of Rowley, with whom he had five children. Williams remained in Bradford for the following fifteen years.

Williams was known as a thoughtful, scholarly, and eloquent writer and speaker. “A Discourse on the Love of Our Country” provides an example of his style. In order to present the case for an independent America, he carefully researched the history of the colonies as well as that of the entire British Empire. In doing so, he avoided the revolutionary rhetoric prevalent in the wake of the Coercive Acts, presenting instead to his listeners a strong understanding of their heritage as Americans.

Although his primary professional interest was religion, Williams continued to study astronomy and other scientific disciplines. In 1780, he was elected the Hollis Professor of Mathematics and Natural Sciences at Harvard. While he continued his ministry in Bradford, he also taught at Harvard for eight years. However, in 1788, he was charged with forgery with regard to the settlement of an estate’s finances. Rather than face prosecution, he resigned his position at Harvard and moved to the small community of Rutland, Vermont.

Upon his arrival in Rutland, Reverend Williams was appointed the pastor of the community’s Congregational Church. In 1794, during his ministerial service, he helped found and publish the town’s single newspaper, the Rutland Herald, today the oldest continuously operating publication in Vermont. Also in 1794, he published one of his most well-known works, The Natural and Civil History of Vermont, which served as the earliest full-length history of the state. In 1795, he published a monthly periodical, The Rural Magazine, which he produced for two years.

Reverend Williams helped established the University of Vermont, where he served as a lecturer in the fields of philosophy, astronomy, and natural sciences. In 1809, The Natural and Civil History of Vermont was enlarged to include discussions on Vermont’s American Indian history, natural history, scientific characteristics, and social ideals. During this period, he also established a business with partner Thaddeus Pomeroy. He remained in Rutland until his death on January 2, 1817.

Document Analysis

Williams begins his sermon with a quotation from the New Testament: Psalms 137:5–6. The lines were sentiments expressed by the Israelites when they were living in exile after escaping the slavery imposed upon them by the Babylonians. Williams uses the quotation as an example of the love and appreciation he thinks a country’s citizens should feel toward their nation. Indeed, the Israelites, in this passage, had been forced into exile but would not forget the land from whence they came.

Williams states that God made humanity in such a way that it would pursue perfection and happiness. In turn, humanity forms religious institutions (with the teachings of God), aimed at these goals. Furthermore, while creating its educational, legal, and governmental institutions, humanity carries within its wisdom its interest in pursuing a perfect and happy way of life: Since the pursuit and enjoyment of happiness permeates throughout every person, it shines through in every aspect of life. This “benevolence” leads men and women to be glad when others achieve their own happiness. Likewise, when others suffer pain and hardship, these men and women will sympathize (particularly when this suffering is strong).

Strong emotions of this kind, Williams says, deepen the meaning of the quotation from Psalms. Williams says that the Israelites to whom the quotation was directed were enslaved and, ultimately, sent into exile because of their own actions. In reality, he says, the Israelites were brought to their home country by God, who “condescended” Himself to serve as the highest leader of the Israelites’ new government. However, these people were wasteful and impious, taking advantage of and abusing the great blessings and resources God gave them through this new nation. God’s punishment for their sinfulness, Williams states, was to allow King Nebuchadnezzar II and the Babylonians to conquer Israel and enslave its people. The Israelites learned what it meant to be a conquered people, suffering hardships and misery. They had no rights and no liberties under this “despotic monarch.”

Eventually, however, the Israelites escaped with the help of “Nature,” a force that Williams says has an “aversion to slavery” and instead loves freedom. As the people left Israel, they sat and wept, remembering fondly Zion (a mountain in Israel that was said to be the house of God). Nature helped the Israelites remember with love their home country. Their hardships in slavery and exile, weighing for so long on their minds, were eventually countered with images and feelings of the joys of Israel, thanks to the benevolence of “Nature.” The people “bore all” of their love for their native land, willing to invest their own wealth and prosperity so that Israel would return to the glory of its former self.

Reverend Williams states that the story behind Psalms 137:5–6 provides an excellent illustration of a people dedicated to their home country. What he describes is a logical expansion of love for others. First, he says, humanity was presented with the love of God. Men and women have taken that gift and, in turn, have bestowed it on one another in the form of benevolence. From this point, humanity will, according to Williams, expand its love even further. People will take that love for others, in the strongest and most emphatic manner possible, and direct it toward a much grander object, such as a country. This next level of expansion, Williams says, is even more worthy of praise than simply loving one another. Therefore, he states, there is no nobler principle in the hearts of people than the love of their country, which he equates to reaching out with love to “all mankind.”

Williams adds that love for one’s country is based on the notion that the concept of a country is based on a community or society, which can be formed based only on the positive and benevolent intercourse of the people. He suggests that there might arise groups of individuals whose intentions are not based on these attributes, but, instead, who unify for nefarious purposes. Such organizations of people, Williams says, do not compare to those forming communities and societies.

Williams further explains the difference between such groups. If “lawless” or scheming men form an association with the expressed purpose of committing crimes against or otherwise oppressing a people, he says, they will not have formed an acceptable society. Such a group would be injurious to the interests of humanity, Williams states. The “friends of human happiness” would thus seek the dissolution of such a group. Such a band of unsavory individuals are, like uncivilized tribes and any combination of tyrants or thieves, “unnatural” associations and therefore serve as the enemies of humanity. Furthermore, such groups are not to be considered states or any other body politic. In order to show love for a true nation or country, Williams says, a true civil society and/or a “proper community” of people must be formed.

He explains that God has given humanity the ability to form such societies through nature. People, he suggests, are naturally inclined to form societies. At some point in human history, humans lived in a solitary state of existence. Williams suggests that the solitary state was short-lived, however, as it featured many “obvious” disadvantages that caused significant hardship for people (creating a lasting feeling that remained in their subconscious). Both to avoid the disadvantages of a solitary state and to experience the benefits of community (such as defense), humanity naturally moved to what Williams calls a “social state.”

Williams’s reference to a natural inclination is heavily influenced by the intellectual trends of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, wherein the writings of Montesquieu, Jean Jacques Rousseau, Sir Isaac Newton, John Locke, and others developed the ideals of rationalism and individualism that would form the foundations of democratic government. The concepts introduced by Locke particularly contributed to Williams’s sermon. Locke argued that man exists in a natural state, pursuing his own interests and joining with others only when mutual interests arise. Government takes shape as a natural product of defined interests, based solely on humanity’s mutual needs. It does not, according to the model, expand beyond the parameters defined by the natural state in which humanity lives. In other words, government within this framework exists in a limited capacity, completely beholden to the mutual needs of the people it serves.

As soon as humanity began gravitating toward a social state, Williams further explains, it became necessary for men and women to establish rules and guidelines to regulate how the society’s members acted with regard to one another. Logically, these measures were codified into laws (and the rules for enforcing those laws). The people then deemed it necessary to appoint leaders to ensure that the laws and rules that were created were properly administered. Hence, Williams states, the concept of government came into being.

At first, according to Williams, governments were flawed and limited in terms of their effectiveness. This characteristic, Williams explains, was to be expected, since the concept was brand new to the recently established nation from which it sprang. Over time, however, societies and governments evolved from their crude and basic original forms. Men learned from their mistakes in the creation of laws. They also added new interests and even expanded into new arenas. Government continuously improved itself over ages, until the improvements facilitated the establishment of the large, ordered, and powerful states that existed by the late eighteenth century.

Williams says that a state of society is based on common reason and interest. Each individual, he states, has many interests but cannot successfully meet those interests a solitary state. Working with other people, however, an individual can, according to Williams, find the ability to accomplish his or her goals. For example, Williams says that the world presents many dangers that cannot be repelled by an individual. However, a group of people can combine their individual strengths and powers to defeat an enemy. Additionally, there are many challenges that even a group of people might not have the ability to successfully manage without seeking the counsel and assistance of others. Furthermore, Williams states, humanity can neither pursue happiness nor improve itself without forming a society.

A state of society, the Reverend continues, would create a constitution, a government, a set of laws, and a course of action. The society would define and limit the powers of its government leaders. At the same time, the members of the society would also establish the duties and rights of the people living under the government. Put simply, Williams says, every society would have common interests to be defended and promoted—the successful establishment of systems of mutual defense and security of the society is based on the collective wisdom of the people.

Williams says that the evolution from the solitary state to social state, society, body politic, and established government provides the very nature and basis of the love for a country. A community or society is composed of strong links between people (who are also attached on an individual basis to the same community). The people choose to live within the borders of a country, to practice its religious faiths and accept its limitations. Williams also says that the people believe that the nation’s laws and governmental institutions are the best possible institutions suited for their social state, ideals, and temperament. The people are therefore willing to celebrate the country’s success and, conversely, take part in its periods of misfortune.

Because of people’s numerous, wide-ranging, and long-lasting ties to their nation, they pay to the country great respect and adoration, making it the focal point of their attention. The “affection” the people show for their country extends throughout every one of its connections and elements, including its “dominions,” religious foundations, constitutional framework and legal system, its people and their liberties, and its overall well-being. Put simply, Williams says, the love for one’s country means an affection and concern for the nation’s general interests and welfare, including those of all the people and communities that comprise it.

Williams’s identification of national characteristics is important, because it suggests that Williams was speaking of a new nation in addition to an existing one. Since their establishment, the American colonies had been a part of the British Empire, sharing its legal, constitutional, and commercial interests. However, an important element driving colonists to America was religious freedom, which remained a critical element throughout colonial history. Although by the 1770s religious institutions in America had largely given way to secular government, the idea that America should be open to all religious institutions remained consistent up to and following American independence.

Williams’s reference to religious freedom, therefore, was a careful mechanism for identifying not one but two nations in this speech. On its surface, “A Discourse on the Love of Our Country” is a statement regarding the country to which all American colonists technically belonged: Great Britain. However, this reference, along with others made in other segments of the sermon (not featured in the excerpt above), invited colonists to take stock of and show affection for the yet-unidentified country that was taking shape under their feet.

Williams says that a society or country is formed for the mutual benefit of the people; the common good of all citizens of the country is dependent on the respect paid by those citizens to its tenets (thereby making those citizens “good” members of society). In other words, individual members of society must remain willing subjects of the country’s laws and dedicate themselves to fulfilling their obligations to the state, a point particularly directed at the “rulers” of the country. In Williams’s estimation, an effective political leader is one who identifies the interests of the society as well as its assets. The ruler then uses information at his or her disposal to unify the country. A wise leader would also effectively “give direction” to the country’s subjects, ensuring that the people prosper and contribute to the nation. There are and have been many different types of government, Williams adds. Each government is founded and operated based on different ideals and social forces.

The two most prominent forms of government Williams chooses to identify in the sermon are despotic (tyrannical) and free. In a despotic government, Williams says, the only manner by which the ruler manages and regulates the people is through fear. By threatening the people with the use of his power, Williams says, a tyrant keeps the people and nation in line. On the other hand, a free government is based on and is supported by “virtue,” which Williams defines as “the Love of our country.” Because of virtue, Williams argues, a free government is the more preferable system of the two to implement.

Williams embraces the free government model because, in his opinion, the virtue that it contains is an essential part of an effective nation. Although there might be diverse elements of a nation (particularly the geographically and socially diverse ones found in Great Britain or America), people share a common affinity for their nation. Citizens’ love for their country helps bind different parts of a vast empire and inspires people to become more active and agreeable members of society. Political obedience can be established through a despotic government, Williams suggests, but that type of obedience will not last long.

The inability of tyrannical governments to effectively unify their respective nations for long periods of time has major implications for those types of countries and their people. According to Williams, the failures of tyrannical governments results in one of two situations. In the first scenario, the different elements of the nation (social groups and even the leadership of colonies and similar territories) eventually interfere or clash with one another. As these conflicts arise, the nation becomes fractured and unstable, with the despot ruling it unable to reconcile the differences, as the use of fear proves ineffectual in such situations.

In the second scenario, the different elements might join together to destroy the ideal of virtue and replace it with other forms of “vice” and oppression. Despite the threat of force from the sitting rulers, the government would again prove ineffectual in uniting the people under the national emblem. That government would fall apart, only to be replaced with another corrupt and despotic regime.

Virtue, Williams explains, operates like gravity, drawing both the people and their rulers toward a common center. As long as it is maintained, virtue keeps the country and its legal institutions intact. In an ideal government, according to Williams, virtue provides the key to keeping a country stable. The affection society had for its country keeps the nation prosperous and ensures that citizens remain good subjects for a long period of time.

Essential Themes

Williams’s “A Discourse on the Love of Our Country” was written shortly after the Boston Tea Party and the imposition of the Coercive Acts, during a time when pro-independence rhetoric was becoming more prevalent. The sermon stresses the importance of love—love of God, love between people, and the love people should have for their country. His sermon did not echo pro-independence sentiments but was influenced by the same ideals that gave such rhetoric life. Furthermore, his language actually spoke to two countries, one yet to be established.

Williams’s sermon addresses two progressive concepts. The first reflects Locke’s ideals about natural law. Humanity, Williams says, has undergone an evolution from a state of solitary existence to that of a social group. The change came about because of the need for mutual defense and security (as well as the pursuit of other common interests). From that change arose a constitutional framework, legal structure, and, ultimately, government. Therefore, government derives from the people, making it an agreeable body that society can (and often does) modify as necessary.

The second progression concerns love. Love for one’s country, Williams says, is a natural expansion of the love God gave to humanity. God bestowed it upon humanity. In turn, God (through the teachings of Jesus Christ as found in the New Testament) commands that people must share love with each other. Because a country represents one of the largest collectives of people, Williams argues, to love one’s nation is a significant demonstration of God’s laws.

Although religious institutions in the colonies had given way to secular leadership by the 1770s, the right of religious freedom remained in the minds and hearts of the colonists. Williams’s reference to this ideal in his sermon meant that he was speaking of two countries whose respective subjects would be well-advised to show their national affinity. The first was the “mother” country to which the colonies were still linked: Great Britain. The other country was America. The latter country, Williams suggests, is a part of the natural progression from solitary state to society. It was not yet a sovereign nation, but Americans, in the opinion of Reverend Williams, should still show their love for their evolving country.

Bibliography
  • “America during the Age of Revolution, 1764–1775.” Lib. of Cong., 2012. Web. 6 July 2012.
  • Rothschild, Robert. Two Brides for Apollo: The Life of Samuel Williams (1743–1817). Bloomington, IN: iUniverse, 2009. Print.
  • “Samuel Williams Family Papers.” Harvard U/Houghton Lib., 1990. Web. 5 July 2012.
  • “Samuel Williams Papers.” U of Vermont Libraries Special Collections, 2012. Web. 5 July 2012.
Additional Reading
  • Ammerman, David. In the Common Cause: American Response to the Coercive Acts of 1774. New York: Norton, 1975. Print.
  • Bailyn, Bernard. The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution. Enl. ed. Cambridge, MA: Belknap/Harvard UP, 1992. Print.
  • Kidd, Thomas S. God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution. New York: Basic, 2012. Print.

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