Ben Butler's Piety
[Lysander Spooner, (unsigned)]
If we had been selected to decide such a question, we should hardly have felt at liberty to say, without qualification, that Ben Butler was the wickedest man in Massachusetts, notwithstanding all the efforts he has apparently made to convince people that such was the truth. In fact, we have believed, in spite of himself, that he has perhaps no more real original sin in him, than have some others, who have been reputed to be far more orthodox than himself. Nevertheless, we were wholly unprepared for such a volcanic eruption of genuine, old fashioned, puritan piety as his Fast D.iy proclamation. We understand very well his amazing versatility; his power to do almost any thing and every thing in the legal, political, military, and financial line; but we had not conceived that we should ever see him on his knoes, before all the world, acting the part of the penitent sinner, crying for mercy. Nor had we anticipated that he would ever set himself up as the legitimate successor of John Winthrop, Cotton Mather, and all the great lights of the puritan era, to tell the people of their sins, and call them to repentance. But in these particulars we wore mistaken. We find that he is as great, and as versatile, in these new characters, as in any of his old ones. We are now satisfied that he has a real genius for divinity ; that he has hitherto missed his true vocation; and that if he had taken to the pulpit, he would have eclipsed every body in the puritan line, from John Bunyan down to Talmage and Joe Cook.
But we think that in matters of taste, propriety, and consistency, he cannot be admired. For example, if he really has such a burden of sin on his own soul, as he appears to have, we should have expected that he would go into his closet with it, or to a regular revival meeting, and there wrestle with God until he should " get grace;" instead of vomiting his confessions upon the public, who have no interest in the matter, and care nothing for his immortal soul, if he has one. Or if he really believes that the people of Massachusetts (and, of course, of the rest of the country) are such a set of lost and undone sinners, as he represents them to be, we think he has no excuse for continuing in any secular or political employment; but that he should at once renounce all worldly things, and devote himself wholly to the salvation of souls.
Until we had read this proclamation, we had regarded him simply as an ambitious politician, not overscrupulous, as Indeed politicians are not expected to be; and we had actually feared that he might never reach the presidency, by reason of the puritan sects being arrayed solidly against him. But now we feel sure that, if he loses that prize, it will not be from any lack of piety on his part, but because so many other aspirants for fame and power, seeing themselves distanced, will conspire against him, and' make the credulous believe that there is really no more depth to his piety, than these was to that of Wilson, or Garfield, or so many others, whose apparent sanctity did so much to make "their election sure."
But that his present godliness is perfectly sincere, seems to be proved by the fact, that he is seeking so earnestly to make it profitable to our business interests; and especially to our "navigation." We have always noticed that a man's piety may be depended on as genuine, when he relies on it as a means of promoting his worldly prosperity. We may be sure on this point, for even the scriptures tell us that where a man's treasure is, there will his heart — that is, his religion — be also. And Ben evidently takes it for granted that the public piety is of this profitable kind. And he proposes to utilize it in favor of "navigation." That is his present hobby. Only a few weeks ago he attended a meeting held in this city, to see what could be done to revive it. At this meeting he made a very elaborate speech, to show that the ruin that had fallen upon the shipping interest was owing _to the want of such, bounties as had once been granted to it. But as nobody but himself, and John Roach, and Robeson (of bad odor) seem to be of that opinion, he turns imploringly to the Almighty for help in the matter. And he seems to believe that a general confession of our sins, and a united supplication for forgiveness, coupled with entreaties for our "navigation" would be likely to gain a hearing at the throne of grace. So he calls upon "the ministers and people of every religious denomination " to " unitedly humble themselves in the presence of Almighty God, and acknowledge, with deep contrition, our manifold sins and transgressions; that we may devoutly deprecate His judgments, and implore His merciful forgiveness through the merits of our blessed Lord and Redeemer." And " At the same time that we look with all humility to His grace for the remission of our sins, let us, with one mind and one voice, supplicate His blessings for us, . . . that He would relieve our commerce from the embarrassments with which it is burthened, and grant that prosperity may again distinguish our navigation and fisheries, so that they who ' go down to the sea in ships,' and do business in great waters, may have abundant reason to praise His holy name."
Now, all this, interpreted in the light of his aforesaid speech in favor of bounties to our navigation means that if we confess our sins with sufficient humility, and pray mightily for the remission of them, he thinks the Almighty may be thereby induced to use His influence to get a new navigation act through Congress; or, if He will not do that, that He will take the whole business into His own hands, and by His miraculous power, withdraw our capital from manufactures, and from railroads, and telegraphs, and government bonds, and invest them in "navigation."
Seriously, we apprehend that the Almighty will do nothing of the kind. Nevertheless, we have no objection that Butler and all "the ministers and people, of every religious denomination" should "humble themselves in His presence," and " with one mind, and one voice, supplicate Him " to look after our investments, and see whether they are all sound and safe. If anything should come of their petitions, we shall of course conclude that Butler, and all "the ministers and people, of every religious denomination" have more influence in the counsels of the Almighty than we now give them credit for. If, on the other hand, their confessions, humiliations, and supplications should avail nothing, we think that Butler and the rest of them will forever after be less ready to confess their sins, and humble themselves before the Almighty, from purely commercial motives, than they are now.
Mr. Gov. Ben Butler, one word in your private ear, We perhaps place no higher estimate on the intellectual calibre of the clergy than you do. We have no fear that they will ever set the rivers on fire. Nevertheless we apprehend that they are competent to see the impossibility of complying with your utterly contradictory exhortations, to wit, that they pray lustily for bounties on navigation, and for various other secular and political things which yon have at heart, and at the same time abstain from all "discourse upon secular and political topics," and feed their flocks with the "Divine Word" only. We apprehend they will say to you, that even you yourself cannot thus ride two horses at the same time In directly opposite directions. And we suspect that they will even say to each other, " Is this man, who can make such a bull as this, the great lawyer, [what if they should say the great pettifogger?] who has spent so large a portion of his Hfe in splitting hairs between north and northwest side, to cheat justice out of her dues?"
On the whole, we beg to remind Butler again, that, great as he is in war, in law, in finance, and on the stump, he has really missed his true vocation; that clearly his forle is divinity — divinity of the true, puritanical, original sin, penitent sinner variety; and that, inasmuch as he is an older man, and has perhaps more real genius, than either Talmage or Joe Cook, he has a better claim than either of them, to be the first puritan pope in the United States.
And now we wish to say, in all kindness, to Messrs. Talmage and Cook:
"In your great race for spiritual power, we think you will find that notwithstanding all his bulls and blunders, you are no matches for Ben Butler; that, if necessary to his success, he will plunge headlong into such a sea of confessions of original sin, actual transgressions, and total depravity, that you will feel that he is justly and forever lost; but that he will, the next moment, come up smiling, on great waves of salvation by grace, justification by faith, imputed righteousness, vicarious atonement, eternal decrees, and all the other essentials of the puritan faith, in a way that neither you, nor any other religious prestidigitators, can equal. We advise you not to attempt it. All that is his thunder, and you will only make yourselves ridiculous, if you try to steal it. We think, therefore, that you have but one chance against him; that is this: It is no part of the puritan creed, but only a piece of pure Butlerism, that,' At the same time that we look with all humility to His grace for the remission of our sins,' we should 'with one mind and one voice, supplicate Him' to 'relieve our commerce^ by helping us to lobby a new navigation act through Congress, or by inducing our people to divert their capital from manufactures, railroads, telegraphs, or United States bonds. We do not believe that supplications of this kind will have any effect whatever, though offered by Ben Butler, and all his hosts. We therefore recommend that you make yourselves easy on that point; and that, if you ' supplicate' the Almighty at all, in regard to investments of capital, you beseech Him to let those that have proved so profitable, remain as they are. We think you will be much more likely to have your prayers answered, and thus leave Ben in the lurch, than if you do so foolish a thing as to add your supplications to his in favor of bounties on navigation. Believing that you have sense enough to see that this is your true policy, and that Ben, notwithstanding his agility in jumping from one hobby to another, will feel obliged to cling to his navigation scheme, now that he has got fairly astride of it, and gone twice round the traok, we wish both you and him a fair field and no favor, and may the devil take the hindmost."
To all the other clericals, except Talmage and Cook, we would say, that the days of unendurable cant, sanctimony, and hypocrisy are fast passing away; and when it comes to this, that a fellow like Ben Butler can outstrip the whole clerical profession in that line, it is time that the profession itself should look at themselves in the glass he holds up to them.
- Lysander Spooner, “Ben Butler’s Piety,” Liberty 2, no. 8 (March 17, 1883): 3-4.