HONESTY IN DEALING;
ANNUAL FAST :
APRIL 15, 1818.
BYJOSHUA BATES, A. M.
President of Middlebury Co1lege.
MIDDLEBURY, ( VT. )
PRINTED BY J. W. COPELAND.
The text of this and other superb works are available on-line from:
The Willison Politics and Philosophy Resource Center
Reprint and digital file November 15, 2002.
Page numbers in the original publication are shown in brackets as such: [ 3 ]
The following begins the original text:
PROVERBS XX. 23.
DIVERSE WEIGHTS ARE AN ABOMINATION UNTO TNE LORD; AND A
FALSE BALANCE IS NOT GOOD.
MEN, as social beings, possess certain personal rights, of which no earthly power can justly deprive them; and in consequence of their social nature, or rather of their connexion and mutual dependence, as members of society, they are under certain obligations to each other, which no human authority can cancel. It was, indeed, the original design, and it should ever be the practical tendency of civil government, to secure these rights and enforce these obligations.
Among the rights of man, in society, is that of property, or the right of quietly enjoying and honestly using his possessions; and of course, among his obligations in his social state, is that, which requires every one to respect the same right in others.
To seek for the origin, or attempt to trace the history, of this personal right and correspondent obligation, would perhaps be in vain; it is certainly unnecessary, at this time. Sufficient, for our present purpose, is the fact, that they are generally acknowledged to be essential to social happiness; are universally recognized in civil institutions ; and what, in view of christians, is paramount to every other consideration, are sanctioned by the
[ 4 ]
authority of Inspiration. All the moral maxims of our holy religion are consistent with their existence; and in many of these maxims, such as the proverb selected for our text, their importance is clearly implied, and a regard to them expressly enjoined.
The religion of the Bible is evidently adapted to the social nature of man; and it was unquestionably designed for his use in a social state. The rules, which it prescribes for the regulation of social intercourse, are numerous and explicit. It commands us in general terms, to do unto others, as we would that they should do unto us. It enjoins, among many particular social duties, that of justice or honesty in dealing. It requires us, in all our transactions with each other, to respect the right of property. It directs us, to defraud no man; but to render to every one his due, and permit all, quietly to enjoy the fruit of their labour. Its language on this subject is ; "Do justly ;"—"Whatsoever things are just—think on these things ;" —— "Let him that stole, steal no more ;" —"Neither thieves nor covetous—shall inherit the kingdom of God,"— "A false balance is an abomination to to Lord; but a just weight is his delight,"—"Diverse weights are an abomination unto the Lord; and false balance is not good."’
Though the terms, weight and balance, designate a particular hind of dealing; yet our text justifies the general position, that dishonesty in trade, of every description, is an abomination to the Lord; and authorizes me to treat of MORAL HONESTY at large.
[ 5 ]
The propriety of selecting this subject of discourse, on a day set apart for humiliation and prayer, will be apparent to all, who attend to the following considerations.——Consider, in the first places the extent of its application. It is applicable to every man, almost every day of his life. While we live in society, we shall have frequent occasions to make contracts with each other. Without this kind of intercourse between the members of society—without interchanging the fruits of labour and the productions of skill, the social state would be little better than a state of solitude—the very forms of civil society would be a useless burthen. No one can live comfortably, without buying and selling—borrowing and lending; and of many, trade is the stated business, the daily employment, the principal occupation. In illustrating and enforcing the duty of justice or honest dealing, therefore, we speak not to a few only ; but to all, in whatever situation they are placed, and in whatever occupation they are engaged.——Consider, secondly, that dishonesty or fraudulent speculation, is among the prevailing sins of our country——a sin which assumes a thousand different forms, insinuates itself into all the ranks of social life, and threatens to draw down the judgments of Heaven upon the land.—Consider, thirdly, that the subject is of such a nature, that it cannot, with propriety, be fully discussed on the christian sabbath. The discussion requires an examination of those worldly maxims and trite observations, which cannot be repeated and analyzed, without some unpleasant associations;
[ 6 ]
except on secular days.—These considerations, I trust, will justify the selection of this subject for the present occasion; and secure your attention to a plain, didactick discourse upon it, this morning.
That every species of fraud is offensive in the eight of Heaven, and inconsistent with the character of a good man, I need not spend time to prove. None will deny the truth of this position. All, who have read the Bible, must admit without controversy, that justice or honesty in dealing is a christian virtue; and although neither this, nor any other virtue alone, is sufficient to constitute a christian; it is, nevertheless, essential to the christian character.——In discoursing on this subject, therefore, we have only to illustrate the duty of honest dealing between man and man; or, in other words, to point out the boundaries between honesty and fraud, and apply the subject to every enlightened conscience.
What I have to advance on the subject, will properly fall under the two following general heads of discourse ;
I. Fairness IN MAKING CONTRACTS; and
II. FIDELITY IN EXECUTING THEM.
Our observations, under the first head, will apply to all contracts; whether those, which are made and completely executed at the same time, such as the purchasing of an article, which is immediately paid for and delivered; or those, which look forward to some future period for their execution, such as contracts for articles not delivered at the time of purchase, or delivered upon credit—contracts
[ 7 ]
for labour, for a temporary possession and use of things, not consumable, for the loaning of money, &c. Our remarks under the second head will be necessarily and exclusively confined to the latter class of contracts,——to those, which require time for their execution.
I. What constitutes fairness in making contracts; or uprightness in trade ?
It is a common observation in the world, that "every man has a right to make as good a bargain, as he can." Another observation equally common, in application to direct trade, is, that "it is right for any man to buy as cheap as he can, and sell as dear as he can."——Now nothing can be more false and pernicious, than these maxims, when received without limitation and applied to general practice. For you might thus justify every degree of deception, every kind of speculation, every species of fraud, and almost every act of pecuniary oppression.—It is true, the market price of a thing, whether for sale or loan, is a proper standard for trade. But since this is often fluctuating; since too, it depends on so many circumstances, of time, place, quality and quantity, it cannot always be applied without difficulty. I see, therefore, no fairer, safer and better general rule for trade, than that contained in the preceding maxims, when adopted with proper limitations. You have, unquestionably, a right to make as good a bargain as you can—to buy as cheap as you can, and sell as dear as you can, provided you use no deception in the trade, take no advantage of ignorance and necessity, and employ
[ 8 ]
no improper means to enhance or diminish the market-price of the commodity, concerning which the contract is made. All those complaints of extortion and avarice, which we frequently hear uttered against those, who strictly observe these rules in trade, are therefore unreasonable and cruel. It is not extortion, to demand for an article the current price, though that price may be enhanced far above its usual standard by scarcity, or some other circumstance, of which we have not been the voluntary cause. Nor is it a mark of avarice, to refuse paying more, than the current price, for what we wish to purchase ; though that price may be reduced extremely low by plenty, or some other cause, in the production of which we had no improper influence. It is true, a man may, if he choose, receive less or give more for an article, than its real value ; and the peculiar circumstances of the person, with whom he is dealing, may some times furnish a sufficient motive to induce a benev olent man to do this. But justice, or strict honesty does not require it. It. is an act of generosity. It is a delicate mode of giving alms to an object of charity.
The common maxims of trade, that "every man has a right to make as good a bargain, as he can"— "to buy as cheap, and sell as dear, as he can," it has been observed, are false and extremely pernicious, when taken without limitation; since they would thus break down the barriers between honesty and fraud. Yet with proper limitations, we said, they furnish a good general rule for the regulation of
commerce and every species of trade. Let it not he forgotten, however, that before we can safely apply this rule to practice, we must fix these limitations in our minds, so clearly and definitely, as to render them a permanent part of the rule itself.—— With this view I observe
I. That honesty will not allow us to take advantage of ignorance and inexperience.—This remark applies with equal force to every degree of incapacity in the party, with whom we contract.— Though the person, to whom you sell, or of whom you buy, may be neither an idiot,, nor a child; yet if he is unacquainted with the value of the goods, transferred, you are bound not to take advantage of this inexperience, and thus to overreach him. It would be fraud in you to demand more of him for an article, than you would demand, and might. expect to obtain, of one well qualified to judge for himself. Nor can you honestly purchase at a reduced price; when you know, that this reduction arises from a mistake, or the inexperience of the seller. The very apprehension of this will induce-a strictly honest man., to make inquiry.—You remember the language of Jacob to his sons, when he directed them to take back into Egypt, the money found in their sacks Of corn; "Peradventure" said the good old man—"Peradventure it was an oversight." So should we say in all cases, where we have reason to believe, that any one through ignorance or inadvertency has made, or is about to make a mistake in trade with us, to his own disadvantage. Indeed, this rule concerning ignorance,
[ 10 ]
inexperience, and even carelessness, should be regarded by us in every species of contract. Yet how often is this boundary of justice in dealing broken down ! How many even boast of their skill and success, in overreaching their fellow men "It is naught ; it is naught, saith the buyer ; but when he is gone his way, then he boasteth". This language, which so clearly denotes a dishonest man, boasting of his fraud and glorying in his shame, naturally leads me to observe
2. That honesty, or fairness in making a contract, forbids all kinds of deception concerning the quality, quantity, or current price of an article for sale, or a thing to be loaned. Whether this deception be produced by a direct falsehood, a crafty insinuation, an evasive answer, or any other artifice, the motive is the same ; the injury is the same ; and in the view of Him, who looketh on the heart, the guilt is the same.—If you wilfully exaggerate the good properties of a commodity, which you offer for sale; or of any thing, which you purpose to loan, you thereby deceive the person with whom you contract; and thus deprive him of his just right——you extort from him a sum, ‘which he probably would not give, if he knew the real state and condition of the commodity—you take what is not your own—you defraud him; and you might as well thrust your hand into his coffers, and secretly bear away, without any consideration, a sum equal to the surplus price thus produced.— I know these cases of fraud are distinguished in the eye of civil law, which is obliged to regard
[ 11 ]
principally the outward appearance. But in the view of Him, who looketh on the heart, they are the same. Proceeding from the same motive, and producing the same injury, they certainly imply the same dishonesty, and involve the same guilt.
We must not, if we would deal fairly and honestly—we must not attempt to produce the least
deception, concerning the condition and quality of the thing at sale. We must neither ascribe to it excellencies, which we know it does not possess, nor conceal the faults and defects in it, with which we are acquainted.—It is perhaps difficult, to convince men of the justice of this last remark. I cannot better illustrate it, than by adopting the language and reasoning of Dr. Payley. "I suppose," said he, "it will be generally allowed, that to advance a direct falsehood in recommendation of our wares, by ascribing to hem some quality, which we know that they have not, is dishonesty. Now compare with this the designed concealment of some fault, which we know that they have. The motives and the. effects of actions are the only points of comparison, in which their moral quality can differ; but the motives, in the two cases are the same, viz. to procure a higher price, than we expect otherwise to obtain: the effect, that is, the prejudice to the buyer, is also the same; for he finds himself equally out of pocket by his bargain;: whether the commodity, when he gets home with it, turns out worse than he had supposed, by the want of some quality which he expected, or the discovery of some fault which he did not expect. If, therefore, actions be
[ 12 ]
the same, as to all moral purposes, which proceed from the same motives and produce the same effects, it is making a distinction without a difference, to esteem it a cheat to magnify beyond the truth the virtues of what we have to sell, but none to conceal its faults."——This reasoning of Dr. Payley is certainly conclusive; it is demonstration. And although it is here applied to contracts of sale only, it is equally applicable to those of loan. Nor can I conceive of more than two possible cases, which furnish exceptions to the rule, requiring us to make an explicit statement of any important defect, which we have discovered in an article, which we offer either to loan or sell. The one is, where you are expressly informed, that the commodity must speak for itself—where it is explicitly declared, whoever purchases or hires, must "take it for better or for worse." The other is, where goods are fairly and openly exposed for sale at auction; for in this case you have the same notice from usage, which in the other you obtain by express declaration.* In both you are cautioned to guard against deceiving and injuring yourself.
It is unnecessary to add a single remark, concerning the quantity of articles transferred; since the remarks, which have been made concerning quality, will apply here with equal force; since too, the language of text so expressly declares, that deception in weights and measures is an abomination to the Lord. Nor is it necessary, to illustrate
* Even these exceptions, however, are seldom applicable, where the venders are not acting, as agents for others.
[ 13 ]
the general remark, that honesty admits of no artifice, to conceal the current price or real value of a commodity. For the particulars, in the caution against taking advantage of ignorance and inexperience, contain every thing, which could be properly said in such an illustration.—I proceed therefore, to observe;
3. That we cannot honestly take advantage of the peculiar necessities of the party, with whom we contract. A person may want a particular article, which you have for sale ; and by reason of sickness, or some other cause, may be unable to procure it, in due season, from any other source. Now if you take advantage of his peculiar exigencies—if you take occasion from the knowledge of his situation, to enhance the price of the commodity; and demand more for it, than you would otherwise have asked, or could reasonably have expected to obtain, you defraud him. Indeed this may be ranked among the worst kinds of fraud. It implies great cruelty and peculiar hardness of heart. It is extortion. It is oppression. It is robbery.-—The cases, to which this general remark may be applied, are numerous. An attempt to specify then would be an endless task. Every one, therefore, must be left to make the application of it to the cases, which occur in the course of his business. Nor will a person of strict honesty, with an enlightened conscience, find much difficulty in making the application; for here, at least, "Conscience is the best casuist." Hence I observe;
[ 14 ]
goods, especially of the necessaries of life. The evils, arising from these sources in some portions of our country are certainly great and in the course of a few years past are said to have been much increased. Whether any farther legal restraint on unprincipled speculators, would check the alarming progress of these evils, is a question of importance for the consideration of legislators. But a love of righteousness and a fear of iniquity should be sufficient to deter us, and will be sufficient to deter every honest man, from practices so unjust in themselves, and so distressing in their effects. Every man, who monopolizes a commodity in market, or forestalls provisions designed for market; who combines his influence with others, or employs any artifice whatever, to enhance the price of the necessaries and comforts of life, is an enemy to human happiness. He deranges the calculations, and interrupts the business of honest men. He brings those, who depend for subsistence on a fixed income, into a state of embarrassment. He oppresses the poor. He defrauds the community. He is a publick robber.—Does the speculator, in justification of his conduct, say, "I have a right to do what I please with my own." Our answer is, you have no right to injure others; you have no right so to employ your own property, as to destroy the property of your neighbour; especially have you no right, by monopoly or combination, to enhance the price of those things, which are necessary to
[ 15 ]
subsistence, and thus extort from the industrious the hard-earned fruit of their labour, and reduce the orphan and widow to a morsel of bread. If such a practice does not directly violate the laws of the land, it certainly does the laws of christian love. It is at best legalized fraud.
That unprincipled speculators are often caught in their own snares, and ruined by the very means, which they employ to injure others, is no consolation to the injured, and no mitigation of the crime. It is true, they often suffer for their rashness, and they generally suffer without compassion ; but their sufferings do not repair the injury done, nor atone for the guilt, contracted. Much less will this occasional punishment—this chance of failure, which every speculator incurs, justify the practice. Whether sentence against an evil work begin to be executed speedily or not, the guilt is the same, and the sentence of final condemnation will be the same.
To prevent a misunderstanding, let it be distinctly stated and carefully remembered, that the practices, of which we here speak, are not intended to include that fair dealing, which is the occupation; and, I may add, the useful occupation of those, who purchase in large quantities for the purpose of retailing; and who thus accommodate their neighbours, while they receive a proper compensation for their labour. Nor are our remarks designed to apply to those associations of mechanicks and manufacturers, which are formed, merely to improve the useful arts of life. But wherever the object of the purchaser, in the first instance, is to engross the
[ 16 ]
commodity, which he purchases, and thus increase the current price; or of the association, in the second, to prevent a free sale of their manufactures; oppression is the effect; and the practice becomes fraudulent and wicked.
I shall dismiss this part of the subject with a few observations concerning those contracts, which relate to the loaning of money.—In the nature of things, there seems to be no good reason for a distinction between these and other contracts; and were there no peculiar legal regulations on the subject, the rule of honest dealing would be the same in both cases. But in this, as well as most other civilized countries, the rate of interest has been prescribed by law. Whether this regulation is beneficial to trade, and promotive of the publick good, is a question for the consideration of legislators, and not of christian moralists.* But there can be no question with real christians, whether they are hound to observe the regulation, while the constituted authorities of the country see fit to continue it in force. The observance of the laws of the society, in which we live, so long as they do not
* The following are among the considerations, which seem to justify this interference of civil government. 1. The regulation is altogether in favour of the poor, who stand in peculiar need of protection: . The temptations to fraud and oppression, in loaning money, are more frequent and mere powerful, than in ordinary branches of trade ; and the extortioner, without legal restraint, might here accomplish his purpose with peculiar facility: 5. The regulation is calculated to prevent an excessive accumulation of wealth, without industry; while it affords to the enterprising portion of the community an opportunity, to obtain a capital for business upon terms, which will ordinarily secure to them a reward for their labour . In this case a legal regulation is more equal in its operations, than a similar regulation could be, in any other branch of trade. 5. A general rule of interest, understood by all, and sanctioned by law, is extremely convenient for all, and especially for men of extensive business; as it prevents the necessity of a special contract for the purpose, in every case of settlement and purchase upon credit.
[ 17 ]
counteract the laws of God—so long as they do not command us to do what is wrong in itself, or prohibited by higher authority, is clearly a christian duty. We are directed by an inspired apostle, to "submit to the powers that be, not only for wrath, but for conscience sake."—I feel no hesitancy, therefore, in pronouncing the practice of taking illegal interest, if not in strict propriety of language fraudulent, yet altogether inconsistent with the principles of christian morality.*
II. Having thus attended to the first part of our subject, and endeavoured to furnish proper limits to the common maxims of trade, and general rules for their safe application to practice; let us now proceed to the second part—to the inquiry, what constitutes fidelity in the execution of contracts. This is certainly an important inquiry, because many contracts of sale, and all of loan, require time for their execution. Although, therefore, they may be made with fairness, according to the rules of strict honesty; yet, if they are not executed with fidelity, they degenerate from their original character and become fraudulent
"A contract is a mutual promise." The obligation is of course mutual; and fidelity requires,
* It may perhaps be said with truth, that this topick does not properly belong to this subject of the discourse. It is, however, very intimately connected with it ; and its importance to society will justify the digression. The practice of taking illegal interest, though not malum in se, is nevertheless, malum prohibitum; and as such is a crime. That the miser should reason differently, and come to a different conclusion, is not strange: For, as Locke quaintly observes, "Let never so much probability hang on one tide of a covetous man's reasoning, and money on the other ; it is easy to foresee, which will outweigh."
[ 18 ]
that both parties should endeavour to execute it, according to their mutual understanding of its terms and conditions.—This is a rule of the very first importance. For in making a contract with your neighbour, if you purposely or carelessly use equivocal terms; or employ any means, which are calculated to deceive him, and lead him to expect of you what you never intended to perform, you cannot in justice take advantage of your own wrong; you cannot, without fraud, make your intentions the rule of interpretation ;—you cannot honestly refuse to perform, what you gave him good reasons to expect.. For example, you engage to perform a certain piece of work for a stated consideration. Now, if you intentionally or carelessly use such terms, or employ such signs, as are calculated to raise the expectation that it will he performed at a particular time or in a particular manner, you are under obligation, thus to perform it, whatever reservation you may have had in your own mind, or in whatever equivocal language you may have involved the contract. Thus clear is it, that honesty in dealing will not allow us to make our intentions the measure of our obligations in executing a contract; unless we fairly declared those intentions, and endeavoured to make them known to the person, with whom the contract was made.—Nor, on the other hand, are we authorized to test the fidelity of those, with whom we contract, by our expectations. For we may vainly and foolishly expect, what they gave us no reason
[ 19 ]
to expect.——An example here, too, will best Illlustrate the position. You may engage a quantity of the productions of your farm to a neighbour for a stipulated sum ; and may, for reasons in your own mind, indulge the expectation that he will defray the expense of transportation. But, if nothng is said to raise this expectation, and general usage is against it, you cannot in justice require him to transport it, nor accuse him of unfaithfulness for refusing to comply with your unreasonable, though real, expectations.——Indeed, in almost every contract there are some implied conditions, which are not expressly stipulated. These conditions must be determined by custom; and unless we are willing to abide by the decisions, which custom and general usage authorize, we should be careful to express every important condition explicitly in the contract. Nor can we honestly refuse to comply with these decisions, where there is no express agreement to the contrary.
Since, therefore, it is evident, that neither the intentions of the one party, nor the expectations of the other, can furnish a general rule for the faithful execution of a contract; it follows, that the mutual understanding of both parties is the best criterion, and furnishes the most general rule for a faithful execution. It is true, as we have already said, there may be a misunderstanding even between honest men. In all such cases, as we before observed, general usage may furnish an explanation, or should that in any instance be equivocal, mutual
[ 20 ]
concessions, or regard to rectitude, and a love of peace will easily adjust the matter and remove the difficulty. Probably, however, the cases of misunderstanding between strictly honest persons are not numerous. But the possibility of such an occurrence should render us careful, and induce us to be explicit in our declarations and precise in defining the terms of a contract. It is true likewise, that there may be a real misunderstanding in a contract between an honest man and one, who is destitute of honesty and every principle of religion.— What shall the honest man do in this case? Why truly his case is full of difficulty; and he is in danger of suffering loss of property and perhaps of reputation. It ought, therefore, and probably will teach him an important lesson in his future dealings, inducing him to avoid, as far as possible, all commercial intercourse with men of such a character. In his present situation, however, honesty requires him to do every thing, which he would have done to adjust a misunderstanding with an honest man. Perhaps prudence, a regard to reputation, and a desire to avoid litigation, may induce him to do even more—to suffer wrong— to make some pecuniary sacrifice for the sake of peace. Let it be distinctly understood, however, that honesty does not require this sacrifice; and in many cases a regard to the publick good and a desire to maintain publick justice absolutely forbid it.
To refresh your memories, and fix this important rule in the mind of every honest man, I will
[ 21 ]
here recapitulate. Let it be remembered, then, that we are bound, by principles of christian honesty, to execute our contracts according to the mutual understanding of the parties concerned; that in cases, where there is a real misunderstanding between the parties, we ought to be satisfied with the decisions of custom or general usage, and faithfully to observe them; that, finally, should an instance of misunderstanding occur, in which custom furnishes no unequivocal decision, mutual concession is the path of honesty—the course, which every real, enlightened christian will be ready to pursue.
This, my hearers, is certainly a good, general rule, and perhaps the best, which we can adopt for the regulation of our conduct in the execution of contracts. It is a rule, founded on christian principles, supported by the moral maxims of the gospel, and adapted to the circumstances of almost every contract, into which a christian can consistently enter. I say, "into which a christian can consistently enter ;" for the gospel furnishes no rules concerning the execution of other contracts, such as the agreement between a company of thieves, of monopolizers, of gamblers, of robbers.—I say, "adapted to the circumstances of almost every contract, into which a christian can consistently enter ;" because there may be exceptions to this, as well as every other general rule.—Thus a failure in one party, to comply with the acknowledged conditions of a contract, may free the other from his obligations, and sometimes even render it impossible
[ 22 ]
for him, to fulfil it.—Thus, too, some sudden and remarkable event of Providence, changing the nature, or greatly affecting the value of the property involved in a contract, may so far affect the contract itself, that an honest man would not be bound to execute it, according to the mutual understanding of the parties at the time of contracting. "It is possible," says Dr. Payley, "that an estate or a house may, during the term of a lease, be so increased or diminished in its value, as to become worth much more or much less, than the rent agreed to be paid for it. In some of which cases, it may be doubted, to whom, of natural right, the advantage or disadvantage belongs. The rule of justice," continues he, "seems to be this; if the alteration might be expected by the parties, the hirer must take the consequences; if it could not, the owner." This observation of the learned moralist may be extended to various other kinds of property. Nor can it appear unreasonable to an intelligent mind or disagreeable to an honest heart. For where a change might reasonably be expected—— where it is such as often takes place in the ordinary course of events, the liability to the change is considered, and by implication, at least, provided for in the contract itself. But where the change is entirely unexpected——such as no person could have foreseen or thought of, no such consideration is taken into view by the parties, nor any such provision implied in the contract. Of course, such a change in the state of property will produce a
[ 23 ]
corresponding change in a previous contract concerning it, and free us from the obligation of executing it according to the original understanding of the parties.—Changes like this, however, are not frequent; and perhaps none of us may ever have occasion to make a particular application of this exception to the general rule.
I can think of but one other exception to the rule laid down—an exception, which often occurs— an exception, the benefit of which every honest roan is liable to need ;—I mean that exception, which arises from inability to fulfil an engagement. According to strict propriety of language, perhaps, this ought not to be called an exception to a rule of action; since it depends not on choice, but necessity. But by whatever term designated, it is deeply involved in the subject of this discourse; and worthy of particular consideration.——Let it be observed, therefore, that inability will excuse us from the guilt of dishonesty, in not executing a contract; provided the inability be necessary and unexpected.
I wish here to be distinctly understood; because this part of our subject is highly important; and because, I apprehend, many have not duly examined it and considered its importance.—Let it not be forgotten then, that the inability, which will excuse the violation of a contract, must be necessary. You may be unable to perform, what you have positively engaged to perform merely because
[ 24 ]
you are careless and idle, or extravagant and dissipated. But this is a criminal inability. Before you can he admitted to plead inability at the bar of honesty, you must show, that your inability is not voluntary—that you are disposed to do, and are actually doing every thing in your power, to fulfil your engagements. To a man in debt, inattention to business, idleness, intemperance, extravagance in living, or any unnecessary expense of time or money, is inconsistent with honesty. Industry, sobriety and strict economy will always be found in an honest man, while he has debts to pay——engagements to fulfil—contracts to execute. But, if with all this care, calculation and exertion, you become unable, through sickness, misfortune, or the fraud of others, to accomplish, what you promised and expected to perform, you stand acquitted of dishonesty in the sight of Heaven.
Let it be remembered too, that the inability, which will excuse a failure in executing a contract, must be unexpected. If, at the time of contracting you knew, or had reason to believe, that you should not be able to fulfil your engagements, your inability cannot justify you ; nor will it satisfy a good conscience. The fraud in this case, however, lies rather in making, than in not executing the contract. For persons, who have thus deceived others and wickedly involved themselves, nothing remains but sincere repentance for the fault, diligent exertion to repair the injury, and firm resolution to "sin no more."
[ 25 ]
I cannot leave this head of discourse, without few words of caution, and a solemn warning for
classes of men—oppressive creditors and careless debtors.—On the one hand, let the oppressive creditor remember, that he will one day be called to give an awful account for every act, even of legalized oppression, by which he has caused an inocent and unfortunate man to suffer for not doing, what it was impossible for him to do.—On the other, let not those debtors, who take advantage of the forbearance of their creditors and carelessly neglect to fulfil their engagements, imagine that they are honest men. Let them remember, that the plea of inability will not justify them in the sight of Heaven, if the inability itself is a crime—if their own misconduct has caused it—if it is now voluntary, or was foreseen by them at the time of contracting.
Let both of these classes of men remember, and regard this important caution—this solemn warning. To the first we say in the language of inspiration; "Trust not in oppression ;"—to the last, "Become not vain in robbery ;"—to both, "As you would, that men should do unto you, do ye even so to them."
In reviewing the subject of this discourse, my hearers, we can scarcely fail to perceive its importance to society; and feel, that it involves our own personal interest and happiness. Much more might be said upon it; and perhaps, what has been said, might have been rendered more definite and better
[ 26 ]
guarded against misconception and perversion. But I hope, notwithstanding these defects, that the rules laid down, and the cautions given, will not be in vain to any of us. This, however, will depend on the fidelity, with which we apply them to ourselves; and the sincerity and earnestness, with which we seek the blessing of Heaven upon our endeavours to regard them in practice.
To enforce the observations, which have been made, I have yet to suggest a few considerations, both for the honest and the dishonest.—I begin with the latter.
Are any of you, my hearers, convinced, that you have been dishonest in dealing? Have you in making contracts, taken advantage of ignorance and inexperience? Have you attempted to produce deception concerning the quality, quantity, or current price of any article, which you have bought or sold? Have you made the necessities of others an occasion of extortion? Have you, by monopoly or combination, attempted to enhance the price of goods, especially of the necessaries of life ? Have you made contracts, which you never expected to be able to execute? Or finally, do you now, carelessly and without necessity, neglect to fulfil your engagements ?—Our subject, then, warns you of your danger, and calls on you to repent and amend your doings. Remember, O fraudulent dealer, whosoever thou art——remember, that without honesty thou canst not be a christian, nor enter the kingdom of heaven. There is yet space
[ 27 ]
for repentance; and true repentance has the promise of pardon. But for those; who continue in the ways of unrighteousness, there remaineth no more sacrifice for sin, nor any ground of hope. Beyond the grave, we are assured, the unjust will be unjust still, reaping the fruit of their own doings, and being filled with their own devices. Wherefore, be persuaded to break off your sins by repentance, and your iniquities by turning unto the Lord. Let him, that stole, steal no more; but rather let him labour, working with his hands the thing that is good.
Those, who think themselves honest men, we exhort to examine themselves with care, lest their own hearts should deceive them. My friends, review your lives, with reference to this subject.—— Search and see, whether your conduct uniformly accord with the rules of christian honesty.—Remember too, that honesty in dealing is not the only christian virtue; and, though essential to the christian character, it will not alone constitute you real christians. Your characters must be consistent and your hearts right with God, or your hopes will be cut off and perish.—Forget not, moreover, that although we are not saved by works of righteousness, which we have done but by grace through faith; yet the fruit of faith is obedience, and the effect of grace is righteousness. While, therefore, you rely on the mercy of God, through faith in the Lord, Jesus Christ, for salvation ; give all diligence to make your calling and election sure. Continue
[ 28 ]
in the ways of well-doing. Do justly. Walk honestly. Defraud no man. But provide things honest in the sight of all men.—Finally, my brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things. Those things, which ye have both learned and received and heard and seen in the precepts of the gospel, and the example of its inspired teachers, do; and the God of peace shall be with you.—Amen.