“The Rights of Conscience” American Sentinel 9, 34, pp. 266, 267.

THE question of the rights of conscience has been brought very prominently before the country by the case of Private Charles O. Cedarquist, Company A, Second Infantry, the particulars of which case are thus given in the official report, copied in the Congressional Record of August 3, as follows:—

Charge.—“Disobedience of orders, in violation of the twenty-first article of war.”

Specification.—“That Private Charles O. Cedarquist, Company A, Second Infantry, having been ordered by his superior officer, Second Lieut. Edwin V. Bookmiller, Second Infantry, in the execution of his office, to take a rifle and proceed at once with his target practice, did refuse to obey, and did disobey said order. This at Bellevue Rifle Range, Bellevue, Nebr., June 17, 1894.

Pleas.—“In bar of trial.” Not sustained by the court. The accused then pleaded “Not guilty.”


Sentence.—“To be confined at hard labor under charge of the guard for the period of six months, and to forfeit to the United States $10 per month of his pay for the same period.”

The defense in this case was “limited to the contention that the order in respect of which disobedience was charged was an unlawful one in that, first, it enjoined a duty to be performed on Sunday in violation of orders and regulations limiting Sunday labor in the Army to the measure of strict necessity; and second, that the act required to be done would have been a violation of section 241 of the criminal code of Nebraska.”

The view taken of the matter by the court was—

That a commanding officer has a discretion under existing orders to require target practice by his command on Sunday in a case of necessity, is undoubted. The evidence in this case fails to fix upon the commanding officer of Bellevue Rifle Range, Nebraska, any abuse of discretion in the issue of the order complained of by the accused. The legality of that order and the obligation of the accused to obey it when duly transmitted to him cannot, in the opinion of the reviewing authority, be questioned. It was not for him to judge the necessity for the issue of the order. That discretion pertained to his commanding officer, and once exercised, whether erroneously or not, it was the duty of the accused to obey.

The sentence of the court-martial was approved by Brig. Gen. Brooke, who, however, commuted it with this remark:—

The sentence is approved, but in view of the peculiar circumstances attending the commission of the offense, is mitigated to confinement at hard labor for two months at the station of his company. It is desired, however, that it shall be understood that, in view of the warning held out in this order, offenses of the character charged in this case will not in the future be regarded as fitting ones for the exercise of clemency.

August 1, Mr. Cedarquist was released by order of the President, communicated in the following telegram:—

Adjutant-General’s Office, Washington,
August 1, 1894.
COMMANDING GENERAL, Department Platte, Omaha, Nebr.:

The unexecuted portion of the sentence awarded Private Cedarquist, promulgated in the General Court-Martial Orders No. 45, current series, from your headquarters, is this day remitted by the President, and you will cause the man to be released at once. This action, however, is not in any manner to be regarded as a justification of the disobedience of orders on the part of the soldier. The officer who ordered target practice on Sunday, in violation of the order of President Lincoln, given in November, 1862, must be brought to trial for his disobedience of orders.

By order of the Secretary of War.

GEO. D. RUGGLES, Adjutant-General.

Speaking in the House on the 2nd inst., to a resolution asking that the facts of case be laid before Congress, by the War Department, Mr. Grosvenor of Ohio, said:—

It appears by the record of the court-martial that on the day in question some officer of the United States [267] Army ordered the company of troops to which Cedarquist belonged to go upon a rifle range somewhere in the neighborhood of Omaha and engage in the business of firing at target. It appears by the record that the soldier respectfully declined to go, stating at the time that it was improper and unlawful to make such a requirement, and that he was conscientiously opposed to doing that duty on the Sabbath day.

This shows that the real defense was the rights of conscience. Private Cedarquist (mistakenly, it is true) regards Sunday as the Sabbath, as he has a right to do; and having the courage of his convictions, he dared to obey God (as he supposed) rather than man. In so doing he stands vindicated and approved by the Government of the United States. But having established this precedent, will the Government consistently adhere to it? or will it respect only the Sunday conscience? In other words, was the real purpose of the President to vindicate the rights of conscience, as such and in any man, or to honor Sunday? Time will tell.

But be this as it may, the Cedarquist case opens up again the whole question of the rights of conscience, i.e., of how far conscientious convictions should be recognized and respected by the State. Can the plea that a man acted conscientiously ever be admitted as a justification for violation of law?

That this plea had weight in the Cedarquist case there can be no doubt. Had it been evident that this man had no regard for Sunday, that he had no conscience in the matter, but that his disobedience was willful insubordination, the case would have occasioned no remark and would have received no attention from the President. It is probably true that owing to the prevailing agitation of the Sunday question, this case has received more attention than it would have received had the issue been raised over any other matter, but that does not remove the fact that the President of the United States, and through him, the Government of the United States, has recognized the principle that even private soldiers have rights of conscience which ought to be respected. But, again, the query arises, where shall the line be drawn? It is clear (1) that government cannot become the judge of men’s consciences; and (2) that the plea of conscientious conviction cannot be accepted as a final and sufficient defense in all cases of violation of law. What rule, then, can be adopted which will preserve the authority of the State and yet not trench upon the rights of conscience?

The question thus raised is well answered by a clause in the Constitution of the State of Maryland: “No person ought, by any law, to be molested in his person or estate on account of his religious persuasion or profession, or for his religious practice, unless under color of religion, he shall disturb the good order, peace, or safety of the State, … or injure others in their natural, civil, or religious rights.” In this the line is drawn just where it should be, namely, at the equal rights of others. Under this provision the courts are not called upon to judge any man’s conscience, but only to judge whether or not his conscience leads him to infringe the equal rights of his fellow-men. That a man’s conscience is just what he says it is, no man has either right or occasion to deny. A man’s statement of his conscience is an end of controversy; but it does not follow that one has a right to do whatever his conscience tells him is right for him to do. There is a difference between conscience and the rights of conscience. No man, however conscientious, has any right to infringe the equal right of another; and at this point civil government has a right to take cognizance, not of any man’s conscience, but of the relation of the act to the rights of others.

The principle briefly stated is this: No man should be either required or forbidden to do any act contrary to conscience, however erroneous that conscience may be, unless the doing or forbearing to do that act trenches on the equal rights of others. This rule would (1) abrogate all civil laws requiring the observance of Sunday or of any other day; and (2) it would leave the courts free, not to judge men’s consciences, but to protect all men against wrong in the name of conscience. But this is only saying in other words that which we have said many times before, namely, that civil governments are instituted not to create or to “grant” rights, but to guarantee the free and untrammeled exercise of equal, natural, God-given, inalienable rights, and that of these the highest and most sacred is perfect freedom in matters of religious belief and practice.

The Government has acted upon this principle in the Cedarquist case; will it, we again ask, adhere to it consistently to the end? or will it regard conscience only in the Sunday-keeper, and ignore it in the Sabbath-keeper, as several of the States have done and are doing? We shall see. As for us, we expect nothing else than that the procedure in this case will be lifted far above all the rights of conscience and of everything else, and will be made to do service in the exaltation of Sunday and its exclusive support by the Government of the United States. [267]

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