William Bradford Institute
for Study of the
Early Settlement of America

Samuel Willard, The Character of a Good Ruler


[Samuel Willard, one of the leading Puritan ministers in Massachusetts in the
latter half of the 17th century, outlines below the characteristics of a good
political ruler. This was first delivered as an election sermon in 1694.]


Whether the Ordination of Civil Government be an Article of the Law of Nature,
and it should accordingly have been established upon the Multiplication of
Mankind, although they had retained their Primitive Integrity: Or whether it
have only a Positive right, and was introduced upon man's Apostacy; is a
question about which all are not agreed. The equity of it, to be sure, is
founded in the Law Natural, and is to be discovered by the light of Nature,
being accordingly acknowledged by such as are strangers to Scripture Revelation;
and by Christians it is reducible to the first Command in the Second Table of
the Decalogue; which is supposed to be a transcript of the Law given to Adam at
the first, and written upon the Tables of his Heart. For tho', had man kept his
first state, the Moral Image Concreated in him, consisting in, Knowledg,
Righteousness, and True Holiness, would have maintained him in a perfect
understanding of, and Spontaneous Obedience to the whole duty incumbent on him,
without the need of civil Laws to direct him, or a civil Sword to lay compulsion
on him; and it would have been the true Golden Age, which the Heathen
Mythologists are to Fabulous about. Yet even then did the All-Wise God Ordain
Orders of Superiority and Inferiority among men, and required all Honour to be
paid accordingly. But since the unhappy Fall hath Robbed man of that perfection,
and filled his heart with perverse and rebellious principles, tending to the
Subversion of all Order and the reducing of the World to a Chaos; necessity
requires, and the Political happiness of a People is concerned in the
establishment of Civil Government. The want of it hath ever been pernicious, and
attended on with miserable Circumstances. When there was no Governour in Israel,
but every mail did what he would, what horrible outrages, were then perpetrated,
though Holy and Zealous. . . . Government is to prevent and cure the disorders
that are apt to break forth among the Societies of men; and to promote the civil
peace and prosperity of such a people, as well as to suppress impiety, and
nourish Religion. For this end there are to be both Rulers, and such as are to
be Ruled by them: and the Weal or Wo of a People mainly depends oil the
qualifications of those Rulers, by whom we are to be Governed....


It is of highest Consequence, that Civil Rulers should be Just Men, and such as
Rule in the Fear of God....

Civil Rulers are all such as are in the exercise of a rightful Authority over
others. These do not all of them stand in one equal Rank, nor are alike
influential into Government. There are Supreme and Subordinate Powers: and of
these also there are some who have a Legislative, others an Executive Power in
their Hands; which two, though they may sometimes meet in the same persons, yet
are in themselves things of a different Nature. There are Superiour Magistrates
in Provinces, and such as are of Council with them, and Assembly men, the
Representatives of the People. There are Judges in Courts, Superiour and
Inferiour, Justices of the Peace in their several Precincts: and in each of
these Orders there Resides a measure of Authority.

Now, that all these may be Just, it is firstly required, that they have a
Principle of Moral Honesty in them, and Swaying of them: that they Love
Righteousness, and Hate Iniquity: that they be Men of Truth, Exod. 18. 2 1. for
every man will act in his Relation, according to the Principle that Rules in
him: so that an Unrighteous man will be an Unrighteous Ruler, so far as he hath
an Opportunity.

They must also be acquainted with the Rules of Righteousness; they must know
what is just, and what is Unjust, be Able Men, Exod. 18. 2 1. For, though men
may know and not do, yet without Knowledge the Mind cannot be good. Ignorance is
a Foundation for Error, and will likely produce it, when the man applies himself
to act: and if he do right at any time, it is but by guess, which is a very poor

Again, he must be one that respects the Cause, and not the persons in all his
Administrations, Dent. 1. 17. re shall not respect Persons in Judgment, &c. if
his Affections Oversway his judgment at any time, they will be a crooked Bias,
that will turn him out of the way, and that shall be justice in one man's case,
which will not be so in another.

Furthermore, he must be one whom neither Flattery nor Bribery may be able to
remove out of his way, Deut. 16. 19. Thou shalt not Wrest Judgment, thou shall
not Respect Persons, neither take a Gift; and hence he must be one who hates
both Ambition and Covetousness, Exod. 18. 2 1 Hating Covetousness; which word
signifies, a Greedy Desire, and is applicable to both the fore cited Vices: for
if these Rule him, he will never be a just Ruler.

Finally, he must be one who prefers the publick Benefit above all private and
separate Interests whatsoever. Every man in his place, owes himself to the good
of the whole; and if he doth not so devote himself, he is unjust: and he who
either to advance himself, or to be Revenged on another, will push on Injurious
Laws, or pervert the true Intention of such as are in Force, is an unjust man:
and he who is under the influence of a Narrow Spirit, will be ready to do so, as
occasion offers. . . .

And accordingly, he is a Student in the Law of God, and Meditates in it Day and
Night; making it the Rule into which he ultimately resolves all that he doth in
his place. We find that in the Old Law, the King was to write a Copy of it with
his own hand, and to make use of it at all times: Deut. 17- 18, 19.

If he hath any thing to do in the making of Laws, he will consult a good
Conscience, and what may be pleasing to God, and will be far from framing
mischief by a Law. And if he be to execute any Laws of men, he will not dare to
give a judgment for such an one as directly Crosseth the Command of God, but
counts it ipsofacto void, and his Conscience acquitted of his Oath. . . .
In a word, he is one that will take care to promote Piety as well as Honesty
among men; and do his utmost that the true Religion may be countenanced and
established, and that all Ungodliness, as well as Unrighteousness, may have a
due Testimony born against it at all times. So he resolves Psal. 75 to. all the
horns of the wicked also will I cut off; but the horns of the righteous shall be

It then follows that we enquire of what great moment or consequence it is that
these should be such: and there is a three-fold respect in which the high
importance of it is to be discovered by us.

1. In respect to the Glory of God.

Civil Rulers are God's Vicegerents here upon earth; hence they are sometimes
honoured with the title of Gods, Psal. 82 6. 1 have said ye are Gods. Government
is God's Ordinance; and those that are Vested with it, however mediately
introduced into it, have their rightful authority from him, Prov. 8. 15, 16. By
me Kings Reign, and Princes Decree Justice. By me Princes Rule, and Nobles, even
all the Judges of the Earth, and they that are from him, should be for him, and
ought to seek the Honour of him who is King of Kings, and Lord of Lords: which
they only then do, when they manage their whole Interest and Power with a Design
for his Glory; & accordingly manage themselves in all their Ministrations by the
Statutes of his Kingdom; which none will ever do, but they that are _7ust,
Ruling in the Fear of God. . . . Those that would bear their Testimony against
Impiety and Debauchery, are frowned on and neglected; and such as would Nourish
them are Countenanced: and either good Laws to suppress them are not provided,
or they are laid by as things Obsolete, and of no Service: and thus all
Abominations come in upon a People as a Flood, and the Name of God is wofully
dishonoured by this means: and hereupon the last and most excellent end of
Government comes to be frustrated, and what is there that we can conceive to be
of greater weight than this? if this be lost, the Glory of such a people is

2. In regard to the weal of the People over whom they Rule.
A People are not made for Rulers, But Rulers for a People. It is indeed an
Honour which God puts upon some above others, when he takes them from among the
People, and sets them up to Rule over them, but it is for the Peoples sake, and
the Civil felicity of them is the next end of Civil Policy; and the happiness of
Rulers is bound up with theirs in it. Nor can any wise men in authority think
themselves happy in the Misery of their Subjects, to whom they either are or
should be as Children are to their Fathers . . . and it lies especialy with
Rulers, under God, to make a People Happy or Miserable. When men can enjoy their
Liberties and Rights without molestation or oppression; when they can live
without fear of being born down by their more Potent Neighbours; when they are
secured against Violence, and may be Righted against them that offer them any
injury, without fraud; and are encouraged to serve God in their own way, with
freedom, and without being imposed upon contrary to the Gospel precepts; now are
they an happy People. But this is to be expected from none other but men just
and Pious: they that are otherwise, will themselves be oppressours . . .

3. With Reference to Rulers themselves.

It is, as we before Observed, a Dignity put upon them, to be preferred to
Government over their Brethren; to have the oversight, not of' Beasts, but of
Men. But as there is a great Trust devolved on them, so there is an answerable
Reckoning which they must be called unto: And however they are settled in
Authority by men, yet GOD, who Rules over all, hath put them in only Durante
Bene Plecito: they are upon their good Behaviour; they are Stewards, and
whensoever GOD pleaseth, He will call for a Reckoning, and put them out. God
sets up, and he pulls down; and he hath a respect to men's Carriages in his
dealings with them.

Source: Samuel Willard, The Character of a Good Ruler (Boston, 1694). *Some
spelling has been modernized.


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