Thursday, April 26, 2007

Josiah Warren, On Mobs (Part 1 of 2)

Josiah Warren, "On Mobs," The Boston Investigator, 33, 20 (September 23, 1863), 155.

For the Boston Investigator.

On Mobs.

By the Author of "True Civilization."

Mr. Editor:—I see it stated that a hundred and fifty of the (so called) rioters in New York are brought up for trial and punishment. Punishment in this case cannot mean reparation for damages done, for these poor creatures have nothing with which to make restitution, but the punishment is intended as usual for a "terror to evil doers." But those who punish instead of preventing crime do not know that they are themselves evil doers! They give the authority of the State and the influence of their high example to that very spirit of revenge which they condemn in the mob, and the more they punish destitution and desperation or even crime, the more mobs there will be. But what is to be done? Ah! That is the question—for the present moment the least violent restraints that are effectual seem the best expedients. The policeman who exposed his life in three times extinguishing the fire at the Orphan Asylum, displayed the right kind of heroism. He did not stand to quarrel with the mob, but was entirely engaged in preventing the destruction; and though he did more good than hundreds who were fighting the mob, some of whom lost their lives in so doing, his life was spared by the mob, who could have killed him in a moment, but they could not find a motive to do so. There is something so self-evidently correct in protecting persons or property from wanton destruction, it at least commends itself to forbearance even from men rendered desperate. Cannot the official take a hint from this and draw a line now between the punishment and the prevention of crime?

I use the word "mob" in no opprobrious sense. Those who gather round a fallen horse in the street to assist him to get up, are a mob; and those who used to hurry to a neighbor's house on fire to do their best to extinguish it, were mobs, until there were regular organizations for that purpose. Wat Tyler and his associates were a mob, but had they not done as they did we might not have had the character of Liberty so highly prized and so little understood in this country. I might multiply illustrations but I wish to space unnecessary words. It is not, then, the mob that is to be condemned, but it is what they do that is to be considered; and then it is not what the mob are supposed to have done, but what individuals it was that did this or that—and then, not to visit them with vindictive punishment, but to obtain reparation for damages, or to learn the causes which impelled them, in order to prevent similar effects in the future; for this is all that is truly worthy of the wise legislator. We are not true and consequently not safe without this careful discrimination. But here we come to a stand—there seems to be no knowledge of causes among law-makers nor among the administrators of laws; nor do they seem to be aware that causes can have anything to do with what happens! If they did, why do we not hear of anything by "catching and punishing" the rioters? Let Mr. Aikin give a hint on this point:—

"Don't be angry with me, Sir," cried the widow, sobbing bitterly. She was a poor creature with an infant in her arms. The man whom she addressed, asked her to give up her child to his care. She refused, and on seeing that he was displeased, she said, "Pray don't be angry. I know I am undeserving of your bounty; but if I were to tell you the hardships I have undergone—to what extremities I have been reduced—and to what infamy I have submitted, to earn a scanty subsistence for this for this child's sake,—if you could feel what it is to stand alone in the world as I do, bereft of all who ever loved me, and shunned by all who have ever known me, except the worthless and the wretched—and Heaven grant that you may be spared the knowledge—how much affliction sharpens love and how much more dear to me my child has become for every sacrifice I have made for him; if you were told all this, you would I am sure pity rather than reproach me, because I cannot at once consent to a separation which I feel would break my heart."

"Let me advise you," said Mr. Wood, "on no account to fly to strong waters for consolation, Joan. One nail drives out another, it's true; but the worst nail you can employ is a coffin-nail. Gin Lane's the nearest road to the churchyard."

"It may be, but if it shortens the distance, and lightens the journey, I care not," said the widow, who seemed by this reproach to be roused into sudden eloquence. "To those who, like me, have never been able to get out of the dark and dreary paths of life, the grave is indeed a refuge, and the sooner they reach it the better. The spirit I drink may be poison,—it may kill me,—perhaps it is killing me:—but so would hunger, cold, misery,—so would my own thoughts. I should have gone mad without it. Gin is the poor man's friend,—his whole set-off against the rich man's luxury. It may be treacherous, it may lay up a state of future woe; but it insures present happiness, and that is sufficient. It comforts the most forlorn. When I have traversed the streets a houseless wanderer, driven with curses from every door where I have asked for alms, and with blows from every gateway where I have sought shelter—when I have crept into some deserted building, and stretched my wearied limbs on a bulk, in the hope of repose—or, worse than all, when frenzied with want, I have yielded to some horrible temptation, and earned a meal in the only way I could earn one—when I have felt, at times like these, my heart sick within me, I have drunk of this drink, and have at once forgotten my cares, my poverty, my guilt. Old thoughts, old feelings, old faces, and old scenes have returned to me, and I have fancied myself happy—as happy as I now am!" and she burst into a wild, hysterical laugh.

"Poor creature!" ejaculated Wood; "do you call this frantic glee, happiness?"

"It's all the happiness I have known for years," returned the widow, becoming suddenly calm, "and it is short-lived enough, as you perceive. I tell you what, Mr. Wood," added she in a hollow voice, and with a ghastly look, "gin may bring ruin, but as long as poverty, vice, and ill-usage exist, it will be drunk."[1]

It is common to find fault with the apathy and indifference of the rich, in regard to remedies; but before this charge will hold good, a practical remedy should be presented; which never has yet been done. There has been no lack of good intentions and self-sacrificing efforts, but they have all failed over and over again. Common property was tried at least eighteen hundred years ago, and all through the present generation, and Fourier's Association idea have been attempted several times in Europe, and, I believe, thirty-nine times in this country, within the last thirty years; and yet another and another attempt is made in the same way, without any new elements, or any new arrangement of the old ones, all with the same inevitable result; till a general feeling prevails that no remedy is practicable.

I will venture to say that those who have come to this conclusion are the nearest right—none which they know of, are practicable.

[Remainder next week.]

[1] Ainsworth, William Harrison, "Jack Sheppard, A Romance," 1839.

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