Falkland’s Maxim and Hijacking Language for Politics

by Albert Jay Nock
Titled: ‘A Little Conserva-tive’ in the Atlantic Monthly, October, 1936

I often think it’s comical
How Nature always does contrive
That every boy and every gal
That’s born into the world alive
Is either a little Liber-al
Or else a little Conserva-tive.

-W. S. Gilbert, Iolanthe

Gilbert’s lines recall Professor Huxley’s pungent observation on the disadvantages of going about the world unlabeled.  Early in life, he says, he perceived that society regards an unlabeled person as a potential menace, somewhat as the police regard an unmuzzled dog.  Therefore, not finding any existing label to suit him, he took thought and invented one.  The main difference between himself and other people, as he saw it, was that they seemed to be quite sure of a number of things about which he not only was not sure, but also suspected that he never could be sure.  Their minds ran in the wake of the first-century Gnostic sects, while his did not.  Hence the term agnostic suggested itself to him as descriptive of this difference, and he accordingly adopted it as a label.

The great weight of Huxley’s authority forced the term into common currency, where ignorance promptly twisted it into a sense exactly contrary to its philology, and contrary to the original intention which Huxley gave it.  To-day when a person says he is an agnostic, it is ten to one he means that he knows the thing at issue is not so.  If he says, for instance, as one of my acquaintances did the other day, that he is a thoroughgoing agnostic concerning the existence of God and the persistence of consciousness after death, he means that he is sure there is no God and that consciousness does not persist.  The term is so regularly used to imply a negative certainty that its value as a label, a distinguishing mark, is false and misleading.  It is like the hotel labels which unscrupulous tourists in Paris buy by the dozen and stick on their luggage as evidence that they have visited places where they have never been, and put up at hotels which they have never seen.

Something like this appears to be the common destiny of labels.  It brings to mind the fine saying of Homer which I have so often quoted, that “the range of words is wide; words may tend this way or that way.”  There are few more interesting pursuits than that of examining the common popular connotation of labels, and observing how regularly it runs the full course from sense to nonsense, or from infamy to respectability, and back again.  For example, our voting population is divided into two major groups, Republicans and Democrats; how many of them know anything about the history of their labels?  How many could describe the differentiations that the significance of these labels indicates, or could attach any actual significance whatever to them, except in wholly irrelevant terms, usually in terms which in the last analysis turn out to mean habit, money, or jobs?

The Republicans went into the pangs of parturition at Cleveland last summer, and brought forth a sorry mouse.  As one of my friends put it, about the only thing their platform did not do was to give the Democratic Administration a formal endorsement.  As far as one can see, all their pledges amount to is a promise to do what the Democrats have been doing, but to do it better.

Similarly the new Russian constitution seems to show merely that Stalin thinks it is easier to run things the way Mark Hanna used to run them than the way they have been run in Russia hitherto.  No doubt he is right about that; but meanwhile one wonders what the word bolshevik will mean to the average Russian fifty years from now, and how many voters in holy Russia will know the history of the word, or even know that it has a history.

Reflections like these make one quite doubtful about Huxley’s position concerning the balance of advantage and disadvantage in the matter of labels.  His misfortune was in his honesty; he invented a label that precisely described him, and he could hardly have fared worse if he had worn none, for on the one hand ignorance at once invested it with an alien meaning, while on the other hand prejudice converted it into a term of reproach.  I have had a curious experience lately which has caused me to ponder afresh upon these matters, and which I am now tempted to relate.

For more than a quarter of a century I have been known, in so far as I was known at all, as a radical. It came about in this way:  I was always interested in the rerum cognoscere causas, 1 liking to get down below the surface of things and examine their roots.  This was purely a natural disposition, reflecting no credit whatever on me, for I was born with it.  Any success I had in its indulgence brought me the happiness that Lucretius observed as attaching to such pursuits, and I indulged it only for that reason, never seeking, and indeed never getting, any other reward.  Therefore when the time came for me to describe myself by some convenient label, I took one which marked the quality that I thought chiefly differentiated me from most of the people I saw around me.  They habitually gave themselves a superficial account of things, which was all very well if it suited them to do so, but I preferred always to give myself a root-account of things, if I could get it.  Therefore, by way of a general designation, it seemed appropriate to label myself a radical.  Likewise, also, when occasion required that I should label myself with reference to particular social theories or doctrines, the same decent respect for accuracy led me to describe myself as an anarchist, an individualist, and a single-taxer.

On the positive side, my anarchism came mainly as a corollary to the estimate of human capacity for self-improvement which I had picked up from Mr. Jefferson.  His fundamental idea appeared to be that everyone answering to the zoological classification of Homo sapiens is a human being, and therefore is indefinitely improvable.  The essence of it is that Homo sapiens in his natural state really wishes and means to be as decent towards his fellow-beings as he can, and under favorable conditions will progress in decency.  He shares this trait with the rest of the animal world.

Indica tigris agit rabida cum tigride pacem
Perpetuam; saevis inter se convenit ursis, 

— so long, that is, as irritating interferences, such as hunger, lust, jealousy, or trespass, are kept at a minimum.  Man’s moral superiority over the animal consists in an indefinitely cultivable capacity and will to deal with these interferences intelligently from the long-time point of view, and thus gradually immunize himself against their irritant influence.

Granting this premise, the anarchist position appeared logical to me, as it did to Prince Kropotkin and Bakunin.  Putting it roughly, if all men are human, if all bipeds classifiable as Homo sapiens are human beings, social harmony and a general progress in civilization will be far better brought about by methods of free agreement and voluntary association than by constraint, whether directly under force, or under the menace of force which is always implicit in obedience to law.

The negative argument for anarchism seemed quite as cogent as the positive argument.  The whole institution of government, wherever found and in whatever form, appeared to me so vicious and depraving that I could not even regard it with Paine as “at its best a necessary evil.”  The State stood, and had stood in history as far back as I could trace its existence, as little else but an instrument of economic exploitation, a mere mechanism, as Voltaire said, “for taking money out of one set of pockets and putting it into another.”  The activities of its administrators and beneficiaries appeared to me as they did to Voltaire, as no more or less than those of a professional-criminal class.  As Nietzsche calls it, “the coldest of all cold monsters,” the State’s character was so completely evil, its conduct so invariably and deliberately flagitious, that I did not see how society could possibly be worse off without it than with it, let the alternative condition be what it might.

My individualism was a logical extension of the anarchist principle beyond its narrow application to one particular form or mode of constraint upon the individual.  The thing that interested me, as it interested Emerson and Whitman, was a general philosophy of life which regards human personality as the greatest and most respect-worthy object in the world, and as a complete end-in-itself; a philosophy, therefore, which disallows its subversion or submergence, whether by force of law or by any other coercive force.  I was convinced that human beings do better and are happier when they have the largest possible margin of existence to regulate and dispose of as they please; and hence I believed that society should so manage itself as to leave the individual a maximum of free choice and action, even at a considerable risk of results which from the short-time point of view would be pronounced dangerous.  I suppose it may be seen how remote this is from the bogus affair of dollars and cents which is touted under the name of individualism, and which, as I showed in last February’s issue of this magazine, is not individualism in any sense.

The single tax impressed me as the most equitable and convenient way of paying the cost of such matters as can be done better collectively than individually.  As a matter of natural right it seemed to me that as individually created values should belong to the individual, so socially created values should belong to society, and that the single tax was the best method of securing both the individual and society in the full enjoyment of their respective rights.  To the best of my knowledge these two propositions have never been successfully controverted.  There were other considerations, too, which made the single tax seem the best of all fiscal systems, but it is unnecessary to recount them here.

Probably I ought to add that I never entered on any crusade for these beliefs or sought to persuade anyone into accepting them.  Education is as much a matter of time as of anything else, perhaps more, and I was well aware that anything like a general realization of this philosophy is a matter of very long time indeed.  All experience of what Frederick the Great called “this damned human race” shows beyond peradventure that it is impossible to tell anyone anything unless in a very real sense he knows it already; and therefore a premature and pertinacious evangelism is at best the most fruitless of all human enterprises, and at worst the most vicious.  Society never takes the right course until after it has painfully explored all the wrong ones, and it is vain to try to argue, cajole, or force society out of these set sequences of experimentation.  Over and above the impassioned outpourings of the propagandist for an untried way of salvation, however straight and clear that way may be, one can always hear old Frederick saying, “Ach, mein lieber Sacher, er kennt nicht diese verdammte Rasse.” 3

But while I have never engaged in any controversy or public discussion of these matters, or even in any private advocacy of them, I have spoken my mind about them so freely and so often that it would seem impossible for anyone to mistake my attitude towards them.  Only last year, in fact, I published by far the most radical critique of public affairs that has as yet been brought out here.  Hence I was mildly astonished to hear the other day that a person very much in the public eye, and one who would seem likely to know something of what I have been up to during all these years, had described me as “one of the most intelligent conservatives in the country.”

It was a kind and complimentary thing to say, and I was pleased to hear it, but it struck me nevertheless as a rather vivid commentary on the value and the fate of labels.  Twenty, or ten, or even three years ago, no one in his right mind would have dreamed of tagging me with that designation.  Why then, at this particular juncture, should it occur to a presumably well-informed person to call me a conservative, when my whole philosophy of life is openly and notoriously the same that it has been for twenty-five years? In itself the question is probably worth little discussion, but as leading into the larger question of what a conservative is, and what the qualities are that go to make him one, it is worth much more.

It seems that the reason for so amiably labeling me a conservative in this instance was that I am indisposed to the present Administration [of President Franklin Roosevelt].  This also appears to be one reason why Mr. Sokolsky labels himself a conservative, as he did in the very able and cogent paper which he published in the August issue of the Atlantic.  But really, in my case this is no reason at all, for my objections to the Administration’s behavior rest no more logically on the grounds of either conservatism or radicalism than on those of atheism or homeopathy.  They rest on the grounds of common sense and, I regret to say, common honesty.  I resent the works and ways of the Administration because in my opinion such of them as are not peculiarly and dangerously silly are peculiarly and dangerously dishonest, and most of them are both.  No doubt a person who wears the conservative label may hold this opinion and speak his mind accordingly, but so may a radical, so may anyone; the expression of it does not place him in either category, or in any category of the kind.  They mark him merely as a person who is interested in having public affairs conducted wisely and honestly, and who resents their being conducted foolishly and dishonestly.

With regard to Mr. Sokolsky, I may not, and do not, presume to doubt him when he says he is a conservative.  All I may say is that I cannot well see how his paper makes him out to be one.  If, now, he had said reactionary, I should have no trouble whatever about getting his drift, for my understanding is that he is in favor of a reaction from one distinct line of general State principle and policy back to another which has been abandoned.  This is an eminently respectable position, and reactionary, which precisely describes it, is a most respectable term; but I cannot make it appear that this position is dictated by conservatism, or that holding this position justifies a person in calling himself a conservative.

Philology is a considerable help in these matters, but in guiding ourselves by its aid we must make an important discrimination which is set by the presence or absence of a moral factor.  It is a commonplace of a language’s growth that the significance of certain terms, like certain interpretations of music, becomes deformed and coarsened by tradition.  I once heard a performance of the Messiah in Brussels, and was amazed at finding it almost a new composition, so far away it was from the English traditional interpretation, which was the only one I knew.  Similarly there is no doubt that terms like grace, truth, faith, held very different connotations for Christians of the first century and for those of the fourth and again for those of the sixteenth, while for those of the twentieth they seem voided of all significance that is relevant to their philology, much as our formula, my dear sir, means only that a letter is begun, and yours sincerely means only that it is ended.

In instances like these there is no moral quality discernible in a term’s passage from one meaning to another which has less philological relevancy, or to one which has none.  There is no evidence of any interested management of its progress.  In instances where this progress has been deliberately managed, however, the case is different.  The term then becomes what Jeremy Bentham calls an impostor-term, because it has thus purposefully been converted into an instrument of deception, usually in the service of some base and knavish design.

It is notorious that a managed glossary is of the essence of politics, like a managed currency, and it is highly probable that the debasement of language necessary to successful political practice promotes far more varied and corrupting immoralities than any other infection proceeding from that prolific source.  Thus terms like conservative, progressive, radical, reactionary, as they stand in the managed glossary of politics, are made to mean whatever the disreputable exigencies of the moment require them to mean.  The term radical, for example, stands to account for anything from bomb-throwing to a demand for better wages.  Again, we all remember Mr. Roosevelt’s culpable debasement of the term tory to further an electioneering enterprise; and the manhandling of the term liberal into an avouchment for the most flagrantly illiberal measures of coercion, spoliation, and surveillance is surely well enough known.

The term conservative, which in the course of the campaign this summer we have heard applied to a curious medley made up of all sorts and conditions of men, suffers the same abuse.  On the one hand, Mr. Smith is a conservative, and so is Mr. Raskob, Mr. Owen Young, the denizens of Wall Street, and the whole du Pont family; while, on the other hand, so is a majority of the Supreme Court, so is Mr. Newton Baker, Mr. Wolman, Mr. Lewis Douglas, and so, it seems, am I!  What an extraordinary conjunction of names!  On the day I wrote this I saw a headline which said that 53 per cent of the persons polled in a questionnaire or straw-vote conducted by some publication reported themselves as “conservative.”  I read further, and found that when all comes to all, this means that they are against the Administration, and that their difference with the Administration is over the distribution of money.

In the glossary of politics and journalism, the commonest, nay, the invariable connotation of “conservatism” is in terms of money; a “conservative policy” is one by which a larger flow of money can be turned towards one set of beneficiaries rather than towards another, while a “radical” or a “progressive” policy is one which tends more or less to divert that flow.  According to this scale of speech, the policies of Mr. Hoover and Mr. Mellon, which turned a great flow of money towards a political pressure-group of stockjobbers, speculators, shavers, were eminently conservative; while those of Mr. Roosevelt and his associates, which largely divert that flow towards a rival pressure-group of job-holders, hangers-on, single-crop farmers, unemployed persons, bonus-seekers, hoboes, are eminently radical.  The designation follows the dollar.  Even Mr. Sokolsky, whose valiant stand against the Administration I so much admire and so cordially approve, seems to associate his idea of conservatism rather over-closely with “prosperity;” that is to say, with money.

So one can imagine Mr. Justice McReynolds, for instance, surveying the rank and file of his fellow-conservatives with some dismay while he wonders, like the hero of French comedy, what he is doing in that particular galley.  The thought suggests that it might be a good thing all around if we who are so indiscriminately labeled as conservatives should stand for a time on the windward side of ourselves while we examine this label and see whether or not we can properly take title to wear it.  What is a conservative, and what is the quality, if any, that definitely marks him out as such?

This question can best be got at by considering an incident in the career of an extraordinary personage, about whom history, unfortunately, has had all too little to say.  In a lifetime of only thirty-three years, Lucius Cary, Viscount Falkland, managed to make himself a most conspicuous example of every virtue and every grace of mind and manner; and this was the more remarkable because in the whole period through which he lived — the period leading up to the Civil War — the public affairs of England were an open playground for envy, hatred, malice, and all uncharitableness.  The date of his birth is uncertain; probably it was at some time in the year 1610; and he was killed in the battle of Newbury, September 20, 1643, while fighting on the royalist side.

Falkland had a seat in the Long Parliament, which was divided on the specious issue of presbyterianism against episcopacy in the Church of England.  When a bill was brought in to deprive the bishops of their seats in the House of Lords, Falkland voted for it.  He was all for puncturing the bishops’ pretension to “divine right,” and for putting a stop to the abuses which grew out of that pretension.  The presbyterian party, however, emboldened by success, presently brought in another bill to abolish episcopacy, root and branch, and Falkland voted against it.

Hampden, in a bitter speech, promptly taunted him with inconsistency.  In reply, Falkland said he could see nothing essentially wrong with an episcopal polity.  “Mr. Speaker,” he said, “I do not believe the bishops to be jure divino; nay, I believe them not to be jure divino; but neither do I believe them to be injuria humana.5  This polity had been in force a long time, it had worked fairly well, the people were used to it, the correction of its abuses was fully provided for in the first bill, so why “root up this ancient tree,” when all it needed was a severe pruning of its wayward branches, which had already been done, and for which he had voted?  He could not see that there was any inconsistency in his attitude.  He then went on to lay down a great general principle in the ever-memorable formula, “Mr. Speaker, when it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change.”

Here we get on track of what conservatism is.  We must carefully observe the strength of Falkland’s language.  He does not say that when it is not necessary to change, it is expedient or advisable not to change; he says it is necessary not to change.  Very well, then, the differentiation of conservatism rests on the estimate of necessity in any given case.  Thus conservatism is purely an ad hoc affair; its findings vary with conditions, and are good for this day and train only.  Conservatism is not a body of opinion, it has no set platform or creed, and hence, strictly speaking, there is no such thing as a hundred-per-cent conservative group or party — Mr. Justice McReynolds and Mr. Baker may stand at ease.  Nor is conservatism an attitude of sentiment. Dickens’s fine old unintelligent characters who “kept up the barrier, sir, against modern innovations” were not conservatives.  They were sentimental obstructionists, probably also obscurantists, but not conservatives.

Nor yet is conservatism the antithesis of radicalism; the antithesis of radical is superficial.  Falkland was a great radical; he was never for a moment caught by the superficial aspect of things.  A person may be as radical as you please, and still may make an extremely conservative estimate of the force of necessity exhibited by a given set of conditions.  A radical, for example, may think we should get on a great deal better if we had an entirely different system of government, and yet, at this time and under conditions now existing, he may take a strongly conservative view of the necessity for pitching out our system, neck and crop, and replacing it with another.  He may think our fiscal system is iniquitous in theory and monstrous in practice, and be ever so sure he could propose a better one, but if on consideration of all the circumstances he finds that it is not necessary to change that system, he is capable of maintaining stoutly that it is necessary not to change it.  The conservative is a person who considers very closely every chance, even the longest, of “throwing out the baby with the bath-water,” as the German proverb puts it, and who determines his conduct accordingly.

And so we see that the term conservative has little value as a label; in fact, one might say that its label-value varies inversely with one’s right to wear it.  Conservatism is a habit of mind which does not generalize beyond the facts of the case in point.  It considers those facts carefully, makes sure that as far as possible it has them all in hand, and the course of action which the balance of fact in that case indicates as necessary will be the one it follows; and the course indicated as unnecessary it not only will not follow, but will oppose without compromise or concession.

As a label, then, the word seems unserviceable.  It covers so much that looks like mere capriciousness and inconsistency that one gets little positive good out of wearing it; and because of its elasticity it is so easily weaseled into an impostor-term or a term of reproach, or again into one of derision, as implying complete stagnation of mind, that it is likely to do one more harm than it is worth.  Probably Huxley was wrong, for while it may be that society regards an unlabeled person with more or less uneasy suspicion, there is no doubt that it looks with active distrust upon the person who wears an equivocal and dubious label; and equally so whether one puts the label on oneself, as Huxley did, or whether it is put on by interested persons for the purpose of creating a confusion which they can turn to their own profit.

This is true of all the terms that we have been considering, and therefore it would seem the sensible thing simply to cease using them and to cease paying attention to them when used by others.  When we hear talk of men or policies as conservative, radical, progressive or what not, the term really tells us nothing, for ten to one it is used either ignorantly or with intent to deceive; and hence one can best clear and stabilize one’s mind by letting it go unheeded.  It is notoriously characteristic of a child’s mentality to fix undue attention on the names of things, and in firmly declining to be caught and held by names one brings oneself somewhat nearer the stature of maturity.

By this, moreover, one puts oneself in the way of doing something to mature and moralize our civilization.  Every now and then some prophet, like another Solomon Eagle, warns us that our civilization is at the point of collapse.  We may regard these predictions as far-fetched, or we may say with Emerson, when an Adventist told him the world was coming to an end, that if so it were no great loss; or again, we may feel towards our civilization as Bishop Warburton felt towards the Church of England. 6  But however much or little we may think our civilization worth saving, and however we may interpret its prospects of impending dissolution we may hardly hope that it can keep going indefinitely unless it breaks its bondage to its present political ideas and ideals.

We must observe, too, that it is held in this ignoble bondage largely, perhaps chiefly, by the power of words; that is to say, by the managed glossary of politics. Mr. Hoover and Mr. Mellon, for example, will be long in living down the scandalously misapplied term conservative, if indeed they ever do; and there is a vicious irony in the fact that Mr. Roosevelt and his associates will always be known as radicals or liberals, according as it is meant to hold them up either to blame or to praise.

The main business of a politician, as Edmund Burke said, is “still further to contract the narrowness of men’s ideas, to confirm inveterate prejudices, to inflame vulgar passions, and to abet all sorts of popular absurdities;” and a managed glossary is the most powerful implement that he applies to this base enterprise.  We hear a good deal about inflation at the moment, and inflation is indeed a formidable thing.  Our people have no idea of what it means, and I, for one, distinctly do not care to be around when they find out what it means, for I have seen it in action elsewhere, and have seen enough.  But dreadful as it is, a far worse form of inflation, the most destructive that politicians and journalists can devise, is inflation of the public mind by pumping it full of claptrap.

The words we have been discussing are standard terms in the politician’s managed glossary. By recognizing them as such, and resolutely disregarding them, we should disarm the politician and journalist of much, perhaps most, of their power for evil, and thus give our civilization the one service of which it especially stands in need. If we are looking for an example of wisdom, insight, and integrity in their application to public affairs, let us find it in Falkland. Instead of permitting our attention to be caught and held by recommendations of person, party, or policy as conservative, liberal, radical, progressive, let us rather employ it in rigorously determining what the actual needs of the situation are, and then permit it to come to rest upon the simple and sufficient formula: “Mr. Speaker, when it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change.”

1. – Latin: know[ing] the causes of things
2. – Latin: loosely, Tigers live peaceably together, and even the wildest beasts spare those of their own species
3. – German: Ah, my dear Sacher (originally Sulzer), you don’t know this damned race
4. – Mr. Ralph Adams Cram’s theory is that the human being is a distinct species, and that the immense majority of Homo sapiens is not human, but is merely the raw material out of which the occasional human being is produced.  I have already discussed this theory in the Atlantic of April 1935, in an essay called “The Quest of the Missing Link.”  If this be true, the anarchist position would give way to the position of Spencer, that government should exist, but should abstain from any positive interventions upon the individual, confining itself strictly to negative interventions.  I find myself inclining more and more towards Mr. Cram’s view, and shall probably embrace it, but not having as yet done so, I must still call myself an anarchist.
5. – Latin: jure divino/divine right; injuria humana/human injury
6. – William Warburton, bishop of Gloucester, 1760-1779.  He said, “The Church, like the Ark of Noah, is worth saving; not for the sake of the unclean beasts that almost filled it, and probably made most noise and clamour in it, but for the little corner of rationality that was as much distressed by the stink within as by the tempest without.”

The Pigrolet

After stewing for years about the excesses of our federal government, I have come to the conclusion that the most contemptible unit of government is Congress.  This is the body which has given certain of its members super-powers out of proportion to the principle of equal representation, (raising once more the call for term limits).  Congress passes a bill only after it has been loaded with loathsome and unrelated riders.  With the complicity of the Executive Branch, Congress created the fourth, unelected Regulatory Branch of government, whose description is found nowhere in the Constitution.

Congress passes “enabling” legislation, and then devolves its own responsibility by turning the details over to “agency rule-making,” once a new agency has been conjured to create the new rules.  If a regulation, (which has the “power of law” as if our representatives wrote the regulation themselves), is promulgated that exceeds the intention of the enabling legislation, can Congress simply strike it down?  Oh, no.  To reverse a regulation, a new bill has to be sent through Congress — committees, party politics, House-Senate reconciliation, and all that — and must be attached as a rider to yet another unrelated bill.

I digress for a moment, but It’s a mystery to me why there has not been a Constitutional challenge to the existence of the Regulatory Branch, even more a wonder when the regulators, writing law, are under the oversight of the Executive Branch.  Maybe that’s because I’m the only American who is properly horrified by it, and I haven’t given up my family and all my personal goals and responsibility in order to devote the rest of my life to antagonizing that dragon.

As I have matured, which is to say, as I have become a hardened cynic, I have come to understand a key problem in the way Congress operates, and from that I realize how a simple change might benefit everyone involved, including the party in power, the party in the doghouse, and all us humble citizens as well.

See, the problem is compromise, which is assumed to be a virtue in politics.  The word, bipartisanship, is spoken with reverence by pontificating congresspeople.  It works like this: The Democrats think that every household needs a pig.  A pig takes care of your garbage, it’s companionable, unlike a Chevrolet, you can compost its waste, and in really hard times, you can eat it.  The Republicans think that every household needs a Chevrolet.  It gets you places, it’s economical to run, unlike a pig, it comes in attractive colors, and in a pinch you can sit inside it to get out of the rain.

When Congress compromises, what we get is a Pigrolet — a beast that can’t coordinate the feet on the front with the wheels on the back.  It belches foul fumes while rejecting its special gasoline/garbage blend, (concocted by scientists who reached a consensus), and it bites you when you poke around for the hood latch.  Never mind that the cost of a Pigrolet is orders of magnitude greater than that of a mere Chevrolet; Congress is puffed with pride in assuring that everyone has benefited by its new solution to a problem nobody had, and look how many jobs it has created! (Jobs in other countries, mostly. But lawyers in this country will benefit from the litigation that is sure to follow.)  Once everyone in America has a Pigrolet and realizes what a piece of shit it is, what do we do?  We send the same dolts back to Congress for another term and eagerly await the next product of bipartisan compromise.

Democrats and Republicans need to stop identifying our problems for us.  And — here is the simple change — I think they need to stop compromising.  I think the party in power in Congress — (never mind which party the President belongs to; most Presidents are mere catalysts for compromise) — should get everything it wants.  The people should get exactly what they voted for.  That’s the quickest, and probably the only, way the voters are going to realize what they’ve done by sending certain promise-makers to Washington.  Either everyone gets a pig, or everyone gets a Chevrolet, or everyone gets neither, (the best deal of all).

Am I suggesting, for instance, that the Democrats in the current Congressional mix just vote with the Republicans and pass their oponents’ entire agenda?  Yes!  Go on record to object to what strikes you as absurdities, and then vote to let it happen and get it over with.  It would be tough for a few years, but the culprits would not be able to complain that they were forced to compromise.  Either the country will go down the tubes really fast, or things will get wildly better really fast.

Doing so just might bury one party or the other for good.  Then, maybe, we could resume sending ordinary citizens to Washington who realize that you don’t need to be a lawyer in order to understand the Constitution.  (And who also might be cured of the temptation to create Pigrolets.)

My household doesn’t need a government pig or a government Chevrolet.  And especially we don’t need a Pigrolet, which is to say, we don’t need any of Congress’s cockamamie freedom-crushing compromise solutions to non-existent problems.

I am reminded of a couple of quotes from great Americans who have seen the same problem and described it with succinct eloquence:

This country has come to feel the same when Congress is in session as when the baby gets hold of a hammer.

Will Rogers

Giving money and power to government is like giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys.”

P. J. O’Rourke

=David A. Woodbury=

Artemus Ward

Introduction to Selected Works of Artemus Ward

=Albert Jay Nock= 1924

Charles Farrar Browne, known to the world as Artemus Ward, was born ninety years ago1 in Waterford, Maine.  He died at an age when most of us are only beginning to mature—thirty-three.  Little more can be told of him by way of formal biography.  Mr. Don C. Seitz2 lately employed himself upon a labour of love by seeking out and publishing all that is known, probably, of the externalities of Ward’s life.  Mr. Seitz has made the most of what was put before him, and in so doing he has done good service to the history of American letters; yet one closes his fine volume with a keen sense of how little he had to do with, a sense of the slightness and insignificance of his material.  All Ward’s years were Wanderjahre;3 he had no schooling, he left a poor rural home at sixteen to work in neighbouring printing-offices; he tramped West and South as a compositor and reporter; he wrote a little, lectured a little, gathered up odds and ends of his writings and dumped them in a woeful mess upon the desk of Carleton, the publisher, to be brought out in two or three slender volumes; he went to New York, then to London, saw as much of collective human life in those centres as he had energy to contemplate; he wrote a few pages for the old Vanity Fair and for Punch, gave a few lectures in Dodworth Hall on Broadway and Egyptian Hall on Piccadilly; and then he died.  Little enough of the pars magna fui4 is to be found here for the encouragement of a biographer; Mr. Seitz, I repeat, is to be congratulated on his intrepidity.  It is surely a remarkable thing that one whose experience was limited by the span of thirty-three years, whose literary output was correspondingly scanty, and whose predicable hold upon the future was as slight and hazardous as Mr. Seitz shows Ward’s to have been, should have managed to live nearly a century; and it is perhaps more remarkable that he should have done it in a civilization like ours, which is not over-careful with literary reputations and indeed does not concern itself deeply with spiritual achievement or spiritual activity of any kind.

Yet that is what Artemus Ward has somehow managed to do, and Mr. Seitz is on hand with a bibliography of eighteen pages, closely printed in small type, to prove it.  Some measure of proof, too, is probably to be found in the fact that a new issue of Ward’s complete works came out in London two years ago,5 and that an American firm has taken thought to publish this present volume.  How, then, has Ward contrived to live so long?  As a mere fun-maker, it is highly improbable that he could have done it.  Ward is officially listed as the first of the great American humorists; Mr. Albert Payson Terhune even commemorates him as the man “who taught Americans to laugh.”  This is great praise; and one gladly acknowledges that the humorists perform an immense public service and deserve the most handsome public recognition of its value.  In the case of Ward, it is all to Mr. Terhune’s credit that he perceives this.  Yet as one reads Ward’s own writings, one is reminded that time’s processes of sifting and shaking-down are inexorable, and one is led to wonder whether, after all, in the quality of sheer humorist, Artemus Ward can quite account for his own persistent longevity.  In point of the power sheerly to provoke laughter, the power sheerly to amuse, distract and entertain, one doubts that Ward can be said so far to transcend his predecessors, Shillaber and Derby.  In point of wit and homely wisdom, of the insight and shrewdness which give substance and momentum to fun-making, it would seem that Ward’s contemporary, Henry W. Shaw, perfectly stands comparison with him.  The disparity, at all events, is by no means so obvious as to enable one to say surely that the law of the survival of the fittest must take its course in Ward’s favour.  One is therefore led to suspect either that Ward’s longevity is due to some quality which he possessed apart from his quality as humorist, some quality which has not yet, perhaps, been singled out and remarked with sufficient definiteness, or else that it is due to the blind play of chance.

Several considerations tell against the hypothesis of accident.  It might be enough to say flatly that such accidents do not happen, that the passing stream of printed matter is too full and swift to permit any literary flotsam to escape being caught and swept on to oblivion by its searching current.  Two other considerations, however, may be remarked as significant.  First, that Ward very soon passed over — almost immediately passed over, the transition beginning even in the last few months of his life — passed over from being a popular property to become a special property of the intelligent and civilized minority; and he has remained their special property ever since.  In his quality of humorist he could hardly have done this.  Even had he really been the man who taught the Americans to laugh, disinterested gratitude could hardly be carried so far.  Artemus Ward himself declined to weep over the memory of Cotton Mather, saying simply that “he’s bin ded too lengthy”; and such, more or less, are we all, even the intelligent and civilized among us.  Ward was, in his time, a popular property in virtue of his singularly engaging personality, his fine and delicate art as a public speaker and his brilliant dealing with questions and affairs of current interest.  But his presence is no longer among us, and the affairs of profoundest public interest in his day are hardly as much as a memory in ours.  No power of humour in dealing with those affairs could serve to continue him as a cherished property of the intelligent, any more than it could serve to restore him as a popular property now that those affairs, and the interest that they evoked, have disappeared.  His continuance must be accounted for by another quality than those which he shared with his predecessors and contemporaries who have not taken on a like longevity.

The second consideration is that Ward has always been the object of a different and deeper regard in England, where his humour is alien, than in America where it is native.  It has long been difficult to get a copy of his complete works in this country, even at second hand; the last edition was published by Dillingham in 1898.  In London one buys them over the counter, and I think one has always been able to do so.  Since the Dillingham edition, Ward has been kept alive in America chiefly in edited issues like Mr. Clifton Johnson’s, of 1912, and this present volume; and also in anthologies and in essays by many hands.  These have, however, I think invariably, presented him as a humorist, and without taking account of the quality which has given his work the vitality that it seems to possess.  The English writers have done, on the whole, rather better; but even they did not strike straight through to this quality, disengage it from those that made up his strictly professional character, and hold it out in clear view; though there is evidence that they themselves had glimpses of it.  They were for the most part content, like Ward’s own countrymen, to accept him as a humorist and to assume that he kept his place in literature on the strength of his humour; and they were not aware, apparently, that this assumption left them with a considerable problem on their hands.  Mr. Seitz quotes Ward’s own view of the quality that gives power and permanence to his work — I too shall quote it presently, as it is admirably explicit — and oddly enough, without perceiving that it leaves him with a considerable problem on his hands; a problem which, if he had attended to it, might have caused him to change the direction of about three-fourths of his book.

No, clearly it is not by the power of his humour that Ward has earned his way in the world of letters, but by the power of his criticism.  Ward was a first-class critic of society; and he has lived for a century by precisely the same power that gave a more robust longevity to Cervantes and Rabelais.  He is no Rabelais or Cervantes, doubtless; no one would pretend that he is; but he is eminently of their glorious company.  Certainly Keats was no Shakespeare, but as Matthew Arnold excellently said of him, he is with Shakespeare; to his own degree he lives by grace of a classic quality which he shares with Shakespeare; and so also is Ward with Rabelais and Cervantes by grace of his power of criticism.

Let us look into this a little, for the sake of making clear the purpose for which this book is issued.  I have already said that Ward has become a special property, and that he can never again be a popular property, at least until the coming of that millennial time when most of our present dreams of human perfectability are realized.  I have no wish to discourage my publishers, but in fairness I have had to remind them that this delectable day seems still, for one reason or another, to be quite a long way off, and that meanwhile they should not put any very extravagant expectations upon the sale of this volume, but content themselves as best they may with the consciousness that they are serving a vital interest, really the ultimate interest, of the saving Remnant.  Ward is the property of an order of persons — for order is the proper word, rather than class or group, since they are found quite unassociated in any formal way, living singly or nearly so, and more or less as aliens, in all classes of our society — an order which I have characterized by using the term intelligence.  If I may substitute the German word Intelligenz, it will be seen at once that I have no idea of drawing any supercilious discrimination as between, say, the clever and the stupid, or the educated and the uneducated.  Intelligenz is the power invariably, in Plato’s phrase, to see things as they are, to survey them and one’s own relations to them with objective disinterestedness, and to apply one’s consciousness to them simply and directly, letting it take its own way over them uncharted by prepossession, unchanneled by prejudice, and above all uncontrolled by routine and formula.  Those who have this power are everywhere; everywhere they are not so much resisting as quietly eluding and disregarding all social pressure which tends to mechanize their processes of observation and thought.  Rabelais’s first words are words of jovial address, under a ribald figure, to just this order of persons to which he knew he would forever belong, an order characterized by Intelligenz; and it is to just this order that Ward belongs.

The critical function which spirits like Ward perform upon this unorganized and alien order of humanity is twofold; it is not only clearing and illuminating, but it is also strengthening, reassuring, even healing and consoling.  They have not only the ability but the temper which marks the true critic of the first order; for, as we all know, the failure which deforms and weakens so much of the able second-rate critic’s work is a failure in temper.  Take, for example, by way of a comparative study in social criticism, Rabelais’s description of the behaviour of Diogenes at the outbreak of the Corinthian War, and put beside it any piece of anti-militarist literature that you may choose; put beside it the very best that M. Rolland or Mr. Norman Angell or even Count Tolstoy himself can do.  How different the effect upon the spirit!  Or again, consider in the following pages the pictures which Ward draws of the village of Baldwinsville under stress of the Civil War.  Not one item is missing of all that afflicted the person of Intelligenz in every community at some time in the last ten years.  Ward puts his finger as firmly as Mr. Bertrand Russell and Mr. H. L. Mencken have put theirs, upon all the meanness, low-mindedness, greed, viciousness, bloodthirstiness and homicidal mania that were rife among us — and upon their exciting causes as well — but the person of Intelligenz turns to him, and instead of being further depressed, as Mr. Russell and Mr. Mencken depress him, instead of being further overpowered by a sense that the burdens put upon the spirit of man are greater than it can bear, he is lifted out of his temporary despondency and enervation by a sight of the long stretch of victorious humanity that so immeasureably transcends all these matters of the moment.  Such is the calming and persuasive influence of the true critical temper, that one immediately perceives Ward to be regarding all the untowardness of Baldwinsville sub specie aeternitatis,6 and one gratefully submits to his guidance towards a like view of one’s own circumstances.

The essential humanity of Abraham Lincoln may be largely determined in one’s own mind, I think, by the fact that he made just this use of Artemus Ward.  Mr. Seitz tells us how, in the darkest days of the Civil War, Lincoln read the draft of his Emancipation Proclamation at a special meeting of his Cabinet, and, to the immense scandal and disgust of his associates, prefaced it by reading several pages from Ward.  The incident is worth attention for the further establishment of the distinction drawn among men by the quality of Intelligenz.  Seward, Chase, Stanton, Blair, had ability, they had education; but they had not the free, disinterested play of consciousness upon their environment, they did not instinctively tend to see things as they are, they thought largely by routine and formula, they were pedantic, unintelligent — that is precisely the word that Goethe, the greatest of critics, would have applied to them at once. Upon them then, naturally, Lincoln’s performance made the impression of mere impudent levity; and thus one is directly led to see great force in Ward’s sly suggestion that Lincoln should fill up his Cabinet with showmen! Alas! how often the civilized spirit is moved to wish that the direction of public affairs might be taken out of the hands of those who in their modesty are fond of calling themselves “practical” men, and given over to the artists, to those who at least have some theoretical conception of a satisfying technique of living, even though actually they may have gone no great way in the mastery of its practice.

In another place Mr. Seitz tells us how the great and good John Bright, the Moses of British political liberalism, attended one of Ward’s lectures in London, sat gravely through it, and then observed that “its information was meagre, and presented in a desultory, disconnected manner”!  The moment I read that, I laid down the book, saying to myself, Behold the reason for liberalism’s colossal failure!  The primary failure of liberalism is just the failure in Intelligenz that we see so amusingly indicated in the case of Mr. Bright; its secondary failure, as we saw in the case of the late Mr. Wilson, for example, is a failure in the high and sound character that depends so largely upon Intelligenz for its development.  Can one imagine that Ward would be more intelligible to representative British liberals since Bright’s day, or that he would make a more serious and salutary impression upon the energumens who in this country are busily galvanizing some of Mr. Wilson’s political formulas into a ghastly simulacrum of life, and setting them up as the soul and essence of liberalism — upon ex-Justice Clarke, for example, or ex-Secretary Baker or Mr. George Foster Peabody?  One smiles at the thought of it.

Ward said of writers like himself that “they have always done the most toward helping virtue on its pilgrimage, and the truth has found more aid from them than from all the grave polemists and solid writers that have ever spoken or written…  They have helped the truth along without encumbering it with themselves.”  I venture to italicize these remarkable words. How many good causes there are, to be sure, that seem hopelessly condemned and nullified by the personality of those who profess them!  One can think of any number of reforms, both social and political, that one might willingly accept if only one need not accept their advocates too.  Bigotry, arrogance, intolerance, self-assurance, never ran higher over public affairs than in Ward’s day, yet he succeeded in putting upon all public questions the precise critical estimate that one puts upon them now in the perspective of fifty years; its correspondence with the verdict of history is extraordinarily complete.  It would be nothing remarkable if one should arrive now at a correct critical estimate of the Negro question, for example, or of the policy of abolition, or of the character and qualities of public men of the day, or of the stock phrases, the catchwords and claptrap that happened for the time being to be the stock-in-trade of demogoguery; but it is highly remarkable that a contemporary should have had a correct critical estimate of them, and that he should have given to it an expression so strong and so consistent, and yet so little encumbered with himself as to be wholly acceptable.

Really, there are very few of the characteristic and distinctive qualities of American life that Ward’s critical power left untouched.  I read somewhere lately — I think in one of Professor Stuart P. Sherman’s deliverances, though I am not quite sure — that Americans are just now very much in the mood of self-examination, and that their serious reading of novelists like Mr. Sinclair Lewis or Mr. Sherwood Anderson, and of essayists like Mr. Ludwig Lewisohn or Mr. Mencken, is proof that they are in that mood.  I have great doubts of all this; yet if it be true, I can but the more strongly urge them to re-examine the work of a first-rate critic, who fifty years ago drew a picture of our civilization that in all essential aspects is still accurate.  Ward represents the ideal of this civilization as falling in with one only of the several instincts that urge men onward in the quest of perfection, the instinct of expansion.  The claim of expansion is abundantly satisfied by Ward’s America; the civilization about him is cordial to the instinct of expansion, fosters it, and makes little of the obligation to scrupulousness or delicacy in its exercise.  Ward takes due pride in relating himself properly to the predominance of this instinct; he says that by strict attention to business he has “amarsed a handsum Pittance,” and that when he has enough to permit him to be pious in good style, like his wealthy neighbours, he intends to join the Baldwinsville church.  There is an ideal of civilized life for you, a conception of the progressive humanization of man in society!  For the claim of instincts other than the instinct of expansion, Ward’s America does nothing.  It does nothing for the claim of intellect and knowledge (aside from purely instrumental knowledge) nothing for the claim of beauty and poetry, the claim of morals and religion, the claim of social life and manners.

Our modern school of social critics might therefore conceivably get profit out of studying Ward’s view of American life, to see how regularly he represents it, as they do, as manifesting an extremely low type of beauty, a factitious type of morals, a grotesque and repulsive type of religion, a profoundly imperfect type of social life and manners. Baldwinsville is overspread with all the hideousness, the appalling tedium and enervation that afflict the sensitive soul of Mr. Sinclair Lewis.  The young showman’s courtship of Betsy Jane Peasley exhausts its resources of romance and poetry; its beau ideal of domesticity is completely fulfilled in their subsequent life together — a life fruitful indeed in certain wholesome satisfactions, but by no means such as a “well-formed mind would be disposed to relish.”  On the side of intellect and knowledge, Baldwinsville supports the editor of the Bugle as contentedly as New York supports Mr. Ochs and Mr. Munsey, and to quite as good purpose; it listens to the school-master’s views on public questions as uncritically as New York listens to Mr. Nicholas Murray Butler’s, and to quite as good purpose.  Baldwinsville’s dominant type of morals is as straitly legalistic, formal and superficial as our own; its dominant type of religion is easily recognizable as the hard, dogged, unintelligent fanaticism with which Zenith confronted Mr. Sinclair Lewis.  We easily recognize the “dissidence of Dissent and the protestantism of the Protestant religion,’; which now inspires the Anti-Saloon League, and which informs and animates the gentle ministrations of the Ku Klux Klan.

Thus Ward, in his own excellent phrase, powerfully helps along the truth about civilization in the United States; and all the more powerfully in that, unlike Mr. Lewis and Mr. Mencken, he does not so encumber it with himself, so overload it with the dragging weight of his own propensities, exasperations, repugnances, that his criticism, however accurate and interesting, is repellant and in the long run ineffectual.  Often, indeed, his most searching criticism is made by indirection, by the turn of some phrase that at first strikes one as quite insignificant, or at least as quite irrelevant to any critical purpose; yet when this phrase once enters the mind it becomes pervasive, and one finds presently that it has coloured all one’s cast of thought — and this is an effect which only criticism of the very first order can produce.  For instance, consider the first sentence that he writes in a letter to his wife from the Athens of America:

Dear Betsy: I write you this from Boston, ‘the Modern Atkins’ as it is denomyunated, altho I skurcely know what those air.

Nothing but that.  Yet somehow when that little piece of exquisite raillery sinks in, it at once begins to put one into just the frame of mind and temper to meet properly the gentle, self-contained provincialism at which it was directed.  Let the reader experiment for himself.  Let him first recall the fearfully hard sledding he had on his way through, say, Mr. Barrett Wendell’s History of American Literature, or the recent volume of Mrs. Field’s reminiscences; let him remember the groan of distress that now and then escaped him while reading Mr. Howells’s really excellent novel, The Rise of Silas Lapham.  Then with this sentence in mind, let him try reading any one of the three books again, and see how differently it will impress him.

After the same fashion one may make quite good headway with Mr. Villard’s biography of John Brown if one’s spirit is cleared and steadied by Ward’s inimitable critique of “Ossawatomie Brown, or, the Hero of Harper’s Ferry.”  Amidst the squalor of our popular plays and popular literature, one preserves a decent equanimity by perusing Ward’s reviews of East Side theatricals and of Forrest’s “Othello,” and his parodies of the cheap and lurid romances of his day.  Our popular magazines take on a less repellant aspect when one remembers how, after three drinks of New England rum, Ward “knockt a small boy down, pickt his pocket of a New York Ledger, and wildly commenced readin Sylvanus Kobb’s last Tail.”  No better criticism of our ludicrous and distressing perversion of the religious instinct can be found than in his account of his visit to the Shakers, the Free Lovers and the Spiritualists.  Never was the depth and quality of routine patriotism more accurately measured than by this, from the account of his visit to Richmond after the surrender:

I met a man today — I am not at liberty to tell his name, but he is an old and inflooential citizen of Richmond, and sez he, “Why! weve bin fightin agin the Old Flag!  Lor bless me, how sing’lar!”  He then borrer’d five dollars of me and bust into a flood of tears.

Again, how effective is Ward’s criticism of the mischievous and chlorotic sentimentalism to which Americans seem invariably to give their first allegiance!  During the Civil War the popular regard for motherhood was exploited as viciously as during the last war, or probably in all wars, and Ward’s occasional reflections upon this peculiarly contemptible routine-process of militarism are more effective than any indignant fulminations of outraged common sense; as when he suggests, for instance, that “the song writers air doin’ the Mother bisness rayther too muchly,” or as when in another place he remarks that it seems about time somebody began to be a little sorry for the old man.  He touches another fond topic of sentimentalism in his story, which I must quote, of leaving home as a boy to embark in the show business.  Where can better criticism than this be found?

You know, Betsy, that when I first commenced my career as a moral exhibitor with a six-legged cat and a Bass drum, I was only a simple peasant child — skurce 15 summers had flow’d over my yoothful hed.  But I had sum mind of my own.  My father understood this.  ‘Go,’ he said, ‘Go, my son, and hog the public!’ (he ment ‘knock em, but the old man was allus a little given to slang).  He put his withered han’ tremblingly onto my hed, and went sadly into the house I thought I saw tears tricklin down his venerable chin, but it might hav’ been tobacker juice.  He chaw’d.

But I must end these illustrations, which I have been tempted perhaps unduly to multiply and enlarge upon because their author has never yet, as far as I am aware, been brought to the attention of modern readers in the one capacity wherein he appears to me to maintain an open communication with the future — the capacity of critic.  In conclusion I cannot forbear remarking the spring, the abounding vitality and gusto, that pervades Ward’s work, and pointing out that here too he is with Rabelais and Cervantes.  The true critic is aware, with George Sand, that for life to be fruitful, life must be felt as a joy; that it is by the bond of joy, not of happiness or pleasure, not of duty or responsibility, that the called and chosen spirits are kept together in this world.  There was little enough of joy going in the society that surrounded Ward; the sky over his head was of iron and brass; and there is even perhaps less joy current in American society now.  But the true critic has his resources of joy within himself, and the motion of his joy is self-sprung.  There may be ever so little hope of the human race, but that is the moralist’s affair, not the critic’s.  The true critic takes no account of optimism or pessimism; they are both quite outside his purview, his affair is one only of joyful appraisal, assessment and representation.

Epitaphs are notably exuberant, but the simple line carved upon Ward’s tombstone presents with a most felicitous precision and completeness, I think, the final word upon him.  “His name will live as a sweet and unfading recollection.”  Yes, just that is his fate, and there is none other so desirable.  Mansueti possidebunt terram,7 said the Psalmist, the amiable shall possess the earth; and so, in the long run, they do. Insight and wisdom, shrewdness and penetration — for a critic these are great gifts, indispensable gifts, and the public has regard for their exercise, it gives gratitude for the benefits that they confer; but they are not enough of themselves to invest a critic’s name with the quality of a sweet and unfading recollection.  To do this they must communicate themselves through the medium of a temper, a prepossessing and persuasive amiability.  Wordsworth showed himself a great critic when he said of his own poems that “they will co-operate with the benign tendencies in human nature and society, and will in their degree be efficacious in making men wiser, better and happier”; and it is just because of their unvarying co-operation with the benign tendencies in human nature and society that Ward’s writings have made him in the deepest sense a possession, a cherished and ennobling possession, of those who know him.


1 – 1834; 2 – Don Carlos Seitz; 3 – German: years of wandering; 4 – Latin: the great part; 5 – For a collection of works by Artemus Ward, see Project Gutenberg; 6 – Latin: literally, “under the aspect of eternity”, or that which is universally and eternally true; 7 – Latin: The gentle shall inherit the earth.