Baltimore Evening Sun (27 July 1911): 6.
Mr. Wegg, the Belair Savonarola, discourses learnedly in today’s column of Edito0rials by the People upon the gay doings at Back River, and incidentally repeats his charge that I approach such great matters of morality and immorality in a frivolous spirit. Not so, O Wegg--believe me when I bawl, Not so! I am honestly convinced that Back River is uncommonly wet on Sundays, because Baltimore is uncommonly dry, and what is more, I believe that it will continue to be wet, with occasional and temporary hiatuses, just so long as Baltimore is that dry. Open the city saloons, either legally or by constabulary ukase, and two-thirds of the Sunday drinkers who now go down the road will remain within the city’s gates. But keep them closed, and the Back River cars will continue to be crowded every Sunday morning.
Don’t blame the county cops. They do their best. I really mean it. If it were actually possible to make the county as dry as the city, they would undoubtedly do it if only to save themselves from savage and merciless abuse--but it is not possible. There are, in all, just 58 constables on the county force--one, let us say, to every three saloons, and ono to every 40 or 50 fishing shores, “groves,” “clubs” and other such speak-easies. And they have 1,200 square miles of steppe and jungle to patrol.
What to do? Can they actually police that vast territory? Of course, they can’t. Not even the whole police force of the city, a thousand head of ardent catchpolls, could do it, or give a colorable imitation of doing it. So the county cops attempt a compromise with the bitter fact confronting them. That is to say, they try regulation in place of prohibition. Unable to stop Sunday selling altogether, they seek to centralize it in a few accessible places, and to police those places thoroughly. In that effort, I believe, they succeed admirably. Back River is orderly. No one in ever murdered there. Robbers do not rob there. The peaceable visitor is as safe there, and his wife and children are as safe, as in Druid Hill Park.
The Sunday law, of course, is violated--but is the Sunday law, after all, so sacrosanct that its violation is the eighth deadly sin? I am inclined to think not. I believe, on the contrary, that the prohibition of Sunday recreations is merely a man-made regulation, an exercise of an artificial and questionable authority, an expression of fallible opinion, and that it has no more to do with morality, in any sound sense, than the traffic regulations or the rules for selling cabbages in Lexington Market. The act it forbids is, in itself, no more immoral or anti-social than the act of swatting a fly. It is a matter, not of morals, but of taste, of inclination, of prejudice. Mr. Wegg thinks that it is in bad taste; the folk at Back River think that it is in good taste; as for me, I have no definite opinion either way.
There are, however, two objections remaining. One is that any violalation of a law, however dubious and unpopular that law may be, is immoral and corrupting. The other is that any violation of the innocuous desuetude of Sunday, however harmless or even beneficial it may be, is similarly immoral and corrupting. The answer to the first objection is an appeal from the theory to the facts. How can a man be corrupted by committing an act which he thinks is justifiable and right--an act which he thinks is so far justifiable and right that he is willing to take some pains, go to some expense and run some danger to commit it? You will not find any guilty consciences down at Back River. The people who go there look upon the Sunday law as a symbol of intolerable tyranny, and they strike against that tyranny in the only way open to them and with full confidence that they are thereby asserting their freedom and their manhood. Let them vote upon it, and they would over turn the Sunday law by unanimous vote. When they violate it they do so deliberately and earnestly and with intentions just as good as those which animated the patriots who violated King George’s tax laws. Certainly it is absurd to charge that they can be corrupted by doing something which they conceive to be entirely just, proper and correct.
As for the second objection, it opens a large question, and into that question I have no space to go. That a weekly day of rest is needed by human beings must be obvious to all: so far as I know, no sane man has ever attempted to deny it. But that a day of rest means specifically and necessarily a day of motionless repose--this I doubt very much. A good many men, of course, find such motionless repose agreeable, but their opinion of its agreeableness, after all, is merely an opinion, and I see no reason why they should be permitted to impose that opinion upon other men. Those other men may prefer to play baseball or lawn tennis or bridge whist, or to go to a concert or a play, or to blow a cornet with the Salvation Army, or to take a swim, or to court a girl, or to journey to Back River and eat fried fish. Why denounce them for it? Why assume that, because their tastes vary from the most ascetic stantard, they are, therefore, all blacklegs and sinners?
Our present Sunday law goes back, I believe, to 1723. Much water has passed under the bridges since that far distant day. Bit by bit the letter of the law has been invaded. There was a loud protest when the drug stores of the city began to open their doors on Sunday--and yet they are still open. There was another and even louder protest when the street cars began to run on Sunday--and yet they still run. There have been other protests, some of them extraordinarily bitter, against Sunday newspapers, Sunday shoe-shining, Sunday barbering--and yet these things are sold and done on Sunday today. That is what I meant when I cautioned the venerable Wegg against assuming the laws of morals to be fixed. They are nothing of the sort. The crime of one generation is the harmless commonplace of the next. Civilization is destructive to rigid moral codes. Its chief effort is to substitute the good sense of the individual citizen for the order of the ruler--to trust to the common decency more and more and to the policeman’s club less and less.
True enough, as Wegg says, there are still moral maxims that prevail through thick and thin--laws so wise that their wisdom can never be questioned. The one he offers as an example is that which prohibits the intermarriage of near relatives. A somewhat dubious example, for here it is biology more than morals, Mendel more than Moses, that issues the order. I offer a better one--to wit, the rule that it is eternally and atrociously wrong for one man to set himself up as an infallible judge over some other man, and to condemn that other man to perdition for disabeying and resisting his fiats.