Baltimore Evening Sun (28 December 1912): 6.
Mayor Gaynor of New York, with characteristic common sense, lifted his voice the other day against the puritanical madness which now rages from end to end of the United States. In every one of our large cities, he pointed out, there are posses of snouters who devote themselves to investigating and denouncing the morals of their fellow-men, and in many places they have succeeded in putting a large body of sumptuary and preposterous law upon the statute books. Every agency of public entertainment, from the free library to the opera house and from the saloon to the moving-picture parlor, attracts their passionate attention, and they are never content until they have enforced a purity so complete that it leaves no room for amusement.
Such dubious and dangerous crusading, in the opinion of Mr. Gaynor, has gone far enough, and the time is not far distant when normal and decent citizens will have to protect themselves against the extravagances of these self-appointed specialists in virtue. They already interfere seriously with that freedom of speech which is guaranteed by the Constitution, and with that freedom of private action which is the basis of civilized government, and if their hot yearning to boss and bully is not soon checked they will end by reducing our government by laws to an absurdity.
Already, indeed, there is ample evidence that the American people have lost all respect for their lawmakers, and are fast losing all respect for their courts. It is common to account for this by saying that material success has made them lawless, that they grow in natural viciousness, but a brief inspection is sufficient to show the error of that diagnosis. The truth is that they have come to view the law lightly for the good and sufficient reason that the law tends more and more to be an ass, and that they view the courts in the same way because the judges accept it as wise, and try to enforce its absurdities.
Our laws, we must remember, are not made by our wisest men, nor even by men of average wisdom, but by professional politicians, which means, in the main, by numbskulls, trimmers and crooks. It is the prime aim of these men, not to do that which is most prudent and patriotic, but that which is most popular and profitable, and so they are always ready to bend as the wind blows. If public ignorance seizes upon a new panacea, they are for it instanter. If private avarice is willing to share its spoils, they are willing to facilitate the spoliation. And if militant morality comes up at the double, dripping with the blood of sinners and howling threats, they are very eager to grant its demands and escape its savage revenges.
The militant moralist is a specialist in badgering lawmakers. It is not often that he has a majority of voters behind him–sometimes, in truth, he doesn’t have 5 per cent.--but he is such a violent and resourceful fellow that politicians stand in constant fear of him. If he cannot get their hides in one way he will achieve the feat in some other way. That is to say, he devotes himself cheerfully to the ruination of every politician who opposes him--and politicians are vulnerable, scary men. They have no convictions to give them courage: all they seek is the office and its profits. So it is easy for a man who actually has convictions, however fatuous they may be, to strike terror in their hearts and bring them into line.
All this explains the survival of our mediæval Sunday laws, despite the fact that 90 per cent. of all intelligent Baltimoreans are against them and constantly violate them. And all this explains, too, the quick and rather startling success of the local option propaganda at Annapolis. Not more than a quarter of the members of the last Legislature were honestly in favor of local option, but another quarter stood in trembling fear of the local optionists’ vicious and oblique attacks, and so the local option bill came within a vote or two of passing, and most competent authorities believe that it will go through with ease next time.
But how far is this reign of moral lawmaking to go? Are we to accept the laws it produces as sane laws, worthy to be obeyed by civilized white men? Are we to hold, with the Hon. Charles J. Bonaparte, that any law, however palpable its absurdity, must be given the same respect that is given to laws approved by all? Or are we, on the contrary, to pick and choose in the statute book, giving one law our approval and nullifying some other one? Or are we, with more frankness and public spirit, to organize an effective opposition to this lawmaking debauchery, and so strike the evil at its root?
This last plan, I believe, is the soundest of the three, and what is more, it has been put into execution before this. On more than one occasion the English people have had to go to the rescue of their common rights by curbing the imbecile tyrannies of their lawmakers. The common law grew up, not only by deduction from royal writs and parliamentary acts, but also as a reaction against them. Throughout the Plantagenet, Tudor and Stuart periods the lawmaking power was out of the hands of the people, and the constant effort of those who exercised it was to regulate the everyday life of the people according to their liking. But beginning with Henry Bracton, there were Englishmen who resisted this despotism and argued for the inalienable liberties of man, and under the Tudors and Stuarts they battled with great courage and against enormous odds. Not only the English Parliament, but also the English Common Law was often in grave danger, but both were saved by men who had more respect for rights than for enactments.
Some such rebellion must arise in this country if we are to be delivered from the moral Goth and Huns. The Constitution of the United States, for example, guarantees the right of free speech, but the complaisant courts, by an evil extension of the police power, have practically taken it from us. We have theatre censors in every city, often supported by law. We have a censorship of books by the post-office, and now comes a censorship of newspapers. The determination of all questions of public morals is being gradually given over, by legislative stupidity and cowardice, to persons whose nones scent indecency in all works of art and in most physiological processes.
And so down the line. We have crusades almost innumerable, and still they increase and grow wilder. Soon or late there must come an end. Soon or late, the self-respect of the nation must revolt against this manufacture of artificial crimes, this dredging up of muck, this saturnalia of browbeating and bullying, this gross and inexcusable interference with the reasonable freedom of good citizens.