Source: American Law Review
Source type: journal
Document type: public address
Document title: “A Present Peril”
Author(s): Richards, John K.
Date of publication: May-June 1902
Volume number: 36
Issue number: 3
|Richards, John K. “A Present Peril.” American Law Review May-June 1902 v36n3: pp. 405-11.|
|John K. Richards (public addresses); McKinley assassination (personal response); anarchism (personal response); anarchism (dealing with); anarchism (laws against).|
|Abraham Lincoln; John Marshall; Clement L. Vallandigham.|
| The address (below) includes the following three footnotes. Page numbers
for the footnotes appear in brackets following each footnote. Click on the
superscripted number preceding each footnote to navigate to the respective
locations in the text.
From a footnote on page 405: Address by Hon. John K. Richards, Solicitor-General of the United States, at the Founders’ Day Banquet of the Union League of Philadelphia, November 23, 1901.
A Present Peril
On the 6th of September, in a time of unexampled
prosperity and at a national celebration of peace and progress, the President
of the United States, while receiving the people, was shot down in cold blood,
even as he reached out his hand in kindly welcome to the wretched assassin.
The dastardly deed shocked the world, and, when understood, appalled civilization.
The annals of history do not record a more causeless crime.
Personally, the victim was of all men the last to excite envy or malice. He was a man of the people, chosen by the people, whose noble and unselfish life had been devoted wholly to their welfare and advancement. Coming from the people, he never lost his sympathy with them, or his belief in the ultimate justice of their judgments. In bearing the burden of his high office he constantly leaned on them, and they as steadfastly stood by him. He was as good and kind as he was great and wise. His gracious and considerate course drew to him the hearts of his countrymen of all parties and every section. He had not an enemy in the world. Oh, irony of Fate, that such a man should be singled out for slaughter!
Officially, he was the twice-chosen Chief Magistrate of a free people, whose government was dedicated to liberty and justice under law, and has yet to fail in devotion to the high ideals of its framers; a nation founded as a defense against tyranny and for years the refuge of the oppressed of every land. In his own career was embodied the glorious possibilities of life in this land of freedom, where every man in the long run is what he makes himself, and where every man, thank God, has a chance to make the most of himself.
Nothing in the character or career of the President, nothing in the nature of the government of which he was the chosen  head, offered any rational explanation of the dreadful crime; but its cause found early avowal:
“I am an anarchist; I did my duty.”
This declaration threw over the tragedy a lurid
light. Investigation confirmed its accuracy. An examination of the criminal
failed to disclose any evidences of insanity. He was a young man, born in this
country, educated in the common schools, in good health, and with unimpaired
mind. He was a believer in the religion of his fathers and in the government
of his country until he fell under the fatal influence of the anarchists. He
attended their meetings, he hearkened to their harangues, he drank in their
doctrines. The poison saturated his soul. He abjured his religion, he renounced
his country, he devoted himself to the destruction of society. He became, what
every anarchist is at heart, an apostate, a traitor, an outlaw. He shot the
President, not for anything he had done as President, but because he was the
President. He shot him, not because he was the head of a bad government, but
because he was the head of a government. “The better the government, the worse
the crime of being its head.” The blow was aimed at the government and the moral,
social, religious, and political institutions it stands for. It was civilized
society which the assassin sought to destroy. He would have killed us all but
he could not, so he killed the chief among us, our chosen representative and
What can Congress do, under the Constitution, to protect our President, punish his assailant, and prevent the spread of the detestable doctrine which inspired this atrocious crime? A demand for Federal legislation exists—legislation which will prevent as well as punish. Obviously this demand cannot be met satisfactorily by the observation that anarchistic crimes are the result of social discontent, and the plea that before we apply drastic measures we should, in justice, remove the cause of the discontent. All crime, in a sense, is the result of social discontent. That neither excuses the crime nor justifies its toleration by government. Society is not perfect, nor can we make it so. There will always be cause for discontent—cause  for complaint; but there is less cause here than anywhere on the face of the globe. Again, it is not discontent, or resulting complaint, that we should seek to repress, but crime. Complaint calling for reform through lawful channels is wholesome, but complaint which counsels crime is not only pernicious but in itself criminal.
In the first place, plainly the President of the United States ought to be protected by the law of the United States. Not only his safety but the dignity of the Republic demands this. The President takes an oath that he will “faithfully execute the office of President of the United States” and will “preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.” This Constitution enjoins him “to take care that the laws be faithfully executed.” The solemn obligation thus imposed is not intermittent, but continuous. From the time he takes the oath until he dies or retires, wherever he may be, without interval or cessation, he is President of the United States, and engaged in executing that office. And for this reason the power of the nation should safeguard and protect him always and everywhere. Authority to do this is clear. Every right secured by the Constitution may be protected by Congress,* and there is no higher right under the Constitution, no right whose free exercise is more vital to the Constitution, than the right of “faithfully executing the office of President of the United States.” A murderous assault upon the President, aimed as it is at the life of the government, imperils the security of the whole country, and whether successful or unsuccessful, should be punishable by death.
But suppose Congress supplies the obvious omission in the Federal law and adequately punishes the crime, must it leave untouched the malignant agitators who inspire it? And here I am reminded of what Abraham Lincoln said to those who protested against the deportation of Mr. Vallandigham:—
“Must I shoot a simple-minded soldier boy who deserts, while I must not touch a hair of a wily agitator who induces him to desert?” 
Can nothing be done to exclude anarchists and suppress anarchism? Do political or constitutional rights stand in the way? Does the inalienable right of revolution or the Anglo-Saxon heritage of freedom of speech safeguard anarchism? Let us briefly consider this matter.
In the first place, I have not been impressed by the assertion that anarchism—by which I mean the doctrine that all existing governments should be destroyed by the assassination of their rulers, and the terrorism of their people—is political in nature, in the sense that crimes committed in its name should be deemed political and their perpetrators afforded international protection.
A crime committed in an attempt to revolutionize a government, that is, to change its form, may be rightly regarded as political, and its perpetrators protected against extradition. But anarchism is not revolutionary in this sense; it does not seek to destroy one government and substitute another, but to destroy all government and leave none. The nations are not so much concerned about a government’s form as about its existence. All they demand is an authority which will protect persons and property, preserve peace and order, and fulfill international obligations. For this reason the right of revolution is recognized; but a crime committed in an attempt to destroy all government strikes at the root of all social institutions, and is therefore directed not against a particular government, but against civilized society itself. The crime of the anarchist, proceeding from a revolt against society and being directed at the law which holds society together, is essentially the act of the common criminal, and should be treated as such. For this reason I submit that not only should the anarchist who assassinates a ruler be extraditable, but anarchistic conspiracies here should be suppressed and punished regardless of the locality of the contemplated assassination.
In the next place, I submit that the constitutional guarantee of “the freedom of speech” does not stand in the way of suppressing the pernicious propaganda of anarchism. Anarchy is the absence of government—a condition where there is neither law nor authority; and the modern doctrine of anarchism seeks  to bring about anarchy by acts of terrorism—the assassination of rulers and the slaughter of the people. It uses the dirk and pistol for the ruler and the bomb for the people and police. This is not a case of theorizing about social or political conditions or questions. Visionaries who prefer to shut their eyes to things as they are may theorize about a time to come when, by the elevation of humanity, no law will be needed to control man in his relations with his fellows, and everyone, of his own accord, without compulsion of law, will respect the rights of all others. But the atrocious doctrine of anarchism is not visionary, but practical. While it may look to the future, it acts in the present. It does not preach progress, it demands destruction. It does not seek to lift man above the need of law, it aims to trample law under the foot of man. It wars against all government, because government means law, and law means enforced respect for the personal and property rights of others. It is not liberty that anarchism demands, but license—license to disregard and defile every right sacred to civilized man. It has respect for neither home, church, nor State. All those ties which hold society together—ties of marriage, or morality, of religion, of patriotism—it seeks to tear asunder. The tender home affections, the sacred consolations of religion, the inspiring love of country and of flag, must all go, because all are grounded in reverence for authority. Anarchism preaches progress by a leap backward into the degradation of primeval savagery, where brutish appetites alone held sway.
Salus populi suprema lex. The right of self-preservation is as vital to the State as to the individual. The Constitution forbids Congress to “make any law abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or of the right of the people peaceably to assemble and to petition the government for a redress of grievances;” but all these rights are to be reasonably construed and lawfully exercised. The freedom of speech for which our fathers fought was not the right to advocate the destruction by force and violence of the government they founded. The right to criticise a condition, whether political or social, does not include the privilege of counseling crime as a protest against its continuance. Let who will “forerun his time” in advocating a  condition when all things shall be held and enjoyed in common, for no law can touch him; but a pernicious fellow who preaches theft as a protest against property may be punished without any serious fracture of “the freedom of speech.”
It is unnecessary to amend the Constitution in order to obtain the power to suppress anarchism. It is true that the assemblage of anarchists and the preaching of their doctrine cannot be punished as treason, for to constitute treason there must be an actual levying of war. But acts directed at the life of the Government are punishable at the discretion of Congress, although they do not amount to treason under the Constitution. The great Chief Justice Marshall said upon this point:*—
“Crimes so atrocious as those which have for their object the subversion by violence of those rights and those institutions which have been ordained in order to secure the peace and happiness of society, are not to escape punishment because they have not ripened into treason. The wisdom of the legislature is competent to provide for the case.”
The right of the United States to exclude alien anarchists and to deport such as have not yet become citizens must be conceded. The Supreme Court has held that as a sovereign nation the United States is endowed with the power, essential to self-preservation, of excluding all aliens whom it may deem dangerous to the peace of the State, and of expelling or deporting all such not yet naturalized.* This power may, at the discretion of Congress, be intrusted for enforcement to the Executive. Evidently it was to this inherent and essential right of sovereignty that Abraham Lincoln referred when, in his last message, he said respecting slave traders:—
“For myself, I have no doubt of the power of the Executive, under the law of nations, to exclude enemies of the human race from an asylum in the United States.”
If Congress intrusts to the President the power to exclude alien anarchists and to deport all unnaturalized one[s], I fancy it will not be difficult to put in operation an effective plan of ridding the country of these bloody-minded pests.
Some question is made as to the wisdom of a repressive policy.  It is said that repression will be ineffectual or will provoke retaliation. A trial of the policy will disclose whether either prediction is warranted. Surely the time for action has come. No more atrocious crime can be committed than the one for which we know anarchism is directly responsible. I take the view that it is safe to repress crime, no matter in what guise presented or how widespread and reckless its adherents. No State can safely countenance crime, and especially crime against itself. Moreover, the Government owes a duty to young, impressionable minds. It has no right to expose them to contamination and corruption. A doctrine under the ban of law is less likely to attract adherents than if permitted to be openly advocated. Anarchists are insurgents against civilization, would-be assassins of society, enemies of the human race. By the concurrent actions of civilized nations they ought to be placed under the ban of universal law. The red flag of anarchy should be driven from the land, as the black flag of piracy has been driven from the sea.