Source: Century Magazine
Source type: magazine
Document type: editorial
Document title: “Liberty and Happiness, in the Light of a Recent Tragedy”
Date of publication: November 1901
Volume number: 63
Issue number: 1
|“Liberty and Happiness, in the Light of a Recent Tragedy.” Century Magazine Nov. 1901 v63n1: pp. 149-50.|
|anarchism (dealing with); yellow journalism.|
|Leon Czolgosz; William McKinley.|
Liberty and Happiness, in the Light of a Recent Tragedy
No wonder that the whole nation has been profoundly stirred, not merely by sympathy, grief, and indignation, but by a sense of danger and a desire to do whatever may be wisely and safely done to prevent a spread of that disease of the mind and morals which leads to such far-reaching crimes.
While lawyers and laymen, statesmen, legislators, and others are debating as to possible legal remedies, a great deal of good is being done by discussions in the press and elsewhere of general and moral, rather than legal and specific, remedies. It is very much to be hoped that these discussions may have a powerful effect upon that public opinion which is the ultimate and supreme lawmaker and ruler of communities.
In the first place, the guardians of public morals have been given a text from which to preach against all forms of violence. The wretch who attacked President McKinley seems to have been inspired directly by the enunciation of anarchical doctrines; but in a country where illegal, violent, and murderous acts are constantly being performed by mobs of citizens who take the law into their own hands and hang, shoot, and burn human beings “for the public good,” in such a country how can it be expected that individuals will not sometimes act on their own peculiar theories of “public good” and perform executions without warrant of law?
So much as to the possible effect of conspicuous and illegal acts of violence. But violence of speech, as is now clearly shown,—and as was shown, also, in the case of the Chicago anarchists,—leads surely to violent action. The ravings of anarchists, it is evident again, lead directly to murders by anarchists. Cause and effect work as exactly in the psychological as in the obviously physical domain.
There is a wholesome appreciation, moreover, at the present crisis, of the fact that professed anarchists are not the only promoters of anarchical sentiment in America. The sordid and assumed friendship of “yellow journalism” with the working-man whom it deceives and deludes has led to utterances which may prove as dangerous as any emanating from the convinced, or demented, or solely criminal advocates of anarchy. Now and again the decent portion of the community has a period of intense realization of the demoralizing influence of the “loathsome press”; such a period is now upon us; it will be interesting to note how long this revival of indignation will last. 
Again, there is a new sense of the danger of allowing proper and patriotic criticism of the public action of a national Executive to pass over into abuse so violent as to be little less than an instigation to murder. This is an outrage difficult to regulate by law, but easily regulated by public opinion. Personal vilification and gross caricature of a nation’s chosen representative and chief magistrate should be abhorrent and unendurable to a self-respecting people.
The words “Liberty and Happiness” were always being joined in the speeches and writings of the founders of our republic. The phrase represented the ideal toward which the world, by its most liberal and sympathetic leaders, earnestly and hopefully strove. “Liberty and Happiness” were supposed to have been established by the written constitutions of the United States and certain other countries, and by the unwritten constitutions of others; and indeed there has been a genuine advance, we believe, in human liberty and in human happiness. But this country is finding out, through painful experiences, that our “free government” does not make certain all forms of happiness; it does not insure our system from deadly attack in the person of its rulers; it does not make our whole Senate pure; it does not, in itself, save all our State and municipal governments from corruption. When a people has obtained its freedom, it may be only beginning to learn the lesson of self-government. There are ill-regulated minds, even in a republic like ours, that interpret freedom as license, and would make free speech the handmaid to free murder.
The opening of the twentieth century is crowded with events that should induce sober reflections and lead to strenuous efforts to supplement our liberty with those virtues that alone can preserve a state and make the happiness of its people an inalienable possession.