Source type: magazine
Document type: article
Document title: “American Sobriety and Common Sense”
Author(s): Goodell, Charles E.
Date of publication: 12 November 1901
Volume number: 28
Issue number: 7
|Goodell, Charles E. “American Sobriety and Common Sense.” Industrialist 12 Nov. 1901 v28n7: pp. 85-88.|
|McKinley assassination (public response); anarchism (public response); penal colonies (anarchists).|
American Sobriety and Common Sense
THE sobriety of the American people is a theme not often chosen for public
discussion. In fact, it might strike the foreign observer, especially the one
who knows us only through the foreign press, that it was a theme that could
hardly be discussed at all to our advantage. On several occasions during the
recent war, for instance, we were the subject of much jesting on the part of
the English press because we allowed ourselves to become so much agitated over
our successes, even a little thing like the battle of Manila Bay not being overlooked
by our people. But while our intense agitation is always noticed by and often
furnishes much merriment for our foreign critics, these same critics seem entirely
oblivious to a fact of equal importance, namely, the rapidity with which we
usually regain our equilibrium. Take the recent agitation caused by the assassination
of President McKinley as an example.
Not within the writer’s memory has the public been so agitated over any event as that of the assassination of our late President. It was an event which, occurring in the way it did, was calculated to arouse the very deepest emotions of our people. The unprovoked attack; the President’s courageous fight for life, followed by his calm resignation to a fate so undeserved; the sorrow of the stricken wife, the object of his intense devotion and tender solicitude; the nation’s bitter grief at the loss of a man of whom history will probably say his worst fault consisted in a too great deference at times to the counsels of others, where his own better judgment should have prevailed—all these things, combined with our national hatred of anarchy and anarchists, tended to lash the public mind into a perfect fury for a time.
For a month or more following the President’s death, the dastardly deed, and the consequences that it was felt would surely follow the assassin’s example, continued to engross our attention. Many were seriously alarmed for the future of the country. So-  ciety was supposed to be on the verge of dissolution, from which fate nothing but the most heroic efforts could possibly save it. Almost everybody had a remedy for anarchy which he was ready to urge upon the government. The newspapers, with a few notable exceptions, vied with each other in suggesting the most summary treatment of the vile wretches who were responsible directly or indirectly for the infamous crime. Compared with the ills of anarchy, the blessings of a free government were apparently not valued for a moment. The most sacred guaranties of our liberties were as nothing if it could be shown that a single one of these might, on occasion, be found to furnish a refuge for a single foe of law and order. It was gravely suggested that not only a murderous attack upon a president, but even a “word or a picture inciting to it should be punished as treason” (though it might be difficult to explain how art could be punished, even for treason). One writer suggested that we purchase an island in mid-ocean somewhere, to which everybody who had ever been “known to give expression to anarchistic sentiments” should be at once deported. This island should “be carefully guarded at a distance, so that no escape shall be possible.” And these foes of human society were to be left entirely to themselves, to enjoy the sweets of anarchy without molestation from any source. Let them live without government and without regard for God or man, but let them have the consequences all to themselves. Let them be an object-lesson to all the world of what it is to live in rebellion against all civil and divine government. “This proposition,” it is added, “has been made in all sobriety by many persons. It is not a flighty and unmeasurable proposition.”
It has been scarcely three weeks since propositions as fantastic as the above, as to the proper solution of the problem of anarchy, were listened to with apparent approval by the whole country. But to how many minds would they commend themselves to-day? Probably by this time they have been so completely dismissed from our minds as utterly impracticable, if not indeed as unworthy, that it is hard now to convince ourselves that they ever sprang from respectable sources, or found any avenues of communication open to them save the yellow journals of the country. In fact, most of our interest in anarchy as a practical problem for our legislatures to deal with has disappeared, so far as outward manifestations of that interest are concerned. The newspapers seldom  trouble themselves about the doings of the anarchists, and apparently no one any longer feels any serious apprehensions for the future of our country—at least for the near future. And yet we are the same people who a few days ago were breathing out death and destruction on these people, and seemingly ready to sacrifice our dearest-bought liberties “for the sake of a handful of miserable miscreants, whose names nobody can pronounce.” The President, too, goes about the country as unprotected as ever, and that with the apparent approval of the country generally. Yet again it should be said, we are the same people who, only a few weeks ago, were determined to surround him always with a bodyguard that would be more suggestive of the Czar of Russia than of the head of a free republic. In the course of a few weeks Congress will meet, and then some legislation may be looked for that will better protect the President, or at least will attach a proper penalty to attempts upon his life. Something will be done, no doubt, to guard the country in the future against the introduction of noted anarchists from abroad, especially those who preach violence. And something ought to be done also to punish the advocacy in this country of violence of any kind against our government. This will probably be the extent of the legislation undertaken, and in all probability this will be going as far in this matter as public opinion will then warrant.
But what does all this apparent change in the attitude of the public mean? Not, certainly, that we have forgotten our recent loss; not that we have any less appreciation of a government founded on the strictest observance of law; not that we have any less a horror of anarchy and its detestable doctrines. Rather it means, in the first place, that the American people have an unshaken and unshakeable [sic] confidence in its ability finally to meet and triumph over all the ills from which society is suffering to-day, and in its ability to remove entirely the underlying causes of anarchism—to undermine its very foundation, so that it must fall of its own weight. But back of all and above all it means, that in spite of occasional moments of agitation, when it seems that the people are ready to listen to the wildest schemes of repression or reform, are ready to adopt the most drastic measures of legislation, there is after all a sobriety and a reserve fund of sound common sense that can always be relied on to restore, in a comparatively short time, the public  mind to its usual equanimity. There may indeed seem to be at times some frothiness on the surface of American life, but this ought not any longer to be taken as indicating anything as to the lack of a steady flowing undercurrent that is not easily nor often disturbed. It ought by this time, it would seem, to be apparent even to the most casual observer, that after all, in spite of our sudden and at times intense agitation, in spite of this apparent abandonment to our joys as well as to our sorrows, there is, when the hour of grave responsibility approaches, a spirit of moderation, of justice and of temperance that is bound to triumph over all mere momentary considerations; a spirit of hopefulness as well as resolution in the face of serious difficulties—in short, such a spirit as ought, in the main, to animate a truly great and powerful nation such as ours certainly is.