Publication information
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Source: Nation
Source type: magazine
Document type: editorial
Document title: “Legislating Against Anarchists”
Author(s): anonymous
Date of publication: 27 March 1902
Volume number: 74
Issue number: 1917
Pagination: 243-44

“Legislating Against Anarchists.” Nation 27 Mar. 1902 v74n1917: pp. 243-44.
full text
anarchism (laws against, impracticality of); anarchism (personal response); anarchism (government response); anarchism (government response: criticism); Joseph R. Hawley (public statements); anarchism (laws against); anarchism (dealing with).
Named persons
Augustus O. Bacon; Francis Bacon; Emma Goldman; Joseph R. Hawley; David Bennett Hill; William McKinley; Johann Most [variant first name below]; William Shakespeare [variant spelling below].


Legislating Against Anarchists

     Our law-makers, both at Washington and Albany, have discovered that an effective measure, directed specifically against anarchism, is as hard to frame as a law compelling men to like summer better than winter. The root of the trouble is that you cannot legislate against a state of mind. When the assassination of President McKinley made the question of dealing with anarchists acute, there was a wild outcry for drastic legislation. We then took the position that our general laws against all forms of violence and incitement to violence are fairly adequate; that a special act, however well intended, can at best but slightly increase the efficacy of the present statutes, while it may either level a blow at freedom of speech or make martyrs of feeble and silly agitators.
     The bill which passed the United States Senate on Friday gives Federal jurisdiction over criminal assaults upon the President, or upon any officer in the legal succession to the Presidency. This may be very well, but all the machinery of the Federal courts, and the death penalty itself for an unsuccessful attempt to murder, can have no more practical effect than our laws against suicide. The anarchist who tries to shoot a President hopes to kill, expects punishment, and is wholly indifferent to nice distinctions between State and Federal jurisdiction. Provisions against those who aid, abet, incite, or conspire cannot go beyond our present laws against accomplices, except in severity of penalty. The evidence necessary for conviction must be as clear as ever, and degrees of punishment are trifles to the fanatical mind of an anarchist.
     Furthermore, measures to exclude from the country or to refuse to naturalize a man who, from the point of view of pure theory, disbelieves in all organized government, are wholly futile. The anarchist bears on his person no badge of his faith, and surely he would not stick at a lie if he were questioned. Indeed, there is no valid reason why we should keep out “philosophical” anarchists, non-resistants who are victims of the delusion that the world can get along without laws or magistrates. For all practical purposes we might just as well bar out those happy, harmless visionaries who imagine that Bacon wrote Shakspere’s plays.
     The old bill, drawn by Senator Hill, which Senator Bacon has reintroduced and supported, also fails at the critical point. It gives no clear, working definition of anarchist, simply because no such definition is possible. The bill contains a number of vicious features of administration, but those are really minor objections because the measure in its essentials is unenforceable. In short, the general attitude of Congress was summed up by Senator Hawley on Thursday, when he exclaimed with a fine frenzy: “I have an utter abhorrence of anarchy, and would give a thousand dollars to get a good shot at an anarchist!” If Senator Hawley’s hand is no steadier than his mind was at that moment, any anarchist would be glad to earn one thousand dollars by offering himself as a target; for the Senator’s bullet and his bill would both go wide of the mark.
     The act now before the New York State Legislature is also weak in the vital spot. The report of the Senate Committee on Judiciary expressly says that against the crime of killing or attempting to kill the President, or any other official, we need no additional statutes. Nor do we need a new statute in order to reach those who, without committing an overt act themselves, incite others. Such persons are now made principals under section 29 of the Penal Code. The Committee further admits that the “problem of reaching those who profess and teach the doctrines of anarchy, without themselves attempting or committing or inciting others to attempt or commit any particular crime, is a difficult one.” As a matter of fact, the problem is not merely difficult, but hopeless; for you can as easily imprison or hang men for discussing the tariff on su- [243][244] gar, as for professing and teaching anarchism as a merely speculative doctrine. The utter hopelessness of the problem is shown by the Committee’s final solution of it in the following definition, which really gives us nothing new:

     “Criminal anarchy is the doctrine that organized government should be overthrown by violence or force, or by assassination of the executive head or of any of the executive officials of government, or by any unlawful means. The advocacy of such doctrine either by word of mouth or writing is a felony.”

     The rest of the bill prescribes pains and penalties for those who by word of mouth or writing advocate the forcible destruction of government and the assassination of rulers; and it declares a gathering of two criminal anarchists an “unlawful assemblage.” In practical operation, however, the act can accomplish nothing more than is now accomplished under section 29 of the Penal Code and under section 451, as follows:

     “Whenever three or more persons assemble with intent to commit any unlawful act by force; or assemble with intent to carry out any purpose in such a manner as to disturb the public peace; or, being assembled, attempt or threaten any act tending toward a breach of the peace, or any injury to person or property, or any unlawful act, such an assembly is unlawful, and every person participating therein by his presence, aid, or instigation, is guilty of a misdemeanor. But this section shall not be so construed as to prevent the peaceable assembling of persons for lawful purposes of protest or petition.”

Under these existing laws, John Most and Emma Goldman have served terms in the penitentiary. Puttering over the petty changes by which two persons instead of three may constitute an unlawful assemblage, and by which the offence is made a felony instead of a misdemeanor, is as useless as stretching out your hand to stop the wind.
     No—the malady, like many others of the body politic, cannot be driven off by any purgative of law. Drastic punishments are impotent to restrain; they will serve only to spread the propaganda of anarchism. We must remember that courts and prisons, judges and jailers are not, after all, the great securities of our property and lives. In the maintenance of a just government, our writs, subpœnas, and decisions are dead instruments compared with the force of an active and intelligent public opinion; and although there can be no absolute protection against the vagaries of an anarchist, a just government is our strongest safeguard.



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