Popular Science Monthly/Volume 7/September 1875/Editor's Table

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WE observed, a while ago, the meeting of two gentlemen who, after salutation, broke at once into mutual and vehement expressions of disgust at the Beecher trial, and then sat down and discussed it for an hour. Such has been the general experience, Newspapers have bemoaned the necessity of publication, and then howled for the extension of the proceedings, meantime sending out their interviewers in all directions, to rake the gutters of scandal for further and filthier details. Similarly, by the mass of readers, the reports have been first deplored and then devoured to the last crumb. The protests were hollow concessions to decency; what followed revealed the actual and honest mental condition of the parties.

This aspect of the trial, as an index of public taste, is not without its instructiveness. It was evidently rich in elements that are appreciated by our people, and that take a deep hold of their feelings. It fed the craving for personal and prurient gossip, and, moreover, left something to bet on. It combined, in its various phases, the fascinations of the tea-party, the prize-ring, and the regatta. The lower education, by bringing the masses of the people up to the capacity of reading the newspapers, and the higher education, by allying itself with the horse-racing passion, have well prepared the community to enjoy the drama lately acted on Judge Neilson's stage. True, it was the old story of private suffering turned to public sport, but with what refinements in its modernized aspect! A dash of brutal bloodshed, a little gladiatorial human butchery, were indispensable to the perfection of a Roman holiday; but, in our higher Christian civilization, we get up a six-months' carnival of keen excitement by mangling a single reputation. It is certainly worth something to find out how our people can be best amused. We are far from agreeing with those who have filled the land with lamentation over the unmitigated evils of the Beecher trial. It has undoubtedly had its mischievous influences, but these we believe will be transient and far out-weighed by the public benefits that cannot fail to arise from it. It was, of course, most painful to Mr. Beecher—and he has our deepest sympathy—but no one better than he could afford to make the sacrifice needed to insure the permanent good of such a thorough-going social experiment as this trial and its preludes have furnished. The case is of peculiar interest as a problem of the forces acting in society. It is a great mistake to suppose that the Plymouth pastor was alone on trial. Action and reaction are equal and opposite in things social as well as in things physical. The strain took effect all round; and the triers have been on trial as well as the defendant. We know a great deal more about lawyers and the law than we did before; we understand better about judges and the judiciary than we did before; and we have conceptions of the jury and the jury-system which we had not before; while the result of the new knowledge is not by any means to raise our estimate of them. They have been brought to the bar of common-sense and the public judgment, and nothing has happened in the history of legal proceedings in this country that can compare with this case in exposing the weakness, the anomalies, and the vices of the system under which we live, called the perfection of reason, for the administration of justice. Nowhere in society are incongruity and absurdity so deeply intrenched as in law and law administration, while the acutest and most powerful of the professions forms the bodyguard and bulwark of the system. But of this we are little disposed to complain. To conserve the good we must tolerate the concomitant evil; and there is neither intelligence, wisdom, nor honesty enough in the country to make a better system. If we are ever to get out of it, we must slowly grow out; and nothing will facilitate this more than such a shaking up and exposure of our judicial doings before the world as this remarkable trial has just effected.

But, aside from its personal issues, the case has chiefly interested us as a test of popular intelligence, and as affording an instructive illustration of the way people form opinions. The opinions of the multitude are commonly inherited or adopted; they are rarely "formed" by rational processes, and whenever the attempt to form them is made under proper circumstances, we get the best possible measure of mental capacity, integrity, and the efficacy of education. The Beecher case was well suited to be an ordeal of popular judgment. It was a fresh question, without precedents, and had to be accepted upon its merits. Then it was an open question, or early so regarded by the public, and so entertained by the court. Besides, it was a complex question, well fitted to task mental effort, and it dealt with human motives, conduct, and character, elements belonging to the common experience of mankind. The situation was thus favorable for fair and intelligent judgment; and yet, under these conditions, we get one of the most unexampled lessons as to how little of rationality there is in human thinking, and how little evidence has to do with the formation of popular convictions. Our concern is not here with the issue involved in the trial and which preceded it, but with the way the public approached and dealt with it.

We shall be helped by reference to a rudimentary bit of the science of mind. When men are called rational creatures, if it is meant that they have a capacity of reason by which they can arrive at the truth, the idea is correct; if it is meant that they are characteristically rational or controlled by reason, the idea is quite erroneous. Men are habitually creatures of emotion rather than of intellect. The emotions are the motors or driving forces of our nature; in a few they are guided and governed by the intellect; in the many they are lawless agencies, dominating the intellect; enslaving the rational nature. It is therefore of immensely greater importance to know how men feel than what they think; in fact, the last is generally the consequence of the first. That which lies beyond the reason and the will in the mental constitution, and gets vent continually under the pressure of sentiment, impulse, passion, love, hate, habit, and prejudice, is of immensely greater volume and mount than all that is said or done under the influence of intelligent volition. The perverting influence of passion is well known; but it is equally true that emotions of every kind and degree disturb the intellectual balance. Sympathies and antipathies hates and admirations, blind the reason, distort the judgment, and reduce the mental experience to the grade of emotional automatism. Men carry on their mental intercourse in terms of reason and delude themselves with the fancy that they are logical, when in fact they are only venting their preferences or dislikes, or giving excuses for their prepossessions, or exploding their inveterate prejudices.

Now, probably no man has appeared in this country who has stirred up so much adverse feeling of all kinds as Henry Ward Beecher. For twenty-five years he has been more heard and more read than any other person, and has stamped his personality deep in the national mind. From the first he has taken up subjects of intense popular interest, and has treated them with such boldness and power as to command universal attention. His attitude, moreover, has been such as to provoke partisanship, and arouse antagonism. Independent in theology, free and easy in the pulpit, and often rough upon the churches, he has raised a great deal of religious animosity. A vehement reformer, he has amazed and irritated conservative people. Foremost and often fierce in politics, during a long period of intense political excitement, he has stirred up an enormous amount of political detestation. This disturbing influence has been felt to the remotest corners of the land, but of course it has been more palpable around home. To the general causes of repugnance have been added local causes in his own city that have operated with virulent intensity. He had many and ardent friends whose indiscriminate praises produced revulsion and disgust in many minds. Brother clergymen were gangrened with jealousy at his overshadowing influence, while their congregations were charged with sympathetic spite.

Now, this is a dangerous position for a man to hold in a community, as in any untoward circumstances it could be turned against him with fatal effect. If anybody had a motive or design to unroof Plymouth church, smash the pastor, and drive him out of Brooklyn, the facilities of assault were at hand. It was only necessary to fix upon Mr. Beecher a scandalous charge, and it was sure to spread like fire in straw. It was not at all necessary for purposes of public effect to establish the charge by valid evidence; it was only necessary to link certain ideas together to make a circumstantial picture of scandalous details, with Mr. Beecher as the central figure, and public feeling, consisting largely of dislike, hatred, prejudice, and jealousy, would cement the ideas together and give them all the force and effect of proof. And such is notoriously the way the case was carried. The picture was made by the Woodhulls; and, backed by no better evidence than the Woodhull character, it was at once believed by multitudes in the way they believe most other things. Of course, all those whose estimate of Mr. Beecher was indicated by such terms as "blatherskite," "nigger-worshiper," and "priestly hypocrite," accepted the charge on sight; but with thousands upon thousands of others there was from the first an unavowed half-belief palpably originating in unfavorable feeling. With the great mass of the community, indeed, the case was absolutely prejudged, the "statements" following the Woodhull presentation clinching and closing it, so that the six-months' trial was a mere superfluous appendage. As has been often and truly said, with any other man the case could probably never have got a foothold in a court of justice; but with Beecher the whole country was on fire with excitement, and was determined to have it out; and so, with the cooperation of the newspapers, and an accommodating court, the people have regaled themselves on putrescent gossip for half a year. The possibility of such a social experiment would not have been previously believed; but if it could occur it is better that it should occur, as thereby we become wholesomely, if painfully, instructed in the ways of that curious thing we call public opinion.


In another part of this magazine, under the title of "A Popular Verdict," will be found the painful story of one of the remarkable characters of the past generation. The sketch is far too meagre to do justice either to the traits of the man or to the causes that conspired to darken the later portions of his life.

We first became acquainted with the genius of Dr. Robert Knox in 1852, through a work issued in that year, entitled "Great Artists and Great Anatomists: a Biographical and Philosophical Study." It was a small book, but unique and racy to a remarkable degree. Full of erudition, bold, sarcastic, witty, heterodox, and abounding in acute suggestions, it combined fresh biographical glimpses of such men as Cuvier, Geoffroy St.-Hilaire, Da Vinci, Angelo, and Raphael, with an original and philosophical treatment of the art, the literature, and the science of the epochs in which these great characters lived. The humor, freedom, and pungency of this little brochure induced us to look further into the writings of this author, and we found in "The Races of Men" a book rich in information, and written in the same vivid and fascinating style. The relations of anatomy to art was a favorite subject with Dr. Knox, and he contributed much toward its development. He published (also in 1852) "A Manual of Artistic Anatomy, for the Use of Sculptors, Painters, and Amateurs," with illustrations by Dr. Westmacott. This work contains a great deal of information, set forth in the author's peculiar style; and the third part of the volume gives an interesting analysis of beauty, a theory of the beautiful, and an exposition of the author's views on the objects and aims of art. The bias of the anatomist, however, is perceptible, as he is disinclined to recognize poetry, music, and the drama, as belonging to the fine arts, shows little favor to architecture, and holds that sculpture alone is entitled to the rank of high art. The most brilliant lecturer of his time in England, he applied, in 1841, for the vacant position of anatomical lecturer to the art-students of the Scottish Academy; but, though strongly backed, he failed as Sir Charles Bell had previously thrice failed in his application for the professorship of anatomy to the Royal Academy in London. Knox failed, though super-eminently the man for the place, because an incompetent rival, Mr. James Miller, surgeon, offered his services gratuitously—a consideration which, with the canny Scotch, outweighed all others. Of course, Mr. Miller, at the end of the year, asked for his predecessor's salary, and, after due manipulation and management, obtained it. It was such miserable chicanery and trickiness in education by which "mediocrity gets intrenched and consolidated and founded on adamant," that roused the indignation of Dr. Knox, and led to those scathing denunciations of official and conventional stupidity that did so much to stir up animosity against him. He would call a spade a spade, which, in a state of society despotically ruled by etiquette, was an unpardonable sin.

We have referred to Dr. Knox's work on the "Races of Men," and probably the most powerful cause of that unpopularity that was turned so fatally against him in the hour of his calamity was his early and uncompromising advocacy of the most advanced views upon this subject. He was one of the eminent founders of the modern science of anthropology. Ethnological questions had been systematically entered upon before his time, but the core of the inquiry had hardly yet been reached.

The dissertation of Blumenbach "De Generis Humani Varietate Natura" (1775), was the first great treatise on the races of men, and formed the textbook of Cuvier, Lawrence, Pritchard, Nott and Gliddon, Latham, Waitz, Morton, Pickering, and others. Dr. Knox became an early and independent student of the great problem of the human races, and its comprehensive investigation was a controlling object of his life. He sought to give a new direction to the study of race. He aimed at a knowledge of man in his scientific completeness, geographical, historical, and physical, and as a foundation of such knowledge he wished to have a record of his normal structures, osteology, and nervous system, with all the deviations, rudimentary, excessive, or abnormal, that methodical observation might furnish. He demanded that man shall be inductively studied throughout his whole nature; and he classified his history with the history of the organic world, as, by unity of organization, connected with all life, past, present, and to come. Dr. Knox took the ground, bold ground half a century ago, of the vast antiquity of man, and, though holding to the Cuvierean view of the immutability of species, he shrank from no opprobrium of beliefs denounced at that time as spurious science, immoral in their influence and destructive of religion, lie defended these unpopular views with pungency and power, as was his wont, and as a matter of course called down upon himself the reproachful epithets of "infidel" and "atheist." Where sufficient mud is thrown, some of it is sure to stick. The doctor became obnoxious to the theologians, and was looked upon with dread by the people on account of his horrible opinions; and, when the occurrences took place which are described elsewhere in our pages, he became the ready victim of malignant aspersion. Nearly half a century has now passed since the Edinburgh excitements; "Knox the incomparable," as he was styled by his admiring students, has been years in his grave, and the time has at length come when justice should be done to his memory.