I'm reading through parts of The Standard, Henry George's weekly newspaper from 125 years ago. In the issue I finished the other day, there was a reference to there being 154 contributors to that issue (and 100,000 readers, a figure one might find a bit difficult to believe -- this was in the first year of publication, though pass-along readership, particularly in the numerous local "land and labor" and "single tax" clubs, and library copies might make that credible). Though each issue at this time runs 8 printed pages, when I do "print preview" there are generally 90 to 110 pages of text per issue.
The piece below is signed by George, and while it is speaking to the anarchist trial in Chicago, it contains a lot that is extremely relevant in this election year 125 years later. It comes from page 1 of the October 8, 1887 issue.
I have seen no statement of the ground on which the authorities of Union
Hill, New Jersey, prohibited the meeting of sympathy for the Chicago
anarchists, which was to have been held there on Sunday afternoon, and
was prevented by the police with a free use of their clubs. But whatever
may have been the legal excuse, the action was wrong in principle and
mistaken in policy. We cannot too carefully guard the right of free
speech, and the surest way to prevent the spread of doctrines wrong in
themselves is to allow them to be freely ventilated, drawing the line
only when overt acts of violence are committed or incited to.
This, is illustrated by the effect which the violent language used by the sympathizers of the Chicago anarchists has been producing, and which is likely to be retarded by such occurrences as that at Union Hill. The withdrawal from the Central labor union on Sunday week of the representatives of the strongest and most influential of its component bodies rather than permit themselves to be trapped into action which would have been used as an expression of the sympathy of the workingmen of New York with the methods and deeds of the Chicago anarchists is indicative of the marked change, of opinion, which has been produced by the ravings of the socialists of the progressive labor party.
Among the great body of workingmen there has never been any sympathy with the bomb throwers of Chicago or any justification of anarchistic methods, but there was a widespread impression that the men condemned at Chicago had, in their excited state of public opinion, failed to get a fair trial: and this feeling led some of the representative men of the New-York trades unions, upon the first receipt of the news that the anarchists had been refused a new trial, to consent to put their names to a circular calling for a protest against the execution of the sentence. But the violent utterances of the “progressive socialists," one of whom, at the meeting of the Central labor union last Sunday week, called on God to bless the hand that threw the bomb at Chicago, and their attempt to put the Chicago anarchists in the light of leaders of the industrial movement who were being persecuted to the death for legitimate and laudable efforts in the cause of labor, have produced a strong reaction, well, indeed, may the personal friends of the men who in Chicago are under sentence of death declare that their blatant “sympathizers” are their worst enemies.
The truth is that there is no ground for asking executive clemency in
behalf of the Chicago anarchists as a matter of right. An unlawful and
murderous deed was committed in Chicago, the penalty of which by
the laws of the state of Illinois is death. Seven men were tried on the
charge of being accessory to the crime, and after a long trial were
convicted. The case was appealed to the supreme court of the state of
Illinois, and that body, composed of seven judges, removed, both in time
and place, from the excitement which may have been supposed to have
affected public opinion in Chicago during the first trial, have, after
an elaborate examination of the evidence and the law, unanimously
confirmed the sentence.
That seven judges of the highest court of Illinois, men accustomed to weigh evidence and to pass upon judicial rulings, should, after a full examination of the testimony and the record, and with the responsibility of life and death resting upon them, unanimously sustain the verdict and the sentence, is inconsistent with the idea that the Chicago anarchists were condemned on insufficient evidence. And the elaborate review of the testimony which is given in the decision of the supreme court dissipates the impression that these men were only connected with the bomb throwing by general and vague incitements to and preparations for acts of this kind. Even discarding the testimony (contradicted by other testimony) that Spies handed a bomb to the man who is supposed to have thrown it, there was enough evidence left to connect the seven men with a specific conspiracy to prepare dynamite bombs and to use them against the police on the evening on which the bomb was thrown. It was not indeed proved that any of the seven men threw the bomb, nor even was it proved who did throw the bomb, but it was proved beyond any reasonable doubt that these men were engaged in a conspiracy, as a result of which the bomb was thrown, and were therefore under the laws of Illinois as guilty as though they themselves had done the act. It may be said that these men had worked themselves up to the belief that it is only by acts of violence and bloodshed that social reform can be attained, but that does not affect the justice of their sentence. No matter how honest or how intense may have been their conviction on this point, organized society is none the less justified in protecting itself against such acts.
There may be countries in which the suppression by an absolute despotism
of all freedom of speech and action justifies the use of force, if the
use of force ever can be justified. But even in such countries complaint
cannot be made when the sword is unsheathed against those who draw the
sword. In this country, however, where a freedom of speech which extends
almost to license is seldom interfered with, and where all political
power rests upon the will of the people, those who counsel to force or
to the use of force in the name of political or social reform are
enemies of society, and especially are they enemies of the working
masses. What in this country holds the masses down and permits the
social injustice of which they are becoming so bitterly conscious, is
not any superimposed tyranny, but their own ignorance. The workingmen of
the United States have in their own hands the power to remedy political
abuses and to change social conditions by rewriting the laws as they
will. For the intelligent use of this power thought must be aroused and
reason invoked. But the effect of force, on the contrary, is always to
awaken prejudice and to kindle passion.
There is legitimate ground on which executive clemency may be asked for the Chicago anarchists — that, being imbued with ideas which germinate in countries where the legitimate freedom of speech and action is sternly repressed, they were not fully conscious of the moral criminality of their action, and that the main purpose of their punishment — the prevention of such crimes in future — will be as well served, if not even better served, by a commutation of the sentence of death into a sentence of imprisonment.
This last is a very strong ground for the interposition of executive clemency; and it is sincerely to be hoped that the governor of Illinois will see its force. A tragical death always tends to condone mistakes and crimes, and a certain amount of sympathy will undoubtedly attach to the Chicago anarchists if they are hanged, which would not be aroused if they were merely imprisoned.
But in whatever expression of opinion associations of workingmen who do not themselves believe in the use of dynamite may see fit to make upon this subject, there should be nothing which tends to put the Chicago anarchists in the light of leaders and martyrs in the cause of American social reform.
There are certain lessons connected with this Chicago tragedy that are
well worth the consideration of every thoughtful American. The
appearance in this country of a violent phase of anarchism is not to be
imputed entirely to the ignorance or viciousness of foreigners
unacquainted with our institutions. If they did not find in this country
deep and grievous social injustice, they would not retain the idea of
violence as a remedy for social evils after coming here; and were it not
for this injustice which large bodies of our people keenly feel, the
man who should propose violence or plot violence as a means for improving the condition of the
people would be laughed into silence. The really dangerous thing in this
country is not the presence of foreign born incendiaries, but the
existence of industrial conditions, which, in the midst of plenty,
deprive the laborer of what he knows to be the fair earnings of his
toil, and condemn men able to work and willing to work to enforced idleness.
And the most dangerous men are in reality not the socialists or
anarchists, but the comfortable classes who declare that things as they
are are just what they ought to be, and who not only do not address
themselves to finding any reasonable or peaceful solution for social
difficulties, but do their utmost to prevent any such peaceful solution
from being generally accepted.
Nor is the talking about force confined to anarchists. The rich and influential are too ready to talk about it, and to condone such applications of it as the employment of Pinkerton's detectives and the clubbing of peaceful assemblages by police. And the readiness with which the idea has spread that the Chicago anarchists have been unjustly and illegally condemned is a grave warning of the loss of faith in our judicial system consequent upon the corruption of our politics. We are yet far from the point at which it can be rationally assumed that seven judges of a highest state court would condemn a number of their fellow creatures to death against law and evidence; but when, as in this state, $60,000 is sometimes spent to secure a judicial nomination, and great corporations can make their influence felt in politics to secure friends on the bench, the belief in judicial integrity is surely on the wane.