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Title: [During the last week of]

Creator: Walt Whitman

Date: April 20, 1842

Publication information: New York Aurora 20 April 1842: [2].

Source: Original issue held at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln, University Archives and Special Collections. Our transcription is based on a digital image of a microfilm copy of an original issue.

Whitman Archive ID: per.00399

Contributors to digital file: Thad Marshall, Jason Stacy, and Kevin McMullen




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☞ During the last week of the just closed legislative session, at Albany, some sage moralist brought forward a proposition for making all practices of licentiousness penal, and to be visited by the severest terrors of the law. Some of the members favored the proposition, and some opposed it. In the end, it was laid on the shelf.

Were communities so constituted that to prune their errors, the only thing necessary should be the passage of laws, the task of reform would be no task at all. Utopia would come to pass in double quick time. Sin and folly would take unto themselves wings, and flee far away—and every thing exist just as the philanthropist might desire.

Unfortunately, however, it happens that edicts cannot withstand ill doing—that enactments are unable to supersede nature.

We said, the other day, that government was at best but a necessary evil. The remark came incidentally, yet it might afford the motto for a new school of political economy; one which should be more consistent with the age present, and the circumstances and the popular intelligence that surround us. The old and monstrous, and miserable creed, that in order to make men good and happy, you must govern them, is in a pretty fair way to be exploded. We are beginning to feel, not in theory merely, (that has long been the case,) but in reality, that every being with a rational soul is an independent man, and that one is as much a man as another, and that all sovereign rights reside within himself, and that it is a dangerous thing to delegate them to legislatures.

As things are, it will admit of considerable discussion, whether governments (we except none) do not generate nearly as many evils as benefits. As things should be—ninety nine hundredths of legislative prerogatives lopped entirely away—people might enjoy all the benefits, without the evils.

We are no friends to the fearful caprice of mobs. But the iron arm of the thousand fingered Law is as tyrannical—interferes as unjustly, and oppresses as cruelly, as ever did the sans culottes of Robespierres's day,1 or the Protestant rabble of the imbecile Lord George Gordon.2 The only difference is, that to the former we have been to the manner born, and used to it all the days of our lives—while the latter appears to us with all the startlingness of unaccustomed horror.

Questionless, the kinds of crime which the proposition spoken of in the first paragraphs above, seeks to root out, are such as no honorable citizen can countenance. They are a taint and a filth, and a reproach of any man's character. They draw down all that is beautiful and glorious in the soul—and place their victim on a level with the beasts, gross and sensual. Lascivious persons may shelter themselves under the mantle of prevalent usage—but each rightly constituted heart is disgusted with them.

Something far different from a statute, however, is required to annihilate these things. You cannot legislate men into morality.

The more lumbering and numerous become the tomes in a lawyer's library—the longer and stronger grows the list of penalties for crime—the oftener the farce of the people "in legislative assembly convened" is played—just so much more is popular crime fostered, and just so much more is the holy cause of human progress hampered.


Notes:

1. Maximilien Robespierre (1758–1794) was one of the leaders of the sans-culottes whose death marked the end of the time period known as the Terror during the French Revolution. [back]

2. Lord George Gordon (1751–1793) was a British Member of Parliament, who, in 1780, led a mob of citizens to the House of Parliament in protest of the Catholic Relief Act. The riots, which became known as the Gordon Riots, lasted a week and injured some 500 people. For more, see: Eugene Charlton Black, "The Tumultuous Petitioners: The Protestant Association in Scotland, 1778-1780," The Review of Politics 25, no. 2 (1963): 183–211. [back]


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