Guiteau's Devilish Depravity

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Guiteau's "Devilish Depravity"

[Lysander Spooner, (unsigned)]

Some of the sainted spirits, those God-anointed souls, who edit our political papers, and who evidently came down from a higher sphere, to shed the light of their holiness, for a brief period, upon this dark and wicked world; and who know, by their spiritual intuitions, that there is nothing, this side of heaven, so sacred in itself, or so important to mankind, as the government of the United States, have apparently exhausted their illuminating powers, in the effort to make us see and realize the indescribably wickedness of killing a president. To their minds, there has not been, on this planet, another crime so atrocious, for at least eighteen hundred years. The horror, which men anciently felt at the killing of a king, a God-anointed king, was hardly exceeded, or even equaled, by that which these angelic spirits feel at the killing of a president. To describe the act by the simple name of murder, as in the case of common mortals, conveys no idea of its intense wickedness. To speak of it simply as an act of an insane man, exasperates them to fury. It seems to make maniacs of them. That anybody has a right to be so insane as to kill a president, is what they cannot comprehend, and will not listen to. Their ethereal natures seem to realize that if, after they have come down from heaven to earth, to assist and guide in the election of a president, and have succeeded in converting a piece of common cay into a sort of earthly god, and given him the power to reward the righteous , who voted for him, and punish the wicked, who voted against him, he can be killed like any common mortal, all their labor in electing him is lost, their plans for governing the world frustrated, their sacred system of rewards and punishments unceremoniously demolished, their own vocation on earth at an end, and they themselves necessitated to return, in disappointment and disgust, to that higher sphere, from which they ought never to have descended.

It does not assuage, but only aggravates, their sorrow, to assure them that presidents are not only mortal, but vulnerable; that nature made them so, and there is no help for it; that the system of rewards and punishments, which they are appointed to administer, is likely to make enemies as well as friends; that kings—the immediate predecessors of the presidents, and whose duties and powers, with little qualification, have been devolved upon the presidents—have, as a rule, been a very bad set—the robbers, oppressors, and destroyers of mankind; that the presidents have not yet proved, beyond controversy, that they are very much better than kings; or that they hold their power by a tenure less bloody than did the kings; or that, whether good or bad, they are a necessity to the well-being of the world. It serves no purpose to assure them that presidents are neither the fathers nor mothers of the people whom they attempt to govern; that, whether this one, or that one, lives or dies, the sun will still rise and set; that summer and winter, seed-time and harvest, will succeed each other as before; that we shall, no doubt, have very much left to enjoy, and, if pious, to be thankful for.

All such philosophy as this is wasted upon these inconsolable editors; and, in fact, upon all others who had expected offices or rewards at the hand of the late president.

One would think that, like reasonable beings, finding that neither their sorrow, nor their anger, could avail to bring back their idol, they would be content, like the ancients, simply to deify him, or demi-deify him; to pale him in their political pantheon, and tell their posterity what he was and what he did.

One might even think that the experience of the last twenty years, and even the last ninety years, with all the blood, and poverty, and misery, with which they have been filled, might lead these serene and philosophic souls to enquire whether our system of governing men by editors, congresses, and presidents, does not cause ten thousand time as much bloodshed and misery as it prevents; and whether something better cannot be devised.

And, finally, one might imagine that these angelic spirits, would try to be at least reasonable and just, if they could not be merciful, to the one who took the late president’s life; that they would not call so frantically for vengeance, until it was proved that he was a fit subject for it.

But of all this moderation and reason, they seem to be incapable. In the cases of the ordinary homicides, of which they inform their readers, they do not indulge In any violent demonstrations of surprise, grief, or anger. They evidently consider them merely common human occurrences, such as are to be expected of weak, or wicked human nature. And they wait very patiently and coolly until courts and juries shall have given their verdicts as to the moral responsibility of the actors.

But, for Guiteau, they have none of this mercy or justice. They have apparently exhausted their vocabularies in the vain attempt to describe the moral nature of the man, who could kill a president. To call him a madman, a fanatic, a man mentally diseased, or congenitally malformed, does not satisfy, or even soften their rage. They are not content with describing him by such terms as wretch, monster, assassin; for they see that neither wretch, monster, nor assassin fitly describes a man, who, in open day, before a hundred people, kills another, towards whom he had no personal ill will, and from whose death he could reasonably expect to derive no benefit whatever.

Puzzled to account for an act, for which they can assign no rational motive, they seem at last to have hit upon a term that describes their general sentiments, by attributing Guiteau'a act to his “devilish depravity."

We confess that we may not fully understand the legal meaning of this term. It is associated, in our minds, with certain theological ideas, that are now somewhat stale, if not entirely obsolete. It seems to imply that there is, somewhere in the universe, such a being as a devil, and that he has power to deprave weak human beings, who, but for him, might have been quite innocent, and worthy persons.

If this solution of the mystery is to be accepted as the true one—that is, if there really be a devil, and if he has succeeded in “depraving" Guiteau, to the extent supposed—it is evident that Guiteau is one of the most unfortunate and pitiable of the human race; and that all this rage against him is misdirected. We believe that the most dreadful of all the theologians, who have believed in a devil, and in his power to “deprave" mortals, have had some pity on those, upon whom he has laid his spell. We believe that, at least, Edwards and Hopkins, and perhaps John Calvin himself, would have been gratified to know that A man, depraved by the power of the devil, would not be held to the sole responsibility of his acts But our divinely appointed political editors seem to have less mercy for sins committed, under the instigation of the devil, against a successful politician, than Edwards, or Hopkins, or Calvin had for sins committed, under similar instigation, against God.

We would mercifully advise these heaven-sent editors, before they return to their celestial abodes, to recall their senses, if they bare any, and listen to reason; to reflect that even though their special mission on earth may hare proved a failure, the world may, perhaps, get on without them; that if presidents should occasionally be killed by lunatics or others, we have plenty of material of which to make more; that even the government of the United States may continue to stand for quite as much as it is worth, and quite as long as it ought to, in spite of all the Guiteaus by whom it may be assailed. A government that is afraid of Guiteaus, is not long for this world.

And, finally, let us whisper, in the ears of these editors, that they themselves, and such as they, are doing more to destroy this government, and to prove that it ought to be destroyed, than all the Guiteaus they will ever see.

But this is no new occupation with them. Ever since they came on the earth, they have been trying to prove that the government of the United States ought to be destroyed; and, with the aid of president, congresses, etc., they will doubtless succeed, unless they can be induced to go back to the skies.

  • Lysander Spooner, “Guiteau’s ‘Devilish Depravity’,” Liberty 1, no. 11 (December 24, 1881): 2.