On Mobs

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Josiah Warren, "On Mobs," The Boston Investigator, 33, 20 (September 23, 1863), 155.

For the Boston Investigator.

On Mobs.

By the Author of "True Civilization."

Mr. Editor:—I see it stated that a hundred and fifty of the (so called) rioters in New York are brought up for trial and punishment. Punishment in this case cannot mean reparation for damages done, for these poor creatures have nothing with which to make restitution, but the punishment is intended as usual for a "terror to evil doers." But those who punish instead of preventing crime do not know that they are themselves evil doers! They give the authority of the State and the influence of their high example to that very spirit of revenge which they condemn in the mob, and the more they punish destitution and desperation or even crime, the more mobs there will be. But what is to be done? Ah! That is the question—for the present moment the least violent restraints that are effectual seem the best expedients. The policeman who exposed his life in three times extinguishing the fire at the Orphan Asylum, displayed the right kind of heroism. He did not stand to quarrel with the mob, but was entirely engaged in preventing the destruction; and though he did more good than hundreds who were fighting the mob, some of whom lost their lives in so doing, his life was spared by the mob, who could have killed him in a moment, but they could not find a motive to do so. There is something so self-evidently correct in protecting persons or property from wanton destruction, it at least commends itself to forbearance even from men rendered desperate. Cannot the official take a hint from this and draw a line now between the punishment and the prevention of crime?

I use the word "mob" in no opprobrious sense. Those who gather round a fallen horse in the street to assist him to get up, are a mob; and those who used to hurry to a neighbor's house on fire to do their best to extinguish it, were mobs, until there were regular organizations for that purpose. Wat Tyler and his associates were a mob, but had they not done as they did we might not have had the character of Liberty so highly prized and so little understood in this country. I might multiply illustrations but I wish to space unnecessary words. It is not, then, the mob that is to be condemned, but it is what they do that is to be considered; and then it is not what the mob are supposed to have done, but what individuals it was that did this or that—and then, not to visit them with vindictive punishment, but to obtain reparation for damages, or to learn the causes which impelled them, in order to prevent similar effects in the future; for this is all that is truly worthy of the wise legislator. We are not true and consequently not safe without this careful discrimination. But here we come to a stand—there seems to be no knowledge of causes among law-makers nor among the administrators of laws; nor do they seem to be aware that causes can have anything to do with what happens! If they did, why do we not hear of anything by "catching and punishing" the rioters? Let Mr. Aikin give a hint on this point:—

"Don't be angry with me, Sir," cried the widow, sobbing bitterly. She was a poor creature with an infant in her arms. The man whom she addressed, asked her to give up her child to his care. She refused, and on seeing that he was displeased, she said, "Pray don't be angry. I know I am undeserving of your bounty; but if I were to tell you the hardships I have undergone—to what extremities I have been reduced—and to what infamy I have submitted, to earn a scanty subsistence for this for this child's sake,—if you could feel what it is to stand alone in the world as I do, bereft of all who ever loved me, and shunned by all who have ever known me, except the worthless and the wretched—and Heaven grant that you may be spared the knowledge—how much affliction sharpens love and how much more dear to me my child has become for every sacrifice I have made for him; if you were told all this, you would I am sure pity rather than reproach me, because I cannot at once consent to a separation which I feel would break my heart."

"Let me advise you," said Mr. Wood, "on no account to fly to strong waters for consolation, Joan. One nail drives out another, it's true; but the worst nail you can employ is a coffin-nail. Gin Lane's the nearest road to the churchyard."

"It may be, but if it shortens the distance, and lightens the journey, I care not," said the widow, who seemed by this reproach to be roused into sudden eloquence. "To those who, like me, have never been able to get out of the dark and dreary paths of life, the grave is indeed a refuge, and the sooner they reach it the better. The spirit I drink may be poison,—it may kill me,—perhaps it is killing me:—but so would hunger, cold, misery,—so would my own thoughts. I should have gone mad without it. Gin is the poor man's friend,—his whole set-off against the rich man's luxury. It may be treacherous, it may lay up a state of future woe; but it insures present happiness, and that is sufficient. It comforts the most forlorn. When I have traversed the streets a houseless wanderer, driven with curses from every door where I have asked for alms, and with blows from every gateway where I have sought shelter—when I have crept into some deserted building, and stretched my wearied limbs on a bulk, in the hope of repose—or, worse than all, when frenzied with want, I have yielded to some horrible temptation, and earned a meal in the only way I could earn one—when I have felt, at times like these, my heart sick within me, I have drunk of this drink, and have at once forgotten my cares, my poverty, my guilt. Old thoughts, old feelings, old faces, and old scenes have returned to me, and I have fancied myself happy—as happy as I now am!" and she burst into a wild, hysterical laugh.

"Poor creature!" ejaculated Wood; "do you call this frantic glee, happiness?"

"It's all the happiness I have known for years," returned the widow, becoming suddenly calm, "and it is short-lived enough, as you perceive. I tell you what, Mr. Wood," added she in a hollow voice, and with a ghastly look, "gin may bring ruin, but as long as poverty, vice, and ill-usage exist, it will be drunk."<ref> Ainsworth, William Harrison, "Jack Sheppard, A Romance," 1839</ref>

It is common to find fault with the apathy and indifference of the rich, in regard to remedies; but before this charge will hold good, a practical remedy should be presented; which never has yet been done. There has been no lack of good intentions and self-sacrificing efforts, but they have all failed over and over again. Common property was tried at least eighteen hundred years ago, and all through the present generation, and Fourier's Association idea have been attempted several times in Europe, and, I believe, thirty-nine times in this country, within the last thirty years; and yet another and another attempt is made in the same way, without any new elements, or any new arrangement of the old ones, all with the same inevitable result; till a general feeling prevails that no remedy is practicable.

I will venture to say that those who have come to this conclusion are the nearest right—none which they know of, are practicable.

[Remainder next week.]


On Mobs.

By the Author of "True Civilization."


It has been preached to us, and sung to us, and printed at us for hundreds of years, that nothing happens without causes to produce it. But precisely at the time and place where this great fact would be of use, no use in made of it. Thanks to commentators, however, for uttering even so much that is true. Now let us apply this fact to desperation and crime. And to be clear and understandable, we must take one case at a time. In the foregoing case, the widow with her husband just hung for burglary and her infant starving at her breast, she fainting for food and insultingly driven from the misers while begging. Could she feel cheerful, comfortable, happy? Had she any power whatever to feel otherwise than as she did feel? Are there no laws of human nature?—Can a mirror reflect any other image than such as is before it? Can one feel otherwise than as "causes" make him feel’! If water is compelled to run down hill, if cold in compelled to freeze it—if a stone inevitably falls downwards instead of upwards, an empty stomach must feel the frenzy of hunger, and those destitute of hope must feel despair.

I am aware this is treading on forbidden ground—but I have no respect for authority that forbids the admission of a fact. I know that ‘‘this doctrine excuses all crime ‘‘it is fatalism, Owenism, philosophical necessity, heresy, infidelity, and would lead,” &c., &c. No matter now about names nor where a fact may least: it is a fact, as far as I know, that nothing happens without causes to produce it and where these causes exist, the effect will follow, whether you and I are pleased with it or not. I regret that it is so, I wish I could speak some other order of nature into existence—it would save “a world of trouble,” but I feel a humiliating sense of my own impotency in this respect, and mere preachers, moralists, political economists, law makers, courts, justices, judges, juries, hangmen and prison keepers seem to be afflicted with similar imbecility.

Since all these agencies have utterly failed for successive centuries, to produce what they professedly aim at, and since nothing can happen without causes to produce it, suppose we begin in this nineteen hundredth year of the world's enlightenment to look to causes.

The commencement of the troubles of the despairing woman was her husband being hung for burglary. What caused this? What did he want? What did he expect to find in the house which he broke open?

The answer is, money.

What caused him to want money?

He wanted it because it was the means necessary to supply his wants.

What were these wants?

This is none of our business. It was only for him and those involved in his action to legislate on this point; but there are some causes for the want of money that we may legitimately meddle with—these are, its general deficiency—the difficulties to some people of procuring it when it is wanted

What causes these difficulties?

The metals of which it is made, are rare and costly, and are under the control of, or within the reach of, only a small portion of mankind; and money is designedly made scarce and difficult to obtain.

What causes these motives to make money scarce and difficult to obtain?

The prospect of gaining large quantities of it.

What are large accumulations wanted for?

For future security for self and offspring against want.

What causes these motives?

Insecurity of Condition.

Here is the end of the chain as far as it seems useful to pursue it; and I will ask if any one of the parties involved could be expected to feet or act otherwise than as they do, under the influence of the causes named? If any one thinks he could, let him try in any case to do differently from what he does do. But the idea is an absurdity, therefore it is nonsense to say people might be better, might think otherwise, ought to be something else than what they are in any one present case. In common newspaper phrase, the foregoing is an exhibition of “shocking depravity;" but I think the shocking depravity is with those who can see nothing but depravity in it.

I would not publish it at all, but as a stimulant to work for remedy. Let those who have bread to eat, not have it stick in their throats by thoughts of the starving, and those who have beds to lie on, let them sleep, if they can, if they must be surrounded with the breadless, than bedless, freezing, desperate, and dying; unless, by being disturbed, they can work towards remedy.

To those who know of none, I suggest that if every person had access to one acre of land of the millions of acres that now lie under useless monopoly, and had the legitimate advantages of the division and exchange of labor and did not lose three quarters of their proper compensation in the process of thus exchanging their products, nor had them destroyed to manufacture vulgar glorification for military heroes, there would be found all the bread that could be eaten, all the houses and beds that were wanted, and all the money that could be used.

But, perhaps it is replied, Government has already provided that any one may go and take possession of not one acre, but a hundred and sixty acres of the public land without price. Yes, it has; but this does not remedy the evil where it is most severely felt. The strongest of men, (not to speak of women and children,) cannot isolate themselves a hundred and sixty acres away from other people, without depriving themselves of most of the advantages of society and working themselves down to an early grave or to the condition of mere savages. And if they attempt to draw others around them, they commit the communistic error or else retain in their own hands the power to become oppressive speculators on house lots. No middle course has been struck out. Speculation has had no limits nor regulator, nor does it know any;—and exactly the same principle which gives such destructive sway to speculators, is pursued by the poorest and most honest, and most useful citizens. All get whatever they can, as the price for what they do or sell; and whether they succeed or fail in the scramble for life, all are equally guilty and equally innocent so far as causes are concerned; and certainly all are equally ignorant of any regulating principle for the sale of land and labor, merchandise, or anything else. The principle required is the principle of Equivalents.

We have now reached the remedy required to neutralize the antagonism of classes; "but," it is replied, "this remedy is too new—it will take such a long time to get it in operation, we cannot wait—we must have something that we can use now, at once." If the remedy is new, it is not untried nor undemonstrated.

I know what the want is, and wish it could be immediately supplied. If you can find an immediate remedy, pray apply it at once; but I know of no remedies that are old, and if any are found at all, they must, of necessity, be new; and if they, like arithmetic, require time and application, the sooner those are bestowed the better.

In the meantime, let us not add torture to desperation, but confine ourselves to the least violence that will protect all, even the mob themselves, from unnecessary disturbance, while the proper remedies are found and applied.

I think I hear the suffering masses say, "Who cares for us? Who offers us anything but insult and abuse? What remedies have we with the courts, the lawyers, the juries, or the judges? Will the lawyers plead the cause of poverty and destitution without pay? And do not the judges condemn us to the prisons or the gallows from the same motive that they would go to a bull fight, or else because they love to display their power? Where are courts for the poor who cannot pay high prices for protection? There is no protection for us, but such as we can find in our own hands, and in our desperation."

I reply, that among all the horrors and desolation the war has brought about, it has also converted every house into a council chamber, and has constituted every thinking person a judge, the whole people making one great Supreme Court of inquiry; and when lime great cause of the working classes comes up before this great tribunal of public opinion, then your true remedy shall come. Specific councils are already being formed in different parts of the world, principally for the purpose of considering the present condition and future prospects of labor; and the subject will never be abandoned till relief is obtained, and because it can be had without any violent revolution or the sacrifice of a single life or any property.

In the meantime, real a little work, published by Fowlers and Wells, written by Robert Dale Owen, entitled “Labor—its present condition and future prospects, and you wail see that there are those among the easy classes that feel as deeply for the suffering classes us they feel for each other; though he does not propose any particular remedy, but modestly leaves this for others, who profess to know one. Be assured that there are others, like him, who would hail with joy any plan of relief that appeared efficient and practical. But there have been no many plausible plans tried and failed, and in which many of the best of men have been ruined, they despair of all prospects of the kind, and are too apt to dismiss them without examination, though they would be the first to assist in a true reliable scientific plan of permanent relief, when they once could be got to examine it. Help us yourselves to solve the great problem of what constitutes the true or equitable compensation for labor, and you will find difficulties you never dreamed of.

Don't persecute the poor innocent black people. There is room enough on the earth for all to employ themselves to advantage. Don’t destroy property, but increase it and enjoy the increase you make, by protecting yourselves against speculation by the adoption of a principle that would give an abundance of employment to all and much higher wages than you ever thought of asking.

Frochel, the German compatriot of Blume in the revolution of 1848, has hold us that "the working and suffering classes had obtained all the power they needed; but when they came to apply it, they did not know what to do!"

The Labor Question is certainly the most difficult subject in the world to settle, or it would have been settled before this time; but it is capable of settlement, as you or your descendants shall see.