In the course of an early morning constitutional I visited
Charlestown. Among the changes, too numerous to attempt to indicate,
which mark the lapse of a century in that quarter, I particularly
noted the total disappearance of the old state prison.
"That went before my day, but I remember hearing about it," said Dr.
Leete, when I alluded to the fact at the breakfast table. "We have no
jails nowadays. All cases of atavism are treated in the hospitals."
"Of atavism!" I exclaimed, staring.
"Why, yes," replied Dr. Leete. "The idea of dealing punitively with
those unfortunates was given up at least fifty years ago, and I think
"I don't quite understand you," I said. "Atavism in my day was a word
applied to the cases of persons in whom some trait of a remote
ancestor recurred in a noticeable manner. Am I to understand that
crime is nowadays looked upon as the recurrence of an ancestral
"I beg your pardon," said Dr. Leete with a smile half humorous, half
deprecating, "but since you have so explicitly asked the question, I
am forced to say that the fact is precisely that."
After what I had already learned of the moral contrasts between the
nineteenth and the twentieth centuries, it was doubtless absurd in me
to begin to develop sensitiveness on the subject, and probably if Dr.
Leete had not spoken with that apologetic air and Mrs. Leete and Edith
shown a corresponding embarrassment, I should not have flushed, as I
was conscious I did.
"I was not in much danger of being vain of my generation before," I
said; "but, really"—
"This is your generation, Mr. West," interposed Edith. "It is the one
in which you are living, you know, and it is only because we are alive
now that we call it ours."
"Thank you. I will try to think of it so," I said, and as my eyes met
hers their expression quite cured my senseless sensitiveness. "After
all," I said, with a laugh, "I was brought up a Calvinist, and ought
not to be startled to hear crime spoken of as an ancestral trait."
"In point of fact," said Dr. Leete, "our use of the word is no
reflection at all on your generation, if, begging Edith's pardon, we
may call it yours, so far as seeming to imply that we think ourselves,
apart from our circumstances, better than you were. In your day fully
nineteen twentieths of the crime, using the word broadly to include
all sorts of misdemeanors, resulted from the inequality in the
possessions of individuals; want tempted the poor, lust of greater
gains, or the desire to preserve former gains, tempted the well-to-do.
Directly or indirectly, the desire for money, which then meant every
good thing, was the motive of all this crime, the taproot of a vast
poison growth, which the machinery of law, courts, and police could
barely prevent from choking your civilization outright. When we made
the nation the sole trustee of the wealth of the people, and
guaranteed to all abundant maintenance, on the one hand abolishing
want, and on the other checking the accumulation of riches, we cut
this root, and the poison tree that overshadowed your society
withered, like Jonah's gourd, in a day. As for the comparatively small
class of violent crimes against persons, unconnected with any idea of
gain, they were almost wholly confined, even in your day, to the
ignorant and bestial; and in these days, when education and good
manners are not the monopoly of a few, but universal, such atrocities
are scarcely ever heard of. You now see why the word "atavism" is used
for crime. It is because nearly all forms of crime known to you are
motiveless now, and when they appear can only be explained as the
outcropping of ancestral traits. You used to call persons who stole,
evidently without any rational motive, kleptomaniacs, and when the
case was clear deemed it absurd to punish them as thieves. Your
attitude toward the genuine kleptomaniac is precisely ours toward the
victim of atavism, an attitude of compassion and firm but gentle
"Your courts must have an easy time of it," I observed. "With no
private property to speak of, no disputes between citizens over
business relations, no real estate to divide or debts to collect,
there must be absolutely no civil business at all for them; and with
no offenses against property, and mighty few of any sort to provide
criminal cases, I should think you might almost do without judges and
"We do without the lawyers, certainly," was Dr. Leete's reply. "It
would not seem reasonable to us, in a case where the only interest of
the nation is to find out the truth, that persons should take part in
the proceedings who had an acknowledged motive to color it."
"But who defends the accused?"
"If he is a criminal he needs no defense, for he pleads guilty in most
instances," replied Dr. Leete. "The plea of the accused is not a mere
formality with us, as with you. It is usually the end of the case."
"You don't mean that the man who pleads not guilty is thereupon
"No, I do not mean that. He is not accused on light grounds, and if he
denies his guilt, must still be tried. But trials are few, for in most
cases the guilty man pleads guilty. When he makes a false plea and is
clearly proved guilty, his penalty is doubled. Falsehood is, however,
so despised among us that few offenders would lie to save themselves."
"That is the most astounding thing you have yet told me," I exclaimed.
"If lying has gone out of fashion, this is indeed the 'new heavens and
the new earth wherein dwelleth righteousness,' which the prophet
"Such is, in fact, the belief of some persons nowadays," was the
doctor's answer. "They hold that we have entered upon the millennium,
and the theory from their point of view does not lack plausibility.
But as to your astonishment at finding that the world has outgrown
lying, there is really no ground for it. Falsehood, even in your day,
was not common between gentlemen and ladies, social equals. The lie of
fear was the refuge of cowardice, and the lie of fraud the device of
the cheat. The inequalities of men and the lust of acquisition offered
a constant premium on lying at that time. Yet even then, the man who
neither feared another nor desired to defraud him scorned falsehood.
Because we are now all social equals, and no man either has anything
to fear from another or can gain anything by deceiving him, the
contempt of falsehood is so universal that it is rarely, as I told
you, that even a criminal in other respects will be found willing to
lie. When, however, a plea of not guilty is returned, the judge
appoints two colleagues to state the opposite sides of the case. How
far these men are from being like your hired advocates and
prosecutors, determined to acquit or convict, may appear from the fact
that unless both agree that the verdict found is just, the case is
tried over, while anything like bias in the tone of either of the
judges stating the case would be a shocking scandal."
"Do I understand," I said, "that it is a judge who states each side of
the case as well as a judge who hears it?"
"Certainly. The judges take turns in serving on the bench and at the
bar, and are expected to maintain the judicial temper equally whether
in stating or deciding a case. The system is indeed in effect that of
trial by three judges occupying different points of view as to the
case. When they agree upon a verdict, we believe it to be as near to
absolute truth as men well can come."
"You have given up the jury system, then?"
"It was well enough as a corrective in the days of hired advocates,
and a bench sometimes venal, and often with a tenure that made it
dependent, but is needless now. No conceivable motive but justice
could actuate our judges."
"How are these magistrates selected?"
"They are an honorable exception to the rule which discharges all men
from service at the age of forty-five. The President of the nation
appoints the necessary judges year by year from the class reaching
that age. The number appointed is, of course, exceedingly few, and
the honor so high that it is held an offset to the additional term of
service which follows, and though a judge's appointment may be
declined, it rarely is. The term is five years, without eligibility to
reappointment. The members of the Supreme Court, which is the guardian
of the constitution, are selected from among the lower judges. When a
vacancy in that court occurs, those of the lower judges, whose terms
expire that year, select, as their last official act, the one of their
colleagues left on the bench whom they deem fittest to fill it."
"There being no legal profession to serve as a school for judges," I
said, "they must, of course, come directly from the law school to the
"We have no such things as law schools," replied the doctor, smiling.
"The law as a special science is obsolete. It was a system of
casuistry which the elaborate artificiality of the old order of
society absolutely required to interpret it, but only a few of the
plainest and simplest legal maxims have any application to the
existing state of the world. Everything touching the relations of men
to one another is now simpler, beyond any comparison, than in your
day. We should have no sort of use for the hair-splitting experts who
presided and argued in your courts. You must not imagine, however,
that we have any disrespect for those ancient worthies because we have
no use for them. On the contrary, we entertain an unfeigned respect,
amounting almost to awe, for the men who alone understood and were
able to expound the interminable complexity of the rights of property,
and the relations of commercial and personal dependence involved in
your system. What, indeed, could possibly give a more powerful
impression of the intricacy and artificiality of that system than the
fact that it was necessary to set apart from other pursuits the cream
of the intellect of every generation, in order to provide a body of
pundits able to make it even vaguely intelligible to those whose fates
it determined. The treatises of your great lawyers, the works of
Blackstone and Chitty, of Story and Parsons, stand in our museums,
side by side with the tomes of Duns Scotus and his fellow scholastics,
as curious monuments of intellectual subtlety devoted to subjects
equally remote from the interests of modern men. Our judges are simply
widely informed, judicious, and discreet men of ripe years.
"I should not fail to speak of one important function of the minor
judges," added Dr. Leete. "This is to adjudicate all cases where a
private of the industrial army makes a complaint of unfairness against
an officer. All such questions are heard and settled without appeal by
a single judge, three judges being required only in graver cases. The
efficiency of industry requires the strictest discipline in the army
of labor, but the claim of the workman to just and considerate
treatment is backed by the whole power of the nation. The officer
commands and the private obeys, but no officer is so high that he
would dare display an overbearing manner toward a workman of the
lowest class. As for churlishness or rudeness by an official of any
sort, in his relations to the public, not one among minor offenses is
more sure of a prompt penalty than this. Not only justice but civility
is enforced by our judges in all sorts of intercourse. No value of
service is accepted as a set-off to boorish or offensive manners."
It occurred to me, as Dr. Leete was speaking, that in all his talk I
had heard much of the nation and nothing of the state governments. Had
the organization of the nation as an industrial unit done away with
the states? I asked.
"Necessarily," he replied. "The state governments would have
interfered with the control and discipline of the industrial army,
which, of course, required to be central and uniform. Even if the
state governments had not become inconvenient for other reasons, they
were rendered superfluous by the prodigious simplification in the task
of government since your day. Almost the sole function of the
administration now is that of directing the industries of the country.
Most of the purposes for which governments formerly existed no longer
remain to be subserved. We have no army or navy, and no military
organization. We have no departments of state or treasury, no excise
or revenue services, no taxes or tax collectors. The only function
proper of government, as known to you, which still remains, is the
judiciary and police system. I have already explained to you how
simple is our judicial system as compared with your huge and complex
machine. Of course the same absence of crime and temptation to it,
which make the duties of judges so light, reduces the number and
duties of the police to a minimum."
"But with no state legislatures, and Congress meeting only once in
five years, how do you get your legislation done?"
"We have no legislation," replied Dr. Leete, "that is, next to none.
It is rarely that Congress, even when it meets, considers any new laws
of consequence, and then it only has power to commend them to the
following Congress, lest anything be done hastily. If you will
consider a moment, Mr. West, you will see that we have nothing to make
laws about. The fundamental principles on which our society is founded
settle for all time the strifes and misunderstandings which in your
day called for legislation.
"Fully ninety-nine hundredths of the laws of that time concerned the
definition and protection of private property and the relations of
buyers and sellers. There is neither private property, beyond personal
belongings, now, nor buying and selling, and therefore the occasion of
nearly all the legislation formerly necessary has passed away.
Formerly, society was a pyramid poised on its apex. All the
gravitations of human nature were constantly tending to topple it
over, and it could be maintained upright, or rather upwrong (if you
will pardon the feeble witticism), by an elaborate system of
constantly renewed props and buttresses and guy-ropes in the form of
laws. A central Congress and forty state legislatures, turning out
some twenty thousand laws a year, could not make new props fast enough
to take the place of those which were constantly breaking down or
becoming ineffectual through some shifting of the strain. Now society
rests on its base, and is in as little need of artificial supports as
the everlasting hills."
"But you have at least municipal governments besides the one central
"Certainly, and they have important and extensive functions in looking
out for the public comfort and recreation, and the improvement and
embellishment of the villages and cities."
"But having no control over the labor of their people, or means of
hiring it, how can they do anything?"
"Every town or city is conceded the right to retain, for its own
public works, a certain proportion of the quota of labor its citizens
contribute to the nation. This proportion, being assigned it as so
much credit, can be applied in any way desired."
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