Ambrose Bierce

The Wasp/July 3, 1886

The “birthday of American Independence” cannot be suitably celebrated in the editorial columns of this journal. In the breezy intellectual altitudes whence the Wasp overlooks the world the keen fine atmosphere is too innocent of gross, fat vapors to nourish the fires of enthusiasm, too attenuated to assist at the detonation of explosives or convey the eagle’s exultant note. To this “thrilling region” all sounds of the lower life ascend in diminished volume, purged of their harshness and discordance and sweetly conspiring to the production of a coldly philosophic harmony exceedingly grateful to the spiritual ear but the notes having all the same value. The mind exalted upon Philosophy’s “silent pinnacles of aged snow” discerns in one event no higher importance, no richer significance and suggestion than in another: all are equal links in the chain of destiny, for each is necessary to its integrity. Alike the strife of nations, and the humble dog-fight; the crimson dawn of political liberty firing a continent, and the swarming blushes on a maiden’s cheek; the hideous devastation of the cracking volcano, and the rupture of a pustule—all are par ordre du Roi. Nevertheless, we are indisposed to cavil at due and seemly patriotic rites in celebration of American Independence. We look down with amiable tolerance upon the disrupted bomb and the aspiring rocket. The sinuous cobbletrot of military and civic societies, variously gorgeous as to head-gear and corticated splendorwise, engage our respect. The sonorous platitudes of the oration, tested by decades of popular acceptance, command ours. We have even a sneaking love of the formidable Drum-Major, the Grand Marshal fearfully and wonderfully besashed and the car-horsed aids, numberless, ubiquitous and, as a rule, drunk. These things be all picturesque and eke entertaining: they cover the dull surface of our social and political life with a broidery of “pomp and circumstance”; they nourish and stimulate the sentiment of national vanity—a most useful and necessary conceit, in that it prevents the people from playing the devil by prompting them to play the fool. After our different fashion, we love, ourselves, to play the fool—as herein. Let, therefore, the petulant crepitation of the fire-cracker be heard in the land. Let the unboycotted Chinese bomb punctuate the unceasing rattle with its deep displosion. Let the rocket climb the startled skies and expire in a golden glory like the death of a good man. Let the tender atmosphere be brass-banded until it is sore. Give Orator Pixley a chance to cover his enemies with confusion and paralyze his friends with astonishment by an appropriate harangue conceived in good taste and delivered without offense. And let us all try real hard to believe every word of it.

Controller Dunn’s formal demand upon Mr. Drury Melone for the sum of $11,107.50, which he avers that gentleman collected during his term of office as Secretary of State and did not account for, will not, we hope, be made the basis of any such fierce attacks upon Mr. Dunn’s official honesty as he has heretofore incurred. There is really nothing to show that he wants the money for an improper use, as Mr. Melone’s friends will naturally affirm. Mr. Melone has had it now for more than ten years, and if well invested it ought to have brought him in a comfortable interest. Some two years ago Mr. Dunn demanded the restoration of more than two-thirds of the sum, supposing that was all that was due. While awaiting Mr. Melone’s pleasure in the matter he has wiled away the time discovering the additional shortage. If the present demand is not satisfied there is no telling to what magnitude it will swell as time goes on. Eventually, doubtless, the courts will be called upon to acquit Mr. Melone of all blame in the matter by deciding that the money was taken by his Deputy, who will then himself be acquitted on the ground that it was taken by Mr. Melone—as in the famous instance of Messrs. Burns and Reynolds. But one would suppose that Mr. Melone would prefer a speedy trial; it would cost him less to prove that he did not take a small sum than that he did not take a large one, for it is not nearly so improbable.

When our able-bodied and practiced poet intimated, the week before last, that the Rev. Mr. Ravlin’s cooling flame owed its diminishing fervor to the fact that he had not been able to collect his salary we hardly expected so quick a confirmation as that which has ensued: the holy man has now resigned, giving that as his reason. We are sympathetically disposed toward the Ravlin person; he is nobody’s hypocrite. In accepting a promise of loaves and fishes from the Sacramento Convention he may have acted like a fool, but he frankly disclosed his worldly motive. He was in it for what was in it, and we must say he honestly earned every promise that he got. As these grew thicker in succession and thinner in texture the reverend gentleman’s animosity toward his Chinese fellow travelers to the bar of God visibly abated its energy and he began to discern the motes in the eyes of white workingmen. When entirely hopeless of a settlement with his employers, he saw these motes as beams and made the discovery that but for the temperate and trustworthy Mongolian our industries would languish and die, slain by the Caucasian laborer’s habit of attaining Nirvana—in other words, of becoming unfathomably drunk. This was a trifle rough on the great body of those composing the Sacramento convention; what rod he has in pickle for such illustrious workingmen as Messrs. Estee, Davis, Reddy and the Knights of Slobber generally, remains to be seen. It is pretty hard on Mr. Ravlin to be jockeyed out of his salary, but he is at least spared the consciousness that others will reap what he has sown. He sowed the wind and what they will reap is the whirlwind.

After two years of shilly-shallying, the courts of Southern California enjoy an unspeakable relief from the possibility of having to convict a white man of the murder of a Chinese. Mr. A. P. More, a wealthy stock-grower, thought it expedient one day to kill an undistinguished member of the Mongolian horde under circumstances of so wanton cruelty that even the omnivorous conscience of Southern California turned itself inside out in attempting to swallow the deed. Nevertheless it would never do to subvert the eternal principles of order by hanging a White for killing a Chinese: if Asian blood were encouraged in crying out for vengeance the leading product of California’s soil would be no longer grapes but groans. Judge Hatch, of the Superior Court of Santa Barbara, was equal to the requirement of the situation. An indignant public opinion which had laid off its coat and was spitting on its hands wanted somebody to hold it and he loyally undertook its pacification. The latest move in the matter had been that of the Supreme Court ordering a new trial, but he calmly dismisses the. action and turns the defendant loose on the ground that he obviously acted in self-defense. From a rather lively recollection of the testimony we infer that he did not. We do not question the right of Judge Hatch to dismiss this action; we only regret that a most embarrassing dilemma should have compelled him to exercise it. Indeed, we are almost sorry that Mr. More killed the Chinaman. Judge Hatch turned this fellow loose once before and was compelled by the Supreme Court to resume him. He then resigned, and a few days before his resignation takes effect he turns him loose again. We don’t think Judge Hatch’s manner of leaving the Bench can properly be called Christian resignation.

The fact that we deprecate the official existence of Senator George Hearst has not been held to disqualify him as an occasional recipient of the divine guidance, and on some questions his upper level has been flooded with light. On the oleomargarine bill we conceive him to have been miraculously directed in the path of reason. He professes—with truth, we suppose—to be the biggest cow-keeper in California, yet he thinks the proposition to tax oleomargarine, openly sold as such, an unjust and iniquitous measure. We think that way ourselves. If in point of either quality or price the stuff gratifies a need it is a blessing. That it is unwholesome has never been shown; if it is that is an excellent reason for not eating it, but no reason at all for preventing its sale. Green cucumbers are unwholesome. So are corsets. So are dogs. So are arsenic, raw pork and, as diet, pills. (We shall not comfort the cranks by including liquor and tobacco, for cranks are themselves unwholesome.) If dairymen cannot stand the competition of oleomargarine they must beef their cows; every industry must take its chances of extinction by evolution of some industry that cuts away the ground from under the one already established. All that Government ought to undertake is to keep a ring and let them fight it out fairly. But selling oleomargarine as butter is a foul blow and should be sharply punished. The same remarks apply to spurious wines and adulterated food. Their sale should be free under their own names. Persons who have incurred the misfortune to be born with a taste for chicory in their coffee should be charitably permitted to gratify it if they will do so with becoming humility; but the grocer who, abetting them in their heresy, hides his responsibility under a misleading label should be shot.

It is not easy to conjecture what we should do for wisdom but for the annual output of it on Class Day at Berkeley. The young gentlemen “standing on the border land between college life and”—and the other thing are great moral and intellectual storm-centers advancing across the region of public ignorance and racking its stagnant atmosphere, to the unspeakable generation of ozone. Minds unmoved by the minor disturbances whose energizing forces are the declamatory damboy and didactical girlette of proprietary academies and seminaries and public high schools are profoundly stirred when the downy Senior of the State University stands up and utters himself on the theme of his choice, fitly gesticulating. What we should all do and be and suffer if these annual literary exertions were other than Heaven has been good enough to order them it is mournful exceedingly to think—if, for frightful example, Mr. Edward Howard, of Oakland, instead of expressing his sense of “The Organization of Labor,” had been born a girl and died when she was little, or if Miss Frankie Sprague, of Haywards, had unfortunately been the editor of the Bulletin instead of “glancing at the literary aspect of the Nineteenth century” in an essay on “Progress as Illustrated in Literature”! What calamities and sins would have continued to beset the newspaper business if instead of expounding its basic principles and charting its perils in “Journalism and Its Responsibilities” Mr. Charles Beidenbach, of Milpitas, at 21, had been stricken with lockjaw by the bite of a Berkeley flea! In the economy of nature there is no cause without an effect and no consequent that is not the consummation of a scheme of antecedents. So delicately and sensitively adjusted are the forces among which we live—mostly on others—that, as Pascal explained, an inch added to the length of Cleopatra’s nose would have changed the whole course of modern history. How grateful, then, ought we to be that that organ was precisely long enough to give us Class Day at Berkeley, and not too long to give us Dr. Bartlett of the Bulletin for its historiographer!

“ ‘Let there be Liberty,’ God said, and lo!
The red skies all were luminous. The glow

Struck first Columbia’s kindling mountain peaks
Three hundred and eleven years ago!”

So sang a patriot I dreamed I saw
Descending Bunker’s holy hill.
With awe I noted that he shone with sacred light,

Like Moses with the tables of the Law.

Three hundred and eleven years ? O small
And paltry period compared with all
The tide of centuries that flowed and ebbed
To etch Yosemite’s divided wall!

Ah, Liberty, they sing you always young
Whose harps are in your adoration strung.
Each swears you are his countrywoman, too,
And speak no language but his mother tongue.

And truly, lass, although with shout and horn
Man has all-hailed you from creation’s morn,
I cannot think you old —I think, indeed,
You have not the advantage to be born.

The Queen’s speech dissolving Parliament says: “I continue to happily maintain most friendly relations with foreign Powers.” Not with the Wasp, madam: we hold no friendly relations with one who is capable of sandwiching an adverb between the two parts of a verb in the infinitive mood. We are offensively and defensively allied with “the Queen’s English,” and cannot permit your Majesty to attack it.

We ask Congress seriously to consider the proposal to exclude the Chinese altogether. We are Christianizing them with astonishing rapidity, but what good does that do us? Our own salvation is already assured; we won’t get anything out of it—eternity is as long to the merely meritorious as to the zealous. We are teaching the Chinese commercial and industrial honesty, but the more honorable they become the more they are patronized and employed to our own disadvantage. If one is a saint there is no profit in making other saints; if one is not, it is suicidal—their competition will hurt him in his business. We have made this argument to meet the objections commonly urged against restriction by Eastern “divines”; it is calculated for their intellectual meridian and adapted to their capacity. Without going too deeply into dry statistics we may add that the rate at which we are converting Chinese to Christianity is one in every five years.

The Customs service in this city appears to be “honeycombed with corruption.” The regular annual arrests for opium-smuggling were unaccountably delayed this year, but they are now going on in a very satisfactory way. But the bloom is all off the business and it is as tedious as a twice-told tale.

A well known chemist announces his discovery of the cause of cholera infantum. He says the lives of babes are imperiled by giving them milk which has stood in unclean vessels. He probably means babes brought up by hand: so far as we can see—and we are in society—the others have nothing to fear.

The bill restoring Mr. Fitz-John Porter to the army has passed, and it is hoped all the bitter controversies which have for years raged and ravened about this proposal are forever silenced. By way of assisting in the pacification we repeat with accentuation and acerbity our conviction that Porter’s was just. Out of the confusing tangle of testimony and swirl of assertion, one simple proposition may be formulated which is not open to dispute: with a fine corps of veteran troops, and not forbidden to attack, Porter lay all day within cannon-shot of a battle and did not engage. It is unnecessary to know more: if there is an officer of the United States Army who does not deem that a high military misdemeanor we hope the next war may be delayed until he is dead if we have to wait fifty years.

Apropos of the death of an infant from—or at least after—taking a medicine erroneously compounded from an ambiguous prescription, it may be remarked that if in writing their prescriptions physicians were half as careful to enlighten the druggist as to mystify the patient or the patient’s friends the death-rate among the aged would show a healthy increase and among the young would fall into a wasting decline.

Since Patti became Mrs. Pete Nichols she is reported to have visibly improved in health and beauty. Marriage evidently agrees with her.

The court of inquiry in the case of Captain Keene of the San Francisco Hussars has found him guiltless. This relaxes a most painful tension of the public nerves and brings to anxious souls a blessed sense of relief. If Captain Keene had been condemned and shot the record of our gallant National Guard would have been stained with blood.
Representative McMillin of Tennessee might advantageously consider whether his advocacy of silver money is assisting. He said the other day in the House that he was “sick and tired of hearing the silver dollar defamed,” that it was “a currency good enough for Abraham, and for Christ, and for the father of this Republic.” With equal cogency and relevance he might be answered that it was good enough, also, for Judas Iscariot, Ananias and Benedict Arnold. People who cannot discuss a matter of simple financial and commercial expediency without an appeal to religious and patriotic sentiment would materially advance their cause by keeping their tongues behind their teeth. It is with some mortification that we are constrained to admit that most of this disagreeable language of the heart is heard from our side. Such expressions as “the dollar of our fathers,” “the good white metal,” “striking down silver,” “defaming the dollar” and the rest of it have done incalculable injury to the cause they were intended to serve, for they have given a biting edge to the ridicule of its opponents. Silver, either coined or uncoined, is not a sentient being, tremblingly alive to unjust aspersion of the wicked, nor has it any peculiar sanctity exempting its beneficence from the ordeal of doubt and the test of inquiry. There is no more room for sentiment in this discussion than there is in a question of the relative merits of wood and coal as fuel. With all due regard for their motives, we must respectfully ask the McMillins to whistle themselves back: their toothless attacks only stimulate the Wall-street hog to new encroachment.
The Board of Supervisors has again been petitioned to change the name of Dupont street, and Auditor Fleet Strother is again at the head of the “ movement.” The other time he wanted it named Fleet street, in honor of himself; now he is willing that it shall be called Grant avenue. The passing years appear to relax Mr. Strother’s pride, temper his ambition, soften his animosities and make him sensible of merit in his rivals: we should not be surprised if in his next petition he should voluntarily propose that the thoroughfare be called the Lord’s street.

The fact that “this nation of fifty millions of freemen” was recently for some hours practically without a “ruler”—the President having yachted himself outside the marine league of national jurisdiction—is recalled to the minds of patriotic editors as a neglected opportunity for golden comment. During this interregnum there was neither political revolution nor any sensible increase of the social and industrial disturbance which, like the poor (and because of them) we have always with us. The incident supplies an impressive illustration of the stability of republican institutions and the capacity of the American people for self-government.

It can hardly have escaped attention from Brother Pixley, and we feel confident that in the current week’s issue of his paper it will be given place, alongside of the Republican national convention attended by himself, as one of the three or four hundred grandest events in the world’s history.

An Eastern contemporary thinks the best and simplest solution to the problems presented by the Hawaiian reciprocity treaty would be annexation. We think the suggestion premature: it would be better not to discuss it now, but whenever our Navy has been restored to the separate and equal station to which the laws of Nature and of nature’s God entitles it we shall direct attention to the fact that the “Island Kingdom” is making a motion toward its hip-pocket.

We Americans are not as thin-skinned as we were in the days of “Martin Chuzzlewit” and poor dear Mrs. Trollope: we not only indorse British criticism, but when it is exceptionally shallow and unfair enjoy it. Still, there is a line which cannot be transgressed without offense, and we think it has been crossed by a writer in the Temple Bar magazine. This observer, describing with it must be confessed some enthusiasm a sunset scene in New York harbor, says:

It is a vision, and the landscape of a dream. The sun behind us, toward the Atlantic, went down but lately in a purple and orange cloud; but already the purple has ceased to be vivid, the orange is subdued.

Ordinary, every-day misrepresentation—such as that an American gentleman can’t eat with his knife without cutting his cheeks, that he spits wide of the cuspidore and that American ladies go out at night unattended by policemen—we can stand very well; but when this haughty Briton teaches his countrymen that our sun sets in the east he is going too far and the Eagle shall eviscerate the Lion.

(Source: Archive.org, https://archive.org/stream/waspjulydec188617unse#page/n14/mode/1up)