Ambrose Bierce

The Wasp/August 21, 1886

Of all the failures made in Sacramento, that of the attack on Judges Morrison and Sharpstein is the most ridiculous; and for cause of it we need look no further than its motive. Had the complaint against these gentlemen been made by a reputable person at a regular session of the Legislature the accusations of incompetency could probably have been sustained. They would have been proved by testimony of the same members of the Bar who have now declared them unfounded. There is hardly a lawyer in the state but knows that Chief Justice Morrison is not now fit for service on the bench and that Justice Sharpstein never was. It follows, unhappily, that most of the witnesses before the Assembly committee toyed with the truth. But what could the committee expect? Mr. Terry’s complaint was not the blind revenge of a personal grievance; it was part of a conspiracy to overthrow the Supreme Court for an objectionable decision but for an equally objectionable purpose. These eminent lawyers who testified fear they may someday be judges themselves. Moreover, they now are not: they are attorneys who either have or hope to have cases before the judges whom they were expected to offend. Untroutlike, they did not “rise to the occasion.” In the interest of actual or possible clients, in their own interest, in the public interest and in the interest of fair play they took Mr. Terry’s bull by the horns and backed it out of the china-shop. We are not grateful enough altogether to approve, but the result is gratifying; and before deciding that a lie is always (or ever) wrong one should hear counsel. It is surprising how much a lawyer can say on the other side. Every circus has its clown: the humorist of this incident is the chap “who first invented and went round advising” the plan of summoning lawyers at all. As experts in questions of disease and insanity they are not very much better than physicians.

The action of the Rothschilds in giving M. Deprez a commission to study the problem of transmitting electrical force, and in paying all expenses of the investigation, is greatly commended and highly commendable. Original investigators—searchers among the archives in nature’s hall of records—ought to be encouraged and supported. While they are adding their splendid contributions to knowledge and enriching science, art and letters with golden gains from mines of research and experiment, Wealth should charge itself with the sacred duty of relieving them from the cramping and baffling necessity of earning their daily bread. If, for example, the Spring Valley Waterworks could be brought to discern the good work that is in Professor Fitch, of the Bulletin, and would give him an unlimited credit, or even a fixed sum per annum, he would doubtless discover that the total depravity of water companies is a fallacious doctrine. If the Southern Pacific Company of Kentucky would generously endow that distinguished savant, M. Michel de Young, of the Chronicle, who can doubt that his investigations in the fields of interstate commerce, the relations of corporations to the people, the policy of national subventions, etc., would result in revelations to which he is now unable to unseal his eyes? We are confident that if any good Republican of fair ability and cleanly life would drive the wolf from General Sheehan’s door that emancipated observer would go forth and find an entirely faultless candidate for Governor—one whom the Post could conscientiously support. That strange domain where Roman Catholic virtues roam the plains and Papal graces bloom in every jungle is imperfectly explored; its flora and fauna are but little known to the Protestant world. Their disclosure and exposition is a work for which no one is by taste and training so well fitted as that intrepid enthusiast, Mr. Frank Pixley. There can be no question of his will and zeal if encouraged by being lifted above want. Will Archbishop Riordan generously draw a check for the expenses of the work? We have ourselves in hand certain costly experiments in art and studies in the principles of literature which the disheartening conditions of popular journalism will probably not enable us to push to a satisfactory result. If freed from the necessity of pleasing our readers, we are confident we could astonish the world, and even pain it. Encouragement of original research by private munificence is undoubtedly the duty of the hour.

We read in a local daily newspaper that at an entertainment of the Olympic Club last Tuesday evening Messrs. Creighton and O’Brien “gave a very good exhibition of science.” This is a most commendable and welcome innovation—one which ought to bring the Olympic Club and the Academy of Sciences into closer and more cordial relations than they have hitherto succeeded in maintaining. The exercises of the Club, we are sorry to say, have commonly been characterized rather by physical than intellectual work. What department of scientific inquiry the exhibition conducted by Professors Creighton and O’Brien were intended to advance we are not informed, and conjecture is not assisted by the statement that the latter savant “has the longest reach.” It is to be hoped the Club will soon erect a laboratory and museum, where such exhibitions may be given, uninterrupted by the coarse frolicking of athletes and sloggers.

M. de Lesseps appears to be callously unaffected by the dismal and discouraging reports of American political and literary engineers, and the contagion of his cheerfulness is ravaging a wide region of his environment inhabited by his stockholders, and even devastating remote ones peopled by possible investors. With unabated confidence he reaffirms his intention to complete his canal within the estimated time, notwithstanding the friendly assurance of the San Francisco press that the project was originally “chimerical” and is now a demonstrated failure after having “exhausted the appropriation.” M. de Lesseps even shuts his eyes to the “fearful mortality” among the laborers, and elevating his shoulders to his ears and his eyebrows to his hair, declares that his workmen are pretty hearty and the climate singularly salubrious. In short, this irritating old scoundrel is imperfectly respectful to the Nicaragua transisthmian paper- way, Californian public opinion expressed at a cost of thirty cents a line and Captain Merry’s incisive literary style. L’audace—toujours l’audace is this wicked old man’s motto. His “gall” is a thing to admire and emulate. Nevertheless every true American properly penetrated with a sense of the sanctity of the Monroe doctrine and aware of more than one way to enforce it will feel a glow of gratified pride in reading the hardy projector’s confession that the falsehoods of our speculators and their dupes have augmented his difficulties by compelling him to borrow at higher rates than he could have foreseen. For a nation without a navy this is a tolerably gallant achievement; and doubtless the spirit of the late James Monroe, President and Doctrinaire, looks down from Heaven with an approving smile. Certainly it will joy the subventionese of the Nicaraguan and Tehuantepec lobbies, for if it is not victory it is at least revenge. True, it will be felt in the tolls; but as we did not want the canal, our commerce will probably continue to go “der Horn aroundt” and “der blains agross,” and so escape the exaction, world without end, and (generally speaking) without sense.

The proposal of the Chicago theater manager to hang the anarchists (when they shall have been convicted) without expense to the County of Cook is suggestive. His plan is to introduce a play with a real hanging scene, the piece being “put upon the boards “ as many nights as there are condemned anarchists; though we presume he would hardly terminate a successful “run” by a needless withdrawal so long as he could recoup himself for the exhaustion of his panel of social reformers by incursions into the supery. Realism in art appears to have attained its highest and ripest development in Chicago, where a living pig was once actually slaughtered on the stage in the great local drama of Our Resources, but it is doubtful if the public taste has been educated to the acceptance of a kicking anarchist dangling from his beam, as an incident in a play. The Chicagonese whom we have the happiness to know have rather grasped at artistic orthodoxy than attained it. They would rather have idealism with blood than realism without it—a dummy death with copious effusion of claret than the dry-strangling of a living exile from a foreign shore. In the instance of the pig—where death and bloodshed were combined—their pleasure was marred only by the thought that the role was not played by a gentleman from St. Louis. Still, the enterprising manager’s proposal is in the line of reform: executions of the death sentence ought to be made to pay expenses. But this might generally be accomplished by permitting the sheriff to charge an admittance fee to the jail yard. In the case of even the most unpopular assassin much might be done by judiciously advertising the show as a grand complimentary benefit to the jury that convicted him.

At the Sub-Treasury in this city the following instruction is being carried out:
All gold presented at the cashier’s counter found below standard weight—the limit being one-half of one per cent—will have a distinguishing mark placed upon it. This action is made necessary by instructions from the Secretary of the Treasury.
The coin is of course not first accepted by the cashier and then impressed with the “distinguishing mark” making it uncurrent; it is marked “light” and returned to the man who offered it. That is to say, the cashier, under instructions of his superiors, claims the right to inflict a pecuniary loss on a private person who has incautiously accepted a worn coin and offered it at the Sub-Treasury in the ordinary course of business. The claim to such a right is impudent, and we advise any man against whom it is enforced to knock the cashier down when he attempts to exercise it. The Government has a right to refuse worn coin: we have shown that only by doing so can it protect itself and the people against the practice of abrading and clipping the currency. A Government redeeming or accepting light coins would find little else to do, and the new pieces issued today would come back tomorrow duly worn or mutilated, and soon no coins at all would get further away from the Treasury than next door. The Government has also the undoubted right to mark a counterfeit Government note, just as any person has the right to protect himself against a forgery. But a light coin, the possession and proffer of which do not even raise a presumption of fraud, is an altogether different matter. A coin which the holder has come by honestly is his property. Its continued circulation after it has become light is in no sense an injury nor a danger to the Government, which has not undertaken at any time to stand the loss. If offered at the Sub-Treasury and refused, it has not been out of the legal possession of the man offering it, no matter how long it was in the hands of the cashier. With his refusal of it, his right of action in the matter is exhausted, nor can the Secretary of the Treasury extend it. Wherefore we say: Knock him down.

Oakland is “the Athens of California”—the beanless Boston of the Golden West—the noon- mark on the dial of Occidental culture. On Monday last the “grand stand” where Oakland officially welcomed the veterans displayed on its front the following verses:

From the Southern land of flowers
To the Northern lakelet’s shore,
Our country but one emblem bears,
America wants no more.
That emblem blood-stained yesterday,
Cleansed with the tears of sorrow,
Floats o’er our land in peace to-day,
Grows brighter with the morrow.

Living in Oakland at present are three poets of more than national reputation—Ina D. Coolbrith, Joaquin Miller and John Vance Cheney; yet Oakland permitted some unlettered dunce to plan and execute this offensive and abominable bosh—this indecent exposure of his mind—this criminal assault upon common sense. Doubtless the writer was a “comrade,” as is Mr. Fred. Emerson Brooks, whose insufferable rhymes disgraced the “encampment” in this city. Much may be forgiven to a fool who missed his chance of being honorably slain in battle and has for twenty-odd years been camping on the trail of a lost opportunity, but to the offensiveness of these two insupportables we say, as Macbeth said to Banquo’s ghost: “Take any shape but that!” Tastes differ: to ours an ignorant rhymster is the most titanic and cyclopean affliction that flesh and blood are fated to endure. And on every public “occasion” in all this land one of the tribe pushes his unwholesome carcass to the front, experiences an orgasm of gratified vanity and utters his hideous twattle into a shoreless sea of tickled ears; and every jobbernowl of a half-educated editor prints it in his paper and honestly admires it.

It is not a sin to be ignorant that electing a man a poet does not make him one, any more than a man can be made red-headed or six feet tall by vote of a public meeting; but being ignorant of that fact, it is a sin to accept a position as member of a committee on “literary exercises,” and we propose henceforth to see that it is fitted with its appropriate punishment. This wretched business of driving educated men and women away from every public celebration in San Francisco by providing some shocking doodle to set their mental teeth on edge with his acrid nugacity must cease or there will be sorrow in high places, and committees of “prominent citizens” will get an added prominence not greatly to their taste. We shall distinguish them sky-high.

Even a very good Republican indeed needs not necessarily experience a lively sense of alarm when the Committee of Ten assures him that “the right of self-government” is at stake in today’s primary election. In the first place, not very many of us are greatly enamored of the right of self-government: we are mostly willing to be governed by almost anybody who will take the institutions,” “liberty,” “vital interests,” “ honest and economical city government” and “an incorruptible and unpurchasable Legislature and Judiciary” may be had for what it is worth at every cross-roads election between Maine and Texas. It is of the same “line of goods” as those sold by the familiar “catch-’em-all-alive” man, his cylinder hat black with the luckless dupes of his wile. Let the good Republican not pass too searching a censure upon himself if his judgment and his taste alike rebel against this method of whooping him up every two years. If he have no appetite for the viand, it was intended for the tooth of his neighbors, and he takes no harm by the proffer. There are men who “piddle with an ortolan at White’s” and others whose coarser need is gratified by paunching neck-beef seethed in Herculean slops. The country is safe; republican institutions are not menaced; rogues will continue to steal and the Millennium is not presently feasible, even by voting energetically and repeatedly at today’s primary. Nevertheless, the Republican who will not today take the trouble to go to the polls and vote according to his light is distinctly stupider than he who does so in the belief that if he doesn’t “the altar fires of liberty” will be “quenched in a sea of blood.”

The saddest incident of the “peaceful invasion” was a San Francisco newspaper’s humble apology for our climate. Congressional neglect and Eastern injustice have broken our spirit at last. The situation is touching.

Though war-signs fail in time of peace, they say,
Two awful portents gloom the public mind:
All Mexico is arming for the fray
And Colonel Mark McDonald has resigned!
We know not by what instinct he divined
The coming trouble—may be, like the steed
Described by Job, he smelled the fight afar.
Howe’er it be he left, and for that deed
Is an aspirant to the G. A. R.
When cannon flame along the Rio Grande
A citizen’s commission will be handy.
We’ve Barnes and Backus left to fire a gun,
Both service-seasoned in the civil war:
From Corporal to Cormorant the one
Rose by his military genius; for
The other’s rank— he was an Orator
And wielded Samson’s weapon. It is well
We’ve heroes of so formidable kind
To guard our threatened land, for who can tell
How soon, some dreadful morning, we shall find
Our homes invaded by exultant millions—
And Turnbull, Sonntag, Andrews all civilians!

Because the parents of the girl whom he loved were callously insensible to his merit as a suitor and heretically skeptical of his advantages as a son-in-law, Mr. James McClain, of Pennsylvania, persuaded himself of the expediency of effacing her and himself with a firearm—a plan which he executed with a good deal of noise, exertion and derangement of furniture. It was a spirited policy, but we doubt its efficacy in accentuating his worth and revealing the profit of his alliance. So dazzling an assault upon the fortress of the old couple’s favor commands admiration for its brilliancy, but in point of practical wisdom it is inferior to the less showy method of teaching a class in Sunday-school.

Young man, let your aim be high and your choice made early. Either study statesmanship and become President of the United States or learn the coopering business and go through the Niagara whirlpool in a barrel.

Up to the date of writing, the practical work of the Special Session on the lines marked out for its energies consists in the passage through the Assembly of two bills—one repealing Section 1422 of the Civil Code and another confirming to appropriators the monopoly which the repealed section gave to riparians. Both these bills were passed on Wednesday last by the votes of men who had previously opposed them, the change of heart being variously interpreted. It certainly was sudden if not surprising. By repealing Section 1422 the irrigationists make an amusing confession that the Supreme Court decision in the case of Lux vs. Haggin was very good law indeed, for it rested mainly on that section and altogether on the common-law principle there formulated. If the section is in force the decision is right; if not in force, why repeal it if the Goucher bill, which passed the Assembly by a smaller majority than the other, is very clear. It declares the waters of every natural stream in California the property of the public, and confirms the title of the first man who grabs them. This is simplicity itself.

Our excellent neighbor, the Alta, prints a telegram about a meeting between the Mayor of Belfast and Sir Michael Hicks-Beach, and heads it “The Mayor and the Lord”; and our good friend, the Argonaut, mentioning a dinner to Dr. Holmes given by Sir Henry Thomas, says that “everyone but the host was a commoner.” Surely we may “hail the dawn of a new era” when two so distinguished Californian journals lay aside their political antagonism, meet upon common ground, grasp hands and assent to the proposition that knights and baronets are noblemen.

Mr. Henry George is not hard-hearted and disdainful: he says he will consent to be a candidate for the Mayoralty of New York if the labor organizations will pledge him twenty-five thousand votes. If they will not he can perhaps be persuaded to return to San Francisco and resume his old-time dignity as Inspector of Gas Meters. So long as Mr. George sits upon the throne of authority he is not particular about the cut of his crown.
The City Council of Los Angeles has passed an ordinance making it a misdemeanor for boys under eighteen years of age to smoke cigarettes on the streets and for anyone to sell them cigarettes. The City Council of Los Angeles means well, no doubt, but in striking a blow at the cigarette industry it may carry loneliness into many a happy idiot asylum, throw numbers of worthy grave-diggers out of employment and compel whole groups of thick-legged young women to wear clothes.

The belief that if the Legislature had decided to remove Justices Morrison and Sharpstein, Messrs. Terry and Tyler would have been appointed to the vacancies, is entirely without foundation: Governor Stoneman would not have outraged the proprieties by appointing men who had been mixed up with the scheme of removal. He would have given the places to Messrs. Lux and Miller.
(Source: Archive.org, https://archive.org/stream/waspjulydec188617unse#page/n132/mode/1up)

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