Letter from an Ass to a Fool

San Francisco News Letter/October 10, 1868

“For my own part, I must confess to bear a very singular respect to this animal (the Ass), by whom I take human nature to be most admirably held forth in all its qualities as well as operations, and, therefore, whatever in my small reading occurs concerning this, our fellow creature, I do never fail to set it down by way of commonplace; and when I have occasion to write upon human reason, politics, eloquence or knowledge, I lay my memorandums before me and insert them with a wonderful facility of application.”—Swift.

Now my dear Dean, if the qualities which your silly race possess in so eminent a degree were really asinine—which they are not—that cynical bray would entitle you to be enrolled as the stupidest donkey of us all. But I have been young and now I am old; I was eulogized by Coleridge, and am now nearly ripe for an obituary by McCrellish; yet I have never seen any resemblance between the follies of mankind and those of our noble and ancient race. The line demarcation between our wisdom and yours is strongly defined; and if at some important points our shallowness and your profundity appear to blend insensibly into one another, it is only because of your want of discrimination. To the true Ass, the boundaries are as distinct as the dividing line between natural and revealed religion. When, sir, did you ever see a congregation of asses sitting in rows, of a fine Sunday morning, listening to one of their number tricked out in holy harness explaining to them the law which is not and never was? Did you ever know an ass who would refrain from cropping the daisy on a Friday, or from pricking up his ears at the sound of a drum or the smell of new hay? Did you ever hear of one investing the nickel he had laid away to cover his dead eye, in the purchase of penny trumpet, with which to toot brazen hosannas through an eternity of damp clouds and Methodist yawps? I have been told by some of the most influential among you, that such folly is considered not only highly respectable, but quite indispensible to the proper digestion of post-mortem roast and boiled. One of your kind with whom I happen to be on terms of intimacy—in fact my driver—once told me that at a remote period, variously given as from six thousand to eighty thousand years ago, there were but two asses—a jack and a jenny—in the world. These two were placed in a pasture and required to keep it in order, which, considering that the pasture was some thousands of miles in extent and that no carts were given them, was a very reasonable request indeed. The only other thing required of them was not to browse off the top of a sage brush in the extreme southwest corner. Of course they did it, just for a lark, and were turned out at the bars, compelled to cart dirt; and in addition to these little inconveniences had the unspeakable grief of having all their descendants, for whom they did not care a rap, sent to work forever in a dark coal mine. I asked him who did this, and he said it was their good driver, and justified this punishment of the millions of little foals, by quoting some atrocious nonsense about the sins of the fathers being visited upon the children even unto the third and fourth generation—which, of course, I could make neither head or tail of, as we express it. Now if there is any one thing that the educated ass understands less than another, it is this: If the principle of justice explained to me by my driver is a good one, as you all profess to believe, why is it that the grave persons who use the spittoons at Washington and Sacramento do not model their legislative enactments in conformity therewith? If it is right to punish a child for the sins of its father, why don’t you do it? If it is wrong why do you leave it standing in your book of moral law to dishonor the author, who, being wholly benevolent, never could by any possibility have written it? My dear, dead Dean of St. Patrick’s, stop here and think for ten minutes real hard, and then acknowledge yourself capable of being instructed by an ass. You see it’s all very well to slander us by comparing us with yourselves; but there are several points upon which, if we cannot enlighten you, it is because we have more ear than tongue, and you more tongue than ear.

(Source: California State Library, Microfilm Collection)