Page images
PDF
EPUB

APPENDIX

THE SPIRIT OF LAWLESSNESS.

BY

JAMES M. BECK,
SOLICITOR GENERAL OF THE UNITED STATES.
“Where there is no vision, the people perish;
but he that keepeth the law, happy is he.”—PROV-

ERBS xxix, 18.
My Fellow Members:

I share your deep regret that the late President of this Association did not live to deliver the President's address. To do so is a great honor, to which a long and honorable service at the Bar had justly entitled him. While to others will be given the honorable task of paying tribute to his memory, I may, at least, say that he was one of those true men of whom the poet has said: “For Time that tests what's true, what's false

Has sounded well their metal and has heard an honest ring." I deeply appreciate the great honor which the Executive Committee of this Association has done me in the invitation to deliver the President's address. How inadequately I shall meet the responsibility, no one appreciates more than I do. Give me your careful attention and indulgent patience, for my subject is as wide as society and as deep as human nature.

We are met in annual convention to consider the problems, interests and ideals of our great and noble profession. It would be easy, in the manner of the silversmith of Ephesus who, on a certain occasion cried with a loud voice: “ Great is Diana of the Ephesians," to rhapsodize about the nobility of the law. Were we not told, in the days of our novitiate, by Mr. Justice Blackstone, that the law was “a science which cmploys in its theory the noblest faculties of the soul and exerts in its practice the cardinal virtues of the heart”? Did not the famous—and also infamous Francis Bacon tells us that it was“ the great organ through which the sovereign power (of society) moves ”? And did not a great layman, Samuel Johnson, say that it is “ the last result of human

understanding acting upon human experience for the benefit of the public”?

It would, of course, be easy to match these with less complimentary references; for, if the records of literature be any criterion, neither the law nor the lawyer has at any time been altogether popular. It may be said of the authority of law, as Mrs. Partington said of the theological doctrine of total depravity, that “it is a very good doctrine, if lived up to.”

This suggests the theme of my address which is the “ Spirit of Lawlessness.” It is my purpose to inquire into the causes of a revolt against authority, of which no careful observer of present tendencies can be ignorant.

One of the most quoted—and also misquoted—Proverbs of the wise Solomon says, as translated in the authorized version: “Where there is no vision, the people perish.” What Solomon actually said was: “Where there is no vision, the people cast off restraint.” The translator thus confused an effect with a cause. What was the vision to which the Wise Man referred ? The rest of the Proverb, which is rarely quoted, explains :

“Where there is no vision, the people cast off restraint; but he that keepeth the law, happy is he.

The vision, then, is the authority of law, and Solomon's warning is that to which the great and noble founder of Pennsylvania many centuries later gave utterance, when he said:

“That government is free to the people under it, where the laws rule and the people are a party to those laws; and all the rest is tyranny, oligarchy and confusion.”

It is my purpose to discuss the moral psychology of the present revolt against the spirit of authority. Too little consideration has been paid by our profession to questions of moral psychology. These have been left to metaphysicians and ecclesiastics, and yet-to paraphrase the saying of the Master—“the laws were made for man and not man for the laws,” and if the science of the law ignores the study of human nature and attempts to conform man to the laws, rather than the laws to man, then its development is a very partial and imperfect one.

Let me first be sure of my premises. Is there in this day and generation a spirit of lawlessness greater or different than that that has always characterized human society ? Such spirit has always existed, and even when the penalty of death was visited upon nearly all offenses against life and property. Blackstone tells us (Book IV, Chap. 1) that in the Eighteenth Century it was a capital offense to cut down a cherry tree in an orchard—a penalty which should increase our admiration for George Washington's courage and veracity.

We are apt to see the past in a golden haze, which obscures our vision. Thus, we think of William Penn's "holy experiment” on the banks of the Delaware as the realization of Sir Thomas More's dream of Utopia; and yet Pennsylvania was called in 1698 “the greatest refuge for pirates and rogues in America,” and Penn himself wrote, about that time, that he had heard of no place which was “ more overrun with wickedness” than his City of Brotherly Love, where things were so “openly committed in defiance of law and virtue-facts so foul that I am forbid by common modesty to relate them.”

Conceding that lawlessness is not a novel phenomenon, has not the present age been characterized by an exceptional revolt against the authority of law? The statistics of our criminal courts show in recent years an unprecedented growth in crimes. Thus, in the federal courts, pending criminal indictments have increased from 9503 in the year 1912 to over 70,000 in the year 1921. While this abnormal increase is, in part, due to sumptuary legislation-for approximately 30,000 cases now pending arise under the prohibition statutes—yet, eliminating these, there yet remains an increase in nine years of over 400 per cent in the comparatively narrow sphere of the federal criminal jurisdiction. I have been unable to get the data from the state courts; but the growth of crimes can be measured by a few illustrative statistics. Thus, the losses from burglaries which have been repaid by casualty companies have grown in amount from $886,000 in 1914 to over $10,000,000 in 1920; and, in a like period, embezzlements have increased fivefold. It is notorious that the thefts from the mails and express companies and other carriers have grown to enormous proportions. The holdup of railroad trains is now of frequent occurrence, and is not confined to the unsettled sections of the country. Not only in the United States, but even in Europe, such crimes of violence

« PreviousContinue »