Superstition and Force. Essays on the Wager of Law, the Wager of Battle, the Ordeal, Torture
By Henry C. Lea.. Philadelphia :
SOME one, whose identity has quite passed from our memory into his saying, once offered the sentiment, “ Let me make the songs of a people, and I care not who makes their laws.” It strikes the reader of Mr. Lea’s book that this sage, having his wish, would certainly be engaged in a work as pleasing and benevolent as legislation, if not more potent. Those who have made the laws of nations in past times Would seem to have been as foolish and unreasonable as ever the balladists and harpers, and to have been occupied, in their duller and formaller way, with the same idle fancies ; for there never has been anything in popular superstition and ignorance too gross to be put into songs and statutes.
Nor is the case so different in our own time. As we turn over the pages of this excellent and conscientious work, in which legislation shows to such poor advantage, and judicial wisdom appears as blind as Justice herself, we feel it well to guard against that flattering sense of superiority to the past which will no doubt charm posterity in looking back upon us. To be sure, it is something to have got beyond attempting to establish the truth by swearing to it over sainted relics an oath supported by that of a score of other hard swearers not in the least informed of the fact, — to have abandoned to armies the stupid custom of proving the right by killing and being killed, — to have left the folly of ordeals to the New York policemen (who do not employ hot or cold water, hot or cold iron, or even bread and cheese, but who, only last winter, confronted a Supposed murderer and his victim’s corpse with an effect very terribly described by the reporters), — to have got beyond all this, and even beyond the use of torture except that of the spirit as applied by legal gentlemen in bullying witnesses ; but at last we cannot boast that our laws do more than lag after our enlightenment. What, for example, shall the future say of our denial of suffrage to a whole race proven loyal and faithful to our government ? And would it not be as honorable to us to have our history written from the pages of a Democratic song-book, as from the black-laws of many of the Northern States ?
The spirit in which Mr. Lea’s book Is written is not iconoclastic. Indeed, he has to do with abuses already overthrown, and it is only his deep feeling for humanity in treating these which can reproach our own errors. This feeling pervades his work, but is more directly expressed in the few paragraphs of remark and summation winch precede and follow each of his four essays, as a sentiment equally removed from sympathy with religious bigotry in the past, and with the mental pride which in modern times would sacrifice all psychical being to the intellect. The citation of innumerable original authorities evinces tire fidelity and industry with which his work of research has been done, and the material thus amassed has been throughout very satisfactorily philosophized. Research so wide, of course, supplied him with great store of anecdote and dramatic illustration ; but he has used this rather sparingly, and he seems often to turn purposely from the picturesque aspects of his themes, and to strictly and severely treat the facts of superstition and force with reference to their effects upon man rather than upon men. When —half in spite of himself, as it appears— he sketches a scene or character in the history of legalized error and cruelty, he betrays so artistic a feeling, and a humor so fine and good, that he makes us regret it was not within his intent, as it was certainly within his power, to render the whole of his thorough work more popular in manner.
In whatever form we have it, however, we must acknowledge that “Superstition and Force ” is an addition of positive value to those studies of the past in which the scholars of a nation with only a present and a future have distinguished themselves.