Mr. John Hook Wants His Money

THIS is the story of a laugh. A side-splitting, uproarious laugh that comes echoing down the years and reveals to us our Revolutionary heroes, not in their solemn portrait poses, but in a mood of ribald mirth, most abominably forgetful of dignity and justice and decency. It was an upsetting, demoralizing laugh that respected neither law nor order; a rough, barbarous laugh that cheated an honest man out of his due

In 1789 a famous case was tried at New London, Virginia, ft was six years since peace had been made, eight since the surrender at Yorktown. The hard-fought war was over. The splendid rejoicings were over. The soldiers had gone back home and had beaten their swords into reaping-hooks. It was a long time since that day in St. John’s Church when Patrick Henry had thrilled his audience with ‘Give me liberty, or give me death!’ His hearers had been too deeply moved for applause, and they had sat silent for a space while those words seemed to be still ringing through the building. The speaker had led them up into a high mount, and they had seen a vision of glory and sacrifice. ‘Let me be buried on this spot!’ cried Colonel Edward Carrington, feeling that he had reached a spiritual height that he would never reach in life again.

Shortly after Yorktown a certain Mr. John Hook had bethought himself that some steers of his had been taken to feed the Continental Army, and that he had not been paid for the cattle. It was true that the soldiers had been very hungry, and that the commissary had been hard-pressed for food. Also it was true that the heroes who had fought and bled had not been paid, and that many patriots had sacrificed all in the common cause. No matter — Mr. John Hook wanted his money. He brought suit against the commissary who had taken his cattle, and the commissary retained Patrick Henry to defend him. The case had lingered long on the docket, but it finally came to trial. The courthouse was crowded.

It would seem that the defense had not much to say. The facts, as stated by the plaintiff, were not contested. Mr. Henry’s speech has come down to us in fragmentary form. He carried his hearers back to the stirring times of the war when a common danger had united all patriotic souls and a spirit, of unselfishness had possessed them — when men had given freely of their blood and treasure, not counting the cost. Some had thrown their entire estates into the cause; some had laid down their lives. He painted the sufferings of the soldiers, half-starved and marking the frozen ground with the blood of their unshod feet. Then came the surrender at Yorktown, the wonderful relief after the dark hours of the struggle. The orator described the surrender, the humiliation of the foe marching out of the trenches, the joy of the worn and weary victors, the fraternal embraces and tears, the shouts of triumph, the bonfires and rejoicings. ‘But hark, what notes of discord are these which disturb the general joy and silence the acclamat ions of victory? They are the notes of John Hook, hoarsely bawling through the American camp, “Beef, beef, beef!”’

The courthouse rocked with laughter. The clerk of the court, to preserve the dignity of his ofiice, fled from the room and, when safely outside, threw himself on the lawn and rolled in uncontrolled merriment. The jury laughed until their sides ached, and when they got through laughing they brought in their verdict: ‘One penny damages, and one penny costs to be paid by the plaintiff.’ Later, when everybody had laughed so much that he could n’t laugh any more, some rough spirits were heard talking about tar and feathers, and the best thing that John Hook could do was to get on his horse and ride swiftly away.

Surely a great injustice was committed that day. Mr. John Hook was a worthy citizen of credit, and renown. By rights he should have been paid principal and interest. But the jury let themselves be carried away by their emotions. They were a foolish set of fellows, and suddenly the suit appeared to them a huge impertinence — an amazing revelation of selfishness. They were struck by the disproportion between Hook’s sufferings and those of others. The money he was crying about was so infinitesimal compared to the great losses endured by others. They saw in imagination the long heartbreaking struggle and the great piledup mass of human agony. The blood that had been shed and the lives that had been given could never be repaid — but Mr. John Hook wanted his money. It would have been tragic if it had not been comic. It was a thumping anticlimax to the story of the great war. After all the heroic adventures, the terrible battle, and the wonderful triumph, here comes the collector presenting his bill. The epic ends in a greasy ledger.

The simple, rude men of that heroic time laughed loud and long. For them Justice was not the classic goddess austerely blindfolded, but an open-eyed frontier lassie with a will of her own. Mr. John Hook was laughed out of court, and all because he wanted to collect a just debt. A derisive chuckle still lingers in the dusty records of the court, for the verdict was a joke — solemnly awarding a penny damages and then playfully taking it away for costs. So ends this story of a laugh.

In these civilized times John Hook would have had a better chance of getting his money. The world has grown more sober and sensible since those outrageous days of our youth. We do not laugh so easily and we do not jest when money is concerned. When Uncle Sam presents his bill to his comrades of the late war the discussions will, of course, be conducted with decent solemnity. No one will be so tactless as to compare money losses with human losses. No one will paint the picture of the trenches, showing the very blood upon the ground, and then suddenly project upon the scene the collector with his bill. No one would dare such an impertinence; and no artful orator will confuse men’s minds and, by some hocus-pocus, make an honest man, seeking his own, appear sordid and base.

This is not the moment to bring up old stories of the war and to talk about Verdun and the wild night of the Armistice. That adventure is over. We are back on the plain of everyday life. The time has come to settle accounts.

Mr. John Hook wants his money — and there is no Patrick Henry to loose upon us the laughter of the world.