November 17, 1890

Chicago, Illinois

CHICAGO CONGREGATIONAL CLUB

 

Mr. President - One the principles at the basis of the treatment of criminals, the friends of prison reform have no new gospel to offer. The facts and the arguments have long ago lost the interest that belong to novelty.

An ex-slaveholder, anex-Confederate soldier, a native citizen of Georgia, Bishop Haygood, some eight or ten years ago published a little volume in which he maintained the position that it was the duty of the good people of this country to educate and to uplift the emancipated race. He undertook to show that this was our interest as well as our duty,-that this people, degraded as they had been, out of barbarism but a few generations and those generations passed in slavery, were, nevertheless, in such a condition that he could confidently say that with persevering Christian effort they could be lifted up to the full stature of American citizenship.     

 

The title he gave to his little book was according to its contents. He called it, “Our Brother in Black.” “Our brother” - how much that includes! Is there a social problem, is there anything that threatens society or imperils American institutions, that is not met if we really regard the men around us as our brothers? This is the difference between the new institutions that we have built up in America and the old ones that our fathers left in Europe. The latter rest upon force. A standing army is the necessity of every European government with perhaps two or three exceptions. The European system rests upon the standing army, The system established in America stands upon the principles expressed in the Declaration of Independence, drawn up by that philosophic statesman, Thomas Jefferson, expressed in the Constitution made by Washington and the fathers, expressed in the life and heart and brain and hand and words of Abraham Lincoln, who said to us, following all that was best in the Declaration and in the Constitution, “Our duty is to give every son and daughter of the republic, a fair chance and an equal start in the race of life.” That gives us the difference between the old world system and the one we hope is to be the happy lot of all who shall live upon the new continent.

 

“Our brother in black,” said Dr. Haygood. May we not believe, in respect to all the great questions of the future, as well as this one of the past, that they are all met by what Dr. Haygood meant in the title to his little book? Our brother the capitalist - if we mean that shall we vex him, shall we hate him, shall we trouble him with unreasonable boycotts and strikes? Our brother the workingman - shall we squeeze him down to starvation wages, shall we turn on him the key, shall we remand him to the lockup? One step further: Shall we say, Our brother, the criminal? Is he our brother also? I turn to the wisest of men connected with this society of ours, Governor Seymour, who was its first president, an able politician and statesman, a philanthropist, a bright-minded and liberal Christian gentlemen. “Why,” said he, “I have passed upon some thousands of pardon cases, and I reflect no one in which I might not have been in the place of the guilty party, with his heredity, his temptations, and his environment,” If that pure man could speak thus, is there not something in it for us to consider? You have often heard the story of John Bunyan, who, seeing a man carried in the cart to the place of punishment said, “But for the grace of God, there goes John Bunyan.” I was reading the other day in one of the books of James Russell Lowell, that, on one occasion, looking out of his library window, he saw a red squirrel stealing his cherries. He was willing to divide his cherries with the robins, but knowing that the squirrel cared nothing for the cherries but only for the seeds, he rushed for his gun and threw up the window. Just then it occurred to him, he says “With the same bringing up and the same temptations of that little squirrel, wouldn’t I do the same thing?” and he put up his gun. And so throughout; this is the spirit that we are to consider. I have said it was in the Declaration of Independence, in the Constitution of the United States, in the utterances of Lincoln. It is the Sermon on the Mount; it is the Golden Rule.

 

Now, there is nothing new in all this, but can we live up to it? Our brother, the criminal,- more than that: is he alone the guilty party? “Why,” says Governor Seymour, “the crimes that vex any community are due to the customs, the habits, the spirit, the business, the character of that community.” In Kentucky, for instance, and wherever in our country, the practice prevails, sanctioned by public opinion, of avenging private injuries with deadly weapons the crimes are crimes of blood. In Chicago, the crimes are those that belong to the spirit of your business, seeking to get the better of your neighbor. Everywhere the crime takes the hue of the society in which it is committed. Not responsible for the crimes determined in the community whose character and genius and conduct and life determine the character of the crime? Oh, we are responsible! The first great criminal of whose life we have any record on the earth, when asked about his crime, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” This is the doctrine of Cain. The reverse doctrine, the Golden Rule, the doctrine of those who trust in God, is the doctrine that reaches crime at its fountain. Remove the cause of crime and then comes safety. I say safety, for the question is all the way through a large one. We cannot discuss the sources of crime and the causes of crime without discovering that that which gives to any community immunity from crime is just that which makes safe the foundation of all republican institutions. The safety of the republic stands upon exactly the same principle with the diminution and gradual eradication of crime from the bosom of society.

 

Again, not only are we in some sense responsible for crime, not only the causes of crime, and the perils that threaten our country to-day linked together as adamant, but where is the man who can say that he is not interested in the criminal question? Where is the man who can say with assurance that his family and those he loves best are proof against the spirit that makes crime in this country? There is no household that is perfectly intrenched against the danger. This sprit that leads to crime is abroad in the community and it may reach and it may ruin the purest and the happiest hearthstone to be found within it. We cannot separate ourselves from these things. There is something more than a question between us and the guilty man who is arrested and indicted. We must begin in the school-house, in the Sunday-school, in the church, everywhere, to consider that all within our reach are those in whom we must be interested. It has been so ordained, whether we would have it so or not, that we are, we have been, and we ever shall be, our brother’s keepers.

 

This then, is the general principle and its scope, reaching the source of crime. Let us briefly consider a few facts in detail. Take, for example the criminal at the beginning, the first step. We have an old saying that the first step costs. It is the first step that too often leads down to doom. How do we, as good citizens, meet it? The boy who has committed his first misdemeanor, has been drunk and disorderly, where do we send him? All over the United States, with but few exceptions, we send him to spend the first night after his arrest in close contact with hardened criminals, professors of burglary, instructors in larceny, adepts in counterfeiting and in every crime. There is no need of it; there is no difficulty in having it otherwise. In Boston they have a jail through which over 200,000 criminals have passed, no two of which have ever made acquaintance in that jail. Yet all over this county, in ninety nine out of a hundred of our jails and lockups, the boy who has committed his first offence is placed under the instruction of the old criminals. We have spent a great deal of time and money in seeing that our jails are comfortable, well warmed and well ventilated; the prisoners well fed and well clad; but, how about preserving pure and virtuous those who go in there for the first time? Now we have in the United from three to four thousand of these jails. Suppose that only one boy per year passes into one of each of these jails to be made a criminal for life; that makes from 3,000-4,000 a year; 30,000-40,000 in ten years, 50,000-60,000 in the lifetime of a criminal. Does anyone think that it is strange that crime increases and criminals are multiplied when at the country’s expense these compulsory schools for crime are kept up? There are six or eight jails in Ohio and several other States that are what they ought to be, but as a rule the common jail to-day is a school for the education of the young in crime.

 

Then as to the man who is hardened in crime, who has finished his education and is ready himself to start a normal school in any jail he happens to be in where he not only teaches young men to be criminals themselves, but how to teach others to be criminals, - how shall we treat him? There is but one answer to the question: get rid of the fixed sentence. Where you have a hardened criminal, put him into prison to stay until he is cured. I think I need not argue that point any further.

 

Take, then, another stage - the prisoner passing out. Three out of four, it is safe to say, of all who leave our penitentiaries leave intending to lead honest lives. To succeed in that, they must go out able to make a living for themselves and those dependent on them, fitted by the education received in prison to be skilled workmen, productive laborers. And now, what chance has our brother, the discharged convict? Our brother indeed! Who treats him as a brother?  Who thinks of employing an ex convict? There is a small society in Chicago looking after discharged convicts. Let us make it larger. Isn’t it a work worth our while to try to give to the discharged prisoner a chance to lead that honest life which he really desires to lead and which he can lead? It is not an impracticable work.

 

One other question. Burke says in one of his famous speeches, talking about political preaching.

“There is no agreement between the pulpit and politics.” Right or wrong in that, I may parody the phrase by saying, “There is no agreement between the penitentiary and politics.” Wherever prisons are ruled upon the political spoil system, it is to the injury of the party that does it and to the injury of the prison in which it is done. Who are the good wardens in our prisons to-day? Without exception, there are those who have been long in their positions, who have not happened to be turned out when the see-saw of the state election changed the control in the executive office or the legislature of the state. If political considerations should be left out anywhere, it should be in dealing with the criminals of the community. In this country, public opinion is government,-at least it may be. It may not be when machinery and money and corrupt influences are permitted by the community to take the place of judgment and knowledge and experience in the management of public affairs. We all understand very well that free government means in a very large sense government by a party. We do not declaim against government by party, but there are some things beyond and outside of party interest. There are some offices in which the question of a man’s party affiliations should absolutely left out of sight. The man who is to be the superintendant of a lunatic asylum or of any state benevolent institution, above all of a prison, should be utterly independent of the results of a party election.

 

The general principle of this whole matter is plain enough. Where is its weak point? It is simply here: the good people of the country do not give it their attention; it is outside the range of their thought and their information. The great object, then, of the National Prison Association, of state prison associations, of all that is being done along this line is to enlist the public interest, to inform the people with regard to it, and to secure contributions to help on this movement. Crime increases always just as society adopts such measures and policies as deprive people of employment. Wherever it happens that poverty increases, crime increases. Wherever at the top of the wheel of fortune men become so maddened in seeking and grasping for wealth that they are entirely reckless to the methods used and as to the rights of their fellow men, crime increases in all ranks from the highest to the lowest. Let it be understood in every community that the man who has successfully accumulated wealth has not fulfilled his obligations to the community in which he has prospered unless something of that great wealth goes for the promotion of general education, morality and religion. Let it be regarded as a stain upon the character of any man who does not do all he can for the welfare of those whose labor has made his wealth. For at last, on all of these questions, we must come back to this, or we must fall-our society must go down, our republic must go down, if we do not recognize it, - that Cain was mistaken, that we can trust in God, and that God’s rule is the Golden Rule: “Do unto others as ye would that they should do unto you.”

 

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