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Letter to Judge Shaw and President Walker1

Lemuel Shaw, Chief Justice of Massachusetts,
and James Walker, President of Harvard University.
Gentlemen: Now that the press has ceased its ridicule of your homage to Morphy at the Revere House,--a criticism of little importance,--I wish to present the scene to you in a different light.

You, Mr. Chief Justice, represent the law of the Commonwealth; to you, Mr. President, is committed the moral guardianship of the young men of her University. Yet I find you both at a table of revellers, under a roof whose chief support and profit come from the illegal sale of intoxicating drink, and which boasts itself the champion and head of an organized, flagrant, and avowed contempt of the laws of the Commonwealth. No one was surprised to see at your side a Mayor who owes his office to the votes of that disorderly band whose chief is the Revere House. Few wondered at the presence of a Professor placed by private munificence to watch over the piety and morals of your College, Mr. President; though a manly protest against fashionable vice might do something to redeem [238] the office from seeming only an eaves-dropping spy on the opinions and manners of young men.

But you, Mr. Chief Justice, know that three quarters, if not four fifths, of all crime result from habits of intoxication; that nine tenths, at least, of all the murderers you have sent to the gallows had never been murderers had they not first been drunkards. You can look round you, and back for fifty years, and see places at the bar and on the bench, once filled by genius and hope, now vacant,--their tenants in drunkards' graves. You know how fearful the peril which modern civilization, and especially popular institutions, encounter from the cheapness of liquor, and the habits of indulgence in all our great cities; you know the long and earnest labors of noble men, for fifty years, in both hemispheres, against this evil, and the momentous experiment they are trying of legal prohibition to arrest it, resulting here in a stringent law against the sale of intoxicating drinks. You know also that the Revere House is the insolent leader of that heartless and selfish faction which, defeated before the people, seeks, by unblushing defiance of law, to overbear opinion and statute.

And you, Mr. President, the moral guardian of the young men of our University, well know its venerable statutes and unceasing efforts to prevent the use of wine within its walls. You know how many, often the brightest, names on your catalogue, too early marked with the asterisk of death, owe their untimely end to wine. Both of you know that the presence of men holding such offices as yours goes as far as recreant office and reputation can to make a bad roof respectable.

Yet I find you both at a midnight revel, doing your utmost to give character to a haunt which boasts its open and constant defiance of the moral sense of the State, solemnly expressed in its statutes.

No one denies, Gentlemen, your right to indulge what [239] social habits you please in the privacy of your own dwellings; or, in travelling, to use the customary accommodations of an inn, even though intoxicating drink is sold on its premises. Few will care to criticise, if, choosing some decent roof, you join your fellows and mock the moral sentiment of the community by a public carousal. But while you hold these high offices, we, the citizens of a Commonwealth whose character you represent, emphatically deny your right to appear at illegal revels in a gilded grog-shop, which, but for the sanction of such as you, had long ago met the indictment it deserves. How can we expect the police to execute a law upon which the Chief Justice pours contempt by his example? How shall the grand jury indict the nuisance of which the Supreme Bench has, for an hour, made a part? We, the citizens, have a right to claim that, should public opinion, by our labors, reach the point of presenting these gorgeous grog-shops at the criminal bar, we shall not find their frequenters on the bench.

Again and again, Mr. Chief Justice, have I heard you, at critical moments, in a voice whose earnest emotion half checked its utterance, remind your audience of the sacred duty resting on each man to respect and obey the law; assuring us that the welfare of society was bound up in this individual submission to existing law. How shall the prisoner at the bar reconcile the grave sincerity of the magistrate with this heedless disregard by the man of most important laws? If, again, the times should call you to bid us smother justice and humanity at the command of statutes, we may remind you with what heartless indifference you treated the law you were sworn and paid to uphold, and one on which the hearts of the best men in the State were most strongly set. Was it not enough that you let History paint you bowing beneath a slave-hunter's chain to enter your own court-room? but must you also [240] present yourself in public, lifting to your lips the wine-cup, which, by the laws of the State over whose courts you preside, it is an indictable offence and a nuisance to sell you?

And let me remind you, Mr. President, that even your young men sometimes pause amid scenes of temptation, or in our streets, where every tenth door opens to vice,--pause at some chance thought of home or rising regard for the sentiment of the community. And, Sir, should such frail purpose of even one youth falter before the sight of his President in a circle of wine-bibbers, and that fall lead to an unhonored grave, you will be bound to remember that, in the check and example you promised and were expected and set to hold upon him, you wholly failed; that in the most impressible moments of his life he saw the virtue of the State struggling with its sensual indulgence, its lust of dishonorable gain, its base pandering to appetite, already too strong; and in that struggle he saw your weight ostentatiously thrown into the scale of open and contemptuous disregard of the moral sense of the State. I well remember when, from a pulpit constantly boasting that its new creed had thrown away a formal and hollow faith and brought in the wholesome doctrine of works, you painted, so vividly, how hard it is for young men to say “No.” Is this, Sir, the method you choose to illustrate the practical value of the new faith, and this the help you extend to the faltering virtue of your pupils, giving the sanction of four character and office to the prince of rum-sellers and law-breakers, and flinging insult on one of the noblest reforms of the age?

I admit the right and duty of minorities to disregard immoral or unconstitutional laws. But no one ever though the prohibitory law immoral, and you, Mr. Chief Justice, have affirmed its constitutionality. Neither do I now arraign you, Gentlemen, for your private habit of wineing. [241] I do not complain that a judge, who sees so much crime come from it, still gives it his countenance; that a clergyman — the chief apostle of whose faith declared he would eat no meat while the world stood, if so doing made his brother to offend-still throws that stumbling-block in the way of his pupils. But I arraign the Chief Justice of Massachusetts, and the President of Harvard University, because, when the rum interest of the State is marshalling its strength to beat down a good and constitutional law by gross, open, and avowed disobedience, they are found lending their names, character, and office to give respectability to the grog-shop whose wealth enables it to lead that dishonorable and disloyal effort. As a citizen, I claim that you disgraced your places, if not yourselves; and I hope the day will come when such insult by such high officers to any statute of the Commonwealth, much more to one representing its highest moral purpose, will be deemed cause enough to impeach the one and remove the other.

Wendell Phillips August 1, 1859.

1 the hotels of Boston, with the connivance of the city government, refuse to obey the Maine Liquor law of Massachusetts. The Revere House, the most fashionable of our hotels, was chosen to offer a public dinner to Morphy, at which were present Judge Shaw, President Walker, the Mayor, Professor Huntington, and other dignitaries.

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