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Corporal Punishment (1891)

Robert Green Ingersoll

This unfinished and unrevised article was among Col. Ingersoll's papers and is here reproduced without change. -- It is a reply to the Dean of St. Paul's Contribution to the North American Review for Dec., 1891, entitled: "Is Corporal Punishment Degrading?"

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IS CORPORAL PUNISHMENT DEGRADING? 1891

The Dean of St. Paul protests against the kindness of parents, guardians and teachers toward children, wards and pupils. He believes in the gospel of ferule and whips, and has perfect faith in the efficacy of flogging in homes and schools. He longs for the return of the good old days when fathers were severe, and children affectionate and obedient.

In America, for many years, even wife-beating has been somewhat unpopular, and the flogging of children has been considered cruel and unmanly. Wives with bruised and swollen faces, and children with lacerated backs, have excited pity for themselves rather than admiration for savage husbands and brutal fathers. It is also true that the church has far less power here than in England, and it may be that those who wander from the orthodox fold grow mindful and respect the rights even of the weakest.

But whatever the cause may be, the fact is that we, citizens of the Republic, feel that certain domestic brutalities are the children of monarchies and despotisms, that they were produced by superstition, ignorance, and savagery; and that they are not in accord with the free and superb spirit that founded and preserves the Great Republic.

Of late years, confidence in the power of kindness has greatly increased, and there is a wide-spread suspicion that cruelty and violence are not the instrumentalities of civilization.

Physicians no longer regard corporal punishment as a sure cure even for insanity -- and it is generally admitted that the lash irritates rather than soothes the victim of melancholia.

Civilized men now insist that criminals cannot always be reformed even by the most ingenious instruments of torture. It is known that some convicts repay the smallest acts of kindness with the sincerest gratitude. Some of the best people go so far as to say that kindness is the sunshine in which the virtues grow. We know that for many ages governments tried to make men virtuous with dungeon and fagot and scaffold; that they tried to cure even disease of the mind with brandings and maimings and lashes on the naked flesh of men and women -- and that kings endeavored to sow the seeds of patriotism -- to plant and nurture them in the hearts of their subjects -- with whip and chain.

In England, only a few years ago, there were hundreds of brave soldiers and daring sailors whose breasts were covered with honorable scars -- witnesses of wounds received at Trafalgar and Balaklava -- while on the backs of these same soldiers and sailors were the marks of English whips. These shameless cruelties were committed in the name of discipline, and were upheld by officers, statesmen and clergymen. The same is true of nearly all civilized nations. These crimes have been excused for the reason that our ancestors were, at that time, in fact, barbarians -- that they had no idea of justice, no comprehension of liberty, no conception of the rights of men, women and children.

At that time the church was, in most countries, equal to, or superior to, the state, and was a firm believer in the civilizing influences of cruelty and torture.

According to the creeds of that day, God intended to torture the wicked forever, and the church, according to its power, did all that it could in the same direction. Learning their rights and duties from priests, fathers not only beat their children, but their wives. In those days most homes were penitentiaries, in which wives and children were the convicts and of which husbands and fathers were the wardens and turnkeys. The king imitated his supposed God, and imprisoned, flogged, branded, beheaded and burned his enemies, and the husbands and fathers imitated the king, and guardians and teachers imitated them.

Yet in spite of all the beatings and burnings, the whippings and hangings, the world was not reformed. Crimes increased, the cheeks of wives were furrowed with tears, the faces of children white with fear -- fear of their own fathers; pity was almost driven from the heart of man and found refuge, for the most part, in the breasts of women, children, and dogs.

In those days, misfortunes were punished as crimes. Honest debtors were locked in loathsome dungeons, and trivial offenses were punished with death. Worse than all that, thousands of men and women were destroyed, not because they were vicious, but because they were virtuous, honest and noble. Extremes beget obstructions. The victims at last became too numerous, and the result did not seem to justify the means. The good, the few, protested against the savagery of kings and fathers.

Nothing seems clearer to me than that the world has been gradually growing better for many years. Men have a clearer conception of rights and obligations -- a higher philosophy -- a far nobler ideal. Even kings admit that they should have some regard for the well-being of their subjects. Nations and individuals are slowly outgrowing the savagery of revenge, the desire to kill, and it is generally admitted that criminals should neither be imprisoned nor tortured for the gratification of the public, At last we are beginning to know that revenge is a mistake -- that cruelty not only hardens the victim, but makes a criminal of him who inflicts it, and that mercy guided by intelligence is the highest form of justice.

The tendency of the world is toward kindness. The religious creeds are being changed or questioned, because they shock the heart of the present. All civilized churches, all humane Christians, have given up the dogma of eternal pain. This infamous doctrine has for many centuries polluted the imagination and hardened the heart. This coiled viper no longer inhabits the breast of a civilized man.

In all civilized countries slavery has been abolished, the honest debtor released, and all are allowed the liberty of speech.

Long ago flogging was abolished in our army and navy and all cruel and unusual punishments prohibited by law. In many parts of the Republic the whip has been banished from the public schools, the flogger of children is held in abhorrence, and the wife-beater is regarded as a cowardly criminal. The gospel of kindness is not only preached, but practiced. Such has been the result of this advance of civilization -- of this growth of kindness -- of this bursting into blossom of the flower called pity, in the heart -- that we treat our horses (thanks to Henry Bergh) better than our ancestors did their slaves, their servants or their tenants. The gentlemen of to-day show more affection for their dogs than most of the kings of England exhibited toward their wives. The great tide is toward mercy; the savage creeds are being changed; heartless laws have been repealed; shackles have been broken; torture abolished, and the keepers of prisons are no longer allowed to bruise and scar the flesh of convicts. The insane are treated with kindness -- asylums are in the midst of beautiful grounds, the rooms are filled with flowers, and the wandering mind is called back by the golden voice of music.

In the midst of these tendencies -- of these accomplishments -- in the general harmony between the minds of men, acting together, to the end that the world may be governed by kindness through education and the blessed agencies of reformation and prevention, the Dean of St. Paul raises his voice in favor of the methods and brutalities of the past.

The reverend gentleman takes the ground that the effect of flogging on the flogged is not degrading; that the effect of corporal punishment is ennobling; that it tends to make boys manly by ennobling and teaching them to bear bodily pain with fortitude. To be flogged develops character, self-reliance, courage, contempt of pain and the highest heroism. The Dean therefore takes the ground that parents should flog their children, guardians their wards, and teachers their pupils.

If the Dean is wrong he goes too far, and if he is right he does not go far enough. He does not advocate the flogging of children who obey their parents, or of pupils who violate no rule. It follows then that such children are in great danger of growing up unmanly, without the courage and fortitude to bear bodily pain. If flogging is really a blessing it should not be withheld from the good and lavished on the unworthy. The Dean should have the courage of his convictions. The teacher should not make a pretext of the misconduct of the pupil to do him a great service. He should not be guilty of calling a benefit a punishment He should not deceive the children under his care and develop their better natures under false pretenses. But what is to become of the boys and girls who "behave themselves," who attend to their studies, and comply with the rules? They lose the benefits conferred on those who defy their parents and teachers, reach maturity without character, and so remain withered and worthless.

The Dean not only defends his position by an appeal to the Bible, the history of nations, but to his personal experience. In order to show the good effects of brutality and the bad consequences of kindness, he gives two instances that came under his observation. The first is that of an intelligent father who treated his sons with great kindness and yet these sons neglected their affectionate father in his old age. The second instance is that of a mother who beat her daughter. The wretched child, it seems, was sent out to gather sticks from the hedges, and when she brought home a large stick, the mother suspected that she had obtained it wrongfully and thereupon proceeded to beat the child. And yet the Dean tells us that this abused daughter treated the hyena mother with the greatest kindness, and loved her as no other daughter ever loved a mother. In order to make this case strong and convincing the Dean states that this mother was a most excellent Christian.

From these two instances the Dean infers, and by these two instances proves, that kindness breeds bad sons, and that flogging makes affectionate daughters. The Dean says to the Christian mother: "If you wish to be loved by your daughter, you must beat her." And to the Christian father he says: "If you want to be neglected in your old age by your sons, you will treat them with kindness." The Dean does not follow his logic to the end. Let me give him two instances that support his theory.

A good man married a handsome woman. He was old, rich, kind and indulgent. He allowed his wife to have her own way. He never uttered a cross or cruel word. He never thought of beating her. And yet, as the Dean would say, in consequence of his kindness, she poisoned him, got his money and married another man.

In this city, not long ago, a man, a foreigner, beat his wife according to his habit. On this particular occasion the punishment was excessive. He beat her until she became unconscious; she was taken to a hospital and the physician said that she could not live. The husband was brought to the hospital and preparations were made to take her dying statement. After being told that she was dying, she was asked if her husband had beaten her. Her face was so bruised and swollen that the lids of her eyes had to be lifted in order that she might see the wretch who had killed her. She beckoned him to her side -- threw her arms about his neck -- drew his face to hers -- kissed him, and said: "He is not the man. He did not do it" -- then -- died.

According to the philosophy of the Dean, these instances show that kindness causes crime, and that wife-beating cultivates in the highest degree the affectionate nature of woman.

The Dean, if consistent, is a believer in slavery, because the lash judiciously applied brings out the finer feelings of the heart. Slaves have been known to die for their masters, while under similar circumstances hired men have sought safety in flight.

We all know of many instances where the abused, the maligned, and the tortured have returned good for evil -- and many instances where the loved, the honored, and the trusted have turned against their benefactors, and yet we know that cruelty and torture are not superior to love and kindness. Yet, the Dean tries to show that severity is the real mother of affection, and that kindness breeds monsters. If kindness and affection on the part of parents demoralize children, will not kindness and affection on the part of children demoralize the parents?

When the children are young and weak, the parents who are strong beat the children in order that they may be affectionate. Now, when the children get strong and the parents are old and weak, ought not the children to beat them, so that they too may become kind and loving?

If you want an affectionate son, beat him. If you desire a loving wife, beat her.

This is really the advice of the Dean of St. Paul. To me it is one of the most pathetic facts in nature that wives and children love husbands and fathers who are utterly unworthy. It is enough to sadden a life to think of the affection that has been lavished upon the brutal, of the countless pearls that Love has thrown to swine.

The Dean, quoting from Hooker, insists that "the voice of man is as the sentence of God himself," -- in other words, that the general voice, practice and opinion of the human race are true.

And yet, cannibalism, slavery, polygamy, the worship of snakes and stones, the sacrifice of babes, have during vast periods of time been practiced and upheld by an overwhelming majority of mankind. Whether the "general voice" can be depended on depends much on the time, the epoch, during which the "general voice" was uttered. There was a time when the "general voice" was in accord with the appetite of man; when all nations were cannibals and lived on each other, and yet it can hardly be said that this voice and appetite were in exact accord with divine goodness. It is hardly safe to depend on the "general voice" of savages, no matter how numerous they may have been. Like most people who defend the cruel and absurd, the Dean appeals to the Bible as the supreme authority in the moral world, -- and yet if the English Parliament should re- enact the Mosaic Code every member voting in the affirmative would be subjected to personal violence, and an effort to enforce that code would produce a revolution that could end only in the destruction of the government.

The morality of the Old Testament is not always of the purest; when Jehovah tried to induce Pharaoh to let the Hebrews go, he never took the ground that slavery was wrong. He did not seek to convince by argument, to soften by pity, or to persuade by kindness. He depended on miracles and plagues. He killed helpless babes and the innocent beasts of the fields. No wonder the Dean appeals to the Bible to justify the beating of children. So, too, we are told that "all sensible persons, Christian and otherwise, will admit that there are in every child born into the world tendencies to evil that need rooting out."

The Dean undoubtedly believes in the creed of the established church, and yet he does not hesitate to say that a God of infinite goodness and intelligence never created a child -- never allowed one to be born into the world without planting in its little heart "tendencies to evil that need rooting out."

So, Solomon is quoted to the effect "that he that spareth his rod hateth his son." To me it has always been a matter of amazement why civilized people, living in the century of Darwin and Humboldt, should quote as authority the words of Solomon, a murderer, an ingrate, an idolater, and a polygamist -- a man so steeped and sodden in ignorance that he really believed he could be happy with seven hundred wives and three hundred concubines. The Dean seems to regret that flogging is no longer practiced in the British navy, and quotes with great cheerfulness a passage from Deuteronomy to prove that forty lashes on the naked back will meet with the approval of God. He insists that St. Paul endured corporal punishment without the feeling of degradation not only, but that he remembered his sufferings with a sense of satisfaction. Does the Dean think that the satisfaction of St. Paul justified the wretches who beat and stoned him? Leaving the Hebrews, the Dean calls the Greeks as witnesses to establish the beneficence of flogging. They resorted to corporal punishment in their schools, says the Dean and then naively remarks "that Plutarch was opposed to this."

The Dean admits that in Rome it was found necessary to limit by law the punishment that a father might inflict upon his children, and yet he seems to regret that the legislature interfered. The Dean observes that "Quintillian severely censured corporal punishment "and then accounts for the weakness and folly of the censure, by saying that "Quintillian wrote in the days when the glories of Rome were departed." And then adds these curiously savage words: "It is worthy of remark that no children treated their parents with greater tenderness and reverence than did those of Rome in the days when the father possessed the unlimited power of punishment."

Not quite satisfied with the strength of his case although sustained by Moses and Solomon, St. Paul and several schoolmasters, he proceeds to show that God is thoroughly on his side, not only in theory, but in practice; "whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth."

The Dean asks this question: "Which custom, kindness or severity, does experience show to be the less dangerous?" And he answers from a new heart: "I fear that I must unhesitatingly give the palm to severity. * *

? "I have found that there have been more reverence and affection, more willingness to make sacrifices for parents, more pleasure in contributing to their pleasure or happiness in that life where the tendency has been to a severe method of treatment."

Is it possible that any good man exists who is willing to gain the affection of his children in that way? How could such a man beat and bruise the flesh of his babes, knowing that they would give him in return obedience and love; that they would fill the evening of his days -- the leafless winter of his life -- with perfect peace?

Think of being fed and clothed by children you had whipped -- whose flesh you had scarred! Think of feeling in the hour of death upon your withered lips, your withered cheeks, the kisses and the tears of one whom you had beaten -- upon whose flesh were still the marks of your lash!

The whip degrades; a severe father teaches his children to dissemble; their love is pretence, and their obedience a species of self-defence. Fear is the father of lies.


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