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Is Avarice Triumphant

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Robert Green Ingersoll

There are many people, in all countries, who seem to enjoy individual and national decay. They love to prophesy the triumph of evil. They mistake the afternoon of their own lives for the evening of the world. To them everything has changed. Men are no longer honest or brave. and women have ceased to be beautiful. They are dyspeptic, and it gives them the greatest pleasure to say that the art of cooking has been lost.

For many generations many of these people occupied the pulpits. They lifted the hand of warning whenever the human race took a step in advance. As wealth increased, they declared that honesty and goodness and self-denial and charity were vanishing from the earth. They doubted the morality of well dressed people — considered it impossible that the prosperous should be pious. Like owls sitting on the limbs of a dead tree. they hooted the obsequies of spring, Believing it would come no more.

There are some patriots who think it their duty to malign and slander the land of their birth. They feel that they have a kind of Cassandra mission, and they really seem to enjoy their work. They honestly believe that every kind of crime is on the increase, that the courts are all corrupt, that the legislators are bribed, that the witnesses are suborned, that all holders of office are dishonest; and they feel like a modern Marius sitting amid the ruins of all the virtues.

It is useless to endeavor to persuade these people that they are wrong. They do not want arguments, because they will not heed them. They need medicine. Their case is not for a philosopher, but for a physician.

General Hawkins is probably right when he says that some fraudulent shoes, some useless muskets, and some worn-out vessels were sold to the Government during the war; but we must remember that there were millions and millions of as good shoes as art and honesty could make, millions of the best muskets ever constructed, and hundreds of the most magnificent ships ever built, sold to the Government during the same period. We must not mistake an eddy for the main stream. We must also remember another thing: there were millions of good, brave, and patriotic men to wear the shoes, to use the muskets, and to man the ships.

So it is probably true that Congress was extravagant in land subsidies voted to railroads; but that this legislation was secured by bribery is preposterous. It was all done in the light of noon. There is not the slightest evidence tending to show that the general policy of hastening the construction of railways through the Territories of the United States was corruptly adopted — not the slightest. At the same time, it may he that some members of Congress were induced by personal considerations to vote for such subsidies. As a matter of fact, the policy was wise, and through the granting of the subsidies thousands of miles of railways were built, and these railways have given to civilization vast territories which otherwise would have remained substantially useless to the world. Where at that time was a wilderness, now are some of the most thriving cities in the United States — great, an industrious, and a happy population. The results have justified the action of Congress.

It is also true that some railroads have been “wrecked” in the United States, but most of these wrecks have been the result of competition. It is the same with corporations as with individuals — the powerful combine against the weak. In the world of commerce and business is the great law of the survival of the strongest. Railroads are not eleemosynary institutions. They have but little regard for the rights of one another. Some fortunes have been made by the criminal “wrecking” of roads, but even in the business of corporations honesty is the best policy, and the companies that have acted in accordance with the highest standard, other things being equal, have reaped the richest harvest.

Many railways were built in advance of a demand; they had to develop the country through which they passed. While they waited for immigration, interest accumulated; as a result foreclosure took place; then reorganization. By that time the country had been populated; towns were springing up along the line; increased business was the result. On the new bonds and the new stock the company paid interest and dividends. Then the ones who first invested and lost their money felt that they had been defrauded.

So it is easy to say that certain men are guilty of crimes — easy to indict the entire nation, and at the same time impossible to substantiate one of the charges. Everyone who knows the history of the Star-Route trials knows that nothing was established against the defendants, knows that every effort was made by the Government to convict them, and also knows that an unprejudiced jury of twelve men, never suspected of being improperly influenced, after having heard the entire case, pronounced the defendants not guilty. After this, of course, any one can say, who knows nothing of the evidence and who cares nothing for the facts, that the defendants were all guilty.

It may also be true that some settlers in the far West have taken timber from the public lands, and it may be that it was a necessity. Our laws and regulations were such that where a settler was entitled to take up a certain amount of land he had to take it all in one place; he could not take a certain number of acres on the plains and a certain number of acres in the timber. The consequence was that when he settled upon the land — the land that he could cultivate — he took the timber that he needed from the Government land, and this has been called stealing. So I suppose it may be said that the cattle stole the Government’s grass and possibly drank the Governments water.

It will also be admitted with pleasure that stock has been “watered” in this country. And what is the crime or practice know as watering stock? For instance, you have a railroad one hundred miles long, worth, we will say, $3,000,000 — able to pay interest on that sum at the rate of six per cent. Now, we all know that the amount of stock issued has nothing to do with the value of the thing represented by the stock. If there was one share of stock representing this railroad, it would be worth three million dollars, whether it said on its face it was one dollar or one hundred dollars. If there were three million shares of stock issued on this property, they would be worth one dollar apiece, and, no matter whether it said on this stock that each share was a hundred dollars or a thousand dollars, the share would be worth one dollar — no more, no less. If any one wishes to find the value of stock, he should find the value of the thing represented by the stock. It is perfectly clear that, if a pie is worth one dollar, and you cut it into four pieces, each piece is worth twenty-five cents; and if you cut it in a thousand pieces, you do not increase the value of the pie.

If then, you wish to find the value of a share of stock, find its relation to the thing represented by all the stock.

It can also be safely admitted that trusts have been formed. The reason is perfectly clear. Corporations are like individuals — they combine. Unfortunate corporations become socialistic, anarchistic, and cry out against the abuses of trusts. It is natural for corporations to defend themselves — natural for them to stop ruinous competition by a profitable pool; and when strong corporations combine, little corporations suffer. It is with corporations as with fishes — the large eat the little; and it may be that this will prove a public benefit in the end. When the large corporations have taken possession of the little ones, it may be that the Government will take possession of them — the Government being the largest corporation of them all.

It is to be regretted that all houses are not fireproof; but certainly no one imagines that the people of this country build houses for the purpose of having them burned, or that they erect hotels having in view the broiling of guests. Men act as they must; that is to say, according to wants and necessities. In a new country the buildings are cheaper than in an old one, money is scarcer, interest higher, and consequently people build cheaply and take the risks of fire. They do not do this on account of the Constitution of the United States, or the action of political parties, or the general idea that man is entitled to be free. In the hotels of Europe it may be that there is not as great danger of fire as of famine.

The destruction of game and of the singing birds is to be greatly regretted, not only in this country, but in all others. The people of America have been too busy felling forests, plowing fields, and building houses, to cultivate, to the highest degree, the restful side of their natures. Nature has been somewhat ruthless with us. The storms of winter breasted by the Western pioneer, the whirlwinds of summer, have tended, it may be, to harden somewhat the sensibilities; in consequence of which they have allowed their horses and cattle to bear the rigors of the same climate.

It is also true that the seal-fisheries are being destroyed, in the interest of the present, by those who care nothing for the future. All these things are to be deprecated, are to be spoken against; but we must not hint, provided we are lovers of the Republic, that such things are caused by free institutions.

General Hawkins asserts that “Christianity has neither preached nor practiced humanity towards animals,” while at the same time “Sunday school children by hundreds of thousands are taught what a terrible thing it is to break the Sabbath;” that “museum trustees tremble with pious horror at the suggestion of opening the doors leading to the collections on that day,” and that no protests have come “from lawmakers or the Christian clergy.”

Few people will suspect me of going out of my way to take care of Christianity or of the clergy. At the same time, I can afford to state the truth. While there is not much in the Bible with regard to practicing humanity toward animals, there is at least this: “The merciful man is merciful to his beast.” Of course, I am not alluding now to the example set by Jehovah when he destroyed the cattle of the Egyptians with hailstones and diseases on account of the sins of their owners.

In regard to the treatment of animals Christians have been much like other people.

So, hundreds of lawmakers have not only protested against cruelty to animals, but enough have protested against it to secure the enactment of laws making cruelty toward animals a crime. Henry Bergh, who did as much good as any man who has lived in the nineteenth century, was seconded in his efforts by many of the Christian clergy not only, but by hundreds and thousands of professing Christians — probably millions. Let us be honest.

It is true that the clergy are apt to lose the distinction between offenses and virtues, to regard the little as the important — that is to say, to invert the pyramid.

It is true that the Indians have been badly treated. It is true that the fringe of civilization has been composed of many low and cruel men. It is true that the red man has been demoralized by the vices of the white. It is a frightful fact that, when a superior race meets an inferior, the inferior imitates only the vices of the superior, and the superior those of the inferior. They exchange faults and failings. This is one of the most terrible facts in the history of the human race.

Nothing can be said to justify our treatment of the Indians. There is, however, this shadow of an excuse: In the old times, when we lived along the Atlantic, it hardly occurred to our ancestors that they could ever go beyond the Ohio; so the first treaty with the Indians drove them back but a few miles. In a little while, through immigration, the white race passed the line, and another treaty was made, forcing the Indians still further west; yet the tide of immigration kept on, and in a little while; again the line was passed, the treaty violated. Another treaty was made, pushing the Indians still further toward the Pacific, across the Illinois, across the Mississippi, across the Missouri, violating at every step some treaty made; and each treaty born of the incapacity of the white men who made it to foretell the growth of the Republic.

But the author of “Brutality and Avarice Triumphant” made a great mistake when he selected the last thirty years of our national life as the period within which the Americans have made a change of the national motto appropriate, and asserted that now there should be in place of the old motto the words, “Plundering Made Easy.”

Most men believe in a sensible and manly patriotism. No one should be blind to the defects in the laws and institutions of his country. He should call attention to abuses, not for the purpose of bringing his country into disrepute, but that the abuses may cease and the defects be corrected. He should do what he can to make his country great, prosperous, just, and free. But it is hardly fair to exaggerate the faults of your country for the purpose of calling attention to your own virtues, or to earn the praise of a nation that hates your own. This is what might be called wallowing in the gutter of reform.

The thirty years chosen as the time in which we as a nation have passed from virtue to the lowest depths of brutality and avarice are, in fact, the most glorious years in the life of this or of any other nation.

In 1861 slavery was, in a legal sense at least, a national institution. It was firmly imbedded in the Federal Constitution. The Fugitive Slave Law was in full force and effect. In all the Southern and in nearly all of the Northern States it was a crime to give food, shelter, or raiment to a man or woman seeking liberty by flight. Humanity was illegal, hospitality a misdemeanor, and charity a crime. Men and women were sold like beasts. Mothers were robbed of their babes while they stood under our flag. All the sacred relations of life were trampled beneath the bloody feet of brutality and avarice. Besides, so firmly was slavery fixed in law and creed. in statute and Scripture, that the tongues of honest men were imprisoned. Those who spoke for the slave were mobbed by Northern lovers of the “Union.”

Now, it seems to me that those were the days when the motto could properly have been, “Plundering Made Easy.” Those were the days of brutality, and the brutality was practiced to the end that we might make money out of the unpaid labor of others.

It is not necessary to go into details as to the cause of the then condition; it is enough to say that the whole nation, North and South, was responsible. There were many years of compromise, and thousands of statesmen, so-called, through conventions and platforms, did what they could to preserve slavery and keep the Union. These efforts corrupted politics, demoralized our statesmen, polluted our courts, and poisoned our literature. The Websters, Bentons, and Clays mistook temporary expedients for principles, and really thought that the progress of the world could be stopped by the resolutions of a packed political convention. Yet these men, mistaken as they really were, worked and wrought unconsciously in the cause of human freedom. They believed that the preservation of the Union was the one important thing, and that it could not be preserved unless slavery was protected — unless the North would be faithful to the bargain as written in the Constitution. For the purpose of keeping the nation true to the Union and false to itself, these men exerted every faculty and all their strength. They exhausted their genius in showing that slavery was not, after all, very bad, and that disunion was the most terrible calamity that could by any possibility befall the nation, and that the Union, even at the price of slavery was the greatest possible blessing. They did not suspect that slavery would finally strike the blow for disunion. But when the time came and the South unsheathed the sword, the teachings of these men as to the infinite value of the Union gave to our flag millions of brave defenders.

Now, let us see what has been accomplished during the thirty years of “Brutality and Avarice.”

The Republic has been rebuilt and reunited, and we shall remain one people for many centuries to come. The Mississippi is natures protest against disunion. The Constitution of the United States is now the charter of human freedom, and all laws inconsistent with the idea that all men are entitled to liberty have been repealed. The black man knows that the Constitution is his shield, that the laws protect him, that our flag is his, and the black mother feels that her babe belongs to her. Where the slave-pen used to be you will find the schoolhouse. The dealer in human flesh is now a teacher; instead of lacerating the back of a child, he develops and illumines the mind of a pupil.

There is now freedom of speech. Men are allowed to utter their thoughts. Lips are no longer sealed by mobs. Never before in the history of our world has so much been done for education.

The amount of business done in a country on credit is the measure of confidence, and confidence is based upon honesty. So it may truthfully be said that, where a vast deal of business is done on credit, an exceedingly large per cent. of the people are regarded as honest. In our country a very large per cent. of contracts are faithfully filled. Probably there is no nation in the world where so much business is done on credit as in the United States. The fact that the credit of the Republic is second to that of no other nation on the globe would seem to be at least an indication of a somewhat general diffusion of honesty.

The author of “Brutality and Avarice Triumphant” seems to be of the opinion that our country was demoralized by the war. They who fought for the right are not degraded — they are ennobled. When men face death and march to the mouths of the guns for a principle, they grow great; and if they come out of the conflict, they come with added moral grandeur; they become better men, better citizens, and they love more intensely than ever the great cause for the success of which they put their lives in pawn.

The period of the Revolution produced great men. After the great victory the sons of the heroes degenerated, and some of the greatest principles involved in the Revolution were almost forgotten.

During the Civil war the North grew great and the South was educated. Never before in the history of mankind was there such a period of moral exaltation. The names that shed the brightest, the whitest light on the pages of our history became famous then. Against the few who were actuated by base and unworthy motives let us set the great army that fought for the Republic, the millions who bared their breasts to the storm. the hundreds and hundreds of thousands who did their duty honestly, nobly, and went back to their wives and children with no thought except to preserve the liberties of themselves and their fellow-men.

Of course there were some men who did not do their duty — some men false to themselves and to their country. No one expects to find sixty-five millions of saints in America. A few years ago a lady complained to the president of a Western railroad that a brakeman had spoken to her with great rudeness. The president expressed his regret at the incident, and said among other things: “Madam, you have no idea how difficult it is for us to get gentlemen to fill all those places.”

It is hardly to be expected that the American people should excel all others in the arts, in poetry, and in fiction. We have been very busy taking possession of the Republic. It is hard to overestimate the courage, the industry, the self-denial it has required to fell the forests. to subdue the fields, to construct the roads, and to build the countless homes. What has been done is a certificate of the honesty and industry of our people.

It is not true that “one of the unwritten mottoes of our business morals seem to say in the plainest phraseology possible: ‘Successful wrong is right.'” Men in this country are not esteemed simply because they are rich; inquiries are made as to how they made their money, as to how they use it. The American people do not fall upon their knees before the golden calf; the worst that can be said is that they think too much of the gold of the calf — and this distinction is seen by the calves themselves.

Nowhere in the world is honesty in business esteemed more highly than here. There are millions of business men — merchants, bankers, and men engaged in all trades and professions — to whom reputation is as dear as life.

There is one thing in the article “Brutality and Avarice Triumphant” that seems even more objectionable than the rest, and that is the statement, or, rather the insinuation, that all the crimes and the shortcomings of the American people can be accounted for by the fact that our Government is a Republic. We are told that not long ago a French official complained to a friend that he was compelled to employ twenty clerks to do the work done by four under the empire, and on being asked the reason answered: “It is the Republic.” He was told that, as he was the head of the bureau, he could prevent the abuse, to which he replied: “I know I have the power; but I have been in this position for more than thirty years, and am now too old to learn another occupation, and I must make places for the friends of the deputies. “And then it is added by General Hawkins: “And so it is here.”

It seems to me that it cannot be fairly urged that we have abused the Indians because we contend that all men have equal rights before the law, or because we insist that governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. The probability is that a careful reading of the history of the world will show that nations under the control of kings and emperors have been guilty of some cruelty. To account for the bad we do by the good we believe, is hardly logical. Our virtues should not be made responsible for our vices.

Is it possible that free institutions tend to the demoralization of men? Is a man dishonest because he is a man and maintains the rights of men? In order to be a moral nation must we be controlled by king or emperor? Is human liberty a mistake? Is it possible that a citizen of the great Republic attacks the liberty of his fellow-citizens? Is he willing to abdicate? Is he willing to admit that his rights are not equal to the rights of others? Is he, for the sake of what he calls morality, willing to become a serf, a servant or a slave?

Is it possible that “high character is impracticable” in this Republic? Is this the experience of the author of “Brutality and Avarice Triumphant”? Is it true that “intellectual achievement pays no dividends”? Is it not a fact that America is to-day the best market in the world for books, for music, and for art?

There is in our country no real foundation for these wide and sweeping slanders. This, in my judgment, is the best Government, the best country, in the world. The citizens of this Republic are, on the average, better clothed and fed and educated than any other people. They are fuller of life, more progressive, quicker to take advantage of the forces of nature, than any other of the children of men. Here the burdens of government are lightest, the responsibilities of the individual greatest, and here, in my judgment, are to be worked out the most important problems of social science.

Here in America is a finer sense of what is due from man to man than you will find in other lands. We do not cringe to those whom chance has crowned; we stand erect.

Our sympathies are strong and quick. Generosity is almost a national failing. The hand of honest want is rarely left unfilled. Great calamities open the hearts and hands of all.

Here you will find democracy in the family — republicanism by the fireside. Say what you will, the family is apt to be patterned after the government. If a king is at the head of the nation, the husband imagines himself the monarch of the home. In this country we have carried into the family the idea on which the Government is based. Here husbands and wives are beginning to be equals.

The highest test of civilization is the treatment of women an children. By this standard America stands first among nations.

There is a magnitude, a scope, a grandeur, about this country — an amplitude — that satisfies the heart and the imagination. We have our faults, we have our virtues, but our country is the best.

No American should ever write a line that can be sneeringly quoted by an enemy of the great Republic.

Robert G. Ingersoll.

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