Paintings On Social Evils Essay

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The Nation says that the solution to the problem of prostitution is regulation.

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In response to a resolution offered in the Assembly, “that the Board of Metropolitan Health Commissioners and the Metropolitan Board of Police be requested to communicate to the House, at their earliest convenience, their opinion as to the necessity and probable result of legislation looking to the more thorough restriction of prostitution in the city of New York,” the Sanitary Committee, which is composed of three honest, able, and experienced physicians, have reported in favor of such legislation as is resorted to in the great cities of continental Europe, where they say it has been found necessary for the control of those by whom the evil is encouraged and sustained. The report is sensible and temperate. It deals in no extravagances, preaches no high moralities, leaves sentiment to those whose duty is to deepen and purify it, and very properly confines its attention to the measures by which society, acting through laws and public officials, may restrain the evil within certain well-defined limits, may keep it under police and medical inspection, and may diminish to some extent its disastrous effects on the health and, indirectly, on the order and peace of the community. The committee justly regard the evil as a fact, whose permanent removal or even essential reduction is not in question, the causes of which lie in voracious and permanent appetites which do not materially change in their character or their vehemence, and which will, under one form or another, have their way. It does not appear that the magnitude of the evil varies much in different years, though it certainly varies in different climates and in different communities. It would not be difficult, probably, to determine the conditions of its increase or decrease at any particular time or place. Its existence is at least as old as civilization, and, so far as we can see, will be as long-lived as civilization under its actual forms. It is to be reckoned among the fixed causes of mischief in society, and it is as such that it is to be dealt with.

All attempts at the sudden eradication of such an evil must, therefore, be fruitless. Its causes cannot be reached by any agencies at our command. Nothing less than the moral regeneration of individual men and women will go deep enough to touch its roots. And the moral regeneration of men and women is a thing to be prayed for, hoped for, labored for; but it is not a thing to be assumed or reckoned on for immediate effect. Ages hence, centuries on centuries hence, when knowledge, refinement, culture, religion shall have produced an amount of respect for personal character, for the laws of health and happiness, for the mutual rights and dignities of persons, for standards of purity undreamed of now, the roots of this hideous vice may die from lack of nourishment. At present little or nothing is doing to effect such a result.

The attempt to suppress the evil would be as fruitless as the efforts to extirpate it. Were all the officinas of lust closed to-morrow, the houses of assignation and prostitution, the dance-houses and concert-saloons, the “bar-houses” and “parlor-houses,” lust would still burn, the purveyors of lust would still find means for plying their infamous trade, still the victims of lust would die and spread pollution all around them. There is reason for thinking that, as things are, many of these resorts escape the vigilance of the police. Superintendent Kennedy gives the whole number of public prostitutes in New York as 2,574; the number of houses and saloons as 697. But another authority, more familiar it may be presumed with the facts, because concerned professionally with the interests of the traffic, gives the number of houses as 773, at the least. The number of inmates of “parlor houses” and “bar-houses” alone he estimates at 4,600; the “street-walkers” are set down at 6,000; and the total of criminal women at not less than 12,000. It is difficult to understand how such an immense discrepancy in statistics could exist between recognized authorities, and we are inclined to believe that the latter statement is perhaps exaggerated and the former incomplete. Still, making all possible allowance for exaggeration on the one side and for incompleteness on the other, we are constrained to think that the evil succeeds already in eluding to some extent the scrutiny of the police. The extent to which it might elude it, therefore, is quite incalculable. There is great reason for supposing that it would flourish in spite of the most strenuous efforts at suppression, retiring into deeper and deeper shadow as it was pursued, and becoming more virulent and deadly the more secret it became.

Seeing, then, that the evil can neither be eradicated nor suppressed, but one course remains to be pursued, and that is the course recommended by the Sanitary Committee, namely, to accept the mischief as a fact, to recognize its existence by the authorities, to place it under official inspection and regulation, with a view to the utmost possible diminution of its deadly effects. By this means some beneficial results may be attained. The physical disease engendered will be greatly reduced in amount and in violence. The class of bad women will comprise none but those who will consent to be registered as such; the pavement will be cleared of the “street-walkers;” the eyes of decent people will be spared the disgusting and demoralizing sight of depravity in its most degrading aspect, and we shall have the satisfaction of knowing that the sin, while covered up and driven to its haunts, is under such treatment as it is in a condition to receive at the hands of the ministers of the public order and the public health. We have not before us the data requisite to show the extent to which these desirable results have attended the experience of Continental cities, but they must ensue from the very nature of things, in some degree. Owners of houses would be more regardful of the character of their tenants, and would take more pains than they do to prevent their being sublet for infamous purposes. The police would be enabled to close many houses that are made the primary schools of vice, and in that way would have it in their power to stop some portion of the evil in its early stages. Registration would in some measure check resort to the houses on the part of those who might dread even the notion of publicity; and the kind of legitimacy that would be affixed to the vice might possibly, by making it less attractive to the imagination, make it less universal in practice. The objections to this method of dealing with the evil in question are, to our minds, rather specious than powerful. They seem to be based on the idea that an evil which legislation takes cognizance of is to that extent withdrawn from moral rebuke and protected from moral assault. To reason against such an impression as that would be idle, for there is no reason in it to combat. Society, through legislation, merely protects itself against a mischief, which is all it can do or has a right to do in its organized capacity; it does not pretend to assail a sin. That duty devolves on the sociologists, the moralists, the preachers, and other guardians of the public ethics; and it is a duty from which they are in no manner or degree absolved. On the contrary, they are enabled to fulfil it with a more encouraging hope of success, for they undertake it with a better knowledge of its proportions, a more complete acquaintance with its conditions, and with the intelligent co-operation of the ministers of justice. To acknowledge a vice is not to applaud it. To circumscribe a mischief is not to approve of it. To allow the practice of an abomination within certain fixed limits is not to sanction it. The allowance within the limits is a prohibition beyond them, and that prohibition fastens reproach on the evil that is so confined.

A more singular objection has been raised against the regulation of the social vice by law, on the ground that it interferes with the operation of those natural laws by which divine Providence inflicts punishment on physical and social transgression. God, it is said, has decreed terrible penalties for this peculiar iniquity; sickness and disease, rotting of the bones, prostration of the nervous system, imbecility of mind, idiocy, beastliness, the loss of reputation, domestic misery, social degradation, the ruin of all that makes manhood and womanhood, the degeneracy and decay of offspring, the transmission of the frightful curse of tainted blood to the third and fourth generation; by legalizing the vice, you make it safe to practise it; and by making it safe to practise it, you thwart the divine intention, elude the divine justice, and release mankind from that salutary terror and that saving doom which are the conditions of their progress towards virtue; it would be wiser to stand aside and let God’s vengeance have full play on the miserable offenders; instead of shielding them, we should thrust them out into the full tempest of wrath; instead of sending physicians to guard them from disease and to arrest the contagion they engender, we should pray that every horrible consequence of their sin might be tenfold more horrible than it is; we should rejoice in their destruction, and wish it could be so swift and sure that it would come upon them in a moment and smite them dead.

But, if the destruction is not so swift or horrible, if the consequences are not so instant and appalling, if the divine laws do not execute themselves by such summary vengeance, what then? Society must be protected against disease and disorder, and if “natural laws” will not protect it, it must protect itself by resorting to human laws. And the “natural laws” do not protect it. Long before government thought of restraining the social vice, long before legislation took cognizance of it, long before it occurred to anybody to have an oversight of it, or to inspect the traffic in it, these “natural laws” were in full force. They were enacted when the organization of man was built; they were published when that organization began to perform its functions; they were executed at the first time of its violation. Still, the crime we speak of had a beginning. Beauty was blighted, strength decayed, happiness ruined, life wasted, virtue spoiled; still the sin went on. Communities were menaced with devastation, still the iniquity prevailed. Human law did not prevent or anticipate natural law; it came after it; it stepped in because natural law was insufficient, and there was necessity for supplementing its force. The bare fact is that God does not visit the sin with swift and sudden vengeance. If he did, we might leave the matter to him. His mills grind slowly. The penalties he inflicts are indirect, far-off, uncertain; too subtle, often, to be felt by any but the finely organized and sensitive. They work underground or overhead; they leap intervals. The ignorant know nothing about them; the instructed hit on expedients for evading them; the reckless defy them. Terrible as they are, and sure as they are, ultimately, to fall, the consciences of passionate men are not touched by them. The terror of them is seen when we look back; but appetite looks forward.

To most men it is human law that makes divine law palpable; and reasonably enough, too, for man is a part of Providence; his action is a part of the action of Providence. The natural laws are not in full operation till man comes in with his intelligent determination and will, and applies such directing and restraining power as he possesses to the regulation of his private and social life. To strike the human element out of the elements that control human existence would make existence inhuman, and condemn men and women to the animal economies of the beasts. Legislation does what it can to interpret the natural laws, and government does what it can to execute them. We are very sure, for our part, that if men did not interfere to regulate vices like intemperance and licentiousness, other laws than those ordinarily called the “laws of God” would begin to play uncontrolled, and the communities of mankind would rapidly degenerate into bestiality. If we must let prostitution work out its own doom, we must let drunkenness do the same. We must not arrest, prosecute, or punish any offenders; we must give evil of every sort its full swing, in hope that having sufficient rope it will hang itself, as no doubt it will — but society will find its neck caught tight in the same noose. It may be that legislation should do no more than is necessary for the protection of the community from danger, but less than that we do not see how it can do. For the rest we must look to intelligence, affection, conscience, and all the other elements of moral power stimulated to their highest action. It may be very humiliating to reflect that at this epoch of the world a civilized and Christian people can do no more than legalize, inspect, and register a sin like this, throw a few disinfectants upon it and provide against its outrageousness; but to blink facts is no way to escape the humiliation; the only remedy for that is virtue. The awful consequences of this kind of sin have made it necessary to put it under the ban of law. That may not be much, but it is something. The time will yet come when we shall so revolt against it as to put it effectually under the ban of the moral judgment.

THE BEECHES, November, 1863.

I have been deeply interested in several communications in the TIMES on the subject of women and their work. It has been my lot to take some part in raising at least my voice in favor of many institutions for the improvement of society, and am profoundly interested in the condition of women. The wholesale, awful degradation of women by slavery was, I thought, the first great wrong to be got rid of. But when that is done, as I trust and believe it will be, there will be a great work to be done in free society; before we can believe ourselves even half-way Christians. Ought one woman in New-York to want work, if she is willing to do it? Ought any woman to be compelled to work on starvation wages in a country like this? MONTESQUIEU said that the holders of negro slaves were obliged to prove that the negroes were inferior animals, or they could not themselves claim to be Christians. I am afraid that if the proletaire classes of our cities continue to be as large, and increase as fast, we shall have to prove that they exist by an eternal necessity, in order to excuse ourselves for their existence. Let me say to you, that one of the ablest statisticians in the world, says that "society prepares the crime of which the criminal is the instrument." Is this true? If so, what a tremendous responsibility rests upon every thinking, intelligent man in the City of New-York! I am thoroughly convinced that it is true, and that the elementary principles of society in this country are, in some respects, wrong; and that wrong flows, in some degree, from our Democratic institutions. The question is how can we correct that wrong, without impairing our institutions? I think that the principles of Christianity are amply sufficient, if properly applied. If men will study their Bibles, as much as they do the speeches of empty-headed political demagogues, they will learn, not merely religion, but the scientific principles of a perfect society -- principles which have never been violated with impunity. But, as I can go into no general disquisition, I will confine myself here to two or three facts. In the first place, we must remember that charitable institutions relieve suffering, which it is our duty to do; but correct no wrongs, and in some cases are positively injurious. Foundling hospitals are a premium on vice, and it may be questioned whether Magdalen asylums are any better; or even lying-in hospitals. This subject was brought, to my notice by a lady, who said that institutions, which furnished a home and support to open vice, were a premium upon, it; and that Penitentiaries, instead of being large, handsome buildings, as is now the fashion, should be underground -- the principle being that vice and crime should never be made comfortable and pleasant. To save life, bind up wounds, and give food, is our duty; but we ought not to make it easier to live in vice and crime than in virtue.

In the next place, with reference to women's wages, we should observe that they are naturally lower than men, because woman is naturally the weaker vessel. Her work will not command so much as men's in the market. The world is a hard master, but perhaps not altogether wrong in treating labor as a marketable commodity, to be taken at its just value.

In the next place, women must not be complained of for seeking marriage, whether for "relief" or not. Marriage is her natural condition, and ought to be the happiest and best. It is her natural destiny, for which no other can be substituted with any prospect of bettering her state. Hard as the condition of a wife often is, either from the vices of her husband or the peculiarities of our country, it is nevertheless, in a great majority of instances, the very best to which a woman can attain. Why should she remain a solitary sewing woman if she can get a decent husband?

Again, the want of varied employment for women is by no means so great as it was. Being recently in Cincinnati, I had occasion to observe this. In dry goods and fancy stores, half the attendants were women. In the binderies, shoe stores, &c., most of the workpeople are women; while in the great factories, where Government clothing is made, women are employed by thousands. In fact, a young woman of this class tosses up her head at the idea of doing housework! Not she! She can get double the wages by sewing for her illustrious uncle, and enjoy the freedom of the city, if not of the pave. And now I come to a paragraph of your lady correspondent "Impartial," in the TIMES of the 22d, which contains, I fear, the root of the whole matter:

"Higher wages is not the chief inducement with them; the greater personal liberty -- the freedom from restraint -- they fancy a desirable exchange for domestic regulations and the eye of the mistress and family influence. If family service was more encouraged, and home influence versus wages, not altogether lost sight of by female philanthropists, there would be less occasion for the institutions that are yearly coming into existence, for the rescue of female victims."

Never was a truer saying than that. The worm is eating at the root, while you are applying remedies at the branches. I like what you say of the institutions of the State, School and Church; but, let us all remember that before either of these was the Institution of the Family! It is the earliest, holiest and the best of all institutions. It was the first priest, and the first church, and the first teacher, and the first ruler; and around it are gathered all that is beautiful and lovely upon earth. If you make the family right, the State and Church will need no mending. The lady "Impartial" is right. Thousands of these poor young women go, for the love of liberty, "freedom from restraint," -- to get rid of "family influence," and "domestic regulations." They go, like their brothers, to enjoy Democratic license. They go, because like men they are sinners, and prefer pleasure to self-denial, vanity to humility. It is but a common exhibition of a common depravity. Then what shall be done to correct it? We must do what the Scriptures teach; begin in the family. Restrain the children. Do exactly what most people in this country don't do -- teach the children restraint. Now, let us be frank and acknowledge that the precepts and examples of our Democratic institutions are against wholesome family restraints, and that a large portion of the boys and girls who have come to evil, have come so for want of family discipline. Is there a gray-headed man in the City of New-York who cannot tell you how much those old virtues, obedience, reverence, respect to superiors, conformity to law, have declined? Every young girl asked to be a chambermaid, pertly replies: "I am as good as you; I won't eat in your kitchen." Every boy in New-York is taught that he may be President, and if he may, why not begin now and flout at his elders and betters? And if every Democrat is fit to be President, why not set aside the Conscription law, and equalize property? The mobs of New-York begin in your schools and families. The doctrines which your demagogues teach the people were learned at home, and carried out on the very principles inculcated?

Now, in regard to the woman question, what is the remedy? It seems to me, as I said, that if all Christian people would practice Christianity, a great part of the evil would be done away. This consists not only in training, but in something else equally important -- to treat the domestics of the family as if they were friends -- persons who are under our care, for whom we are responsible. Here is one point in which our democracy fails. It fails to provide for dependants, and in this respect is inferior to the old usages of the feudal system. Then there was a system of mutual dependence. But we know nothing but the iron rule of wages and law. That won't do in the Christian system. The superior must provide for the well-being of the inferior; and, until then the dangerous classes will increase, till society is reformed. A VETERAN OBSERVER.

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