Letter 19


People :

Author : Mary Wollstonecraft

Text :

Business having obliged me to go a few miles out of town this morning I was surprised at meeting a crowd of people of every description, and inquiring the cause of a servant, who spoke French, I was informed that a man had been executed two hours before, and the body afterwards burnt.  I could not help looking with horror around—the fields lost their verdure—and I turned with disgust from the well-dressed women who were returning with their children from this sight.  What a spectacle for humanity!  The seeing such a flock of idle gazers plunged me into a train of reflections on the pernicious effects produced by false notions of justice.  And I am persuaded that till capital punishments are entirely abolished executions ought to have every appearance of horror given to them, instead of being, as they are now, a scene of amusement for the gaping crowd, where sympathy is quickly effaced by curiosity.

I have always been of opinion that the allowing actors to die in the presence of the audience has an immoral tendency, but trifling when compared with the ferocity acquired by viewing the reality as a show; for it seems to me that in all countries the common people go to executions to see how the poor wretch plays his part, rather than to commiserate his fate, much less to think of the breach of morality which has brought him to such a deplorable end.  Consequently executions, far from being useful examples to the survivors, have, I am persuaded, a quite contrary effect, by hardening the heart they ought to terrify.  Besides the fear of an ignominious death, I believe, never deferred anyone from the commission of a crime, because, in committing it, the mind is roused to activity about present circumstances.  It is a game at hazard, at which all expect the turn of the die in their own favor, never reflecting on the chance of ruin till it comes.  In fact, from what I saw in the fortresses of Norway, I am more and more convinced that the same energy of character which renders a man a daring villain would have rendered him useful to society, had that society been well organized.  When a strong mind is not disciplined by cultivation it is a sense of injustice that renders it unjust.

Executions, however, occur very rarely at Copenhagen; for timidity, rather than clemency, palsies all the operations of the present Government.  The malefactor who died this morning would not, probably, have been punished with death at any other period; but an incendiary excites universal execration; and as the greater part of the inhabitants are still distressed by the late conflagration, an example was thought absolutely necessary; though, from what I can gather, the fire was accidental.

Not, but that I have very seriously been informed, that combustible materials were placed at proper distance, by the emissaries of Mr. Pitt; and, to corroborate the fact, many people insist that the flames burst out at once in different parts of the city; not allowing the wind to have any hand in it.  So much for the plot.  But the fabricators of plots in all countries build their conjectures on the “baseless fabric of a vision;” and it seems even a sort of poetical justice, that whilst this Minister is crushing at home plots of his own conjuring up, on the Continent, and in the north, he should, with as little foundation, be accused of wishing to set the world on fire.

I forgot to mention to you, that I was informed, by a man of veracity, that two persons came to the stake to drink a glass of the criminal’s blood, as an infallible remedy for the apoplexy.  And when I animadverted in the company, where it was mentioned, on such a horrible violation of nature, a Danish lady reproved me very severely, asking how I knew that it was not a cure for the disease? adding, that every attempt was justifiable in search of health.  I did not, you may imagine, enter into an argument with a person the slave of such a gross prejudice.  And I allude to it not only as a trait of the ignorance of the people, but to censure the Government for not preventing scenes that throw an odium on the human race.

Empiricism is not peculiar to Denmark; and I know no way of rooting it out, though it be a remnant of exploded witchcraft, till the acquiring a general knowledge of the component parts of the human frame becomes a part of public education.

Since the fire, the inhabitants have been very assiduously employed in searching for property secreted during the confusion; and it is astonishing how many people, formerly termed reputable, had availed themselves of the common calamity to purloin what the flames spared.  Others, expert at making a distinction without a difference, concealed what they found, not troubling themselves to inquire for the owners, though they scrupled to search for plunder anywhere, but among the ruins.

To be honester than the laws require is by most people thought a work of supererogation; and to slip through the grate of the law has ever exercised the abilities of adventurers, who wish to get rich the shortest way.  Knavery without personal danger is an art brought to great perfection by the statesman and swindler; and meaner knaves are not tardy in following their footsteps.

It moves my gall to discover some of the commercial frauds practiced during the present war.  In short, under whatever point of view I consider society, it appears to me that an adoration of property is the root of all evil.  Here it does not render the people enterprising, as in America, but thrifty and cautious.  I never, therefore, was in a capital where there was so little appearance of active industry; and as for gaiety, I looked in vain for the sprightly gait of the Norwegians, who in every respect appear to me to have got the start of them.  This difference I attribute to their having more liberty—a liberty which they think their right by inheritance, whilst the Danes, when they boast of their negative happiness, always mention it as the boon of the Prince Royal, under the superintending wisdom of Count Bernstorff.  Vassalage is nevertheless ceasing throughout the kingdom, and with it will pass away that sordid avarice which every modification of slavery is calculated to produce.

If the chief use of property be power, in the shape of the respect it procures, is it not among the inconsistencies of human nature most incomprehensible, that men should find a pleasure in hoarding up property which they steal from their necessities, even when they are convinced that it would be dangerous to display such an enviable superiority?  Is not this the situation of serfs in every country.  Yet a rapacity to accumulate money seems to become stronger in proportion as it is allowed to be useless.

Wealth does not appear to be sought for among the Danes, to obtain the excellent luxuries of life, for a want of taste is very conspicuous at Copenhagen; so much so that I am not surprised to hear that poor Matilda offended the rigid Lutherans by aiming to refine their pleasures.  The elegance which she wished to introduce was termed lasciviousness; yet I do not find that the absence of gallantry renders the wives more chaste, or the husbands more constant.  Love here seems to corrupt the morals without polishing the manners, by banishing confidence and truth, the charm as well as cement of domestic life.  A gentleman, who has resided in this city some time, assures me that he could not find language to give me an idea of the gross debaucheries into which the lower order of people fall; and the promiscuous amours of the men of the middling class with their female servants debase both beyond measure, weakening every species of family affection.

I have everywhere been struck by one characteristic difference in the conduct of the two sexes; women, in general, are seduced by their superiors, and men jilted by their inferiors: rank and manners awe the one, and cunning and wantonness subjugate the other; ambition creeping into the woman’s passion, and tyranny giving force to the man’s, for most men treat their mistresses as kings do their favorites: ergo is not man then the tyrant of the creation?

Still harping on the same subject, you will exclaim—How can I avoid it, when most of the struggles of an eventful life have been occasioned by the oppressed state of my sex?  We reason deeply when we feel forcibly.

But to return to the straight road of observation.  The sensuality so prevalent appears to me to arise rather from indolence of mind and dull senses, than from an exuberance of life, which often fructifies the whole character when the vivacity of youthful spirits begins to subside into strength of mind.

I have before mentioned that the men are domestic tyrants, considering them as fathers, brothers, or husbands; but there is a kind of interregnum between the reign of the father and husband which is the only period of freedom and pleasure that the women enjoy.  Young people who are attached to each other, with the consent of their friends, exchange rings, and are permitted to enjoy a degree of liberty together which I have never noticed in any other country.  The days of courtship are, therefore, prolonged till it be perfectly convenient to marry: the intimacy often becomes very tender; and if the lover obtain the privilege of a husband, it can only be termed half by stealth, because the family is willfully blind.  It happens very rarely that these honorary engagements are dissolved or disregarded, a stigma being attached to a breach of faith which is thought more disgraceful, if not so criminal, as the violation of the marriage-vow.

Do not forget that, in my general observations, I do not pretend to sketch a national character, but merely to note the present state of morals and manners as I trace the progress of the world’s improvement.  Because, during my residence in different countries, my principal object has been to take such a dispassionate view of men as will lead me to form a just idea of the nature of man.  And, to deal ingenuously with you, I believe I should have been less severe in the remarks I have made on the vanity and depravity of the French, had I traveled towards the north before I visited France.

The interesting picture frequently drawn of the virtues of a rising people has, I fear, been fallacious, excepting the accounts of the enthusiasm which various public struggles have produced.  We talk of the depravity of the French, and lay a stress on the old age of the nation; yet where has more virtuous enthusiasm been displayed than during the two last years by the common people of France, and in their armies?  I am obliged sometimes to recollect the numberless instances which I have either witnessed, or heard well authenticated, to balance the account of horrors, alas! but too true.  I am, therefore, inclined to believe that the gross vices which I have always seem allied with simplicity of manners, are the concomitants of ignorance.

What, for example, has piety, under the heathen or Christian system, been, but a blind faith in things contrary to the principles of reason?  And could poor reason make considerable advances when it was reckoned the highest degree of virtue to do violence to its dictates?  Lutherans, preaching reformation, have built a reputation for sanctity on the same foundation as the Catholics; yet I do not perceive that a regular attendance on public worship, and their other observances, make them a whit more true in their affections, or honest in their private transactions.  It seems, indeed, quite as easy to prevaricate with religious injunctions as human laws, when the exercise of their reason does not lead people to acquire principles for themselves to be the criterion of all those they receive from others.

If traveling, as the completion of a liberal education, were to be adopted on rational grounds, the northern states ought to be visited before the more polished parts of Europe, to serve as the elements even of the knowledge of manners, only to be acquired by tracing the various shades in different countries.  But, when visiting distant climes, a momentary social sympathy should not be allowed to influence the conclusions of the understanding, for hospitality too frequently leads travelers, especially those who travel in search of pleasure, to make a false estimate of the virtues of a nation, which, I am now convinced, bear an exact proportion to their scientific improvements.


From : Gutenberg.org.

Chronology :

November 30, 1795 : Letter 19 -- Publication.

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