The World Grows Better
Record of Inhumanities That Have Been Corrected Proves That Human Nature Has Improved
Roger William Rule, In Liberty,
from: The Milwaukie Journal, December 10, 1941, p. 17
A healthy perspective on history gives convincing testimony that human naturehaschanged,andis changing. for the better. When Shakespeare wrote and Drake sailed every man carried a lethal weapon and went about prepared to kill or be killed. Nobles sported three foot swords, the lesser gentry 12 inch daggers or ponderous clubs. Cut-throats roamed through London, plundering and killing with impunity. The strong were boastful, drunken and murderous; the weak were voiceless and unchampioned.
Care of the insane, the halt and the blind was unknown. Lunatics were chained in dungeons or exposed in cages to public view: sometimes they were thrown into a pit of snakes "to bring them back to their senses." Sadism disfigured the games of the day. At local fairs men fought each other with heavy clubs, the combat ending when one was beaten to insensibility.
The cruelties of yesterday were nowhere better exhibited than on the high seas. Herman Melville's "White Jacket" describes how in the United States navy a man could be flogged till his bones gleamed white. Publication of "White Jacket" in 1850 led our navy to abolish flogging, but merchant sailors were shredded piecemeal by the "cat" as late as 1870.
More murderous yet was the practice of keelhauling, common among American whaling shipsduring the first half of the nineteenth century. To keelhaul a man, you tied him to a rope that had been passed under the ship's bottom. His shipmates pulled at the other end or the rope, drugging the victim overboard under the keel and up the other side of the hull, while the barnacles lacerated him to ribbons. Sometimes, mercifully, he was drowned.
As late as 1820 indentured servants were virtual slaves; years of hard labor had to be served before the wretch could win his freedom. Meanwhile, the master could beat him, systematically starve him, and shoot him if he tried to escape. Popular punishment for minor offenses was the chopping of ears, maiming and branding.
In the England of Charles Dickens the lot of the apprentice was drudgery and frank physical abuse. Children of 4 worked in coal mines. In New York during Theodore Roosevelt's early manhood the "padrone" system enabled unscrupulous men to send small boys into the streets as bootblacks and peddlers, then collect their small earnings and herd the children into a filthy pen for the night.
Imprisonment for debt was universal in the United States until 1820. In foul prisons debtors were locked in the same cell with murderers. thieves and degenerates; they starved, froze androtted together -- unless they could purchase favors from the warden.
For all its jangling discords. human nature is becoming a mellower, better toned instrument.