Ambrose Bierce.

The Collected Works of Ambrose Bierce, Volume 1 online

. (page 1 of 18)
Online LibraryAmbrose BierceThe Collected Works of Ambrose Bierce, Volume 1 → online text (page 1 of 18)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


Produced by Jonathan Ingram, Barbara Tozier and the PG Online
Distributed Proofreading Team





THE COLLECTED WORKS OF



AMBROSE BIERCE



VOLUME 1

1909




CONTENTS


ASHES OF THE BEACON

THE LAND BEYOND THE BLOW
THITHER
SONS OF THE FAIR STAR
AN INTERVIEW WITH GNARMAG-ZOTE
THE TAMTONIANS
MAROONED ON UG
THE DOG IN GANGEWAG
A CONFLAGRATION IN GHARGAROO
AN EXECUTION IN BATRUGIA
THE JUMJUM OF GOKEETLE-GUK
THE KINGDOM OF TORTIRRA
HITHER

FOR THE AHKOOND

JOHN SMITH, LIBERATOR

BITS OF AUTOBIOGRAPHY
ON A MOUNTAIN
WHAT I SAW OF SHILOH
A LITTLE OF CHICKAMAUCA
THE CRIME AT PICKETT'S MILL
FOUR DAYS IN DIXIE
WHAT OCCURRED AT FRANKLIN
'WAY DOWN IN ALABAM'
WORKING FOR AN EMPRESS
ACROSS THE PLAINS
THE MIRAGE
A SOLE SURVIVOR




ASHES OF THE BEACON




ASHES OF THE BEACON

AN HISTORICAL MONOGRAPH WRITTEN IN 4930


Of the many causes that conspired to bring about the lamentable failure of
"self-government" in ancient America the most general and comprehensive
was, of course, the impracticable nature of the system itself. In the
light of modern culture, and instructed by history, we readily discern the
folly of those crude ideas upon which the ancient Americans based what
they knew as "republican institutions," and maintained, as long as
maintenance was possible, with something of a religious fervor, even when
the results were visibly disastrous. To us of to-day it is clear that the
word "self-government" involves a contradiction, for government means
control by something other than the thing to be controlled. When the thing
governed is the same as the thing governing there is no government, though
for a time there may be, as in the case under consideration there was, a
considerable degree of forbearance, giving a misleading appearance of
public order. This, however, soon must, as in fact it soon did, pass away
with the delusion that gave it birth. The habit of obedience to written
law, inculcated by generations of respect for actual government able to
enforce its authority, will persist for a long time, with an ever
lessening power upon the imagination of the people; but there comes a time
when the tradition is forgotten and the delusion exhausted. When men
perceive that nothing is restraining them but their consent to be
restrained, then at last there is nothing to obstruct the free play of
that selfishness which is the dominant characteristic and fundamental
motive of human nature and human action respectively. Politics, which may
have had something of the character of a contest of principles, becomes a
struggle of interests, and its methods are frankly serviceable to personal
and class advantage. Patriotism and respect for law pass like a tale that
is told. Anarchy, no longer disguised as "government by consent," reveals
his hidden hand, and in the words of our greatest living poet,

lets the curtain fall,
And universal darkness buries all!

The ancient Americans were a composite people; their blood was a blend of
all the strains known in their time. Their government, while they had one,
being merely a loose and mutable expression of the desires and caprices of
the majority - that is to say, of the ignorant, restless and reckless - gave
the freest rein and play to all the primal instincts and elemental
passions of the race. In so far and for so long as it had any restraining
force, it was only the restraint of the present over the power of the
past - that of a new habit over an old and insistent tendency ever seeking
expression in large liberties and indulgences impatient of control. In the
history of that unhappy people, therefore, we see unveiled the workings of
the human will in its most lawless state, without fear of authority or
care of consequence. Nothing could be more instructive.

Of the American form of government, although itself the greatest of evils
afflicting the victims of those that it entailed, but little needs to be
said here; it has perished from the earth, a system discredited by an
unbroken record of failure in all parts of the world, from the earliest
historic times to its final extinction. Of living students of political
history not one professes to see in it anything but a mischievous creation
of theorists and visionaries - persons whom our gracious sovereign has
deigned to brand for the world's contempt as "dupes of hope purveying to
sons of greed." The political philosopher of to-day is spared the trouble
of pointing out the fallacies of republican government, as the
mathematician is spared that of demonstrating the absurdity of the
convergence of parallel lines; yet the ancient Americans not only clung to
their error with a blind, unquestioning faith, even when groaning under
its most insupportable burdens, but seem to have believed it of divine
origin. It was thought by them to have been established by the god
Washington, whose worship, with that of such _dii minores_ as Gufferson,
Jaxon and Lincon (identical probably with the Hebru Abrem) runs like a
shining thread through all the warp and woof of the stuff that garmented
their moral nakedness. Some stones, very curiously inscribed in many
tongues, were found by the explorer Droyhors in the wilderness bordering
the river Bhitt (supposed by him to be the ancient Potomac) as lately as
the reign of Barukam IV. These stones appear to be fragments of a monument
or temple erected to the glory of Washington in his divine character of
Founder and Preserver of republican institutions. If this tutelary deity
of the ancient Americans really invented representative government they
were not the first by many to whom he imparted the malign secret of its
inauguration and denied that of its maintenance.

Although many of the causes which finally, in combination, brought about
the downfall of the great American republic were in operation from the
beginning - being, as has been said, inherent in the system - it was not
until the year 1995 (as the ancients for some reason not now known
reckoned time) that the collapse of the vast, formless fabric was
complete. In that year the defeat and massacre of the last army of law and
order in the lava beds of California extinguished the final fires of
enlightened patriotism and quenched in blood the monarchical revival.
Thenceforth armed opposition to anarchy was confined to desultory and
insignificant warfare waged by small gangs of mercenaries in the service
of wealthy individuals and equally feeble bands of prescripts fighting for
their lives. In that year, too, "the Three Presidents" were driven from
their capitals, Cincinnati, New Orleans and Duluth, their armies
dissolving by desertion and themselves meeting death at the hands of the
populace.

The turbulent period between 1920 and 1995, with its incalculable waste of
blood and treasure, its dreadful conflicts of armies and more dreadful
massacres by passionate mobs, its kaleidoscopic changes of government and
incessant effacement and redrawing of boundaries of states, its
interminable tale of political assassinations and proscriptions - all the
horrors incident to intestinal wars of a naturally lawless race - had so
exhausted and dispirited the surviving protagonists of legitimate
government that they could make no further head against the inevitable,
and were glad indeed and most fortunate to accept life on any terms that
they could obtain.

But the purpose of this sketch is not bald narration of historic fact, but
examination of antecedent germinal conditions; not to recount calamitous
events familiar to students of that faulty civilization, but to trace, as
well as the meager record will permit, the genesis and development of the
causes that brought them about. Historians in our time have left little
undone in the matter of narration of political and military phenomena. In
Golpek's "Decline and Fall of the American Republics," in Soseby's
"History of Political Fallacies," in Holobom's "Monarchical Renasence,"
and notably in Gunkux's immortal work, "The Rise, Progress, Failure and
Extinction of The Connected States of America" the fruits of research have
been garnered, a considerable harvest. The events are set forth with such
conscientiousness and particularity as to have exhausted the possibilities
of narration. It remains only to expound causes and point the awful moral.

To a delinquent observation it may seem needless to point out the inherent
defects of a system of government which the logic of events has swept like
political rubbish from the face of the earth, but we must not forget that
ages before the inception of the American republics and that of France and
Ireland this form of government had been discredited by emphatic failures
among the most enlightened and powerful nations of antiquity: the Greeks,
the Romans, and long before them (as we now know) the Egyptians and the
Chinese. To the lesson of these failures the founders of the eighteenth
and nineteenth century republics were blind and deaf. Have we then reason
to believe that our posterity will be wiser because instructed by a
greater number of examples? And is the number of examples which they will
have in memory really greater? Already the instances of China, Egypt,
Greece and Rome are almost lost in the mists of antiquity; they are known,
except by infrequent report, to the archæologist only, and but dimly and
uncertainly to him. The brief and imperfect record of yesterdays which we
call History is like that traveling vine of India which, taking new root
as it advances, decays at one end while it grows at the other, and so is
constantly perishing and finally lost in all the spaces which it has
over-passed.

From the few and precious writings that have descended to us from the
early period of the American republic we get a clear if fragmentary view
of the disorders and lawlessness affecting that strange and unhappy
nation. Leaving the historically famous "labor troubles" for more extended
consideration, we may summarize here a few of the results of hardly more
than a century and a quarter of "self-government" as it existed on this
continent just previously to the awful end. At the beginning of the
"twentieth century" a careful study by trustworthy contemporary
statisticians of the public records and those apparently private ones
known as "newspapers" showed that in a population of about 80,000,000 the
annual number of homicides was not less than 10,000; and this continued
year after year to increase, not only absolutely, but proportionately,
until, in the words of Dumbleshaw, who is thought to have written his
famous "Memoirs of a Survivor" in the year 1908 of their era, "it would
seem that the practice of suicide is a needless custom, for if a man but
have patience his neighbor is sure to put him out of his misery." Of the
10,000 assassins less than three per cent. were punished, further than by
incidental imprisonment if unable to give bail while awaiting trial. If
the chief end of government is the citizen's security of life and his
protection from aggression, what kind of government do these appalling
figures disclose? Yet so infatuated with their imaginary "liberty" were
these singular people that the contemplation of all this crime abated
nothing of the volume and persistence of their patriotic ululations, and
affected not their faith in the perfection of their system. They were like
a man standing on a rock already submerged by the rising tide, and calling
to his neighbors on adjacent cliffs to observe his superior security.

When three men engage in an undertaking in which they have an equal
interest, and in the direction of which they have equal power, it
necessarily results that any action approved by two of them, with or
without the assent of the third, will be taken. This is called - or was
called when it was an accepted principle in political and other
affairs - "the rule of the majority." Evidently, under the malign
conditions supposed, it is the only practicable plan of getting anything
done. A and B rule and overrule C, not because they ought, but because
they can; not because they are wiser, but because they are stronger. In
order to avoid a conflict in which he is sure to be worsted, C submits as
soon as the vote is taken. C is as likely to be right as A and B; nay,
that eminent ancient philosopher, Professor Richard A. Proctor (or
Proroctor, as the learned now spell the name), has clearly shown by the
law of probabilities that any one of the three, all being of the same
intelligence, is far likelier to be right than the other two.

It is thus that the "rule of the majority" as a political system is
established. It is in essence nothing but the discredited and
discreditable principle that "might makes right"; but early in the life of
a republic this essential character of government by majority is not seen.
The habit of submitting all questions of policy to the arbitrament of
counting noses and assenting without question to the result invests the
ordeal with a seeming sanctity, and what was at first obeyed as the
command of power comes to be revered as the oracle of wisdom. The
innumerable instances - such as the famous ones of Galileo and Keeley - in
which one man has been right and all the rest of the race wrong, are
overlooked, or their significance missed, and "public opinion" is followed
as a divine and infallible guide through every bog into which it blindly
stumbles and over every precipice in its fortuitous path. Clearly, sooner
or later will be encountered a bog that will smother or a precipice that
will crush. Thoroughly to apprehend the absurdity of the ancient faith in
the wisdom of majorities let the loyal reader try to fancy our gracious
Sovereign by any possibility wrong, or his unanimous Ministry by any
possibility right!

During the latter half of the "nineteenth century" there arose in the
Connected States a political element opposed to all government, which
frankly declared its object to be anarchy. This astonishing heresy was not
of indigenous growth: its seeds were imported from Europe by the
emigration or banishment thence of criminals congenitally incapable of
understanding and valuing the blessings of monarchical institutions, and
whose method of protest was murder. The governments against which they
conspired in their native lands were too strong in authority and too
enlightened in policy for them to overthrow. Hundreds of them were put to
death, thousands imprisoned and sent into exile. But in America, whither
those who escaped fled for safety, they found conditions entirely
favorable to the prosecution of their designs.

A revered fetish of the Americans was "freedom of speech": it was believed
that if bad men were permitted to proclaim their evil wishes they would go
no further in the direction of executing them - that if they might say what
they would like to do they would not care to do it. The close relation
between speech and action was not understood. Because the Americans
themselves had long been accustomed, in their own political debates and
discussions, to the use of unmeaning declamations and threats which they
had no intention of executing, they reasoned that others were like them,
and attributed to the menaces of these desperate and earnest outcasts no
greater importance than to their own. They thought also that the foreign
anarchists, having exchanged the tyranny of kings for that of majorities,
would be content with their new and better lot and become in time good and
law-abiding citizens.

The anarchist of that far day (thanks to the firm hands of our gracious
sovereigns the species is now extinct) was a very different person from
what our infatuated ancestors imagined him. He struck at government, not
because it was bad, but because it was government. He hated authority, not
for its tyranny, but for its power. And in order to make this plain to
observation he frequently chose his victim from amongst those whose rule
was most conspicuously benign.

Of the seven early Presidents of the American republic who perished by
assassination no fewer than four were slain by anarchists with no personal
wrongs to impel them to the deed - nothing but an implacable hostility to
law and authority. The fifth victim, indeed, was a notorious demagogue who
had pardoned the assassin of the fourth.

The field of the anarchist's greatest activity was always a republic, not
only to emphasize his impartial hatred of all government, but because of
the inherent feebleness of that form of government, its inability to
protect itself against any kind of aggression by any considerable number
of its people having a common malevolent purpose. In a republic the crust
that confined the fires of violence and sedition was thinnest.

No improvement in the fortunes of the original anarchists through
immigration to what was then called the New World would have made them
good citizens. From centuries of secret war against particular forms of
authority in their own countries they had inherited a bitter antagonism to
all authority, even the most beneficent. In their new home they were worse
than in their old. In the sunshine of opportunity the rank and sickly
growth of their perverted natures became hardy, vigorous, bore fruit. They
surrounded themselves with proselytes from the ranks of the idle, the
vicious, the unsuccessful. They stimulated and organized discontent. Every
one of them became a center of moral and political contagion. To those as
yet unprepared to accept anarchy was offered the milder dogma of
Socialism, and to those even weaker in the faith something vaguely called
Reform. Each was initiated into that degree to which the induration of his
conscience and the character of his discontent made him eligible, and in
which he could be most serviceable, the body of the people still cheating
themselves with the false sense of security begotten of the belief that
they were somehow exempt from the operation of all agencies inimical to
their national welfare and integrity. Human nature, they thought, was
different in the West from what it was in the East: in the New World the
old causes would not have the old effects: a republic had some inherent
vitality of its own, entirely independent of any action intended to keep
it alive. They felt that words and phrases had some talismanic power, and
charmed themselves asleep by repeating "liberty," "all men equal before
the law," "dictates of conscience," "free speech" and all manner of such
incantation to exorcise the spirits of the night. And when they could no
longer close their eyes to the dangers environing them; when they saw at
last that what they had mistaken for the magic power of their form of
government and its assured security was really its radical weakness and
subjective peril - they found their laws inadequate to repression of the
enemy, the enemy too strong to permit the enactment of adequate laws. The
belief that a malcontent armed with freedom of speech, a newspaper, a vote
and a rifle is less dangerous than a malcontent with a still tongue in his
head, empty hands and under police surveillance was abandoned, but all too
late. From its fatuous dream the nation was awakened by the noise of arms,
the shrieks of women and the red glare of burning cities.

Beginning with the slaughter at St. Louis on a night in the year 1920,
when no fewer than twenty-two thousand citizens were slain in the streets
and half the city destroyed, massacre followed massacre with frightful
rapidity. New York fell in the month following, many thousands of its
inhabitants escaping fire and sword only to be driven into the bay and
drowned, "the roaring of the water in their ears," says Bardeal,
"augmented by the hoarse clamor of their red-handed pursuers, whose
blood-thirst was unsated by the sea." A week later Washington was
destroyed, with all its public buildings and archives; the President and
his Ministry were slain, Congress was dispersed, and an unknown number of
officials and private citizens perished. Of all the principal cities only
Chicago and San Francisco escaped. The people of the former were all
anarchists and the latter was valorously and successfully defended by the
Chinese.

The urban anarchists were eventually subdued and some semblance of order
was restored, but greater woes and sharper shames awaited this unhappy
nation, as we shall see.

In turning from this branch of our subject to consider the causes of the
failure and bloody disruption of the great American republic other than
those inherent in the form of government, it may not be altogether
unprofitable to glance briefly at what seems to a superficial view the
inconsistent phenomenon of great material prosperity. It is not to be
denied that this unfortunate people was at one time singularly prosperous,
in so far as national wealth is a measure and proof of prosperity. Among
nations it was the richest nation. But at how great a sacrifice of better
things was its wealth obtained! By the neglect of all education except
that crude, elementary sort which fits men for the coarse delights of
business and affairs but confers no capacity of rational enjoyment; by
exalting the worth of wealth and making it the test and touchstone of
merit; by ignoring art, scorning literature and despising science, except
as these might contribute to the glutting of the purse; by setting up and
maintaining an artificial standard of morals which condoned all offenses
against the property and peace of every one but the condoner; by
pitilessly crushing out of their natures every sentiment and aspiration
unconnected with accumulation of property, these civilized savages and
commercial barbarians attained their sordid end. Before they had rounded
the first half-century of their existence as a nation they had sunk so low
in the scale of morality that it was considered nothing discreditable to
take the hand and even visit the house of a man who had grown rich by
means notoriously corrupt and dishonorable; and Harley declares that even
the editors and writers of newspapers, after fiercely assailing such men
in their journals, would be seen "hobnobbing" with them in public places.
(The nature of the social ceremony named the "hobnob" is not now
understood, but it is known that it was a sign of amity and favor.) When
men or nations devote all the powers of their minds and bodies to the
heaping up of wealth, wealth is heaped up. But what avails it? It may not
be amiss to quote here the words of one of the greatest of the ancients
whose works - fragmentary, alas - have come down to us.

"Wealth has accumulated itself into masses; and poverty, also in
accumulation enough, lies impassably separated from it; opposed,
uncommunicating, like forces in positive and negative poles. The gods of
this lower world sit aloft on glittering thrones, less happy than
Epicurus's gods, but as indolent, as impotent; while the boundless living
chaos of ignorance and hunger welters, terrific in its dark fury, under
their feet. How much among us might be likened to a whited sepulcher:
outwardly all pomp and strength, but inwardly full of horror and despair
and dead men's bones! Iron highways, with their wains fire-winged, are
uniting all the ends of the land; quays and moles, with their innumerable
stately fleets, tame the ocean into one pliant bearer of burdens; labor's
thousand arms, of sinew and of metal, all-conquering everywhere, from the
tops of the mount down to the depths of the mine and the caverns of the
sea, ply unweariedly for the service of man; yet man remains unserved. He
has subdued this planet, his habitation and inheritance, yet reaps no
profit from the victory. Sad to look upon: in the highest stage of
civilization nine-tenths of mankind have to struggle in the lowest battle
of savage or even animal man - the battle against famine. Countries are
rich, prosperous in all manner of increase, beyond example; but the men of
these countries are poor, needier than ever of all sustenance, outward and
inward; of belief, of knowledge, of money, of food."

To this somber picture of American "prosperity" in the nineteenth century
nothing of worth can be added by the most inspired artist. Let us simply
inscribe upon the gloomy canvas the memorable words of an illustrious poet
of the period:

That country speeds to an untoward fate,
Where men are trivial and gold is great.

One of the most "sacred" rights of the ancient American was the trial of
an accused person by "a jury of his peers." This, in America, was a right
secured to him by a written constitution. It was almost universally


1 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18

Online LibraryAmbrose BierceThe Collected Works of Ambrose Bierce, Volume 1 → online text (page 1 of 18)