Nathaniel Hillyer. Egleston.

The North American review (Volume 139) online

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the only minister who has defied public opinion, but he is almost
the only one in recent times who has dragooned a majority of
Parliament into sustaining him in it for the lack of any repre
sentative man to supplant him. The position of Irish and Scotch
interests, represented in both houses, indicates clearly enough
that the opinion of Parliament is not made up to any great
extent within its walls, although on occasion it may be.

It is a fact, though not very satisfactory to contemplate, that
our legislative assemblies, either at Washington or in State
capitals, are not only very poor tests of public opinion, but are
not very sensitive to it, although they mean to follow it. To
come no nearer to our own day, all who remember the relations
of Mr. Lincoln with Congress, and the fact that his second nom
ination was the result of an overwhelming popular sentiment
which swept away an opposition that was strong in Congress
and not strong anywhere else, must recollect how utterly con
founded some very able men were by a feeling that was as
plain as day to most men out of Congress. While the convoca
tion of those who represent us in law is theoretically our repre-


sentative in sentiment, it would never occur to any one who
wishes to know what is the conviction of the body of the people
concerning men or measures, to go to Washington to inquire.
It is only learned foreigners, who desire to study our institutions,
that suppose the affairs of the nation are governed by a series
of deputized expressions originating in the town meetings and
working upward. The primaries are diligently cultivated to
secure votes for men, but no American politician troubles himself
about their opinions on measures, for they seldom have any, and
if they had, they would probably not be those of the body of
voters. Measures are considered in making platforms, but even
those are not made very prominent during the intervals between

In spite of the improved means of communication, there is
a noticeable difference between the Washington of simpler times
and the Washington of to-day. The " National Intelligencer,"
representing the Whigs, and the " Globe," representing the Dem
ocrats, were for a considerable period the most influential papers
in the United States. But very few people now care to take a
Washington paper, and not very many know what papers circu
late there. In our large commercial cities there were also jour
nals that were confidently looked to as representing the views of
entire parties. But there are no such papers now. The means
of rapid transit have apparently done more to build up the local
press than to concentrate sentiments and influence. There never
was a time when more uncertainty existed concerning the real
condition of public opinion than since we have had the means
of rapid communication. The first act of the war found many
of our public men in fear and trembling lest public opinion
in the North should be divided, but brought such a revolution of
settled conviction and enthusiasm on the part of the entire pop
ulation as showed there never had been any popular doubts. It
is just as certain now as then that there is everywhere, except
among those who have an idea that they are wiser than the mul
titude, a well-defined understanding of free institutions, and a
settled dislike to all that perverts them. And the reason why
there is more or less jealousy of financial power is because it
not only has capabilities of mischief, but because mischief has
to some extent been done. There is no blind or senseless enmity
to enterprise and its rewards. All crusades against the rights
of property are utterly opposed to the whole instincts of the


American people. If they are wrong on this subject, it is in the
other direction, in giving indiscriminate privileges without im
posing adequate checks on their abuse. But there is a feeling
that every instrument which can be made powerful for evil as
well as for good requires some regulation.

By the law of most countries, as handed down by long usage,
there has usually been a penalty against the various forms of
monopoly. Legislatures and other public agencies are still for
bidden to grant them. But an idea has gained currency almost
universally that it would be an unreasonable tampering with the
laws of trade to interfere with private monopolists. In most of
our cities ordinances are enforced against forestalling and
similar attempts to affect prices in such articles as are sold in
the stalls j but combinations on a larger scale are let alone, and,
although still common law offenses, are never prosecuted. And
yet there is a very extended and very bitter feeling, that some
of these days will be expressed in some way, in a milder
form, it is to be hoped, than by mob violence, against those
gambling transactions in grain and other domestic commodities
which disturb prices without any reference to the laws of
supply and demand, and are felt now and then by the poor very
oppressively. The continuance of these evils has led to a feeling
that public justice is sometimes a respecter of persons. The prac
tice prevailing in some States of dispensing with grand juries
has removed a most efficient safeguard to citizens who are timid
about complaining individually of powerful offenders. Jurors
solve doubts against corporations from a feeling which is no
doubt in most cases an unjust prejudice, but which is often
provoked by the arrogance of corporate representatives of high
or low degree in dealing with citizens and in making litigation
expensive. The voter who knows that corporate franchises here
are usually given and not paid for, has a keen sense of their abuses,
which, so far as they are technically legal, are due largely to leg
islative carelessness, or exist because the legislature has been mis
led. A grievance that has created much resentment is the need
less appropriation of private lands and the injury to adjacent
lands by various forms of public works. In not a few cases
such enterprises have no good reason for existence, and would
never have been allowed if the public had had any voice in their
location. And whether the price paid for land taken is adequate
or inadequate, the soreness exists where there is any sense of


wrong. The outrageous practice which fails to provide any
remedy for those incidental damages to lands not taken,
which are far worse than the mere use of land, has also its
share in producing the general discontent.

A similar mischief has been felt in cities. As a matter of fact,
the government of many of our cities is not in the hands of the
wealthy, or even of those who owe them any particular favors.
But there is the same sentiment of helplessness against the
aggregate power and of dislike for its abuses. The average
common council is perpetually legislating. They meddle with
the ordinary uses of private property. They change established
grades, lay out streets that are not needed, to benefit some par
ticular interest, and alleys that make it impossible to find lots
deep enough for the exigencies of business. They are continually
tearing up and improving at the expense of those who are not
supposed to know their own interest. The burdens of these
changes bear cruelly upon persons of small means whose home is
their only wealth, and who sometimes are compeDed to forfeit it
to pay for what in theory should have enhanced its value. And
our legislatures, instead of using diligence to regulate municipal
authority, often refuse to listen to any reforms that do not
originate with the bodies that need reforming. Opposition to
extravagance is so often set down as mere dislike to improve
ment, that many complaints are silenced by timidity, which
only increases the sense of injustice.

There is a prevailing feeling that wealth has an undue influ
ence in our public affairs. Election expenditures are regarded
as legitimate which are beyond the power of any but the rich ;
and there is a conviction that time is spent in the interest of
moneyed enterprises which should be devoted to the general
welfare. Lands are allowed to be monopolized by corporations
not subject to local laws. Towns are left without outlets, to en
able new ones to be built up for the benefit of neither public nor
shareholders. Streams are put under special control with small
regard to the riparian inhabitants. The individual is becoming
helpless to cope with aggregate rivalry or aggregate opposition.
There is a feeling that the popular representation is getting more
remote from popular sympathy, and has not as much regard as
it ought to have for interests which are not influential.

Some of the jealousies are ill-founded, but many of them are
not. The history of republics has been full of illustrations of the


danger of giving financial interests too large a control in public
affairs. And, rightly or wrongly, there is a large amount of dis
trust among people who not only have a right to be heard, but
who will sooner or later exercise it.

The complaints which need most attention do not come from
radicals and disorganizes, but from those steady citizens who are
our best guards against them. The remedies sought for are not
agrarian laws or nihilistic schemes, but greater respect for private
rights. It will not do to waste words in platitudes that demon
strate that our system already secures them. The best constitu
tions give powers that are capable of oppressive uses. We would
all spurn the old Saxon rule which measured the cost of crime
and outrage by the victim's wealth. But any system which allows
small or moderate interests to be subjected to larger interests,
involving no public advantage, belongs to the same category. The
theory of our Government ranks men above things, and natural
persons over artificial ones. The encroachments of irresponsible
power are not altogether imaginary. Laws may not always pre
vent them, but sound policy may keep them from becoming
dangerous. It would be a serious mischief if the uneasiness
which is now found among reasonable men, without regard to
party lines, should be driven to making common cause with doc
trinaires to get things righted.



WE find among men of science a singular mixture of caution
and daring, degenerating sometimes into timidity on the one
hand, and into rashness on the other. The scientific caution of
a Newton, testing the theory of gravitation by line and measure,
and calmly resigning it for awhile, because, as it chanced, line
and measure were both inexact, may be compared with the noble
daring of a Halley, boldly announcing that the comet of 1682
*would return in 1758 * on the strength of observations which, in
our day, would certainly be thought insufficient to determine a
comet's period. The timidity with which the profound reason
ing of Olmsted respecting meteors was rejected, till simple
observations made that obvious which he had made certain, may
be contrasted with the rashness shown by those who have
accepted the speculations of Laplace about the universe as
though these were demonstrated theories.

Comets, the most mysterious of all the bodies known to
astronomers, have been subjects of most marked timidity and of
most daring rashness of scientific reasoning. That men should
have been unwilling to formulate definite theories about these
wild wanderers is, perhaps, natural enough. But the calm, unin-
quiring confidence with which ideas have been advanced and
suggested respecting comets is not so easily explained. One of
these ideas, regarded by many as if it were an established truth,
I propose now to inquire into, the idea, namely, that comets
have been drawn from those paths on which they chanced

* I am quite aware of the fact that the comet really returned in 1759,
that is to say, that it was in 1759 that the comet passed its point of nearest
approach to the sun. Halley's prediction, however, named 1758, and made
as it was when the theory of gravitation was in its babyhood, it was a very
fair guess.



originally to approach our solar system, by the perturbing
influences of the giant planets, and have thus been, in certain
instances, compelled to travel around the sun in elliptical paths,
instead of the parabolic or hyperbolic orbits on which they had
been traveling before they were thus captured. I think I shall
be able, first, to show that this theory is antecedently most un
likely ; then to prove that even if it had been the most natural
and probable theory conceivable, it is entirely inconsistent with
observed facts, and, therefore, untenable. I shall then suggest
a theory in its place which, were I to mention it just here,
would probably be rejected at once as the wildest speculation
imaginable. Possibly, introduced as it will be by a series of
observed facts not otherwise explicable, it may not seem so
repellent a little further on. But I shall ask the reader in
terested in matters cometic, not to turn to the end of this essay
until he has read the beginning.

We start from the conception that all comets originally
entered our solar system from without. They come, say Heis,
Schiaparelli, and others, who have advanced the Capture Theory,
from out of interstellar space. Now, it is no valid objection to
this view that it gives us no idea how cometary matter came to
exist in interstellar space, for in all inquiries into the past con
dition of the celestial bodies we must always come short of their
actual origin. Thus, in considering the past of our solar system
we may start from a chaotic vaporous state, or from a past con
dition in the form of cosmical dust, or from a condition in which
the vaporous and the dust-like forms are combined ; but if we are
asked whence came the vapor or the cosmic dust we are obliged
to admit that we cannot tell. If, hereafter, we should be able to
say that it came from such and such changes in a quantity of
various forms of matter, which we may represent by X, Y, and Z,
we should still be unable to say how X, Y, and Z came into
existence. So that I make no serious exception against the
supposed origin of comets on the ground that it really leaves
very much to be explained. Interstellar space is a convenient
place to which to assign the origin of bodies so mysterious as
comets. Cela exprime beaucoup de choses. Almost anything might
happen in regions of which we know so little, or, rather, of
which we know absolutely nothing.

Yet it may be worth while to remark that, on the whole, the
interstellar regions are less likely to be the regions whence


comets originally came to visit suns and sun systems, than to be
regions whither comets strayed after leaving originally the
neighborhood of solar systems. The most probable idea about
the interstellar spaces is that they are the most vacuous regions
within the range of the sidereal system. The mere circumstance
that comets came from out of them affords no better reason for
regarding them as the original home of comets, than the circum
stance that comets pass from the solar system into these interstel
lar spaces affords for rejecting that assumption. There is, in fact,
simply no reason whatever for imagining that the place where
comets came into existence is the vast unknown region around
the solar system which we call interstellar space. Most comets
come to us from thence ; as many comets are traveling into that
unknown region as are coming out of it. To form an opinion
about the origin of comets from no better evidence than their
last journey (out of millions, very likely) can afford, would be as
absurd as for a day-fly to reason that the river flowing past the
home of his race came out of the sky because a few drops of
rain came thence.

Suppose, however, we admit that in interplanetary space
there have been in the past, and still exist, such flights of meteoric
matter as the theory we are considering assumes. Let us grant
them, also, such motion as may save them from what otherwise
would inevitably be their fate, viz., a process of direct indrawing
toward the nearest sun, and consequent destruction (with mis
chief probably to his orb), after a period of time which must be
regarded as utterly insignificant compared with the time intervals
measuring the duration of a solar system.

It follows, then, that each flight of meteors would, in the
long run, draw near some sun, without, however, rushing
directly upon him ; and, sweeping round his globe upon such
path as chanced to result from the combination of its original
movement and his attractive influence, would pass out again
into interstellar space. This might happen tens, hundreds,
thousands, or even millions of times, a comet either sweeping
in a long elliptical orbit, with enormous periods of revolution,
around one sun ; or, if its velocity were slightly greater than that
supposition implies, rushing first round one sun, then out into
the depths of space to visit another sun, then to yet another, and
so on, flitting from sun to sun forever, or until the kind of dis
turbance in which the holders of the theory we are considering


believe, had changed this kind of motion into actual orbital

In either case the minimum velocity with which a comet
would be moving, when at any given distance from our sun,
would be determinable within a few yards per second. It ? is
well known that the velocity with which a body traveling to the
sun from an infinite distance (though one cannot, of course,
conceive such a movement) would reach the sun, would not ex
ceed by a foot per second the velocity with which a body would
reach him after traveling from the distance of the nearest fixed
star. So also the velocities of bodies moving in orbits reaching
half as far from the sun as the distance of the nearest star,
would be the same within a foot or so per second as the veloci
ties with which bodies coming to the sun from infinity would
reach the same distance from him. If such bodies had origi
nally a great inherent velocity, of course they would reach any
given distance from the sun with much greater velocity. But
this would not affect our estimate of the least velocity at that
distance. Thus we know what the giant planets to which has
been attributed the final capture of those comets which now
form a part of the solar system, had to do. We can tell the
precise velocity in miles per second, or, at least, the minimum
velocity, with which our imagined meteoric flight would cross
the orbit of Neptune, or Uranus, or Saturn, or Jupiter, as the
case might be, before its capture. We know, in the case of each
eomet supposed to have been captured, the precise velocity of
the comet at the distance of the planet which captured it, its
special planet-master. The difference is the amount of velocity
which the capturing planet had to take away in order to effect
the supposed capture.

Observe that we are here on sure ground, if the theory is
sound. It is certain that a comet in coming from remote inter
stellar space to the solar system would have at the distance,
say, of Jupiter, a certain velocity. It is certain that a comet
now traveling in a particular orbit, approaching at one point
very near to the orbit of Jupiter, has at Jupiter's distance a
certain velocity, very much smaller. Hence, it is certain that,
if Jupiter captured that comet by disturbing it as it approached

* I have here considered only two kinds of cometic orbit, the elliptic and
the hyperbolic ; for a true parabolic orbit would be as unlikely, or rather as
impossible, as a truly circular orbit among the planets.


Mm on the last of its many free visits to the snn, the giant
planet must have deprived the comet of so many miles per
second of its former velocity. All we have to do is to find out
how the planet could do this ; in other words, how near the
comet must have approached the planet to be thus effectively

These pages are not suited for the close and exact discussion
of the case of any particular comet. I have elsewhere (in a
paper which appeared in the " Proceedings" of the Astronomical
Society) given the details for certain cases which have been re
garded as among the most satisfactory illustrations of the comet-
capturing ways of the giant planets, and have shown that the
theory is in those cases, and therefore in all, absolutely unten
able, though so resolutely held. Still it may be well here to
consider an illustrative general case, the simplest that can be
taken, and also the most effective, because the conditions are, in
reality, much more favorable than they are in any known case.

Imagine a flight of meteors to travel from interstellar space
toward the sun until it reaches the distance of Jupiter, and that
when at that distance it chances to pass very close to the orbit
of Jupiter, and at a time when Jupiter himself is very near the
place where the meteor flight crosses his track. Observe that
the chances against each one of these contingencies are enormous.
If we conceive a sphere around the sun, girdled by Jupiter's
orbit, the meteor flight in its course sunwards might traverse
the surface of that sphere (or, which is the same thing, might
traverse the part of its course where it is at the same distance
as Jupiter from the sun) anywhere, and we are supposing that
it traverses that surface close to a particular girdling circle
(technically a " great circle " of the sphere). Suppose that by
" close n we mean within a million miles j then the imaginary
girdle of the sphere through which the meteor flight must pass
to fulfill the required conditions is two millions of miles broad.
The sphere itself has a diameter of some nine hundred and sixty
millions of miles, and by a well-known property of the sphere,*
its surface is four hundred and eighty times greater than that of
the girdling strip. The chance is but one in four hundred and

* The property is this : that the surface of a sphere exceeds the surface of
a girdling strip, such as we are considering, in the same degree (if the strip
is relatively narrow) that the diameter of the sphere exceeds the breadth of
the strip.


eighty that any meteor flight coming from interstellar space to
ward the sun will be within a million miles of Jupiter's orbit when
at Jupiter's distance from the sun. Then Jupiter's path has a cir
cuit of more than three thousand millions of miles. Thus the
chance that at the moment of the meteor flight's passing the orbit,
Jupiter will be within a million miles on either side of the place
of passage, is as two in three thousand, or one in one thousand
five hundred. But the chances that both these relations hold
is only as one in one thousand and five hundred multiplied
by four hundred and eighty, or as one in more than seven hun
dred thousand. Thus, assuming though the case is otherwise
that a million miles would be an approach near enough for
capture, still only one meteor flight out of seven hundred
thousand which came from outer space could be captured by

This, however, is but the mere beginning. We may admit
that millions of times as many comets or meteor flights ap
proach our system as the planets -have captured ; and if so, we
need recognize no special force in any such considerations as
have just been presented. I only advanced them to suggest the
conditions which are, as it were, essential for the process of
comet-capturing by a giant planet.

Arrived at Jupiter's distance from the sun, the meteor
flight from interstellar space will have a velocity of about eleven
miles per second. Now let us inquire what its velocity must
be reduced to in order that it may thenceforth be compelled to
travel in a circle around the sun. As a matter of fact, all the
members of Jupiter's comet-family travel in orbits whose re
motest parts are near Jupiter's orbit, and to give a comet such
an orbit as one of these much more must be done in the way of
reducing velocity than is necessary merely to make the meteor
flight from outer space travel thenceforth in a circle at Jupiter's
mean distance. We are taking, in fact, a very unfavorable
case for our argument. Still, the velocity must be reduced,
even in this case, by nearly three-tenths, or by more than three
' miles per second.

Now Jupiter's power to withdraw velocity from a body in his
neighborhood is measured by his power to impart velocity. In

Online LibraryNathaniel Hillyer. EglestonThe North American review (Volume 139) → online text (page 11 of 60)