Harper's Weekly—August 18, 1877

CRITICAL and alarming as the situation of the country seemed to be for a few days after the riots at Pittsburgh, there is a great deal that late events have revealed which is most encouraging. We have seen the utmost extent of the power of the lawless insurrectionary element in the country displayed under the most favorable conditions for itself, and we have seen its impotence as against the overpowering national instinct of law and order. It is, unhappily, a season of universal industrial prostration. Great companies and corporations, the most extensive business enterprises, feel it as well is the laborer who depends upon daily wages. It is computed that there are three millions of people in the country idle who would gladly work, and those who three or four years ago received two and three dollars a day, now eagerly accept fifty cents, and all labor has been forced to submit to reduced wages. At such a time vagabonds and rogues of all kinds abound, and the mischievous passions of the unemployed are easily wrought to excess and desperation. On the other hand, the police and military forces of the country are notoriously inadequate for promptly meeting a serious emergency, while vast labor organizations, thoroughly disciplined, extend into every part of the Union. Meanwhile, also, in the great cities there is a large socialistic or communistic spirit, the modern form of the Fifth Monarchy, which protests against the existing organization of society as wicked and unjust, and demands "fraternal" reorganization. Through all this feeling and among all these persons there is the old vague hostility of the poor against the rich, although no one undertakes to define the precise line that separates the two.

In this condition of affairs a strike occurs in a vitally important branch of labor, and simultaneously spreads to every part of the country, paralyzing and arresting all communication, and inflaming every where the most reckless and criminal spirit, appealing to every laboring interest to make common cause, and for a little while threatening a vast movement of the poor against the rich, of labor against capital, which is nothing less than absolute anarchy. There is no army to confront it; there is no adequate police or militia; there is really nothing whatever but the instinct of order and law in an intelligent people, which must trust itself, and instantly improvise an organization and means of defense. Fortunately the lawful head of the national government and his cabinet are prompt, calm, and efficient, and instantly such force as there is is skillfully distributed by them as a nucleus of local police organization, while the Governors of the States concerned do what they can, although it unhappily appears that New York alone seems to have a sure dependence in its militia. There is at the outbreak of the insurrection an amazement, a consternation, and a panic, with an inefficiency in handling militia, which are disastrous, and loss of life with an immense loss of property follows. But in the midst of the paralysis and bewilderment there is an unhesitating conviction in the public mind that the crisis is passing almost as soon as perceived, and this conviction springs from the consciousness that every intelligent man in the country is ready to die to maintain the conditions under which alone life is worth having. The significant and gratifying fact is (however paradoxical it may seem) that, bad as the situation was, it was no worse. Sudden and formidable as the peril was—a peril latent in all highly civilized modern society—we have measured its full force; and undoubtedly there is a feeling of grateful surprise that it is not greater, and undoubtedly, also, determination that it shall be made less, if reason and sagacity can accomplish it.

Nothing was more agreeable to those who confide in the intelligence of the American people than the facts in regard to the communistic meeting in New York. This city is full, as all other great cities are, of restless and mischievous people who tarn to criminal account every great popular disturbance like that of the strikes, and there is an uneasy feeling that these people can be masters of the city if they choose. The event of the meeting has proved that they can not. It has shown that the intelligent citizens are the vast moral majority. We have nothing here to say of the motives of the leaders of the meeting. But obviously a public assembly in the evening in a square of this city to express sympathy with a movement which had become a vast riot, and had just occasioned the massacre of innocent persons, and the destruction of property whose loss must fall most heavily upon the poor—a movement which was absolutely anarchical, and was at the moment terrorizing great communities, and devoting the families of laboring-men to starvation and suffering—is a tempting opportunity for the most frenzied disorder. That the movement was utterly baffled is due not to the managers of the meeting, but largely to the good sense of those upon whose passions the managers played. They had not, indeed, the great advantage upon which disturbances rely—that is, surprise—for the authorities were fully forewarned, and they had made every preparation. General "Baldy" SMITH, the head of the Police Board, is an old soldier, and he counted upon precaution and discipline, and, in concert with the military authorities, all fitting arrangements were made. Yet it was the support that these had from the citizens which is the peculiarly pleasant fact, for those citizens staid away from the meeting. The first and most obvious moral of the events of the mouth is not that an army is able to subdue an insurrection—a truth which is often demonstrated in Europe but that an insurrection more general and formidable and organized of its kind than Europe has seen, was virtually suppressed by the moral instinct of the people—a truth which is demonstrated thus far only in free governments, as when the Chartist demonstration was annulled in London. We trust, however, as we said last week, that the lesson of the riots, the necessity of a permanent and fully organized force to represent that instinct upon the instant that it is required, will be heeded. The suffering among the poor, the national discredit, the local disgrace, the enormous waste of property, the universal disturbance, produced by such commotions, are to be avoided at every honorable cost, however much the circumstances and suppression of the recent commotions may confirm our faith and hope in the actual condition of the country.

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