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Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 7.djvu/637

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EDITOR'S TABLE.

EDITOR'S TABLE.

 

A SOCIAL EXPERIMENT.

WE observed, a while ago, the meeting of two gentlemen who, after salutation, broke at once into mutual and vehement expressions of disgust at the Beecher trial, and then sat down and discussed it for an hour. Such has been the general experience, Newspapers have bemoaned the necessity of publication, and then howled for the extension of the proceedings, meantime sending out their interviewers in all directions, to rake the gutters of scandal for further and filthier details. Similarly, by the mass of readers, the reports have been first deplored and then devoured to the last crumb. The protests were hollow concessions to decency; what followed revealed the actual and honest mental condition of the parties.

This aspect of the trial, as an index of public taste, is not without its instructiveness. It was evidently rich in elements that are appreciated by our people, and that take a deep hold of their feelings. It fed the craving for personal and prurient gossip, and, moreover, left something to bet on. It combined, in its various phases, the fascinations of the tea-party, the prize-ring, and the regatta. The lower education, by bringing the masses of the people up to the capacity of reading the newspapers, and the higher education, by allying itself with the horse-racing passion, have well prepared the community to enjoy the drama lately acted on Judge Neilson's stage. True, it was the old story of private suffering turned to public sport, but with what refinements in its modernized aspect! A dash of brutal bloodshed, a little gladiatorial human butchery, were indispensable to the perfection of a Roman holiday; but, in our higher Christian civilization, we get up a six-months' carnival of keen excitement by mangling a single reputation. It is certainly worth something to find out how our people can be best amused. We are far from agreeing with those who have filled the land with lamentation over the unmitigated evils of the Beecher trial. It has undoubtedly had its mischievous influences, but these we believe will be transient and far out-weighed by the public benefits that cannot fail to arise from it. It was, of course, most painful to Mr. Beecher—and he has our deepest sympathy—but no one better than he could afford to make the sacrifice needed to insure the permanent good of such a thorough-going social experiment as this trial and its preludes have furnished. The case is of peculiar interest as a problem of the forces acting in society. It is a great mistake to suppose that the Plymouth pastor was alone on trial. Action and reaction are equal and opposite in things social as well as in things physical. The strain took effect all round; and the triers have been on trial as well as the defendant. We know a great deal more about lawyers and the law than we did before; we understand better about judges and the judiciary than we did before; and we have conceptions of the jury and the jury-system which we had not before; while the result of the new knowledge is not by any means to raise our estimate of them. They have been brought to the bar of common-sense and the public judgment, and nothing has happened in the history of legal proceedings in this country that can compare with this case in exposing the weakness, the anomalies, and the vices of the system under which we live, called the perfection of reason, for the administration of justice. Nowhere in society are in-