Taxes and Morals
delivered 22 January 1906, New York
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I came here
in the responsible capacity of policeman to watch Mr. Choate. This is an
occasion of grave and serious importance, and it seems necessary for me to be
present, so that if he tried to work off any statement that required correction,
reduction, refutation, or exposure, there would be a tried friend of the public
to protect the house. He has not made one statement whose veracity fails to
tally exactly with my own standard. I have never seen a person improve so. This
makes me thankful and proud of a country that can produce such men--two such
men. And all in the same country. We can't be with you always; we are passing
away, and then--well, everything will have to stop, I reckon. It is a sad
thought. But in spirit I shall still be with you. Choate, too -- if he can.
Every born American among the eighty millions, let his creed or destitution of
creed be what it may, is indisputably a Christian -- to this degree that his
moral constitution is Christian.
There are two kinds of Christian morals, one private and the other public. These
two are so distinct, so unrelated, that they are no more akin to each other than
are archangels and politicians. During three hundred and sixty-three days in
the year the American citizen is true to his Christian private morals, and keeps
undefiled the nation's character at its best and highest; then in the other two
days of the year he leaves his Christian private morals at home and carries his
Christian public morals to the tax office and the polls, and does the best he
can to damage and undo his whole year's faithful and righteous work. Without a
blush he will vote for an unclean boss if that boss is his party's Moses,
without compunction he will vote against the best man in the whole land if he is
on the other ticket. Every year in a number of cities and States he helps put
corrupt men in office, whereas if he would but throw away his Christian public
morals, and carry his Christian private morals to the polls, he could promptly
purify the public service and make the possession of office a high and honorable
Once a year he lays aside his Christian private morals and hires a ferry-boat
and piles up his bonds in a warehouse in New Jersey for three days, and gets out
his Christian public morals and goes to the tax office and holds up his hands
and swears he wishes he may never -- never if he's got a cent in the world, so
help him. The next day the list appears in the papers--a column and a quarter
of names, in fine print, and every man in the list a billionaire and member of a
couple of churches. I know all those people. I have friendly, social, and
criminal relations with the whole lot of them. They never miss a sermon when
they are so's to be around, and they never miss swearing-off day, whether they
are so's to be around or not.
I used to be an honest man. I am crumbling. No -- I have crumbled. When they
assessed me at $75,000 a fortnight ago I went out and tried to borrow the money,
and couldn't; then when I found they were letting a whole crop of millionaires
live in New York at a third of the price they were charging me I was hurt, I was
indignant, and said: "This is the last feather. I am not going to run this town
all by myself." In that moment -- in that memorable moment -- I began to
crumble. In fifteen minutes the disintegration was complete. In fifteen
minutes I had become just a mere moral sand-pile; and I lifted up my hand along
with those seasoned and experienced deacons and swore off every rag of personal
property I've got in the world, clear down to cork leg, glass eye, and what is
left of my wig.
Those tax officers were moved; they were profoundly moved. They had long been
accustomed to seeing hardened old grafters act like that, and they could endure
the spectacle; but they were expecting better things of me, a chartered,
professional moralist, and they were saddened.
I fell visibly in their respect and esteem, and I should have fallen in my own,
except that I had already struck bottom, and there wasn't any place to fall to.
At Tuskegee they will jump to misleading conclusions from insufficient evidence,
along with Doctor Parkhurst, and they will deceive the student with the
superstition that no gentleman ever swears.
Look at those good millionaires; aren't they gentlemen? Well, they swear. Only
once in a year, maybe, but there's enough bulk to it to make up for the lost
time. And do they lose anything by it? No, they don't; they save enough in
three minutes to support the family seven years. When they swear, do we
shudder? No -- unless they say "damn!" Then we do. It shrivels us all up. Yet
we ought not to feel so about it, because we all swear -- everybody. Including
the ladies. Including Doctor Parkhurst, that strong and brave and excellent
citizen, but superficially educated.
For it is
not the word that is the sin, it is the spirit back of the word. When an
irritated lady says "oh!" the spirit back of it is "damn!" and that is the way
it is going to be recorded against her. It always makes me so sorry when I
hear a lady swear like that. But if she says "damn," and says it in an amiable,
nice way, it isn't going to be recorded at all.
The idea that no gentleman ever swears is all wrong; he can swear and still be a
gentleman if he does it in a nice and, benevolent and affectionate way. The
historian, John Fiske, whom I knew well and loved, was a spotless and most noble
and upright Christian gentleman, and yet he swore once. Not exactly that,
maybe; still, he -- but I will tell you about it.
One day, when he was deeply immersed in his work, his wife came in, much
moved and profoundly distressed, and said: "I am sorry to disturb you, John, but I must, for this is a serious matter, and needs to be attended to at once."
Then, lamenting, she brought a grave accusation against their little son. She
said: "He has been saying his Aunt Mary is a fool and his Aunt Martha is a
damned fool." Mr. Fiske reflected upon the matter a minute, then said: "Oh,
well, it's about the distinction I should make between them myself."
Mr. Washington, I beg you to convey these teachings to your great and prosperous
and most beneficent educational institution, and add them to the prodigal mental
and moral riches wherewith you equip your fortunate protégés for the struggle of
Book/CDs by Michael E. Eidenmuller, Published by
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