Principle Versus Hobby
( Originally Published Late 1800's )
We have just seen that principle is a right rule of conduct, and that its influence upon life and character is always good. But there is a certain abuse of principle, which all right-thinking people greatly deplore. This is popularly known as riding a hobby. A man forms an opinion of some social or political evil that seems to him of vital importance. He proceeds to air this opinion on all occasions. Perhaps he comes so filled with his one idea that he poses as a reformer or takes up the role of an agitator. His scheme of reform may be, generally is, impracticable ; and he straightway begins to lash his cotemporaries and utter nonsense which he calls eternal truth. He writes a sermon of billingsgate and proceeds to preach the gospel of a new dispensation. He treats his subject in hysterics and gives voice to the blarney of vituperation. In a former generation he was greeted with gibes and applauded with eggs; in this, he is called a crank and set down as a fool or a fanatic. Now it is one thing to follow a principle ; it is another to ride a hobby. It is one thing to order one's life according to a settled rule of action, and go about the duties of a legitimate business, leaving the moral government of the world to the Creator ; it is quite another to make a mistake in our calling and assume that the responsibility of the sins of mankind have been laid upon our shoulder. It is, indeed, well to have one's life so sustained by moral principle that character remains untarnished through the vicissitudes of a long and active life. But of what possible use to the world is that man who raises an impracticable issue and becomes a noisy agitator of a scheme that can never be realized ? History and biography are throwing strange light upon the over-estimated services of some of the agitators of a by-gone day.
Perhaps no man ever exhibited to the world better principles than George Peabody. Certainly few ever surpassed him in systematic benevolence. A successful merchant of Danvers, he built up his business and his fortune to colossal proportions. The houses of his business were in the principal cities of this country and Europe, and, at the time of his greatest activity, it is supposed that he managed the largest commercial enterprise the world had then seen in the hands of one man. His fortune was estimated by millions of pounds sterling and his benefactions no man knows. Beginning in his native town, he gave liberally to all good enterprises, until his gifts could be counted by thou-sands of dollars in several of the leading educational institutions of the land. Across the sea his name was even more revered than here, for he gave half a mil-lion to purchase homes for London workingmen. This man that the poor of two continents have arisen to call blessed, sound in character, shrewd in business, with a large fund of practical. tact, lived a life sacredly de-voted to the best interests of mankind ; but no one ever thought of calling him a crank or a hobbyist. His principles were too great and- his wisdom too high for that.
William Lloyd Garrison has long been worshiped in these Northern States as the apostle of emancipation and the hero of abolition. That the life and work of Garrison has been absurdly overestimated we may well believe. In the recently published biography of this much lauded man, the sons of Garrison have told the story of his life with rare good sense and truth. They have punctured the bubble of his greatness. They have demonstrated that he has no title whatever to the "immediate, unconditional emancipation " gospel of which he was the evangel. His sons do not for a moment maintain that he was the first to propose this impracticable scheme, and they are contented with showing that he was the first to give his life in the propagation of abolitionism. These volumes make it evident that he did not add one single principle to the agitation that had been going on for fifty years. The most that his ardent admirers can claim is, that he continued and intensified a controversy already hot with hate.
No doubt Garrison was born with the genius and instincts of a leader. His nature was simple, but strong and intense. He possessed that personal magnetism and intrepidity of which reformers are made, and he bore among men a dignified and commanding presence. But with all his keen moral discernment, he had the fatal qualities of a hobbyist, and could not brook opposition or delay. In violent phrase he assailed every thing that stood in the way of the full accomplishment of his one idea. In his view the Constitution countenanced and protected slavery ; it was immediately pronounced " a covenant with death and an agreement with Hell." He did not see that the only way to rid the land of slave labor was to hold fast to the freedom which that Constitution unequivocally proclaimed in letter and spirit. In the name of freedom he railed at the Church as the foe of personal liberty. In contempt he cursed the pulpit and pew, and preached the heresy of practical unbelief. In the union of the States he saw the possible perpetuity of slavery and straightway called for the disunion of States, not seeing that if disunion were once realized, slavery could never be eradicated. The better sense of the North as well as the South refused to follow such pernicious logic, and the scheme of Garrison ended in utter failure and his vituperations fell flat to earth. It was left at last for our great-hearted Lincoln to stand between and save the country from Garrison and Phillips as well as Calhoun and the sons of Carolina. The hobby of abolition as proclaimed by Garrison and Phillips and all that rampant school was only the smoke of a conflagration that was burning deeper than we knew. The whole theory was proved false by the events of the war, and emancipation came at last as an incident of a contest that struck at the root of free institutions. We are all glad that it is ended, and that the bitterness of former years is buried beneath a smiling, free and prosperous land. And in the light of these after years the gospel of Garrison ought not and will not, henceforth, be dignified by the name of a principle. The school-boy of the future, conning his history, will read in these troubled days before the war of two misguided men, who sought the freedom of the slave in the enslavement of the nation, who denounced the church of God, because it would not put the slave power to the sword and faggot, who assailed the Constitution and distorted the teachings of Christ.
We would not wish to overlook any lasting good that the editor of the Vindicator or the great orator of Massachusetts may have accomplished for the cause of human freedom ; but it is time to stop our foolish hero-worship ; it is time to pull down the hobbyist and set up the king. It is time to take Garrison from the pedestal of glory and set the immortal Lincoln there. It is time to do justice to all, as we think back to the dark resentments of these bitter days of strife. Give Garrison and the sons of Garrison glory for their fearless fight for truth; but forget in pity that ill-advised and false theory by which a great man fell.