On the Pillory

AS A RULE, those who discuss the good old days and how bad they were, are a little vague about how old there were. They compare the modern clerk with anybody from a Blue Briton to a True Blue Tory, or the modern newspaper with anything from prehistoric carving to pre-Raphaelite painting. In a recent case which I have in mind, the writer fixed on a particular date in the past, for purposes of comparison; and rather a curious and interesting date too. He was concerned with some documents dealing with the years 1745-47; and told us the usual things about London being without lamp-posts, or having stage coaches instead of railway trains. And it struck me that it would make something like an amusing parlour game to compare notes about what ideas the mention of any date calls up in your mind or mine.

Now the first thought that actually occurs to me about the years 1745-47 has nothing to do with trains or lamp-posts. It is this: that those years mark more or less the last time in our history when any great estates were confiscated or any great lords suffered punishments for a crime against the State. The Jacobite nobles who were executed after the suppression of the ’45 must have been the last of a long line of wealthy criminals or high-born martyrs who has found throughout the centuries that the law was higher than themselves. I am not exulting over their end; on the contrary, I am something of a Jacobite myself. I am only noting the fact that the taking of their lives and more especially the taking of their property, was the sort of thing that has not happened since. The punishment of poor people, for the sort of crimes that are the temptations of poor people, still went on then, and still goes on now. But the idea of punishing a public man as a public enemy has, for good or evil, become an impossibility. And the idea of taking away the private wealth of a public man is equally inconceivable, especially of he is a really wealthy man. It is said that modern government makes life safer; and the claim is very tenable. But at least it is certain that modern government makes life for the governing classes safer; and never before in the whole history of the world has it been so safe a business to govern.

Let me take only one example mentioned in the newspaper article. Among the horrors of Old London, it mentions not only the absence of lamp-posts, but the presence of pillories. I have never been able to see myself that a pillory was necessarily worse than a prison. It need not in most cases be a more drastic punishment. It was certainly in all cases a more democratic punishment.

A man was not only tried by his peers, but punished by his peers. It was no idle distinction; for he was sometimes acquitted and applauded by his peers. If a man were pilloried for a crime which the populace regarded as a virtue, there was nothing to prevent the populace from pelting him with roses instead of rotten eggs. In fact, I think it would be far from a bad thing if you or I or any ordinary individual were occasionally put in the pillory, to discover the emotional atmosphere of our social circle. Let us trust the experiment would be reassuring; it would at least be interesting and novel. The objection to the pillory suggested in the article consists in its ruthless publicity. But in the matter of punishment I am not reassured by privacy. I know that the most abominable cruelties have always been committed in complete privacy. I am not sure even about the punishments that are now hidden in prisons instead of being displayed in pillories. I do not say that we should do in public all that we now do in private. But it might well be questioned whether we ought to do in private the things we are so much ashamed to do in public. If there has been one respectable thing about the executioner, I think it is the fact that he was called the public executioner. I do not like his becoming the bearer of the bow string; the secret messenger of a Sultan. But this is something of a separate question. It is enough to note here that there was at least good as well as evil in the publicity of the pillory. Indeed, there is only one real and unanswerable objection to the punishment of the pillory; and unfortunately it so happens that this is also the chief objection to the gallows, the prison, the reformatory, the scientific preventive settlement for potential criminals, and everything else of the kind. The only real objection to the pillory is that we should probably put the wrong man in it.

But let us consider for a moment the man who was put into it. Now nobody with an intelligent interest in the past, or an intelligent doubt about the present, would dream of taking the date of 1745 as the happy age to be regretted. It was a very bad period in many ways, possibly a worse period than our own; for many of the old humanities has passed with the common creed of Christendom, while many of the modern humanities had not come in with the French Revolution. The period, like all periods, contained very noble figures; but they were either defeated like the last Jacobites or detached and eccentric like Dr. Johnson. Its politics were, if possible, more full of knavery than our own. On the other hand, its commercialism, though already increasing out of proportion, was still more honest than our own. But no man who understands the disease of the present would look for the cure in that epoch of the past. He would seek for another social system in its days of strength and fullness; for instance, the best period of the Middle Ages. There again he would find the pillory; but my immediate interest is in the person he might possibly find in it.

Now a man could be put in the pillory in mediaeval times for what was then called forestalling, and is now called making a corner. In some countries he could be hanged. There are at this moment walking about Europe and America a number of placid, well-fed, well-dressed gentlemen who boast of having made corners. Suppose I were to suggest that they should stand in the pillory. Suppose I were to suggest that some of them should hang on the gallows. Suppose I were to propose to punish them in modern times as they would have been punished in mediaeval times; suppose that, and you will measure the whole distance and difference of which I spoke when I said that the really powerful man has never been punished since 1745. There may be individual exceptions due to peculiar circumstances, but I cannot think of them at the moment. It is no answer to say that the powerful have not broken the law. Those who are powerful enough to make the law do not need to break it. The acts are not punishable in modern times which were actually punished in mediaeval times. Nobody is so silly as to offer either period as a golden age; and there are real superiorities in the modern epoch. But I doubt whether the matter is settled by pointing at a lamp-post; and I fear it may merely serve to remind us that the only tyrants who have suffered in our times have been hanged on lamp-posts in revolutions.

~G.K. Chesterton: Generally Speaking, XIII. (1928)