TO REFORM society by law has always been a pleasing vision in the minds of people who have not learned the truth that every true reform in society must begin in the heart of the individual member of it, by the exercise of his own will. This being so, the experiment is one that has been often tried, and the lesson of the results is plainly written in the pages of history.
The last days of the Roman republic furnish this lesson among many others of value to those concerned in the experiment of republican government to-day. In the last days of the Roman republic society had fallen into moral ruin. The individual no longer held himself in moral restraint; he no longer exercised the power of self-government. And this was what brought the last days of the republic, as it is what must always bring the last days of government “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” Yet there was left in the public mind a consciousness of the fact that the crimes from which they no longer held themselves back were worthy of punishment; nor was there lacking a zeal to enact laws against them. The experiment of reform by law was afforded a fair and thorough test. Of this history sets before us the following facts:—
“Cesar acted directly with the assembly of the people, and passed such laws as he pleased. Yet it must be said that he passed none that were not good enough in themselves, but they were laws which in fact meant nothing. There was no public character to sustain them, and consequently they were made only to be broken. There was a law for the punishment of adultery, when not only Cesar, but nine tenths of the people were ready to commit adultery, at the first opportunity. There were laws for the protection of citizens against violence, when every citizen was ready to commit violence at a moment’s notice. There were laws to punish judges who allowed themselves to be bribed, when almost every man in Rome was ready both to offer and to receive bribes. There were laws against defrauding the revenue, when almost every person only desired an opportunity to do that very thing. There were laws against bribery at elections when every soul in Rome from Cesar to the lowest one of the rabble that shouted in the Forum, was ready to bribe or to be bribed. ‘Morality and family life were treated as antiquated things among all ranks of society. To be poor was not merely the sorest disgrace and the worst crime, but the only disgrace and the only crime; for money the statesman sold the state, and the burgess sold his freedom; the post of the officer and the vote of the juryman were to be had for money; for money the lady of quality surrendered her person, as well as the common courtesan; falsifying of documents, and perjuries had become so common that in a popular poet of this age an oath is called “the plaster for debts.” Men had forgotten what honesty was; a person who refused a bribe was regarded not as an upright man, but as a personal foe. The criminal statistics of all times and countries will hardly furnish a parallel to the dreadful picture of crimes—so varied, so horrible, and so unnatural.’—Mommsen. In this condition of affairs such laws were nothing more nor less than a legal farce.”
And it cannot be denied that similar conditions furnish many a legal farce in the American republic to-day. Good laws may be looked for as the outcome of moral reform, but it is useless to look for moral reform as the outcome of the laws, however good they may be in themselves.