The Passing Show

Ambrose Bierce

San Francisco Examiner/March 6, 1904


Far be it from me to cast a doubt upon the good faith and magnanimity of Representative Shafroth of Colorado, in voluntarily surrendering his seat in Congress to Mr. Bonynge, who was contesting it, when he learned that that gentleman was justly entitled to it. Mr. Shafroth is an honorable man all right; there is no question of that. Still, he could hardly be insensible to the ominous circumstance that he, a Democrat, had for antagonist a Republican appealing to a Republican House. I am told that there have been a few instances of the House seating a minority contestant, though I do not recall any; and I dare say Mr. Shafroth knew entirely well that, be he right or be he wrong, his cake was dough. Retirement with applause was a more graceful and profitable performance than ejection without it. It was the difference between doing his duty and having his duty done to him. The candid astonishment that greeted him would be rather weak evidence of the universality of the particular virtue that inspired his act, but the applause that followed as soon as the members could recover their breath proves that there is still extant so noble a sentiment as admiration without emulation.

With a wiser wisdom than was given to them, our forefathers in making the Constitution would not have provided that each House of Congress “shall be the judge of the elections, returns and qualifications of its own members.” They would have foreseen that a ruling majority of Congress could not trusted to exercise this power justly in the public interest, but would abuse it in the interest of party. A man’s right to sit in a legislative body should be determined, not by that body, which has neither the impartiality, the knowledge of evidence nor the time to determine it rightly, but by the courts of law. That is how it is done in England, where Parliament voluntarily surrendered the right to say by whom the constituencies’ shall be represented, and there is no disposition to resume it. As the vices hunt in packs, so, too, the virtues are gregarious; if our Congress had the righteousness to decide contested elections justly it would have also the self-denial not to wish to decide them at all.

Events in the Orient have now so matured as to make a forecast of the result of the war comparatively easy to the military mind. Destruction of the Russian fleet at Port Arthur is a matter of the gravest importance, owing to the great expense of putting the ships together again. In order to do that in time to accomplish something before the necessity has passed Russia must negotiate a loan of at least one hundred thousand roubles or more. In the meantime Japan will have taken Tokyo. After that there will be but two courses open to the Czar: he can have the Baltic fleet chopped out of the ice in the harbor of Kronstadt and then chopped in again, or he can remove the vessels in the Black Sea to Vladivostok. Either course will be fatal. Japan’s sphere of action, too, is greatly restricted. To offset the Baltic fleet (if the Czar’s ruse of chopping it out should deceive anybody) the Mikrto must reinforce his army from the moon–no very difficult task, for Japan’s astronomers are the most skillful in the world. The effect of such a coup de main would be a distinct result. On land the chances are more nearly even; victory will probably perch upon the banners of the army that overcomes its antagonist in the least time. But that leaves the Cossacks out of the reckoning, an unwise thing to do. One can never calculate what steppes the Cossacks will take. The problem is complicated, too, by Japan’s proposal to enlist our Rough Riders for service in the commissary department, making it a department that will surely depart. Even at this early stage of the war it is easy to forecast the result of the first great land engagement that follows the others, for already ten thousand Russians are reported to be marching from Wyo Ming to Pen Yan with a view to intercepting the retreat of the Japanese fleet from Picka Li Li, a fatal mistake, for they will undoubtedly be assailed by the fortress Mulligatawny and overthrown, even if not actually surrounded. No nation could recover from so disastrous a reverse as that. So all is clear.

Only one element of uncertainty remains to be considered: the possibility of the great European Powers being drawn into the war. This, it is believed, is remote. Turkey’s espousal of the other side would of itself be sufficient to prevent it. She has the immemorial alliance of the Dardanelles, a most powerful tribe, holding all the approaches to the theatre of war and having an efficient navy, amply manned with mounted sailors, Japan wins.

I acknowledge receipt of a poem entitled “The Dawn of a Better Day,” It seems to be a rather long poem, so I select a single passage for quotation, believing it gives a fairly good notion of the whole, in thought and expression:

Universal Natural Law

The most marvelous agency that ever I saw

All-pervading, without a flaw,

A fountain of wisdom from which to draw;

If we were not much too blind,

What a teacher we here would find.


Carefully typewritten on my intelligent machine, those lines look so much better than they read that I cannot forbear to transcribe some more:

When we shall have worked out a plan

Which will eliminate the middleman.

And say to the parasites who nothing produce:

“Get a move on, drones, be of some use.”

Ah then, my friend, this nation will be fine,

A personal possession, ours, your, mine;

And every inhabitant will be what nought.

A whole-souled, generous patriot.

When we shall have worked out a plan

I am asked (apparently by the author) if these remarkable lines are “rot” or “not,” and if he “should continue to write or desist.” Well, in my judgment they are not “not,” and he should continue to desist. But I don’t mind saying, for his encouragement, that a poet can do more profitable things than write good poetry. I know one who writes no better than he, who nevertheless, but all the more, can get his work into any newspaper that knows no better than to print it. He flourishes by looking the freak that he is not; that way prosperity lies. Let my anxious friend put the following lines into his memory, along with “Thirty days hath September” and other useful knowledge:

The bard who’d prosper must carry a book,

   Do his thinking in prose and wear

A crazy cravat, a far-away look

   And a head of hexameter hair.

Be lean in your thought and your body’ll be fat

If you wear your hair long you needn’t your hat


When an eminent man is suffering from a long illness we hear a good deal about his “tremendous will power,” his “heroic battle for life,” and the rest of it. There is nothing in it all, nothing corresponding to the facts, nothing complimentary to the patient. It does not give one a particularly agreeable impression, this conception of a soul so dreadfully concerned to keep itself in the clay to avert for a little longer the natural and not unfriendly fate that comes to all. He who should consciously “struggle” to do this would not be a very great man, nor would his pitiful “battle” be an inspiring spectacle. As a matter of fact, one in the clutch of a fatal disease is mercifully spared the desire to do any such thing. He is either unconscious of his danger or unconcerned about it, the one apathetic actor in the tragedy. The “battling”‘ is all done by the physicians and nurses. If the persons who write these things would be good enough to refrain, but how can one refrain from ignorance, bad taste and destitution of sense?

Mr. Nicola Tesla, always on the point .of perfecting some electrical invention that is to “revolutionize” everything, affirms his fatherhood of a torpedo dirigible without wires and equally effective on sea and land. His notion, as he is good enough to expound it, is “to make war bloodless by making its possibilities so terrible that all battles will be between mere automatic machines. After a battle hat been fought between these machines,” he goes on to say, “the nation deprived of its automatons will be forced to surrender because it will be absolutely defenseless.”

What a charming picture: war carried on by machines so destructive that nobody dares to encounter it by riding in the machine! While these metal mongers are destroying one another under the intelligent generalship of a Tesla, each sitting miles away and manipulating a keyboard, the industries of the belligerent nations proceed without interruption: the farmer jocundly drives his team afield, the financier exploits the pocket of his dupe, the writer of paragraphs in the newspaper pours out, unafraid, the incalculable jewels of his mind. It is a great scheme, is the soldierless war–a conception almost worthy of the great Edison himself. It appears to have but one defect: there is no place in it for the magic metal, radium, How could Mr. Tesla overlook the supreme need of the situation?

An excellent gentleman who has had the distinction to shake the hand of President Roosevelt and the tidiness to abstain from washing his own hand ever since affirms his wish to “take that splendid grip” with him “out of this world into the next.” He can’t do that. Long after both he and the President are gone before, long after their immortal parts have fled away beyond the blazing suns and the swirling nebulae, long after the hand that gave it and the hand that took have moldered to dust and the plowshare has passed without obstruction through them, that grip will remain in its terrestrial environment waiting for another chance at the reins of power and the rights of a friendly republic.

At last the fighting between Japan and Russia has produced something worthwhile, something really interesting and worthy to take the attention of heroes of commerce and kings of finance. Here it is: a scare-headed newspaper article on “The Effect of the War on Raw Siik!” Now let the harp of trade be tuned and “the commercial spirit of the age” heard in a song o’ sixpence that shall drown the brazen strains cf the military band and silence forever the braying bards of battle! Come, come, who will be the first to sing the fortunes of Raw Silk?

As was foreshadowed in these columns, the decision of the New York Court of Appeals on Mr. Roland B. Molineaux’ petition to have his photographs and Bertillon measurements removed from “the Rogues’ Gallery” was adverse. So here we have another free American citizen, who, accused of crime, acquitted and “leaving the court without a stain upon his character,” has to endure with what fortitude he may the now purposeless and continuing indignity of official classification as an identified criminal. If he do not henceforth love the country for which his honored old father fought on many a “stubborn field,” who will have the right of rebuke? His case recalls the memorable words of a negro slave of pre-rebellion days: “On Lake Champlain my father fought in blood up to his ankles to gain for me the liberty of which I am now deprived by law.”

A vulture sat on a barren rock

   Overlooking the River Yaloo.

He said: “It gives me a terrible shock

   To think what the Japs will do.


“They’re after the Russians to eat them

   And I really can’t concur,

For ’twill leave me neither bite nor sup

   Of the diet that I prefer. 


“The Russian is fat and soft and big,

   Excelled as a viand by none;

With a flavor of vodka-soaken pig

   He is meat and drink in one.


“True, having eaten the Russian, the Jap

   Will be, in monopoly, mine. 

But he’s not a satisfactory chap

   Upon whom to perch and dine


“I’m a good provider of meats unfresh

   And I never dine alone; 

She’s hungry too–my old woman, the flea

   Of my flesh and bone of my bone.


“The man of the Land of the Rising Sun

   As a family meal won’t do;  

He’s altogether too much for one, 

And not nearly enough for two.”


This “legal holiday” business is overdone, with great possibilities of more overdoing. We have, for example, in some of the states a “legal holiday” on the 22nd of February, in honor of Washington. The 12th day of the same month supplies us with another in honor of Lincoln. Many fervent patriots feel that Grant should be honored in the same way, others that Jefferson, Hamilton, Jackson, Franklin and so forth should be officially “remembered.” The fertility’of our political soil, it is hoped, is not exhausted; it will grow many another Great Man. (Outside of politics the Great-Man crop in this country is not abundant; in political eminence lies the American’s only hope of lasting fame.) Unless we add to the number of days in the year how shall we provide for all these increasing needs without too disastrous interference with trade and industries? The best answer that I have heard is given by a thoughtful young woman who teaches school in the District of Columbia. She proposes a single “legal holiday” for all–an All Heroes Day, corresponding to the All Saints Day in the calendar of the church. That would economize time and give to every devout American citizen a chance to worship the hero of his choice, according to the dictates of his political conscience, without seeming to disparage the choice of his neighbors as in the British army before Sebastopol .

Each heart recalled a different name.

But all sang “Annie Laurie.”   


Another advantage of this plan is that under it even such dei minores as men of letters might obtain silent recognition if clearly remembered and sufficiently dead. Their admirers need not openly profess devotion, thereby bringing derision upon themselves; while secretly and harmlessly enough adoring the memory of Poe or Longfellow they would appear to be making genuflexion to Jefferson or Schuyler Colfax or James Hamilton Lewis (when he shall have passed away) and so retain the respect of his fellows, along with as much of his own as is compatible with his queer preference. Let Congress and the State Legislatures enact the needful laws to set up All Heroes’ Day and I’ll undertake to procure the approval of the bills by the young woman who devised the plan.

In the course of a hearing which a Senate committee accorded the other day to advocates of a Constitutional amendment establishing woman suffrage a former Governor of a Western State explained that be was “personally acquainted with ten thousand women voters” and “was prepared to assert that the right to vote did not detract from their womanly instincts as mothers and wives, nor mar their feminine refinement.” One hardly knows which is the more surprising the singularly extensive “circle” of this gentleman’s female personal acquaintance, or his marvelously minute knowledge of the characters of his “lady friends.” When one thinks of the magnitude of the studies that are necessary in order to be “prepared to assert” a thing ;t that kind one is consumed with envy of the intellect that could endure the strain! It is not surprising that such a man became Governor; the wonder is that he did not become two.

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