Voltairine de Cleyre, “On Liberty” (1909)

ON LIBERTY

By VOLTAIRINE DE CLEYRE.[note]Speech delivered by Voltairine de Cleyre at the Cooper Union Protest Meeting, June 30, 1909.[/note]

MR. Crosby has said he is here in the interest of “good government”; so am I. But you know the brutal saying of some white man about Indians: “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.” In my opinion, the only “good” government is a dead government.

I am in the habit of writing out what I have to say in advance: the reasons are several, but the principal one governing me in the present instance is, that I am speaking not only to the people here, but before a censorship so ignorant that it can neither understand nor correctly report what it does understand; and in the event of my being called to account for what I did not say, I wish to be able to show in writing precisely what I did say. And in the event of my being pulled off the platform by the police before I have opened my mouth (as has happened to me before now), I may be able to say, “Here is what I would have said.”

Alas, this censorship! This thing of large biceps, large necks, large stomachs, and pyramidal foreheads! It sits in judgment upon things spiritual, things moral, things social, things scientific, things artistic—laugh, O Muse of Comedy—all things which it knows nothing about. It sits and decides upon the iniquity of words which have not been spoken; out of the profundity of its nether stomach, declares that to be seditious which no man has yet heard. Ah, when Emma Goldman shall next lecture upon the Modern Drama, let her not forget this drama of the censorship, wherein avoirdupois is the hero, and the people of America—if you please, the scientists, the artists, the teachers, the literateurs—are the pitiful clowns. Let us appreciate to the full the working of this fine sixth sense which has entered into the corporeality of the police, that spacious corporeality, permeating them with power to divine that what a man or a woman has not yet said is going to be dangerous to the order and welfare of society.

Anent this same censorship and its perspicacity, and information, I had an illustration some years ago, at the beginning of this wave of good-guardianship which we are now enjoying. The moral guardians of my city, who are every once in a while caught stealing and receiving stolen goods, conceived that it was important to protect the frequenters of a certain co-operative society against the sale of Anarchist literature. They paused therefore at the stand by the door and began the censoring task. Among the rest there lay on the desk the little booklet of verses which I have here, “The Worm Turns.” As its title would indicate to those not gifted with the sixth sense—the censorship sense, so to speak—it is a collection of rebel protests. The censor, however, looked it through—carefully, and laid it down. A second sensor, a revisionary censor I presume, approached, picked it up, and inquired, “What’s this?” “Oh,” said number one, “that’s all right; that’s something about worms.”

It happens that the first line of the first stanza of the first poem reads thus:

“Germinal! The field of Mars is ploughing—”

I presume the censor thought that Mr. Mars, some worthy Pennsylvania farmer, no doubt, having turned up a clod or so with his plough, had probably discovered mischievous “worms” therein and set his wits to work to rid the field of them; and then to turn an honest penny by imparting to his fellow farmers the peculiar turning methods of the worms and how to circumvent them.

Indeed, when we consider what liberty one time meant in America and what it means now; when we consider the ease with which our censors forbid anything at all which happens to come into their—sixth sense, and the supineness with which the people in general accept these interferences; when we see the terrorizing methods of the sixth-sensers in their determination to crush what little dignity there may be in hall-keepers, by threatening them with the arrest, not only of themselves, but of their wives and children, if they rent halls to whomsoever the police shall designate as under the ban, and the abject submission of the threatened; when we consider that the main activity in life, for the great majority of all the people, is grubbing and crawling and bending to get food and drink,—perhaps—perhaps the censorship is right in thinking that the whole subject is “something about worms.” Verily, when I learned a short time ago that a man whose name has been identified with the cry of the “suffering ages” as one of the spokesmen of the disinherited, had declined to sign the Demand of the Free Speech Committee, I felt that we were indeed dealing with annulates, not vertebrates,—creatures with rings in their bodies instead of spines, and that the old religious phrase “a worm of the dust” was no mock self-depreciation, but a bare fact; I felt the burning shame of Gerald Massey’s words shoot through me like a flame:

"Smitten stones will talk with fiery tongues,
     And the worm, when trodden, will turn;
But, cowards, ye cringe to the crudest wrongs,
     And answer with never a spurn."

It is the people’s fault far more than the fault of the police that these outrages upon the freedom of expression take place. I do not mean you here, who by coming and sitting here on this sweltering night, have shown where your sympathies lie. But what are you in number compared to the millions of New York City?

If the people in the mass cared, the police would not have dared. If the suppression of a great fundamental freedom appealed to the mass as much as a baseball umpire’s decision, there would be meetings from one end of the city to the other, to make known the sentiment of the people in regard to these attacks upon liberty. The fact is there is but a handful which cares anything about the matter; and the question is how far is this handful able to make itself heard? How determined are we, who do want free speech, to wring that right out of the rest?

There is but one way that free speech can ever be secured; and that is by persistent speaking. It is of, no use to write things down on paper, and put them away in a store-room, even if that store-room happens to be the Library at Washington, and the thing written is that “Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech.” That’s like anything else put away on a shelf and forgotten. Speak, speak, speak, and remember that whenever any one’s liberty to speak is denied, your liberty is denied also, and your place is there where the attack is.

Of late these attacks have centered upon one personality—that of Emma Goldman.

Emma Goldman is my friend, and my comrade; and upon all large principles our thoughts are close kin. But were she as much my enemy as she is my friend, and were our thoughts as bitterly opposed as they are sympathetic, I should still say that an attack upon her freedom to speak was an attack on mine, and my business was to be there to resist.

Freedom of speech means nothing, if it does not mean the freedom for that to be said which we do not like. I have seen statements in reputable newspapers, such as the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Press, to the effect that the only proper place for an Anarchist is the end of rope swung to a lamp-post. Certainly I am not of that opinion; I think all hanging is brutal and barbaric; and I should naturally have a particular objection to its being applied to me; but those papers have a perfect ,right to say it, just as I have the right to say that the sayers have the souls of hangmen. And I will stand for their right.

There will come a time when with a lightning-like clarification the mass of the people will become conscious of this need of freedom, just how, when, or why it will take place there can be no certainty; but it certainly will take place, just as it always has done in the past, when the measure of tyranny has gone overfull, and those who crept and crawled have suddenly realized that they had spines.

When the old iron tongue in Independence Hall clanged out from its brazen throat, “Proclaim liberty throughout the land to all the inhabitants thereof,” Oh, this wasn’t the sort of thing they were dreaming of! Liberty was alive and awake then, and quivering down to the finger tips in all the people. It sleeps now, a long, cold, dim sleep; but not forever. There will come a dawn, sharp and white, and liberty will be awake then—in that hour, when, in Kipling’s phrase, “When the dawn comes up like thunder.” It is at such periods that declarations of freedom are made, which afterward fall into disuse; nevertheless, some forward leap is taken which is never altogether lost. Until such time it must be the task of freedom lovers to carry a torch through the darkness; and this we will do, even if we have to carry it through dungeon stones. And we know what prisons mean: they mean broken down body and spirit, degradation, consumption, insanity,—we know it all; but if that is the price that we must pay, be sure that we shall pay it.


Voltairine de Cleyre, “On Liberty,” Mother Earth 4, no. 5 (July 1909): 151-155.

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2300 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.