Voltairine de Cleyre, “State, Nature and Art” (1888)

God ought to be a Protestant. I couldn’t help thinking so the day I visited the Philadelphia House of Correction; and if anyone has the patience to hear me out, I think he will agree with me before I conclude this narrativ.

There is a perfect anomaly at the gate of this institution—a civil policeman (though that is not the reason God ought to be a Protestant. Civility is ordinarily incompatible with a blue coat trimmed with brass buttons). This gentleman—I am glad to giv him the title—displayed no unnecessary pomp or patronizing air, as he showed us the way toward the queer-shaped brick building with its radiating corridors, where eleven hundred of the “best citizens of Philadelphia” are being “corrected.”

Are you surprised? Well, that is what the keeper told us, when I inquired whether the inmated learned trades or not. “No,” said he, in a pious accent (the old gentleman was very pious), “this isn’t a penal institution; this is a reformatory institution. Some of the best citizens of Philadelphia come here.”

For all I could see, the “best citizens” looked very much like any other citizens. As Piety took us around and showed us their various employments, I discerned no very distinguishing characteristics of good or of evil on the man faces which seemed to look up with a slight sigh of relief at a break in the monotony, as one sometimes looks at a clock when it strikes. The nature of people appears much the same, whether in the prisons of the law, of the church, or of toil, or of disease. It is a terrible monotony, that is all. It is a pity that people should build places like this to put other people in, and then go look at them as if the human beings imprisoned there were a menagerie of wild beasts. Yet no worse than the prison-houses of thought, nor the gaunt cells of want, nor the torture-bed of suffering. A convict, a house of correction inmate, is only the outward abscess of an inward sore rotting the vitals of society; and a prison appears to me like a very weak piece of salve put on by those quack doctors called law-makers, with the silly expectation that it will purge the blood of poison.

However, I started out to tell why God should be a Protestant, and this is a long way from the mark.

Piety showed us through the clammy corridors of cells, pointing out all the ingenious contrivances for locking in all these “best of citizens,” whose only crime, he told us, was drunkenness; permitting us to examin the cells (which were as narrow as a hungry stomach), and make all the uncivil remarks we had a mind to. I attended to that part of the program. I was open in my unqualified disapproval of the “dark cell” to which some of these “best citizens” are treated when they refuse to work or are otherwise unruly. That hideous, tantalizing, bound-in-blackness imposed by the state upon the helpless individual, seems to me a good deal worse crime than anything ascribed to these men and women by the pious keeper. Upon the small washstand with which each cell is furnished there lie three books—a hymn-book, a Bible, and a smaller edition of the New Testament. Verily religion penetrates the marrow of the coldest stones! What a soft snap that institution must be for religious book-agents and pious publishing houses!

Our attention was called to the shoemaker’s department and the tailor’s department and the laundry department, in which latter the wage-labor outside is brought into competition with one-third rates—collars one cent, cuffs two cents, and other articles in proportion. A diabolic system of robbery, nothing less. By means of this, the quarry, and various other schemes, the “institution not only supports itself, but yields quite a revenue to the city,” Piety complacently informed us.

Patience, my friends. I am coming to God’s case now. Take notice that all tradespeople committed to the tender mercies of the house work at their trades and get their board therefor. We are now shown into the chapel. Attendance is compulsory! In reply to our questions regarding the quality of the religion, we are informed it is Methodist at present. “Any Catholic inmates?” “Oh, yes; a large number.” “Compelled to attend?” “Yes. But our minister always tells them to obey the priest.” “Do you think it just to ask a Catholic to outrage his conscience?” “Well, compulsory attendance is our rule?” “You hav a piano?” “Yes, one of the inmates plays.” At this point the “committee of entertainment” put in a wedge with a sharp point. “Is the minister a salaried official?” “Yes, sir; oh, yes, sir!” “Ah!” murmurs the unholy committee in an undertone, “couldn’t you utilize one of the inmates?”

Now I hope you see why God should be a Protestant. To my mind it is the basest of all base action for a religionist to steal from God. And since the preachers—especially the Methodist preachers—continually assert that without the spirit of God they are powerless to work good, I say it is a sin and a shame for them to take God’s salary. And if I were he I should be a very rigorous protestant. Furthermore I, as a member of the American public, object very strongly to paying the wrong individual, and I move that Congress appoint a committee to take charge of the funds raised for the promotion of God’s work. And if he does not call for them in sixty days from the date of deposit then they will be returned to their donors. I am tired of paying high rent that some one else may pay high taxes, that some one else may build high steeples that some one else may preach high-sounding jargon in and get a high salary for, only to find out in the end that the money was obtained under false pretenses. Will the member from Grand Rapids please take notice?

From the house of correction to the far-famed zoological gardens is a sudden jump, yet altogether a refreshing one. There is no piety here. There are no Catholic monkeys, no Presbyterian kangaroos, no Baptist otters—no, no. I was about to say no Mormon eagles, but I am afraid I had better say elders. I am afraid the eagles were no monogamic. However, they were not setting themselvs up as guides for their fellow-eagles. Wondrously beautiful were those gardens as they lay all embalmed in the sweet June sunshine! Fairmount park is altogether lovely, and this particular portion is more lovely than all the rest. There is such a wealth of beauty; no suggestion of narrowed boundaries. From the hedges the rose-leaves come showering down like a rain of kisses, lying red on the earth’s upturned lips; the ground vibrates with poetry; the air quivers with song. Our pre-Adamite ancestors—some of them looked very wise, with their venerable beards; their hands on their knees, man-fashion; their philosophic craniums, no doubt as well filled with profound reflections on the inferiority of the female brain as those of some other philosophers who hav been airing their musty ideas of late—our ancestors, as I was saying, hav a delightful Eden. And it would be a beautiful resting-place on the “holy Sabbath;” a sweet escape from the tormenting preacher; a glorious lesson to point the inquirer up the long ascent of progress, but I understand the Sunday law decrees otherwise. I do not wonder at the use of the phrase, “Smart as a Philadelphia lawyer.” It must indeed require a very large brain, and one deserving Dickens’s title, the Artful Dodger, to retain and defend all the absurd, unnatural, and abominable laws with which the Quaker City is cursed. Not more cramped the aristocratic Chinese foot than Philadelphia nature by this accursed iron shoe of bigot law. It requires a vigorous local agitation, a continual “fuss,” an energetic upheaval of independent thought, to make manifest the odiousness of this tyranny; and I hope our Philadelphia friends will go about rooting up facts in the ins and outs of the city, and open the fall campaign by a determined attack on this ecclesiastical insult. Let the voices from the alleys and the cellars and the attics, from factory and furnace and all the treadmills of toil, cry up against this outrage, which chains their liberty to rotting corpses on the only day when the stern struggle for existence relaxes its throttling grasp, and, pointing to the closed places of amusement and instruction, says, with grim satire, “Rest.”

For a consideration of $200,000 the art gallery was opened to the public on Sunday—a remarkable concession. There are some magnificent paintings and sculptures there, and I was pleased to notice that, notwithstanding the fact that modest Anthony lectured in the city, Sunday, May 27th, the statues had not donned clothes; and, judging from the throng of people that surged through this painted city of the beautiful, the carved thoughts of the masters and the spirituel canvas of the color-dreamers had rather the larger audience. Thus the good, the beautiful, the true, thought pleading they reach out their pure white hands through the dark prison bars of hate; thought their voices are hushed by the gags of force, and the tyranny of base souls has sought to steep them in the hated rust of its own chains, still, still they triumph. And wherever nature has spoken humanity has listened; where love’s dews hav fallen the flowers hav bloomed; wings unpinioned must upward float; back of the clouds the starshine smiles.

And with the certainty that as the ideal of freedom rises over the world, like dawn upon the mountaintops, the shackles of this fair Eastern city will sink soundless into the past’s deep sea, I bid good-bye to my pleasant friends, and once more am borne away into the purple of the evening and the hills.

Voltairine de Cleyre.

Voltairine de Cleyre, “State, Nature and Art,” The Truth Seeker 15 no. 32 (August 11, 1888): 500-501.

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2702 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.