THE LIBERTIES IN AMERICA
America is certainly the country of liberty. You cannot dig a hole without disturbing the whole governmental hierarchy, but on the other hand, you can move around freely, you can marry freely, you can eat free. However, there is one restriction which it is very sad to find in the midst of this abundance of liberties—you cannot drink freely every day.
One Sunday after having conducted my orchestra in a temperature like Equatorial Africa, I rushed to a bar and asked for a glass of beer. The proprietor looked at me sadly.
“Impossible, sir. I have no waiters.”
“What’s that? You! What have you done with all of your personnel?”
“All my waiters are in prison because they tried to serve my clients in spite of being strictly forbidden to do so.”
“It is forbidden to drink on Sunday?”
“I am going to look into this.”
I ran to the Hotel Brunswick and gave my order: “A sherry cobbler.”
“I’m sorry, sir, that I am forced to refuse, but the bar is closed and for a good reason. All my waiters have been arrested.”
“But I am dying of thirst.”
“The only thing that we are allowed to serve is soda water.”
It was the same everywhere in the city of New York. That very Sunday three hundred waiters had been jailed because they had dared bring refreshments to their clients. It was lucky that the clients who had asked for something to drink had not been arrested at the same time! What a strange kind of liberty!
In America you haven’t even the right to hang yourself.
A drunkard hanged himself. He was a clumsy fellow and hanged himself so badly that after a few hours he was brought back to life. As soon as he had regained his senses, he was brought before a judge and condemned to six months in prison. Ordinarily it is three months, but the dose was doubled for this fellow because he was a repeater; the third time he would be condemned to death. To take your life you need a permit from the governor.
The Negroes have been emancipated. What a beautiful, pompous reform that was! The good blacks are free, too free, and this is how. Cars, streetcars, and other public vehicles are forbidden to them; they are not admitted to the theatres under any pretext; they are admitted to restaurants only if they are serving there. So you see: Liberty, Equality, Fraternity!
Perhaps you think that the Negroes are alone in not having all the desirable freedoms. That is an error. The proprietor of the Cataract Hotel at Niagara inserted in the chief newspapers a notice that reads as follows: “Being in a perfectly free country, having the right to do what I please in my own home, I decree: first and only rule. Beginning today Jews are excluded from my hotel.” Perhaps it is useless to add that this liberal hotelkeeper has been forced after two years to sell his establishment because business was so bad.
When I arrived at Philadelphia, I took advantage of the first Sunday I had free to go to the Exposition. I found the hall closed. The exhibitors were forbidden to display their products on Sunday. In the evening I took a fancy to go to the theatre. Yes, to be sure! The theatre was closed, the concerts were closed—exactly as in New York.
The only day in the week which belongs to the workman is Sunday. He might profit from these few hours of relaxation to educate himself or to amuse himself, to perfect himself in his trade by looking at the fine products exhibited by the greatest manufacturers of the two worlds—the Exposition is closed. He might also find some relaxation Sundays by going to some good play, yet, it is precisely that day that everything is closed—the Exposition, the theatre, and the concert hall. If anyone is worthy of respect, it is certainly the workman. After his hard work during the week, he needs to rest his mind. If he goes out with his family, he can’t even quench his thirst with a bottle of beer. So what does he do? While his wife and children go to church or to take a walk, he remains at home in tête-à-tête with a bottle of whiskey.
Liberty of work, of invention, and of exploitation is enormous in this country. The inconveniences which result from it are enormous too. When an idea comes into the head of an American, it is immediately put into practice. I might cite as an example the rapid development of the streetcars which dethroned the omnibuses in no time at all. Now streetcars are in fashion. There are tramways everywhere. Since the width of the streets does not permit the installation of any more rails on the ground, one inventor thought up the idea of constructing elevated railways. A fine idea which he immediately hastened to put into practice.
Here is the story they tell apropos of this. A lady who had just bought a charming little house on “Broad ways” went to the country and came back after five or six months to settle down in her new dwelling. She arrived at night and slept deeply. The next morning peals of thunder and horrible whistling awakened her. She ran to the window, forgetting to put on her clothes. What did she see? A train passing before her at full speed, with heads of curious passengers at every window. The lady fainted dead away. When she came to herself, her first idea, even before closing the window, was to send for her lawyer and start a big lawsuit against the new company. The house that she had bought for $200,000 was now worth scarcely a quarter of this sum; but she had the liberty of selling it.
The day on which one most enjoys unlimited liberty in America is the Fourth of July, Independence Day. Everything is permitted on that day and, God knows, people profit by this latitude. I have kept a number of the Courtier des États-Unis, which gives the clearest details in an account of this memorable day. Leaving aside a great number of accidents of only secondary interest, I take up only the serious ones. The article entitled “The Reverse of the Medal” begins this way:
The first reports had only given us a very incomplete account of the misfortunes or accidents which happened in New York. A nineteen-year-old girl, Mary Henley of 261 Sixth Avenue was walking on Eighth Avenue with two of her friends. Near Twenty-second Street some firecrackers were thrown at the women. They paid no attention, and it was only after having walked about a “brock” [sic] that Mary Henley felt she was burning, her clothes were afire. Crazed with pain, she began to run, flaming from head to foot. It took several men to hold the poor girl, the horrible pain made her struggle so energetically. The flames were smothered, but it was too late. The whole body of Mary Henley was nothing but one solid burn.
During the fireworks display at City Hall Park, a bomb exploded in the midst of a group of spectators, five of whom were wounded, three dangerously.
Finally, we have under our eyes a list of forty-nine people-—children for the most part—who were injured on Fourth of July, day and evening. Some lost an eye, others a hand, others had broken ribs, still others had their faces or other parts of their body burned. A few injured themselves handling firearms or setting off bombs, or falling from roofs or windows, but at least nine-tenths of them owe their wounds to pistol shots, fired by “some unknown person.” It is only charitable to believe that most of these unknown people were merely clumsy, not vicious.
These disasters are not confined to New York. In all of the big cities in the various states similar things happened. At Washington, where “the hundredth anniversary was celebrated very quietly”—what would have happened if the holiday had been noisier?—”The rowdy element started trouble and before nightfall four murders had been committed, all the result of drunkenness. Many people visited the tomb of Washington at Mount Vernon. Unfortunately, this sacred place was not free from disorder and bloodshed. Several drunkards fought with knives. No one was arrested.”
Philadelphia’s turn now.
The Fourth of July was fatal in Philadelphia. Aside from the large fire of which we shall speak in another place and in which four persons died, the city had another ruinous conflagration caused by the imprudence with which it is traditional to handle firearms. Some boys were firing a cannon near a scaffold of the Collins Construction Company at the foot of Laurel Street. The oakum used as wadding fell on some shingles and set fire to them. It was the beginning of a fire that caused $250,000 damage and gutted the section of the city between Laurel and Shackamaxon streets. We have calculated that the cost of each cannon shot was about a quarter of a million dollars, paid for the most part by several different insurance companies.
One can judge from these extracts what a great number of accidents, fires, and deaths occurred on the Fourth of July across the country.
As for me, I admit that these disasters make me appreciate our detestable European governments that come right out and forbid such liberties as endanger the lives of citizens and provide the protection of our worthy gendarmes. I have seen what unlimited liberty means—I prefer our policemen.
Now comes the comic note after the drama, although this last incident is told very seriously by an American newspaper. To give an idea of the results that can be expected with the system of liberty as it is practiced in America, I copy word for word the account of an accident which I have just read in the Detroit Free Press.
Independence Day was celebrated gloriously in Detroit. All of the citizens paid dearly for this occasion. To cite only one example, this is what happened to the Hamerlin family, one of the richest in the state.
At six o’clock in the morning, the head of the family, as he was trying to hang a flag out the window of the second story of his house, fell into the street. A bad fall! He broke three flower pots and one of his ribs. It was only the beginning of a series of indescribable disorders. While some neighbors were pouring lemonade and cognac down the throat of the injured man, and the doctors were quarreling with each other over this patient who had fallen from heaven, all the while shouting hurrahs for Independence Day, Madame Hamerlin complicated the situation by falling down the back stairs. The poor woman was trying to prevent her son Johnny from exploding torpedoes in the stove. She didn’t break anything, luckily, but after her fall, she had no breath to shout Vive l'Indépendance.
Since the father and mother were out of commission, the Hamerlin children profited by the circumstance. John, enraged at not being able to explode his firecrackers in the stove, took it into his head to cover himself with torpedoes—two in his hands and one in his mouth. A spark and all three torpedoes go off at once. A general fire alarm. Poor John got his mouth burned. He will have to keep it shut for a long time.
The younger son enjoyed setting trains of powder afire. He burned his hands. Giving up the difficult trade of fireworks maker, he went outdoors to try to forget his suffering. . . . That evening there was a knock at the door of the Hamerlin house.
“What’s the matter?”
“I am bringing your son back. He’s in a bad way. A hole in his leg.”
The son was put to bed.
Finally, the daughter—nothing very interesting happened to her. A passing urchin only hit her in the right ear with a torpedo, and an unknown man fired a gunshot so close to her left ear that she was rendered deaf.
In a month the Hamerlin family will have recovered. Besides, you mustn’t believe that these victims in Detroit are sorry about the whole thing. On the contrary, Mr. Hamerlin said to us with entire good faith, “To have celebrated the Fourth of July with as much fun as we had—that is certainly worth $10,000!”