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An essay by Thomas Wentworth Higginson

The Rob Roy Theory

Title:     The Rob Roy Theory
Author: Thomas Wentworth Higginson [More Titles by Higginson]

"The Saturday Review," in an article which denounces all equality in marriage laws and all plans of woman suffrage, admits frankly the practical obstacles in the way of the process of voting. "Possibly the presence of women as voters would tend still further to promote order than has been done by the ballot." It plants itself wholly on one objection, which goes far deeper, thus:--

"If men choose to say that women are not their equals, women have nothing to do but to give in. Physical force, the ultimate basis of all society and all government, must be on the side of the men; and those who have the key of the position will not consent permanently to abandon it."

It is a great pleasure when an opponent of justice is willing to fall back thus frankly upon the Rob Roy theory:--

"The good old rule
Sufficeth him, the simple plan
That they should take who have the power,
And they should keep who can."

It is easy, I think, to show that the theory is utterly false, and that the basis of civilized society is not physical force, but, on the contrary, brains.

In the city where the "Saturday Review" is published, there are three regiments of "Guards" which are the boast of the English army, and are believed by their officers to be the finest troops in the world. They have deteriorated in size since the Crimean war; but I believe that the men of one regiment still average six feet two inches in height; and I am sure that nobody ever saw them in line without noticing the contrast between these magnificent men and the comparatively puny officers who command them. These officers are from the highest social rank in England, the governing classes; and if it were the whole object of this military organization to give a visible proof of the utter absurdity of the "Saturday Review's" theory, it could not be better done. There is no country in Europe, I suppose, where the hereditary aristocracy is physically equal to that of England, or where the intellectual class has so good a physique. But set either the House of Lords or the "Saturday Review" contributors upon a hand-to-hand fight against an equal number of "navvies" or "coster-mongers," and the patricians would have about as much chance as a crew of Vassar girls in a boat-race with Yale or Harvard. Take the men of England alone, and it is hardly too much to say that physical force, instead of being the basis of political power in any class, is apt to be found in inverse ratio to it. In case of revolution, the strength of the governing class in any country is not in its physical, but in its mental power. Rank and money, and the power to influence and organize and command, are merely different modifications of mental training, brought to bear by somebody.

In our country, without class distinctions, the same truth can be easily shown. Physical power lies mainly in the hands of the masses: wherever a class or profession possesses more than its numerical share of power, it has usually less than its proportion of physical vigor. This is easily shown from the vast body of evidence collected during our civil war. In the volume containing the medical statistics of the Provost Marshal General's Bureau, we have the tabulated reports of about 600,000 persons subject to draft, and of about 500,000 recruits, substitutes, and drafted men; showing the precise physical condition of more than a million men.

It appears that, out of the whole number examined, rather more than 257 in each 1000 were found unfit for military service. It is curious to see how generally the physical power among these men is in inverse ratio to the social and political prominence of the class they represent. Out of 1000 unskilled laborers, for instance, only 348 are physically disqualified; among tanners, only 216; among iron-workers, 189. On the other hand, among lawyers, 544 out of 1000 are disqualified; among journalists, 740; among clergymen, 954. Grave divines are horrified at the thought of admitting women to vote, since they cannot fight; though not one in twenty of their own number is fit for military duty, if he volunteered. Of the editors who denounce woman suffrage, only about one in four could himself carry a musket; while of the lawyers who fill Congress, the majority could not be defenders of their country, but could only be defended. If we were to distribute political power with reference to the "physical basis" which the "Saturday Review" talks about, it would be a wholly new distribution, and would put things more hopelessly upside down than did the worst phase of the French Commune. If, then, a political theory so utterly breaks down when applied to men, why should we insist on resuscitating it in order to apply it to women? The truth is that as civilization advances the world is governed more and more unequivocally by brains; and whether those brains are deposited in a strong body or a weak one becomes a matter of less and less importance. But it is only in the very first stage of barbarism that mere physical strength makes mastery; and the long head has controlled the long arm since the beginning of recorded time.

And it must be remembered that even these statistics very imperfectly represent the case. They do not apply to the whole male sex, but actually to the picked portion only, to the men presumed to be of military age, excluding the very old and the very young. Were these included, the proportion unfit for military duty would of course be far greater. Moreover, it takes no account of courage or cowardice, patriotism or zeal. How much all these considerations tell upon the actual proportion may be seen from the fact that in the town where I am writing, for instance, out of some twelve thousand inhabitants and about three thousand voters, there are only some three hundred who actually served in the civil war,--a number too small to exert a perceptible influence on any local election. When we see the community yielding up its voting power into the hands of those who have actually done military service, it will be time enough to exclude women for not doing such service. If the alleged physical basis operates as an exclusion of all non-combatants, it should surely give a monopoly to the actual combatants.

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Thomas Wentworth Higginson's essay: The Rob Roy Theory