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An essay by George William Curtis

Bicycle Riding For Children

Title:     Bicycle Riding For Children
Author: George William Curtis [More Titles by Curtis]

There has been some joking over Mr. Gerry's proposal to bring Mr. Barnum to legal judgment for violating the statute in exhibiting the young riders upon the bicycle. Mr. Barnum invited a distinguished company, including eminent physicians, to witness the performance; the physicians added that it was no more than healthful exercise. Thereupon the cynics, who have never given a thought or lifted a hand to relieve suffering or to remedy wrong, sneer at superserviceable philanthropy. Mr. Bergh also complained of the killing of the elephant Pilate, and when the matter was explained there was contemptuous chuckling at the sentimental tomfoolery of philanthropic busybodies, and the usual exhortation to reformers to supply themselves with common-sense.

But meantime the mere knowledge that there is an association for the protection of children from cruelty, and another for the defence of animals against human brutes, is in itself a protection for both classes of victims. No parent or employer can wreak his vengeance or ill-temper upon a child, no driver or owner can torment an animal, without the consciousness that some agent may learn of it, or perhaps see it, and bring the offender to justice. Both of these movements, which at first seemed to so many intelligent persons to be strange and impracticable fancies, are among the greatest proofs of the deeper and wiser humanity of the age. These are illustrations of the same spirit which organizes charity and ameliorates penal systems. Mr. Bergh and Mr. Gerry are in the right line of moral descent from John Howard and Sir Samuel Romilly and Mrs. Fry and Miss Carpenter, and when Mr. McMaster brings his history of the American people down to the last decade he will record the purpose and work of the two modest societies as among the striking illustrations of the actual progress of that people.

It is in Lecky's detailed account of the horrible carelessness and suffering, and of the inhuman desertion of prisoners and the poor of the last century in England that we get the true key to the actual condition of the country. Mr. McMaster has thrown a similar light upon the same inhumanity in this country a hundred years ago. Yet every endeavor to correct that inhumanity, to remember the man in the criminal, and wisely to succor a brother in the beggar, has been greeted as an effort to make a silk purse of a sow's ear, to make water run uphill, as the rose-water philanthropy and the coddling of scoundrels, by the same spirit which sneers at the work of Mr. Gerry and Mr. Bergh. Left to that spirit England would be to-day where it was a hundred and fifty years ago, and the signal triumphs of the century would have been unwon. Such a spirit is mingled of ignorance, cowardice, and stupid selfishness. It is always the obstruction of advancing humanity, always the contempt of generous and courageous minds.

It is true, undoubtedly, that every forward step is not wisely taken, and that there are the most absurd parodies of philanthropy, as well as a great deal of pseudo philanthropy, which is merely the mask of knavery. We have taken great pleasure in these very columns in stripping off sundry masks of such philanthropy which is pursued by impostors of both sexes in this city. Common-sense, careful scrutiny, and intelligence, are indispensable in every form of charity and beneficence. But because of the conduct of Shepherd Cowley shall nothing be done for the relief of wretched children? Because of the elaborate system of fraudulent charity of the reverend knave who has been exposed here and elsewhere shall the poor be left without succor?

Everything said and done by the friends of the societies for protecting children and animals may not be wise; but there could be nothing more exquisitely ridiculous than to deride the societies and their labors for that reason. Those who lead the van of reforms are so much in earnest that they must sometimes offend, sometimes mistake, or nothing would ever be done. Emerson says that if Providence is resolved to achieve a result it over-loads the tendency. This produces enthusiasm and fanaticism, and also the indomitable devotion and energy which cannot be defeated. It is when the new way to the Indies becomes his one idea that Columbus discovers America. It is when Luther defies all the opposing devils, although they are as many as the tiles upon the roofs, that he establishes Protestantism.

The doctors and the distinguished company decide upon Mr. Gerry's complaint that the bicycle-riding of the children at Barnum's is healthful and not injurious; and to Mr. Bergh's remonstrance about killing the elephant Pilot, Mr. Barnum replies that he is not likely to inflict a serious loss upon himself by killing one of his animals unless it were clearly necessary. All this may be conceded. But it is very fortunate for the community that there are sentinels of humanity who will summarily challenge and compel a clear and complete explanation. It appears that the riding of the children is not harmful, and the court dismisses Mr. Gerry's complaint. The result is not that Mr. Gerry is "left in a questionable position," but that every circus manager and every exhibitor of children knows that a vigilant eye watches his conduct, and that a prompt hand will deal even with seeming cruelty and severity and exposure. It is very possible that Pilot was despatched as humanely as practicable. But Mr. Bergh's challenge was not an impertinent intermeddling. It reminds every brute in the city that he cannot lose his temper and kick his horse with impunity. Both acts establish a moral consciousness of constant surveillance, which stays the angry hand and succors the limping animal and the friendless child. It is those who relieve pain and suffering, not those who laugh at their zeal, whom history remembers and mankind blesses.

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George William Curtis's essay: Bicycle Riding For Children