Tag Archives: Public opinion

Can we make a bad situation just a bit better?

the family is represented as being in a very unhappy state, the parents old & anxious once more to see their son … they pray [he] may be discharged & restored to them . every thing connected with a regular soldiery is so unpopular with citizens at large, that every occasion should be taken of softening it’s roughnesses towards them. in time of peace … I think it would have a good effect to indulge citizens of respectability in cases like the present …
To Henry Dearborn, February 9, 1804

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Wise leaders consider bending the rules occasionally.
A family member petitioned the President for an early release of a soldier who had already served eight years. In 1795, while intoxicated, that young man was induced to enlist by a zealous recruiter. When his five year term was completed, the desperate soldier lacked funds to travel 1,200 miles home and re-enlisted. The soldier’s parents were heartbroken to learn of this news and asked another son to write the President on their behalf. That son begged mercy for his aged parents and release for his brother.

The President referred the matter to Dearborn, his Secretary of War, relaying the facts given him by the petitioning brother. Jefferson acknowledged that public opinion was not on their side regarding the “roughnesses” of military life. This soldier had served one five year term and was more than half through a second five years. The nation was at peace. Could they grant an indulgence to this family, not only for their sake but for public opinion, as well?

The petitioner wrote that another brother had died in March 1803. A footnote to the petitioner’s letter recorded the petitioner himself died a month after writing to the President, at the age of 20. I find no record of how Dearborn acted in this manner, but I suspect he granted the release.

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Have you given people enough time?

In the meanwhile the public opinion was ripening by time, by reflection, and by the example of Pensylva, where labor on the highways had been tried without approbation [approval] from 1786 to 89. & had been followed by their Penitentiary system on the principle of confinement and labor, which was proceeding auspiciously. In 1796. our legislature resumed the subject and passed the law for amending the Penal laws of the commonwealth.
Autobiography, 1821

Patrick Lee’s Explanation
Wise leaders give people enough time.
This excerpt is on the same subject used in the previous post but illustrates a different point.

In the late 1770s, Virginia had decided on hard labor on public projects as appropriate punishment for crimes that had previously been punished by death. Pennsylvania had a similar plan, and it seemed reasonable. Later evidence from that state proved otherwise, that public demeaning did not rehabilitate criminals but made them worse. Virginia was likely experiencing the same result.

Virginian’s support for hard labor in public probably had been enthusiastic. Doing away with hard labor may have faced their opposition. Giving convicts labor to perform within a prison complex, perhaps seen as not harsh enough, might have lacked public support, as well.

Virginia’s legislature would not change the law, because they lacked public support to do so. Pennsylvania’s example, however, was now proving that hard-labor-in-public did not work but labor- within-prison did.

Given 10-15 years, public opinion was changing. Leaders could now act with public support rather than opposition. Thus, Virginia’s laws were changed in 1796 to more humane treatment.

Jefferson later wrote concerning another matter, “Great innovations should not be forced on slender majorities.” This example is one of waiting for public opinion to ripen in support of something new, rather than forcing it upon them before they were ready.

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