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Jane Marcet

On Flogging Soldiers and School Boys

W ILLY was very impatient to hear about the speeches in Parliament, and came early into his mother's room. She told him that it would be impossible for her to give him any idea of the eloquence with which the members of Parliament spoke in arguing or debating about a law, but she might, perhaps, make him understand the manner in which it was done. "I cannot think of a law," said she, "that you could understand, Willy; but we might suppose one: what sort of a law would you like?"

Willy reflected for some time, and then cried out, "Oh, Mamma! I should like of all things that they would make a law that schoolmasters should not flog the boys."

His mother could not help laughing; but she said, "Very well thought of, Willy; for the House of Commons have lately been busy debating about a law to prevent flogging."

"Indeed!" cried Willy, interrupting his Mother, and quite overjoyed.

"Ay, Willy, but you would not let me finish: it was not to prevent the flogging of boys, but of soldiers; and they are much more severely whipped than you ever are at school."

"Oh, Mamma! I have never been whipped, I assure you; but I am obliged to stand and see the other boys flogged, and it makes me so sick! But if the Parliament make a law against flogging soldiers, I am sure the master ought not to treat us worse than the soldiers; so I hope, perhaps, I never shall be flogged."

"Endeavour not to deserve it, Willy, for that is the surest way of escaping."

"Well, Mamma; but now tell me all about the law."

It was proposed and read in the House of Commons; then one of the members rose from his seat, and made a speech in favour of it. He talked of the cruelty of the punishment, of the shame of treating men like brutes: that soldiers, who have any right feeling, think themselves degraded and good for nothing after having suffered such a disgraceful punishment; so they care not what they do, and really become good for nothing: that those daring men, who brave both the pain and the disgrace, only become more hardened by it;—and thus he goes on for an hour or two arguing against flogging."

"Well, I think he might have persuaded them all in less time than that."

"Oh no, Willy; when he sits down, another member rises and makes a speech in opposition to him. He says, that without flogging it would be impossible to preserve discipline in the army; that is, to keep the soldiers in order, and make them obedient; and that without discipline, the soldiers would not fight well in battle: and so he goes on, and makes it out that the country would one day or other be conquered, if soldiers were not flogged when they do wrong."

"To be sure. I never thought of that," said Willy, pensively; "it would certainly be worse for the country to be conquered, than for soldiers to be flogged."

"Then," continued his Mother, "another member gets up and observes, that in France and Germany the punishment of flogging is not allowed, and yet that the soldiers are very well disciplined."

"Oh, how glad I am!" exclaimed Willy, jumping up and clapping his hands; "then we should not be conquered."

"But another member observed, that it was very true that in France and Germany they did not flog the soldiers, but they shot them; and he asked, whether a soldier had not rather be flogged than be put to death?"

"Indeed," said Willy, with a long face, "I would rather be flogged than shot. I hope some other member got up and contradicted him."

"Yes; he said, that the punishment of death was, at least, but rarely inflicted, and only for very great crimes; and that solitary imprisonment, and feeding on bread and water, would do just as well as flogging. Well, after talking it over for three different nights, and consulting the principal officers of the army about it, it was decided by a majority of votes that the law could not be repealed at present."

"Oh dear, how sorry I am!" exclaimed Willy "but, indeed, I do not think it was fair to consult the officers, for you know they are like the master of a school, and, I dare say, like flogging."

"There are, I believe, very few officers who are fond of flogging; and no persons are likely to be such good judges of its effects upon soldiers; but it is true, that having been long used to order the punishment, they may not only cease to consider it as cruel, but they may also find that it is a very easy mode of punishment, and saves them a vast deal of trouble. However, they were desired to flog as little as possible, and to accustom the soldiers, by degrees, to other punishments, so that in time the law might be repealed with safety."

"Well," said Willy, "I wonder what they could find to say, to talk of it three nights."

"It is one of the rules of Parliament, that when it is proposed to make a new law, or repeal an old one, the law must be read over three several times in the House, and the members are at liberty to debate on it each of those times, or even oftener if they think right. This is a very wise regulation; for making a new law, or repealing an old one, is a very important thing, when you consider that the people are obliged to obey the new law whether they like it or not, or whether it is good or bad. It is therefore right that a law should not be made in a hurry, but that the Parliament should be allowed full time to consult and inquire about it, in order to be sure that it will do more good than harm."

"Harm, Mamma!" repeated Willy; "to be sure, the Parliament never make any laws that do harm!"

"The laws of a country," said his mother, "are like the rules of your school, they prevent your having so much liberty as you would otherwise have."

"Oh then, indeed, they do some harm, Mamma, certainly; for I am sure all the rules of the school are very tiresome: you can hardly ever do any thing just when you like, and how you like; there is no liberty but at play-time."

"There may possibly be more rules than are necessary," replied his Mother; "but how do you think the school would go on without rules? You have said, that even during the play hours you were obliged to make rules for yourselves, in order to come to an agreement at what game you should play; and I fear that the boys would have a still greater difficulty to agree when they should come in from the play ground to school."

"Yes, indeed," said Willy, laughing. "If there were no rules to settle what we were to do all day, there would be a great deal of disputing about it; and quarrelling and fighting too, for there would be no rules for punishing naughty boys, you know; and I believe most of the boys would play all day, and very few would work so hard as they are obliged to do now."

"And if, when you came home at holiday time, Willy, I found you had made no progress in your learning, but had grown quarrelsome and disobedient, I should tell the master that I did not choose my son to grow up an ill-tempered dunce; and that he must manage his school better, or I should send you to some other which was better regulated. So you see, Willy, that the boys of a school require rules to govern them, as much as the people of a country require laws; and they must, both of them, put up with the evil in order to have the good. That is, they must put up with the restraint, that they may enjoy the order, peace, and security they produce; that is what I meant, when I said, that a law should do more good than harm. For if the rules of a school are more than are required to keep the boys in order, or that the laws of a country put more restraint on men than is necessary to preserve good government, they are bad."

"Oh, but then, you know, Mamma, the people help to make the laws; I mean they send members of Parliament to do it for them, so they take care not to make laws the people would not like; but the boys at school do not make the rules, it is the master does it and we are obliged to obey them, whether we like them or not."

"That," said his Mother, "is like the sovereign of a despotic government, such as those of Russia or Constantinople."

"Oh do pray tell me about them, Mamma?" said Willy.

"Not to-day, my dear: we have talked quite enough about laws and governments, so we must put it off till to-morrow."