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Of Forks & Conformity

July 2024
1min read

As Speaker of the House of Representatives in the late 1890’s, Thomas B. Reed of Maine was known as Czar Reed for his rather dictatorial manner of conducting House affairs. At the center of his public philosophy was his conviction that leadership, while it might sometimes influence, was in reality only a reflection of the public will. Speaking on this theme at Colby College m 1885, he remarked:
Whoever invented the fork four hundred years ago outraged the public sentiment of his day. Riots took place over them, and at least one divine preached against them as unhallowed and disrespectful to the Deity. When the Pilgrim Fathers, from whom all Boston is descended, except the North End, landed on Plymouth Rock not one solitary fork bore testimony to the respectability with which it is evident they have been too hastily credited. Two hundred years ago nobody used a fork; to-day, nobody dares to use anything else. This perpetual control of mankind by itself, this constant and persistent demand for uniformity so irksome to all innovators, so repressing to all improvements, must be a terrible necessity. It shows by its very force how much the human race needs watching. …

We do not appreciate this tremendous searching omnipotent and omnipresent control of popular opinion because most of our lives are passed in easy submission to it. But it behooves a man to take heed before he begins to run counter to it, whether he longs to proclaim a great principle which will free a race, or merely wants to wear his hair long down his back. In most cases he will be simply suppressed, and even if he be of the stuff of which heroes are made he will many a time be sore of heart because he has seen fit to be unlike other men. …

What is this public sentiment? It is in its essence nothing more or less than the expression of the average intelligence and average ignorance of mankind. It demands, insists upon, and will have, uniformity. The race must go on together, and as a whole. It demands that those who are below the standard shall, in their outward lives, come up to the standard, and that those who are above the standard shall come down. … The reason why the race of man moves slowly is because it must move all together. The poor, the ignorant, the downtrodden are always saying to the rich and educated, inarticulately too often, but with a voice that brooks no denying, if you advance you must take us with you. …

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