Saturday, July 13, 2013

Response to the "Bird Law" Part 3

On February 24, 1818, the Salem Gazette made fun of the Bird Law, with a serious purpose. The Gazette was less concerned about the merits of the law itself (except for its apparent triviality) and more about what it considered a general "effervescence of Legislation."
   The Legislature of this State at their present session have exhibited to their constituents a laudable example of industry and activity. They have entered what the sage of Monticello calls "the great field of human concern," and have tested and touched and handled every object within their view. Nothing has been too vast for their comprehension, nothing too minute for their perception. They have very gravely deliberated on Pickerel and the Militia-- ... [the Gazette continues with a long list of acts]... and for the preservation of Woodcocks and Robins. The sympathies of all, who have wept at the perusal of the Ballad of the Children of the Wood, must be excited in behalf of "Little Robin-Redbreast that sat upon a stump." And general joy will be expressed at this interesting bird's having met the favour of the Legislature. The bill was drawn with all due caution, for it has doomed Crows and Owls to the deadly aim of the fowler....The Small bird Law is a sample of thorough legislation, for it takes up the subject above; and we have no suspicion the object of the legislators is feather their own nests, for they are more disinterested than the famous patriot, John Wilkes, who sneeringly declared that the public was a Goose and he a Fool that would not pluck a feather.
   When the public finds the pigeon holes of the Clerk of the House stuffed with bills for Robins and other birds of the air, the following extract occurs to mind:
"Really, Sir," said Mr. Windham in the British House of Commons, "Really, Sir, in turning from the great interests of this country and of Europe, to discuss with equal solemnity such measures as that which is now before us, the House appeals to me to resemble Mr. Smirk, the auctioneer in the play, who could hold forth just as eloquently upon a ribbon as a Raphael. This petty, meddling, legislative spirit, cannot be productive of good."
Some nine years later (January 16, 1827), the Salem Gazette reported about a bill (which ultimately failed) that would have prohibited the "setting up any domestic fowl or quadruped or anyother thing watsoever as a mark to be shot at for gain or reward." [The use of live targets is, astoundingly, still legal in parts of the United States]. One particular objection reported in the story is relevant: 
Mr. Washburn honored the motives of the gentlemen who introduced the bill, but was opposed to it in detail. We have enough pickerel and bird laws already, which neither honor the statute books of the Commonwealth, not the Legislatures which enacted them. He thought the present bill like those, and would be as inoperative. The subject was one for public opinion to control, and the laws on such subjects created more evils than the practices they were intended to prevent. Who are the persons who attend these sports? They are generally the vulgar and the lower orders of society. They must have their sports and their holidays and if deprived of these they will find others....
This response, hopefully, sheds light on the John Ploughshare, Jr. story of the previous post. It would appear that the primary opposition to the Bird Law of 1818 was not directly aimed at the law itself but at the use of legal means vs "public opinion" as the way of solving bird protection problems.  Note that Washburn also suggested bird laws were "inoperative." In the next post I will consider some notices in the press that observe the act in operation. 

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