"One or Two Plain Questions." Independent, 22 October 1908, pp. 944-46.

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"One or Two Plain Questions." Independent, 22 October 1908, pp. 944-46.


reform; women's suffrage; Imperialism


“One or Two Plain Questions”

By Rebecca Harding Davis

Every day the Weather Bureau[1] gives us a report in the news papers of the condition of the temperature all over the country, and also a forecast of the weather to come, the sunshine, storms, heat and cold which we may reasonably expect in a given time. This daily account and prophecy are founded, as everybody knows, on countless minute reports of weather conditions sent in daily to Washington from every quarter of the United States.

Now, why should we not try to make a similar guess at the future condition in morals and conduct of this country from the daily reports of our behavior now in the newspapers?

Reading any of them any day, we are struck, first, by the self-confidence, the impregnable assurance of the American. Whatever this generation may doubt, the one thing we never question is our own magnificent persistent advance in civilization. We expect to go on leading humanity up to perfection. We hear this note of exultation incessantly — in sermons, in the harangues of college boys, in the President's message in the leading article in our morning paper. We are called on to consider the unparalleled the scientific and material successes of this generation, and, stranger still, the change in the condition of the working classes. We are reminded that sixty years ago the negroes were slaves forbidden by law to learn how to read and write. Now every man, whatever his color, of the eighty million Americans, is free, with the chance before him to be as helpful to the world as is Booker Washington.[2]

Sixty years ago, we are told, there was not a single club or league among workingmen in this country. Now their, unions hold the balance of power in all elections.

These optimists, too, call on us to observe the enormous advance—not only in this country, but in all others—of right thinking and decent living.

One short century ago, for instance, the United States regularly paid a yearly tribute to Algeria to buy security for our ships from her pirates.[3] Now the Algerians appear in the world's markets, as honest and polite dealers as any in the exchange of New York or Philadelphia. Half a century ago that most gallant and Christian gentleman, Coleridge Patteson,[4] ventured into the South Seas to teach the cannibals how to live, only to have his brains promptly beaten out by them. Now it would not be wise for you to venture on the same coast without your dress suit and other requirements of fashionable society, so genial would be your welcome.

Our optimists, in urging their claims, of this general advance and betterment of mankind, point, too, to such hopeful signs as the Hague Conference,[5] and the leagues of scientific men, of humanitarians and of religious teachers, speaking every language and quickened by every faith, who are giving all of their strength to the uplifting of the poor and ignorant. They show us triumphantly the Catholic, the Presbyterian, the Episcopalian, the Buddhist and the Mohammedan[6] working shoulder to shoulder to build hospitals, to drain fever swamps

and to destroy poisonous germs for the relief of the pagans, and they cry: “This is sunrise at last! This is the promised coming of the Christ!”

Women, too, are now incessantly sounding their separate pæans of triumph. Such of them as want to take part in the government of their country announce daily that the hour of their enfranchisement is at hand. It is true that Susan Anthony[7] was just as certain about it and just as exultant fifty years ago.

But let us grant that all these hopeful predictions are true, that humanity and womanity are advancing upward as steadily and rapidly as these optimistic prophets assert, that Mr. Foraker[8] was within his rights the other day when he claimed:

“It would be difficult to exaggerate the greatness of our country or the business of our people. But greater than the expanse of our domain, greater than the multiplication of our wealth, greater than any power that has come to us, greater than any glory we have achieved, greater than any of our physical accomplishments has been the improvement of our people intellectually, morally and in all that makes for good citizenship.”

Still, is there not danger that in this very self-glorification, this mad shouting and waving of flags, we may let slip some solid good things bequeathed to us by our forefathers—customs and beliefs which have grown so familiar to us from long use that we forget their value?

Do you remember the great mistake in Savonarola's life?[9] The thing he did which makes us question whether he was really a prophet sent by God or merely a political trickster? He preached repentance to the Florentine nobles and the populace until they were mad with remorse and anguish. They kindled a fire in the great square of the Signoria and brought to it the cards and dice and liquors which corrupted them. That was sane and wise enough. But they proceeded to heap on the flames not only their treasures of jewelry, but the pictures, the statues and the manuscripts in the city which were helps to higher thoughts and nobler living. In the fury of their zeal they believed that there was but one duty in life—to follow the new prophet. In one short hour the work of great thinkers and artists for centuries was swept out of the world, never to be brought back.

Now, sometimes it seems to me that in the fury of our modern reforms we are destroying good and helpful things which we never can bring back again.

For instance, the value of money in our lives never was so apparent as it is today. Comforts, luxuries, possibilities of which his grandfather never heard now crowd upon the young American, all to be purchased by the dollar. Naturally, the dollar is apt to become the god of his life. If he has it he swaggers; if he has not he is cowed and feels himself guilty and dishonored among his fellows. From his birth, his training is meant to fit him to earn it. He sets apart the

multi-millionaires of the country as its patrician[10] class. There is scarcely a news

paper which voices public opinion in the States in which their claims to march in front of the procession are not at least tacitly admitted. Foreigners, when they write of the country, name it The Land of the Dollar, and nobody is surprised or offended.

Now, our grandfathers, no matter what their social standing, held that to overrate money was to be vulgar. It was reckoned equally underbred to boast of it if you had it or to complain if you lacked it. The ruling class then were the educated, gentle-mannered folk whose birth and habits lifted them above a mad worship of the dollar.

Have we not lost something here which it would have been wise to keep?

Then, too, the well-bred man or woman preferred to keep in the background. The name, for example, of one of the most successful and prominent editors in this country never appeared in his paper until the day of his death. Now every fact of every notable person's life is blazoned in print for the benefit of the staring public, from the clothes of a bride to the disease of a candidate for the Presidency. Have we not lost some thing here, some decent, uplifting quality, which will not easily come to us again?

Our sudden conviction that money is the most valuable asset in our lives has brought about, too, a rapid change in our agricultural class. The old-time farmer, who stayed on his father's fields, married early, gave a large family to the world, made it the object of his life to raise better crops and bigger pigs and calves than his neighbors, is gone. So is his wife, whose butter led the market, who filled the stalls in the county fair with her delicious bread and jams, and her silk quilts. They either did not marry, or, if they did, have but one child or none. The man lives in town now. Sometimes rich and successful. Sometimes he is a sharp-eyed, shabby fellow, living by his wits. The country girl “made a lucky match,” we are told, “and is in the swim—wears silk teagowns and pearls to breakfast.” Or she is an underpaid saleswoman in a department store, yellow and lean, or a soubrette[11] in a downtown show, living on chance wages, or, sometimes—otherwise. There are no county fairs any more. The abandoned farms in New England and Virginia are being bought up by capitalists and turned into summer resorts or into fine bungalows for themselves. Our butter and farm products come to us now from huge creameries and farms worked by trained overseers and great bands of foreign laborers.

Perhaps the butter, on the whole, is sweeter, perhaps the crops pay better. But when the farmer gave up his narrow life on the old fields to go to trading he lost a fine savor out of his life, a kinship between him and the earth that had belonged to his father, a certain peace that came to him during the long, calm growth of the days and the silent mothering of the nights.

This universal overrating of money and incessant straining after it has cost him and his children something which money never can buy for them again.

I am afraid that I shall offend many of your readers if I suggest, too, that, with all the triumphs of my own sex in the last century, there are some good things that they once had which they seem in danger of losing forever. It is not money which the typical American woman wants just now so much as a career—public work and public recognition. There is no kind of occupation which formerly belonged exclusively to man, from electioneering to surgical operations, with which she has not grappled, struggling to make it her own, often successfully. She declares that she and the world are happier and nobler for these her triumphs. It may be so.

But in the meanwhile has she lost nothing which was worth the keeping for herself and us? She invariably strives, while she is dealing in stocks, or lecturing to her club, or leading a mob, to rid herself of the old sense of dependence, the appealing, womanish charm, the shy glance, the blush, the ready tears, the things which were silly and childish if you will, but which made her dear to her husband and sons, and by which they will remember her best when she is gone out of the world.

For more than a century some women have been struggling for the ballot.[12] The fact is, they do not obtain it—not because of the cruel oppression of men—but be cause the great majority of their sex do not want it. I have nothing to say here of the question of suffrage itself, only to ask why, in the struggle for it, women must lose their sense of decorum and good manners? We are told that the best class of these claimants are in England. The screaming suffragettes arrested for rowdyism the other day, the respectable matrons who tore up the paving stones and hurled them at Mr. Asquith's house, surely have lost something for which the right to vote will hardly recompense them.[13]

But American women, in their struggle to earn money and take part in public work, have lost more than good breeding. The loss to the States and to our lives is too grievous, the wound too deep and sore for me to palter over it with many words.

To find time for their public work they have given up, in countless cases, their homes, and now swarm, like business men, in hotels and boarding-houses.

Even these poor apologies for homes are—how often—childless? Here we can but keep silence.

The Florentine women, in their pious madness, threw into the fire pictures and books which never could be restored to the world.[14] Is there any danger that we, in our suicidal zeal to be rich and busy in the work of the world, may leave the errand on which God sent us into life forever undone?


[1] The U.S. Weather Bureau was established under President Ulysses S. Grant in 1870 as an agency under the purview of the Department of War, but by 1890 it had been absorbed by the Department of Agriculture, issuing weather forecasts to the civilian public. It eventually became the National Weather Service that we know today.

[2] Booker T. Washington (1856-1915) was an American educator and advocate for African-Americans known for founding the Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Alabama, for the education and vocational training of African-Americans after the Civil War.

[3] A reference to the Barbary pirates of North Africa, to which the United States began paying hefty sums to secure protection for their ships, beginning in the late eighteenth century directly after the American Revolution.

[4] John Coleridge Patteson (1827-1871) was an English missionary for the Church of England to the Melanesia region of islands in the South Pacific. A linguist, he studied the languages of the region and served as a bishop for the Anglican Church there until being killed by inhabitants of the Solomon Islands in 1871.

[5] The Hague Convention of 1907, an international peace conference, had just concluded in The Netherlands at the time of this publication. The first Hague Convention of 1899 created international treaties dealing with war crimes, and the 1907 Convention was intended to continue these negotiations, particularly as they regarded naval warfare.

[6] Term for a person who practices the religion of Islam.

[7] Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906) was an American activist, primarily working toward women’s suffrage. Anthony, together with Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902), formed the Women’s Loyal National League in 1863, the first national organization to campaign for women’s suffrage.

[8] Joseph Benson Foraker (1846-1917) was an American politician running as Republican presidential candidate in the 1908 election.

[9] Girolamo Savonarola (1452-1498) was a Dominican friar in Florence, Italy during the Renaissance who created a cult following through his prophecies and pursuit of reform in the Catholic Church. In 1494, Savonarola and his followers helped to facilitate the expulsion of the ruling Medici family of Florence and a republic was briefly established in which Savonarola implemented his puritanical campaign of reforms. The occasion to which Davis refers is the event which coined the phrase “bonfire of the vanities,” when in 1497 Savonarola’s followers burned vast quantities of art, books, and other objects associated with secular culture which Savonarola deemed sinful. He was executed in 1498 by Florentine and Church authorities, and the Medici family resumed power in 1512, disbanding the republic.

[10] Belonging to the aristocracy.

[11] An actress performing a lively or flirtatious role.

[12] A reference to ongoing activist campaign for women’s suffrage spearheaded in America by prominent figures such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902) and Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906), which had taken shape in the mid-19th century.

[13] Here Davis refers to a protest for women’s suffrage which took place in London in July of 1908. Protesters attempted to infiltrate the House of Commons and 29 women were ultimately arrested. Some of the protesters threw stones at the residence of Prime Minister H.H. Asquith (1852-1928) and broke windows of the home, which Davis specifically mentions here.

[14] A further reference to Savonarola’s dedicated followers, many of whom were women, who participate in the destruction of secular cultural artifacts via the 1497 “bonfire of the vanities.”


Jency Wilson


Updated December 16, 2021


Alicia Mischa Renfroe



Jency Wilson, “"One or Two Plain Questions." Independent, 22 October 1908, pp. 944-46.,” Rebecca Harding Davis: Complete Works, accessed March 31, 2023, https://rebeccahardingdaviscompleteworks.com/items/show/227.

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