Part 2 out of 5
an unabridged dictionary: "Revolution: a fundamental change in political
organization, or in a government or constitution; the overthrow or
renunciation of one government and the substitution of another, by the
governed." Such a definition would merely fill up your space, and leave
you no further ahead. A dictionary is studiously general, for it must
cover all possible legitimate meanings of the word; in an argument you
must be studiously specific, to carry your readers with you in the case
Moreover, words are constantly being pressed into new uses, as in the
case of "commission" (see p. 54); and others have entirely legitimate
local meanings. Only a dictionary which was on the scale of the New
English Dictionary and which was reedited every five years could pretend
to keep up with these new uses. In an unabridged dictionary dated 1907,
for example, the full definition of "amateur" is as follows: "A person
attached to a particular pursuit, study or science, as to music or
painting; especially one who cultivates any study or art, from taste or
attachment, without pursuing it professionally." Of what use would such
a definition be to you if you were arguing in favor of strengthening or
relaxing the amateur rules in college athletics, in which you had to
follow through the intricacies of summer baseball and of reimbursements
for training table and traveling expenses? Such a definition hardly
comes in sight of the use of the word which is most in the mouths of
college students in America. Words mean whatever careful and accepted
writers have used them to mean; and the business of a dictionary is so
far as possible to record these meanings. But language, being a living
and constantly developing growth, is constantly altering them and adding
What a dictionary can do for you, therefore, is merely to tell you
whether in the past the word has been used with the signification which
you wish to give to it; but there are very few cases in which this will
be much help to you, for in an argument your only interest in the
meaning of a term is in the meaning of that term for the case under
There are two quite different kinds of difficulty in putting the right
interpretation on a statement, and a dictionary can only remove one of
these, and by far the less important one. When you meet with a statement
containing an unfamiliar word--say, the word "parallax," or
"phanerogamous," or "brigantine"--and when you understand all the rest
of the statement except that word, then as a general rule the dictionary
will help to make the meaning clear. But when the difficulty is caused,
not by a word being unfamiliar, but by its being used in a certain
context, then the best dictionary in the world is, for your purpose, of
no use at all. The nature of every dictionary is necessarily such that
it entirely leaves out of account all doubts about meaning which are of
this second kind. The most that a dictionary can do is to tell us the
meaning of a word in those cases where the context in which it is used
is _not_ such as to make the meaning doubtful.
In practice the words which most often need definition are those which
are, as it were, shorthand symbols for perhaps a very extensive meaning.
Unless the limits of this extended meaning are clearly marked out you
cannot tell whether the minds of your readers are, as the lawyers say,
running on all fours with your own or not. This extended meaning may be
of various sorts: for example, it may be a large general principle, as
in the case of "evolution" or "culture"; or it may be a general system
or practice, as in the case of "commission government," "honor system,"
or "high standards for graduation"; or it may be a general class of
things, persons, or events, as in the case of "secondary school,"
"professional coach," or "murder." When you use any such term in an
argument, it is essential that your readers shall have the same set of
details, ramifications, or instances in mind as you have yourself. For
this purpose you must define the term; or, in other words, you must lay
out or display the ramifications and limitations of the principle, the
details of the system or practice, or the exact kinds of things,
persons, or events, which you have in mind when you use the term. A few
examples will make this practical meaning of defining clear.
Sometimes the definition proceeds by careful and specific limitation of
the general signification of a word, as in the following example from
I should say that except where it is explained to the contrary, I
use the word "toleration" to mean toleration by law. Toleration by
society of matters not subject to legal penalty is a kindred
subject, on which if I have room I will add a few words; but in the
main I propose to deal with the simpler subject, toleration by law.
And by toleration, too, I mean, when it is not otherwise said,
toleration in the public expression of opinions; toleration of acts
and practices is another allied subject, on which I can, in a paper
like this, but barely hope to indicate what seems to me to be the
truth, and I should add that I deal only with the discussion of
impersonal doctrines: the law of libel, which deals with accusations
of living persons, is a topic requiring consideration by itself.
Sometimes the definition is rather an unfolding and displaying of the
implications (from the Latin, _implicare_, to fold in) of the term.
Huxley, near the beginning of his three "Lectures on Evolution," made
sure by the following definition that his hearers should have a precise
idea of what he meant by the term "evolution":
The third hypothesis, or the hypothesis of evolution, supposes
that, at any comparatively late period of past time, our imaginary
spectator would meet with a state of things very similar to that
which now obtains; but that the likeness of the past to the present
would gradually become less and less, in proportion to the remoteness
of his period of observation from the present day; that
the existing distribution of mountains and plains, of rivers and
seas, would show itself to be the product of a slow process of
natural change operating upon more and more widely different
antecedent conditions of the mineral framework of the earth;
until, at length, in place of that framework, he would behold only
a vast nebulous mass, representing the constituents of the sun and
of the planetary bodies. Preceding the forms of life which now
exist our observer would see animals and plants not identical with
them, but like them; increasing their differences with their antiquity
and, at the same time, becoming simpler and simpler; until,
finally, the world of life would present nothing but that undifferentiated
protoplasmic matter, which, so far as our present knowledge
goes, is the common foundation of all vital activity.
The hypothesis of evolution supposes that in all this vast progression
there would be no breach of continuity, no point at which
we could say, "This is a natural process," and "This is not a
natural process," but that the whole might be compared to that
wonderful process of development which may be seen going on
every day under our eyes, in virtue of which there arises, out of
the semifluid, comparatively homogeneous substance which we
call an egg, the complicated organization of one of the higher
animals. That, in a few words, is what is meant by the hypothesis
Here Huxley has laid out, in compact form the principal ramifications of
the great principle of evolution, giving his hearers something like an
outline map of it with its limits and principal divisions.
Where you have a practice or system to define, you will be more likely
to do it by specifying the chief and essential details of the system, as
in the following definition of commission government for cities. It will
be noticed that this narrows down the meaning of the term to something
like the Des Moines system, as distinguished from the Galveston plan.
A straight commission form of municipal government, in the judgment of
Dr. Charles W. Eliot, one of its most active advocates, requires a
commission composed of five members elected at large, one of whom is
called the mayor, acting as chairman of the commission, but with no
veto power, or any other special power not shared by the other members
of the commission.
The commission so elected is the source of all authority in the city,
makes all ordinances, appoints all officials, collects taxes, and makes
all appropriations. As set forth by its advocates, the significant
features of the plan, in addition to those already mentioned, are:
Assignment of the important divisions of the city government to
individual members of the commission, or their election thereto by the
voters, each being directly responsible for the conduct of his
particular department; adequate compensation to the commissioners for
their time and labor, the city employing all the commissioners at living
salaries, thus elevating the dignity of municipal service and making it
a public career, and not a mere avocation; regularity, frequency, and
publicity of the meetings of the commissioners; all employees above the
class of day laborers selected from eligible lists based on
examinations, oral and written, carefully devised to develop merit and
fitness; recommendations after examination by an independent civil
service commission; provision for the retention in office of all
employees so appointed during good behavior; the power to initiate
legislation reserved to the people, this right being known as the
initiative; the power to call for a public vote on any measure adopted
by the commission before being given effect as law reserved to the
people, this being known as the referendum; the power at any time to
make any member of the commission stand for reelection reserved to the
people, this being known as the recall; the granting of public franchise
always to be submitted to the approval of the electors.
There are two other important features: the introduction of the
principle of the short ballot and the elimination of ward lines. In the
matured judgment of municipal students these are considered, together
with the concentration of authority, as the most effective features of
Here is a pretty complete display of all the essential details of the
system which the author of this definition intended to mean by the term
"commission government for cities."
Where the term which is to be defined is the name of a general class,
whether of persons, things, or events, the definition must show just
what persons, things, or events are to be included under the term for
the present purpose. Lincoln gave a famous example of this sort of
definition in the opening of his address at Cooper Institute, February
27, 1860. He took for the text of the first part of his speech a
statement of Senator Douglas.
In his speech last autumn at Columbus, Ohio, as reported in the New York
_Times_, Senator Douglas said, "Our fathers, when they framed the
government under which we live, understood this question just as well,
and even better, than we do now."
I fully indorse this, and I adopt it as a text for this discourse. I so
adopt it because it furnishes a precise and an agreed starting point for
a discussion between Republicans and that wing of the Democracy headed
by Senator Douglas. It simply leaves the inquiry: What was the
understanding those fathers had of the question mentioned?
What is the frame of government under which we live? The answer must be,
"The Constitution of the United States." That Constitution consists of
the original, framed in 1787, and under which the present government
first went into operation, and twelve subsequently framed amendments,
the first ten of which were framed in 1789.
Who were our fathers that framed the Constitution? I suppose the
"thirty-nine" who signed the original instrument may be fairly called
our fathers who framed that part of the present government. It is almost
exactly true to say they framed it, and it is altogether true to say
they fairly represented the opinion and sentiment of the whole nation at
that time. Their names being familiar to nearly all, and accessible to
quite all, need not now be repeated. I take these "thirty-nine," for
the present, as being "our fathers who framed the government under which
we live." What is the question which, according to the text, those
fathers understood "just as well, and even better, than we do now"?
It is this: Does the proper division of local from Federal authority, or
anything in the Constitution, forbid our Federal Government to control
as to slavery in our Federal Territories?
Upon this, Senator Douglas holds the affirmative, and Republicans the
negative. This affirmation and denial form an issue; and this
issue--this question--is precisely what the text declares our fathers
understood "better than we."
Let us now inquire whether the "thirty-nine," or any of them, ever acted
upon this question; and if they did, how they acted upon it--how they
expressed that better understanding.
Here as will be seen, Lincoln took every important word and phrase, and
showed exactly what persons and things were included under them. Then he
went ahead with his argument with the assurance that his audience and he
were treading the same path.
Somewhat similar are the definitions in many cases at law, where the
issue is whether the agreed facts in a case come under a certain term or
not. The Constitution of the United States provides that "direct taxes"
shall be apportioned among the states in proportion to their population,
but makes no such restriction on the levying of "duties," "imposts," and
"taxes." When Congress establishes a new form of tax, therefore, such as
the income tax or the corporation tax, the Supreme Court is pretty sure
to be called on to decide under which of these large constitutional
classes it falls. In such cases as the Income Tax cases, which decided
that the income tax laid in the Act of 1904 was unconstitutional, and in
the Corporation Tax cases, which upheld the Act of 1909, both the
arguments of counsel and the decision of the court deal wholly with the
definition of the term "direct tax." Here the definition takes the form
of an examination of previous cases which involved the term, to see
whether the present case is like those that have been held to be within
it, or like those which have been held to fall outside it. From this
comparison of the two sets of cases the essential characteristics of the
direct tax are brought to the surface.
A good example of the careful distinctions which must be made in
defining a legal term is found in Daniel Webster's famous argument in
the White Murder Case, of which an extract will be found below. The
question here is just how far the term "murder" shall be extended.
There are two sorts of murder; the distinction between them it is of
essential importance to bear in mind: (1) murder in an affray, or upon
sudden and unexpected provocation; (2) murder secretly, with a
deliberate, predetermined intention to commit the crime. Under the first
class, the question usually is, whether the offense he murder or
manslaughter, in the person who commits the deed. Under the second
class, it is often a question whether others than he who actually did
the deed were present, aiding and assisting therein. Offenses of this
kind ordinarily happen when there is nobody present except those who go
on the same design. If a riot should happen in the court-house, and one
should kill another, this may be murder, or it may not, according to the
intention with which it was done; which is always matter of fact, to be
collected from the circumstances at the time. But in secret murders,
premeditated and determined on, there can be no doubt of the murderous
intention; there can be no doubt if a person be present, knowing a
murder is to be done, of his concurring in the act. His being there is a
proof of his intent to aid and abet; else, why is he there?
It has been contended, that proof must be given that the person accused
did actually afford aid, did lend a hand in the murder itself; and
without this proof, although he may be near by, he may be presumed to be
there for an innocent purpose; he may have crept silently there to hear
the news, or from mere curiosity to see what was going on. Preposterous,
absurd! Such an idea shocks all common sense. A man is found to be a
conspirator to commit a murder; he has planned it; he has assisted in
arranging the time, the place, and the means; and he is found in the
place, and at the time, and yet it is suggested that he might have been
there, not for cooperation and concurrence, but from curiosity! Such an
argument deserves no answer. It would be difficult to give it one, in
decorous terms. Is it not to be taken for granted, that a man seeks to
accomplish his own purposes? When he has planned a murder, and is
present at its execution, is he there to forward or to thwart his own
design? Is he there to assist, or there to prevent? But "curiosity"! He
may be there from mere "curiosity"! Curiosity to witness the success of
the execution of his own plan of murder! The very walls of a court-house
ought not to stand, the plowshare should run through the ground it
stands on, where such an argument could find toleration.
It is not necessary that the abettor should actually lend a hand, that
he should take a part in the act itself; if he be present ready to
assist, that is assisting.... The law is, that being ready to assist is
assisting, if the party has the power to assist, in case of need. It is
so stated by Foster, who is a high authority. "If A happeneth to be
present at a murder, for instance, and taketh no part in it, nor
endeavoreth to prevent it, nor apprehendeth the murderer, nor levyeth
hue and cry after him, this strange behavior of his, though highly
criminal, will not of itself render him either principal or accessory."
"But if a fact amounting to murder should be committed in prosecution of
some unlawful purpose, though it were but a bare trespass, to which A in
the case last stated had consented, and he had gone in order to give
assistance, if need were, for carrying it into execution, this would
have amounted to murder in him, and in every person present and joining
with him." "If the fact was committed in prosecution of the original
purpose which was unlawful, the whole party will be involved in the
guilt of him who gave the blow. For in combinations of this kind, the
mortal stroke, though given by one of the party, is considered in the
eye of the law, and of sound reason too, as given by every individual
present and abetting. The person actually giving the stroke is no more
than the hand or instrument by which the others strike." The author, in
speaking of being present, means actual presence; not actual in
opposition to constructive, for the law knows no such distinction. There
is but one presence, and this is the situation from which aid, or
supposed aid, may be rendered. The law does not say where the person is
to go, or how near he is to go, but that he must be where he may give
assistance, or where the perpetrator may believe that he may be assisted
by him. Suppose that he is acquainted with the design of the murderer,
and has a knowledge of the time when it is to be carried into effect,
and goes out with a view to render assistance, if need be; why, then,
even though the murderer does not know of this, the person so going out
will be an abettor in the murder.
20. Definition through the History of the Case. In some cases the
easiest way to put before your readers the precise details or
limitations implied in a term is through a brief review of the history
of the question. In the Lincoln-Douglas debates Lincoln was constantly
showing that Douglas's use of the term "popular sovereignty" must be
understood in the light of the whole history of the slavery question;
that it meant one thing--what Douglas intended it to mean--if the
history of the question before 1850 were left out of sight; but that it
meant a wholly different thing if the steady encroachment of the slave
power from the Missouri Compromise of 1820 on were taken into account.
And Lincoln showed that in reality "popular sovereignty" had come to
mean a power oh the part of the people of a territory to introduce
slavery, but not to exclude it. In our own day "progressive" has a
different meaning when applied to a Republican from Kansas and to one
from Massachusetts or New York.
To know just what is involved by applying the term to any given public
man, one must go back to the recent history of his party in his own
state, and to the speeches he has made. In political discussions popular
phrases are constantly thus blurred in meaning through being used as
party catchwords; and to use them with any certainty in an argument one
must thus go back to their origin, and then dissect out, as it were, the
ambiguous implications which have grown into them.
If you were arguing any question concerning the elective system or the
entrance requirements for your own college, you would often do well to
sketch the history of the present system as a means of defining it,
before you go on to urge that it be changed or kept as it is. So if you
were arguing for a further change in the football rules, your best
definition of the present game for your purpose would be a sketch of the
way in which the game has been changed in the past few years, at the
urgent demand of public opinion. Such a sketch you could easily get by
running through the back numbers of such a magazine as _Outing_, or the
sporting columns of some of the larger weeklies. Or again, if you were
arguing that the street railway systems of your city should be allowed
to combine, your best description or definition of the present situation
might well be a sketch of the successive steps by which it came to be
what it is. Here you would go for your material to the files of local
newspapers, or, if you could get at them, to sets of the reports of the
The definition of terms through the history of the question has the
advantage that, besides helping your readers to see why the terms you
use have the meaning you give them for the present case, it also makes
them better judges of the question by giving them a full background.
Ambiguous definitions, which do not distinguish between two or more
meanings of a term for the case under discussion, are usually avoided by
going back to the history of the case. In Chapter III we shall consider
more fully the fallacies which spring from ambiguous use of words. Here
I shall insist briefly on the necessity of searching into the way terms
have come to be used in specific discussions.
The first of these is the danger which arises when a word in general use
takes on a special, almost technical meaning in connection with a
particular subject. Here you must take some pains to see that your
readers understand it in the special sense, and not in the popular one.
A crass instance, in which there is little real possibility of
confusion, is the use of words like "democratic" or "republican" as the
names of political parties; even with these words stump speakers
sometimes try to play on the feelings of an uneducated audience by
importing the association of the original use of the word into its later
use. There are a good many words used in the scientific study of
government which are also used loosely in general talk. "Federal" has a
precise meaning when used to distinguish the form of government of the
United States from that which usually binds together the counties in a
state; but we constantly use it in a sense hardly distinguishable from
that of "National." The following extract from an editorial on the
Philippine question is a good illustration of this precise and
semitechnical use of words, and the loose, not very accurate use of
On the other hand, it is said that this policy of the United States
toward its dependencies is insincere; that it is a covert plan of
exploitation; that, as it is practiced, it is a denial in act of a mere
promise to the ear; and that if it were genuine the United States would
bestow self-government upon its dependencies by granting independence.
This criticism is obviously based on a confusion of independence with
self-government. Russia, is independent, but in only a very slight
degree are its people self-governing. Turkey has long been independent,
but until the recent revolution the people of Turkey were self-governing
in no sense at all. On the other hand, Canada, though not independent,
Many an argument goes to wreck through carelessness in the use of words
of this sort. Wherever the subject under discussion has grown into the
partial possession of a special field, but still uses words drawn from
everyday life, you must be careful that not only you, but your audience
also, understand your terms in the more precise way.
Closely related to this kind of ambiguity, and in practice still more
insidious, is the ambiguity which arises from the connotation or
emotional implications of words. The use of "republican" and "democrat"
cited above runs over into this kind of confusion. In collegiate
athletics "professional" has come to have almost an implication of
moral inferiority, when it is often dependent on pretty technical
considerations of expediency. In politics, to one class of temperaments
"conservative," to another "radical," or at any rate "liberal" or
"progressive," carries the implication of the salvation or the ruin of
the country. All such words introduce a sure element of obscurity and
confusion into an argument. If a word stirs your feelings in one way and
those of some of your readers in another, you cannot use that word
safely; in spite of the most careful definitions and disclaimers the
emotional bias will creep in and twist the effect of your words in the
minds of some of your audience. This emotional ambiguity is the most
insidious of all ambiguities in the use of words. The danger from it is
so real that I shall return to it at greater length (see p. 158).
In a good many cases the necessity of defining the terms to be used,
whether in the proposition itself, or in the argument, changes with the
audience. If you begin a movement to introduce a commission form of
government into the town or the city in which you live, at first you
will have to repeat the definition of commission government a good many
times, in order that most of the voters may know exactly what you want
them to do. If the town once wakes up, however, and gets interested, you
and every one else will be using such technicalities as "Galveston
plan," "Des Moines plan," "recall," "initiative," and the like with no
danger of leaving darkness where there should be light.
So even more obviously with school and college questions: if you are
sending memorials urging the introduction of the honor system or of
student self-government, one to the trustees of your college, and
another to the faculty, and at the same time addressing an appeal to
your fellow students through a college paper, in each of the three cases
your definitions might differ. You could probably assume that both
students and faculty would be more or less familiar with the question,
so that your definitions would be of the nature of precise
specifications of the plan you were urging. With the trustees your
definitions would probably have to be longer and your explanations more
detailed, for such a body would start with only a vague knowledge of the
As in all other steps in making an argument, so in defining, there is
no formula for all cases. In each case your knowledge of your audience
must guide you, and your own sagacity. Unnecessary definitions will make
them think you a prig; insufficient definition will let them stray away
from your meaning.
Notebook. Enter any terms which need definition for the
audience you are addressing.
Illustration. Commission form of government after the Des Mouses
plan. The essential features of this plan are as follows: The entire
affairs of the city are conducted by a mayor and four councilors,
elected at large for two years; they are nominated at a primary
election; at neither primary nor final election are party designations
allowed on the ballot; these officers are subject to the recall; the
mayor is chairman of the council, but has no power of veto; the
executive and administrative powers are divided into five departments,
each under the charge of a member of the council--(1) public affairs
(under the charge of the mayor), (2) accounts and finances, (3)public
safety,(4) streets and public improvements, (5) parks and public
property; all other offices are filled and their duties prescribed by
majority vote of the council; recall; grants of franchises must be
approved by popular vote; initiative and referendum; a summary of city
affairs must be published and distributed once a month.
Recall, On petition of twenty-five per cent of the voters at the last
election the mayor or any of the councilmen must stand for reelection at
a special election.
Referendum. On petition of twenty-five per cent of the voters any
ordinance must be submitted to popular vote at a special election; no
ordinance goes into effect until ten days after being passed by the
Initiative. On petition of twenty-five per cent of the voters a
proposed measure must either be passed by the council or else submitted
to popular vote.
FINDING THE ISSUES
1. Write definitions of the system for choice of studies by
undergraduates which is in force at your college; of the terms for
admission to college; of the requirements for the degree.
2. Write a compact description or definition of the form of city
government in your own city or town, like that of the Des Moines plan of
commission government on page 70.
3. Write a definition of the requirements for entrance in English,
according to those set forth by the Conference on Uniform Entrance
Requirements in English.
4. Write a definition of the present system of college societies in your
own college, using the history of their development, for your fellow
students; for an article in a popular magazine.
5. Write a definition of "summer baseball" for an audience of
undergraduates; for the trustees of your college.
6. Write a definition of "professional coach."
7. Write a definition of "squatter sovereignty," as used by Lincoln.
8. Write a definition of "the mutation theory."
9. Write a definition of "the English system of government."
10. Write a definition of "the romantic spirit in literature."
21. Finding the Issues. Your preparation for your argument should now
have given you a clear idea of the interests and prepossessions of your
readers, it should have left you with a definite proposition to support
or oppose, and it should have made you sure of the meaning of all the
terms you are to use, whether in the proposition or in your argument.
The next step in working out the introduction to your brief is to note
down the chief points that can be urged on the two sides of the
question, as direct preparation for the final step, which will be to
find the main issues. These main issues are the points on which the
decision of the whole question will turn. They will vary in number with
the case, and to some extent with the space which you have for your
argument. In a question of fact, which turns on circumstantial evidence,
there may be a number of them. In the White Murder Case, in which as we
have already seen, Webster was the chief counsel for the prosecution, he
summed up the main issues in the following passage. The essential facts
needed to understand the case are that the defendant was Franklin Knapp,
that his sister-in-law, Mrs. Joseph Knapp, was the niece of Captain
White, that by removing and destroying the will of Captain White the
defendant and his brother Joseph supposed that they had made sure that
she would inherit from him a large sum of money, that Richard
Crowninshield, the actual perpetrator of the murder, had killed himself
in prison. To convince the jury of the guilt of the prisoner, Webster
had to carry them with him on the following seven main issues:
Gentlemen, I have gone through with the evidence in this case, and
have endeavored to state it plainly and fairly before you. I think
there are conclusions to be drawn from it, the accuracy of which you
I think you cannot doubt that there was a conspiracy formed fur the
purpose of committing this murder, and who the conspirators were:
That you cannot doubt that the Crowninshields and the Knapps were
the parties in this conspiracy:
That you cannot doubt that the prisoner at the bar knew that the
murder was to be done on the night of the 6th of April:
That you cannot doubt that the murderers of Captain White were the
suspicious persons seen in and about Brown Street on that night:
That you cannot doubt that Richard Crowninshield was the perpetrator
of that crime:
That you cannot doubt that the prisoner at the bar was in Brown
Street on that night.
If there, then it must be by agreement, to countenance, to aid the
perpetrator. And if so, then he is guilty as "Principal."
Similarly, in most arguments of policy there are a number of
considerations that converge in favor of or against the proposed policy.
If you were writing an argument in favor of keeping the study of Latin
in the commercial course of a high school, you would probably urge that
Latin is essential for an effective knowledge of English, that it is the
foundation of Spanish and French, languages which will be of constantly
increasing importance to American business men in the future, and that
young men and women who go into business have an even stronger right to
studies which will enlarge their horizons and open their minds to purely
cultivating influences than those who go on to college. Indeed, in very
few questions of policy which are doubtful enough to need argument is
there any single consideration on which the whole case will turn. Human
affairs are much complicated by cross interests, and many influences
modify even one's everyday decisions.
To find the main issues--which are really the critical ones on which
your audience will make up their minds--is a matter largely of native
sagacity and penetration; but thorough knowledge of your whole subject
is essential if you are to strike unerringly to the heart of the subject
and pick out these pivotal points.
A simple and very practical device for getting at the main issues is to
put down on paper the chief points which might be made on the two sides.
Then with these before you, you can soon, by stating them and
rearranging them, simmer down your case into arguable form.
In the argument on introducing a commission form of government into
Wytown this noting down of the chief points which might be urged on the
two sides would be about as follows:
Contentions on the Two Sides. On the affirmative the following points
might be urged:
1. The plan would make the individuals who hold the power directly
responsible at all times to the citizens.
2. It would make the responsibility for all municipal action easy to
3. It would get abler men to serve the city.
4. It would take municipal government out of politics.
5. It would hold municipal administration up to the same standards
of honesty and efficiency as private business.
6. It would make it difficult to elect representatives of corrupt
7. It would make possible advantageous dealings with public-service
8. It would make possible the immediate removal of an unfaithful
9. It would tend to interest the citizens intelligently in municipal
10. It has worked well wherever it has been tried.
On the negative side the following points might be urged:
1. The plan is a complete departure from the traditional American
theory of government.
2. It throws away a chance for training in public affairs for a
considerable body of young men.
3. It might put very great power in the hands of unworthy men.
4. Corrupt interests, having a larger stake, would work harder to
control the city.
5. Past experience gives no reason to expect the constant interest
on the part of citizens which is necessary to make so great
concentration of power safe.
6. With further increase in the foreign population of the city there
will be danger from race and religious clannishness.
7. A return to the old-fashioned town government, or some such
modification of it as has been tried at Newport, would enlist the
active interest of more citizens.
8. The system is still an experiment.
9. The present success of the plan in various places is largely to
be ascribed to its novelty.
10. The present system has in the past given good government.
11. The liability to recall will keep public officials from
initiating advantageous policies if they would be detrimental to
part of the city, or if they were unpopular because of novelty.
In most cases, as here, you will get too many points to argue out in the
space which is at your disposal. Fifteen hundred or two thousand words
are very soon eaten up when you begin to state evidence in any detail,
and arguments written in school or college can rarely be longer. You
must look forward, therefore, to not more than four or five main issues.
In going over and comparing the points which you have jotted down in
this preliminary statement you must consequently be prepared to throw
out all that are not obviously important. Even when you have done this
you will usually have more than enough points left to fill your space,
and must make some close decisions before you get at those which you
finally decide to argue out.
You must also be prepared to rephrase and remold some of the points in
order to get at the most important aspects of the case. This noting down
of the points which might be urged you should therefore regard entirely
as a preliminary step, and not as fixing the points in the form in which
you will argue them out.
In the main issues for the argument on introducing commission government
into Wytown, as they are worked out below, it will be seen that main
issue 4 for the affirmative is derived in part from the points marked
1, 2, 6, and 8 of those for the affirmative, and those marked 3, 4, and
5 for the negative.
Furthermore, it is obvious that the main issues you choose will vary
somewhat with the side of the question which you are arguing. You will
almost surely have to leave out some of the points which might be urged,
and there is no sense in letting the other side choose your ground for
you. Points which from one side may be of no great consequence, or not
very practicable to argue, may on the other be highly effective; and in
arguing you should always take what advantage can fairly be gained from
The phrasing of the main issues, too, will vary with the side on which
you are arguing them. Here, again, you must take every fair advantage
that is to be gained from position. In the main issues of the question I
have been using for an example, as they are stated below, it will be
seen that main issue 1 on the affirmative and main issue 3 on the
negative cover very nearly the same ground; but if you were arguing on
the affirmative you would direct attention to the shortcomings inherent
in the system of government, if on the negative, to the temporary and
removable causes of them. Whichever side you were arguing on there is no
reason that you should lose the advantage of so phrasing the issue that
you can go directly to your work of establishing your contention.
In the argument on introducing commission government into Wytown the
main issues might be as follows:
The main issues as chosen by the affirmative:
1. Is the admitted inefficiency of the city government at present
due to the system of government?
2. Will the adoption of the plan result in more economical
3. Will the adoption of the plan result in more efficient service
to the city?
4. Will the direct responsibility of the mayor and councilors to the
citizens be a sufficient safeguard for the increased power given to
The main issues as chosen by the negative:
1. Is there danger in putting such large powers into the hands of so
2. Will the new plan, if adopted, permanently raise the standard of
3. Is the inefficiency of the city government at present due to
temporary and removable causes?
4. Has the plan succeeded in other places largely because of its
5. Will the liability to recall keep officials from initiating new
policies for fear of unpopularity?
In some cases it will be hard to reduce the number of issues to a
manageable number; in others, for special reasons, it may be possible to
treat a part of them only at length. In such cases one can always adopt
the device of an imaginary "next chapter" or "to be continued in our
next." In considering how many issues you can deal with satisfactorily,
however, you must not leave out of account contentions on the other side
that must be refuted; and in choosing among the possible main issues you
must always exercise judgment. Many points which might be argued are not
worth the space it would take to deal with them; but not infrequently
you will have to let points that have some weight give place to others
that have more.
It is not to be expected that the points made by the two sides will
always exactly pair off, for the considerations which make for a course
of action may be different in kind from those which make against it.
Sometimes one side will contribute more to the final number of main
issues, sometimes the other. Ordinarily your own side will give you the
larger number of points that you think worth arguing out, for an
affirmative and constructive argument usually makes more impression than
a negative one.
Notebook. Enter the chief points which might be made on the two sides
of your question. Then, after studying them and comparing them, enter
the main issues which you decide to argue out.
(The contentions on the two sides and the main issues for the model
argument will be found on pages 74-77.)
Take one of the questions on pages 10-12, with which you have some
acquaintance, and obtain the main issues by noting down first the points
which might be urged on the two sides.
NOTE. This exercise is a good one for class work. Let the class suggest
the points, and write them, as they come, on the blackboard. Then call
for criticism and discussion of them, in order to come to the main
22. The Agreed Statement of Facts. Now that you have compared the points
on which the two sides disagree, you can pick out the points on which
they agree, and decide which of the latter will enter into the
discussion. You are therefore in a position to draw up the agreed
statement of facts, in which you will sum up compactly so much of the
history of the case, of the origin of the present question, and other
relevant facts and necessary definitions, as will be needed to
understand the brief. The style of this statement should be strictly
expository, and there should be nothing in it to which both sides could
not agree. It should be similar to the statements of facts in courts of
law, which are sent up with the briefs when a case is appealed on a
point of legal principle.
Since this agreed statement of facts is not argument, it will make small
use of such conjunctions as "because," "for," "hence," and "therefore."
If you find any of them in your agreed statement, it is better to
rearrange it, so that you will not seem to be giving reasons before you
have begun your argument.
In the making of this preliminary statement and to a certain extent in
the framing of the main issues, it is convenient and advisable,
wherever both sides of the question are to be presented in arguments,
whether in writing or in debate, for the two parties to work together.
In this working together they should aim to agree on as many points as
possible. If they meet in a carping and unyielding temper, the result
will be in the end that the patience of the audience will be tried and
its attention dispersed by lengthy arguments on preliminary details. In
making an argument one should never forget, even in school and college
work, that the aim of all argument is to produce agreement. Few people
have much interest in a contest in smartness; and it is a bad habit to
care too much about the mere beating of an opponent on a question where
there are real and serious issues. Any question which is worth arguing
at all will have far more ground to cover, even when everything possible
has been granted by both sides, than the average student can cover with
Notebook. Enter those of the essential facts and definitions in
the case which would be agreed to by both sides, and which are needed
for an understanding of the brief.
Illustration. Agreed Statement of Facts. For many years the tax
rate in Wytown has been high, and in the last ten years has not fallen
below twenty-four dollars on one thousand dollars. The city water supply
is of doubtful purity, and nothing has been done to improve it, chiefly
because the city debt is now close to the limit allowed by law. The
police service has been inadequate, especially in the region known as
South Corner. Though two hundred thousand dollars have been spent on the
streets in the last five years, the main street of the city is still
unpaved, and none of the other streets are macadamized. Though under the
local option law the city has uniformly voted for no license, yet there
is much liquor selling. The city officials have regularly been nominated
at Democratic and republican conventions.
The question has arisen at the present time because of quarrels between
the mayor and aldermen, because of the petition of the city government
to the legislature to issue bonds for new waterworks above the
authorized debt limit, because the tax rate last year was higher than
ever before in the history of the city, and because of the formation of
a citizens' association which has been instrumental in securing from the
legislature a bill authorizing the citizens to vote on the adoption of
the proposed plan.
Points which are not discussed here will be taken up in succeeding
The definitions on page 70 are to be taken as part of this agreed
1. Criticize the following sentences for their fitness as parts of
introductions to briefs:
a. It is agreed that the commission form of government has succeeded
in Des Moines because it is simple and easily controlled by the
b. Summer baseball is to be understood as playing baseball for
money, for a man who is given his board and lodging by a hotel for
playing is taking the equivalent of money.
c. (As one of the contentions for the affirmative on the question
whether a street railroad should be compelled to build a certain new
line, which would not be immediately profitable.) The convenience of
the public should be considered before large dividends, since the
public grants the franchise.
2. Make an agreed statement of facts for an argument on one of the
subjects in the list on pages 10-12.
NOTE. This is a good exercise for class use: let the different members
of the class propose facts to be agreed on, and then put them before the
rest of the class for criticism.
23. Arrangement of Material. For the arrangement of the material in
a brief, it is not possible to give much general advice, since this
arrangement would change with the space allotted to the argument, and
especially with the audience. On this point knowledge of your readers,
of their acquaintance with the subject, and of their prepossessions will
count as much as knowledge of the subject when you come to the arguments
of practical life.
In general, if your audience is likely to be lukewarm or indifferent,
begin with a point which will stir them up. In the argument on the
introduction of commission government into Wytown, for which I have
constructed a brief, I assumed that the citizens were already aroused to
the need of some change, and therefore began by showing that the evils
of the present administration can be traced chiefly to the present
system of government. If I had assumed that the people needed first to
be aroused to believing a change to be necessary, I should have put at
the beginning an exposure of the corruption and inefficiency of the
present city government, with specific cases to establish the point.
Likewise for the close of your argument be sure that you have a strong
and effective point. In the case of commission government for Wytown, by
refuting the objection that too much power is given to the councilmen I
provide a chance to show at the same time how completely the commission
government keeps the control in the hands of the people; and the latter
point is the strongest that can be made for the commission form of
24. The Place of the Refutation. The place of the refutation and
its extent also differ greatly with the audience. Sometimes it may
occupy practically the whole space. A few years ago _The Outlook_
published an editorial opposing a change in the laws of New York
relating to vivisection (for a part of it, see p. 44), in which it
refuted the two arguments urged for the change, and then pointed out
that the burden of proof still rested on the other side. Here the
refutation occupied almost the whole of the argument. Huxley, in his
three "Lectures on Evolution," of which the first is printed on page
233, gave the whole of this first lecture to a refutation of the
alternative theories of the origin of plants and animals; since it was
necessary to dispose of accepted theories before the new theory could
get a hearing, he put his refutation first.
Where there are no such special reasons, it is safe to follow the
principle that you should not draw more attention than necessary to the
arguments on the other side. Refutation of less important statements and
contentions will naturally come at the point of the argument which deals
with that part of the subject. State them fairly always, but do not
magnify their importance by dealing with them at too great length.
It is not often wise to lump the refutation at the end of your argument.
The last impression on your audience is the strongest: it is good
strategy to keep it for your own best points. Sometimes, as in the brief
worked out on page 90, it is possible to combine the refutation with
positive argument which will be effective; but do not forget that
negative argument makes much less impression than that which is positive
25. The Brief Proper. We have seen on page 47 that the brief is in
essence a statement of the logical framework of your argument. Its
purpose is to lay out your reasoning in such a way that you can
scrutinize each link and make sure that each assertion and each group of
assertions is attached to a firm support. For this reason the brief for
a written or spoken argument is best thrown into the form of tabulated
statements marked with a series of numbers and letters which will show
at a glance the exact place of each statement or assertion in the whole
system of reasoning. When you can thus, as it were, strip your argument
to its bones and tendons, you can go ahead with the confidence that your
reasoning is logically coherent.
When you get out into the world you will work out your own way of making
briefs for any arguments that fate imposes on you. The value of practice
now is in being able to get at the work then without wasting time. The
rules below are offered to you as the result of long experiment and
study lay the best authorities. Moreover, if you are working in a class
you should remember that you will get a great deal more out of your
teacher if you save his time by sticking closely to uniformity in
I shall first show how a brief is constructed, by following through part
of the process for the argument on the introduction of commission into
Wytown; then I shall give the rules, with some explanation of their
working and of their practical expediency.
We have just seen that the brief is essentially a display of the logical
framework of the argument: it should consist, therefore, of the main
contentions in support of the proposition, with the reasons urged in
support of these contentions, and of the facts and reasons brought
forward in support of these reasons, this successive support of reasons
being carried down to ultimate facts, wherever possible.
When you come to the working out of your brief you start with your main
issues, stated now as assertions. Then for each of them you give one or
In the brief for introducing commission government into Wytown, let us
start with the main issues for the affirmative, transforming them from
questions into assertions. The first main issue would then read:
The admitted inefficiency of the city government at present is
due to the system of government.
The next step is to assign reasons for making this assertion.
Accordingly we should add a "since" or a "for" to the assertion, and
then underneath arrange these reasons in order. Let us suppose that we
put down three reasons:
I. The admitted inefficiency of the city government at present
is due to the system of government; for
A. Partisan politics determine nominations to office;
B. Advantageous contracts cannot be made;
C. The responsibility for expenditures is scattered.
Each of these assertions clearly needs to be supported before it will be
accepted. Let us follow out the support of the first one, and set down
here the reasons and facts which will make it incontestable.
A. Partisan politics determine nominations to office; for
1. The organization of the national parties is permanent.
2. There has been bargaining between parties to reward
political services with city offices.
Of these points the first is an obvious fact; in the argument it will
need only slight development and specification to make its bearing on
the case effective. The second, on the other hand, must be supported by
evidence; and in the brief, accordingly, we should refer to the facts
as stated in newspapers of specified dates from which full quotation
would be made in the argument. Here then, in both cases, though in
different ways, we get down to the bed rock of fact on which the
reasoning is built up. At the same time, each joint in the framework of
the reasoning has been laid bare, so that no weak place can escape
detection. These are always the two main objects of making a brief--to
get down to the facts on which the reasoning is built up, and to display
every essential step in the reasoning.
26. Rules for Briefing. The rules given below are divided into two
groups: those in the first group deal chiefly with the form of the
brief; those in the second go more to the substance; but the distinction
between the two groups is far from being absolute.
1. A brief may be divided into three parts: the Introduction, the
Proof, the Conclusion. Of these the Introduction should contain
noncontentious matter, and the Conclusion should be a restatement of the
proposition, with a bare summary of the main issues in affirmative (or
The introduction has already been dealt with at length (see pp. 48-81).
The conclusion brings the main points of the argument together, and
gives an effect of workmanlike completeness to the brief. It should
never introduce new points.
2. In the Introduction keep each step of the analysis by itself, and
indicate the several parts by such headings as "The following terms need
definition," "The following facts are agreed on," "The following points
will be left out of consideration in this argument" "The chief
contentions on the two sides are as follows," "The main issues on which
the argument will be made are as follows."
It is not to be expected that all these steps, with the appropriate
headings, will be necessary in every brief. The only use of a brief is
to aid you to construct a specific argument, and you must consider each
case by itself.
3. Follow a uniform system of numbering throughout, so that each number
or letter used will show whether the statement is one of the main
supports of your case, or in what degree it is subordinated.
In other words, the numbering should show at a glance whether a given
assertion is a main reason, a reason for a reason, or in still more
subordinate degree of support. The system of numbering in the brief on
page 90 is convenient. Whatever system is adopted, it should be followed
by the whole class.
4. The refutation should have a distinct set of symbols.
These symbols may well be uniform with the others, but with the prime
mark to distinguish them (see p. 93).
5. In briefing the refutation always state first the assertion that is
to be refuted, with such connectives as, "Although it is urged ..., yet
the contention is unsound, for ...," "Although the case is cited, ...
yet the case is irrelevant, for ..."
These connectives will vary with the nature of the assertion to be
refuted; the important thing is to state the assertion so clearly that
your critic can judge the relevancy and force of your refutation. (For
examples, see pp. 91-93.)
6. A brief in all its parts should be phrased in complete sentences;
mere topics are of no value.
In the brief on page 90, if the headings under I were "A. Party
politics, B. Waste in contracts, C. No responsibility for
expenditures," neither the maker of the brief nor the critic of it could
know with any certainty the course of the reasoning. It is undoubtedly
true that many lawyers and other men of affairs use only topic heads
when they are planning an argument; but it is to be remembered that they
are men who have been training their powers of thought in hard earnest,
and their ability to work out and stick to a train of reasoning with so
little written aid has not much bearing on what is the best practice for
young men who are in the process of gaining this ability. To make a full
outline of the reasoning in a few arguments is the best way to get the
sense for logical and coherent structure.
7. Each heading should contain a single assertion only.
The reason for this rule is obvious: if under each assertion you are
going to set the reasons for that assertion, you will get into trouble
if your assertion is double-headed, since what is a reason for one part
of it may not be a reason for another. If in the brief on page 90
heading I B should read, "Advantageous contracts cannot be made, and
the responsibility for expenditures is scattered," subheading I C 2,
"Accounts are submitted to separate committees of the two boards in
which no members have special responsibility," would have nothing to do
with the making of contracts, and subheading I B 1, "Contracts must be
passed on by both aldermen and common councilmen and the mayor," would
have nothing to do with expenditures.
8. In the body of the brief the assertions should be arranged as
follows: Each main heading should embody one of the main issues as
stated in the Introduction; and each of the subordinate assertions
should stand as a reason for the assertion to which it is subordinate.
The connective between an assertion and one subordinate to it will
therefore be for, since, or because, or the like, not hence or
therefore, or the like.
A brief thus arranged lays out the reasoning in a complete and easily
scrutinized form. Thus in the brief on page 90 for the assertion in the
first main issue, "The admitted inefficiency, of the city government at
present is due to the system of government," three chief reasons are
given: A. "Partisan politics determine nominations to office," B.
"Advantageous contracts cannot be made," and C. "The responsibility for
expenditures is scattered." Then for each of these secondary assertions
reasons in support are adduced; thus for B. "Advantageous contracts
cannot be made," the reasons are I. "Contracts must be passed on
separately by aldermen, common councilmen, and the mayor," and 2.
"Bargains are made between the aldermen representing different wards."
In this case final references are given for each of these subordinate
assertions, so that we get down to the ultimate foundation of verifiable
fact on which the argument is to be built up.
The advantage of this form is that if you have set down several
assertions as reasons for another, and you are doubtful whether they all
belong there, you can test them separately by putting them one by one
after the main assertion they are intended to support with a "for" or a
You put the assertion first and the reason for it afterwards, because
when there is more than one reason in support, if you have the reason
first you must then repeat the assertion with each reason, or run the
risk of confusion. If under I in the brief on page go, for example, you
began with the reason, "In the present system partisan politics
determine nominations to office," and then added the result, "Therefore
the city government is inefficient," you would have to repeat the result
with B and C; and when you came to the third degree of support, the
repetition would be intolerably clumsy and confusing.
9. Headings and subheadings should not have more than one numbering.
The reason for this rule is also obvious: each heading or subheading
marks a step in the argument, and what belongs on one step cannot be on
another at the same time. In the brief on page 90 the assertion that
"Partisan politics determine nominations to office" is stated as a chief
reason for the assertion in the first main issue, that "The admitted
inefficiency of the city government at present is due to the system of
government." It would confuse a reader to mark it A I, as if it wore a
support also in the second degree.
10. The brief should give references to the evidence or authorities
relied on to support assertions.
General references to articles and books which will be constantly
referred to should be put at the beginning of the brief. References to
specific statements of fact or quotations of opinion should be added as
they occur in the brief (see the brief on p. 90).
1. Criticize the following portion of a brief:
This college should have a longer Christmas vacation, for
I. College life tends to break up family life;
A. Father and son;
B. Younger brothers and sisters;
C. Intimate friends.
2. Criticize the following detached portions of a brief on the
proposition, This city should double its appropriation for the public
library, and amend them if necessary:
a. II. The funds for the purchase of books are insufficient and the
staff is inadequate.
b. B. The reading room is crowded to suffocation, therefore
1. Many people avoid the library.
c. III. Those who oppose the increased appropriation declare that
A. The library is a luxury for the rich; hence
1. The rich should support it; but
2. This is not true, for
a. Most of the borrowers of books are people
of moderate means; therefore
b. The city should support the library.
d. IV. A. The city is able to double the appropriation; for
1. It has spent largely for parks,
a. Which are also for the pleasure and improvement
of the citizens;
b. Hence it can pay for additions to the library.
e. VI. It is not true
A. That the readers want only recent fiction and that they
should buy these books for themselves; for
1. They mostly are not able to buy books; hence
2. They should be encouraged to read other books.
3. Give an example of an argument and an audience where it
would be necessary to put the refutation first; of one
in which it would be necessary to stir up the interest
of readers at the start.
4. Suggest methods for gaining the interest of the readers
in the last case.
Wytown should adopt a commission government like that of Des Moines,
General references: C.R. Woodruff, City Government by Commission. New
York, 1911; J.J. Hamilton, The Dethronement of the City Boss, New York,
1910; City newspapers of various dates; draft of proposed charter,
published by the Citizens' Association.
(The successive steps of the introduction will be found on pp. 43, 53,
70, 74-75, 76-77, 79-80.)
I. The admitted inefficiency of the city government at present is due to
the system of government; for
A. Partisan politics determine nominations to office; since
1. The organization of the national parties is permanent, and
that of any citizens' movement temporary.
2. There has been bargaining between the parties to reward
political services by city offices. Daily papers, March 12-20,
1909; March 3-15, 1910.
B. Advantageous contracts cannot be made; for
1. Contracts must be passed on separately by aldermen, common
councilmen, and the mayor. Present city charter, sections 19-21.
2. Bargains are made between the aldermen representing different
wards. Daily papers, October 3, 1908; January 25, 1910.
C. The responsibility for expenditures is scattered; for
1. Heads of departments are responsible to the two boards and
not to the mayor. Present city charter, section 15.
2. Accounts are submitted to separate committees of the two
boards in which no members have special responsibility. Present
city charter, sections 22-23.
II. The adoption of the plan will result in important economies; for
A. The administration of city affairs will be made simpler; since
1. The councilmen will both lay out the work and be responsible
for the execution of it. Draft or charter, sections 5 and 13.
2. Plans for work in all departments will be considered together.
3. A small body with full powers can make better bargains than
two larger ones acting independently.
B. The plan has resulted in economies where it has been tried; for
1. In Des Moines, Iowa, the first year under the new charter showed
a relative saving of $182,949.65 as compared with the year
before. C. R. Woodruff, as cited, p. 250.
2. In Haverhill, Massachusetts, in the first year of commission
government a deficit of $79,452 was turned into a surplus of
$36,511, after paying off indebtedness to the extent of
$133,000. C. R. Woodruff, as cited, p. 278.
1'.Though a despatch in a daily paper (April 3, 1911) declares
that the city of Haverhill has been forced to borrow, yet the
report is untrustworthy without further evidence; for
a'. In itself it is contradictory and confused; and b'. It is
known that professional politicians and other enemies
of the plan have often spread false reports about it.
McClure's Magazine, Vol. XXXV, p. 107.
III. The adoption of the plan will result in more efficient service to
the city; for
A. A better class of citizens will be drawn into office;
1. City officials can plan and carry out their policies
without petty interference;
2. In Cedar Rapids, Iowa, the commission, employed a civic-service
expert, and carried out his recommendations. J. J. Hamilton,
as cited, p. 180.
3. In Galveston, Texas, citizens of a better grade have taken
office, and the tone of the city administration has been
raised. W. B. Munro, in The Chautauquan, Vol. LI, p. 110.
B. Commission government has resulted in better administration where
it has been tried; for
1. Galveston and Houston, Texas, Des Moines and Cedar Rapids, Iowa,
have all reported better police administration, improvements in
streets and parks, more advantageous dealings with
public-service corporations. C. J. Woodruff, as cited,
2. No city which has tried the plan has yet given it up. C. J.
Woodruff, as cited, p. 310.
1'.Although Chelsea, Massachusetts, is cited as having given up a
commission government, yet the case is not parallel, since
a'. The commission under which the city had lived was appointed
by the governor after a disastrous conflagration; and
b'. The form of government substituted has most of the essential
features of the: commission government except the size of
the council, which has four members elected at large, and
five by district.
IV'. Although it is urged that the corrupt element in politics would
have unlimited power if they should capture the commission, yet the
direct responsibility to the citizens will be a safeguard for the
enlarged power, for
A'. Every act of the city government will be known; since under the
charter--sections 24, 25, 29, 33--
1'. The meetings of the council will be public.
2'. All resolutions are to be in writing and recorded.
3'. All votes are to be recorded.
4'. An itemized statement of receipts and expenditures must
be printed and distributed every month.
5'. Ordinances making contracts or granting franchises must be
published one week before final passage, and on petition may
be referred to the people.
6'. In Des Moines under the new charter the newspapers give much
space to the doings of the city government. _McClure's
Magazine_, Vol. XXXV, p. 101.
B'. The provisions for a recall will be a check on corrupt officials;
1'. In Des Moines a chief of police was retired on the suggestion
of a recall for the commissioner who was responsible for his
appointment. _McClure's Magazine_, Vol. XXXV, p. 101.
2'. In Seattle a mayor who made terms with the vicious element,
and was in league with public service corporations, was
recalled. Daily papers, March, 1911.
Wytown should adopt a commission government like that of Des
A. The admitted inefficiency of the city government at present is
due to the system of government;
B. The adoption of the plan will result in important economies;
C. The adoption of the plan will result in more efficient service to
the city; and
D. The direct responsibility of the mayor and councilmen to the
citizens will be a safeguard for the increased power given to them.
EVIDENCE AND REASONING
27. Evidence and Reasoning. We have seen in the last chapter that
the chief value of making a brief is that in the first place it lays out
your reasoning so that you can scrutinize it in detail; and that in the
second place it displays the foundations of your reasoning on facts
which cannot be contested. In this chapter we shall consider what
grounds give validity to evidence and to reasoning.
Where the facts which you bring forward come from persons with
first-hand knowledge of them, they are direct evidence; where you must
establish them by reasoning from other facts they are indirect evidence,
and in the latter case reasoning is an essential part of establishing
the facts. In this chapter, therefore, I shall speak first of direct
evidence, then of indirect, and then pass on to consider a few of the
simpler principles which govern reasoning.
In ordinary usage the word "evidence" is pretty vague, and means
anything that will help to establish one side or another of any
question, whether of fact or of policy. The word, however, comes
ultimately from the law, where it is used for the testimony, either oral
or written or material, which is brought in to establish the truth of
assertions about fact: evidence is set before the jury, which under the
common law decides questions of fact. In almost any argument of policy,
however, we use facts as reasons for or against the policy which is in
question, and therefore inmost cases we must use evidence to establish
these facts; in many cases, when the facts are established there is no
further disagreement about the policy. For example, in arguments for and
against state prohibition of the liquor trade, it is an essential fact
to determine whether in status where prohibition has been tried it has
failed or succeeded, and another essential fact whether under similar
conditions a combination of high license and local option has or has not
produced less drunkenness. Both are extremely complicated and difficult
facts to decide; but if clear evidence can be brought forward to
establish them, reasonable-minded people would generally hold as settled
the question of the policy which should be adopted. Similarly, an
argument for the popular election of senators would undoubtedly make
large use of the alleged fact that, in elections by the legislatures,
there has been much undue interference by special interests and rich
corporations; and the assertion of this fact would have to be supported
by evidence. If this fact were thus clearly established, it would be
recognized as a strong reason for a change in our present policy. In the
interest of clearness of thought it is worth while to remember this
distinction; for, as we shall see, it is only by so doing that we can
determine when the ordinary rules of logic do and when they do not apply
to the processes of reasoning on which argument is based. I shall speak
here, therefore, of the evidence for facts, and of the reasons for or
against a policy.
It may be said in passing that the highly complicated rules of evidence
at the common law have practically nothing to do with our present
subject, for they spring from very special conditions, and have been
molded by very special purposes. Their object is to establish, so far as
is possible, principles which will apply to all cases of a like nature;
and they therefore rule out many facts and much evidence which outside
the court we all use without hesitation in making up our minds. The jury
system has had a curious and interesting history: and judges have built
up hedges around juries which seem to the layman merely technical, and
unnecessary for the ends of justice. Yet though the sweeping away of
many of these rules from time to time shows that there has been and
perhaps still is justice in this view, one must remember that the whole
common law is based on the application of principles already established
by earlier cases to new cases of like character; and that great care
must therefore be used not to establish principles which may interfere
with the even distribution of justice in the long run (see on this point
S.R. Gardiner, p. 103). Even if in single cases the rule of evidence
that forbids hearsay evidence works an injustice, yet in the long run it
is obvious both that, if hearsay were allowed, litigants would take less
trouble to get original evidence, and that much hearsay is thoroughly
Another reason why the rules of evidence at the common law have little
bearing on the arguments of everyday life is like that which makes it
unwise to dwell much on the burden of proof: there is no one either
competent or interested to enforce the exclusion. Assertion and rumor
must be more than palpably vague before the ordinary man will of his own
initiative take the trouble to scrutinize it; and even in refuting such
material you must make its untrustworthiness very patent if you expect
to make ordinary readers distrust it seriously.
28. Direct and Indirect Evidence. When we come now to consider how we
establish facts, whether single or complex, we find that, both to aid
our own judgment and to convince other people, we rely on evidence. We
have seen that evidence falls roughly into two classes: either it comes
from persons who testify out of their own observation and experience, or
it comes indirectly through reasoning from facts and principles already
established or granted. The two kinds of evidence run into each other,
and the terms commonly used to describe them vary: "direct evidence" is
not infrequently, as in Huxley's argument (see p. 240), called
"testimonial," and "indirect evidence," as in the same argument and in
the opinion of Chief Justice Shaw, quoted below, is called
"circumstantial." On the whole, however, the opposition between the two
classes, so far as it is of practical importance, may best be indicated
by the terms "direct evidence" and "indirect evidence." The distinction
between the two classes is made clear in the following extract from the
opinion of Chief Justice Shaw of the Massachusetts Supreme Court. It
will be noticed that it is the same doctrine as that laid down by Huxley
(see p. 240).
The distinction, then, between direct and circumstantial evidence is
this. Direct or positive evidence is when a witness can be called to
testify to the precise; fact which is the subject of the issue in trial;
that is, in a case of homicide, that the party accused did cause the
death of the deceased. Whatever may be the kind or force of the
evidence, this is the fact to be proved. But suppose no person was
present on the occasion of the death,--and of course no one can be
called to testify to it,--is it wholly unsusceptible of legal proof?
Experience has shown that circumstantial evidence may be offered in such
a case; that is, that a body of facts may be proved of so conclusive a
character, as to warrant a firm belief of the fact, quite as strong and
certain as that on which discreet men are accustomed to act in relation
to their most important concerns....
Each of these modes of proof has its advantages and disadvantages; it is
not easy to compare their relative value. The advantage of positive
evidence is, that you have the direct testimony of a witness to the fact
to be proved, who, if he speaks the truth, saw it done; and the only
question is, whether he is entitled to belief. The disadvantage is, that
the witness may be false and corrupt, and the case may not afford the
means of detecting his falsehood.
But in a case of circumstantial evidence where no witness can testify
directly to the fact to be proved, you arrive at it by a series of other
facts, which by experience we have found so associated with the fact in
question, as in the relation of cause and effect, that they lead to a
satisfactory and certain conclusion; as when footprints are discovered
after a recent snow, it is certain that some animated being has passed
over the snow since it fell; and, from the form and number of the
footprints, it can be determined with equal certainty, whether it was a
man, a bird, or a quadruped. Circumstantial evidence, therefore, is
founded on experience and observed facts and coincidences, establishing
a connection between the known and proved facts and the fact sought to
Under the head of direct evidence, as I shall use the term, would fall
the evidence of material objects: in an accident case, for example, the
scar of a wound may be shown to the jury; or where the making of a park
is urged on a city government, the city council may be taken out to see
the land which it is proposed to take. Though such evidence is not
testimony, it is direct evidence, for it is not based on reasoning and
29. Direct Evidence. Direct evidence is the testimony of persons
who know about the fact from their own observation: such is the
testimony of the witnesses to a will that they saw the testator sign it,
the testimony of an explorer that there are tribes of pygmies in Africa,
the testimony of a chemist to the constituents of a given alloy, or of a
doctor to the success of a new treatment. Every day of our lives we are
giving and receiving direct evidence; and of this evidence there is
great variety in value.
In the first place, no one should place too much reliance on his own
casual observations. It is notorious that we see what we expect to see;
and no one who has not deliberately set himself to observe the fact can
realize how much of what he thinks is observation is really inference
from a small part of the facts before him. I feel a slight tremor run
through the house with a little rattling of the windows, and assume that
a train has gone by on the railroad below the hill a hundred yards away:
as a matter of fact it may have been one of the slight earthquake shocks
which come every few years in most parts of the world. The mistakes that
most of its make in recognizing people are of the same sort: from some
single feature we reason to an identity that does not exist.
Of recent years psychologists have set themselves to getting some
accurate facts as to this inaccuracy of human observation, and various
experiments have been tried. Here is an account of one:
There was, for instance, two years ago in Goettingen a meeting of a
scientific association, made up of jurists, psychologists, and
physicians, all, therefore, men trained in careful observation.
Somewhere in the same street there was that evening a public festivity
of the carnival. Suddenly, in the midst of the scholarly meeting, the
doors open, a clown in highly colored costume rushes in in mad
excitement, and a negro with a revolver in hand follows him. In the
middle of the hall first the one, then the other, shouts wild phrases;
then the one falls to the ground, the other jumps on him; then a shot,
and suddenly both are out of the room. The whole affair took less than
twenty seconds. All were completely taken by surprise, and no one, with
the exception of the president, had the slightest idea that every word
and action had been rehearsed beforehand, or that, photographs had been
taken of the scene. It seemed most natural that the president should beg
the members to write down individually an exact report, inasmuch as he
felt sure that the matter would come before the courts. Of the forty
reports handed in, there was only one whose omissions were calculated as
amounting to less than twenty per cent of the characteristic acts;
fourteen had twenty to forty per cent of the facts omitted; twelve
omitted forty to fifty per cent, and thirteen still more than fifty per
cent. But besides the omissions there were only six among the forty
which did not contain positively wrong statements; in twenty-four
papers up to ten per cent of the statements were free inventions, and in
ten answers--that is, in one fourth of the papers--more than ten per
cent of the statements were absolutely false, in spite of the fact that
they all came from scientifically trained observers. Only four persons,
for instance, among forty noticed that the negro had nothing on his
head; the others gave him a derby, or a high hat, and so on. In addition
to this, a red suit, a brown one, a striped one, a coffee-colored
jacket, shirt sleeves, and similar costume were invented for him. He
wore in reality white trousers and a black jacket with a large red
neck-tie. The scientific commission which reported the details of the
inquiry came to the general statement that the majority of the observers
omitted or falsified about half of the processes which occurred
completely in their field of vision. As was to be expected, the judgment
as to the time duration of the act varied between a few seconds and
Another type of cases in which our direct testimony would be valueless
is legerdemain: we think that we actually see rabbits taken out of our
neighbor's hat, or his watch pounded in a mortar and presently shaken
whole and sound out of an empty silk handkerchief; and it is only by
reasoning that we know our eyes have been deceived.
It is obvious, therefore, that to question a man's evidence is not
always to call him a liar; in most cases it is rather to question the
accuracy of his inferences from such part of the facts as he actually
grasped. In science no important observation is accepted until the
experiments have been repeated and checked by other observers. Indeed,
most of the progress of science is due to the repetition of experiments
by observers who notice some critical phenomena which their predecessors
With this qualification, that human observation is always fallible,
good direct evidence is on the whole the most convincing evidence that
you can use. If you can establish a fact by the mouths of trustworthy
witnesses, making your readers recognize that these witnesses had good
opportunities of observation and a competent knowledge of the subject,
you will generally establish your point. In case of an accident in a
street car it is the custom of many companies to require their
conductors to take down immediately the names of a few of the most
respectable-looking of the passengers, who may be called as witnesses in
case of a lawsuit. All the observations of science, and most of the
facts brought before juries in courts of law, as well as the multitude
of lesser and greater facts which we accept in everyday life, get their
authority from this principle.
In the arguments of school and college you may not make much use of
direct evidence, for they do not often turn on single, simple facts.
Even here, however, cases arise where you must call in the direct
testimony of witnesses. If you were arguing that secret societies should
be abolished in a certain school, and wished to show that such societies
had led to late hours, playing cards for money, and drinking, you would
need direct evidence. If you were arguing that the street railroad
company of your city should be obliged to double track a certain part of
its line, you would need direct evidence of the delays and crowding of
cars with a single track.
When you are using direct evidence you should make it clear that the
person from whom it comes is a competent witness, that he has been in a
position to know the facts at first hand, and that, if necessary, he has
had the proper training to understand their meaning. In the case of an
automobile accident a man who had never run a car would not be the best
sort of witness as to the actions of the chauffeur, nor a man who had
never sailed a boat as to what happened in a collision between two
sailboats. In a scientific matter the observations of a beginner would
not carry weight as against those of a man who had used a microscope for
The witness, too, must be shown to be free from bias, whether practical
or theoretical. It is a well-known fact that men differ greatly in the
clearness of their eyesight in observing the stars, and that men who are
gifted with exceptional eyesight may make valuable discoveries with
inferior instruments; but if such a man has espoused a theory, say, as
to the nature of the rings of Saturn, and is known to defend it
passionately, his evidence concerning what he had seen is bound to be
Even official reports cannot be trusted without scrutiny.
The fact is that many things conspire to make an official report
constrained and formal. There is the natural desire of every man to put
the best face on things for himself as he sets his case before the
government and the world; subordinates must be let off leniently; you
must live with them, and it impairs comfort to have them sullen. To make
a statement unpleasant to a superior might be construed as
insubordination. The public welfare makes it imperative to tell a
flattering tale. The temptation is constant to tell not quite the whole
truth, and nothing but the truth. There are important suppressions of
fact in the official records, none more so, perhaps, than as regards
If you happen to be dealing with a historical matter, where the
testimony comes from a more or less remote past, and the evidence is
scrappy and defective, you must be still more careful.
The great English historian, the late S.R. Gardiner, in his
examination of the evidence on the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, wrote as
follows about the difficulties of dealing with historical evidence:
It seems strange to find a writer so regardless of what is, in these
days, considered the first canon of historical inquiry, that evidence
worth having must be almost entirely the evidence of contemporaries who
are in a position to know something about that which they assert. It is
true that this canon must not be received pedantically. Tradition is
worth something, at all events when it is not too far removed from its
source. If a man whose character for truthfulness stands high, tells me
that his father, also believed to be truthful, seriously informed him
that he had seen a certain thing happen, I should be much more likely to
believe that it was so than if a person, whom I knew to be untruthful,
informed me that he had himself witnessed something at the present day.
The historian is not bound, as the lawyer is, to reject hearsay
evidence, because it is his business to ascertain the truth of
individual assertions, whilst the lawyer has to think of the bearing of
the evidence not merely on the case of the prisoner in the dock, but on
an unrestricted number of possible prisoners, many of whom would be
unjustly condemned if hearsay evidence were admitted. The historian is,
however, bound to remember that evidence grows weaker with each link of
the chain. The injunction, "Always leave a story better than you found
it," is in accordance with the facts of human nature. Each reporter
inevitably accentuates the side of the narrative which strikes his
fancy, and drops some other part which interests him less. The rule laid
down by the late Mr. Spedding, "When a thing is asserted as a fact,
always ask who first reported it, and what means he had of knowing the
truth," is an admirable corrective of loose traditional stories.
A further test has to be applied by each investigator for himself. When
we have ascertained, as far as possible, on what evidence our knowledge
of an alleged fact rests, we have to consider the inherent probability
of the allegation. Is the statement about it in accordance with the
general workings of human nature, or with the particular working of the
nature of the persons to whom the action in question is ascribed? Father
Gerard, for instance, lavishly employs this test. Again and again he
tells us that such and such a statement is incredible, because, amongst
other reasons, the people about whom it was made could not possibly have
acted in the way ascribed to them. If I say in any of these cases that
it appears to me probable that they did so act, it is merely one
individual opinion against another. There is no mathematical certainty
on either side. All we can respectively do is to set forth the reasons
which incline us to one opinion or another, and leave the matter to
others to judge as they see fit.
It will be necessary hereafter to deal at length with father Gerard's
attack upon the evidence, hitherto accepted as conclusive, of the facts
of the plot. A short space may be allotted to the reasons for rejecting
his preliminary argument, that it was the opinion of some
contemporaries, and of some who lived in a later generation, that
Salisbury contrived the plot in part, if not altogether. Does he realize
how difficult it is to prove such a thing by any external evidence
whatever? If hearsay evidence can be taken as an argument of
probability, and in some cases of strong probability, it is where some
one material fact is concerned. For instance, I am of opinion that it is
very likely that the story of Cromwell's visit to the body of Charles I
on the night after the king's execution is true, though the evidence is
only that Spence heard it from Pope, and Pope heard it, mediately or
immediately, from Southampton, who, it is alleged, saw the scene with
his own eyes. It is very different when we are concerned with evidence
as to an intention necessarily kept secret, and only exhibited by overt
acts in such form as tampering with documents, suggesting false
explanation of evidence, and so forth. A rumor that Salisbury got up the
plot is absolutely worthless; a rumor that he forged a particular
instrument would be worth examining, because it might have proceeded
from some one who had seen him do it.
While it is rare to find a man of whom it may justly be said that there
is no partition between his memory and his imagination, yet there are
few of us who can be sure of facts in past matters which touch our
feelings. We cannot help to some degree reconstructing events as they
fade away into the past: we forget those parts of an event which did not
at the time sharply touch our imagination, and those which did move us
take on an overshadowing importance. Therefore the further away the
events which the evidence is to reconstruct, the more care we must take
to scrutinize it to see if there are signs of bias.
To test the value of direct evidence, therefore, as to single and simple
facts, consider whether the evidence comes from a specifically named
source, whether there is any likelihood that the witness may have been
honestly deceived in his observation, whether he had a good opportunity
to know the facts and a sufficient knowledge of the subject about which
he is giving evidence, and, finally, whether he was reasonably free from
bias in the matter.
Whenever you use direct evidence, however, it must be direct. To assert
that "every one knows that secret societies in a certain school have led
to immoral practices," is not direct evidence, nor to declare that "the
best authorities in the city are agreed that the company should lay
double tracks on a certain street." Such assertions are apt to be the
most roundabout sort of hearsay. Try cross-examining the next man you
hear make this kind of sweeping assertion, in order to see what he
really knows of the facts, and you will soon find how recklessly such
assertions are made. You constantly hear grave statements of facts whose
ultimate basis is the imagination of some enterprising newspaper
reporter; yet careful and truthful people pass them on as if they were
The news columns of the papers are largely written by young fellows just
out of high school, who will declare the whole gospel on subjects with
which they have a half hour's acquaintance, yet most people never
question their statements. The printed page, whether of a hook, a
magazine, or a newspaper, casts a spell on our judgment. Such floating
assertions, with no one to father them, are of no value whatever. If you
have to use statements in a newspaper as direct evidence, either take
them from a newspaper which is recognized as careful about facts, or
else look up the matter in two or three papers, and show that their
On the other hand, a specific name, with a specific reference to volume
and page, will go a long way to give your readers confidence in the
evidence you adduce. And rightly so, for one man with a name and address
is worth hundreds of unnamed "highest authorities"; and the more
specifically you refer to him and to his evidence, the more likely you
will be to win over your audience to your view.
A famous and effective example of the use of specific names to give
authority to an argument, and the incidental refutation of a vague and
loose assertion, is found in Lincoln's address at Cooper Institute, in
the first part of which he took up Senator Douglas's statement that "our
fathers, when they framed the government under which we live, understood
this question just as well as, and even better than, we do now," with
the implication that they intended to forbid the federal government to
control slavery in the federal territories. Lincoln showed that "our
fathers who framed the government under which we live" must be the
makers of the Constitution: and then he proceeded to show just what
action each one of them, so far as record had been preserved, had taken
on the question. Here is a passage from his argument:
The question of Federal control in the Territories seems not to have
been directly before the convention which framed the original
Constitution; and hence it is not recorded that the "thirty-nine," or
any of them, while engaged on that instrument, expressed any opinion on
that precise question.
In 1789, by the first Congress which sat under the Constitution, an act
was passed to enforce the ordinance of 1787, including the prohibition
of slavery in the Northwestern Territory. The bill for this act was
reported by one of the "thirty-nine"--Thomas Fitzsimmons, then a member
of the House of Representatives from Pennsylvania. It went through all
its stages without a word of opposition, and finally passed both
branches without ayes and nays, which is equivalent to a unanimous
passage. In this Congress there were sixteen of the thirty-nine fathers
who framed the original Constitution. They were John Langdon, Nicholas
Gilman, William S. Johnson, Roger Sherman, Robert Morris, Thomas
Fitzsimmons, William Few, Abraham Baldwin, Rufus King, William Paterson,
George Clymer, Richard Bassett, George Read, Pierce Butler, Daniel
Carroll, and James Madison.
This shows that, in their understanding, no line dividing local from
Federal authority, nor anything in the Constitution, properly forbade
Congress to prohibit slavery in the Federal territory; else both their
fidelity to correct principle, and their oath to support the
Constitution, would have constrained them to oppose the prohibition.
Again, George Washington, another of the "thirty-nine," was then
President of the United States and as such approved and signed the bill,
thus completing its validity as a law, and thus showing that, in his
understanding, no line dividing local from Federal authority, nor
anything in the Constitution, forbade the Federal Government to control
as to slavery in Federal territory.
No great while after the adoption of the original Constitution, North
Carolina ceded to the Federal Government the country now constituting
the State-of Tennessee; and a few years later Georgia ceded that which
now constitutes the States of Mississippi and Alabama. In both deeds of
cession it was made a condition by the ceding States that the Federal
Government should not prohibit slavery in the ceded country. Besides
this, slavery was then actually in the ceded country. Under these
circumstances, Congress, on taking charge of these countries, did not
absolutely prohibit slavery in them. But they did interfere with
it--take control of it----even there, to a certain extent. In 1798
Congress organized the Territory of Mississippi. In the act of
organization they prohibited the bringing of slaves into the Territory
from any place without the United States, by fine, and giving freedom to
slaves so brought. This act passed both branches of Congress without
yeas and nays. In that Congress were three of the "thirty-nine" who
framed the original Constitution. They were John Langdon, George Read,
and Abraham Baldwin. They all probably voted for it. Certainly they
would have placed their opposition to it upon record if, in their
understanding, any line dividing local from Federal authority, or
anything in the Constitution, properly forbade the Federal Government to
control as to slavery in Federal territory.
In the end this exact statement of names, for which he had prepared
himself with such laborious care, enabled Lincoln to sum up with
The cases I have mentioned are the only acts of the "thirty-nine," or of
any of them, upon the direct issue, which I have been able to discover.
To enumerate the persons who thus acted as being four in 1784, two in
1787, seventeen in 1789, three in 1798, two in 7804, and two in
1819-1820, there would be thirty of them. But this would be counting
John Langdon, Roger Sherman, William Few, Rufus King, and George Read
each twice, and Abraham Baldwin three times. The true number of those of
the "thirty-nine" whom I have shown to have acted upon the question
which, by the text, they understood better than we, is twenty-three,
leaving sixteen not shown to have acted upon it in any way.
Here, then, we have twenty-three out of our thirty-nine fathers "who
framed the government under which we live," who have, upon their
official responsibility and their corporal oaths, acted upon the very
question which the text affirms they "understood just as well, and even
better, than we do now"; and twenty-one of them--a clear majority of the
whole "thirty-nine"--so acting upon it as to make them guilty of gross
political impropriety and willful perjury if, in their understanding,
any proper division between local and Federal authority, or anything in
the Constitution they had made themselves, and sworn to support, forbade
the Federal Government to control as to slavery in the Federal
territories. Thus the twenty-one acted; and, as actions speak louder
than words, so actions under such responsibility speak still louder.
When you come to evidence about a large and complex state of affairs,
which is the kind of fact that so many of the arguments of practical
life deal with, though you will still be dealing with a fact, yet the
very nature of the fact changes the value and the character of your
evidence. It is a comparatively simple matter to determine whether a
certain woman faced forward or backward as she was getting off a street
car, or whether the eggs of a sea urchin do or do not begin to germinate
under the influence of a certain chemical substance; but it is far from
simple to determine whether a free elective course has or has not inured
to greater intelligence and cultivation in the graduates of a certain
college, or whether the graduates of another college where the classical
course is maintained have keener and more flexible minds and more
refined tastes as a result of their study of the classics. In such cases
as these the citing of direct evidence brings on you difficulties of a
different kind from those you face when you are establishing a single,
simple fact. Here you will usually depend on two main sources of
evidence: statistics, and the evidence of recognized authorities on the
30. Statistics. Statistics, which are collections of figures, are
notoriously treacherous. On many important subjects, such, for example,
as the practical effect of the elective system, it is impossible to get
them; and on many other subjects, such as the effects of a protective
tariff, they must be had in so enormous masses, if they are to be
trusted at all, that only profound students can handle them. Where the
facts are complicated, and interests are tangled, moreover, many sets of
figures may enter into the question, as notably in the case of a tariff;
so clearly is this difficulty now recognized that Congress has
authorized a tariff board made up of distinguished students of economics
and men of long experience in dealing with tariff matters to collect and
study the facts and make recommendations based on them. Similarly, with
the investigation into the liquor question made fifteen years ago by the
Committee of Fifty: the whole question had been so tangled by assertion
and counter-assertion that it became desirable to have an investigation
into the facts by men of recognized ability and impartiality.
In general, to use statistics safely you need a wide acquaintance with a
subject, especially where the question is in any way mixed up with men's
feelings, whether through politics or not. All the statistics we have
make dead against great armaments and preparation for war; yet while
human nature is what it is, necessary prudence seems to require every
nation of any size to have them. A very little human nature will upset a
very great body of statistics. Furthermore, in most human affairs
results are produced by a multiplicity of causes; and though statistics
may throw light on three quarters of all the causes that are potent in
any given case, yet the other quarter which are irreducible to definite
statement may wholly alter the result. If you are using statistics in
your argument, therefore, as evidence of some large and complex fact,
you should usually justify them to some extent by showing that there are
no counteracting forces which they do not cover.
With this precaution, however, statistics are the foundation of most
arguments on large questions. If you were arguing in favor of the
purchase of local waterworks, you would present figures showing the
number of houses using the public water supply, the rates paid, the
profits of the company, the exact points at which public control could
work economies. If you were arguing for a rule that no man shall play on
a university team until he has been registered a year at the university,
you would need statistics to show how many men would be affected by the
rule. If you were arguing for a single session at a school instead of
two, you would show exactly how many students in the school live more
than a mile away from the building. In every case where statistics can
be presented in such a way as to make clear that they fairly cover the
ground, they are most valuable evidence. They give the argument the
effect of being founded on a rock. If it be obvious that the statistics
have been freshly gathered, and are not merely casual and second-hand
gleanings, they have still greater effect, for then they have a
secondary force in testifying to the personal knowledge that the witness
has of the subject. We shall see later the danger of the fallacy of
generalizing on too narrow a basis: a generalization based on a good
body of statistics runs no danger of this fallacy.
31. The Opinion of Recognized Authorities. The other chief source
of evidence to establish a fact which consists of a large and complex
state of affairs is the opinion of recognized authorities on the
subject. The strength of such evidence depends on whether the audience
will accept the person you cite as having authority on the matter. Most
of us read some newspaper or periodical in the opinions of which we have
confidence, because they seem to be based on investigation and competent
knowledge. The annual report of the Secretary of the Treasury is
excellent evidence on the state of the national finances. The reports of
presidents of colleges are excellent evidence from authorities on such
questions as the value of the elective system or the effect of raising
the standard of admission. The report of a dean or of a schoolmaster on
the value of organized athletics is effective if the audience knows that
he likes out-of-door sports and takes time to see the games. Evidence
drawn from an authority who is likely to be used by the other side is
doubly effective, since your readers recognize that his competence is
If a man has given his life to the study of a subject and has published
books that are of recognized authority, his evidence will be of especial
weight. Mr. Bryce's opinion on all questions concerning a state of
affairs in this country would be recognized at once as weighty, for he
has given time and study to collecting the multitude of small facts
which constitute the large fact. His opinion that political honesty is
increasing with us has brought comfort to many good citizens who had
grown despondent over the accounts of recurrent rascality in the
newspapers and magazines. This is a typical case for the citation of
authorities; for the facts are enormous in number, very widely
scattered, and often contradictory. Only a man who has taken the pains
to keep himself constantly informed, whose judgment has been trained by
long consideration and comparison of the facts, and who is born with the
judicial temperament can attain the authority of Mr. Bryce.
There will be cases on which you will have the right to put yourself
forward as an authority, for on many subjects which fall within the
range of undergraduates their knowledge is first-hand. On all questions
of athletics, especially, an undergraduate is apt to have freshly in
mind a considerable mass of facts. In the same way, on the results of
certain requirements for admission to college, you can speak from recent
experience. In matters concerning your own city, too, you may have
If you are going to put yourself forward as an authority, however, you
must round out your knowledge of the facts by extending it beyond your
own personal experience. If it is a question of entrance requirements,
you cannot stop with your own experience, or even with that of your own
class at school. You must go back to the records of a number of classes
before and perhaps after your own, and talk them over with the principal
of the school, to see whether there are any special circumstances which
affect any of them. If you are arguing for or against a change in the
present rules of football, you would have to go beyond the games of your
own college team, and beyond those of the present season. If, for
example, it were a question of amending the rules concerning the forward
pass, you could not speak with full authority unless you had looked up
the accounts of the principal games for two or three years at any rate.
If you put yourself forward, then, as a witness on one of these cases of
complicated facts, you must make it clear to your readers that you have
a right to be considered such. If you have the right, it would be folly
to hide your light under a bushel.
An example of the care which is taken by men who have made themselves
authorities on their subjects is to be found in the following passage
from President Eliot's address, "A Wider Range of Electives in College
Admission Requirements." Notice how broad a basis he lays for his
conclusions both in facts and in the opinions of other authorities.