‘Freedom is the most precious thing…’
Emma Goldman’s words from a century ago have lost little of their impact
05 March 2003
Photo courtesy the Rogues Gallery, Dept. of Records, City of Philadelphia
The first volume in a projected four-volume collection of primary texts devoted to the writings, speeches, and correspondence of Emma Goldman — as well as to the reams of verbiage her rhetoric and deeds occasioned in the press and the courts during the late 19th and early 20th centuries — will be published by UC Press in April.
“Emma Goldman: A Documentary History of the American Years, Volume One” was produced by the staff of the Emma Goldman Papers at Berkeley, under the editorial direction of Candace Falk. Subtitled “Made for America, 1890-1901,” the book covers the period between Goldman’s early development as a radical speaker and thinker and her arrest, a decade later, in purported connection with the assassination of President McKinley.
What emerges from the wealth of documentary material painstakingly accumulated, ordered, translated, and now published by the Goldman researchers is the profile of a woman perhaps more talented as a synthesizer of the philosophies of others than a brilliant political theorist in her own right. Yet she was also, without question, a polemicist of the highest caliber, a lightning rod for controversy, and perhaps the most prominent spokesperson of her day for freedom of speech, gender equality, the rights of labor, and anarchist beliefs generally. Freedom and liberty were her guiding principles throughout her long career, as was a devotion to anarchism as a political philosophy: “Goldman believed,” writes Falk in her introduction, “that everything that challenged the mind and encouraged individual freedom would advance the movement.”
Of further significance to our current condition are the words of Professor Leon Litwack, the project’s chief faculty advisor: “The life of Emma Goldman is a forcible reminder that the right to free expression in America has always been precarious.”
For more information on the life and works of Emma Goldman, including an online exhibition featuring some of the images reproduced here, visit the Goldman Papers website at sunsite.berkeley.edu/Goldman.
On August 21, 1893, Goldman addressed a crowd of unemployed workers in New York City, urging them, according to various published reports, to take action against capitalists, including “taking bread [from them] by force.” Ten days later she was arrested in Philadelphia on charges of unlawful assembly relating to the incident in New York. Convicted and sentenced to a year in jail, she declined at her sentencing to read a speech she had prepared, lest it encourage her anarchist friends to demonstrate on her behalf, and so endanger themselves. The New York World, on October 17, published what it said was the text of the undelivered speech, including these excerpts:
“I am positive that the men who shed their blood for the independence of this land, and who offered up their lives to secure the liberty and rights of the American people, must have had a very different understanding of the right of free speech than those who today represent the Government....”
“I can fully understand that such people hate the Anarchists, for it is our endeavor to abolish private property, State and Church. In one word, we aim to free men from tyrants and government.
“The striving for freedom is not the creature of my brain, nor that of any other being; it lies rooted in the people, and the contentions of the past, the struggles between the people and their oppressors, show but too plainly that the people are desirous of being freed from their burdens.
“The burning at the stake and the gallows have been the reward of numberless men of advanced thought. . . . And yet the desire for freedom grew, and grows….
“You will not be able to stifle Anarchy by the erection of gallows and jails....We seek the establishment of Anarchy, or, in other words, a freedom from government of any kind; a community of interests based upon common production of equal and necessary character; we seek a perfect liberty for each individual to enjoy the grand and glorious products of nature; we seek for each an equal liberty to cultivate the talents and abilities as well the attainments of the highest knowledge….
“You have convicted me; you may pass sentence of imprisonment upon me, but I tell you that I hate your laws; that I hate your ‘order,’ for I know but one ‘order’ — it is the highest potency of order — Anarchy.”
The “Haymarket riot” of 1886, in which a bomb thrown by an unknown person led to violence in which several policemen and numerous demonstrators were killed, had contradictory effects on the anarchist movement — giving rise both to public condemnation of it and an increase in the number and fervor of its supporters.
Goldman spoke frequently of the impact these events — in particular the execution of four convicted anarchist leaders — had on her, as exemplified by these remarks at a gathering in Pittsburgh in November 1896:
“The execution of the Chicago anarchists [in November 1887] was a horrible crime. What had these men done? Had they made widows and orphans, had they murdered, had they robbed?
“No....They did one thing, a thing that from time immemorial has been punished by society with death and prison – they dared to think. They explained to the people in a popular way the writings of Rousseau, Paine and Jefferson, that all men are created free and equal and have equal rights. They were simply anarchists, and because they were anarchists they were dragged to the scaffold….
“Although no one knows who threw that bomb; although the closest investigation has failed to disclose his identity; I must confess that I hold that he who threw the bomb did a deed that was great and holy. And that bomb was an echo of the miserable condition in which the workingmen of America find themselves.”
Goldman was arrested on "suspicion of involvement" in the September 6, 1901, assassination of President McKinley. It was said that Leon Czolgosz, the anarchist who shot McKinley in Buffalo, N.Y., had attended one of her speeches a few months earlier. “I am an anarchist, I am a disciple of Emma Goldman. Her words set me on fire,” he was quoted by the San Francisco Chronicle as having told police. But despite media efforts to establish a link between Goldman and the assassination — as well as restrictive measures against anarchism and anarchists imposed around the nation — no official charges were ever levied, and Goldman was released on September 24. Her essay, “The Tragedy at Buffalo,” appeared in “Free Society” on October 6, 1901.
“…The question has been discussed time and again, and it is proven that Anarchism and violence are as far apart from each other as liberty and tyranny. I care not what the rabble says; but to those who are still capable of understanding I would say that Anarchism, being a philosophy of life, aims to establish a state of society in which man’s inner make-up and the conditions around him, can blend harmoniously together, so that he will be able to utilize all the forces to enlarge and beautify the life around him. To those I would also say that I do not advocate violence; government does this, and force begets force. It is a fact which cannot be done away with through the prosecution of a few men and women, or by more stringent laws — this only tends to increase it.
“Violence will die a natural death when man will learn to understand that each unit has its place in the universe, and while being closely linked together, it must remain free to grow and expand.”
In 1899, the mayor of Barre, Vermont — a center of Italian immigrant anarchism — ordered local police to prevent Goldman from delivering the fourth in a series of scheduled lectures. Five thousand copies of the text of the undelivered lecture, titled “Authority vs. Liberty,” were subsequently printed by local anarchists; the text also appeared in the anarchist publication “Free Society.”
“What is the statute book? Nothing else but the commands of earthly gods, monarchs, despots, czars, kings or presidents….[U]nder its very wing wars are carried on, whole nations are destroyed, prisons are crowded, armies enlarged, battleships built, thousands beheaded, garrotted, hung and sent to the electric chair, while a few are getting richer and richer, monopolizing half the earth....
“[T]he State authority has taught you so long the sacred rights of property that you have learned to take it as truth. You do not recognize that it is the statute book by which capitalism is maintained; you...believe that authority is absolutely necessary — and that if it be abolished men would cut each other’s throats....Only those who do not think, who do not reason, who accept everything that is because they do not investigate still cling to authority. Intelligent people see clearly that authority in any form is but a check to development and growth, that it is but a chain tied to a man from cradle to grave which hinders the free use of his limbs.…
“We have precious little [liberty] and we are rapidly losing it; but even under the curse of government, side by side with despotism, the actions of individual free efforts are legion....Everything that is good and noble, grand and beautiful, wise and useful, has been done by the spirit of liberty, from the love of freedom, in spite and in the teeth of government and authority. When man will have recovered from the effects of authority, when he will understand that freedom is the most precious thing, when he will be free to live, to work, to develop, to enter into social relations with whom he is in sympathy, then warfare, conquests, robbery, theft, corruption, poverty and all the ornaments of the State, all the burden of authority will be looked upon as relics of barbarism.”