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Evidence About Character
by [?]

Now, rules of this kind are singularly unsuited to the conduct of inquiries touching character. It is true the law provides a process nominally for the vindication of character, called an action for libel, but the remedy it supplies is not a vindication properly so called, but a sum of money as a kind of penalty on the libeller, not for having assailed you, but for not having been able to prove his case under the rules of evidence. In a suit for libel, too, the parties fight their battle in the strict legal order–the plaintiff, that is to say, stands by and challenges the defendant to produce his proofs, and then fights bitterly through his counsel to keep out as much of the proof as he can. He supplies no evidence himself that is not strictly called for, and proffers no explanation that does not seem necessary to procure an award of pecuniary damages, and takes all the pains possible to bring confusing influences to bear on the jury. When we consider, too, that the jury is composed of men who may be said to be literally called in from the street, without the slightest regard to their special qualifications for the conduct of any inquiry, and that they are apt to represent popular passions and prejudices in all conspicuous and exciting cases, we easily see why a trial by a jury, under the common-law rules of evidence, is not the process through which a high-minded man who sought not for “damages,” but to keep his reputation absolutely spotless in the estimation of his neighbors, would naturally seek his vindication.

It cannot be too often said, in these times when great reputations are so often assailed and so often perish, that nobody who has not deliberately chosen the life of a stoical recluse is justified either in refusing to defend his reputation or in defending it by technical processes if any others are within his reach. It is, of course, open to any man to say that he cares nothing for the opinion of mankind, and will not take the trouble to influence it in any manner in regard to himself. But, if he says so, he is bound not to identify with himself, in any manner, either great interests or great causes. If he makes himself the champion of other people’s rights, or the exponent of important principles, or has through any power of his achieved an influence over other people’s minds sufficiently great to make it appear that certain doctrines or ideas must stand or fall by him, he has surrendered his freedom in all that regards the maintenance of his fame.

It is no longer his only to maintain. It has become, as it were, embodied in popular morality, been made the basis of popular hopes, and a test under which popular faith or approval is bestowed on a great variety of ways and means of living. Such a man is bound to defend himself from the instant at which he finds the assaults on him begin to tell on the public conception of his character. Dignified reserve is a luxury in which it is not permitted to him to indulge; and when he comes to defend himself, it must not be with the calculating shrewdness of the strategist or tactician. The only rules of evidence of which he can claim the benefit are the laws of the human mind. The tribunal, too, before which he seeks reparation should not be what the state supplies only, but the very best he can reach, and it should, if possible, be composed of men with no motive for saving him and with no reason for hating him, and with such training and experience as may best fit them for the task of weighing his enemy’s charges and his own excuses and explanations. His course before such a tribunal, too, should be marked by ardor rather than by prudence. He should chafe under delay, clamor for investigation, and invite scrutiny, and put away from him all advisers whose experience is likely to incline them to chicane or make them satisfied with a technical victory. Such men are always dangerous in delicate cases. He should not wait for his accuser to get in all his case if the substantial part of it is already before the court, because his answer ought not, as in a court of law, to cover the complaint simply and no more. It ought to contain a plain unvarnished tale of the whole transaction, and not those parts only which the accusation may have touched, because his object is not only to wrest a verdict of “not proven” from his judges, but to satisfy even the timid and sensitive souls whose faith in their idols is so large a part of their moral life, not only that he is not guilty, but that he never even inclined toward guilt.