Letters from Uncle Sam


I’m just a plainspoken Colorado criminal defense lawyer, but the way I see it…

My grandmother was Ethel Clemens, and used to speak from time to time of her uncle, Sam. Uncle Sam was a prolific writer, of letters and such. Sometimes he’d write a line or two that seemed worth saving. Some bore at least faint reference to the criminal law, a subject with which a criminal defense lawyer ought to have a passing acquaintance.

Here are a few:

On Aliases

…although Smith, Jones, and Johnson are easy names to remember when there is no occasion to remember them, it is next to impossible to recollect them when they are wanted.

How do criminals manage to keep a brand-new ALIAS in mind? This is a great mystery.


On Burglars

Sam’s own house was burgled, and he wrote to a friend, “We are buying a couple of bulldogs & hoping they will call again.” They did call again:

Those poor burglars have gone to jail. I haven’t anything against them, I bear them no malice & put no blame upon them, for it is only circumstances & environment that make burglars, therefore anybody is liable to be one. I don’t quite know how I have managed to escape myself.


On Crime

As by the fires of experience, so by commission of crime, you learn real morals. Commit all the crimes, familiarize yourself with all sins, take them in rotation (there are only two or three thousand of them), stick to it, commit two or three every day, and by-and-by you will be proof against them. When you are through you will be proof against all sins and morally perfect. You will be vaccinated against every possible commission of them. This is the only way.


On Evil

Everyone is a moon, and has a dark side which he never shows to anybody.


On Good

…there’s a good spot tucked away somewhere in everybody. You’ll be a long time finding it, sometimes.


On Jail

…every time you stop a school, you will have to build a jail. What you gain at one end you lose at the other. It’s like feeding a dog on his own tail. It won’t fatten that dog.


On Juries

We have a criminal jury system which is superior to any in the world; and its efficiency is only marred by the difficulty of finding twelve men every day who don’t know anything and can’t read.


On Justice

…like the rain, you know, which falls upon the just and the unjust alike; a thing which would not happen if I were superintending the rain’s affairs. No, I would rain softly and sweetly on the just, but whenever I caught a sample of the unjust outdoors I would drown him.


On Killing

Sam described the noble goals “of the five or six high civilizations”:

They all did their best — to kill being the chiefest ambition of the human race and the earliest incident in its history — but only the Christian civilization has scored a triumph to be proud of. Two or three centuries from now it will be recognized that all the competent killers are Christians; then the pagan world will go to school to the Christian — not to acquire his religion, but his guns.


On Law

If we only had some God in the country’s laws, instead of being in such a sweat to get him into the Constitution, it would be better all around.


On Lawmakers

I think I can say, and say with pride that we have some legislatures that bring higher prices than any in the world.


On Police

Sam once tried to break up a fight on the street he and a friend witnessed. Cops, like military, enjoy a long tradition of letting God sort ’em out, so just naturally everyone landed in jail.

I have been in the Station House. I staid there all night. I don’t mind mentioning it, because anybody can get into the Station House here without committing an offence of any kind. And so he can anywhere that policemen are allowed to cumber the earth. I complimented this police force in a letter some time ago, and felt like a guilty, degraded wretch when I was doing it, and now I am glad I got into the Station House, because it will teach me never to so far forget all moral principle as to compliment a police force again.


On Prejudice

I am quite sure that (bar one) I have no race prejudices, and I think I have no color prejudices nor caste prejudices nor creed prejudices. Indeed, I know it. I can stand any society. All that I care to know is that a man is a human being — that is enough for me; he can’t be any worse.


On Robbery

A robber is much more high-toned than what a pirate is — as a general thing. In most countries they’re awful high up in the nobility — dukes and such.


On Rules

It is good to obey all the rules when you’re young, so you’ll have the strength to break them when you’re old.


On Violence

…we build a fire in a powder magazine, then double the fire department to put it out. We inflame wild beasts with the smell of blood, and then innocently wonder at the wave of brutal appetite that sweeps the land as a consequence.


And On War, the Greatest Crime

Man is the only animal that deals in that atrocity of atrocities, War. He is the only one that gathers his brethren about him and goes forth in cold blood and with calm pulse to exterminate his kind. He is the only animal that for sordid wages will march out, as the Hessians did in our Revolution, and as the boyish Prince Napoleon did in the Zulu war, and help to slaughter strangers of his own species who have done him no harm and with whom he has no quarrel.

Man is the only animal that robs his helpless fellow of his country — takes possession of it and drives him out of it or destroys him. Man has done this in all the ages. There is not an acre of ground on the globe that is in possession of its rightful owner, or that has not been taken away from owner after owner, cycle after cycle, by force and bloodshed.

Man is the only Slave. And he is the only animal who enslaves. He has always been a slave in one form or another, and has always held other slaves in bondage under him in one way or another. In our day he is always some man’s slave for wages, and does that man’s work; and this slave has other slaves under him for minor wages, and they do his work. The higher animals are the only ones who exclusively do their own work and provide their own living.

Man is the only Patriot. He sets himself apart in his own country, under his own flag, and sneers at the other nations, and keeps multitudinous uniformed assassins on hand at heavy expense to grab slices of other people’s countries, and keep them from grabbing slices of his. And in the intervals between campaigns he washes the blood off his hands and works for “the universal brotherhood of man” — with his mouth.


[Editor’s Note: My thanks to twainquotes.com and of course to Uncle Sam.]


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One Response to Letters from Uncle Sam

  1. Josh Lambrose 18 June 2015 at 1:51 pm #

    Great article and quote selections!

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