Vice Unmasked

“The intellectual structure of uneasiness with the law that ran through Jacksonian life”

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164. GRAYSON, P.W. Vice Unmasked, An Essay: Being a Consideration of the Influence of Law upon the Moral Essence of Man. With Other Reflections. By P.W. Grayson. New York: Published by George H. Evans, for the Author, 1830. [i-v] vi-viii, [9] 10-168 pp. 8vo (22.7 x 14 cm), recent antique-style three-quarter russet calf over marbled boards, spine with raised bands, gilt ruling, and black morocco label lettered in gilt. Occasional mild to moderate foxing, blank corner of pp. 117-120 torn away (no loss), overall a very good copy of an uncommon title. Rare in commerce.

     First edition. American Imprints (1830) 1661 (6 copies located). The book was published for the author by George H. Evans (1805-1851), British-born activist, reformer, and newspaperman, whose publications included Radical, Working Man’s Advocate (which merged with the Subterranean, and Young America!). Evans, a leader in the radical New York Workingmen’s Party, maintained in his National Reform doctrine that free land in the West would encourage unemployed and underpaid laborers to leave industrial cities, eliminating the surplus of workingmen and helping to free the urban economy from factory owners. This “safety valve” theory borrows somewhat from the labor theory of property by Locke and Jefferson, in which the man who works the land earns ownership of it.

     It is possible that P.W. Grayson’s legal treatise may be the work of Peter Wagener Grayson (see Handbook of Texas Online), but this contention needs more research, though the evidence is somewhat compelling (Grayson’s papers are held by the Rosenberg Library in Galveston). Grayson (1788-1838), namesake of Grayson County, was an attorney, poet, soldier in the War of 1812, Jacksonian legislator in Kentucky (1828), diplomat, cabinet officer and presidential candidate of the Republic of Texas, and notorious for his very frank suicide note written at Bean’s Station. In the 1820s Grayson suffered from mental illness which seems to have dissipated with a good dose of G.T.T. and the grant of a league of land in Stephen F. Austin’s Texas colony in 1830. Highlights of Grayson’s sojourn in Texas include: visit to Mexico to procure the release of Stephen F. Austin (1834); service in the Texas Revolution as president of the Board of War at Gonzales and Austin’s aide-de camp; election to the Consultation (1835); raising volunteers in the U.S. (1836-1837); attorney general under David Burnet (interim 1836, signed the Treaty of Velasco) and Sam Houston (1837); commissioner to the U.S. to seek annexation of Texas (1837); naval agent to the U.S. (1837); Houston party candidate for president of the Republic (1838). Streeter, in his entry 234, remarks on Grayson and his style of expressing himself: “Reading now Grayson’s lengthy letter, where one has to wade through interminable reflections about this and that before learning towards the end that he would be a candidate for the presidency, makes me wonder how many Texans would have cast their votes for him in the September election if he had lived. As a matter of fact, shortly after writing this letter Grayson went to Kentucky, and committed suicide there in July.”

     The best overview of Grayson’s book is that of David Grimsted in “Rioting in its Jacksonian Setting” (American Historical Review, Vol. 77, No. 2, April 1872, pp. 371-372). Byzantine as Grayson’s writing style may be some of his points remain germane.

Vice Unmasked, a book written in 1830 by P.W. Grayson, presents most coherently the intellectual structure of uneasiness with the law that ran through Jacksonian life. Little is known about Grayson except what he reveals in the book: that his criticism of lawyers is knowledgeable, he himself having been one before he repented. When the book was published, Grayson apparently had connections with the New York Workingmen’s Party; George Henry Evans published his book, and the Working Man’s Advocate advertised it and reprinted a review of it from the Daily Sentinel, which judged Vice Unmasked an important study if “a little enthusiastic perhaps.”

Grayson was unenthusiastic about law because he considered it the greatest obstacle to the realization of the promise of American life. That promise for Grayson, as for many Americans, had been to free man’s potential by lifting from him the weight of the superstitions and repressive institutions of the past. The American government was the beginning of improvement, but progress was still slight, as the injustices and inequalities and unhappiness of America amply showed. What had gone wrong? Grayson’s answer was simple: the United States had ended repressive government but had left untouched a legal system that impeded man’s freedom and hence tarnished his natural integrity. Grayson fervently summarized the complaints against lawyers: they were a class of men who had a vested interest in fomenting and prolonging disputes; who were essentially social prostitutes willing to take any position that the highest bidder for their talents desired; who eschewed any concern for pursuing truth in order to pursue their client’s interest; and who exulted in the complexities of their profession because these prevented honest men from acting in their own interests.

Yet Grayson’s prime target was not lawyers but the system that encouraged their moral degradation. The law itself was a jumble of old formulas inherited from feudal times, rarely suited to modern instances, and always more helpful in telling the cunning man how much he could get away with than in setting positive standards of human conduct. And whatever was done to improve it only changed its facade; one passed bankruptcy laws to protect the poor debtor, but the speculative stockjobber made use of them to defraud his honest creditors. Weaving together Thomas Paine’s and a transcendental vision of man’s potential, Grayson centered his indictment on the effects of law on the “moral essence of man,” the way it debased man’s sense of self and social responsibility by turning him from his high moral potential to a tricksy tailoring of conduct to avoid legal prosecution. In short, law was generally a tool of the cleverly vicious, a snare for the simply virtuous, and a burden on everyone, crippling human decency and progress.

Practically, Americans were not about to accept Grayson’s program that law should deal only with instances of gross physical attack and in all other areas let man “seek, by the light of his own conscience, in the joyous genial climate of his own free spirit, for all the rules of his conduct.” But Grayson’s thinking paralleled that of many other Jacksonians. Indeed his major premise was perfectly correct: from a tough-minded point of view, law, as Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. argued later on, has much less to do with man’s highest responsibilities than it does with telling bad men just how much they can get away with; in any legal system decisions must be based as much on technical requirements as on the unfettered pursuit of justice.

     The work ends abruptly: “The indisposition of the author makes it impossible for him to add in the present publication the remainder of the matter he had somewhat prepared for this essay.”


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