Jurisprudence

“No Respecter of Persons”

It’s an odd complaint, but one of the things I dislike about doing historical research is that I get distracted from the history I’m after by the language that it comes in. I can’t focus on facts, because I get lost in the words. The difference between everyday language circa 1900 and everyday language circa now fascinates me just as much as the sociological and legal differences between those two times when I read old documents.

The problem is that when you’re trying to maintain a blog on obscure early drug law history, you don’t want to spelunk even more obscurely into the language of early drug law history, thus dooming your blog to suffer whatever the digital equivalent of dust and cobwebs are.

Ignoring that fear, I just read this passage this week, conclusively describing “the two classes” of drug addicts in 1918:

In Class one, we can include all of the physical, mental and moral defectives, the tramps, hoboes, idlers, loafers, irresponsibles, criminals, and denizens of the underworld, and, among women, the idle rich . . . all these do not want to be cured . . . In these cases, morphine addiction is a vice, as well as a disorder resulting from narcotic poisoning. These are the ‘drug fiends.’

In Class two, we have many types of good citizens who have become addicted to the use of the drug innocently, and who are in every sense of the word “victims.” Morphine is no respecter of persons, and the victims are doctors, lawyers, ministers, artists, actors, judges, congressmen, senators, priests, authors, women, girls, all of who realize their conditions and want to be cured. In these cases, morphine-addiction is not a vice, but, an incubus, and when they are cured, they stay cured.

The words are from George D. Swaine, in his article “Regarding the Luminal Treatment of Morphine Addiction” for the American Journal of Clinical Medicine.

There’s nothing particularly noteworthy about the passage by itself, although it is an early example of drawing a line (moral/socioeconomic character distinction) in the sand (or other powdered substance) for drug politics.

However, in my last blog post, I quoted from former San Francisco Police Chief Theo Cockrill, who in talking about enforcing the law against the Chinese in San Francisco twice used a phrase that Swaine does: “No respector of persons.”

Before this week, I had never once heard the phrase “no respecter of persons,” although I openly admit I may very well be unique in this ignorance. And as the phrase is biblical in origin, I likely am. It can be found in the book of Acts, Chapter 10, verses 34-35:

God is no respecter of persons: But in every nation he that feareth Him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with Him.

The childish part of me that likes playing with language and wants to justify this blog post wonders what kind of insight this congruity provides. When medical journals and police reports are flinging bible language around, it seems like this could be indicative of the climate of the time – a culture of moral homogeny that begat an oppressive jurisprudence?

But then again, there’s the other part of me that remembers the thesis statement from President Obama’s inauguration speech “We remain a young nation, but in the words of Scripture, the time has come to set aside childish things,” and feels that things haven’t changed enough to justify any conclusions from language.

Conclusions or not, the blog must be posted to.

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