Two important developments occurred recently in the struggle for animal rights.
One involved a ruling in the United States Supreme Court, which overturned a federal law that sought to ban videos depicting wanton violence against animals.
Many people applauded the decision as a triumph for free speech. And as a First Amendment absolutist myself, I held my nose and supported the court's decision, despite my bitter loathing of anyone who derives joy from filming or viewing the suffering of animals. Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. wrote the majority opinion for the court:
The First Amendment's guarantee of free speech does not extend only to categories of speech that survive an ad hoc balancing of relative social costs and benefits. The First Amendment itself reflects a judgment by the American people that the benefits of its restrictions on the government outweigh the costs. Our Constitution forecloses any attempt to revise that judgment simply on the basis that some speech is not worth it.
Fair enough. But just once in my lifetime, I'd love to see the Supreme Court enact a law that bans the animal concentration camp system that is the factory farm, or prohibits fur-bearing animals from being mercilessly clubbed over the head, or stops dairy farmers from whisking baby calves away from their mothers to turn them into veal. Does mass, systematic human barbarism toward animals fall under the First Amendment protections? I don't think so.
I had very mixed feelings about this ruling. To be honest, even though I support the First Amendment 100 percent, the decision left me depressed and bewildered, wondering when animals are ever going to get their fair day in court.
Then I heard a beautiful story on NPR - National Public Radio - about a British historian and biographer Richard Holmes, who discovered what might be the first "Animal Rights Manifesto" ever written. Holmes is researching a biography of the great English philosopher, theologian, free-thinker and scientist Joseph Priestley (1733-1804).
Apparently, in Priestley's role as chemist (he was a true Renaissance Man with his hands in a lot of cookie jars), he kept caged mice for experimentation. Priestley was cutting the mice open to learn more about how creatures breathe in oxygen. With tuberculosis running rampant in Europe, Priestley - a humanist - hoped that his experiments would help in finding a cure to the terrible disease.
In researching Priestley's life, Holmes came across a poem that Priestley's lab assistant, a young woman named Anna Barbauld, wrote and tucked between the bars of one of the cages for Priestley to find.
Keep in mind, this was 237 years ago - 1773 - when the issue of animal rights wasn't even a blip on most people's radars. The poem, called "The Mouse's Petition" (see an original old English version here) is so beautiful that I am including it here in its entirety:
The MOUSE's PETITION*
Found in the TRAP where he had been confin'd all Night.
Parcere subjectis, & debellare superbos. VIRGIL
- OH! hear a pensive captive's prayer,
- For liberty that sighs ;
- And never let thine heart be shut
- Against the prisoner's cries.
- For here forlorn and sad I sit,
- Within the wiry grate ;
- And tremble at th' approaching morn,
- Which brings impending fate.
- If e'er thy breast with freedom glow'd,
- And spurn'd a tyrant's chain,
- Let not thy strong oppressive force
- A free-born mouse detain.
- Oh ! do not stain with guiltless blood
- Thy hospitable hearth ;
- Nor triumph that thy wiles betray'd
- A prize so little worth.
- The scatter'd gleanings of a feast
- My scanty meals supply ;
- But if thine unrelenting heart
- That slender boon deny,
- The chearful light, the vital air,
- Are blessings widely given ;
- Let nature's commoners enjoy
- The common gifts of heaven.
- The well taught philosophic mind
- To all compassion gives ;
- Casts round the world an equal eye,
- And feels for all that lives.
- If mind, as ancient sages taught,
- A never dying flame,
- Still shifts thro' matter's varying forms,
- In every form the same,
- Beware, lest in the worm you crush
- A brother's soul you find ;
- And tremble lest thy luckless hand
- Dislodge a kindred mind.
- Or, if this transient gleam of day
- Be all of life we share,
- Let pity plead within thy breast,
- That little all to spare.
- So may thy hospitable board
- With health and peace be crown'd ;
- And every charm of heartfelt ease
- Beneath thy roof be found.
- So when unseen destruction lurks,
- Which men like mice may share,
- May some kind angel clear thy path,
- And break the hidden snare.
- To Doctor PRIESTLEY.
Proof that even though the times change, there have always been people with compassionate hearts and a deep reverence for all life, including the lives of animals.