Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Insights in 1844: Gun Control and the Human Heart

John C. Rankin (2014)

In a short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne called Earth’s Holocaust (1844), a reference he makes to Cain has always stayed with me. The setting is that the people of the world have decided to rid themselves of everything evil, since the world “had become so overburdened with an accumulation of wornout trumpetry.” They decide to burn it all in a great bonfire and the site chosen “was one of the broadest prairies of the West, where no human habitation would be endangered by the flames, and where a vast assemblage of spectators might commodiously admire the show.”

Hawthorne writes the story as a first-person witness who chances to talk with a stranger about it, and this stranger becomes his partner of observation throughout. Everything imaginable that contributes to human vanity and self-aggrandizement is brought forth to be burned, as Hawthorne describes the specifics for pages: “the blazonry of coat armor, the crests and devices of illustrious families …. innumerable badges of knighthood …. and Napoleon’s decoration of the Legion of Honor …. the purple robes of royalty, and the crown, globes and sceptres of emperors and kings …. the crown jewels of England …. fermented liquors …. boxes of tea and bags of coffee …. crops and tobacco …. whole stocks of drugs and medicines …. old sermons …. code of manners …. pen and paper …. all the weapons and munitions of war …. the guillotine ….  daybooks and ledgers …. evidence of debts …. the last remnant of the literature of all the ages …. the ponderous church Bible.”

In the midst of this, an elderly man in Napoleonic military dress throws his sword into the bonfire:

“ ‘Ay! Ay!’ grumbled he. ‘Let them proclaim what they please; but, in the end, we shall find all this foolery has only made more work for the armorers and cannon founders.’

“ ‘Why, sir’ exclaimed I, in astonishment, ‘do you imagine that the human race will ever so far return on the steps of its past madness as to weld another sword or cast another cannon?’

“ ‘There will be no need,’ he observed, with a sneer, one who neither felt benevolence nor had faith in it. ‘When Cain wished to slap his brother, he was at no loss for a weapon.’

When the many Bibles that had been collected were thrown into the bonfire, everyone was horrified. They did not imagine that this was part of the plan. Hawthorne’s character knows that the fire has consumed everything so far, and he expects nothing to remain by the morning. But his stranger friend interjects:

“ ‘Assuredly there will,’ said my grave friend. ‘Come hither to-morrow morning, or whenever the combustible portion of the pile shall be quite burned out, and you will find among the ashes everything really valuable that you have seen cast into the flames. Trust me, the world of   to-morrow will again enrich itself with the gold and diamonds which have been cast off by the world of to-day. Not a truth is destroyed nor buried so deep among the ashes but it will be raked up at last.’

“This was a strange assurance. Yet I felt inclined to credit it, the more especially as I beheld among the wallowing flames a copy of the Holy Scripture, the pages of which, instead of being blackened into tinder, only assumed a more dazzling whiteness as the finger marks of human   imperfection were purified away. Certain marginal notes and commentaries, it is true, yielded to the intensity of the fiery test, but without detriment to the smallest syllable that had flamed from the pen of inspiration.”

Hawthorne brings into the story a final character. This figure interrupts a conversation between the last thief, the last murderer and the last hangman – all of whom despair of a new world where there is no room for them:

“ ‘Poh, poh, my good fellows!’ said a dark-complexioned personage, who now joined the group, – his complexion was indeed fearfully dark, and his eyes glowed with a redder light than that of the bonfire; ‘be not so cast down, my dear friends; you shall see good days yet. There’s one thing that these wiseacres have forgotten to throw into the fire, and without which all the rest of the conflagration is just nothing at all; yes, though they had burned the earth itself to a cinder.’

“ ‘And what may that be?’ eagerly demanded the last murderer. ‘What but the human heart itself?’ said the dark-visaged stranger, with a portentous grin. ‘And, unless they hit upon some method of purifying that foul cavern, forth from it will reissue all the shapes of wrong and misery – the same old shapes or worse ones – which they have taken such a vast deal of trouble to consume to ashes. I have stood by this livelong night and laughed in my sleeve at the whole business. Oh, take my word for it, it will be the old world yet!’ ”

Hawthorne was steeped in the traditions of Puritan New England, while at the same time he was part of an increasingly skeptical vanguard of writers who posed of it some hard questions. The illustration of the Bible not burning, but being refined as “certain marginal notes and commentaries” are burned, is very carefully worded. He did not hold the entire Bible to be fully inspired by God, but here we see his conviction that much of it was. In his inner turmoil in this regard, he maintained focus on the matter of the heart. In the end of this story he brings in a devil’s advocate to make the point, to ratify what the Napoleonic soldier observed. Even if we rid ourselves of all instruments of war and vanity, the resources will still be found or retooled to injure our brother if that is our desire. “Gun control” cannot control the human heart. Noah’s flood purged the planet but could not purge the human heart. It remains unpurged until the New covenant comes as the only remedy, a complete reversal of the reversal, requiring both the first and second comings of the Messiah. This Jesus came to bring, and the religious elitists resisted him as fully as Cain resisted the goodness of Abel.