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“The Power of Public Opinion,” 1909

Date: 1909

Type: Manuscript

Categories: ,


This essay, given as a lecture, focuses on the power of public opinion to influence political figures and ideologies. Using examples such as the Russian and French Revolutions, Emmerton attempts to paint a picture of a future where public opinion is used for the greater good, primarily by extoling the virtues of socialism.

The manuscript has been transcribed below exactly as it appears on the page.


“The Power of Public Opinion”
Transcription by W.H. Demick


The Power of Public Opinion


We have learned from the papers already
given today what public opinion is and some
of the means by which it is formed. My paper
has the title role, so to speak, for I have been
called upon to give an estimate of the power
of public opinion.
Let me begin by referring to the first paper for
a definition of public opinion. Several
definitions were given there backed by diction-
aries and eminent historians. These definitions
can I think be fairly summed up by saying
that public opinion on any subject is the
thoughtful conviction of a majority of people
in a community where a free expression of
opinions is permitted.
Now with this light on the subject let us make
excursions into the past and into the present,
into far lands and near and see what public
opinion has accomplished and what it can
In order to get the benefit of contrast let
us turn to Russia first and consider that
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spring morning when the czar ordered his sol-
diers to fire upon a crowd of his unarmed
How unthinkable it is that President Taft
should do such a thing. We can’t imagine our
soldiers obeying such an order and if they did
imagination fails to picture what the state of
the country would be after such an event. We
dismiss the supposition by saying that public
opinion would never tolerate it. But the
power of public opinion shows to greater
advantage still if we take a country like Germany
with a more aristocratic form of government.
Remember how recently the Kaiser has made
one of his many blunders and alluded to
himself as governing by divine right and
how quickly Germany resented it and
by public opinion alone forced him into a
lame explanation tantamount to an apology.
The strength of public opinion is also
shown by the part it played in the French
Revolution. The rising of the peasantry
was due to oppression and injustice, but their
struggles might never have accomplished become
more than separate outbreaks if it had
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been for the trained public opinion of the
middle classes which, since the time
Voltaire and Russeau[sic], had been shaping
a philosophy and weighing the claims of
the old regime only to find them wanting.
It has seemed to me in reading the history
of Marie Antoinette that much of the help-
lessness of the king and queen was due not
so much to the actual strength of the Parisian
Mob as to the paralizing[sic] effect of public opinion
upon the royal couple. The philosophers and
the encyclopedists in France by educating
the public in the claims of humanity played
much the same part there which the abol-
istionists played here before the Civil War.
And if we ask ourselves does this process
of educating public opinion still continue
I think that we must surely answer that
it does. In Russia the revolutionists are
daily risking their lives to educate the peasant.
This far more than bomb throwing is their
present programme[sic] for they are beginning
to see that [   ] educated public opinion a
liberal government can never be safe.
But putting aside the backward countries
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does not this educating process still continue
even among the most progressive. We all
know in the different societies for advancing
different social reforms how great an effort
is made to [   ] public opinion.
The political crisis which is now going on
has come about
 In settlement work for instance
while the education of the children of poor
neighborhoods in practical affairs has value,
there is a still greater value if we are to believe
Miss Dudley of De[   ] House in educating
the volunteers from the Back Bay that their
intelligent support may be given in large
matters of civic interest.
And the present political crisis in this
country is it anything but the expression
of the public disgust with Aldrich’s dis-
engennous tariff bill.
But there is still another phase which
is to me even more interesting. I have already
mentioned how the writings of the philosophers
in Louis XV’s time led to the revolution in the
reign of his grandson. Is not a like propa-
ganda going on now. I mean the Socialist
movement. In England the most salient
feature is the election of the labor members
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of parlement[sic] and the new budget, but
almost equally significant are the writings
of almost all the new authors, playwrights
and novellists[sic].
H.G. Wells, Bernard Shaw, John Glasworthy,
Jack London, Upton Sinclair: these names
any[sic] many more occur to one showing where
direction the intellectual ferment of our
day is to be found. Are not these authors
foreshadowing a new social era just as
Voltaire, Russeau[sic]          foreshadowing
in their day the social upheaval which came later
with the French Revolution.
We see in England today ladies of rank, the
Countess of Warwick for instance dallying
with socialism just as the Duke of Orleanes
Phillipe Egalité dallied with the liberal move-
ment and Marie Antoinette herself lived
the simple life at [   ].
In these signs of the time we may read the fore-
shadowing of another change and the coming of
socialism. But few of us are ready as yet to see
in socialism a right solution for our difficulties.
We trust in Public Opinion not only to win our battles
for us but to keep justice in the land.
Did not Public Opinion cause the investigation
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While in these signs of the times we may seem
to read the foreshadowing of another change
and the [   ] of socialism, but few of us are
ready as yet to see in socialism a right
solution of our difficulties. We trust that
public opinion by itself may be able to win
battle for us. Did it not investigate the
insurance companies for us? Has not the
disgrace it has brought caused the Death
of many Bringing disgrace and even death
to the

of the insurance companies. Has it not
brought many proud officials to disgrace. Has
it not forced even Rockellar[sic] to found charities
and a college and to hide his diminished head
in a wig.
Why then, with all its unquestioned power, with
the general rightness of its views, is public opinion
so often outgeneraled by the money interests. Because
alas it has only the force of a mob and not of an
army. Like a bull in the ring it shuts its eyes and
charges and the picador steps aside unharmed.
To what then shall we appeal. We are told that
the remedy for the ills of democracy is still more democracy.
Perhaps the only appeal from enlightened public
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opinion is to public opinion more enlightened