On the table of the great Augustine there lay a distich to the effect that whoever attacked the character of the absent was to be excluded.
Mark Twain, who was not the most reverent man in the world, used to say that there are a hundred different ways of lying, but that the only kind of lying that is flatly forbidden in the Bible is bearing false witness against our neighbor.
There are three gates through which we ought to require an evil tale to pass before we pass it on. In the first place, Is it true? In the second place, Is it necessary? In the third place, Is it kind? There are few evil reports which can stand the test of those three gates: Is it true? Is it necessary that it be repeated? Is it kind? Christ says that in the day of judgment we shall all give an account of the words that we have spoken. How careful, then, we ought to be, and how we ought to take heed to our ways, that we sin not with our tongue. Who wants to know, in the day of judgment, that instead of helping another he hurt him and wounded him?
In the bitter political campaign of 1884 James G. Blaine was attacked as a corruptionist and Grover Cleveland as an immoral man. In the midst of the campaign the great American preacher Henry Ward Beecher took the stump in behalf of Cleveland. The reason was that, having suffered himself so deeply through slander, Beecher had resolved to defend, if he could, any man who was assailed in like manner. At a great meeting at the Brooklyn Rink on October 22 Beecher said: "When in the gloomy night of my own suffering I sounded every depth of sorrow, I vowed that if God would bring the daystar of hope I would never suffer brother, friend, or neighbor to go unfriended should a like serpent seek to crush him. This oath I will regard now because I know the bitterness of venomous lies. I will stand against infamous lies that seek to sting to death an upright man and magistrate." Thus Beecher found honey for others in the carcass of slander.
Sometimes slander is born of revenge, as when Joseph was slandered in the house of Potiphar. Sometimes it comes out of pride and hate and the innate selfishness of human nature, and sometimes it appears as a dreadful trait of human nature without any reason for a parent save the depravity of human nature.
In an essay on slander in the Spectator Addison tells of a fabled creature called the ichneumon, which makes it the business of his life to hunt and break the eggs of the crocodile, of which he is always in search. This instinct is all the more remarkable because the ichneumon never feeds upon the eggs he has broken. So there are those who prey upon the reputation of others, not for the sake of any real or imagined benefit they derive from it, but solely out of the delight of a fallen nature in the laceration of character and the massacre of reputation.
A great preacher, Dr. A. B. Simpson, speaking on the theme of slander, and especially the slander of Christian men, once said, "I would rather play with the forked lightning, or take in my hands living wires with their fiery currents, than speak a reckless word against any servant of Christ, or idly repeat the slanderous darts which thousands of Christians are hurling on others to the hurt of their own souls and bodies." Then he goes on to say that the reason why Christians sometimes are not filled with joy, are not blessed and prosperous in their life, may be that "some dart which you have flung with angry voice, or in an idle hour of thoughtless gossip is pursuing you on its way as it describes a circle which always brings back to the source from which it came every shaft of bitterness and every evil and idle word."
On a sailing vessel the mate of the ship, yielding to a temptation, became drunk. He had never before been in such a state. The captain entered in the log of the ship the record for the day: "Mate drunk today." When the mate read this entry he implored the captain to take it out of the record, saying that when it was read by the owners of the ship it would cost him his post, and the captain well knew that this was his first offense. But the obdurate captain refused to change the record and said to the mate, "This is the fact, and into the log it goes."
Some days afterward, the mate was keeping the log; and after he had given the latitude and longitude, the run for the day, the wind and the sea, he made this entry: "Captain sober today." The indignant captain protested when he read the record, declaring that it would leave an altogedier false impression in the minds of the owners of the vessel, as if it were an unusual thing for him to be sober. But the mate answered as the captain answered him, "This is the fact, and into the log it goes." This is a good example of how, by an accuracy of statement, but by misrepresentation of circumstances, one can injure the character of another.
In the presidential campaign of 1864 opposition newspapers said that when Lincoln went down to visit General McClellan a few days after the Battle of Antietam, when the dead were still unburied, he asked his bodyguard, Colonel Lamon, to sing a comic song, "The Picayune Butler." But General McClellan raised his hand in protest and said, "No, Mr. President, not now. Anything but that here."
Lincoln was greatly pained and distressed at the slander, and took the trouble to write a long account of what
actually happened on the visit. This was to go as a letter from Lamon to one who had inquired as to the truth of the slander. Lincoln determined at last, however, to make no reply. But the letter tells what actually took place. On the visit to Antietam, the President, riding in an ambulance with McClellan and other officers—not a day or two after the battle, but two weeks afterward, and where there was not a grave that had not been rained on since it was dug—in one of his melancholy moods asked Lamon to sing a little ballad called "Twenty Years Ago," the singing of which Lamon said had often brought tears to Lincoln's eyes as he listened to it on the circuit in Illinois or at the White House. The song commences
I've wandered through the village,
Tom, I've sat beneath the tree.
The ballad then goes on to relate the feelings of a man who returns to his native village after an absence of twenty years and finds everything changed and all his friends gone. This was the song for which Lincoln had asked. But at the conclusion of it, in order to lift him out of his melancholy, Lamon, at his own initiative, did sing the comic, but altogether harmless, song "The Picayune Butler."
These were the facts; yet thousands believed that Abraham Lincoln was the sort of man who would call for a comic and indecent song when driving past the bodies of the men who had fallen in battle for the maintenance of the Union.
Slander is an injury which it is hard to undo even when one might desire to do so. A peasant had slandered a friend, only to find out later that what he had said was not true. Troubled in his conscience, he went to a monk to seek advice. The monk said to him, "If you want to make peace with your conscience, you must fill a bag with feathers and go to every dooryard in the village and drop in each of them one feather." The peasant did as he was told and, returning to the monk, announced that he had done penance for his sin. "Not yet!" said the monk sternly. "Take up your bag, go the rounds again, and gather up every feather that you have dropped."
"But," exclaimed the peasant, "the wind has blown them all away by this time!"
"Yes, my son," answered the monk, "and so it is with gossip and slander. Words are easily dropped; but, no matter how hard you try, you never can get them back again."