J. Gresham Machen on Jaywalking and Civil Freedom: Watch This Video

J_Gresham_Machen_2J. Gresham Machen (1881–1936) was a scholar of the New Testament who taught at Princeton Theological Seminary. He, along with several others, left Princeton in 1929 to found Westminster Seminary. He was driven out of what is today known as the Presbyterian Church (USA) in what most fair-minded observers today would regard as a political lynching disguised as an ecclesiastical trial over his support of the Independent Board of Foreign Missions, itself formed in response to blatant Modernism in the PCUSA Missions Board (e.g., sending out unbelievers as missionaries). He helped to found the Presbyterian Church of America (changed, in 1939, under threat of a lawsuit by those always tolerant “liberals” in the PCUSA to the Orthodox Presbyterian Church).  As conservative and confessional as he was theologically and ecclesiastically, on civil matters he advocated the relative absence of restraint. What follows is his 1931 letter to a Philadelphia newspaper against then novel jaywalking laws. I’m grateful to Dan Borvan and Oldlife’s Darryl Hart for providing the text. For more on Machen see D. G. Hart, Defending the Faith: J. Gresham Machen and the Crisis of Conservative Protestantism in America


These anti-pedestrian laws are intended either for the protection of the pedestrian, or for the convenience of the motorist.  In either case . . . they are wrong.
If they are intended to protect the pedestrian from himself, they are paternalistic.  I am opposed to paternalism.  Among other far more serious objections to it is the objection that it defeats its own purpose.  The children of some over-cautious parents never learn to take care of themselves, and so are far more apt to get hurt than children who lead a normal life.  So I do not believe that in the long run it will be in the interests of safety if people get used to doing nothing except what a policeman or a traffic light tells them to do, and thus never learn to exercise reasonable care.
I am sorry when I see people taking foolish chances on the street.  I believe in urging them not to do it.  If they do it in outrageous and unreasonable fashion I should not be particularly averse to fining them for obstructing traffic.  I rather think that might even be done under existing laws.
But I am dead opposed to subjecting a whole city because of the comparatively few incautious people to a treadmill regime like that which prevails in Western cities.  I resent such a regime for myself.  I have tried it, and I know that it prevent me from the best, and simplest pleasure that a man can have, which is walking.  But I resent it particularly because it is a discrimination against the poor and in favor of the rich.
That brings us to the real purpose of these laws, which is not that pedestrians should be spared injury but that motorists should be spared a little inconvenience.  I drive a car from the driver’s point of view.  I know how trifling is the inconvenience which is saved thus at the expense of the liberty of the poorer people in the community.  Indeed, I do not believe that in the long run it is for the benefit even of the motorist.  I think it is a dreadful thing to encourage in the motorist’s mind, as these laws unquestionably do, the notion that he is running on something like a railroad track cleared for his special benefit.
After all, the most serious objection to these doctrinaire, paternalistic laws is the bad effect which they have upon the mentality of people.  I do think we ought to call a halt to the excessive mechanization of human life.  When I am in one of those over-regulated Western cities, I always feel as though I were in some kind of penal institution.  I should certainly hate to see Philadelphia make like those places.


Here is what civil freedom looked like in San Francisco, America, in 1906, just over a century ago:

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  1. I appreciate his message. But having seen how third world countries drive/walk in their streets, I will take order over chaos.

    • I think there needs to be some sort of order. I speak with people from third world countries and they are always commenting that we stand in lines rather than mobbing the bank teller windows. Driving in third world countries is chaotic, stressful and flat our dangerous. There are times when our personal freedoms infringe on others and we should come to a compromise. Traffic laws would fall under this category.

      People who want to consume sodas till their blood turns to fructose syrup should be able to as well. One is for the public order while the other has gone too far and invaded personal freedoms and liberties.

  2. Whenever I read Machen on anti-pedestrian laws I think of local leash laws. But just as annoying as laws that punish mindful owners and obedient dogs (who need to freely romp) are the self-appointed sheriffs who bellow at their neighbors for not following the letter of the law.

    • Hypothetical: I love dogs but If one’s dog is a menace (dangerous, e.g., an unsocialized pit) and off the leash then may I shoot him without criminal proceedings?

    • Dog people aren’t usually considerate that other people aren’t dog people. Public space shouldn’t be confused with personal freedoms where you or your dog can invade my personal space. Keep them on a leash, at least for good manners.

  3. Not sure if I trust the date – 1905 – for that video. The automobiles seem to be too large and sophisticated-looking, and too numerous, for such an early date (even for a large city like San Francisco). I could be wrong about that, though.

    If it is 1905: (1) Alexander Maclaren was 79 years old, had been retired from the ministry for 2 years, and was working hard on his “Expositions of Holy Scripture;” (2) Arthur Pink was just 3 years away from getting saved; (3) it’s just a year before the earthquake and fire in SF; (4) Mark Twain was 70, and long-since a world figure in literature; (5) Charles Spurgeon had been dead for 13 years, and the Metropolitan Tabernacle had burned down just 7 years before.

    Also, in the video, notice the number of people who don’t “need” to cross the street until just before the cable car gets there. Some things never change…

    • The film was made April, 1906, one week before the SF earthquake and fire. 60 Minutes did a story on how that was determined and the man who painstakingly figured it out.

    • Christopher,

      This is interesting. I’m listening now. I hear a little anti-capitalism/Green agenda so far, but it’s important to know how things got the way they did. Cars are faster today than they were in the early years of automobiles. People didn’t have to look then because there as many threats.

      To be clear, I’m not opposed to crosswalks and lights–those are useful conventions but I’m calling attention to the contrast between the relatively few rules governing transport/travel then and today. The video reveals a world in which people are left to negotiate things for themselves rather than living under an ever-increasing number of regulations. It’s symbolic of the changes that have taken place. The contrast is useful.

    • Thanks for linking that — it was a fascinating listen, and I’ve added a new feed to my podcast listening stream (which might just put me past the tipping point where I’ll never keep up…)

    • Now, if only it was still legal to defend ourselves from imminent danger. Wouldn’t it be great if we had language in the Constitution that addressed this? Boy, that would be great!

  4. Trey,

    I agree re order. Things have changed. We do need to adapt but I do also wish that we were more autonomous relative to the seemingly growing number of laws, rules, and regulations. I have the strong sense that we don’t really understand how much of our freedom (as defined above) we’ve ceded or allowed to be eroded.

  5. Scott, addressed the imminent danger of menacing dogs?

    Trey, what if my dog knows you’re not a fan? And if she’s no public menace, why should she have to be treated like one? I understand leash laws are designed for menaces, and I actually see their worth, but is there no accounting for discretion anymore? And what about the way leash laws actually discourage humans from being good owners and teaching their animals manners and obedience? Upshot: a neighborhood filled with collared but yapping, horrid, intimidating beasts. Sounds more like a junkyard than a neighborhood.

    • I think it’s inconsiderate not to leash dogs. If the dog stays out of the radius of my kick I won’t complain. A couple of months back an owner was yelling at their black lab (??) as it ran up to sniff me out. I know these dogs aren’t going to bite. But I felt it was very rude for this owner to just smile at me as if we were all on the same page. I for one am glad the leash law is there because people are inconsiderate. But on the other hand I don’t think owning dogs should be illegal.

      If I’m in your house and your dog sniffs me out that’s my problem. I’m in his/your space. It’s not the same outside. You’re not in private space.

      I would favor laws against loud motorcycle tailpipes (which I hate) but I don’t like laws for helmets on motorcycles or bicycles.

  6. Thanks for sharing; what an enjoyably hypnotic video!

    @Zuelch, if you click through to view on YouTube, the description claims specifically that the video is from 1905, 1 year before the earthquake.

    However, concerning jaywalking, surely in the old days it was not such an issue when apparently no object moved more than 5mph. If we could get drivers to go that slow in pedestrian zones, then things would be different.

  7. I’ve seen that clip before. It was a different world then, alas.

    Meanwhile, our local police are supplementing the city’s budget by ticketing pedestrians who stray from the sidewalk to the street. $120 a pop.

  8. I busted a red light and a camera witnessed against me.,…..$480.00…ouch. To be “fair” the penalty should not be $ , afterall to some folks $480 equals a nickle and to others a million bucks. Lets leave the “camera” issue for another time. If you run a red light,….how about 10 whacks with a bamboo switch? The rich and the poor both are paying an equal amount. I bet folks would not run reds if they got a whippin at the whippin post.

  9. Over the years I’ve wondered whether civil laws were really enacted to protect citizens or if they were just designed to make it easier to prosecute offenders. This sounds like saying the same thing from two different perspectives, and maybe it is in a way. But take texting-while-driving, for example. Until recently there were no laws on the books prohibiting this (even though it’s a thoroughly bad idea). Then, some citizens got run over because the driver of the automobile was distracted while texting.

    Previously, the most significant charge that a prosector could hope to apply was probably vehicular homicide (formerly manslaughter), which could be racheted down to second degree by a clever trial attorney if flagrant disregard for public safety could not be proven. But now with many states passing laws prohibiting texting-while-driving, coupled with increasing penalties as the extent of damage increased, the prosecutor has much greater flexibility to make serious charges stick – especially since most cell phone call records can be retrieved from the provider, clearly demonstrating that the activity had taken place at the time of an accident.

    Plus, of course, there’s always political posturing – passing laws against highly publicized offenses – to give the voting public the impression that their elected officials are actually doing something.

    • Hi George,

      Many laws are intended to give law enforcement “tools” with which to prosecute criminals but they have a consequence of reducing liberty for everyone.

    • Reminds me of a funny joke I heard recently; sure there’s laws against texting while driving, but there are no laws against handwriting a letter on parchment with quill & ink while driving…

      I guess a lot of times principial, abstract laws are difficult to interpret/enforce, so specific, theoretically unnecessary laws are enacted. I recall my high school AP US history teacher saying something to the effect of, most “civil rights” laws would be unnecessary if courts just consistently and fairly enforced laws that were already on the books.

  10. Trey, I disagree. I don’t see how the rules change when you’re in my house. My dog should be expected to show the same good behavior as when we’re out and about. I think we have differing notions about this thing called “personal space.” There is an undercurrent of individual rights I find less than conservative in nature (I daresay Christian to the extent that Christian ethics are about duty to neighbor). So I am just as obligated to you in “my personal space” as I am in our collective and shared space. Sure, it’s my house and all, but you’re still a neighbor when you’re in it.

  11. “… Many laws are intended to give law enforcement “tools” with which to prosecute criminals but they have a consequence of reducing liberty for everyone …”

    Yes, that’s exactly the point. That’s why it seems more like the Nanny State than it does the land of liberty nowadays. The cliche’ I just love to hear every time one of these laws goes into effect is, “if just one person’s life it saved it will have been worth it.” I could make the argument that automobile accidents kill and injure more people every year than guns, knives, or anything else, yet (and I cringe whenever I hear it) it’s not uncommon for a very elderly person with many disabilities and ailments to rejoice over the fact that they were able to get their driver’s license renewed. And driving is not even a constitutional right, the automobile being primarily a 20th Century phenomenon!

    One could also argue that since pornography and violent movies have pushed some over the edge (so admitted serial killer Ted Bundy), if eliminating or restricting it would save just one person’s life it will have been worth it. Yet we have passed laws supposedly under the protection of 1st Amendment rights that do just the opposite.

    It’s a wild series of paradoxes and who knows where it will all ultimately wind up.

    • That’s exactly right. “If just one life is saved…” is rhetorically effective, even though it is logically useless. If any means is justifiable by the end of saving at least one life, how about we ban all automobiles?

      Or hey, let’s save millions of lives and ban abortion! I’m just sayin…

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