Poltroon – the very word is like a … what?
a.) A North American mammal of the raccoon family known for its habit of rooting for grubs in the undergrowth of deciduous forests
b.) A metal or earthenware pot typically having a funnel-shaped top, often kept under the bed
c.) An abject or contemptible coward, lacking courage; ignobly timid and faint-hearted.
His country cowered under the mailed fist
Of the great soldier nation of his day;
But did he volunteer? Not he : instead
He talked in ill-timed, ill-judged platitudes,
Urging a most unpatriotic peace.
People that had been once slapped in the face
Ought to stand still, he thought, till slapped again;
And if we were insulted, we should watch
For chances to return it with a favor.
I will say for him, milksop as he was,
He was consistent: for he let himself
Be knocked about the streets and spit upon.
And never had the manhood to hit back.
Of course he had no sense at all of honor,—
Either his country’s honor, or his own,—
Contemptible poltroon! His name was Jesus.
by Sarah Cleghorn
I like to reserve my use of the word poltroon to describe not the merely fearful – those people we can all understand. Indeed, they are us. But rather for those craven hypocrites who personally avoid all risk to life and limb but urge and provoke wars for others to fight. For those who strut about on the world stage as carnival barking politicians mouthing aggression and dropping bombs on other people’s children.
History reveals – and we know from experience – that dissent takes enormous courage. And to be a conscientious objector when the world is mad for war takes extraordinary courage.
Cleghorn was a Quaker, poet, teacher pacifist; suffragist; socialist, co-founder of the Anti-Enlistment League and active in the progressive politics of her day. She was an activist against capital punishment, segregation, vivisection and punishment of all cruel usual and unusual kinds. Her friend Robert Frost called her “a saint, a poet and a reformer.”
A member of the Christian left Cleghorn became a Socialist in 1913 and subsequently a pacifist in response to America’s intervention in Mexican affairs on behalf of American oil interests. During World War I, in Manchester, Vermont, she wore a homemade scarlet badge on which she had lettered “Love Your Enemies.” She agitated against the war and for the release of imprisoned conscientious objectors, distributing pamphlets and writing letters to public officials and publications. She intervened when uniformed men attacked marchers in the Socialist post-Armistice Day peace parade. In her autobiography she wrote:
I ran over to them and seized one of them by the sleeve, without premeditation saying in ladylike tones “Please don’t!” They hesitated and then turned back. I was rather thrilled to have been in the melee, small as it was.
On a stay to her brother in Macon, Georgia she received a visit from an agent of the Department of Justice who had come, he said, because of a letter she had written to a New York newspaper “ridiculing the idea that Communists were enemies of society, and denouncing the persecution of them”. The agent asked her to name names and she refused. She received the Department’s ongoing attention as a result of her unpopular opinions and associations. Like many who opposed the war she suffered the consequences. Three books she had written before the war went unpublished. They included a Children’s First Life of the United States that contained chapters on the mistreatment of Native Americans and the history of African Americans, with a focus on the Underground Railroad and the class struggle.
Unable to make a living by writing because of the publishing boycott of her work, Cleghorn became a teacher, first the Brookwood School and then at Manumit in Pawling N.Y. She taught at Manumit from 1921 – 1932 with a year away in 1929 when she was a substitute assistant professor of English at Vassar College.
The Manumit School welded progressive pedagogy to a progressive political agenda and was a school designed to teach the children of trade unionists. Read about its mission and program here. For a while she lived in Poughkeepsie and was a frequent visitor the city. When Mary McCarthy was a student at Vassar she paid Cleghorn in a visit of homage in downtown Poughkeepsie
Her time at Manumit – and her earlier anti-war work with the Women’s Peace Party – brought her into close contact with the network of radical feminist educators and war resisters of the era. She knew Elisabeth Irwin – prominent educator and founder of the Little Red Schoolhouse – now LREI – and a governor of the Manumit School. Her close friend Dorothy Canfield Fisher was instrumental in promoting the work of Maria Montessori and helped facilitate Montessori’s first visit to the US in 1915.
Another influence was Helen Parkhurst – creator of the Montessori-inspired Dalton Method and founder of the Dalton School in NYC. Manumit was linked with other progressive and activist schools of the era including the Walden School in NYC and City and Country School which also had a farm in Hopewell Junction, a few miles from Pawling. Cleghorn would have been familiar with – and probably knew – their founders, Margaret Naumberg and Caroline Pratt.
The Poltroon was published in the Tribune 1915 and caused quite an outcry of protest. – irate letters and the usual threats. It was included in her 1917 collection Portraits and Protests.