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The name of boycotting was first aplied to a practice which had its origin in Ireland during the most stirring days of the land agitation. It was comparatively easy to arouse popular enthusiasm, and to elicit a general readiness for self-sacrifice for a cause which touched the people so closely and so vitally. But the slightest remissness or backsliding would be fatal to the entire project. An insignificant number who refused to abide by the common understanding would be sufficient to render all the efforts of the Land League futile. If landlords could count on finding tenants for their vacant farms, they might afford to laugh at the schemes of agitators. And it was inevitable that a number of "grabbers" should appear on the scene at that time. The land hunger was always proverbially strong in Ireland, and the opportunity of acquiring farms on easy terms was a temptation too strong to be resisted by ambitious self-seekers such as are to be found in all classes of society. The difficulty of dealing with "grabbers", therefore, was acute from the very commencement of the Land League. Agrarian outrages had been well-known in Ireland for some years previously and there was serious danger of a more violent and widespread outbreak now. This the leaders of the new agitation knew and feared for various reasons.
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At a public meeting in 1880 Parnell put the question to his audience: "What are we to do with a tenant who bids for a farm from which his neighbour has been evicted?" The more violent spirits recommended shooting, but Parnell himself had a proposal to offer which he rightly believed could be made far more effective. He expounded it at length, clearly, and emphatically. In substance it was, that such a person should "be left severely alone, put into a moral Coventry, isolated from his kind as if he was a leper of old". This was the weapon which he put into the hands of the Land Leaguers, and which was destined to be used with such drastic effect throughout the various vicissitudes of the land agitation in Ireland and to be introduced into disputes that were not agrarian and into countries other than Ireland. It is pertinent to observe that from its first adoption, this severe isolation, this consignment to a moral Coventry affected not only the prime offender but equally anyone convicted of violating the common understanding of having no social intercourse with him. It was put in motion immediately against Captain Boycott of Connemara, agent of Lord Erne, who sent a process server to serve ejectment notices on a number of tenants for non-payment of rent. All his servants were induced to leave him, tradesmen were prevented from working for him, and shopkeepers from supplying him with goods.
From this case the practice received the name of "boycotting" and immediately the word became current in the language. The practice spread rapidly through every part of the country. The Government found itself utterly unable to deal with organized boycotting. The powerlessness of the common law was demonstrated by the failure of the Government to convict a number of the leaders of the Land League for unlawful conspiracy, when in January, 1881, the jury declared themselves unable to agree and the defendants were acquitted. Thereupon followed a succession of coercion and special Crimes Acts, the only effect of which was to render the people more determined and more lawless. Violence and outrages increased or diminished with the hostility of the Government. After a temporary abatement disorder began to rage fiercely again in 1886, when the Plan of Campaign was established and met by a new Crimes Act. On 23 April, 1888, the Congregation of the Holy Office declared that it was not lawful to make use of the Plan of Campaign and boycotting. A short time afterwards the Plan of Campaign was perceived to be a failure and boycotting was gradually discontinued. It had a brief revival about the year 1899. In 1902 boycotting was practically destroyed in Ireland, when a number of defendants were convicted in a civil action and damages to the amont of £20,000 were given against them by a jury presided over by Chief Baron Pallas.
Boycotting, therefore, in its strict, original sense, means a complete ostracism. It operates by leaving the obnoxious party severely alone and its effectiveness is increased enormously by the threat that anyone who violates its terms will be regarded as sharing in the offence and will be made to share also in the ostracism of the prime offender. In a wider, but still legitimate, sense of the word it is used of every attempt, through the denial of one or more of the advantages or amenities of ordinary social intercourse, to compel an individual or group of individuals to do something which they are legally entitled not to do, or to abstain from doing something which they are legally entitled to do. In this latter sense it may be used of the efforts of a trust, for instance, to compel a particular railroad to use only coal from a mine in which it is interested, by the threat that, unless this is done, this railroad will not be allowed any share in the business of carrying the trust's products. A combination or conspiracy is commonly assumed to be of the essence of boycotting. But, although it is true that boycotting generally operates through a combination, the combination does not appear to be at all essential to it. An iron trust or even an iron king may be as well able to exert pressure of the kind peculiar to boycotting as any combination of Irish tenant farmers. At present there is a growing tendency to use the word boycotting in a wider sense still. It is now very generally used of any discrimination in social or business matters against individuals or sects because of prejudice as to character, tenets, or practices.
The lawlessness and outrages which accompanied boycotting in Ireland in the eighties seem to have impressed it with certain features which distinguish it from other forms of social ostracism, and these features coupled with the condemnation by the Holy Office have caused boycotting to be regarded as affected with a moral taint. For a long time to brand a practice as boycotting was tantamount to labelling it immoral. The ethics of boycotting was discussed at considerable length in a number of articles in "The Irish Theological Quarterly" in the years 1907 and 1908. The conclusions of the contributors of the articles differed very widely. As a result if may at least be safely held that boycotting cannot under all circumstances be pronounced immoral. The condemnation by the Holy Office may certainly be taken as applying only to the concrete situation as it existed at the time in Ireland. Since, therefore, we cannot declare off-hand that boycotting is either moral or immoral, and since moreover different instances of boycotting will be found to present very different moral considerations, in practice each case will have to be decided strictly on its merits according to the ordinary moral principles that are applicable to it.
Mere discrimination in social or business matters, however much it may savour of bigotry or narrow-mindedness in certain circumstances, cannot be called immoral. It is only what everyone does to a certain extent; the most conscientious of men prefer to deal and dine with those whom he knows best or with whom he has most interests in common. As for the element of compulsion, the attempt to compel a person to do something in itself moral, which he is legally entitled not to do, that too, in certain circumstances, is perfectly lawful. It is constantly being done in everyday life by people whom no one thinks of accusing of immorality. But there are other points substantial in the matter of morality, the restraint put on the ordinary liberty of citizens, the use of combination for this purpose, and the liability of the practice to grave abuse. These must be considered in every case of boycotting; but they should be considered without prejudice, precisely as they are considered in understandings amongst business men or professional etiquette amongst lawyers and doctors.
There is no denying that boycotting constitutes a grave menace to social equity and peace. It may sometimes be used to resist oppression, but unfortunately it is an instrument that may be made to cut more effectively in the other direction. It is moreover a most powerful instrument in the hands of discontented and vindictive demagogues for producing social turmoil and indulging private spleens. Although these facts do not make a particular case of boycotting immoral, where there is a good to be grained great enough to outweigh the evils and sufficient to justify the danger of abuses, still, from the point of view of public welfare, they might render it necessary for the legislature to prohibit the practice altogether. The boycotting that once prevailed in Ireland has now happily disappeared with the conditions in which it had its origin. It is not likely that any of the English-speaking Governments will be called on ever again to take action in connection with it. The undue advantage taken of their economic strength by certain trusts and companies is much more likely to produce inequity and to call for legislative action.
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