There is something especially admirable about one of those turn of phrases that carries both a secular and a deeper philosophical or religious meaning. The title is one example of this wisdom and intelligence or luck of the unknown author, and they are always unknown it seems.
On a purely secular level we’ve only had police or cops as we now know them for less than 200 years. The modern idea of cops comes from the movement of Robert Peel the British Prime Minister in the mid-19th century. Thus the term “Bobby” for the English cop on the beat. For most of Mankind’s journey personal security was provided by a handful of constables, sheriff’s or yes watchmen employed by the local King, Baron or other prominent person of the area. Mostly you were on your own when it came to security after the Sun set. Going back for centuries if you read the history you will see that those who could afford it had private guards (footmen for example) when out at night or they went about armed. Gentlemen carried swords not for decoration but to actually defend themselves and more often to discourage the potential robber or criminal from even attempting an assault.
The term Watchman was used for centuries in the cities. Ben Franklin referred to the Watchman when he was trying to organize a more formal police presence in Philadelphia in the 1730’s. That was as generic term that covered Constables or others hired by the local governor or mayor to light the street lamps and make a circuit along the major streets. So the title phrase today is more or less the equivalent of tuning into the 10 o’clock news to see if there is any danger out there. Two centuries ago you would have asked the Watchman on his rounds if there was anything nefarious afoot.
Of more profound and emotional content is the personal introspection and depth of the inquiry. Just as the phrase “whither thou goest”? That is very penetrating. Many of us much of the time might not really want to answer that question because an honest response would be adverse to our self-esteem. That query can apply to the immediacy of today or the panorama of our life path. It is indeed a good and happy man that can answer that poser with equanimity. Remember how Adam in the Garden of Eden didn’t want to answer God’s question about his original sin of the fruit and blamed everything on Eve or even God himself since He gave Adam the woman? Our strivings in life should be such that we can actually answer that question each day of our lives. Every day that you refuse to answer that query or are reluctant is a day you should try to correct on the morrow. Thankfully the good Lord allows us to redeem ourselves and that is available for a day or a lifetime. A good life is not about perfection but about perfection in effort to be noble, honest and decent.
Lead your life so that when you here that voice from within or from real but ethereal origin, calling to you–“Watchman, how goes the night”? You can reply–all is well.
“Faithful are the wounds of a friend; but the kisses of an enemy are deceitful” Proverbs 27/6. http://www.olcranky.wordpress.com
There is much hand wringing in many parts of the country over the rate of crime and particularly violent crime. Of course that anxiety is there for a good reason. In far too many of our large urban areas we have whole swaths of neighborhoods that aren’t safe from muggings and carjackings to say nothing of routine burglaries and stick ups of retail stores. It is nothing new to be concerned over one’s personal safety.
We have police forces these days. It has not always been like that. In fact for most of recorded history there has been nothing comparable to the modern concept of police. To be sure there has been criminal laws and crime enforcement for millenia but nothing as we know it today. The Greeks, Romans, Jews and Eygptians all had laws and punishments. But crime prevention was another matter. Just over 150 years ago there was no police force in England. When a gentleman went out he usually carried a weapon of some kind for personal protection against brigands and the really rich often had bodyguards such as a footman or coachman. That applied especially in the larger cities like London. Street crime as we would call it was fairly rampant. To be sure there were sheriffs and constables. But normally they only came after the fact and investigated the crime and then tried to track down the culprit. You could raise the hue and cry but it might be some time before the “law” made an appearance. There really wasn’t any organized system to it. Most sheriffs were appointed by the King and constables worked for the courts or often for the local squire or Lord of the district who served as the magistrate for a defined area. The squire and the law were likely one and the same at least for lessor crimes.
The situation had gotten so bad during the mid 19th century (the times that Charles Dickens wrote about) that the British Prime Minister Robert Peele decided to increase dramatically the law enforcement throughtout the realm. Those early cops were his creation. Thus the name to this day of “Bobby” to mean a cop in England; it was taken from the nickname of Peele. It didn’t take very long for them to standardize the uniform and the enforcement procedures everywhere and the streets became much safer than they had been. Scotland Yard is not an organization but a location where the London Metropolitan Bobbies had a headquarters and over the years it become the place where most of the investigators worked. They eventually were not in uniform like the average Bobby or street cop of today.
Those folks a long time ago were pretty good with their psychology too. The Bobbies historically have not carried firearms, although they always have on certain specific occasions; so the “presence” of the Bobby on the beat was very important in dealing with people and the criminals. They knew it made a hell of a difference in how they looked and appeared. Thus for decades they had size standards to match up with the uniform. All Bobbies had to be six feet tall which for most of history and even today is larger than average and they wore those tall hats for extra intimidation. The idea was to make anyone dealing with a Bobby to be intimidated and cooperative by the force of the physical presence and it worked pretty darn well for decades for them. Of course today they have gone with “diversity” and so I don’t know what the current standards are but clearly not six feet anymore from my visits to England and watching the newscasts.
You have all seen those scenes in some movie where the Bobby goes about trying to bash a bad man with his baton. Usually, they are depicted as swinging wildly and striking about the head. That is not the way they were trained and not the way they used the batons in actual practice. Even in those “primitive” days of yore, they didn’t want to hurt anyone more than necessary and wanted to disarm the villain as quickly and efficiently as possible without harm to the Bobby. They used their batons to whack the bad guys on the hands and arms. One good whack could break fingers or bones but cause no lasting damage. They were very adept at it and trained to learn how to do it that way just like our cops go to the firing range. When you can’t use your hands or your arms you aren’t going to be much of a danger to anyone. Mostly, after their reputation was established, all they really had to do was say “come along now, that’s a good lad” and off they would go with villain in tow without even cuffs.
Virtually all modern police departments throughtout the world are in some measure an offshoot of that original system founded by Peele.
Where were you when the guys first landed on the moon? I was working long and hard hours in those days but made it a point to be glued to the TV for those couple of days. It was so exhilirating. Stunning really to believe I was sitting in my small living room with my bride and watching Neil Armstrong take that step and getting to watch it. There was a viscereal connection with him. Like we all were participating in that venture. I hope each of you gets that same thrill sometime in your lifetime. I do hope mankind isn’t done yet with our searching and zest for adventure to probe the unknown.