The Fatal Conceit

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“Have you heard of the wonderful one-hoss shay, that was built in such a logical way, it ran a hundred years to the day?” If you haven’t, you’ve missed one of the most amusing poems of the nineteenth century, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.’s splendid satire of the American constitution. Shays or carriages break down, said Holmes, when one joint is stronger than the next. “There’s always somewhere a weakest spot, … and that’s the reason, beyond a doubt / A chaise breaks down but doesn’t wear out.” And so the Deacon built a carriage that wouldn’t break down because each part was a strong as the rest. On and on the carriage went, until 100 years from the day it was made it all turned into dust. “End of the wonderful one-hoss shay, logic is logic, that’s all I say.”

The poem was written three years before the outbreak of the Civil War, when the defects of a logical constitution seemed all too apparent to Holmes’ fellow Bostonians. Not that the Framers were logicians, of course. They were almost all practical politicians and simply strove to give us something better than what they had had.

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