In Earth Abides, Stewart’s human protagonist Isherwood Williams faced the biggest crisis in his small post-apocalyptic community when “Charlie” entered the story. Two of the teenagers had been sent on a trans-American journey about 17 years after the founding of what Ish called The Tribe. They found Charlie along the way, and brought him back with them. Ish and his old “American” friends were deeply concerned, because Charlie had all the characteristics of a syphilitic alcoholic; and he packed a gun. When he began to woo the teenage girl who was retarded, and she began to respond, the old men of the community met secretly do decide what to do about Charlie. The decision was execution, since banished, he might return.
GRS, I think, was troubled by this part of his tale. It was inevitable, given the truth of the events dramatized; but no enlightened author wants blood on his hands – or those of his “good” characters. He apparently thought about this for years; then, in 1964, he wrote a history of the 1851 Committee of Vigilance in San Francisco which dealt with the issue of capital punishment meted out in an extra-legal way.
Committee of Vigilance is subtitled “Revolution in San Francisco, 1851.” The implication is that, at least in the case of that particular group of vigilantes, they were exercising their American Right of Revolution to deal with a crisis that the formal government was ignoring. Eventually, after a fair and public trial, they did condemn some of the criminals to death, and hung them in a public square. Others were transported to Australia or otherwise punished. The City’s crime wave, for a time, ended.
The Committee re-formed in 1856, and acted similarly. But Stewart, who always wanted precision in his work, knew that he must focus on only one episode if he was to do the thorough research and writing the subject demanded. Since it was the first, he chose the 1851 event.
His conclusion, very carefully thought through and written, is that the Committee of Vigilance of 1851 was, in the best American sense, legal, proper, and well-run. One of the facts he emphasizes is that the Committee disbanded itself after three months. It did not become one of those small nations’ permanent juntas. The members did not want to be political leaders; like the farmers who fought in the American Revolution, they wanted to return to their farms as soon as they’d completed their work. They were followers, in style if not in name, of Cincinnatus, Roman leader who became dictator just long enough to defeat an invasion of Rome, and then returned to his farm.
Committee of Vigilance lacks the writing flair of Stewart’s great novels, but is compelling reading none-the-less. In this day of constant ignoring of Constitutional, international and local laws by national and local governments, it reminds us that ultimately we are the ones – and the only ones – who can protect society. The ideas of Jefferson, Franklin, Washington, Madison, Hendry, and Paine are reflected in the work and history of Committee of Vigilance. Every American is well-advised to read it.