OLD DIARY LEAVES, Fifth Series (1893-96)
by Henry Steel Olcott
CHANGING THE CONSTITUTION
THE disingenuous policy of Mr. Judge in trying to shirk responsibility for his misdeeds under cover of technicalities with respect to the nature of the Vice-Presidential office and the limitations of the incumbent’s responsibility, had made it clear that we would have to make various changes in our Rules, and the matter seemed of such grave importance that I had decided to convene a meeting of the General Council at London in the month of July (1895). The text of my Executive Notice appears in the Supplement to the Theosophist for May, 1895. It reads as follows:
“The General Secretaries of Sections are notified to attend, in person or by proxy, a meeting of the General Council, at the Headquarters of the European Section, 19 Avenue Road, Regent’s Park, London, N. W., at noon on the 7th day of July next, to consider the case of the Vice-Presidency, and the several issues that will be made by the undersigned, and vote upon the constitutional questions involved.”
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In pursuance of this appointment I had left Bombay for Marseilles on the 10th of May—as noted in the preceding chapter—reached Marseilles on the 30th and then got the first news of Judge’s secession. This, of course, put a new aspect upon the whole question of the business that was to be brought before the General Council: the secession of the American Section was an accomplished fact—so far as a majority vote could make it so. I had acted upon it officially in my Executive Notice of June 5th, from Zumarraga, and the Council had now to take action upon this document in addition to the subjects for the consideration of which the meeting was called. It must be borne in mind that this meeting was not called after the Judge secession, but before it, and while the question was pending whether or not he should be forced to retire from office. It was in our mind to make alterations in the language of the Rules as it affected the terms on which the Vice-Presidency could be occupied and vacated, with or without the consent of the incumbent. The crisis of the Secession precipitated matters so that, instead of meeting in London on the 7th of July, the General Council met at the London Headquarters on the 27th of June. The Indian, European, and Australasian Sections were respectively represented by Messrs. B. Keightley and G. R. S. Mead, General Secretaries of the first two, and Mr. Sinnett as proxy for Mr. J. C. Staples, General Secretary of the third. Of course, as President-Founder, I presided. The American Section was then in the transition stage from the
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old to the new Charter, and under the management of the special Committee designated in the Zumarraga Executive Notice. The Scandinavian Section did not come into existence until a few weeks later. The Chair appointed Mr. Mead as Secretary to the meetings. He then, with a few prefatory remarks, submitted his recent action for the consideration of the General Council in the following term:
“TO THE GENERAL COUNCIL, T. S.,
“The undersigned hereby places before you a copy of his Executive Notice of June 5th instant, in which the separation of the American Section from the mother Society is recognised; its Charter, those of all assenting Branches, and the diplomas of all Members or Fellows who have voted for the Act of Secession, and declared the Theosophical Society to have had no existence, de jure, since the year 1878, cancelled. The matter is before you for such action as you may see fit to take, under Sec. 1 of Art. VI, of the Rules.”
It was then moved by Mr. Sinnett, seconded by Mr. Keightley, that the President’s Executive Notice of June 5th, 1895, be approved and ratified by the General Council, and so notified to the Sections. Carried unanimously. This legalised the Presidential action in the matter of the American Section and the provisions for carrying on the business of the Section until its new Charter could be issued and a General Secretary recommended for appointment.
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The President-Founder then read the following paper to the Council for its information, and the same was, upon motion, ordered to be included in the published report of the meeting:
“TO THE GENERAL COUNCIL,
“I wish to lay before you a few remarks about the proposals recently put forward for a change in the Constitution of the Theosophical Society. It is not necessary that I should deal with them in detail, since I am concerned only with the general principle involved. Should we, or should we not, essentially alter the Constitution under which we have worked fairly well for so many years? If so, should we do it hurriedly, under the pressure of a momentary outbreak of feeling, or should we proceed slowly and deliberately? I incline to the latter policy, as I do not see any sufficient reason for haste, which is always injudicious, and often fatal to a good cause. Our present Constitution has been a bridge strong enough for us to cross upon, and has not been found radically defective. At the same time it may be improved and, as President, I am more interested than anybody else to see the improvement made, for the ultimate burden of responsibility falls on my shoulders. I should regard as an improvement any new clauses which should make it easier for me to deal executively with crises like that through which we have just passed in the Judge case, and which has been effectually ended by his withdrawal from office and from membership.
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But for the clumsy and expensive expedient of a Judicial Committee, I might have settled the whole matter long ago, and thus saved a vast amount of friction, ill-feeling, partisanship, and expense. Executive powers of the amplest scope were held and exercised by me from a very early period in our Society’s history, i.e., before we left New York for India, and to the recent date when tinkering of the Constitution, alteration of the Rules, and binding the President in coils of red tape, began. My experience in Governmental affairs and private societies and corporations, has convinced me that, with an honest and capable man as manager, the fewer Rules and the less obstructive formalities there are, the better will work be done and the more prosperous and successful be the Society, bureau, department, or company. With a dishonest or inefficient manager in control, the multiplication of Rules does no good; the only remedy is in change of the administration. It should also be borne in mind that in our Society, Presidential action is subject to the approval of the General Council, and hence is not autocratic. Pray do not suppose that my remarks are prompted by any personal considerations whatever, for such is not the case. I have always been ready to yield my office to a better man; I am so to-day: I do not wish to remain President one day longer than my services seem necessary for the best interests of the Society. That has become the life of my life, the dearest object of my heart, and far be it from me to omit doing anything, or to hesitate from
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making any sacrifice, by which its welfare may be promoted.
“Among the criticisms of the Constitution which seem to have a certain weight, I will specify that of the wording of our Third Object. It has been urged that, by encouraging inquiry into ‘the psychical powers latent in man,’ we have fed a craving for phenomena, and opened the door to abuses which have drawn upon us the curse of many troubles. When one sees how easy it is for self-deluded psychics and cunning pretenders to draw crowds after them in a blind quest after ‘powers,’ and a more open intercourse with unseen teachers, one can sympathise with the views of those who would alter the phraseology of our Third Object. I, myself, would be glad if it should be made a serious offence henceforth for any person in our Society to give out any teachings as by authority; for it has always been my belief—and I can point to printed records as far back as 1853 to prove my assertion—that the value of any given teaching is not augmented in the least degree by attaching to it an authoritative name. Holding these opinions as I do, I should be glad rather than sorry to see some change made in the wording of the Third Object. There are other changes that it would doubtless be well to make, as for example, to eliminate the idea of geographical boundaries in constituting a Section. There are others still, but, as said before, I should be distinctly opposed to taking precipitate action, and should not recommend any changes that had not been considered
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and voted upon in all the Sections, and finally ratified by the constitutional majority vote in General Council (Art. V, Secs. 1, 2, and 3).
“Some, I see, have erroneously supposed it necessary to alter the Constitution that new Sections with autonomy may be created. A glance, however, at Art. III, Secs. 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, and the last sentence in Section 4 of same Article, will satisfy anyone that the President has full power, ‘for valid reasons,’ to form new Sections, prescribe their territorial limits, grant them autonomy, confirm their By-laws, and empower them to issue, under his authority and in his name, charters and diplomas. Under my present powers I can, if it should appear to me judicious, create one or a dozen new territorial Sections within the present area of anyone of the existing Sections, as easily as I can create them in Africa, South America, or any other continent not at present sectionally chartered. The only prerequisite is that seven chartered Branches of the Society within the specified area, shall join in petitioning me to issue such a charter in each case. The modification I would suggest is to strike out the words ‘territorial’ and ‘geographical area’ where-ever they occur in connection with the idea of a Section.
“While upon this subject, it is best that I should make very clear the difference between an autonomous Section of the Society and a seceded Section. A Section of any public body is a part of it; subordinate to its Constitution; under the government of its Executive and Council; incapable of exempting itself
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from its Constitutional restrictions which include the results of any decisive vote that may be constitutionally cast by its highest governing assembly. A Section of our Society may, therefore, be autonomous in the full meaning—self-law-making—of the word; that is to say, may make its own by-laws and rules with the President’s approbation, but (vide Art. III, Sec. 10) with the proviso that they ‘do not conflict with the Objects and Rules of the Theosophical Society’. Now, the General Secretary of a Section is, ex-officio, a Secretary of the Society and a member of the General Council; which (vide Art. V. Sec. 1) is invested with ‘the general control and administration of the Society,’ and (Sec. 2) decides its action by ‘a majority of votes’. If he is outvoted in Council he has no choice but to submit, as would any other member in any other question introduced by him. Then, again, the Section being, not a separate body, but only a part of the one international body known as the Theosophical Society, which has been organised in a given territory or country for convenience of administration, it has no right to alter its subject relationship with the Society; to change the wording of its by-laws without Presidential warrant; to elect a ‘President’ of the Section, either temporary or permanent; to give an illegally chosen Executive (in violation of Art. II, Sec. 7), an unlawful title or a longer term of office than that prescribed by law; or to repudiate the de jure character of the Society, and thus declare invalid the charters which it has issued and the diplomas or certificates of membership granted
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by it to its Members or Fellows. These are severally acts of rebellion, of independent sovereignty, of defiance; and these steps having been taken by the late American Section, in convention lawfully assembled, as reported to me by Mr. Judge in an official letter signed by him in his new Presidential capacity I had no alternative but to accept the situation, recognise the revolt as an accomplished fact, and officially suppress the Section, discharter its revolting Branches, and cancel the diplomas of those Fellows who had, by their votes, declared them invalid instruments—mere waste paper. I need not say how sad I was for the necessity of taking this summary action, for the ties of personal affection and respect bind me to many of our late American colleagues. But duty demanded this sacrifice of feeling and I could not hold back. Our Association being of a purely voluntary character, I could not exercise the least coercion to keep the members loyal; I could only give effect to their declared personal independence by relieving them pro forma of their membership. Moreover, the majority in a Branch being the voice of the Branch—its governing power and lawful representative for the time being—I was compelled to accept a Branch majority vote in favor of the Boston Act of Secession as the expression of the Branch’s sovereign will that it should cease to be a part of the Theosophical Society of 1875, and thenceforth be a part of the new American society of 1895, and cancel its old charter. Similarly, when the majority of any Branch had voted to remain loyal and repudiate secession, it was my
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duty to officially recognise and affirm the fact, and leave the Branch charter in the hands of the loyal majority. Of course, the minority would in any case have the clear right of leaving the majority in possession and reorganising themselves as a new Branch of the Society of their choice. It has given me pain to come to know that this self-evident rule of parliamentary and ethical procedure has not been grasped by some of our late American colleagues, who now find themselves, to their surprise, deprived of membership in the Society which they had come to love, and for which many of them had made large sacrifices. To all such, whether as individuals or as Branches, the door will always be open for return.
“Now the case would have been quite different if the Boston Convention had proceeded within Constitutional lines. They might, for instance, have pointed out desired modifications of their sectional by-laws and rules, and under Art. III, Sec. 10, have submitted them to me for ratification. I should have felt myself obliged to approve and confirm all amendments which did not conflict with the constitutional solidarity and international character of the Theosophical Society as a whole; there would have been increased autonomy and no revolt. But I should never have confirmed any proposed change which would make the American Section and its General Secretary more independent of the General Council, the President, or the Theosophical Society’s Constitution than are the other Sections and General
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Secretaries; or which gave it a President, a misleading title, a new seal, or a new form of diploma. To do so, would be equivalent to my consenting to the upsetting of the Constitution and the splitting of the Society into fragments. Though fifty new and autonomous Sections should be chartered by me, the Society would not be weakened: it might, perhaps be bettered, although I have always believed that ‘in union is strength’; but to permit one Section to set itself up as independent of the central control, to deride its authority and pronounce illegal its charters and diplomas, would have been as bad statesmanship as for Great Britain to ratify the secession and independence of Scotland, England, or Ireland, or for the United States to have permitted Virginia or any other State to set itself up as an independent sovereignty, contrary to the provisions of the Federal compact between the States of the Union. The pernicious example set at Boston is bearing its natural fruit in one or more pro-positions which are now being circulated for signatures, and upon which no other interpretation can be put than that the formation of new Theosophical Societies is contemplated. I hope that the promoters of these schemes may look at the questions without prejudice, from both sides, before pressing them to an issue.
“If seven European Branches are discontented with remaining in the present European Section, they can join in petitioning me to form them into a separate Section, and I shall do so if, as above explained, their
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proposed By-laws are formed in such a way as to agree with the provisions of the Theosophical Society’s Constitution and By-laws now in force. I am also willing to charter new Sections in specified countries as, for instance, Sweden, Holland, Germany, etc., etc., if pressed to do so, and valid reasons are brought to my notice.At the same time I wish it to be made plain to your respective Sections that, for the same reason that I dischartered the American Section and its revolting Branches, and cancelled the diplomas of its consenting members, I shall discharter every other Branch in any part of the world which, by a majority vote of its fellows, accepts and endorses the Secession Act of the Boston Convention, and shall cancel the diplomas of those who vote with the majority.
“This, you must observe, is quite irrespective of the personal worth of the recalcitrant members; a simple act of constitutional procedure, imposed upon the President and General Council, and for neglect to do which we might be impeached. It is the confirmation of the right of each member to free private judgment and liberty of action: he revolts against our authority, denies the legal status of our Society, repudiates the validity of our charters and diplomas; we let him depart in peace with our kindest wishes for his spiritual welfare, and that is the end of our mutual relationship.”
1In point of fact, this principle has since been applied, and with the best results, Charters for the Dutch, Scandinavian, French, German, and Italian Sections having been issued by me.
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As the office of Vice-President had been declared in the Zumarraga Executive Notice to have been vacated by Mr. Judge by his act of secession, the President-Founder, before the close of the Council meeting, announced the appointment of Mr. Alfred Percy Sinnett to fill the vacancy, and Mr. Sinnett having accepted the nomination, the Secretary was instructed to publish for general information the proceedings of the meeting.
The General Council then adjourned sine die.
To complete the legal formalities an Executive Notice of Mr. Sinnett’s appointment was issued at London on the 27th of June and circulated to the General Secretaries of Sections, with the following request: “You are hereby requested to take the vote of your respective Sections upon the above nomination, and to communicate the result to me within the next three calendar months, as prescribed by the By-laws.”
By the 17th of September the affirmative votes of the four then existing Sections having come in, an Executive Notice was issued at London declaring him “to be the constitutionally chosen Vice-President, subject to the conditions prescribed in our By-laws”. At the present time, as experience proves, it takes about six months to get a vote of the General Council upon any question submitted to the members by the President-Founder: when our contemplated Sections in South America, Cuba, South Africa, and other distant territories are added to our rolls, the time required will be even longer.