Appeal to the Wealthy of the Land/Essay 1



I propose in these essays to consider, and attempt to refute, certain pernicious errors which too generally prevail respecting the situation, the conduct, the characters, and the prospects of those whose sole dependence is on the labour of their hands—who comprise, throughout the world, two-thirds, perhaps three-fourths, of the human race—and on whose services the other third or fourth depend for their necessaries, their comforts, their enjoyments, and their luxuries.

According to these calculations, the number of persons in the United States depending on wages for their support must be eight or nine millions. This is a deeply interesting view of the subject, and fully proves its immense importance; and how solicitous we should be to guard against errors in discussing it—errors which may perniciously affect the interests and happiness of so large a portion of the human family. Whatever concerns their comfort or happiness—whatever tends to increase or decrease their comforts—to improve or deteriorate their morals, demands the most serious attention of the friends of humanity, of all whose views extend beyond their own narrow selfish concerns, and who, without the services of this class, would be forlorn and helpless.

The class in question is susceptible of two great subdivisions—those who are so well remunerated for their labours, as to be able, not merely to provide, when employed, for seasons of stagnation and sickness, but by industry, prudence, and economy, to save enough in the course of a few years, to commence business on a small scale on their own account. With this fortunate description, which is numerous and respectable, I have no concern at present. My object is to consider the case of those whose services are so inadequately remunerated, owing to the excess of labour beyond the demand for it, that they can barely support themselves while in good health and fully employed; and, of course, when sick or unemployed, must perish, unless relieved by charitable individuals, benevolent societies, or the guardians of the poor. I use the word "perish" with due deliberation, and a full conviction of its appropriate application to the case, however revolting it may seem to the reader; for as these people depend for daily support on their daily or weekly wages, they are, when those wages are stopped by whatever means, utterly destitute of wherewith to support their existence, and actually become paupers, and therefore, without the aid above stated, would, I repeat, "perish" of want.

The crisis of suffering through which this class about three years since passed here and elsewhere, and the occurrence of similar suffering in all hard winters (and, in other seasons, from sickness and destitution of employment), often without receiving that extra aid which such a state of things loudly demands, appears to require a sober and serious investigation, in order to probe to the bottom so deplorable a state of things, whereby the comfort and happiness of such a large portion of human beings are so cruelly shipwrecked, and to ascertain what are the causes of the evil, and whether it be susceptible of any remedy.

The erroneous opinions to which I have alluded are—

1. That every man, woman, and grown child, able and willing to work may find employment.

2. That the poor, by industry, prudence, and economy, may at all times support themselves comfortably, without depending on eleemosynary aid—and, as a corollary from these positions,

3. That their sufferings and distresses chiefly, if not wholly, arise from their idleness, their dissipation, and their extravagance.

4. That taxes for the support of the poor, and aid afforded them by charitable individuals, or benevolent societies, are pernicious, as, by encouraging the poor to depend on them, they foster their idleness and improvidence, and thus produce, or at least increase, the poverty and distress they are intended to relieve.

These opinions, so far as they have operated—and, through the mischievous zeal and industry of the school of political economists by which they have been promulgated, they have spread widely—have been pernicious to the rich and the poor. They tend to harden the hearts of the former against the sufferings and distresses of the latter,—and of course prolong those sufferings and distresses.

"Posterity will scarcely credit the extent to which the popular feeling has been worked upon and warped by the ravings of some of our modern economists. They, truly, have done all that in them lay, to extinguish in the bosoms of the more opulent classes, every spark of generous and benevolent feeling towards the destitute and needy pauper. In their eyes, pauperism is a crime, for which nothing short of absolute starvation can form an adequate punishment."—London Quarterly Review, July, 1828.

Many wealthy individuals, benevolent and liberal, apprehensive lest by charitable aid to persons in distress, they might produce evil to society, are, by these pernicious and cold-blooded doctrines, prevented from indulging the feelings of their hearts, and employing a portion of their superfluous wealth for the best purpose to which it can be appropriated—that purpose which, at the hour of death, will afford the most solid comfort on retrospection—that is, "to feed the hungry; to give drink to the thirsty; to clothe the naked; to comfort the comfortless."[1] The economists in question, when they are implored by the starving poor for "bread," tender them "a stone." To the unfeeling and uncharitable of the rich (and such unhappily there are), these doctrines afford a plausible pretext, of which they are not slow to avail themselves, for withholding their aid from the poor. They have moreover tended to attach a sort of disrepute to those admirable associations of ladies and gentlemen, for the relief of the poor, on which Heaven looks down with complacence, and which form a delightful oasis in the midst of the arid deserts of sordid selfishness which on all sides present themselves to the afflicted view of the contemplative observer.

In entering on this discussion, it is necessary to consider the character and conduct of the classes whose case I have undertaken to review. Both are, I am persuaded, greatly and perniciously mistaken.

There is scarcely any propensity more universal among mankind, than the tendency to generalize from inadequate premises. From the good or the bad qualities of half a dozen persons or things, most people are disposed to draw general conclusions affecting the whole species or genus to which the half dozen belong. It is not therefore wonderful, although greatly to be regretted, that on beholding a number of worthless poor, so many superficial persons feel disposed to set down the mass as worthless. A little reflection will prove the folly and injustice of this procedure. The estimable part of the poor, who struggle with their poverty, who resist the temptations to fraud and transgressions of every kind, are generally in the back-ground—they escape notice. Hundreds of them may be within a few squares of us, and never attract our attention. Let us suppose a case. A man has, in the course of a year, dealings with five hundred of those persons who depend on their labour for support: among this large number, he discovers ten or a dozen tricky and worthless, who are on the watch to cheat and deceive him. Will he not, in his conversation about his affairs (and how many are there who have no other subject of conversation?) dwell more on the frauds and tricks of these, than on the correct conduct of the four hundred and eighty or four hundred and ninety? And will not superficial persons be disposed to generalize and stigmatize the whole from his statements?

Far from being surprised that among the poor there are to be found many worthless persons, it appears, that the surprise, all things considered, ought to be, that there are so few. In the first place, it is well known that we are the creatures of education and example; and how lamentably deficient the mass of the poor are in point of education and example, we all know. No small proportion have had no education; others only a mere smattering: and the examples which they are to copy, are, alas! too generally ill qualified to form them as useful or estimable members of society.

The higher orders of society have generally enjoyed the advantages of a good education and good examples: the censorial eye of the public is on them, and serves as a curb to restrain them from guilt: regard to character has a powerful operation. Nevertheless, do we not unfortunately see considerable numbers of them who lapse from the paths of rectitude? How powerfully do such lapses tend to extenuate those of the poor, who are under no such controlling or restraining circumstances, and have so much stronger incentives to aberration!

The population of Philadelphia is about 160,000 souls, of whom about 100,000 depend on the labour of their hands; 40,000 are probably labourers, hodmen, seamstresses, families of workmen on the canals and rail-roads. The utmost industry and economy they can employ will scarcely suffice to sustain them, if not unremittingly employed; and few of them are so fortunate as to be employed through the year. These last descriptions of persons are those whose case I have undertaken to consider.

Philadelphia, June 20, 1833.

  1. How transcendently superior are those who, like Mr. Perkins and Mr. Philips of Boston, Mr. Brown of Rhode Island, Mr. Oliver of Baltimore, Mr. Rutgers of New York, Mr. Ralston, Mr. Henry, and Mrs. Stott of Philadelphia, &c., bestow thousands and tens of thousands on public charities or other benevolent objects, to those who retain their millions to the last moment of their existence! Ten thousand dollars bestowed during life have more real merit than a million bequeathed at the last gasp, when it can be no longer clutched.