Appeal to the Wealthy of the Land/Essay 7

ESSAY VII.

The question of the most eligible mode of supporting the poor, whether by statutory provision, or by voluntary contributions of individuals, has created a great diversity of opinions in Great Britain—opinions advocated with the utmost zeal and ardour, and with considerable talents, on both sides. On one side, a powerful party, at the head of which at present are the editors of the Edinburgh Review (formerly Mr. Malthus), is in favour of a total abolition, as speedily as possible, of the system of statutory provision. The other party, headed by the editors of the Quarterly Review, maintains, that all the evils of which the complaints are so loud and general, are the result of the abuse of the system. The subject is deeply interesting, both as regards the payers and the recipients, and demands to be soberly and calmly and candidly discussed, uninfluenced by the names or standing of the advocates, or by previous prejudices, however great.

The investigation may at present be prosecuted with more advantage than at any former period. The British parliament some time since appointed a commission, composed of the Bishop of London, the Bishop of Chester, Messrs. W. J. Bourne, Nassau W. Senior, Henry Bishop, Henry Gawler, and W. Coulson, to investigate the subject thoroughly. They addressed pertinent queries to the different overseers of the poor, and the magistrates throughout the kingdom; the responses to which shed a flood of light on the subject, and dispelled the clouds of darkness and delusion under which it has been obscured.

Copies of a digest of the information thus collected, published so late as last March, have been forwarded to this country to different individuals, with a desire of ascertaining the nature of our system for the support of the poor. Of this publication, the most authentic and conclusive that has appeared on the subject, I shall principally avail myself in the following view of it.

The law of the 43d Elizabeth, the result of the collected wisdom of the great statesmen by whom that queen was surrounded, was framed after various experiments. It ordered that "competent sums should be raised" [by the overseers of the poor] "for the necessary relief of the lame, impotent, old, blind, and such other among them being poor and unable to work;" and that the able-bodied, idle vagrants should be compelled to labour for their support. This law, which is marked by the strongest features of enlightened humanity and sound policy, has been in operation above two hundred years, and has undergone various alterations—some, obvious improvements—others, deteriorations; but the frame-work of it remains as originally enacted. I will state the main objections alleged against such a system. It is asserted by the editors of the Edinburgh Review—

  1. That the necessary and inevitable consequence of a statutory provision for the poor, is, to increase regularly and oppressively the amount of the burdens, as has been the case for some years in England.
  2. That it encourages imprudent and improvident marriages, and of course produces the distress it professes to relieve, and multiplies a pauper population.
  3. That it destroys, or at least impairs, the stimulus to industry, by insuring a support to the idle and vicious, equal to what honest industry can acquire by useful labour.

Were these objections well founded, they would unquestionably give irresistible force to the loud call that prevails for the abolition of a system pregnant with such baleful consequences. But I hope to prove, by the most unquestionable evidence, that the evils complained of are solely the result of the most flagrant, barefaced, and corrupt abuses, such as are perhaps without parallel in any other country in the world. Let it be observed, that I should not here trespass on the public with this subject, but that the opinions of the Edinburgh Review are spreading in this country, and are advocated by some of our best citizens. The Rev. Mr. Tuckerman, author of a Report to the Legislature of Massachusetts, and W. M. Meredith, Esq., author of an elaborate one to the Legislature of Pennsylvania on this subject, both decidedly concur in ascribing the worst consequences to a legal provision for the poor, and deprecate its continuance. These opinions are gaining ground, and therefore it is highly proper to bring them to the test of the talisman of truth and fact, so as not only to enable those who may be called to legislate on this subject, to act understandingly, but to enable the public at large to decide between the conflicting opinions. I premise the exact words of the first objection.

"After the principle of a legal assessment has begun to be acted upon, there is no one expedient within the reach of human skill, by which the progress and increase of pauperism can be arrested."—E. R.[1] vol. xxix. 279.

This is a strong, unqualified assertion; let us see how it is borne out by facts. The earliest accounts of the amount of the English poor rates that we have, date in 1673, when they amounted to £840,000;[2] whereas in 1750, after a lapse of 77 years, they were reduced to about £700,000,[3] being a reduction of 16 per cent., notwithstanding the intervention of the sanguinary and expensive wars of William III., Queen Anne, George I., and part of those of George II., and the great increase of population.

On these simple facts the question might be confidently rested, so far as regards the first and most important allegation, the regular and progressive increase of pauperism, and consequently of poor rates. But we must not rely wholly on these facts; others of equal force remain, drawn, mirabile dictu! from the same Edinburgh Review.

"From the period [1601] when the act of the 43d of Elizabeth, the foundation of the existing code of poor laws, was promulgated, to the commencement of the late war, there had been scarcely any increase of pauperism: and few or none of those pernicious consequences had actually resulted from their operation, which we are naturally led, looking only to the principles they involve, to suppose they must produce."—E. R. vol. xlvii. p. 304.

Thus, after assuring us that "there is no expedient within the reach of human skill to prevent the progress and increase of pauperism," in the case of "a legal establishment for the support of the poor," we are gravely informed that "scarcely any increase" took place for 190 years under that system!! May we not say "ex ore tuo" to the oracle which pronounced the former dictum? And does not this strong contrast warn us against surrendering our judgment to those self-installed judges of literature, politics, and government? Again:

"According to the official accounts, it appears that the total sum raised by assessment under the name of poor rates, in England and Wales, during the three years ending with 1750, amounted at an average to £730,135 a year, of which £689,971 were expended on the poor, being a mere trifle more than the sum expended on them at the revolution, and about £300,000 less than the sum supposed to have been expended at the commencement of the century!"—Idem, p. 307.

"During the period between the termination of the American war and the commencement of the late French war, the rates were again considerably reduced."—E.R. vol. lii. p. 351.

Let us go on, and "make assurance doubly sure."

"It may safely be concluded, that the rates were considerably lower in 1793 than in 1785. How much this reduction might amount to, it is impossible accurately to conjecture, but at the commencement of the late war, they could hardly, one should think, exceed £1,400,000 or £1,500,000 a year."—E. R.. vol. xlvii. p. 318.

"The poor rates gradually diminished during the three years ending March 25, 1821; and that year were nearly one eighth, or one million less, than in the year 1818."—Q. R. vol. xxviii. p. 357.

"Sums expended for relief of the poor; 1817, 1818, £7,890,148: 1820, 1821, £6,958,445. Total population in England and Wales:—1811, 10,502,500: 1821, 12,218,500."—Ibid, note.

The Edinburgh Review, among other evils, ascribed to the operation of the poor laws, has asserted that their tendency is to increase a pauper population. Let us hear it again on the other side of the question.

"It is established by evidence which it seems to be impossible to controvert, how much soever the conclusion may be at variance with the opinions that have recently been current on the subject, that from their institution down to a late period, the effect of the poor-laws was not to increase, but to diminish population!!!"—E. R. vol. xlvii. p. 314.

Here are most palpable contradictions! "Who shall decide," not "when doctors disagree," but when the doctor disagrees with himself?

Having fairly stated the contradictory opinions of the leading journal hostile to the poor-laws, it is but right to state the views of their advocate.

"The experience of more than two centuries has only confirmed the wisdom of the measure. The evils that have been attributed to the poor-law are justly chargeable only to the abuses that have been locally permitted to creep into its administration. There are few, if any persons, practically acquainted with the subject, that do not now recognise this truth."—Q. R. vol. xliv. 512.

"The mischief which the poor-laws produce has arisen wholly from their mal-administration or perversion. The system itself is humane, just, necessary, befitting a Christian state, and honourable to the English nation."—Q. R. vol. xxxvii. p. 544.

"Reflection and experience have produced a general conviction, that the principles of the poor-law of Elizabeth are consistent with the sound policy of that important reign, and cannot in the present state of things be safely departed from: and that a compulsory provision for the poor—as it originated not in abstract theory and speculation, but was resorted to from necessity, and after other measures had been repeatedly tried in vain—continues to be an indispensable obligation upon such a system of government as ours."—Q. R. vol. xxviii. p. 349.

It is incredible, but nevertheless true, that the Edinburgh Review, after having distinctly admitted that for 190 years the poor-laws had not "increased pauperism, or population, or the poor rates," to any perceivable extent, has carried its blind opposition to them to such an extreme length as to advocate the substitution of mendicity, with all its immoralities, its frauds, its impositions, its degradation! So much for a bigoted devotion to theory, in utter disregard of fact or experience.

"Those who are destitute must be relieved somehow, and must have some way of making their wants known: and therefore we see no alternative between the allowance of mendicity, under some modification or other, and the establishment of the very system which is now bearing so oppressively down upon the country. And we do confess, that rather than have such a system, we would sit down under mendicity in its very worst form! we would let it roam unrestricted and at large, as it does in France!!! We would suffer it to rise, without any control, to the height of unlicensed vagrancy, and are most thoroughly persuaded that even under such an economy, the whole poverty of the land would be disposed of at less expense to the higher orders, and with vastly less both of suffering and depravity to the lower orders of society!"—E. R. vol. xxix. p. 286.

What! mendicity with all its loathsomeness, and depravity, and corruption, preferable for "the lame, the impotent, the old, the blind, and the poor unable to work," to having them comfortably supported at a moderate expense in poor-houses!! What next?

Philadelphia, July 8, 1833.

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  1. E. R. refers to the Edinburgh Review, and Q. R. to the London Quarterly Review.
  2. Eden on the Poor Laws, vol, i. p. 189.
  3. Idem, p. 249.