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LETTER III.


THE GENERAL CONDITION OF THE LABORING CLASSES.


For the last few years, the attention of the upper and middle class of society in England has been repeatedly and forcibly drawn to the increasing misery and destitution of the laboring classes. In the year 1842, the "Atlas" newspaper proposed to give a prize of £100, £50, and £25, for the 1st, 2d, and 3d best essays respectively, on the causes of, and remedies for the existing distress of the country. From the first of these essays, (which was afterwards made public,) and other sources which may be relied on, I am partly indebted for the following facts.

At former periods of our history we have heard complaints of national distress, and witnessed instances of national decay; but these have been occasioned by causes, and accompanied by symptoms, very different from those which characterize the present phase of social existence in England. For instance, invasion of foreign enemies, loss of national independence, decay of energy and martial spirit, domestic discord, religious persecution, financial embarrassment, sudden changes in the accustomed course of commerce, are all recognized causes and symptoms of the decline of nations. Of none of these do we find a trace in the present condition of England. On the contrary, never, perhaps, was there a period when national prosperity, judged of by these historical tests, stood higher. England stands without dispute, the first naval and commercial power in the world. It would be easy to accumulate facts; but it is not necessary for our present purpose, which is simply to show that the country exhibits, as yet, no decided symptoms of declining wealth, and that whatever may be the evils which afflict society, the want of a sufficient capital to set industry in motion, and to sustain the national burdens, is certainly not among them. Where, then, is the cause of this wide-spread distress?

If neither the political circumstances, the financial conditions, now considered with reference only to the amount of wealth—the economical state of the country, shew any indications of decay and danger, how is it that so many serious men shake their heads with gloomy apprehensions, and at times feel tempted to doubt whether the amount of evil in the present social condition of England does not preponderate over the good. It is in the condition of the laboring classes that the danger lies.

Amidst the intoxication of wealth and progress, and the dreams of a millennium of material prosperity to be realized by the inventions of science, the discoveries of political economy, and the unrestricted application of man's energy and intelligence to outward objects, society has been startled by a discovery of the fearful fact, that as wealth increases, poverty and crime increase in a faster ratio, and that in almost exact proportion to the advance of one portion of society in opulence, intelligence, and civilization, has been the retrogression of another and more numerous class towards misery, degredation and barbarism. To speak more specifically, the leading facts to which the evils that, in one shape or other, are continually forcing themselves upon the attention of society, may be reduced, appear to be—1st. The existence of an intolerable mass of misery, including in the term both recognized and official pauperism, and the unrecognized destitution that preys, like a consuming ulcer, in the heart of our large cities and densely peopled manufacturing districts. 2d. The condition of a large proportion of the independent laboring class, who are unable to procure a tolerably comfortable and stable subsistence in return for their labor, and are approximating, there is too much reason to fear, towards the gulf of pauperism, in which they will be sooner or later swallowed up, unless something effectual can be done to arrest their downward progress.

With respect to the recognized paupers, it is stated by a writer in Blackwood's Magazine, that in England, Ireland and Scotland, the number is 4,000,000. It is also proved by facts which no one can dispute, that a large proportion of the dense masses of population, crowded together in the lower districts of our large towns, have absolutely no regular and recognized occupations, and live as it were, outlaws upon society. They have, in fact, nothing to look forward to; nothing to fall back upon. One or two facts speak emphatically as to the social deterioration.

In Manchester, in 1839, as many as 42,964 persons, or nearly one sixth of the population, were admitted at different medical charities; and more than one half of the inhabitants are either so destitute or degraded, as to require the assistance of public charity in bringing their offspring into the world. And let it be here remembered that the industrious inhabitants of this large town have done more to uphold what is falsely called the "dignity of the nation," than any other town in the country. In Glasgow, in the five years ending in 1840, as many as 62,051 persons were attacked by typhus fever, a disease generally produced by filth, intoxication and vice. In Liverpool, 35,000 to 40,000 of the lower population live in cellars, without any means of light or ventilation but the door. A like picture is presented to the eye of an attentive observer of society, in Leeds, Birmingham, Brighton, London, and almost all the large towns.

The Journal of Civilization, says, If it were required to draw a strong picture of man, morally and socially degraded by misery, the savage tribes of distant zones would in all probability be selected to sit for it. Yet such darkly shaded originals, such painful realities, need not be sought in remote lands. Let the street beggar or the London thief be followed to his home, (if he have one,) and mankind will be seen existing in degradation as great, enduring misery as sharp, as the South Sea Islanders, or the South Africans in their worst aspect. Amongst them, poverty, vice, ignorance, have no contrast to heighten their effects; but here in England—in London, perhaps at our own back door, wretchedness the most acute, infamy the most shocking, exist upon the same square acre with a high condition of luxury and wealth; and despite their near neighborhood, it may be safely conjectured that the British public know more of the social misery of savage nations, than they do of their own poor. Yet, upon this ignorance, the debased and the criminal are specially legislated for, sometimes incorrectly, always inefficiently.

Amongst the various causes of this state of things, the principle, I believe, is, that of mammon worship. This is one of the vices of modern English society, along with an undue depreciation and neglect of the duties, obligations, and influences of an unseen and spiritual world. The prevalence of this spirit in modern English society, is a fact too obvious to admit of dispute, or to require demonstration.

The very expressions of our common, familiar conversation, testify to it. A "respectable" man has come to signify, a man who lives in a manner which denotes the possession of a certain income; a "successful" man means a man who has succeeded in realizing a certain fortune; a "good match" is synonymous with a marriage to a man of handsome means. The practical working faith of most people for the last century seems to be, that to get on in the world, and realize a certain amount of money and social position, is the one thing needful. The sense of duty, which is in itself infinite, has resolved itself into a sort of infinite duty of making money. Our whole duty of man, is, in the first place, to be rich; or, failing in this, in the second place to appear rich. On all hands the doctrine is zealously preached and practised, that "poverty is disgraceful, and that hard cash covers a multitude of sins." Now to the prevalence of this spirit may be directly traced a large portion of the evils of which society complains. This part of the subject might be carried to a much greater length, did our limits allow it; this not being the case, I shall simply draw the attention of the reader to the want of sufficient remuneration for industry, which is one of the principal causes of the evils of the poor.

I find on reference to a book in my possession, that in the time of Henry the VIII, laws were passed relating to food and wages, which placed the working man in a far more favorable position, than he is in England at the present time. The price of provisions, and the wages of labor were settled by act of Parliament. The very same Parliament that passed the law that no corn be exported, also enacted that the rate of wages should be fourpence per day; and this circumstance is well worth the attention of the producers of wealth; inasmuch as the above wise and just laws were passed by a House of Commons elected on the principle of universal suffrage. The money of the time of Henry, had a different value to the money in use at the present time; we will therefore see what a day's work was worth in England at the two periods mentioned, viz. 1530 and 1840.

First, we see that any individual employing any other individual, could not, according to act of Parliament, give less than fourpence per day. He might give more, but he could not give less.

The price of provisions being regulated by act of Parliament, was as follows, in 1530, to which is added the price in 1840.

1530. 1840.
A fat Ox,£ 0 16s. 0d.£ 20  0s. 0d.
A fat Sheep, 0  1   2  1 15  0
A fat Goose, 0  0   2½  0  3   6
Eggs per dozen, 0  0   0½  0  0   9
Cow, 0 12   0 10  0   0
Fat Pig, 0  3   4  3  3   0
A pair of Chickens 0  0   1  0  2   0
Wheat per quarter, 0  6   0  3  0   0
Wine per quart, 0  0   1  0  3   4
Table Beer per gallon 0  0   1  0  1   8
Shoes per pair, 0  0   4  0 10   0
£ 1 19s. 4d.£ 38 19s. 3d.

In 1530, you see there was something like justice meted out to the working man. You will perceive that the laborer, in the course of 20 weeks, could earn as much as would purchase the list of articles enumerated above; but the laborer had a greater advantage than appears at first sight; the act distinctly specifies that the employer must give fourpence per diem, at the least, so that the laborer was at liberty to hire himself or not; and, you may rest assured, that wages were oftener above the fourpence per day, than at it. Again, while the articles above mentioned were brought to market, and could not be sold, only at a certain price, beyond which they dare not be sold, yet the person selling was often compelled to sell them at a lower price. Thus the working man had a double advantage to what he has now; because, although provisions might be lower in price, and the rate of wages higher, yet wages could not be reduced lower, nor provisions higher, than the act specified.

Now in 1840 the average rate of wages was about ten shillings per week in England. This I believe is admitted by all who have wrote upon the subject. You will thus see by a little calculation that the working man was compelled to work seventy-eight weeks, for the same amount of comforts that he could purchase in 1530 for twenty weeks labor.

It must be, therefore, plainly evident, that the condition of the people, as far as plenty to eat, drink and wear, were concerned, was far preferable to what it is now, because the working classes could command four times as much of the necessaries of life then as they can now; and this fact is borne out by the evidence of Sir John Fortesque. "The people," says he, "have plenty of fish, flesh and fowl, the best furniture in their houses, they are well clad in woolen clothes; they never drink water except in Lent, or fast days, but wine or beer;" yet these are the times that are called dark and barbarous. It would be well, indeed, if the barbarous custom of having enough of the comforts of life might again be the lot of the laboring population of England.

Contrast the above statement with the speech of the Queen of England from the throne, in the early part of 1846. "I deeply lament the failure of the potato crop, as this is an article of food that forms the chief subsistence of great numbers of my people."

And again, on the 19th of January, 1847, her speech from the throne commences thus.

"My Lords and Gentlemen—It is with the deepest concern that upon your again assembling, I have to call your attention to the dearth of provisions, which prevails in Ireland, and in some parts of Scotland."

How the Queen could make such a declaration in the face of the civilized world, when it is a well known fact that the same people who are living upon potatoes—nay even dying by thousands for want of the necessaries of life, are exporting annually several thousand tons of pork, grain, poultry, eggs, butter, cheese, and many other articles of food which their insufficient remuneration for labor will not allow them to touch—I say, how she could come before Parliament and make this statement, I cannot imagine.

Innumerable facts might be quoted in favor of the principles which I have endeavored here to inculcate; but I leave what has been said to the reflection of the candid reader.[1]

  1. A recent number of the London "Times" Newspaper, contains the following paragraph.

    "Poor Ireland exports more food than any other country in the whole world—not merely more in proportion to its people, or its area, but absolutely more. Its exports of food are greater than those of the United States, or of Russia, vast and inexhaustible as we are apt to think the resources of those countries are. Such a fact as this is very compatible with a people being poor; but it at least shows that one ought to inquire what sort of a poverty it is. Stand on the quays of Ireland, and see the full freighted vessels leaving her noble rivers and coves. You will there see, that, so far from Ireland being utterly, radically and incurably poor, barren and unprofitable, she is one of the great feeders of England; nay, its chief purveyor. Ireland does this out of her poverty, besides feeding, after a manner, an immense population. It is this that adds so painful an interest to her miserable state; that she should 'make many rich,' and yet remain herself so poor, and be the author of an abundance which she is not permitted herself to enjoy. Great Britian not only draws nothing from the Irish treasury, but gives Ireland the gratuitous benefit of her own enormous revenue. The whole of the Irish revenue, including every sixpence obtained for customs, excise, stamps and postage—from tea, sugar, coffee, tobacco, spirits, and from every other article imported, as manufactured in the island, is spent in Ireland itself. Not one sixpence is remitted to the British exchequer. In point of fact, the current had already set in from the British to the Irish treasury. Ireland, then, is, at the same time, rich and poor. It produces a vast superabundance of food, but that food is drained from its shores, it is not, however, drained by the state. It is drained in a great measure, by the landlords and their creditors, who, the more they can get, the more they will drain."

    This at least shows, that the famine in Ireland is not the result of the Providence of God; but the mismanagement of the rulers of the land.