Front Page Titles (by Subject) Chapter III.: TEA AND TALK. - Illustrations of Political Economy, vol. 3
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Chapter III.: TEA AND TALK. - Harriet Martineau, Illustrations of Political Economy, vol. 3 
Illustrations of Political Economy (3rd ed) in 9 vols. (London: Charles Fox, 1832). Vol. 3.
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The text is in the public domain.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
TEA AND TALK.
Mr. Burke came in earlier than usual this evening, the first time since his sister's return that he could enjoy her society in peace. When he arrived wet and chilly from a stormy ride, and found a little fire, just enough for a rainy summer's evening, burning brightly in the grate, the tea apparatus prepared, his slippers set ready, his study gown awaiting him, and a pile of new medical books laid within reach, as if to offer him the choice of reading or conversation, he wished within himself that Louisa would leave home no more till he was married, if that time should ever come. This wish was pardonable; for he was, to use his own expression, so accustomed to be spoiled by his sister that he scarcely knew what comfort was while she was away.
“Any notes or messages for me, Louisa?” he inquired, before resigning himself to his domestic luxuries.
“Alas, yes!” she replied, handing him two or three from their appointed receptacle.
“These will all do to-morrow,” he cried; “so make tea while I change my coat.” A direction which was gladly obeyed. On his return he flung the books on a distant table, stretched himself out with feet on fender, coaxed his dog with one hand, and stirred his steaming cup with the other.
“I wish I were a clergyman,” were his first words.
“To have parsonage comforts without getting wet through in earning them, I suppose,” said Louisa, laughing.
“You are far from the mark, Louisa.”
Louisa made many guesses, all wrong, about capricious patients, provoking consulting physicians, unpaid bills, jealous competitors, and other causes of annoyance.
“No, no, dear. It is a deeper matter than any of these. The greatest question now moving in the world is, ‘What is charity?’”
“Alas, yes! And who can answer it? Johnson gave a deficient answer, and Paley a wrong one; and who can wonder that multitudes make mistakes after them?”
“A clergyman, Louisa, a wise clergyman who discerns times and seasons, may set many right; and God knows how many need it! tie will not follow up a text from Paul with a definition from Johnson and an exhortation from Paley. He will not suppose because charity once meant alms-giving that it means it still; or that a kind-hearted man must be right in thinking kindness of heart all-sufficient, whether its manifestation be injurious or beneficial. He will not recommend keeping the heart soft by giving green gooseberries to a griped child,—as he might fairly do if he carried out Paley's principle to its extent.”
“A professional illustration,” replied Louisa. “You want me to carry it on unto the better charity of giving the child bitter medicine. But, brother, let the clergyman preach as wisely and benignantly as he may, why should you envy him? Cannot you, do not you, preach as eloquently by example?”
“That is the very thing,” replied her brother. “I am afraid my example preaches against my principles.—O, dear, if it was but as easy to know how to do right as to do it!”
“What can have wounded your conscience to-day?” replied Louisa. “You are generally as ready in applying principles as decided in acting upon them. What can have placed you in a new position since morning?”
“Nothing: but my eyes are more opened to that in which I already stood; and really, Louisa, it is a very questionable one. I will tell you.—I am a medical officer of various charities which would be good if benevolent intention and careful management could make them so, but of the tendency of which I think very ill. The question is whether I am not doing more harm than good by officiating at the Dispensary and Lying-in Hospital, while it is clear to me that the absence of these charities would be an absence of evil to society?”
“You must remember, brother, that your secession would have no other effect than to put another medical officer in your place. I am afraid you are not yet of consequence enough,” laughing, “to show that these institutions must stand or fall with you.”
“That argument of yours, Louisa, has done long and good service to many a bad cause. I can allow it no more weight with me than with a discontented Catholic in good old Luther's days. No; my plea to my own doubts has hitherto been that my office gave me the opportunity of promoting my own views both among the benefactors and the poor; but I begin to think I may do so much more effectually by resigning my office in those charities which I consider to be doing harm, openly stating my reasons, of course.”
“Have you long meditated this, brother?”
“Yes, for several months; but a particular circumstance has roused my attention to-day. These anniversary times always disgust me,— these stated periods for lauding the benevolent and exhibiting the benefited. I am sure the annual dinner would be better attended by the subscribers to the Dispensary, for instance, if the custom of parading round the room as many of the patients as could be got hold of were discontinued. But it is the matter of fact of the Report, and the way in which it is viewed by the patrons, that has startled me to-day. I was referred to, as usual, by the secretary and one or two more for information respecting certain classes of patients, and I was shown the Report which is to be read after dinner to-morrow. You will scarcely guess what is the principal topic of congratulation in it.”
“That Lord B———takes the chair to-morrow, perhaps? Now, do not look angry, but let me guess again. That the subscriptions have increased?”
“Aim in an opposite direction, and you will hit it.”
“That the funds are insufficient? Can this be it?”
“Just so. The number of patients has increased so much, that a further appeal is made to the public in behalf of this admirable charity, which has this year relieved just double the number it relieved ten years ago.”
“I thought,” said Louisa, “that its primary recommendation, ten years ago, was that it was to lessen the amount of sickness among the poor.”
“True,” replied her brother; “and upon this understanding many subscribed who are now rejoicing over the numbers of the sick. If the plague were to visit us, they might see the matter in its right light. They would scarcely rejoice that five hundred more were brought to the pest-house daily.”
“But how comes the increase?” inquired Louisa. “I understand it in the case of the Lying-in Charity, which seems to me the worst in existence, except perhaps foundling hospitals; but this is different———”
“From all other institutions, it is to be hoped,” interrupted her brother. “It is dreadful to see the numbers of poor women disappointed of a reception at the last moment, and totally unprovided. The more are admitted, the more are thus disappointed; and those who are relieved quit the hospital in a miserable state of destitution.”
“Probably, brother. What else could be expected under so direct a bounty on improvidence—under so high a premium on population? But how do you imagine the number of sick increases so fast? Are your Dispensary patients in due proportion to the general increase of numbers in the place?”
“Alas, no! They are much more numerous. Not only do numbers increase very rapidly; but from their increasing beyond the means of comfortable subsistence, the people are subject to a multitude of diseases arising from hardship alone. It would make your heart ache if I were to tell you how large a proportion of my Dispensary patients are children born puny from the destitution of their parents, or weakly boys and girls, stunted by bad nursing, or women who want rest and warmth more than medicine, or men whom I can never cure until they are provided with better food.”
“How you must wish sometimes that your surgery was stocked with coals and butcher's meat!”
“If it were, Louisa, the evil would only be increased, provided this sort of medicine were given gratis, like my drugs. There is harm enough done by the poor taking for granted that they are to be supplied with medicine and advice gratis all their lives: the evil is increasing every day by their looking on assistance in child-birth as their due; and if they learn to expect food and warmth in like manner, their misery will be complete.”
“But what can we do, brother? Distress exists: no immediate remedy is in the hands of the poor themselves. What can be done?”
“These are difficulties, Louisa, which dog the heels of all bad institution.— We must do this. We must make the best of a vast amount of present misery, thankful that we see at length the error of having caused it. We must steadily refuse to increase it, and employ all the energies of thinking heads and benevolent hearts in preventing its recurrence, and shortening to the utmost its duration. Here is ample scope for all the tenderness of sensibility which moralists would encourage, and for all the wisdom which can alone convert that tenderness into true charity.”
“What should be our first step, brother?”
“To ascertain clearly the problem which we are to solve. The grand question seems to me to be this—How to reduce the number of the indigent? which includes, of course, the question, How to prevent the poor becoming indigent?”
“If this had been the problem originally proposed, brother, there would have been little indigence now: but formerly people looked no further than the immediate relief of distress, and thought the reality of the misery a sufficient warrant for alms-giving.”
“And what is the consequence, Louisa? Just this: that the funds raised for the relief of pauperism in this country exceed threefold the total revenues of Sweden and Denmark. Aye; our charitable fund exceeds the whole revenue of Spain; and yet distress is more prevalent than ever, and goes on to increase every year. The failure of British benevolence, vast as it is in amount, has hitherto been complete; and all for want of right direction,”
“Well, brother, how would you direct it? How would you set about lessening the number of the indigent?”
“I would aim at two objects: increasing the fund on which labourers subsist, and proportioning their numbers to this fund.—For the first of these purposes, not only should the usual means of increasing capital be actively plied, but the immense amount which is now unproductively consumed by the indigent should be applied to purposes of production. This cannot be done suddenly; but it should be done intrepidly, steadily, and at a gradually increasing rate. This would have the effect, at the same time, of fulfilling tile other important object,—that of limiting the number of consumers to a due proportion to the fund on which they subsist.”
“You would gradually abolish all charitable institutions then ——O no! not all. There are some that neither lessen capital nor increase population. You would let such remain.”
“There are some which I would extend as vigorously and perseveringly as possible; viz. all which have the enlightenment of the people for their object. Schools should be multiplied and improved without any other limit than the number and capabilities of the people.”
“What! all schools? Schools where maintenance is given as well as education?”
“The maintenance part of the plan should be dropped, and the instruction remain.”
“But, brother, if one great evil of gratuitous assistance is that the poor become dependent upon a false support, does not this apply in the case of a gratuitous education?”
“The time will come, I trust, Louisa, when the poorer classes will provide wholly for themselves and their families; but at present we must be content with making them provide what is essential to existence. To enable them to do this, they must be educated; and as education is not essential to existence, we may fairly offer it gratis till they have learned to consider it indispensable. Even now, I would have all those pay something for the education of their children who can; but let all be educated, whether they pay or not.”
“The blind, and the deaf and dumb, I suppose, among others?”
“Yes; and in these cases I would allow of maintenance also, since the unproductive consumption of capital in these cases is so small as to be imperceptible, and such relief does not act as a premium upon population. A man will scarcely be in any degree induced to marry by the prospect of his blind or deaf children being taken off his hands, as the chances are ten thousand to one against any of his offspring being thus infirm. Such relief should be given till there are none to claim it.”
“I heard the other day, brother, of a marriage taking place between a blind man and woman in the asylum at X———.”
“Indeed! If anything could make me put these institutions on my proscribed list, it would be such a fact as that. The man could play the organ, and the woman knit, and make sash-line, I suppose?”
“Just so; and they could each do several other things, but, of course, not those common offices which are essential to the rearing of a family. It struck me immediately as a crime against society. Well—what other charities should stand?”
“Whatever else I resign, Louisa, I shall retain my office at the Casualty Hospital. I hope this kind of relief will be dispensed with in a future age; but the people are not yet in a condition to provide against the fractures, wounds and bruises which befall them in following their occupations. This institution may rank with Blind Asylums.”
“And what do you think of alms-houses for the aged?”
“That they are very bad things. Only consider the numbers of young people that marry under the expectation of getting their helpless parents maintained by the public! There are cases of peculiar hardship, through deprivation of natural protection, where the aged should be taken care of by the public. But the instances are very rare where old people have no relations; and it should he as universal a rule that working men should support their parents, as that they should support their children. If this rule were allowed, we might see some revival of that genial spirit of charity and social duty among the poor, whose extinction we are apt to mourn, without reflecting that we ourselves have caused it by the injudicious direction of our own benevolence.—This reminds me of the Bridgemans. Mark how those poor children are disposed of. Two are taken care of by distant relations who have never in their lives accepted charity, except the schooling of their children. A nearer relation, who has, to my knowledge, uselessly consumed many a pound of the charitable fund, sends the other two to the workhouse.”
“A case very appropriate to what you have been saying, brother. But how is poor Sally? Can nothing save her sight?”
“Nothing, I fear. I have already spoken of her case to several governors of the Blind Asylum, where I hope she may be received on the first vacancy. The Marshalls are too sensible, I am sure, not to see the advantage of getting her placed there; and it may be the means of releasing one of the others from the workhouse.”
Louisa now related her morning's adventures. Her brother smiled as he warned her that she would, no doubt, be pronounced an eccentric young woman by Mr. Nugent, and declared that he thought her in the way to be admirably disciplined. between the railings of Mrs. Wilkes, the rude wonder of the paupers, and the more refined speculations of those who had different notions of charity from herself.
Louisa considered that an important constituent of charity was its capability of “bearing all things.” She blushed while she described to her best friend the little trials she was exposed to in her attempts to do good. Abuse from beggars she little regarded, as it was the portion of all who passed along the streets of this ill-regulated city without giving alms; much harder things to bear were the astonishment of her fellow-members of the school committee at her refusing to sanction large gifts of clothing to the children; the glances of the visitors of the soup and blanket charities, when she declined subscribing and yielding her services; and, above all, the observations of relatives whom she respected, and old friends whom she loved, on the hardness of heart and laxity of principle shown by those who thought and acted as she did.
“Laxity of principle!” exclaimed her brother. “That is a singular charge to bring in such a case;—as if less vigour of principle was required to reflect on the wisest, and to adopt unusual, methods of doing good than to let kindly emotions run in the ruts of ancient institutions! I should say that the vigour of principle is on your side.”
“Better make no decision about it, brother. It is not the province of charity to meddle with motives, whatever its real province may be.— But about your medical offices;—it seems to me that you must resign them, thinking as you do.”
“And then what a hard-hearted, brutal fellow I shall be thought,” said her brother, smiling.
“No, no: only an oddity. But the speculations upon you may prove good for the cause of charity.”
“It shall be done, Louisa; and that as soon as we have determined on the best manner. I shall give up the Dispensary and the Lying-in Charity, and keep the Casualty Hospital. As for the Workhouse Infirmary———”
“Aye; I was wondering what you would say to that.”
“I like it no better, but considerably worse, than many others; but it stands on a different footing, inasmuch as it is established by law; and it seems to me that I must follow other methods of abolition than that of withdrawing my services. There is no place of appeal for such an act, as there is in the case of a voluntary charity.”
“There is little enough that is voluntary in this case, to be sure, brother. Such complaints about the rate from the payers! Such an assertion on the part of the poor of their right to a maintenance by the state! Whence arises this right?”
“I do not admit it,” replied her brother. “Those who do admit it, differ respecting its origin. Some assert the right of every individual born into any community to a maintenance from the state; regarding the state and its members as holding the relation of parent and children. This seems to me altogether a fallacy;—originating in benevolent feelings, no doubt, but supported only by a false analogy. The state cannot control the number of its members, nor increase, at its will, the subsistence-fund; and, therefore, if it engaged to support all the members that might be born to it, it would engage for more than it might have the power to perform. —Others, who admit this in the abstract, plead for the right of the indigent of Great Britain to a maintenance from the state, on the ground of the disabilities to which the poor are peculiarly liable in this country, from the aristocratic nature of some of our institutions, the oppressive amount of taxation, and its pressure upon the lower classes. I admit a claim to relief here; but the relief should not be given, even could it be effectual, in the shape of an arbitrary institution like that of our pauper system. The only appropriate relief is to be found in the removal of the grievances complained of; in the modification of certain of our institutions; in the lightening, and, yet more, in the equalization of taxation.—Mark what a state we have arrived at from our mistaken recognition of this right to support! Though the subsistence-fund has increased at a rapid rate within a hundred years, through the improvements introduced by art and civilization, the poor-rate has, in that time, increased from five or six hundred thousand pounds a year to upwards of eight millions!”
“Some say,” observed his sister, “that it is not the recognition of the right which has caused the mischief, but the imperfect fulfilment of the original law. You know better than I whether this is true.”
“It is clear,” replied her brother, “that neither the letter nor the spirit of the original law was adhered to; but it is also clear that, in that law, the state promised more than it could perform. Did you ever read the famous clause of the famous 43d of Elizabeth? No? There lies Blackstone. I will show it you.”
“But first tell me what state the poor were in when that act was passed.”
“For the credit of Elizabeth's government, it is certainly necessary to premise what you inquire about.—From the year 597, that is, from Pope Gregory's time, tithes paid to the clergy were expressly directed to be divided into four parts, as Blackstone here tells us, you see; one part for the bishops, one for the clergyman, incumbent, or parson; one for repairing and keeping up tile church; and one for the maintenance of the poor.”
“But do the clergy pay a fourth part of their tithes to the poor?”
“O no,” replied her brother, laughing. “That troublesome order was got rid of many hundred years ago; and so was the clause respecting the share of the bishops; so that tithes became, in a short time, a very pretty consideration. Well; though some notice of the poor was occasionally taken by the legislature, no complaints of their state made much noise till Henry VIII. suppressed the monasteries. These monasteries had supported crowds of idle poor, who were now turned loose upon the country; and with them a multitude of vagabond monks, who were a nuisance to the whole kingdom. It became necessary to stop the roaming, begging, and thieving, which went on to the dismay and injury of all honest people; and for this purpose, the famous act of Elizabeth was framed. This statute enacts, ‘That the churchwardens and overseers shall take order, from time to time, (with the consent of two or more justices,) for setting to work the children of all such whose parents shall not be thought able to keep and maintain their children; and also for setting to work all such persons, married or unmarried, having no means to maintain them, and using no ordinary or daily trade to get their living by; and also to raise, by taxation, &c., a convenient stock of flax, to set the poor on work; and also competent sums of money for and towards the necessary relief of the lame, impotent, old, blind, and such other among them, being poor and not able to work.’ You see how this is aimed at vagabonds as well as designed for the impotent. Many a monkish bosom, no doubt, heaved a sigh at the mention of ‘a convenient stock of flax.’”
“Surely, brother,” said Louisa, “the state promises by this act just what you said no state could fairly promise, without having the control of its numbers; it promises to support all its indigent members.”
“It does; and it promises another thing equally impossible of fulfilment. Here is an engagement to find employment for all who would not or could not procure it for themselves. Now, as the employment of labour must depend on the amount of the subsistence-fund, no law on earth can enforce the employment of more labour than that fund can support.”
“Then this promise has not been fulfilled, I suppose?”
“Many attempts have been made to fulfil it, all of which have had the effect of diverting industry from its natural channel, and taking the occupation of the independent labourer out of his hands to put it into that of the pauper. This is so ruinous an operation, that the wonder is how the pauper system has failed to swallow up all our resources, and make us a nation of paupers.”
“In which case,” observed Louisa, “the state would be found to have engaged to maintain itself in a pauper condition. What a blunder! Twenty-four millions of paupers are bound by law to maintain twenty-four millions of paupers!”
“This is the condition we shall infallibly be brought to, Louisa, unless we take speedy means to stop ourselves. We are rolling, down faster and faster towards the gulf, and two of our three estates, Lords and Commons, have declared that we shall soon be in it;—that in a few more years the profits of all kind of property will be absorbed by the increasing rates, and capital will therefore cease to be invested; land will be let out of cultivation, manufactures will be discontinued, commerce will cease, and the nation become a vast congregation of paupers.”
“Dreadful! brother. How can we all go quietly about our daily business with such a prospect before us?”
“A large proportion of the nation knows little about the matter: some hope that fate, or Providence, or something will interfere to save us; others think that it is no business of theirs; and those whose business it is are at a loss what to do.”
“But how long has there been so much cause for alarm?”
“Only within a few years. Thanks to the ungracious mode of executing the law, it effected less mischief during a century and a half than might have been anticipated. When persons could be relieved only in their own parishes, and when that relief was given in a manner which exposed the applicant to a feeling of degradation among his neighbours, few asked relief who could by any means subsist without it. Workhouses, too, were regarded as odious places, and to the workhouse paupers must go, in those days, if out of employ; and all who had any sense of comfort or decency delayed to the very last moment classing themselves with paupers. So that, up to 1795, the state was less burdened with pauperism than, from the bad system it had adopted, it deserved.”
“What makes you fix that precise date?”
“Because in that year a change took place in the administration of the poor-laws, which has altered the state of the country disastrously. There was a scarcity that season, and consequently much difficulty with our paupers, among whom now appeared not only the helpless, but able-bodied, industrious men, who could no longer maintain their families. It was most unfortunately agreed by the county magistrates, first of Berkshire, and afterwards of other parts of the middle and south of England, that such and such ought to be and should henceforth be the weekly income of the labouring poor; and a table was published exhibiting the proportions of this income according to the size of families and the price of bread.”
“But how could that mend the matter?” exclaimed Louisa. “These magistrates and the public could not increase the quantity of bread, and where was the use then of giving money? It was merely taking bread from those who had earned it, to give it to those who had not.”
“Just so; but these magistrates did not happen to view the matter as you do; and we have great cause to rue their short-sightedness.— Mark how the system has worked!—All labourers are given to understand that they ought to have a gallon loaf of wheaten bread weekly for each member of their families, and one over; that is, three loaves for two people, and eleven for ten. John comes and says that his wife and four children and himself must have seven loaves, costing twelve shillings; but that he can earn only nine shillings. As a matter of course, three shillings are given him from the parish.—Next comes Will. He has a wife and six children, and must have nine loaves, or fourteen shillings and eightpence. He earns ten shillings, and receives the rest from the parish. Hal is a vagabond whom no capitalist will admit within his gates. Work is out of the question; but his family must be fed, and want eight loaves: so the parish pays him thirteen shillings and eight-pence.”
“So that in fact,” observed Louisa, “eleven loaves are earned by these three families, and the twelve still deficient are taken from other earners. How very unjust! How very ruinous! But does this kind of management still go on?”
“Universally in the agricultural counties, with such slight variations as are introduced by local circumstances.—Great allowance must be made for the pressure of difficulties at the time when this system was adopted; but the system itself is execrable, however well-meaning its authors. The industry of the lower classes has been half ruined by it, and their sense of independence almost annihilated. The public burdens have become well nigh overwhelming; and the proportion of supply and demand in all the departments of industry is so deranged that there is no saying when it can be rectified.”
“It is rather hard upon the poor,” observed Louisa, “that we should complain of their improvidence when we bribe them to it by promising subsistence at all events. Paupers will spend and marry faster than their betters as long as this system lasts.”
“It makes one indignant to see it,” replied her brother. “I am now attending an industrious young man, a shopkeeper, who has been attached for years, but will not marry till his circumstances justify it. He has paid more to the rates every year; and half a dozen vagabond paupers have married in his parish during the time that he has been waiting.”
“All these things, brother, bring us round to the question, what are we to do?”
“You must enlighten the children in your school, and all the poor you have any influence over, Louisa. As for me,—it is unnecessary to open my lips upon it to my country patients, for I seldom enter a farmhouse without hearing complaints of the system. But our towns are too quiet about the matter. General, calm, enlightened deliberation is required, and that without loss of time.—I am prepared with testimony respecting the increase of sickness and mortality which accompanies the augmentation of the poor-rate. Most happy should I be to have the opportunity of delivering it.”
“Our wise men,” said Louisa, “must start afresh the old question, and the nation must gather round them to be taught anew, ‘What is Charity?’”