Front Page Titles (by Subject) SKETCH X: Public Police with respect to the Poor - Sketches of the History of Man, vol. 2
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SKETCH X: Public Police with respect to the Poor - Henry Home, Lord Kames, Sketches of the History of Man, vol. 2 
Sketches of the History of Man Considerably enlarged by the last additions and corrections of the author, edited and with an Introduction by James A. Harris (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2007). 3 Vols. Vol. 2.
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Public Police with respect to the Poor
Among the industrious nations of Europe, regulations for the poor make a considerable branch of public police. These regulations are so multiplied and so anxiously framed, as to move one to think, that there cannot remain a single person under a necessity to beg. It is however a sad truth, that the disease of poverty, instead of being eradicated, has become more and more inveterate. England in particular overflows with beggars, tho’ in no other country are the indigent so amply provided for. Some radical defect there must be in these regulations, when, after endless attempts to perfect them, they prove abortive. Every writer, dissatisfied with former plans, fails not to produce one of his own; which, in its turn, meets with as little approbation as any of the foregoing.
The first regulation of the states of Hol-land concerning the poor, was in the year 1614 prohibiting all begging. The next was in the year 1649. “It is enacted, That every town, village, or parish, shall maintain its poor out of the income of its charitable foundations and collections. And in case these means fall short, the magistrates shall maintain them at the general expence of the inhabitants, as can most conveniently be done: Provided always, that the poor be obliged to work either to merchants, farmers, or others, for reasonable wages, in order that they may, as far as possible, be supported that way; provided also, that they be indulged in no idleness nor insolence.” The advice or instruction here given to magistrates, is sensible; but falls short of what may be termed a law, the execution of which can be enforc’d in a court of justice.
In France, the precarious charity of monasteries proving ineffectual, a hospital was erected in the city of Paris anno 1656, having different apartments; one for the innocent poor, one for putting vagabonds to hard labour, one for foundlings, and one for the sick and maimed; with cer-tain funds for defraying the expence of each, which produce annually much about the same sum. In imitation of Paris, hospitals of the same kind were erected in every great town of the kingdom.
The English began more early to think of their poor; and in a country without industry, the necessity probably arose more early. The first English statute bears date in the year 1496, directing, “That every beggar unable to work, shall resort to the hundred where he last dwelt or was born; and there shall remain, upon pain of being set in the stocks three days and three nights, with only bread and water, and then shall be put out of town.” This was a law against vagrants, for the sake of order. There was little occasion, at that period, to provide for the innocent poor; their maintenance being a burden upon monasteries. But monasteries being put down by Henry VIII. a statute, 22d year of his reign, cap. 12. empowered the justices of every county, to license poor aged and impotent persons to beg within a certain district; those who beg without it, to be whipt, or set in the stocks. In the first year of Edward VI. cap. 3. a statute was made in favour of impotent, maimed, and aged persons, that they shall have convenient houses provided for them, in the cities or towns where they were born, or where they resided for three years, to be relieved by the willing and charitable disposition of the parishioners. By 2d and 3d Philip and Mary, cap. 5. the former statutes of Henry VIII. and Edward VI. were confirmed, of gathering weekly relief for the poor by charitable collections. “A man licensed to beg, shall wear a badge on his breast and back openly.”
The first compulsory statute was 5° Elisab. cap. 3. empowering justices of peace to raise a weekly sum for the poor, by taxing such persons as obstinately refuse to contribute, after repeated admonitions from the pulpit. In the next statute, 14° Elisab. cap. 5. a bolder step was made, empowering justices to tax the inhabitants of every parish, in a weekly sum for their poor. And taxations for the poor being now in some degree familiar, the remarkable statutes, 39° Elisab. cap. 3. and 43° Elisab. cap. 2. were enacted, which are the ground-work of all the subsequent statutes concerning the poor. By these statutes, certain householders, named by the justices, are, in conjunction with the church-wardens, appointed overseers for the poor; and these overseers, with consent of two justices, are empowered to tax the parish in what sums they think proper, for maintaining the poor.
Among a people so tenacious of liberty as the English are, and so impatient of oppression, is it not surprising, to find a law, that without ceremony subjects individuals to be taxed at the arbitrary will of men, who seldom either by birth or education deserve that important trust; and without even providing any effectual check against embezzlement? At present, a British parliament would reject with scorn such an absurd plan; and yet, being familiarized to it, they never seriously have attempted a repeal. We have been always on the watch to prevent the sovereign’s encroachments, especially with regard to taxes: but as parish-officers are low persons who inspire no dread, we submit to have our pockets pick’d by them, almost without repining. There is provided, it is true, an appeal to the general sessions for redressing inequalities in taxing the parishioners. But it is no effectual remedy: artful overseers will not over-rate any man so grossly as to make it his interest to complain, considering that these overseers have the poor’s money to defend themselves with. Nor will the general sessions readily listen to a complaint, that cannot be verified but with much time and trouble. If the appeal have any effect, it makes a still greater inequality, by relieving men of figure at the expence of their inferiors; who must submit, having little interest to obtain redress.
The English plan, beside being oppressive, is grossly unjust. If it should be reported of some distant nation, that the burden of maintaining the idle and profligate, is laid upon the frugal and industrious, who work hard for a maintenance to themselves; what would one think of such a nation? Yet this is literally the case of England. I say more: the plan is not only oppressive and unjust, but miserably defective in the checking of maladministration. In fact, great sums are levied beyond what the poor receive: it requires briguing to be named a church-warden; the nomination, in London especially, gives him credit at once; and however meagre at the commencement of his office, he is round and plump before it ends. To wax fat and rich by robbing the poor! Let us turn our eyes from a scene so horrid.*
Inequality in taxing, and embezzlement of the money levied, which are notorious, poison the minds of the people; and impress them with a notion, that all taxes raised by public authority are ill managed.
These evils are great, and yet are but slight compared with what follow. As the number of poor in England, as well as the expence of maintenance, are increasing daily; proprietors of land, in order to be relieved of a burden so grievous, drive the poor out of the parish, and prevent all persons from settling in it who are likely to become a burden: cottages are demolished, and marriage obstructed. Influenced by the present evil, they look not forward to depopulation, nor to the downfall of husbandry and manufactures by scarcity of hands. Every parish is in a state of war with every other parish, concerning pauper settlements and removals.*
At an average, England by its various products can maintain more than its present inhabitants. How comes it then that it is not more populous, according to the noted observation that where-ever there is food men will be found? I can discover no cause but the poor’s rates, which make the people thoughtless and idle. Idleness begets profligacy; and the profligate avoid loading themselves with wives and children.1
The price of labour is generally the same in the different shires of Scotland, and in the different parishes. A few exceptions are occasioned by the neighbourhood of a great town, or by some extensive manufacture that requires many hands. In Scotland, the price of labour resembles water, which always levels itself: if high in any one corner, an influx of hands brings it down. The price of labour varies in every parish of England: a labourer who has gain’d a settlement in a parish, on which he depends for bread when he inclines to be idle, dares not remove to another parish where wages are higher, fearing to be cut out of a settlement altogether. England is in the same condition with respect to labour, that France lately was with respect to corn; which, however plentiful in one province, could not be exported to supply the wants of another. The pernicious effects of the latter with respect to food, are not more obvious, than of the former with respect to manufactures.
English manufactures labour under a still greater hardship than inequality of wages. In a country where there is no fund for the poor but what nature provides, the labourer must be satisfied with such wages as are customary: he has no resource; for pity is not moved by idleness. In England, the labourers command the market: if not satisfied with customary wages, they have a tempting resource; which is, to abandon work altogether, and to put themselves on the parish. Labour is much cheaper in France than in England: several plausible reasons have been assigned; but in my judgement, the difference arises from the poor-laws. In England, every man is entitled to be idle; because every idler is entitled to a maintenance. In France, the funds allotted for the poor, yield the same sum annually: that sum is always preoccupied; and France, with respect to all but those on the list, is a nation that has no fund provided by law for the poor.
Depopulation, inequality in the price of labour, and extravagant wages, are deplorable evils. But the English poor laws are productive of evils still more deplorable: they are subversive both of morality and industry. This is a heavy charge, but no less true than heavy. Fear of want is the only effectual motive to industry with the labouring poor: remove that fear, and they cease to be industrious. The ruling passion of those who live by bodily labour, is to save a pittance for their children, and for supporting themselves in old age: stimulated by desire of accomplishing these ends, they are frugal and industrious; and the prospect of success is to them a continual feast. Now, what worse can malice invent against such a man, under colour of friendship, than to secure bread to him and his children whenever he takes a dislike to work; which effectually deadens his sole ambition, and with it his honest industry? Relying on the certainty of a provision against want, he relaxes gradually till he sinks into idleness: idleness leads to profligacy: profligacy begets diseases: and the wretch becomes an object of public charity before he has run half his course. Such are the genuine effects of the English tax for the poor, under a mistaken notion of charity. There never was known in any country, a scheme for the poor more contradictory to sound policy. Might it not have been foreseen, that to a groveling creature, who has no sense of honour and scarce any of shame, the certainty of maintenance would prove an irresistible temptation to idleness and debauchery? The poor-house at Lyons contained originally but forty beds, of which twenty only were occupied. The eight hundred beds it contains at present, are not sufficient for those who demand admittance. A premium is not more successful in any case, than where given to promote idleness.* A house for the poor was erected in a French village, the revenue of which by economy became considerable. Upon a representation by the curate of the parish that more beds were necessary, the proprietor undertook the management. He sold the house, with the furniture; and to every proper object of charity, he ordered a moderate proportion of bread and beef. The poor and sick were more comfortably lodged at home, than formerly in the poor-house. And by that management, the parish-poor decreased, instead of increasing as at Lyons. How few English manufacturers labour the whole week, if the work of four or five days afford them maintenance? Is not this a demonstration, that the malady of idleness is widely spread? In Bristol, the parish-poor twenty years ago did not exceed four thousand: at present, they amount to more than ten thousand. But as a malady, when left to itself, commonly effectuates its own cure; so it will be in this case: when, by prevailing idleness, every one without shame claims parish-charity, the burden will become intolerable, and the poor will be left to their shifts.
The immoral effects of public charity are not confined to those who depend on it, but extend to their children. The constant anxiety of a labouring man to provide for his issue, endears them to him. Being relieved of that anxiety by the tax for the poor, his affection cools gradually, and he turns at last indifferent about them. Their independence, on the other hand, weans them from their duty to him. And thus, affection between parent and child, which is the corner-stone of society, is in a great measure obliterated among the labouring poor. In a plan published by the Earl of Hilsborough, an article is proposed to oblige parents to maintain their indigent children, and children to maintain their indigent parents. Natural affection must be at a low ebb, where such a regulation is necessary: but it is necessary, at least in London, where it is common to see men in good business neglecting their aged and diseased parents, for no better reason than that the parish is bound to find them bread: Proh tempora, proh mores!
The immoral effects of public charity spread still wider. It fails not to extinguish the virtue of charity among the rich; who never think of giving charity, when the public undertakes for all. In a scheme published by Mr. Hay, one article is, to raise a stock for the poor by volun-tary contributions, and to make up the deficiency by a parish-tax. Will individuals ever contribute, when it is not to relieve the poor, but to relieve the parish? Every hospital has a poor-box, which seldom produces any thing.* The great comfort of society is assistance in time of need; and its firmest cement is, the bestowing and receiving kindly offices, especially in distress. Now to unhinge or suspend the exercise of charity by rendering it unnecessary, relaxes every social virtue by supplanting the chief of them. The consequence is dismal: exercise of benevolence to the distressed is our firmest guard against the encroachments of selfishness: if that guard be withdrawn, selfishness will prevail, and become the ruling passion. In fact, the tax for the poor has contributed greatly to the growth of that groveling passion, so conspicuous at present in England.
English authors who turn their thoughts to the poor, make heavy complaints of decaying charity, and increasing poverty: never once dreaming, that these are the genuine effects of a legal provision for the poor; which on the one hand eradicates the virtue of charity, and on the other is a violent temptation to idleness. Wonderfully ill contrived must the English charity-laws be, when their consequences are to sap the foundation of voluntary charity; to deprive the labouring poor of their chief comfort, that of providing for themselves and children; to relax mutual affection between parent and child; and to reward, instead of punishing, idleness and vice. Consider whether a legal provision for the poor, be sufficient to atone for so many evils.
No man had better opportunity than Fielding to be acquainted with the state of the poor: let us listen to him.
That the poor are a very great burden, and even a nuisance to the kingdom; that the laws for relieving their distresses and restraining their vices, have not answered; and that they are at present very ill provided for and much worse governed, are truths which every one will acknowledge. Every person who hath property, must feel the weight of the tax that is levied for the poor; and every person of understanding, must see how absurdly it is applied. So useless indeed is this heavy tax, and so wretched its disposition, that it is a question, whether the poor or rich are actually more dissatisfied; since the plunder of the one serves so little to the real advantage of the other; for while a million yearly is raised among the rich, many of the poor are starved; many more languish in want and misery; of the rest, numbers are found begging or pilfering in the streets to-day, and tomorrow are locked up in gaols and Bridewells. If we were to make a progress through the outskirts of the metropolis and look into the habitations of the poor, we should there behold such pictures of human misery, as must move the compassion of every heart that deserves the name of human. What indeed must be his composition, who could see whole families in want of every necessary of life, oppressed with hunger, cold, nakedness, and filth; and with diseases, the certain consequence of all these! The sufferings indeed of the poor are less known than their misdeeds; and therefore we are less apt to pity them. They starve, and freeze, and rot, among themselves; but they beg, and steal, and rob, among their betters. There is not a parish in the liberty of Westminster, which doth not raise thousands annually for the poor; and there is not a street in that liberty, which doth not swarm all day with beggars, and all night with thieves.
There is not a single beggar to be seen in Pensylvania. Luxury and idleness have got no footing in that happy country; and those who suffer by misfortune, have maintenance out of the public treasury. But luxury and idleness cannot for ever be excluded; and when they prevail, this regulation will be as pernicious in Pensylvania, as the poor-rates are in Britain.
Of the many proposals that have been published for reforming the poor-laws, not one has pierced to the root of the evil. None of the authors entertain the slightest doubt of a legal provision being necessary, tho’ all our distresses arise evidently from that very cause. Travellers complain, of being infested with an endless number of beggars in every English town; a very different scene from what they meet with in Holland or Switzerland. How would it surprise them to be told, that this proceeds from an overflow of charity in the good people of England!
Few institutions are more ticklish than those of charity. In London, common prostitutes are treated with singular humanity: a hospital for them when pregnant, disburdens them of their load, and nurses them till they be again fit for business: another hospital cures them of the venereal disease: and a third receives them with open arms, when, instead of desire, they become objects of aversion. Would not one imagine, that these hospitals have been erected for encouraging prostitution? They undoubtedly have that effect, tho’ far from being intended. Mr. Stirling, superintendant of the Edinburgh poor-house, deserves a statue for a scheme he contrived to reform common prostitutes. A number of them were confined in a house of correction, on a daily allowance of three pence; and even part of that small pittance was embezzled by the servants of the house. Pinching hunger did not reform their manners; for being absolutely idle, they encouraged each other in vice, waiting impatiently for the hour of deliverance. Mr. Stirling, with consent of the magistrates, removed them to a clean house; and instead of money, which is apt to be squandered, appointed for each a pound of oat-meal daily, with salt, water, and fire for cooking. Relieved now from distress, they longed for comfort: what would they not give for milk or ale? Work, says he, will procure you plenty. To some who offered to spin, he gave flax and wheels, engaging to pay them half the price of their yarn, retaining the other half for the materials furnished. The spinners earned about nine pence weekly, a comfortable addition to what they had before. The rest undertook to spin, one after another; and before the end of the first quarter, they were all of them intent upon work. It was a branch of his plan, to set free such as merited that favour; and some of them appeared so thoroughly reformed, as to be in no danger of a relapse.
The ingenious author of The Police ofFrance, who wrote in the year 1753,2 observes, that notwithstanding the plentiful provision for the poor in that kingdom, mentioned above, there was a general complaint of the increase of beggars and vagrants; and adds, that the French political writers, dissatisfied with their own plan, had presented several memorials to the ministry, proposing to adopt the English parochial assessments, as greatly preferable. This is a curious fact; for at that very time, people in London, no less dissatisfied with these assessments, were writing pamphlets in praise of the French hospitals. One thing is certain, that no plan hitherto invented, has given satisfaction. Whether an unexceptionable plan is at all possible, seems extremely doubtful.
In every plan for the poor that I have seen, workhouses make one article; to provide work for those who are willing, and to make those work who are unwilling. With respect to the former, men need never be idle in England for want of employment; and they always succeed the best at the employment they chuse for themselves. With respect to the latter, punishment will not compel a man to labour: he may assume the appearance, but will make no progress; and the pretext of sickness or weakness is ever at hand for an excuse. The only compulsion to make a man work seriously, is fear of want.
A hospital for the sick, for the wounded, and for the maimed, is a right establishment; being productive of good, without doing any harm. Such a hospital should depend partly on voluntary charity; to procure which, a conviction of its being well managed, is necessary. Hospitals that have a sufficient fund of their own, and that have no dependence on the good will of others, are commonly ill managed.
Lies there any objection against a workhouse, for training to labour, destitute orphans, and begging children? It is an article in Mr. Hay’s plan, that the workhouse should relieve poor families of all their children above three. This has an enticing appearance, but is unsound at bottom. Children require the tenderness of a mother, during the period of infantine diseases; and are far from being safe in the hands of mercenaries, who study nothing but their own ease and interest. Would it not be better, to distribute small sums from time to time among poor families overburdened with children, so as to relieve them from famine, not from labour? And with respect to orphans and begging children, I incline to think, that it would be a more salutary measure, to encourage mechanicks, manufacturers, and farmers above all, to educate such children. A premium for each, the half in hand, and the other half when they can work for themselves, would be a proper encouragement. The best-regulated orphan-hospital I am acquainted with, is that of Edinburgh. Orphans are taken in from every corner, provided only they be not under the age of seven, nor above that of twelve: under seven, they are too tender for a hospital; above twelve their relations can find employment for them. Beside the being taught to read and write, they are carefully instructed in some art, that may afford them comfortable subsistence.
No man ever called in question the utility of the marine society; which will reflect honour on the members as long as we have a navy to protect us: they de-serve a rank above that of gartered knights. That institution is the most judicious exertion of charity and patriotism, that ever existed in any country.
A sort of hospital for servants who for twenty years have faithfully adhered to the same master, would be much to my taste; with a few adjoining acres for a kitchen-garden. The fund for purchasing, building, and maintenance, must be raised by contribution; and none but the contributors should be entitled to offer servants to the house. By such encouragement, a malady would be remedied, that of wandering from master to master for better wages, or easier service; which seldom fail to corrupt servants. They ought to be comfortably provided for, adding to the allowance of the house what pot-herbs are raised by their own labour. A number of virtuous men thus associated, would end their days in comfort; and the prospect of attaining a settlement so agreeable, would form excellent servants. How advantageous would such a hospital prove to husbandry in particular! But I confine this hospital to servants who are single. Men who have a family will be better provided separately.3
Of all the mischiefs that have been engendered by over-anxiety about the poor, none have proved more fatal than a foundling-hospital. They tend to cool affection for children, still more effectually than the English parish-charity. At every occasional pinch for food, away goes a child to the hospital; and parental affection among the lower sort turns so languid, that many who are in no pinch, relieve themselves of trouble by the same means. It is affirmed, that of the children born annually in Paris, about a third part are sent to the foundling-hospital. The Paris almanack for the year 1768, mentions, that there were baptised 18,576 infants, of whom the foundling-hospital received 6025. The same almanack for the year 1773 bears, that of 18,518 children born and baptised, 5989 were sent to the foundling-hospital.4 The proportion originally was much less; but vice advances with a swift pace. How enormous must be the degeneracy of the Parisian populace, and their want of parental affection!
Let us next turn to infants shut up in this hospital. Of all animals, infants of the human race are the weakest: they require a mother’s affection to guard them against numberless diseases and accidents; a wise appointment of Providence to connect parents and children in the strictest union. In a foundling-hospital, there is no fond mother to watch over her tender babe; and the hireling nurse has no fondness but for her own little profit. Need we any other cause for the destruction of infants in a foundling-hospital, much greater in proportion than of those under the care of a mother? And yet there is another cause equally potent, which is corrupted air. What Mr. Hanway observes upon parish-workhouses, is equally applicable to a foundling-hospital. “To attempt,” says he, “to nourish an infant in a workhouse, where a number of nurses are congregated into one room, and consequently the air become putrid, I will pronounce, from intimate knowledge of the subject, to be but a small remove from slaughter; for the child must die.” It is computed, that of the children in the London foundling-hospital, the half do not live a year. It appears by an account given in to parliament, that the money bestow’d on that hospital from its commencement till December 1757 amounted to L. 166,000; and yet during that period, 105 persons only were put out to do for themselves.5 Down then with foundling-hospitals, more noxious than pestilence or famine. An infant exposed at the door of a dwelling-house, must be taken up: but in that case, which seldom happens, the infant has a better chance for life with a hired nurse than in a hospital; and a chance perhaps little worse, bad as it is, than with an unnatural mother. I approve not indeed of a quarterly payment to such a nurse: would it not do better to furnish her bare maintenance for three years; and if the child be alive at the end of that time, to give her a handsome addition?
A house of correction is necessary for good order; but belongs not to the present essay, which concerns maintenance of the poor, not punishment of vagrants. I shall only by the way borrow a thought from Fielding, that fasting is the proper punishment of profligacy, not any punishment that is attended with shame. Pu-nishment, he observes, that deprives a man of all sense of honour, never will contribute to make him virtuous.
Charity-schools may have been proper, when few could read, and fewer write; but these arts are now so common, that in most families children may be taught to read at home, and to write in a private school at little expence. Charity-schools at present are more hurtful than beneficial: young persons who continue there so long as to read and write fluently, become too delicate for hard labour, and too proud for ordinary labour. Knowledge is a dangerous acquisition to the labouring poor: the more of it that is possessed by a shepherd, a ploughman, or any drudge, the less satisfaction he will have in labour. The only plausible argument for a charity-school, is, “That children of the labouring poor are taught there the principles of religion and of morality, which they cannot acquire at home.” The argument would be invincible, if without regular education we could have no knowledge of these principles. But Providence has not left man in a state so imperfect: religion and mora-lity are stamped on his heart; and none can be ignorant of them, who attend to their own perceptions. Education is indeed of use to ripen such perceptions; and it is of singular use to those who have time for reading and thinking: but education in a charity-school is so slight, as to render it doubtful, whether it be not more hurtful by fostering laziness, than advantageous by conveying instruction. The natural impressions of religion and morality, if not obscured by vitious habits, are sufficient for good conduct: preserve a man from vice by constant labour, and he will not be deficient in his duty either to God or to man. Hesiod, an ancient and respectable poet, says, that God hath placed labour as a guard to virtue. More integrity accordingly will be found among a number of industrious poor, taken at random, than among the same number in any other class.
I heartily approve every regulation that tends to prevent idleness. Chief Justice Hale says, “That prevention of poverty and idleness would do more good than all the gibbets, whipping-posts, and gaols in the kingdom.” In that view, gaming-houses ought to be heavily taxed, as well as horse-racing, cock-fighting, and all meetings that encourage idleness. The admitting low people to vote for members of parliament, is a source of idleness, corruption, and poverty. The same privilege is ruinous to every small parliament-borough. Nor have I any difficulty to pronounce, that the admitting the populace to vote in the election of a parish-minister, a frequent practice in Scotland, is productive of the same pernicious effects.
What then is to be the result of the foregoing enquiry? Is it from defect of invention that a good legal establishment for the poor is not yet discovered? or is it impracticable to make any legal establishment that is not fraught with corruption? I incline to the latter, for the following reason, no less obvious than solid, That in a legal establishment for the poor, no distinction can be made between virtue and vice; and consequently that every such establishment must be a premium for idleness. And where is the necessity, after all, of any public establishment? By what unhappy prejudice have people been led to think, that the Author of our na-ture, so beneficent to his favourite man in every other respect, has abandoned the indigent to famine and death, if municipal law interpose not? We need but inspect the human heart to be convinced, that persons in distress are his peculiar care. Not only has he made it our duty to afford them relief, but has superadded the passion of pity to enforce the performance of that duty. This branch of our nature fulfils in perfection all the salutary purposes of charity, without admitting any one of the evils that a legal provision is fraught with. The contrivance, at the same time, is extremely simple: it leaves to every man the objects as well as measure of his charity. No man esteems it a duty to relieve wretches reduced to poverty by idleness and profligacy: they move not our pity; nor do they expect any good from us. Wisely therefore is it ordered by Providence, that charity should in every respect be voluntary, to prevent the idle and profligate from depending on it for support.
This plan is in many respects excellent. The exercise of charity, when free from compulsion, is highly pleasant. There is indeed little pleasure where charity is rendered unnecessary by municipal law; but were that law laid aside, the gratification of pity would become one of our sweetest enjoyments. Charity, like other affections, is envigorated by exercise, and no less enfeebled by disuse. Providence withal hath scattered benevolence among the sons of men with a liberal hand: and notwithstanding the obstruction of municipal law, seldom is there found one so obdurate, as to resist the impulse of compassion, when a proper object is presented. In a well-regulated government, promoting industry and virtue, the persons who need charity are not many; and such persons may with assurance depend on the charity of their neighbours.*
It may at the same time be boldly affirmed, that those who need charity, would be more comfortably provided for by the plan of Providence, than by any legal establishment. Creatures loathsome by dis-ease or nastiness, affect the air in a poor-house; and have little chance for life, without more care and kindliness than can be expected from servants, rendered callous by continual scenes of misery. Consider, on the other hand, the consequences of voluntary charity, equally agreeable to the giver and receiver. The kindly connection it forms between them, grows stronger and stronger by reiteration; and squallid poverty, far from being an obstruction, excites a degree of pity, proportioned to the distress. It may happen for a wonder, that an indigent person is overlooked; but for one who will suffer by such neglect, multitudes suffer by compelled charity.
But what I insist on with peculiar satisfaction is, that natural charity is an illustrious support to virtue. Indigent virtue can never fail of relief, because it never fails to enflame compassion. Indigent vice, on the contrary, raises indignation more than pity (a) ; and therefore can have little prospect of relief. What a glorious encitement to industry and virtue, and how discouraging to idleness and vice! Will it be thought chimerical to observe further, that to leave the indigent on Providence, will tend to improve manners as well as virtue among the lower classes? No man can think himself secure against being reduced to depend on his neighbours for bread. The influence of that thought, will make every one solicitous to acquire the good will of others.6 Lamentable it is, that so beautiful a structure should be razed to the foundation by municipal law, which, in providing for the poor, makes no distinction between virtue and vice. The execution of the poor-laws would be impracticable, were such a distinction attempted by enquiring into the conduct and character of every pauper. Where are judges to be found who will patiently follow out such a dark and intricate expiscation? To accomplish the task, a man must abandon every other concern.
In the first English statutes mentioned above, the legislature appear carefully to have avoided compulsory charity: every measure for promoting voluntary charity was first try’d, before the fatal blow was struck, empowering parish-officers to im-pose a tax for the poor. The legislature certainly did not foresee the baneful consequences: but how came they not to see that they were distrusting Providence, declaring in effect, that the plan established by our Maker for the poor, is insufficient? Many are the municipal laws that enforce the laws of nature, by additional rewards and punishments; but it was singularly bold to abolish the natural law of charity, by establishing a legal tax in its stead. Men will always be mending: what a confused jumble do they make, when they attempt to mend the laws of Nature! Leave Nature to her own operations: she understands them the best.
Few regulations are more plausible than what are political; and yet few are more deceitful. A writer, blind with partiality for his country, makes the following observations upon the 43° Elisab. establishing a maintenance for the poor. “Laws have been enacted in many other countries, which have punished the idle beggar, and exhorted the rich to extend their charity to the poor: but it is peculiar to the humanity of England, to have made their support a matter of obligation and necessity on the more wealthy. The English seem to be the first nation in Europe in science, arts, and arms: they likewise are possessed of the freest and most perfect of constitutions, and the blessings consequential to that freedom. If virtues in an individual are sometimes supposed to be rewarded in this world, I do not think it too presumptuous to suppose, that national virtues may likewise meet with their reward. England hath, to its peculiar honour, not only made their poor free, but hath provided a certain and solid establishment to prevent their necessities and indigence, when they arise from what the law calls the act of God: and are not these beneficent and humane attentions to the miseries of our fellow-creatures, the first of those poor pleas which we are capable of offering, in behalf of our imperfections, to an all-wise and merciful Creator!” To this writer I oppose another, whose reflections are more sound. “In England, there is an act of the legislature, obliging every parish to maintain its own poor. Scarce any man living, who has not seen the effects of this law, but must approve of it; and yet such are its effects, that the streets of London are filled with objects of misery beyond what is seen in any other city. The labouring poor, depending on this law to be provided in sickness and old age, are little solicitous to save, and become habitually profuse. The principle of charity is established by Providence in the human heart, for relieving those who are disabled to work for themselves. And if the labouring poor had no dependence but on the principle of charity, they would be more religious; and if they were influenced by religion, they would be less abandoned in their behaviour. Thus this seeming-good act turns to a national evil: there is more distress among the poor in London than any where in Europe; and more drunkenness both in males and females” (a) .
I am aware, that during the reign of Elisabeth, some compulsion might be necessary to preserve the poor from starving. Her father Henry had sequestered all the hospitals, a hundred and ten in number, and squandered their revenues; he had also demolished all the abbeys. By these means, the poor were reduced to a miserable condition; especially as private charity, for want of exercise, was at a low ebb. That critical juncture required indeed help from the legislature: and a temporary provision for the poor would have been a proper measure; so contrived as not to supersede voluntary charity, but rather to promote it. Unlucky it is for England, that such a measure was overlooked; but Queen Elisabeth and her parliaments had not the talent of foreseeing consequences without the aid of experience. A perpetual tax for the poor was imposed, the most pernicious tax that ever was imposed in any country.
With respect to the present times, the reason now given pleads against abolishing at once a legal provision for the poor. It may be taken for granted, that charity is in England not more vigorous at present, than it was in the days of Elisabeth. Would our ministry but lead the way, by showing some zeal for a reformation, ex-pedients would probably be invented for supporting the poor, without unhinging voluntary charity. The following expedient is proposed, merely as a specimen. Let a tax be imposed by parliament on every parish for their poor, variable in proportion to the number; but not to exceed the half of what is necessary: directing the landholders to make up quarterly, a list of the names and condition of such persons as in their opinion deserve charity; with an estimate of what each ought to have weekly. The public tax makes the half, and the other half is to be raised by voluntary contribution. To prevent collusion, the roll of the poor, and their weekly appointment, with a subscription of gentlemen for their part of the sum, shall be examined by the justices of peace at a quarterly meeting; who, on receiving satisfaction, must order the sum arising from the public tax to be distributed among the poor contained in the roll, according to the estimate of the landholders. As the public fund lies dead till the subscription be completed, it is not to be imagined that any gentleman will stand out; it would be a public imputation on his character. Far from apprehending any deficiency, confident I am, that every gentleman would consider it as honourable to contribute largely. This agreeable work must be blended with some degree of severity, that of excluding from the roll every profligate, male or female. If that rule be strictly followed out, the innocent poor will diminish daily; so as in time to be safely left upon voluntary charity, without necessity of any tax.
But must miserable wretches, reduced to poverty by idleness or intemperance, be, in a Christian country, abandoned to diseases and famine. This is the argument, shallow as it is, that has corrupted the industry of England, and reduced multitudes to diseases and famine. Those who are able to work, may be locked up in a house of correction, to be fed with bread and water; but with liberty of working for themselves. And as for the remainder, their case is not desperate, when they have access to such tender-hearted persons as are more eminent for pity than for principle. If by neglect or oversight any happen to die of want, the example will tend more to reformation, than the most pathetic discourse from the pulpit.
Even at the hazard of losing a few lives by neglect or oversight, common begging ought absolutely to be prohibited. The most profligate, are the most impudent and the most expert at feigning distress. If begging be indulged to any, all will rush into the public: idlers are fond of that wandering and indolent sort of life; and there is no temptation to idleness more successful, than liberty to beg. In order to be relieved from common beggars, it has been proposed, to fine those who give them alms. Little penetration must they have, to whom the insufficiency of such a remedy is not palpable. It is easy to give alms without being seen; and compassion will extort alms, even at the hazard of suffering for it; not to mention, that every one in such a case would avoid the odious character of an informer. The following remedy is suggested, as what probably may answer. An officer must be appointed in every parish, with a competent salary, for apprehending and carrying to the workhouse every strolling beggar; under the penalty of losing his office, with what sa-lary is due to him, if any beggar be found strolling four and twenty hours after the fact comes to his knowledge. In the workhouse such beggars shall be fed with bread and water for a year, but with liberty of working for themselves.
I declare resolutely against a perpetual tax for the poor. But if there must be such a tax, I know of none less subversive of industry and morals than that established in Scotland, obliging the landholders in every parish to meet at stated times, in order to provide a fund for the poor; but leaving the objects of their charity, and the measure, to their own humanity and discretion. In this plan, there is no encroachment on the natural duty of charity, but only that the minority must submit to the opinion of the majority.
In large towns, where the character and circumstances of the poor are not so well known as in country-parishes, the following variation is proposed. Instead of landholders, who are proper in country-parishes; let there be in each town-parish a standing committee chosen by the proprietors of houses, the third part to be changed annually. This committee with the minister, make up a list of such as deserve charity, adding an estimate of what, with their own labour, may be sufficient for each of them. The minister, with one or two of the committee, carry about this list to every family that can afford charity, suggesting what may be proper for each to contribute. This list, with an addition of the sum contributed or promised by each householder, must be affixed on the principal door of the parish-church, to honour the contributors, and to inform the poor of the provision made for them. Some such mode may probably be effectual, without transgressing the bounds of voluntary charity. But if any one obstinately refuse to contribute after several applications, the committee at their discretion may tax him. If it be the possessor who declines contributing, the tax must be laid upon him, reserving relief against his landlord.
In great towns, the poor, who ought to be prohibited from begging, are less known than in country-parishes: and among a croud of inhabitants, it is easier for an individual to escape the public eye when he with-holds charity, than in country-pa-rishes. Both defects would be remedied by the plan above proposed: it will bring to light, in great cities, the poor who deserve charity; and it will bring to light every person who with-holds charity.7
In every regulation for the poor, English and Scotch, it is taken for granted, that the poor are to be maintained in their own houses. Parochial poor-houses are creeping into fashion: a few are already erected both in England and Scotland; and there is depending in parliament a plan for establishing poor-houses in every part of England. Yet whether they ought to be preferred to the accustomed mode, deserves serious consideration. The erection and management of a poor-house are expensive articles; and if they do not upon the whole appear clearly beneficial, it is better to stop short in time.
Economy is the great motive that inclines people to this new mode of providing for the poor. It is imagined, that numbers collected at a common table, can be maintained at less expence than in separate houses; and foot-soldiers are given for an example, who could not live on their pay if they did not mess together. But the cases are not parallel. Soldiers, having the management of their pay, can club for a bit of meat. But as the inhabitants of a poor-house are maintained by the public, the same quantity of provisions must be allotted to each; as there can be no good rule for separating those who eat much from those who eat little. The consequence is what may be expected: the bulk of them reserve part of their victuals for purchasing ale or spirits. It is vain to expect work from them: poor wretches void of shame will never work seriously, where the profit accrues to the public, not to themselves. Hunger is the only effectual means for compelling such persons to work.
Where the poor are supported in their own houses, the first thing that is done, or ought to be done, is to estimate what each can earn by their own labour; and as far only as that falls short of maintenance, is there place for charity. They will be as industrious as possible, because they work for themselves; and a weekly sum of charity under their own management, will turn to better account, than in a poor-house, under the direction of mercenaries. The quantity of food for health depends greatly on custom. Busbequius observes, that the Turks eat very little flesh-meat; and that the Janizaries in particular, at that time a most formidable infantry, were maintained at an expence far below that of a German. Wafers, cakes, boiled rice, with small bits of mutton or pullet, were their highest entertainment, fermented liquors being absolutely prohibited. The famous Montecuculi says, that the Janizaries eat but once a-day, about sun-set; and that custom makes it easy. Negroes are maintained in the West Indies at a very small expence. A bit of ground is allotted to them for raising vegetables, which they cultivate on Sunday, being employed all the rest of the week in labouring for their masters. They receive a weekly allowance of dry’d fish, about a pound and a half; and their only drink is water. Yet by vegetables and water with a morsel of dry’d fish, these people are sufficiently nourished to perform the hardest labour in a most enervating climate. I would not have the poor to be pampered, which might prove a bad example to the industrious: if they be sup-ported in the most frugal manner, the duty of charity is fulfilled. And in no other manner can they be supported so frugally, as to leave to their own disposal what they receive in charity. Not a penny will be laid out on fermented liquors, unless perhaps as a medicine in sickness. Nor does their low fare call for pity. Ale makes no part of the maintenance of those in Scotland who live by the sweat of their brows. Water is their only drink; and yet they live comfortably, without ever thinking of pitying themselves. Many gentlemen drink nothing but water; who feel no decay either in health or vigour. The person however who should propose to banish ale from a poor-house, would be exclaimed against as hard-hearted and void of charity. The difference indeed is great between what is done voluntarily, and what is done by compulsion. It is provoking to hear of the petulance and even luxury of the English poor. Not a person in London who lives by the parish-charity will deign to eat brown bread; and in several parts of England, many who receive large sums from that fund, are in the constant custom of drinking tea twice a-day. Will one incline to labour where idleness and beggary are so much encouraged?
But what objection, it will be urged, lies against adopting in a poor-house the plan mentioned, giving to no person in money more than what his work, justly estimated, falls short of maintenance? It is easy to foresee, that this plan can never answer in a poor-house. The materials for work must be provided by mercenary officers; who must also be trusted with the disposal of the made work, for behoof of the poor people. These operations may go on sweetly a year or two, under the influence of novelty and zeal for improvement; but it would be chimerical to expect for ever strict fidelity in mercenary officers, whose management cannot easily be checked. Computing the expence of this operose management, and giving allowance for endless frauds in purchasing and selling, I boldly affirm, that the plan would turn to no account. Consider next the weekly sum given in charity: people confined in a poor-house have no means for purchasing necessaries but at a sutlery, where they will certainly be imposed on, and their money go no length.
We are now ripe for a comparison with respect to economy. Many a householder in Edinburgh makes a shift to maintain a family with their gain of four shillings per week, amounting to ten pounds eight shillings yearly. Seldom are there fewer than four or five persons in such a family; the husband, the wife, and two or three children. Thus four or five persons can be maintain’d under eleven pounds yearly. But are they maintain’d so cheap in the Edinburgh poor-house? Not a single person there but at an average costs the public at least four pounds yearly. Nor is this all. A great sum remains to be taken into the computation, the interest of the sum for building, yearly reparations, expence of management, wages to servants, male and female. A proportion of this great sum must be laid upon each person, which swells the expence of their maintenance. And when every particular is taken into the account, I have no hesitation to pronounce, that laying aside labour altogether, a man can make a shift to maintain himself privately at half of the expence that is necessary in a poor-house.
So far we have travelled on solid ground; and what follows is equally solid. Among the industrious, not many are reduced so low, but that they can make some shift for themselves. The quantity of labour that can be performed by those who require aid, cannot be brought under any accurate estimation. To pave the way to a conjecture, those who are reduced to poverty by dissoluteness or sheer idleness, ought absolutely to be rejected as unworthy of public charity. If such wretches can prevail on the tender-hearted to relieve them privately, so far well: they ought not to be indulged with any other hope. Now laying these aside, the quantity of labour may be fairly computed as half maintenance. Here then is another great article saved to the public. If a man can be maintained privately at half of what is necessary in a poor-house, his work, reckoning it half of his maintenance, brings down the sum to the fourth part of what is necessary in a poor-house.
Undistinguished charity to the deserving and undeserving, has multiply’d the poor; and will multiply them more and more without end. Let it be publicly known that the dissolute and idle have no chance to be put on a charity-roll; the poor, instead of increasing, will gradually diminish, till none be left but proper objects of charity, such as have been reduced to indigence by old age or innocent misfortune. And if that rule be strictly adhered to, the maintenance of the poor will not be a heavy burden. After all, a house for the poor may possibly be a frugal scheme in England where the parish-rates are high, in the town of Bedford for example. In Scotland, it is undoubtedly a very unfrugal scheme.
Hitherto of a poor-house with respect to economy. There is another point of still greater moment; which is to consider the influence it has on the manners of the inhabitants. A number of persons, strangers to each other, and differing in temper and manners, can never live comfortably together: will ever the sober and innocent make a tolerable society with the idle and profligate? In our poor-houses accordingly, quarrels and complaints are endless. The family society and that of a nation under government, are prompted by the common nature of man; and none other. In monasteries and nunneries, envy, detraction, and heart-burning, never cease. Sorry I am to observe, that in seminaries of learning concord and good-will do not always prevail, even among the professors. What adds greatly to the disease in a poor-house, is that the people shut up there, being secure of maintenance, are reduced to a state of absolute idleness, for it is in vain to think of making them work: they have no care, nothing to keep the blood in motion. Attend to a state so different from what is natural to us. Those who are innocent and harmless, will languish, turn dispirited, and tire of life. Those of a bustling and restless temper, will turn sour and peevish for want of occupation: they will murmur against their superiors, pick quarrels with their neighbours, and sow discord every where. The worst of all is, that a poor-house never fails to corrupt the morals of the inhabitants: nothing tends so much to promote vice and immorality, as idleness among a number of low people collected in one place. Among no set of people does profligacy more a-bound, than among the seamen in Greenwich hospital.
A poor-house tends to corrupt the body no less than the mind. It is a nursery of diseases, fostered by dirtiness and crouding.
To this scene let us oppose the condition of those who are supported in their own houses. They are laid under the necessity of working with as much assiduity as ever; and as the sum given them in charity is at their own disposal, they are careful to lay it out in the most frugal manner. If by parsimony they can save any small part, it is their own; and the hope of encreasing this little stock, supports their spirits and redoubles their industry. They live innocently and comfortably, because they live industriously; and industry, as every one knows, is the chief pleasure of life to those who have acquired the habit of being constantly employ’d.
[* ]In the parish of St. George, Hanover Square, a great reform was made some years ago. Inhabitants of figure, not excepting men of the highest rank, take it in turn to be church-wardens; which has reduced the poor-rates in that parish to a trifle. But people, after acquiring a name, soon tire of drudging for others. The drudgery will be left to low people as formerly, and the tax will again rise as high in that parish as in others. The poor-rates in Dr. Davenant’s time, were about L. 700,000 yearly. In the year 1764, they amounted to L. 2,200,000. In the year 1773, they amounted to L. 3,000,000, equal to six shillings in the pound land-tax.
[* ]In an address by Mr. Greaves to both Houses of Parliament there is the following passage: “It happens to be the mistaken policy of most of our very wise parish-officers, that as soon as a young man is married, a state of life which is the most likely to make him a good member of society, to endeavour to get him removed to the place of his legal settlement, out of pretence that he may soon have a family, which may possibly bring a charge upon the parish. Young men, intimidated by frequent examples of such cruel treatment, are unwilling to marry; and this leads them frequently to debauch young women, and then leave them with child in a very helpless condition. Thus they get into an unsettled and debauched way of life, acquire a habit of idleness, and become a burden upon the public.” [[Note added in 3rd edition.]]
[1. ]Paragraph added in 3rd edition.
[* ]A London alderman named Harper, who was cotemporary with James I. or his son Charles, bequeathed ten or twelve acres of meadow-ground in the parish of St. Andrew’s, Holborn, London, for the benefit of the poor in the town of Bedford. This ground has been long covered with houses, which yield from L. 4000 to L. 5000 yearly. That sum is laid out upon charity-schools, upon defraying the expence of apprenticeships, and upon a stock to young persons when they marry; an encouragement that attracts to the town of Bedford great numbers of the lower classes. So far well: but mark the consequence. That encouragement relaxes the industry of many, and adds greatly to the number of the poor. Hence it is, that in few places of England does the poor’s rate amount so high as in the town of Bedford. An extensive common in the parish of Charley, Sussex, is the chief cause of an extravagant assessment for the poor, no less than nine shillings in the pound of rack rent. Give a poor man access to a common for feeding two or three cows, you make him idle by a dependence upon what he does not labour for. The town of Largo in Fife has a small hospital, erected many years ago by a gentleman of the name of Wood; and confined by him to the poor of his own name. That name being rare in the neighbourhood, access to the hospital is easy. One man in particular is entertained there, whose father, grandfather, and great-grandfather, enjoy’d successively the same benefit; every one of whom probably would have been useful members of society, but for that temptation to idleness. [[Note added in 2nd edition.]]
[* ]One exception I am fond to mention. The poor-box of the Edinburgh Infirmary was neglected two or three years, little being expected from it. When opened, L. 74 and a fraction was found in it; contributed probably by the lower sort, who were ashamed to give their mite publicly.
[2. ]Sir William Mildmay.
[3. ]“But I confine . . . better provided separately”: added in 2nd edition.
[4. ]“The same almanack . . . the foundling-hospital”: added in 2nd edition.
[5. ]“It is computed . . . do for themselves”: added in 2nd edition.
[* ]The Italians are not more remarkable for a charitable disposition, than their neighbours. No fewer however than seventy thousand mendicant friars live there upon voluntary charity; and I have not heard that any one of them ever died of want.
[(a) ]Elements of Criticism, ch. 2. part 7.
[6. ]“Will it be . . . will of others”: added in 2nd edition.
[(a) ]Author of Angeloni’s letters [[i.e., John Shebbeare.]]
[7. ]In the 1st edition the sketch ends here.