Front Page Titles (by Subject) 69.: THE LABOURING AGRICULTURISTS EXAMINER, 19 DEC., 1830, PP. 811-12 - The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXII - Newspaper Writings December 1822 - July 1831 Part I
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69.: THE LABOURING AGRICULTURISTS EXAMINER, 19 DEC., 1830, PP. 811-12 - John Stuart Mill, The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXII - Newspaper Writings December 1822 - July 1831 Part I 
The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXII - Newspaper Writings December 1822 - July 1831 Part I, ed. Ann P. Robson and John M. Robson, Introduction by Ann P. Robson and John M. Robson (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1986).
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THE LABOURING AGRICULTURISTS
This article, prompted by the publication of Nassau William Senior’s Three Lectures on the Rate of Wages (London: Murray, 1830), consists mostly of an extract from that work. Senior (1790-1864), an active member of the Political Economy Club, in 1825 had become the first incumbent of the chair of Political Economy at Oxford (succeeded in 1829 by Whately). The “Poor Laws” in effect at the time of this article went back to 43 Elizabeth I, c. 2 (1601), and included the law of settlement, 13 & 14 Charles II, c. 12 (1662), and the workhouse law, 9 George I, c. 7 (1722). Senior, a member of the Poor Law Commission, wrote its report, which resulted in the famous reform of 1834. This article, headed as title, is described in Mill’s bibliography as “An article headed ‘The labouring Agriculturists’ in the Examiner of the same date [as “The Truck System,” No. 67]”
(MacMinn, p. 13).
mr. senior, lately Professor of Political Economy at Oxford, has just published three lectures on the Rate of Wages, delivered before that University a few months ago, with the addition of a preface on the Causes and Remedies of the present Disturbances. The preface in particular appears to us calculated to produce the most salutary effects at the present crisis. We extract the following important passage, the doctrines and sentiments of which have our fullest concurrence:
The poor-laws, as administered in the southern districts of England,1 are an attempt to unite the irreconcilable advantages of freedom and servitude. The labourer is to be a free agent, but without the hazards of free agency; to be free from the coercion, but to enjoy the assured subsistence of the slave. He is expected to be diligent, though he has no fear of want; provident, though his pay rises as his family increases; attached to a master who employs him in pursuance of a vestry resolution; and grateful for the allowance which the magistrates order him as a right.
In the natural state of the relation between the capitalist and the labourer, when the amount of wages to be paid, and of work to be done, are the subjects of a free and open bargain; when the labourer obtains, and knows that he is to obtain, just what his services are worth to his employer, he must feel any fall in the price of his labour to be an evil, but is not likely to complain of it as an injustice. Greater exertion and severer economy are his first resources in distress; and what they cannot supply he receives with gratitude from the benevolent. The connexion between him and his master has the kindliness of a voluntary association, in which each party is conscious of benefit, and each feels that his own welfare depends, to a certain extent, on the welfare of the other. But the instant wages cease to be a bargain—the instant the labourer is paid, not according to his value, but his wants, he ceases to be a freeman. He acquires the indolence, the improvidence, the rapacity, and the malignity, but not the subordination, of a slave. He is told that he has a right to wages, but that he is bound to work. Who is to decide how hard he ought to work, or how hard he does work? Who is to decide what amount of wages he has a right to? As yet, the decision has been made by the overseers and the magistrates. But they were interested parties. The labourer has thought fit to correct that decision. For the present he thinks that he has a right to 2s. 3d. a day in winter, and 2s. 6d. in summer. And our only hope seems to be, that the promise of such wages will bribe him into quiet. But who can doubt that he will measure his rights by his wishes, or that his wishes will extend with the prospect of their gratification? The present tide may not complete the inundation, but it will be a dreadful error if we mistake the ebb for a permanent receding of the waters. A breach has been made in the sea-wall, and with every succeeding irruption they will swell higher and spread more widely. What we are suffering is nothing to what we have to expect. Next year, perhaps, the labourer will think it unjust that he should have less than 4s. a day in winter and 5s. in summer;—and woe to the tyrants who deny him his right!
It is true, that such a right could not be permanently enforced;—it is true, that if the labourer burns the corn-ricks in which his subsistence for the current year is stored—if he consumes in idleness or in riot the time and the exertions on which next year’s harvest depends—if he wastes in extravagant wages, or drives to foreign countries, the capital that is to assist and render productive his labour, he will be the greatest sufferer in the common ruin. Those who have property may escape with a portion of it to some country in which their rights will be protected; but the labourer must remain to enjoy his own works—to feel that the real rewards for plunder and devastation are want and disease.
But have the consequences of the present system ever been explained to the labourer? Is not his right to good wages re-echoed from all parts of the country? Is he not told—“Dwell in the land, and verily thou shalt be fed?” Does not the Hon. Member, who has affixed this motto to his work,2 assume that the fund out of which the labourer is to be fed is practically inexhaustible? And can words more strongly imply that his sufferings arise from the injustice of his superiors? Have not even magistrates and landlords recommended the destruction, or, what is the same, both in principle and effect, the disuse of the very machines of which the object is to render labour more efficient in the production of the articles consumed by the labourer—in the production of that very fund on the extent of which, compared with the number to be maintained, the amount of wages depends? And is there any real difference between this conduct and the burning of a rick-yard? Threshing-machines are the present objects of hostility, ploughs will be the next; spades will then be found to diminish employment; and when it has been made penal to give advantage to labour by any tool or instrument whatever, the last step must be to prohibit the use of the right-hand.
Have sufficient pains been taken even to expose the absurdity of what appears so obvious to the populace—that the landlords ought to reduce their rents and the clergy their tithes, and then the farmer would give better wages? If the farmer had his land for nothing, still it would not be his interest to give any man more wages for a day’s work than his day’s work was worth. He could better afford it, no doubt, to be paid as a tax; but why should the farmer pay that tax more than the physician or the shopkeeper? If the farmer is to employ, at this advanced rate of wages, only whom he chooses, the distress will be increased, since he will employ only that smaller number whose labour is worth their increased pay. If he is to employ a certain proportion of the labourers, however numerous, in his parish, he is, in fact, to pay rent and tithes as before, with this difference only, that they are to be paid to paupers, instead of to the landlord and the parson; and that the payment is not a fixed but an indefinite sum, and a sum which must every year increase in an accelerated ratio, as the increase of population rushes to fill up this new vacuum, till rent, tithes, profit, and capital, are all eaten up, and pauperism produces what may be called its natural effects—for they are the effects which, if unchecked, it must ultimately produce—famine, pestilence, and civil war.
That this country can preserve its prosperity, or even its social existence, if the state of feeling which I have described becomes universal among the lower classes, I think no one will be bold enough to maintain. That it is extensively prevalent, and that, under the present administration of the poor-laws, it will, at no remote period, become universal in the southern districts, appears to me to be equally clear. But who, in the present state of those districts, will venture to carry into execution a real and effectual alteration of the poor-laws? Remove, by emigration, the pauperism that now oppresses those districts, and such an alteration, though it may remain difficult, will cease to be impracticable.
Again, the corn-laws, by their tendency to raise the price of subsistence, by the ruin which they have inflicted on the internal corn-trade, and the stimulus which they have given to the increase of the agricultural population, have, without doubt, been amongst the causes of the present distress; and if, while the population of England and Wales continues to increase at the rate of 500 persons a-day, the introduction of foreign corn is subject, under ordinary prices, to a prohibitive duty, those laws will become every day more mischievous, and less remediable. But the repeal of those laws, however gradual (and only a gradual repeal can be thought of), would, under the present pressure of pauperism, tend to aggravate the agricultural distress. Lighten that pressure, and we may gradually revert to the only safe system—the system of freedom.
Mr. Senior then proceeds to argue, with great force and earnestness, in favour of systematic emigration, as the only feasible mode of removing the immediate pressure of pauperism, and rendering practicable the reform of those abuses in our legislation which have contributed to the growth of the evil. [Pp. xvi-xix.] And we join our voice to his in declaring that it is the most imperative among the duties of the legislation at the present crisis, to inquire and ascertain whether there be any mode of emigration by which our unemployed labourers might be removed from penury to comfort, without, by the same operation, withdrawing so much of our national wealth, as to diminish instead of increasing the wages of those labourers who remain behind. We believe that there is such a mode of emigration; and to this momentous subject, which must engage the attention of Parliament speedily and long, we shall return.3
[1 ]Senior is referring to the Speenhamland system originated in 1795 in Berkshire, whereby the wages of poor labourers were indexed to the price of bread and subsidized from the rates.
[2 ]Michael Thomas Sadler (1780-1835), M.P., 1829-32, and social reformer, used this passage from Psalms, 37:3, on the title page of his Ireland: Its Evils, and Their Remedies (London: Murray, 1828).
[3 ]The Examiner returned to the subject in Feb. (No. 88).