Liberty Matters

Spencer on Charity: A Personal Note

After Herbert Spencer’s writings achieved international fame, he became the Victorian equivalent of a rock star. Indeed, a letter from overseas addressed to “Herbert Spencer, England,” was delivered to him in London with no problem. Innumerable contemporary stories were written about Spencer, many of them with no foundation in fact, and some of those false accounts found their way into later biographies. Spencer’s fans eagerly devoured anecdotes about his character and personal eccentricities, however inaccurate they might have been. 
Spencer’s reserved demeanor, when coupled with his oft-distorted views on charity, generated stories that portrayed him as a Scrooge-like character, an unfeeling miser who would prefer to see a person go hungry rather than offer charitable assistance. But this was far from accurate; on the contrary, Spencer’s colleagues and close friends observed that he was an unusually generous man who often helped people in need. As William Henry Hudson, a friend for many years, wrote:
No man could be more simple, more modest, more absolutely unassuming, and affectations of any kind were wholly alien to the complete clarity of his nature. But somehow the feeling was there, all the same. He was by temperament exceedingly reserved in ordinary intercourse—I might almost say shy; this lent his manner a certain suggestion of restraint; and I can well understand that those who met him only casually must have thought him rather chilly and unsympathetic…. But you had only to get thoroughly accustomed to these peculiarities, and you realized that they were simply upon the surface. The seeming aloofness of the man disappeared, and you found beneath the reticence and coldness which first troubled you a large, simple, and eminently sympathetic nature.[156]
Of Spencer’s many charitable contributions to people in need, Hudson wrote:
It was perhaps the principle of justice which was the ultimate rule of conduct with him. But though he believed and taught that justice should take precedence of generosity, and that reckless generosity is an unmixed evil, the claims of generosity were by no means overlooked by him. This was shown again and again in my knowledge of him by acts of practical sympathy with deserving people and worthy causes.[157]
James Collier, Spencer’s secretary and amanuensis for many years, made the same point:
He was animated by nothing less than a passion of justice…. But he was also generous and charitable and gave almost beyond his means where giving was needed. Where aid of a practical kind was required, he was unweariable; and a hundred anecdotes of his helpfulness could be related.[158]
In 1906, a fascinating book, Home Life with Herbert Spencer, was published by “Two.” The “Two” were two sisters who lived with Spencer and, for eight years, provided him with companionship and assistance during his later life. The sisters—whom Spencer called his “keepers”—wrote  their memoirs as an antidote to the many anecdotes about Spencer that were published after his death. They did not want the “man we learned to know and admire and reverence go down to posterity tarnished with the suspicion of meanness, pettiness, and vulgarity that most of the stories told about him suggest.” The “popular opinion” of Spencer was “so grotesque that we have felt constrained to write down for those who care the impression we had of him before it is too late.” [159]
Like many of Spencer’s close friends, the two sisters commented on Spencer’s charitable disposition and practices. After noting his “approval of private charity to deserving cases of genuine distress,” they continued:
His principles are so well known, that it unnecessary to dwell on the fact of his disapproval of compulsory charity or the distribution of private money by public bodies.[160] This has led many to believe that he was hard. Whatever he was in theory, we can emphatically deny that he was so in practice. “Worthy people should be helped,” we have continually heard him remark, when he was about to suit the action to the words. Carrying out his individualism, he again and again relieved cases that were brought before him, but not until he had taken some trouble—far more difficult to him than the easy method of putting his hand in his pocket—to prove the case was genuine.[161]
The sisters illustrated their account with the story of a man who showed up one day at their home. Spencer was too ill to see anyone, so he asked his companions to talk to the stranger. The man said he had been an editor in America but had fallen on hard times in England. “He asked for work of some kind—copying, anything, in fact, which would bring in a few schillings until he obtained regular employment.” After the story was relayed to Spencer, he suspected that the man might be lying, hoping his hard-luck story would inspire Spencer to fork over some money, so the man was sent away empty handed. That evening, however, Spencer thought further about the matter and decided that the man might be telling the truth. The sisters had kept the man’s address, so Spencer decided to “give him the benefit of the doubt, and with only such slender proof of the man’s honesty, he sent him [money the] next day to tide over immediate necessities.”
[156.] William Henry Hudson, “Herbert Spencer: A Character Study,” The Fortnightly Review, vol. LXXV (Jan.-June, 1904): 19.
[157.] Ibid., 20.
[158.] James Collier, “Reminiscences of Herbert Spencer,” in  [Josiah Royce],  Herbert Spencer: An Estimate and Review (New York: Fox, Duffield, and Company, 1904), 233.
[159.] “Two,” Home Life with Herbert Spencer (Bristol: J.W. Arrowsmith, 1906), 9, 233.
[160.] In addition to his opposition to state charity, Spencer also viewed private charitable organizations with suspicion. The best kind of charity, he argued, was that given directly by the donor to the recipient, without an intermediary. The reasons for Spencer’s skepticism about “privately-established and voluntary organizations,” in contrast to one-on-one charity, are quite interesting. See the chapter “Relief of the Poor,” in The Principles of Ethics (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1898), II:376ff .< /titles/334#lf0155-02_label_114>.
[161.] Home Life with Herbert Spencer, 211-12.