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a parish in which instances are not occurring of the misconduct of those who are authorized by law to subsist on the industry and property of others; feigned illness, and work neglected or wilfully spoiled, are the most common expedients for avoiding any employment; and the privileged idleness which is thus attained cannot fail to be of injurious example to the rising family of the delinquent, even if he should not, as too often happens, proceed in the natural progress of degeneracy to petty pilferings and worse crimes.
But it is less irksome and more consonant to justice, to fix our attention upon the evil principle of the poor laws, than to speak harshly of those whose sense of natural and moral duty has been effaced by their operation. And this principle cannot be more truly and forcibly exposed in all its bearings, than it has been done by Mr. Davison,-who has indeed treated the subject with a sound philosophy—too seldom to be found in political treatises, such as are the currency of this age.
If this parochial system cannot stand on the ground of a good national husbandry, still less can it on the principles of a sound legislation, directed to the care of the personal habits and manners of the people: and if the poor laws have a tendency hostile to the public manners, they act unhappily in that way, in which it comes within the competence of human laws to act with the greatest power. For the efficacy of human laws may be cast perhaps nearly into the following scale: their direct power to inspire men with the love of probity, diligence, sobriety, and contentment, by positive command, is small; their power to restrain the opposite vices is far greater; their power to discourage or hinder good habits of character, by mistaken institutions, greatest of all: because here they act at an advantage; and the institution and the bad part of human nature go together; whereas in the other cases, they are opposed, and the enactment has to force its way. This one consideration makes the error of any intrinsic virtual immorality of laws of the last importance; and yet it is the error with which our poor laws are commonly charged, and charged with such a confidence of imputation, as is usually expressed when men are speaking of a fact to be lamented, rather than discussed. I know of no substantial reply which can be made to that charge. They discourage many of the best habits of the people, of which their industry, the most obviously affected, is only the first. They may have been counteracted, they have been counteracted, by the presence of other more wholesome invigorating powers in the compound of our national fortunes; but their tendency by themselves is to paralyse and corrupt those whom they profess to protect. There is poison in the alms of their mistaken charity.'-pp. 61-64.
'The first aspect of a fixed legal provision of maintenance, in the contingency of want, independent of personal character, or any other pledge of antecedent economy, exertion, prudence, or merit of any kind, is a most pressing invitation to all who like bread better than labour, and living at ease more than on the practice of self-denial, to remit much of their pains, especially the pains of contrivance and frugality in
the husbandry of their affairs, to the readier and less irksome plan of living at the cost of others on the wide open common of parish subsistence. If they cannot resort to it for all they want, and make it their sole revenue at once, still to push the advantage of their use of it, to think of it as a sure resource against their heedlessness, indiscretion, and mistakes; to play with their duties, which they may discard at will, and be quite serious and settled in their view upon the liberality of the law, which cannot discard them, seems to be a true picture of the fact and the theory of our parochial constitution, as addressed to the feelings of our common people, against their industry. Originally, indeed, it was intended that the grant of relief should be purchased by labour. But the providing a place of work is a part of a man's own duty. At the best, therefore, the law undertook to relieve him from one instance of his proper duty, and so far did amiss. But the law has failed grievously in the threat of performing it for him, in finding him the employ, and is glad to do the best it can to keep its promise of finding him the subsistence. Upon this ground of engagement he has gained over the severity of the law, and profited by its kindness; and stands at present on a tenure of very easy conditions, with a right to be as dependent as his vices or idleness can make him.'—pp. 65, 66.
The foundation of all moral feeling and moral conduct is in a responsibility, in a man's own person, in the consequences of his conduct. A sense and perception of this responsibility is the spring of the practical principles of virtue. It enters into our highest duties. The poor laws shake this foundation. They tell a man, he shall not be responsible for his want of exertion, forethought, sobriety. They deal with him as if no such responsibility existed. By cancelling the natural penalties of a great deal of his vice, they darken and perplex his own notions of the demerit of it.
The parochial dependent has himself but little gratitude for the relief afforded him. It might have been expected, that public alms would be repaid with thankfulness at least; but the expectation, if not taken up on a false and narrow view from the first, is certainly disappointed in the fact. The most dissatisfied and discontented may be seen among our parochial poor. Whether it be that the loss of the vigour of honest exertion spoils the temper, or that the gross intemperance frequent among them, eats out their sense of ri and wrong, as much as it aggravates their wants; or that the captiousness of disputing upon an indefinite claim makes every thing seem too little for them; or that the practice of looking to others for help must make a man restless in himself, and throw him off from the centre of his repose; or that alms, which were meant to be medicine, and not food, vitiate the moral habit, merely by being constant; or some touch of all these provocations together; we certainly can see little of the spirit either of thankfulness or contentment under the most profuse expenditure of legal charity.'-pp. 71, 72.
The tranquillizing effect of sober habits of labour, is so much of the peace and good order of society. It is not the labouring bull, that begins to gore, and throw the meadow into alarm; but the mere idle grazers, who, if they have any bad blood in them, are stung to violence by
the first fly that molests them. It would be well, therefore, if every parish retainer would be satisfied with being idle: but he is likely to be as troublesome as he is idle, and as mischievous as useless.'—pp. 72, 73.
The effect of the poor laws upon marriage, and its long train of consequent duties, (constituting, as far as this life only is concerned, the great business and the highest enjoyment of life,) is not overlooked by this eloquent and judicious writer. He speaks of it in the same tone of reasoning morality which breathes so deeply throughout his dissertation. Some observations, however, may be added upon the practical effect of marriages caused or promoted by such encouragement as results from the prospect of relying upon the resources of others,-in other words upon a species of legal mendicity.
Nothing can be more certain than that the number of marriages is and must be limited by the means of subsistence,—immediately in all countries except England, and mediately even in England; because, although the poor laws have a tendency to violate this unquestionable principle, it is too strong to be set aside by adscititious means. Besides that as poverty in England does not mean the same degree of privation as elsewhere, population is less likely to surpass its just and healthy limitation. But although the poor laws are not powerful enough to create a ruinous increase of the number of marriages, they are able to effect, and do effect an extensive change in the parties concerned, injurious to the interest of the community, and highly unjust as regarding the individuals affected by it. Marriage is and ought to be the common aim of mankind; the motive of exertion among the young; the source of comfort to the aged; the point of hope and of rest. But under the influence of the poor laws much of this moral order is distorted; the number of marriages may not be altered, but the same persons will not be married.
Supposing an insulated community of a thousand individuals in that usual degree of prosperity which permits sixteen persons annually (eight of each sex) to venture upon the implied consequences of the marriage state, seven of these eight marriages will probably take place among those who have nothing beyond their own industry to subsist upon. Under the poor law system, we have no right to expect that the persous married will be those best qualified for so grave a charge as the maintenance and education of children; because the certainty of parish aid influences the careless and the improvident, and if they do not go the length of marrying for the purpose of becoming pensioners on the parish, (a practice which has already commenced,) they certainly marry without feeling any previous reluctance to such assistance; and thus the very qualities of mind
mind which unfit them for the nurture and education of an industrious progeny, tend to place them in the character of parents.
How far the human mind and disposition may be expected to shew a family likeness, such as we usually see in personal features, is an old dispute: certain it is that we all recognize this opinion in ourselves, in wondering when we witness any striking instance to the contrary; but it is unnecessary to insist upon this, as the undoubted influence of daily example cannot but predispose the imitative mind of children to the industry or idleness which is daily before them. From this cause the community suffers severely, not only in the increase of poor-rates, but from the moral evil thus propagated even in a greater degree. But how much more severely does this perversion operate against those who are not idle and not improvident, who feel that marriage is a state of responsibility, and resist the impulses of their nature rather than be degraded from the honourable independence of mind which disdains to subsist upon any other exertion than its own! To such persons marriage is difficult and often impossible of attainment, and becomes so from the operation of these debasing laws, which cannot encourage idleness without discouraging industry: for, if parish rates are to be paid, wages must be equalized; that is, must be kept unnaturally low as regarding the active and the industrious, because persons of opposite character and their families are to be supported, however miserably, from the funds destined for the reward of labour. And this perhaps is the point of view in which the injustice of the poor laws becomes most evident; that they are not so much a tax on the rich to feed the poor, as a tax on the industrious labourer to feed the family of the idler, instead of adding to society children educated after his own example.
We say no more of the poor-rates as they affect the resources of the rich and the conduct of the poor: let us now touch upon the remedies which have been attempted, or which are at this time proposed.
By far the most numerous class of Poor-Law reformers have proposed in some shape or other what are now called workhouses; but which, in the beginning of the system, when work was really in contemplation, went under the less odious appellation of Houses of Maintenance, or Houses of Protection: they are now understood well enough by the poor as well as the rich to threaten no fatiguing employment, so that the name of workhouse is no longer avoided. Sir Josiah Child, about the year 1669, projected the formation of London and its suburbs into a province for this purpose, and published among his other discourses a well-considered plan to this effect, superior perhaps to any which has since appeared, as con
taining enough of severity and of authority over the dissolute pauper to have confined the poors-rate within its ancient limit. Nothing however was done at that time in furtherance of the scheme; and when the pressure of the war on the landed interest, in the reigns of King William and Queen Anne, had called the attention of Locke, Mandeville, and Defoe, (the most sagacious men of the age,) to the management of the poor, much more in the negative than in the affirmative seems to have been established; certainly nothing material was attempted by legislation until the 9 Geo. I. (A. D. 1723.) when parish officers were empowered to purchase or hire houses, and make contracts for the lodging, employing and keeping of poor persons.'
Thus encouraged, the poor house system came into great repute, and the expenditure of many parishes seems at that time to have been lessened by the indirect effect of this expedient. In the middle of the last century the Vagrant Act passed, and the poor laws appear to have attracted very general attention; but the many schemes then afloat present little more than various modifications of the workhouse system. Some recommended whole counties to be incorporated for this purpose, others were satisfied with hundreds or districts of ten or fifteen parishes; and this last recommendation was largely carried into effect in Suffolk, one half of which county exhibits this form of management. From this time, Mr. Gilbert made himself conspicuous by his indefatigable attention to the poor laws. He, however, effected nothing, except that, after twenty years consumed in various efforts, he prevailed on parliament to pass an act which afforded an increased facility to the incorporation of parishes, in furtherance of the workhouse system. That system was thus introduced into a fourth part of the kingdom, and now therefore calls for such remarks as dear-bought experience and retrospect may supply.
It is not surprizing that all projectors should have recommended the workhouse system with so much unanimity, not only because an ardent mind cannot fail to be desirous of establishing a visible sign of its own activity, but because the love of power, and the circumstantial details of its exercise in the management of a crowd of paupers, is a direct motive for proposing this kind of reform. The patronage created by such schemes is also alluring; a builder is first to be employed, and a long train of governors, treasurers, masters and mistresses and tradesmen of all descriptions are to perpetuate the visionary empire of the great first mover of these multiplied authorities and appointments. But, after all, what is sought to be enforced by any workhouse scheme but the renewal of slave-labour, of the Ergastula* of antiquity? And what change has ever taken *Columella, lib, i. cap. 6.9.