Page images

of innocence or of respectability, or who designed to quit their evil habits when they should be liberated by course of law, would not fail to subscribe to the proposed conditions; and might thereupon be permitted to receive the visits of their friends, unrestrained by the odious, but now necessary preliminary of personal search, and to enjoy other indulgencies at the discretion of the visiting magistrates. Concerning the other class of prisoners, there could be little danger of mistake, and as little occasion for tender treatment; fetters and manacles might be used without seruple for securing men of violence so audacious as not to conceal their intention of endeavouring to escape from the justice of their injured country.

As to those who have been convicted, and sentenced to imprisonment as a punishment for their crimes, the course is yet more easy, it being in the power of the magistrates to regulate the duration according to the rigour; but it should be made a real punishment, however short the term, so that low diet and close confinement might lead to reflection and repentance, and the unintelligible mixture of punishment and personal accommodation might henceforth be abrogated. The details must of course remain at the discretion of the visiting magistrates, who assisted by a law enabling them to class the criminals with due discrimination, would be able to forin regulations at once advantageous to the prisoners and to the country: certainly they would not misapply generous diet and magnificent buildings for the encouragement of felons, who instead of dreading the prison as a place of punishment for their offences, now learn to look upon it as a place of residence where there are good accommodations and plenty of amusement. One excellent consequence at least would result from the short but severe confinement of offenders, that they would not be so likely to escape punishment in cases of conspiracy or riot, when the very number of delinquents, which has made the crime dangerous to society, prevents their punishment: the result of which is that the impunity of nine-tenths operates far more as an encouragement than the punishment of a few ringleaders does as a warning example; and thus men are emboldened to a repetition of the crime, knowing that the space and other indulgencies allowed to prisoners render it too expensive, if not impossible, to carry the sentence of justice into effect where the criminals are numerous.

How far it is practicable to render imprisonment a means of reformation so as to produce the proper end of penance, we shall ere long examine on another occasion : here our object has been to explain and illustrate the efficacy of a principle, simple indeed, but of wide application. But if it should only be found capable of alleviating instead of abolishing the evils résulting from the poor laws, and of the enormous expense of prisous and of prisoners, no


upon to

degree of labour for the attainment of such ends would be misapplied; nor could the community ever be called upon for their exertions to a better purpose. But in truth any machine which requires much attention must be constructed upon an injudicious principle, and is scarcely worth the expense of maintaining it in action. It is not for us to determine whether the principle for which we have contended be liable to this objection: the obvious objection to which it is liable will apply to any principle whatever upon which the poor laws may be reformed ;-and reformed they must be, or the alternative is ruin.

Let us here be permitted to repeat our hope, that upon this subject, if it be possible, all party feelings may be suspended. There is something in our country peculiarly favourable to their growth, as animal poisons acquire a deadlier malignity under the torrid zone. But this is a question upon which all well-meaning men, to whatever class, order, or genus, in politics or religion, they may belong, can have but one interest and one wish. The legislature is called relieve the landed property of the country from a burthen which it is no longer able to bear; and to raise the respectability of the lower classes, which beyond all doubt it is the tendency of the poor laws to destroy. As they are desirous that these objects, so essential to the very existence of the state, and to the welfare of all ranks, should be effected, we hope and trust that all well-meaning persons, (who are and ever must be, under institutions like those with which Great Britain is blest, the great majority of the people,)-we hope and trust that all such persons will consider the question separately from all considerations of party, and co-operate with their best endeavours in carrying into effect a reform, which will in its consequences eradicate half the vice and misery in the land. For upon this subject, more than upon any other, it is easy to inflame the populace, and it would be absurd to endeavour to conceal from ourselves, that from causes not now to be enumerated, few countries were ever in a more inflammable state than England is at this time.

The insurrection, if so it may be termed, in the Isle of Ely ought to be held in perpetual remembrance by those who have to legislate in any affairs connected with the situation or feelings of the multitude. No place in England can be more remote from the factiousness and profligacy supposed to be characteristic of a manufacturing district. A more quiet and secluded spot is not to be found in the whole kingdom; the city itself, islanded formerly by water and now by marshes, is but a small market town where the wants of the neighbouring villages are supplied, and is, in fact, a peculiar jurisdiction of the bishop who resides there, and who usually preaches on the Sunday in the cathedral, (one of the most venerable of all those venerable edifices,)the congregations of all the parish churches repairing thither to hear him preach after their own prayers are finished. In this neighbourhood, which seems to be the very place where an insurrection was least to be expected, a set of countrymen, meeting at an alehouse, and drinking to excess while they talked over the scarcity, the hardness of the times, and the measures of government as they were represented by the weekly journals, whose poison they sucked in with their liquor, broke out into a riot; it began thus casually, but it found such ready imitation, that a large proportion of the villagers round about Ely enlisted in the cause, and marched against that city to pillage and destroy. The mischief which they had begun 'was quelled, as is well known, by the exertions of a reverend magistrate, whose prudence and courage would not always find imitators in like cases. When the rioters were tried they were found to be without motive and without meaning. They had been taught that the government of the country, and the administration of justice, were equally weak and contemptible, and they had proceeded to carry into practice the lessons of men who, perhaps, had little further object in vending their weekly doses of sedition than that of gaining a miserable livelihood. To such insurrections every place in England is at least as liable as Ely; and the incendiary spirit must not be forgotten which manifested itself, about the same time, in the neighbouring counties against the barns and corn of those farmers who were unpopular among the poor.

If, therefore, the poor laws are to be reformed under the sanction of the legislature, all payers of poor rates must resolve to combine in mutual safeguard. Reformed these laws must be; they cannot be reformed without exciting a struggle between the destructive and conservative principles in society, the evil and the good, the profligate against the respectable; and too many are the advantages of the former in the contest. Fraud and violence are means which can readily be used, and seldom can be punished—that is, they can only be punished when the offence is brought home against one, perhaps, in a thousand, and not even then unless the jury are men who regard their duty and their oath more than their party opinions, or the fear of the multitude. If the first of these motives prevail, farewell to justice! if the second be suffered to predominate, farewell to peace, and order, and liberty, and all that renders life secure or desirable!

But besides the wicked, who are ready to join in any mischief, and besides the large portion of the population who would be persuaded by evil counsellors that they are aggrieved by any reform of the poor laws, faction and sedition have many natural allies, who would be called into action upon so promising an opportunity of resisting the laws and disturbing the regular course of society.



Almost every one who augments the long list of bankrupts and insolvents, when he foresees his own failure in business, finds a ready excuse for himself in attributing to government the effects of his own mismanagement and extravagance. Political discontent, indeed, is naturally connected with embarrassment in men of this description, and may be assumed as a tolerably certain indication that the complainant is near the end of his credit and resourcesa truth which most persons may find exemplified within their own observation. Nor must it be forgotten that the late war, having created a vast demand for newspapers while great events were in progress, a great number of persons, engaged in supplying that demand, now find it difficult to revert to


other pation. They are under the necessity of supplying something which shall stimulate the public appetite ; the unbridled slander of a government, faulty only in its inability to repress the turbulent, is a topic always at hand and never out of season, and upon this topic envy, hatred, and malice may be palmed upon the world for patriotism and public virtue, the most atrocious falsehood may pass current, and the grossest ignorance go undetected. The habitual readers of such lucubrations form a large class of society, and the great majority imbibe, in all sincerity and simpleness, the opinions of such teachers. Their teachers pretend to speak the public voice, and to be the organ of the people, who, in truth, are their proselytes and dupes. Coffee-house politicians are naturally the tattlers of social life, and one bold uncontradicted propagandist of anarchy misleads many an industrious and well-disposed member of the community, who, attending to his own affairs too closely to think of politics for himself, takes his opinion from any voluble prater who will be pleased to think for him.

We shall not seek further to increase the ancient catalogue of the factious, as given by the prophet Samuel, but we cannot help adverting to a class of men, once the hope and pride and safeguard of their country, and now, by no fault or error of their own, in circumstances which render them apt agents for any perilous drama in the political world. In times of war all ranks are invited into the service; and at the end of the war the greater number must be dismissed, or the nation would sink under the enormous burthen. Nor do we here allude to those only who have been actually employed in the war-establishment, civil as well as military, but we extend our view to those whose parents have been tempted to educate them for a higher calling than their own circumstances would have pointed out, had not the army and navy presented a field of occupation prospectively large enough for all such. How many thousands of men, from fifteen to thirty years of age, the llower of their country, are now languishing in poverty and inaction


as half-pay officers, and as youths educated for a purpose which the course of events has frustrated! Let us honestly confess how Jittle likely it is that men under such circumstances should be averse to any movement which might employ the listless hours, and call into full action the vacant energies of disappointed hope ;- let us condescend to perceive that in case of civil commotion, those who are now scarcely noticed but as a dseless burthen, would rise to commanding stations in society,--and then let us calculate the aggregate power and force of men in the full vigour of their faculties, and prodigal of life because they are not satisfied with their lot. We call on government to consider the hardships sustained by these individuals, and the danger incurred by not adverting to it; and we ask why the practice of antiquity in such cases is not imitated ? Colonies we have, and in various climates, to which slender encouragement would tempt the adventurous; and we cannot but think that with this view a liberal advance of money to a few thousands of those whom we have described, would be a proper act of national justice, and a prudent expenditure for national safety. The whole sum would go in the encouragement of our manufactures, and of the shipping interest; this would be its immediate application,—and with good prospect of an ample return hereafter in the additional customers who would be created.

But whatever steps are taken, we may rest assured that the poor laws cannot be amended in any decisive or satisfactory manner, without endangering the public peace, (for proof of this it is sufficient to instance the corn bill, and the first establishment of turnpikes ;) and as the poor laws must of necessity merge in one general destruction all the landed property in England, unless they are effectually amended, the question which arises is, in what manner to secure the public tranquillity without alarming any constitutional jealousy which might divide the opinion of the well-disposed, at a time when the strict union of all such would be especially needful.

Without venturing to prescribe the mode, we may assume that some military array ought to be formed, which would annibilate all final hope of success in a modern jacquery or insurrection * of the poor against the elements of human society. But prevention is better than punishment; and a species of injustice would be committed if simultaneous measures of prevention were not taken. Every agricultural parish might be called upon to find a quota of special constables, composed of farmers and proprietors, who would promptly range themselves under the direction of the parish constable, in case any breach of the peace were committed or threatened; and the head constable of the hundred, or ratber of

* A volume comprizi the history of all such insurrections would be not less interesting than useful. Half the public are ignorant of the aweful examples of mob-power.


« PreviousContinue »