Imatges de pàgina

made to feel that the mis-information of modern times is more injurious to society than the non-information of our forefatherserror being in most cases worse than ignorance. But great and lasting good will be produced out of this transitory evil, if the alarm excited by the amount of the poor-rate in these two excessive years shall rouse the legislature to a spirit equal to the occasion, so that they may meet and subdue a danger, which, unless it be met and subdued, threatens at no very distant time to destroy agriculture, and by inevitable consequences to annihilate all the institutions of human policy and human civilization. Moss may gather upon the trunk and branches of a fruit tree while it is in full bearing; but the tree must perish unless this destructive vegetation be cleared away. The probable amount beyond which the assessments cannot be augmented is thus become matter of consideration; and the Committee on the poor laws, who have omitted nothing of general import in their admirable Report, speak thus of that extreme limit which must precede the great catastrophe : • Whatever indeed that may be, it appears certain that the landowners and the farmers would cease to have an adequate interest in continuing the cultivation of the land, long before the gross amount of ihe present rental could be transferred to the poor-rate; for it is obvious, that a number of charges must be provided for out of the gross rental of land, without an adequate provision for which the land cannot be occupied; the general expenses of management, the construction and repairs of buildings, drains, and other expensive works, to which the tenant's capital cannot reach, constitute the principal part of these charges, and the portion of the gross rent which is applied to these purposes, can never be applied to the augmentation of the poor-rate.

• Even if it can be thought possible that any landlord could suffer his land 10 be occupied and cultivated, or that he would continue to give to it the general superintendance of an owner, when the whole of the nett rental was transferred to the poor, it is perfectly clear that no tenant could hold a farm upon the condition of maintaining all the poor who might under any circumstances want relief; it would be as much impossible for a tenant to do so as to undertake to pay any rent which the wants of his landlord might induce him to desire, which condition could never be complied with. The apprehension, however, of being placed in such a situation as this, could not fail to deter persons from holding land long before they paid to the poor-rate as much as they would otherwise pay in rent; and as under these circuinstances, the land-owner would still remain entitled to the soil, the paupers could not enter and cultivate for themselves; nor could it be occupied for any beneficial purpose, as whatever stock might be found on the land would be liable to distress for poor-rate.'--p. 9.

Our approach to this state of things may be estimated by assuming the assessable rental at* fifty millions, and the heaviest burthen

The total rental of real property is upwards of 52,000,0001. but many deductions are to be allowed for, as not assessable to the poor's rate under any contingency.

[ocr errors][ocr errors][ocr errors]

of poor rates and other rates yet known at ten millions. This is usually called four shillings in the pound; but in truth it is not to that extent: the accurate phrase being on the pound, and the difference of fact very great when the poor-rates shall approach their extreme limit. For it sounds like an impossibility to say that the poor-rates are thirty or forty shillings in the pound, and is commonly thought to be explained by remembering that an ancient rental is usually assumed as the basis of the assessment; although unfortunately it is but too true that in some parishes the rates are really above twenty shillings on the pound, though not in it. For the rent decreases as the rates increase, and the true state of the case is to be found by adding together the rental and poor's-rate; when it becomes evident that twenty shillings on the pound is but half the actual rental, as forty shillings on the pound would be but twothirds, and even sixty shillings on the pound represents no more than three-fourths of it.

Of all the counties Sussex is most burthened with poor-rates, having been rated at 7s. 8d. on the pound in 1813: this county is also known to pay more in tythes than any other, (Hampshire excepted,) that being a charge of 3s. 8d. on the rental of the land (in Hampshire the charge is Ss. 10d.) Thus the agriculture of Sussex, and no county is more entirely agricultural, has probably been burthened with about 13s. 4d. on the pound (or two-hifths of the rental) in the years 1816 and 1817. True it is that in this county the custom of paying wages partly out of the poor’s-rate prevails to a great extent, as may be perceived from the remarkable variation of rate in 1813 and 1815; that of the latter year being no higher than 6s. on the pound. Berkshire, Wiltshire, Oxfordshire and Hampshire, neighbouring counties, and also agricultural, afford the same symptom of this injudicious practice. The pressure of late years has spread the evil considerably; and Essex, Suffolk* and Norfolk now have reason to complain of its effects. Meantime, in the northern counties of Northumberland, Durham, Cuinberland, Westmoreland, Cheshire, and the two non-manufacturing Ridings of Yorkshire, as well as in Lincolnshire, the expense of the poor in 1813, as compared to 1815, scarcely varies at all.

The mismanagement of the poor, or rather of the labouring classes in the southern counties, may be said to exaggerate the amount of the poor rates unfairly; but if a million a year were deducted in allowance for this practice, the sum remaining payable is sufficiently alarming. Nor is this the only cause of alarm: for the moral evil, superinduced by the operation of the poor laws, is such, that when its extent and variety are contemplated, the wonder is that all good principle is not obliterated. Already there is scarcely . See the Suffolk Petition.-pp. 166, 167. Poor Laws Report.

a parish

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 bappens, 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 iheir 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 contrivauce 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 subsiste ence. 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 right 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 him. self, and throw him off froin 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, bowever, 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 men

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 persons 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

« AnteriorContinua »