Imágenes de páginas
PDF
EPUB

growth of this cancer in the body politic, as they would to stop the progress of the plague, or to extinguish a conflagration.

It is impossible to enter without anxiety upon the subject of the poor laws, perhaps the most arduous and the most important subject that ever came under the consideration of parliament. The provision which the laws of England have made for the poor is not more honourable in its principle and object than it is injurious in .its application: it operates as a perpetual bounty for the encouragement of pauperism ;—nothing can be more anomalous, and nothing more contradictory to the general spirit of our institutions. The" peculiar boast of an Englishman is that he cannot be taxed without .his own consent; but in this case he is liable to an assessment concerning which he has no voice, and against which he has no appeal. When the legislature imposes a tax, it always maturely considers the ability of the subject to bear it, and proportions the amount to that ability, as well as to the necessities of the state; here, there are no limits to the assessment, and it has gone on therefore in natural progression, till the absurdity stares us in the face, when it has brought us to the very brink of ruin. The respect paid to property is another distinguishing characteristic of the laws of England, the end and object indeed of the most extensive branch of the law being to secure to every person the enjoyment of that which is his own. But so perilously is this entrenched upon, by the manner in which the poor laws have been misapplied, (the misapplication having very generally grown into a custom,) that it may startle the reader to be told how nearly we have approached the fundamental principle of the Spencean philanthropists: these gentlemen themselves, perhaps, are not aware that 'a partnership in the land," such as they have confederated to obtain, has already been established:—that the territory of this kingdom may truly, at this time, be called the paupers' farm, from which every vagabond, who chuses to claim it, receives, in the course of the year, a larger sum, 'without tax, toll, or custom,' than the annual four pounds, which Mr. Evans apportions to every man, and child, as the profit of their natural estate. The Spe ncean plan mdeed, which seems to have been seriously aimed at by some of the disaffected visionaries of 1817, was not in its utmost intention so unjust or so ruinous as the natural effect of the poor rates will become, unless the system shall be effectually reformed by the wisdom and authority of parliament. Spence modestly required land-owners to quit what he called the people's .farm: the poor-rates will soon require generally (what they have already effected in some places) that the farms should be cultivated at the expense of the owner, for the benefit of others;—that is, in order to satisfy the demands of the poor. Such a state must speedily produce a revolution of the most dreadful description, a kind of

R 2 servile

servile war, with law on the wrong side; and yet being as it were pre-ordained to take place by a venerated law of our ancestors, it throws the invidious task of innovation on those who endeavour to maintain the existence of property, and the present order of things dependent upon it.

If we wished to make a foreigner understand in what manner momentous questions of internal policy are treated by the British legislature, the sagacity with which they are viewed in all their bearings, the diligence with which information is collected, and the discretion with which it is investigated and applied, we might refer to the Report of J uly last upon the Poor Laws. In attempting to lend our aid (however feeble) in support of what has been there so admirably begun, we shall endeavour to display the progress of the evil, in its pecuniary and moral effects; to notice the various expedients which have successively been proposed and practised in vain; and, lastly, to suggest such means as may tend to resist further encroachments upon property, and perhaps repel those which otherwise must ere long undermine the very structure of human society, in the very heart of the British empire.

It has been reasonably questioned whether the origin of the poor laws may be dated precisely from the reformation of religion in England; but it is certain that about the time of that great event they began to assume consistency by repeated enactments of the legislature, and at the close of the reign of Queen Elizabeth the celebrated statute was passed by which the property of the rich became eventually the property of such of the poor as would not, or could not, earn their own livelihood. How far this law was carried into effect during the first century of its existence, we have no data on which to calculate: first of all, no doubt, in the richest part of the kingdom, in and near the metropolis; and when, in the reign of Charles II. and in that of King William, the increase of the poor was noticed with some alarm, the evil could scarcely have extended into the northern counties, nor into Wales. Exaggeration indeed was not deficient in swelling the supposed amount of the poor rates; and a document preserved by Dr. Davenant, said to have been 'collected with great labour and expense by Mr. Arthur Moore, a very knowing person,'* actually specifies the exact amount of rates in every county, producing a total of 665,562/. or about a third part of the amount of the land tax which pressed so heavily on the landed interest during the wars against Louis XIV. How little Mr. Arthur Moore merited the epithet bestowed on him by Dr. Davenant, may be learned from the returns lately discovered by the Speaker,f from which it appears that many of the counties, in the

- • Eden's State of the Poor, vol. i. p. 230.

-f They were found in a closet, adjoining the IngrossiDg-office,

middle of the last century, raised a less sum than what was thus attributed to them seventy years before.

The Committee of last year on the Poor Laws justly lamented the want of any authentic accounts of the expenditure on the poor during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries; and a greater instance of the fallibility of unfounded calculation can scarcely be found than in that pamphleteer, who, in the year* 1752, thought fit to affirm that' the whole sum laid.out on the poor in South Britain amounted at a medium to near three millions yearly, according to the account given in to Parliament in 1751.' This statement was sufficiently disproved when, in 1776, the expenditure on the poor was ascertained to be about a million and a half; but the enormity of the error was unknown till the actual result of the returns of 1748, 1749, and 1750, appeared in the recent Poor Law Report, and the average sum at that time applicable to the maintenance of the poor was thereby proved to be no more than 690,000/., the whole amount of parochial assessments then being 730,000/. per annum.

The present state of knowledge as to the amount of the poor-rates at various periods appears to be as follows. In the middle of the last century, about 690,000/. per annum was applied to the relief of the poor; twenty-six years afterwards (in 1776) the sum of 1,53 1,000/.; eight years afterwards (on an average of 1783, 1784, and 1785) the sum of 2,004,000/.; nineteen years afterwards /(in 1803) the sum of 4,268,000/.; and the average expenditure on the poor in the years 1813, 1814, and 1815, was 6,l30,000/.f The

expenditure expenditure in 1816 and 1817, although its amount is unknown, has

* Eden's State of the Poor, vol. i. p. 314.

-f The five several returns mentioned in the text refer to the poor-rate year from Easter to Easter, and after correction, so as to make each of them represent 365 days, they may he used in the construction of four series of mean proportionals for estimating the amount of expenditure on the poor in the intermediate years.

The returns so corrected, and the corresponding prices of wheat averaged upon the half-yearly prices of—(l) the Easter commencing each poor-rate year; (2) the Michaelmas in it; and (3) the Easter at its termination, will stand thus:—

Expenditure on Corresponding average price

Year. the Poor. of the eight-gallon bushel.

1748 -) £. s. d.

1749 > Corrected average is . 662,000 4:5

1750.)

1776 . . amount is . . 1,566,000 6:9

1783")

1784 % Corrected average is : 2,010,000 ......7:7

1785 3

1803 . . amount is . . 4,368,000 8:1

1813")

1814 > Corrected average is . 6,147,000 12:8

1815 3

The amount of expenditure in the decennary years from 1750 to 1810 inclusive;

R 3" calculated

certainly far exceeded any former example.

According to this statement, the expenditure for the maintenance of the poor has increased ninefold since the middle of the last century; but this apparent rate of increase cannot fairly be taken as a ground of argument: the relief given to the poor in money must always be considered with reference to the price of provisions at the time, and as the average price of wheat has increased pretty regularly from four shillings to twelve shillings per bushel during the period in question, and the rental of laud accordingly, the burthen of the poor has not really increased more than three-fold, which indeed is sufficiently alarming; the more so as the cessation of the war, and the depression of credit in the years 1816 and 1817, carried the poor-rates to an amount which cannot be conjectured at much less than two millions per annum beyond the average of the three preceding years.

But heavily as the country suffered in those years, it is satisfactory to consider that such a combination of unfavourable circumstances is not likely to recur. The tremendous shock inflicted by the first operation of the Insolvency Act, aggravated by the new practice of fictitious bankruptcies, had prevented or baffled a great proportion of commercial enterprize; the country banks were compelled to withhold their advances; and the purposes of faction being admirably served by exaggerating the evil, all speculation was paralyzed, till the resources of our national wealth accumulated to an overflow, and gave the lie to ill-omened declaimers by sinking the interest of money about two per cent, with unexampled rapidity. Thus have we suffered from imaginary poverty, and are now at a loss to find employment for our money, which, had it been equally disbursed, might have kept the body politic in a healthy state throughout the whole season of this unnatural depression. How often are we

calculated herefrom, together with the price of wheat, (averaged on the decennary year, 'and the Bine half yearly prices before and after it,) will stand thus:—

Price of the eight Amount of expenditure catYear. Amount. gallon bushel. culated by one series. £. s. d. £.

1750 . . 713,000 ...4:2 716,000

1760 . . 965,000 ... 4 : 10 1,001,000

1770 . . 1,306,000 ...6:5 1,397,000

J780 . . 1,774,000 . . . 5 : 11 1,951,000

1790 ... 2,567,000 ... 6: 4 2,723,000

1800 . . 3,861,000 . . . 10: 2 . . . . . . 3,801,000

1810 . . 5,407,000 ... 12: 4 5,305,000

The last of these columns is inserted fer the purpose of exhibiting what must have been inferred had no actual return intervened from 1750 to 1815, and does not differ "very materially from the first column, which is more accurately inferred by taking into account all the several returns. The increment of the poor's rate from 1750 to 1815 has beeri about one thirtieth part annually,

made

made to feel that the mis-information of modern times is more injurious to society than the non-information of our forefathers!—error 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 the 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 caw be thought possible that any landlord could suffer his land to be occupied and cultivated, or that he would continue to give to "it the general superiutendance of an owner, when the whole of the uett 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 circumstances, 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 ot 52,0(10,0001. but many deduction are to be allowed for, as not assessable to the poor's rale under any contingency.

« AnteriorContinuar »