Imágenes de páginas
PDF
EPUB

ttatuie rigJit, when suing as paupers, to obtain from their parish, the means of sustenance; a right of precisely the same description as the. right of the clergy to the tithes, and having indeed the same origin. In that very species of property to •which pretensions of so lofty a nature are sometimes made on the ground of indefeasible, prescriptive right, the poor were once equally interested with the clergy themselves, a third part being reserved for their use. The original pretence for appropriating livings to religious shouses, was, that a perpetual provision might thereby be made for the sick and necessitous; and bequests to an immense amount have been made with this view, of which the poor have been shamefully defrauded. We lay no great stress upon these circumstances, because to talk of unalieuable or Divine rights in reference to the poor, though as much to the purpose as in reference to any other sort of political rights, could not be made to pass now a days for argument. Long before the dissolution of the monastic orders in the reign of Henry the Eighth, the distressed poor had ceased to be the recipients of any just proportion of the funds destined for their relief. Nevertheless, theirs it was, by canon and by custom, and the seizure of the church property involved, at the same time, an arbitrary appropriation of the property of the poor. It is true, that the money thus distributed was a bounty; that is, its distribution was discretionary. The same may be said of the funds devised to charitable institutions in general for the education as well as for the maintenance of the poor; but their application to other purposes is not the less a public robbery.

The tendency of this species of provision, was, it may be admitted, to encourage mendicity and pauperism, but it accorded with the institutions and spirit of the times. Mendicity ia the inseparable attendant upon that superstition which attributes to alms-giving a meritorious and even expiatory efficacy; vagrants were the deposite of the feudal system. The lawless conduct of this miserable description of poor, who were in fact little better than out-laws, rendered them the constant object of legislative precautions and severities. Mr. Bicheno, in his interesting sketch of the origin of the poor laws, has given a detail of the bloody and disgraceful edicts by which, at successive periods, it has been attempted to suppress or to extirpate vagrancy. The principal Act now in force, is the 17th George II c. 5. by which vagrants arc to be publicly whipped, or sent to the House of Correction, or sent into His Majesty's service, or transported. All gipsies fall under this description: they are accordingly hunted like beasts of prey from township to township, and exist in a neighbourhood only by sufferance. At the same time that these measures were adopted for the purpose of repressing the wilful poverty which was supposed to originate in idleness, the Legislature found themselves under a sort of necessity to provide for the relief of the impotent poor. Indeed, the indiscriminating severity of the enactments against vagrancy, and the indefinite nature of the offence, rendered some species of legal provision for those who were thus cut off from the last resource of indigence, an act, we might almost say, of justice. One part of the system necessarily arose out of the other. The poor were forbidden to beg; as some compensation for this restriction, they were not allowed to starve.

Begging by a license, under seal, from a justice, was allowed by a statute of Henry VIII.; but five years after, an act was passed, direct ing the officers of every place to provide for such persons, by voluntary alms collected in boxes every Sunday and holyday from the parishoners, the express object of which enactment was to obviate the necessity of their 'going openly in * begging.' By degrees this collection, from the necessity of the case, and from the attempts made to evade the voluntary contribution, assumed more and more the form of an assessment. By the act 5th Elizabeth, c. 3, the justices had power to assess any inhabitants who refused to contribute, in any weekly sum they thought fit. The 39th of the same reign first gave authority to the overseers to raise the tax upon occupiers of land. At length, in the 43rd of Elizabeth, the principle of compulsory assessment was fully established.

Thus the Poor Laws, it is evident, grew out of the previous enactments; they were a collateral branch of the laws against mendicity; they were designed to take away all excuse from vagrants, and to render the suppression of this class of persons practicable. Nor ought it to be concealed that they have in great measure answered this end. The Poor Laws, in connexion with the Vagrant Laws, have kept down mendicity, by destroying the plea, as well as intimidating the tone, of the beggar. So long as the latter remain in force, the continuance of the former might seem to be only equitable. This consideration must be allowed to deserve at least some attention, in connexion with the rights of the poor.

And here it may be as well just to advert to the only alternative of which the circumstances of the times, as it appears to us, would admit;—the system of parochial relief, or, an unbridled, dissolute, and rapacious mendicity. Unpopular as any defence of the Poor Laws is likely to be at the present moment, there is, we think, a great deal of force in the remarks which Mr. Nicoll has introduced upon this subject.

'Be the demerits of the Poor Laws,' gays this Gentleman, ' what 'they may, they possess counterbalancing advantages of no inferior value. Allowing that fraud u in many cases successful, and indolence

[graphic]

In others encouraged, on the whole a large proportion of the labouring classes of this country are sober, decent, orderly, possessed of many comforts, and content with their station. There is no one circumstance more marked by the foreigner, than the means of enjoyment possessed by the lower orders of this kingdom. Suppose we*could not absolutely connect this state of things with the Poor Laws as on effect proceeding from them; yet, as it has clearly arisen whilst these laws were in full operation, it would be bold indeed to determine the contrary; that is, absolutely to deny all connexion. I do not hesitate very much to attribute the comforts and respectability of the labouring class, to the general and compulsory right of maintenance, precluding, or at least greatly checking a system of vagrancy.*

4 When, from the reverses to which commerce is at all times liable, ten, twenty, thirty thousand inhabitants of a single town, are reduced to distress, what, short of compulsory support, could ward off the horrors of famine? Without tins preventive, the most dreadful diseases would arise in one generation, and be communicated to others. Vagrancy must become almost universal; for it is only by securing subsistence to the pauper at home, that you can pretend to exclude him from seeking it abroad; and than vagrancy there is no more determined enemy of health, morals, and industry. The plan might commence with the inhabitants of towns in a state of decay; but the idle, the profligate, and the dishonest of all other places, would join them; and so the practice would spread without limit.

'Even amongst the well disposed poor, cases of distress from illness or the pressure of a family, must at all times be numerous; and where now occasional relief retains a ma,n in his village, the want of that relief would throw his whole family into a state of mendicity. At first his children would apply in their immediate neighbourhood, next the circle would be somewhat enlarged, the mother would then join the party, and at length the whole family would take their station with the permanent and hardened beggar.

• The Poor Laws have unquestionably checked the system of Vagrancy in a very great degree. If they do not hereafter extirpate it, the fault lies with the constable and the magistrate. Though the vagrant, when stationary, adds somewhat to the burden of his particular parish, do not the united theft and extortion to which his vagrancy gives rise, add ten times more to the burden of the kingdom at Targe?

'We have florid descriptions of the mischief introduced by these

• « Strype relates ( Annals, v. 10, p. 290,) that there were at least

• three or four hundred able-bodied vagrants in every county of

• England, who lived by theft and rapine. Harrison computes (De•scription of Britain, 15. II. c. xi,) that Henry the Eighth, in the 'course of his reign, hanged threescore and twelve thousand great 1 thieves, petty thieves, and vagabonds. In the reign of Queen.

• Elizabeth, the annual executions of thieves, amounted to about

• four hundred; and martial law was at one time proclaimed against

• the vagabonds who infested the streets of London.' Graltame an Population, p. 39. . .'

Vol. X. N.S. T

laws. I would that equally striking ones were given of those they have removed or palliated; of a wretchedness of a great part of the poor where they do not prevail. The poor of Scotland are frequently mentioned; hear what is said by Fletcher and Salton: " There are at this day in Scotland, besides a great many poor families very meanly provided for by the Church boxes, with others who by living upon bad food fall into various diseases, 200,000 people begging from door to door." What a proportion of the population of Scotland a century ago! Four or five years ago, Edinburgh was so overrun with beggars, that a most complex institution for suppressing mendicity was formed; it had perfect success ; but no one can review the organization of this plan, without seeing that nothing but a state of mendicity far exceeding any thing known in England, could have so stimulated a whole city.'* Summary View. pp. 45—7.

The Poor Laws do not, then, as has been represented, rest upon the mistaken principle, that every member of tbe community, unable to labour, has an abstract right to the means of sustenance; they do not recognise in the pauper any natural right to demand relief, but they confer that right, as a sort of compensation for the restriction which the laws of society impose upon his natural freedom, and as a bond of attachment to those laws. The relief of the poor is not the object at which these enactments terminate; they originated in policy, not in humanity, and they were designed, by the redress of an existing evil, to meliorate the condition of society. So far as they have had this effect, it is obvious that they have proved indirectly a benefit equally to the rich.

'What the law, and nothing but the law has given, the 'law,' it is admitted, 'may wholly withdraw.' But have the

* The enormous extent to which Mendicity prevails in the Italian States, has been remarked upon by every traveller. Bonaparte, by one of the most salutary exertions of despotic power, redressed, to a considerable extent, this grievous nuisance. A gentleman who visited Turin, in 1816, complains that at that period, « all the most frequented parts were infested with insolent or wretched

• beggars, a great proportion of whom are disabled or deformed, and « whose number and sturdy importunity are an absolute persecution

• to strangers. The French suppressed this practice, and provided

• a house near the. city for the reception of such persons; but the « restored government, as I was credibly informed, dissolved the 4 institution on account of its expence, and because it originated with «the French; turning the numerous mendicants loose upon the 'public; as strong a trait of weak prejudice and wicked parsimony 'as can be found, I should think, in any court or administration. (Sheppard's Letters, p. 57.) The necessity of combining some species of legislative provision with prohibitory severities, would seem to be uniformly recognised.

poor, in truth, under no circumstances, 'a distinct (political) c claim upon the property of the country at large, any more 'than any single pauper has on any private fortune?' Mr. Nicoll, whose words we are now using, has too hastily, we think, conceded the negative. In the. case of the discharged seamen, for instance, surely their immediate claim to legal provision must be acknowledged. Men who have been forced into that precarious service, and who, when the demand for the horrid and unprofitable species of labour in which they have been employed has subsided, are placed in circumstances of indigence, which no forethought or industry of theirs could possibly obviate, have, we must always contend, the strongest claims to a resource iu some fixed legislative provision. Nor is the difference between the arbitrary system of pressing, and the more insidious method of recruiting, sufficiently great to render the claims of the discharged soldiery to the same species of relief more questionable. The numbers of both these classes who were suddenly added to our unemployed and half employed population throughout the kingdom, at the conclusion of the War, very sensibly contributed to aggravate the pressure of the poor's rates. this is specifically adverted to in the Minutes of Evidence relating to the poor of Coventry. The above mentioned classes of unemployed labourers, may, perhaps, be considered its amounting only to an exception; but the exception is quite strong enough to overturn the assertion that the poor can have no moral or political claim, antecedent to the actual enactment of a legal provision, upon the property of the country. We think the case, if not equally strong, is clearly analogous, when political events occasion the sudden withdrawment of the funds for supporting any other particular species of labour. Whether the poor's rate be the best possible method of meeting such emergencies, may be questioned, but to some species of legislative provision the poor under such circumstances are in equity entitled. No one will dispute that they are then proper objects of relief, and, if of relief at all, of adequate relief; but adequate relief could be furnished only by some legislative provision. Private benevolence, it is a trite remark, is incomparably the most beneficial in its influence upon the moral character of the claimant; but at a period of general distress, this source of relief is precisely the least adequate to the suddenly augmented demand. The late distresses exceeded the utmost power of spontaneous liberality to alleviate them. Had there existed no compulsory means of relief, instead of partial disorders and local tumults, there would have been a universal ferment.

« Had one combined sympathy in suffering, raised every part of the kingdom to the same tone of discontent, neither Reports of

« AnteriorContinuar »