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by act of Parliament to be felonies without benefit of clergy; or in other words, to be worthy of instant death."
What language can convey to the mind of a modern so striking a picture of the estimate the aristocracy of England have always placed upon man, as is found on the statute book (Geo. I. C. 22, and 31, Geo. II, C. 42,).where the punishment of death is to be inflicted on the man who shall break down the mound of a fish pond, whereby any fish shall escape, or cut down a cherry-tree in an orchard! One such inhuman law is as good as a hundred, to show the spirit of English legislation in past ages. What must have been the tyranny of power, or the condition of its victims, when to steal a loaf of bread, or a bit of meat, worth twelve pence, even though the wretch might be starving with his wife and children, condemned him to death!
The Poor Laws.—Much has been said on all sides, of the “ English Poor Laws," __“ Poor Laws, indeed,” said the Irish orator, “ they are rightly named,”—for it seems to be the opinion of very many persons well qualified to decide, that although they have been sustained ostensibly for the benefit of the poor, they have been to them a great curse; that in all their forms and variations they have only been a complicated machine of despotism. As my views of this subject may
not correspond with the opinions of many other persons, lest I should be thought singular, I refer the reader to a number of papers on the Corn Laws, in the Edinburgh Review, and particularly to an able article in the October No. of that Journal for 1841, in which will be found a full confirmation of my views and statements.
The writer of this paper, which appeared in October, 1841, does not hesitate to say, in speaking of the origin of these laws: “We believe that the English Poor Laws originated in selfishness, ignorance and pride; we are convinced that their origin was an attempt substantially to restore the expiring system of slavery." And on the supposition that they were designed by their founders to effect benevolent designs, the writer says, “they have in scarcely a single instance attained their objects, and in most cases have produced effects precisely opposite to the intentions of their framers; that they have aggravated whatever they were intended to diminish, and produced whatever they were intended to prevent."
I have often noticed high commendations of the Poor Laws in American publications of established character, and from statesmen of some fame. Such commendations would probably have been withheld had the truth been known.
It appears that this benevolent legislation, so far from ameliorating the condition of the English poor, robbed them of what little liberty the iniquitous laws had hitherto spared them.
From the middle of the reign of Edward III. to the Poor Law Amendment Act, these laws “confined the labourer to his parish ; they dictated to him who should be his master; and they proportioned his wages, not to his services, but to his wants. Before the Poor Law Amendment Act, nothing but the power of arbitrary punishment was wanting in the pauperized parishes, to a complete system of predial slavery.”—(Ed. Rev.)
“The 23 Edward III. requires all servants to accept the wages that were usually given five or six years before ; and to serve by the year and not by the day; it fixes a positive rate of wages in many employments; forbids persons to quit places in which they have dwelt in winter, and seek employment elsewhere in summer, or to remove, in order to evade the act, from one county to another. A few years after, in 1360, the 34th Edward III. confirmed the previous statute, and added to the penalties which it imposed on labourers or artificers, absenting themselves from their services, that they should be branded on the forehead with the letter F."
“Twenty-eight years after, in 1388, was passed the 12th Richard II., which has generally been considered as the origin of the English Poor Laws. By that act, the acts of Edward III. are confirmed;" and fresh and severe penalties enacted, “and 'because labourers will not, (says the law) nor for a long season would not serve without outrageous and excessive hire, prices are fixed for their labour, and punishment awarded against the labourer who receives more, and the master who gives more. Persons who have been employed in husbandry until twelve years of age, are prohibited from becoming artizens.” This law makes no provision for the impotent poor, nor is there a clause in the whole act intended to benefit any person except the land owners who made the law. If the provisions of the act could have been enforced, the agricultural labourers, and they formed probably four-fifths of the population of England, though nominally free, would have been as effectually ascripti glebe, as any Polish serf. And to make a nearer approximation to slavery, in the next year (1389) the 13th Richard II. was passed, which directs the justices of every county to make proclamation every half-year at their discretion, according to the price of food, what wages every artificer and labourer shall receive by the day. This act, with some intervals, during which the legislature attempted itself to fix the prices of labour, remained substantially in force until the present century. A further attempt to reduce husbandry labourers to a hereditary cast of serfs, was made by the 7th Henry IV. cap. 17, (1405,) which, after reciting that the provisions of former acts were evaded by persons apprenticing their children to crafts in towns, so that there is such a scarcity of husbandry labourers, that gentlemen are impoverished, -(this is an honest confession, to say the least)—forbids persons not having 20s. a year in land to do so, under a penalty of a year's imprisonment. The first attempt on the part of a person dependent on his labour for his support, to assert free agency by changing his abode, or by making a bargain for his services, or even by refusing to work for 'bare meat and drink,' rendered him liable to be whipt and sent back to his place of birth, or last residence for three years, or according to some statutes, for one year, there to be at the disposal of the local authorities. The second attempt subjected him at one time to slavery for life, 'to be fed on bread and water, and refuse meat, and caused to work by beating, chaining, or otherwise,' and for the third he was to suffer death as a felon.”
“ In the early part of Elizabeth's reign, was passed a statute (5th Eliz. cap. 3, 1562) inflicting the usual penalties, whipping, slavery and death, on sturdy vagabonds," i. e. able-bodied men seeking employment, or in the words of the writer from whom I am quoting, “those who, having no property but their labour, presumed to act as if they had a right to dispose of it.”.
In 1572, another law was enacted, “ aggravating the penalty by subjecting the offenders (that is, all persons who would not work for what justices decided as wages) to whipping and burning for the first offence, and to the penalties of felony for the second."*
“ The 43d Eliz. deserves neither the praise nor