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DECAY OF ENGLISH LIBERTY, AND GROWTH OF
ENGLISH POOR LAWS.
Blackstone, whose Commentaries have been, for half a century, a common school-book, and whose opinions on the rise, growth and full development of British liberty, are generally received as true, as well in America as in Europe, maintains a theory the very opposite of that for which we are about to contend.
He holds that the appearance of the House of Commons, about the reign of Henry the Third, was the dawn of approaching liberty. We contend that it was the origin of the capitalist and moneyed interest government, destined finally to swallow up all other powers in the State, and to bring about the most selfish, exacting and unfeeling class, despotism. He thinks the emancipation of the serfs was another advance towards equality of rights and conditions. We think it aggravated inequality of conditions, and divested the liberated class of every valuable, social and political right. A short history of the English Poor Laws, which we shall annex, will enable the reader to decide between us on this head. He thinks the Reformation increased the liberties of the subject. We think that, in destroying the noblest charity fund in the world, the church lands, and abolishing a priesthood, the efficient and zealous friends of the poor, the Reformation tended to diminish the liberty of the mass of the people, and to impair their moral, social and physical well-being. He thinks that the Revolution, by increasing the power of the House of Commons, and lessening the prerogative of the Crown, and the influence of the Church, promoted liberty. We think the Crown and the Church the natural friends, allies and guardians of the laboring class; the House of Commons, a moneyed firm, their natural enemies; and that the Revolution was a marked epoch in the steady decay of British liberty.
He thinks that the settlement of 1688 that successfully asserted in theory the supreme sovereignty of Parliament, but particularly the supreme sovereignty of the House of Commons, was the consummation or perfection of British liberty. We are sure, that that settlement, and the chartering of the Bank of England, which soon succeeded it, united the landed and moneyed interests, placed all the powers of government in their hands, and deprived the great laboring class of every valuable right and liberty. The nobility, the church, the king, were now powerless; and the mass of the
people, wholly unrepresented in the government, found themselves exposed to the grinding and pitiless despotism of their natural and hereditary enemies. Mr. Charles Dickens, who pities the condition of the negro slaves, thus sums up, in a late speech, the worse condition of the “Slaves without Masters," in Great Britain: “Beneath all this, is a heaving mass of poverty, ignorance and crime.” Such is English liberty for the masses. Thirty thousand men own the lands of England, three thousand those of Scotland, and fewer still those of Ireland. The great mass of the people are cut off from the soil, have no certain means of subsistence, and are trespassers upon the earth, without a single valuable or available right. Contrast their situations with that of the old villeins, and see then whether our theory of British liberty and the British constitution be true, or that of Blackstone.
All writers agree there were no beggars or paupers in England until the liberation of the serfs; and moreover admit that slaves, in all ages and in all countries, have had all their physical wants sufficiently supplied. They also concur in stating, that crime was multiplied by turning loose on society a class of men who had been accustomed to and still needed the control of masters.
Until the liberation of the villeins, every man in England had his appropriate situation and duties, and a mutual and adequate interest in the
soil. Practically the lands of England were the common property of the people of England. The old Barons were not the representatives of particular classes in Parliament, but the friends, and faithful and able representatives of all classes; for the interests of all classes were identified. Monteil, a recent French author, who has written the most accurate and graphic description of social conditions during the Feudal ages, describes the serfs as the especial pets and favorites of the Barons. They were the most dependent, obedient, and useful members of the feudal society, and like younger
children, became favorites. The same class now constitute the Proletariat, the Lazzaroni, the Gypsies, the Parias, and the "pauper banditti" of Western Europe, and the Leperos of Mexico.
As slaves, they were loved and protected; as pretended freemen, they were execrated and persecuted.
Mr. Lester, a New York abolitionist, after a long and careful observation and study of the present condition of the English laboring class, solemnly avers, in his “Glory and Shame of England,” that he would sooner subject his child to Southern slavery, than have him to be a free laborer of England.
But it is the early history of the English Poor Laws, that proves most conclusively that the liberation of the villeins was a sham and a pretence, and that their situation has been worse, their rights fewer, and their liberties less, since emancipation than before. The Poor Laws, from the time of Edward the Third to that of Elizabeth, were laws to punish the poor, and to keep them at work for low wages. Not till late in the reign of Elizabeth, was any charitable provision made for them. Then, most of them would have starved, as the confiscation and sales of the church lands had deprived them of their only refuge, but for the new system of charity. The rich must have labor, and could not afford to let them all starve, although they were ready to attempt the most stringent means to prevent their increase.
In the Edinburgh Review, October, 1841, on Poor Law Reform, we find the following admirable history and synopsis of the English Poor Laws :
The great experiment of Poor Law amendment, which has now for seven years been in progress among our southern neighbors, appears to us to have been insufficiently attended to, and therefore to have been imperfectly understood in this part of the island. We do not believe that many of our Scottish readers are fully aware of the origin of the English Poor Laws, of the changes which they underwent, of the abuses which they created, of the remedy which has been applied; or of the obstacles which have diminished the success of that great measure, and now threaten its efficiency. And yet these are subjects of the deepest interest, even to those who study legislation merely as a science. A series of laws