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are exhibited, persevered in for centuries, by a nation always eminent for practical wisdom, of which the result has almost invariably been failure, or worse than failure; which in scarcely a single instance have attained their objects, and in most cases have produced effects precisely opposite to the intentions of their framers;-have aggravated whatever they were intended to diminish, and produced whatever they were intended to prevent. From us, as Scotchmen, they merit peculiar attention, not only from the resemblance of our poor laws to the earlier English statutes; but from the probability that, as the connection between the two countries becomes more intimate, we shall at no distant period follow the example, whatever it may be, of the larger country to which we are united; and participate in the evils and advantages of the system which she may finally adopt. This fate already threatens Ireland. It is scarcely probable that Scotland can avoid it.
Each of the subjects to which we have alluded, would require a volume for its complete development; but we are constrained to give to them such consideration as is admissible within the limits of an article of moderate length.
The Committee of the House of Commons which considered the Poor Laws in 1817, commence their able Report by stating, that “the principle of a compulsory provision for the impotent, and for setting to work the able-bodied, originated, without doubt, in motives of the purest humanity.” From this statement, plausible as it is, we utterly dissent. We believe that the English poor laws originated in selfishness, ignorance, and pride. Bet
ter motives, without doubt, though misdirected by almost equal ignorance, dictated the changes which were made in those laws during the 18th century--the fourth which elapsed from their commencement; but we are convinced that their origin was an attempt substantially to restore the expiring system of slavery. The evils of slavery are now understood; it is admitted that it destroys all the nobler virtues, both moral and intellectual; that it leaves the slave without energy, without truth, without honesty, without industry, without providence; in short, without any of the qualities which fit men to be respected or even esteemed.
But mischievous as slavery is, it has many plausible advantages, and freedom many apparent dangers. The subsistence of a slave is safe; he cannot suffer from insufficient wages, or from want of employment; he has not to save for sickness or old age; he has not to provide for his family; he cannot waste in drunkenness the wages by which they were to be supported; his idleness or dishonesty cannot reduce them to misery; they suffer neither from his faults nor his follies. We believe that there are few of our Highland parishes in which there is not more suffering from poverty than would be found in an equal Russian population. Again, the master thinks that he gains by being able to proportion the slave's subsistence to his wants. In a state of freedom, average wages are always enough to support, with more or less comfort, but still to support, an average family. The unmarried slave receives merely his own maintenance. A freeman makes a bargain; he asks whatever his master can afford to pay. The competition among employers forces them to submit to these terms; and the highly paid workman often wastes his extra wages in idleness and debauchery. And when employment is abundant; that is, when his services are most wanted, he often tries to better himself by quitting his master. All this is disagreeable to masters who have been accustomed to the apparent economy of servile labor, and to its lethargic obedience.
The great motive of the framers of the earlier English poor laws was to remedy the latter class of inconveniences; those which affect, or appear to affect the master. The motive of the framers of the later acts again, beginning with George I., was to remedy the first class of evils : those which affect the free laborer and his family.
The first set of laws were barbarous and unskillful, and their failure is evident from their constant re-enactment or amendment, with different provisions and severer penalties. The second set had a different fate—they ultimately succeeded, in many districts, in giving to the laborer and to his family the security of servitude. They succeeded in relieving him and those who, in a state of real freedom, would have been dependent on him, from many of the penalties imposed by nature on idleness, improvidence, and misconduct. And by doing this, they in a great measure effected, though certainly against the intentions of the legislature, the object which had been vainly attempted by the earlier laws. They confined the laborer 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 prædial slavery.
Our limits will not allow us to do more than to state very briefly the material parts of the numerous statutes, beginning by the statute of laborers, 23d Edward III., (1349,) and ending by the 39th Eliz. cap. 4, (1597,) which were passed for the supposed benefit of masters.
The 23d Ed. III. requires all servants to accept the wages which were usually given five or six years before, and to serve by the year, not by the day; it fixes a positive rate of wages in many employments; forbids persons to quit the places in which they had dwelt in the winter, aud search employment elsewhere in the summer; or to remove, in order to evade the act, from one county to another. A few years after, in 1360, the 34th Ed. III. confirmed the previous statute, and added to the penalties, which it imposed on laborers or artificers absenting themselves from their services, that they should be branded on the forehead with the letter F. It imposed also a fine of £10 on the mayor and bailiffs of a town which did not deliver up a laborer or artificer who had left his service.
Twenty-eight years after, in 1388, was passed the 12th Rich. II., which has generally been considered as the origin of the English poor laws. By that act the acts of Ed. III. are confirmed-laborers are prohibited, on pain of imprisonment, from quitting their residences in search of work, unless provided with testimonials stating the cause of their absence, and the time of their returning, to be issued by justices of the peace at their discretion.
And, “because laborers will not, nor, for a long season, would not, serve without extrageous and excessive hire," prices are fixed for their labor; and punishments awarded against the laborer 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 artisans. Able-bodied beggars are to be treated as laborers wandering without passports. Impotent beggars are to remain where they are at the time of the proclamation of the act; or, if those places are unwilling or unable to support them, they are, within forty days, to repair to the places where they were born, and there dwell during their lives.
We have said that this act has been treated as the origin of the English poor laws. It has been so considered in consequence of the last clause, which is the first enactment recognizing the existence of the impotent poor. But this enactment makes no provision for them; though, by requiring them to be stationary in a given spot for the rest of their lives, it seems to assume that they would be supported there. It gives them, however, no claim, nor is there a clause in the whole act intended to benefit any persons except the employers of labor, and principally of agricultural labor—that is to say, the landowners who made the law. If the provisions of the act could have been enforced, the agricultural laborers, and they formed probably four-fifths of the population of England, though nominally free, would have been as effectually ascripti glebæ as any Polish serf. And, to make a nearer approximation to slavery, in the next year