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R E PORT.
To the Executive Committee of the
AMERICAN UNITARIAN AssociaTION.
GENTLEMEN, - On the 29th of February, 1832, a commission was appointed by our House of Representatives, 'to prepare, digest, and report to the next Legislature, such modifications, or changes in the pauper system of the Commonwealth, as they may deem expedient ; to appoint an agent to visit the principal establishments in the Commonwealth and elsewhere, for the public charge and support of the poor ; to collect the statistics of these institutions, and to report the facts so obtained to the Commissioners. I was one of the Commissioners for these objects ; and, at the request of the gentlemen associated with me, undertook the agency here referred to. By causes, however, which at the time I thought sufficient, the business of this agency was delayed till late in the last year. I was thus prevented from visiting many towns in the Commonwealth, which it had been my intention to visit for the above-named purposes, and had no leisure left to me for going beyond the bounds of our own State. Nor was this all. A Report was to be made to the Legislature at as early a day as possible
in its last session ; and a meeting of the commissioners, for an examination of the facts I had collected, could not be obtained till very near the time when their Report must be presented. On me, therefore, devolved as well the work of writing the Report, as of preparing the statements and tables which are appended to it. I refer to these circumstances, because I wish to avail myself of this opportunity of adverting again to some of the topics of that Report. The measures proposed in it are referred to the next meeting of the Legislature ; and the Report, with a bill for carrying these measures into operation, has been sent to every town in the Commonwealth, that the whole subject may be fairly brought before the whole people. It is a subject which has strong claims to very serious attention, for it involves great interests, both pecuniary and moral. Assured, however, as I am, of the correctness of the principles assumed in that Report, and aware of the very
defective manner in which they are there developed, I am glad of an opportunity to recur to them; and happy indeed shall I be, if I may thus do anything to lead to better provisions than have yet been made among us for the charge and support of the poor, and for the remedy and prevention of pauperism and crime.
The leading principles to which I would call your attention are, that provisions for the poor are the proper objects, not of legal enactment, but of christian humanity and charity ; – that this humanity and charity, if left unfettered by legal enactments, are sufficient for the security of the best provisions which can be made for all the classes of the indigent and necessitous; - and, that the result of interpositions of human laws to secure obedience to the moral law of charity, ever has been,
and is, an increased, and even frightfully increasing extent of the beggary and crime, which these laws have been intended to remedy. The first question which here naturally arises, is, what are the facts in the case ? To facts, then, let us appeal.
The influence which poor-laws have exerted upon pauperism in England, is, I well know, a question upon which her statesmen and philanthropists have held, and still hold, very different opinions. Nor is it to be doubted that other causes than poor-laws have alone produced an equal, or a greater pauperism elsewhere. The pauperism of Ireland, for example, where there are no poor-laws, is even far more extensive and dreadful than that of England. But, on this subject, no fair comparison can be instituted between England and Ireland. With the exception of Poland, Ireland has been, and is, the most cruelly oppressed country in Christendom; and, in her oppressions, which I need not enumerate, we have causes sufficient to account
conceivable want, and degradation, and wretchedness, to which the population there, or any where, could be reduced. Not so is it with pauperism in England. There it has grown with the very progress of liberty; and, even under circumstances of the greatest prosperity in all the departments of human enterprise. There, too, it has called forth an unexampled voluntary assessment for its relief; and yet it has grown under the combined pressure of these measures for keeping it down. How, then, is this fact to be accounted for ? Let me refer you, for a moment, to the history of English Poor-Laws, and I think you will be satisfied that they are, in part at least, accountable for the extent and miseries of English pauperism. VOL. VI.NO. LXXII.
The earliest legislative act respecting the poor in England, of which I have seen any notice, is that of the twenty-third of Edward III., in 1349. By this act, 'persons were declared guilty of an offence in relieving beggars able to work.' A very different measure followed in the twelfth of Richard II., 1388. It was then
directed that the ordinary, or clergy of the district, should receive collections, and distribute them to the impotent poor. This is the first legal requisition for the support of the poor of which I have any knowledge ; and the practice' under it, it is said, was, that if any person did not contribute charitable alms for the poor,
he was summoned before the ordinary, who reproved him. If he was contumacious, he was summoned before the Ecclesiastical Court, and might be excommunicated; and then served with a Bishop's, or Chancery writ, which confiscated the whole of his effects, and imprisoned him for life.' How far this law secured an abundance of alms for the poor, I know not.
That it could not have excited charity in the heart, or have led to the contribution of charitable alms,' will, I think, be most manifest to every one. That it did not lessen the number, or improve the character of the poor, is intimated by the enactment 'in 1495, the eleventh of Henry VII.,' by which vagabonds were to be put into the stocks for three days and nights, and to be fed upon bread and water; and any person who should relieve them with food was to forfeit twelve pence, (three shillings).' These vagabonds were the able-bodied beggars of the time; and the punishment here inflicted upon beggary implies that the evil had become a greatly increased one, and that it was thought to have demanded a very strong remedy. “Eight years afterwards, these laws were confirmed. But 'in 1535, a new principle was