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ART. III. Observations on the Injurious Consequences of the
Restrictions upon Foreign Commerce. By a Member of the late Parliament. pp. 87. London, 1820.
In spite of all that has been said and written to the contrary, 1 we have not the shadow of a doubt that high wages are by far the most effectual means that can be devised for promoting industry, and attaching the bulk of the people to the institutions under which they live. The desire to accumulate property, and to rise in the world, is deeply seated in the human breast, and is in fact the source of all the improvements which have ever been made. In countries where the wages of labour are high, a workman, by availing himself of the means within his reach, may not only gain a considerable command over the necessaries and comforts of life, but has it in his power to attain to a state of comparative affluence and independence. In such countries the rights of property will be respected ; and for this plain reason, that every individual feels that he derives a direct advantage from their institution, and that without them he could not peaceably enjoy the fruits of his industry. The example of the United States shows the truth of this reasoning. Our Transatlantic brethren have no national religion—they have no societies for the suppression of vice, or the building of churches; nor is their administration supported and strengthened by the colossal establishments of the Old World. But, on the other hand, every citizen of the United States is impressed with the conviction, that honest exertion is sufficient to make him rich, and that intelligence and good conduct may raise him to the highest honours of the State. The real, solid, and palpable advantages which he enjoys, make him turn a deaf ear to the harangues of itinerant demagogues, and the dreams of visionary enthusiasts. Cobbet in Long Island was quite as little attended to as the Laureate in Westmoreland: Nor has the utmost efforts of a press a thousand times as licentious as that of England, and the freest circulation of the theological writings of Paine and Palmer, and myriads more of their caste, been able to give a moment's disturbance to the smallest village in America. We must not, therefore, deceive ourselves, by supposing that the irritation which exists in this country has been occasioned either by the intemperance of the press, or the efforts of a few seditious demagogues. It originates in causes which cannot be so easily controled; nor would it be materially affected by the suppression of every newspaper in the kingdom.
Wherever the wages of labour are so low as merely to afford
a pittance to support a miserable existence, we must not expect that the institutions of society will be either greatly venerated or respected. Nothing, indeed, but the terrors of criminal justice, can ever afford a sufficient guarantee for the obedience of a population pressing against the limits of subsistence, and whose wages cannot provide for their comfortable support. It is idle to expect industry where it does not meet with a suitable reward. And where men are not industrious, and are at the same time pinched by want, we are certain to meet with idleness, dissipation, and crime.
But whatever may be the general effect of low wages, or, ' which is the same thing, of a comparatively limited command over the necessaries and luxuries of life, on the peace of society, it is plain it must be most perceptible during the period when a transition is making from a higher to a lower rate. A population who have never known better days-who have always been sunk in the abyss of poverty—and who are entire strangers to those comforts and enjoyments which sooth the toils of their brethren in happier circumstances-may not be discontented, though it is impossible that they should be either active, enterprising, or industrious. But when a wealthy and flourishing population is suddenly reduced to a state of indigence, they will not manifest such apathy. Great discontent and dissatisfaction have ever accompanied an increased difficulty of living; and it is perhaps not greatly to be lamented, that it should be so: For nothing could prevent a people, who submitted without a struggle to such privations, from sinking below the level of the lower animals.
Now, this is precisely the condition of the manufacturing classes in Great Britain. They have been suddenly reduced from affluence and prosperity to the extreme of poverty and misery. In one of the debates in the late Session of Parliament, * it was stated, that the wages of weavers in Glasgow and its vicinity, which, when highest, had averaged about 25s. or 278. a week, had been reducel in 1816 to 10s.; and in 1819 to the wretched pittance of 5s. 6d. or 6s. They have not since been materially augmented : And the consequence has been, that after exhausting the funds of those friendly societies which had been organized in happier times, and selling their furniture and clothes, the weavers have literally sunk into a state of starvation. The same is the case with the manufacturing classes in Renfrewshire, and throughout England. In Lancashire the weavers are divided
* Mr Bennet's Motion for an Inquiry into the State of the Manų. facturing Districts, 9th December 1819.
into different classes; and wages vary from 6s. to 12s. a week for 15 hours' labour a day. They are nearly destitute of fuel and clothes; their bedding consists only of sacks filled with straw and chips; and their food is at once déficient in quantity, and of the coarsest and least nutritive kind.-But the condition of the children is chiefly calculated to excite sympathy and compassion. The necessities of their parents has occasioned their being employed in factories from the tenderest years; and at this moment a very large proportion of the half starved children of the manufacturing districts, are shut up for 12 or 16 hours a day, to the irreparable injury of their health and morals, for a recompense of not more than 2s. or 3s. a week. The distresses of the cloth weavers of Yorkshire, are, if possible, still more severe than those of the cotton weavers of Lancashire: And the combined operation of taxation and the poor's rates, has reduced the smaller proprietors and farmers nearly to the same hopeless condition as the manufacturers. I
Perhaps, however, the silk weavers of Coventry and other places, and the frame-work knitters of Nottingham, have sunk the lowest in the scale of degradation. Last May, a petition was presented to the House of Commons by Mr Moore, from the Mayor and Corporation of Coventry, stating that the poor's rates on the landed property in the district contiguous to the town, amounted to 45s. per acre, and to 19s. per pound on the rents of the houses within the town. But, notwithstanding this enormous assessment, the weavers were in a state of the greatest distress. Many thousands were absolute paupers, and depended entirely for support on the rates. Of those in employ. ment, such as had frames of their own, and who worked 16 hours a day, were only in the receipt of 10s. a week; the second class, whose frames were furnished by the master manufacturers, earned in all about 5s. 6d.; and the third, or inferior class of workmen, only from 2s. 9d. to Is. 6d. a week, or from 5}d, to 3d. a day! The petition prayed, that the House would interfere to regulate the rate of wages; but this they wisely declined,—though it is difficult to perceive, unless some considerable assistance be administered, how these unfortunate persons can possibly escape falling a sacrifice to famine.
I The quantity of broad and narrow cloths milled in Yorkshire in the year 1819–20, was 2,672,102 yards less than the quantity milled in the previous year; which was itself nearly one million of yards short of the quantity milled in 1817. The total decline in the two ļast years has amounted to nearly ONE FOURTH part of the entire ma. nufacture,
We have been at some pains to make the proper inquiries, and we have learned, that the statements in an address published last August, by the frame-work knitters of Nottingham, and of which the following is an extract, are not in the slightest degree exaggerated. After working from 14 to 16 hours a • day, we only earn from 4s. to 7s. a week, to maintain our 6 wives and families upon; and we farther state, that although
we have substituted bread and water, or potatoes and salt, for 16 that more wholesome food an Englishman's table used to
abound with, we have repeatedly retired, after a heavy day's labour, and been under the necessity of putting our children
supperless to bed, to stifle the cries of hunger. We can most • solemnly declare, that for the last eighteen months we have • scarcely known what it was to be free from the pains of hunger.'
The population of the manufacturing districts cannot be estimated at less than two and a half, or three millions; and certainly it could not previously have been supposed, that so very numerous a body should have been cast down from their former comfortable condition, to that pitch of misery and wretchedness we have just described, without occasioning much more violent commotions than have actually taken place. The folly and the guilt of those who have had recourse to violence and depredation, cannot indeed be palliated; and must be repressed by suitable punishment. But the root of the distemper is not in the depraved character of the people, but in the miseries of their condition. The severe pressure of positive want and famine, and not the circulation of a few miserable pamphlets, has been the cause of all the discontent and disaffection of which we have heard so much. Give the weavers bread, or the means of acquiring it, and the traitorous schemes of the Radicals will vanish like the baseless fabric of a vision.' The distresses, and not the evil inclinations of the people, induced them, like drowning men, to catch at a straw, and to believe that the venerable Major's radical pill would purge away all their misery. * Had the lower classes been always familiar with workhouses, rags, and wretchedness, such privations might be submitted to in siIent despair. But the greater number of them have seen better days; and the change is consequently most hard to be borne.'
* This is the opinion of the Manchester Magistrates themselves, In a communication to Lord Sidmouth, dated 1st July 1819, they state, that the manufacturing classes are involved in deep distress; and when the people,' they observe, • are oppressed with hunger, we do not wonder at their giving car to any doctrines which they are told will redress their grievances,
If, therefore, Government be really desirous of restoring prosperity and tranquillity to the country, and of saving the great bulk of the people of Britain from all risk of being permanently reduced to the same hopeless and desperate condition as their brethren in Ireland, they must lose no time in adopting a different system from that on which they have hitherto acted. It is not by laws of additional severity, nor by adding to the already enormous amount of the standing army, that the peace of society can be effectually restored. Harsh and coercive measures, by alienating the affections, and degrading the character of the people, may annihilate even the possibility of future improvement ; but it is not in the nature of things, that they should mitigate or remove the real evils of which the people have at this moment so very great reason to complain.
But the mischief will not stop here.—Should the present system be persevered in, it will do more than perpetuate the discontents, and degrade the condition of the labourer. Neither the country gentlemen nor the fundholders must flatter themselves with the vain and delusive idea, that they shall be able to perpetuate their existence, and to continue quietly to enjoy their fortunes, in a country in which the greater portion of the inhabitants are poor and miserable, and where à compulsory provision for the support of the poor has been long organized. If the wealthier classes would save their fortunes from destruction, they must lend all the assistance in their power to those who are urging the necessity of abandoning that factitious and unnatural system which has caused so much misery. Nor is there a moment's time to be lost. The evils under which we now suffer will soon become incurable; and, ere long, the utmost efforts of the Government and the people will be unable to stop the torrent of pauperism, and the efAux of capital. During the last fifteen years, the assessments for the support of the Poor have increased from FOUR to TEN or TWELVE millions : But the cry for relief is notwithstanding louder and more pressing, at this, than at any former period. Far, indeed, from there being any ground whatever for considering this frightful progression as having approached its termination, it cannot fail to have been prodigiously accelerated. Paupers and Poor-laws act and react, produce and reproduce each other, in a geometrical progression. If this system be not effectually counteracted, or, which is the same thing, if the Poor be not enabled to provide for themselves, it will in a very few years infect all classes with the plague of universal poverty, and sink both high and low below the level of what was.