An Essay Picked by blupete

"Malthus And The Liberties Of The Poor" (1807) 1

WHEN the Rev. T. R. Malthus, that curious divine who surely has done more to discredit Christianity with the poor than all infidel writings put together, published his Essay on Population, he made himself conscience-keeper to the rich and great, especially to those of them who are not of a giving disposition, all in coining or at least popularizing for their use the magical phrase or formula 'surplus' or 'redundant' population. Many who would have shrunk from denying 'the poor' came almost to feel that they were doing a virtuous thing in denying the 'surplus' population a morsel out of their superfluity. It is not a pleasant thing, in these starving times, to see a beggar thrust from a door on the plea that there is not another morsel of food to supply the 'surplus' population, for in this mode of refusal peculiar wounding is added to the distress caused by the rejection of the petition. When I walk along the streets of London, thronged as they are with carriages and horses, and see this done, or when I see in the country a poor old man, bent fairly double with labour, who after a life of unceasing toil is obliged at last to beg his bread, told that he has no claim of right to the smallest portion of food-with the implication that in fact he has had no right to outlive his power to work-before being driven from the door of some rich man, with half a dozen sleek well-fed dogs bouncing out of their kennels at him, I know, what to think of an age and society that can encourage or even tolerate such a cruel sophism as one of the first laws of God and Nature. It is a fearful thing to insult human need with formulas like these.

I feel hardly less distress when a Bond Street lounger coming out of a confectioner's shop, where he has had a couple of basins of turtle-soup, an ice, some jellies, and a quantity of pastry, as he saunters out picking his teeth or in the act of putting his change into his pocket, says to a beggar at the door : " I have nothing for you." I confess, it has always cost me an additional penny when I have been accosted in this manner, caught, as it were, in the very act of indulging a sweet tooth. I never could find it in my heart to refuse an appeal at such a moment. Indeed, it was usually I who looked and felt aukward when thus circumstanced, rather than the beggar appealing to my sense of pity, for I never could help feeling that the glass-door through which I passed symbolized a difference of condition which vexed and shamed me. The rich and the poor may at present be compared to the two frequenters of pastry-cooks' shops, those on the inside of them and those on the out,

When Burke, just after he had been voted a pension of £4,000 a year, said that if the poor were to cut the throats of the rich, they would not have a meal the more for it, he reminded me of the Bond Street lounger, for undoubtedly he uttered a falsehood, a greater one than the answer of the Bond Street lounger, yet surely similar in kind. The cutting of throats is, of course,'a figure of speech, like the dagger which he once produced in the House of Commons, and may be left out of the question, which is whether if the rich were to give all that they are worth to the poor, as the founder of Christianity once bade them do, the poor would be none the richer for it. If so, the rich would be none the poorer, and so far could be no losers, on Burke's own hypothesis. But -- to put aside this question, which is only raised because it is regarded as out of the range of possible or practical or desirable things, which is indeed a mere rhetorical flourish or hyperbole of the imagination, and to turn to one of more modest dimensions, which yet our legislators are more shy of raising : whether if the rich do not take almost all that they have from the poor, the latter may not be the better off with something to live on than with almost nothing ? Whether, if the whole load of taxes could be taken off from them in years of extreme distress, it would not be a relief to them ? Whether, if half the load of taxes were taken off from them, it would not be a relief to them ? Whether, if any part of the load of taxes whatsoever were taken off, it would not in the same proportion be a relief to them ?

I will venture to say that no one will deny these propositions who does not receive so much a year for uttering falsehood.

Not long ago I asked an old labouring peasant -- if he thought the distress in the neighbourhood arose from the increase of the working poor, so that there was not work enough for them to do. He said : No ! that there were not more people in the place than there used to be, and that there were not more than were sufficient to do the necessary labour in harvest-time, in seed-time, and at other periods, and that if they had certain things to do in summer they must be kept alive in winter : "We cannot go to sleep like flies ! " They must be kept alive in winter. No more than this ! Merciful God! Might not these words wound the ears of the wealthy and the powerful more than any cry ! Would one not think at least that such a modest claim made on his country by a man who had laboured honestly on its soil all his life would awaken an immediate and passionate response ! But it is against such claims as these, or any softening of the heart that might be effected by them, that Malthus has raised his voice in horrified repudiation : 'There is one right which man has generally been thought to possess, which I am confident he neither does nor can possess -- a right to subsistence when his labour will not fairly purchase it.' Such words, directed wholly at the most humble claimants to life, and often the most deserving, have always cut cruelly into my heart.

The old man with whom I was conversing said that the difficulty of providing for the winter months arose not from there being too many people for the place to support, but from the expense of living, which was twice what it had been when he was a young man there some thirty years before, while the wages were no higher than they were then ; he and his father and his brother could then get a shilling apiece per day by hard labour, and he got no more now to maintain his family, so that it could not be done ; a quartern loaf was then sevenpence ; now it was a shilling or fourteenpence ; mutton was then twopence or threepence a pound ; now it was sixpence or sevenpence ; bacon had risen in like manner ; butter used to be fivepence or sixpence which now cost elevenpence in the market ; so a poor family was now reduced to live upon half of what they had formerly lived upon, reckoned at the time the price was fixed as the lowest possible means on which a man could maintain a family. He added that formerly a poor man's wife and children got something considerable as a help by spinning and other handicraft, which was now done away; but he allowed that in this respect there was some compensation, as the machines had done as much good as harm, for they had cheapened gowns and clothes of various descriptions. One thing he regarded as a hardship to the poor -- the enclosing of Commons, which deprived them of the means of keeping a pig, two or three geese or fowls, perhaps even a cow, while yet it was of no advantage to the rich, for the land was of no use to its owners on a large scale, being only good to be pecked and " nibbled at " in a small way and by those on the spot.

Now here is the truth. The labouring population has not doubled itself, but the price of provisions has, while the price of labour has remained almost the same. It is this which has doubled the distresses of the poor. Thus their wretched condition is to be attributed to the after-effects of war, the large fortunes got by monopolies, the increase of taxes and the increase of pensions maintaining an over-abundant oligarchy in their wonted ease and insolence, which, as it is true that production is limited, can only be done by pressing upon and robbing by legislative enactment the already poor and oppressed classes. A tax laid on to pay for a dog-kennel might have saved a whole village from going into decay. A tax laid on to pay for a great stable takes the corn out of the bellies of the poor to sleek the horses of the rich. Many a carriage that glitters like a meteor, along the streets of the metropolis has deprived the wretched inmate of some distant cottage of the chair he sits on, the table he eats off, the bed he lies on.

The pleasure-and-coach-horses kept in this kingdom consume as much of the produce of the soil as would maintain all the paupers in it. How is it that Malthus in surveying the means of subsistence says nothing of this ! It is because he does not care. He practises his demonstrations on the poor only. Methinks it would not have hurt him if after giving the poor such a scrubbing with a coarse towel he had taken a clean, white, clerical pocket-handkerchief and used it to wipe off the rouge from the cheeks of painted prostitution or thrown it as a cover over the polished neck and shoulders of ladies of high quality. But no ! His cry is ever :

'All crimes are safe, but hated poverty.'

For this sole crime is his lash reserved. The poor alone he pursues with all the little, low, rankling malice of a parish beadle. The poor alone are to have their liberties stripped from them. The poor alone are to have a system of duties prescribed to them. All the inhuman rigours and austerities he advocates for the public weal are reserved for those whose lives are already the most burdened. It is this that makes his work insufferable to me, that makes his words stagnate in my blood and settle in my brain. Such cowardly, venal, and above all, selfish bullying almost puts me beside myself. The torpedo touch of his extreme selfishness has come near to benumbing the life of the poor. Were it not that a certain number of them are required for performing the hard labour of the world I have no doubt he would be ready to put an end to their power of procreation, if that would help him to keep a pair of sleek geldings in his stable for his own use. I will do him this justice, however : I do not believe he would stand forward as the advocate of any abuses from which he himself did not reap some benefit, by defending which he did not in some way profit.

It was in the year 1807 that I launched my first attack upon his shameless and cruel, sophisms. By that time a pack of venal writers, although beginning to despair of seeing any good likely to come of the war -- so great had been the reverses inflicted by Napoleon on Austria, Prussia and Russia in turn -- were maintaining boldly that the war was in itself a great good, that war was the natural state of mankind, "lively, audible and full of vent", while peace was altogether "flat, stale and unprofitable", that war was the sinews of commerce, the prop of the altar and the throne, that it filled the pockets of the rich and carried off the surplus population from among the poor. So wanton, so dazzling, so beautiful, with its crimson spots and warm glossy fur did this darling plaything of the imagination seem to those who were far removed from it ! In all this I saw much of Malthus, although I never could understand how such a miserable reptile performance as his could have crawled itself into such credit. More than twenty years have passed since I first did battle with the ice-cold adder-like selfishness which he elevated into a virtue and employed for the single purpose of torturing the poor, under the pretence of reforming their morals. In all these years nothing has hurt and angered me more than the tone, to a great extent initiated, familiarized, Christianized or at least made respectable by him, adopted so often in what would be thought "good company ", towards those who are termed "the lower orders ". I cannot describe the contempt and disgust I have felt when I have witnessed the sleek, smiling, glossy, gratuitous assumption of superiority to every feeling of humanity, honesty, or principle, making part of the etiquette and moral costume of the table, and every profession of toleration or favour for " the lower orders ", that is, for the great mass of our fellow-creatures, treated as an indecorum and breach of the harmony of well-regulated society. I have felt, when witnessing this sealing of every feeling of nature under the smooth, cold, glittering varnish of pretended refinement, that I would rather see the feelings of our common nature expressed in the most naked and natural way, that the brutality of mobs is more endurable than the inhumanity of polite society, even as a bear's garden is preferable to an adder's den.

Throughout my life-time the shadow of distress has been laid upon the labouring poor, caught between one war and another. 'The poor sleep little !' I have never heard any poor man complain of this, seldom have heard complaint made of the hardness of their labour, but what has been most grievous to them of late years is that no man, however hardworking -- and some of the farmers' men have been absolutely ground into the earth with toil -- could be sure that insecurity and poverty would not overtake him. It is this that sometimes drives a poor man to spend on drink the money he sorely needs for bread, because, alas ! to the labouring poor it is often more important to forget the future even than to satisfy their present wants. The extravagance and thoughtlessness of the poor arise, not from their having more than enough to satisfy their immediate needs, but from their not having enough to ward off impending ones -- in a word, from desperation. This sense of insecurity presses hardly less than hunger itself. As for hunger, I can hardly remember a time when it was not taken for granted that the poor suffered from it. Indeed, so much was this taken for granted in the first years of the war that the recruiting places in the towns had pieces of beef hung up over them, by way of bait for the meagre half-famished groups of men wandering about and seeking work. It is a fearful shame and calamity that this should be so. The greater part of a community ought not to be paupers or starving. When the interests of the many are thus regularly and outrageously sacrificed to those of the few, the social order needs repairing. A street lined with coaches and with beggars dying at the Steps of the doors, gives a strong lesson to common thought and political foresight, if not to humanity. And those of us who satisfy our appetite at the Bond Street pastrycook's, would do well to remind ourselves, when we see the gaunt faces staring at us through the glass door, that though custard is nicer than bread, bread is the greater necessity of the two, and that the poor man has been known to fight for it.

These things are the signals hung out to show that some kind of reform is necessary. Otherwise a national bankruptcy becomes inevitable, or even a revolution. How this reform will be carried out, it is not easy to predict, but one thing is certain, that it must come from the energy of the poor themselves. I know that the poor, if they continue to be submissive as sheep, will be treated worse than sheep in return for their submissiveness. How often on Salisbury Plain have I watched a flock of sheep, biting the short sweet grass, or lying with 'meek mouths ruminant' ! They pass their time very comfortably, till they are fit to be sent to market. I have heard them fill the air with a troublous cry, as they pass down Oxford Street, on their way to Smithfield. The next morning it is all over with them. Yet while they lived, their time was on the whole pleasant. But Governments have not the same reason for taking care of "the lower classes", poor, poor dumb mouths! that the shepherd has for taking care of his flock : they do not ordinarily sell them, nor do they eat them. Perhaps it would be fitter to compare the condition of the poor to that of the beasts of burden, asses, or, 'camels in their war', who

'have bare provender
Only for bearing burthens, and sore blows
For sinking under them'.

The salvation of the poor, I am convinced, must come from within their own ranks. Otherwise, it will never be won. When I see the lower classes of the English people uniformly singled out as marks for the malice of a certain kind of servile writer, when I see them studiously separated, like a degraded caste, from the rest of the community, with scarcely the attributes and faculties of the species allowed them, although it is to them we owe the valour of our naval and military heroes, the industry of our artisans and labouring mechanics, and all that we have been told, again and again, elevates us above every other nation in Europe; when I see the " redundant " population, to use the term that has become the more fashionable, selected as the butt for every effusion of paltry spite, and, as the last resource, of vindictive penal statutes ; when I see every existing evil derived from these unfortunate classes, and every possible vice ascribed to them ; when I see the poor, the uninformed, the friendless put, by tacit consent, out of the pale of society ; when their faults and wretchedness are canvassed and exaggerated with eager impatience, while still greater impatience is shown at every expression of a wish to amend them; when they are familiarly spoken of as a sort of vermin only fit to be hunted down and exterminated at the discretion of their betters, I know pretty well what to think, both of the disinterestedness of the motives which give currency to this jargon, and of the policy which should suffer itself to be influenced by its suggestions.

For my part, I place my heart in the centre of my moral system. I do not look on the poor man as an animal, or a mere machine for philosophical or political or economic experiments. I know that the measure of his suffering is not to be taken with a pair of compasses or a slip of parchment. I would rather be proscribed and hunted down with him than join in his proscription by those who made it their practice to attack the weak and cringe to the strong. I shall never cease to scorn those who trample on him and seek to wrench his pittance from him with their logical instruments and lying arguments ; who, if they do not starve him outright, would reduce his wages to what is barely necessary to keep him alive, and yet refuse him a morsel for charity when he can no longer work ; who, lest he should have any respite from fear or care or free himself for a moment from 'the killing frost of misery' hold 'the grinding law of necessity' ever suspended over him in terrorem.

How much less than men are all such ! The humanity in them has been bled white by the tax their economy has laid on it.



1 This essay was taken Catherine Macdonald Maclean's Hazlitt Painted by Himself (London, Temple, 1948). This essay is apparently part of a larger work which Hazlitt brought out relatively early in his career, Reply to Malthus published by Longman in 1807. A number of years later he got back to writing about Malthus when he brought out his Political Essays published by William Hone in 1819 with a second edition in 1822 (Simkin and Marshall). Hazlitt. himself, described this 1807 essay on Malthus as "one of my very early Essays, the style of which is, I confess, a little exuberant, but of the arguments I see no reason to be ashamed." ("On the Principle of Population as Affecting the Schemes of Utopian Improvement.")


Found this material Helpful?

[Hazlitt's Page]
[A List of Hazlitt's Books]
[General Essays]
[Round Table]
[Political Essays]
[The Spirit of the Age]
[The Plain Speaker]

2011 (2020)

Peter Landry