Introduction to the Study of the Works of Jeremy Bentham, by John Hill Burton

Section VII.

Poor Laws, Education, and Other Institutions for National Amelioration.

At the time when Bentham devoted his attention to the poor law, (1797-8,) the then existing system had proceeded for some years in that course of degeneracy from the strict principles of the statute of Elizabeth, which commenced with Gilbert’s Act in 1782, and was consummated by East’s Act in 1815. Long before he could get others to join in the opinion, he saw that any system founded on the principle of merely relieving suffering, and not containing within itself restrictions calculated to stem the growth of pauperism, would gradually undermine the industrial stamina of the country, by creating more pauperism than it relieved. Subsistence being, as already stated, (see p. 31,) one of the main objects of the law, according to his division, he thought it the duty of the legislature to provide a system which should obviate, as far as human foresight could, the chance of any human being suffering from starvation. In accomplishing this, however, it was necessary to keep in view the counter-error of giving a boon to indolence, by allowing the idle pauper to consume the wealth of the industrious and enterprising producer.

The method by which he proposed to adjust the proper medium, was the same in its leading principles with that which was lately sanctioned by the legislature, as the result of the searching investigation of the Commission of Inquiry — the rigid application of the Labour test to the able-bodied, and the supervisance of all, by their location in buildings under the inspection of the officials and the public. He was able to foresee the evils of the strictly parochial system — the comparative costliness, and propensity to jobbing in small local establishments — the restrictions on the freedom, and consequently on the productiveness of labour by the settlement laws — the abuses of all sorts that in remote districts might be preying on the vitals of society unobserved — and the cruel hardships to which those whose position entitled them to relief might be subjected, from their not being on the right spot when misfortune overtakes them; and he contemplated the bold design of a uniform national system under central authority.

He did not propose that the central authority should be in the hands of official persons appointed by the Government. In all national institutions which involve receipt and expenditure of money, varying according to the success of the management, he advocated the contract system in preference to the stipendiary, as more economical and efficacious. His system of prison discipline, under the Panopticon plan, (see above, p. 67,) was to have been conducted under contract management, he himself being the contractor. In the present case, his contractors were to be a joint-stock company, whose directors were to be the central board of management. Their funds were to consist in such poor-rates as it should be found necessary to levy, and the produce of the industry of the able-bodied paupers, with other contingencies. Their profits were to be so far limited, that while they might have sufficient encouragement for economical and energetic management, they should not be put in possession of the power of levying a poor-rate to provide extravagant profits to themselves. The Plan of Pauper Management — it is to be regretted that hitherto only a skeleton of it has seen the light — contains a multitude of minute arrangements for obviating mismanagement, preserving order, regularity, and good habits, educating the paupers, and generally elevating their moral standard — which cannot be here enumerated.

In 1797, a Bill for making alterations on the poor law was brought in by Pitt. It is difficult to estimate the disastrous consequences which must have followed this measure had it been passed. A critical examination of it was written by Bentham, and sent in MS. to Pitt;* and the fortunate consequence of this lucid demonstration was, the abandonment of the measure. The general aim of this measure was simply an enlargement — and that a sudden one — of the pernicious principles which had been gaining ground for some years — that there was only one thing to be kept in view in a poor law, the satisfaction of all demands made upon the wealth of the community by its poverty, without asking questions; and that whatever deficiency appeared in the operation of the existing system, was to be simply remedied by conveying more of the money of those who had it to those who had it not. One of the provisions of the act was, an allowance, in the case of a large family, to each child unable to support itself; and it was very distinctly shown in the criticism, that the parentage of a large family would thus become a far surer road to wealth than ordinary honest industry. Another of the proposals in this singular measure was, to provide cows to respectable paupers, likely to convert the benefit into a means of eking out a livelihood. On this proposal it is remarked: “The cow dies or is stolen, or (what is much more likely) is supposed to be stolen, being clandestinely sold to an obliging purchaser at a distance. What is to be done? ‘Want of relief’ warranted the first cow; the same cause will necessitate a second— limit who can the succeeding series of cows: The disappearance of the first cow (it may be said) will excite suspicion; the disappearance of a second cow will strengthen suspicion; true, but upon a mere suspicion without proof will a family be left to starve? The utmost security then amounts to this, that to a certain number of successive pensions thus bought out will succeed a pension which will not be bought out.”

Bentham contemplated a system of poor laws as a means of removing out of the way the damaged part of the population, and of improving the improveable; and not as a mere provision for existing destitution. In his eyes, therefore, it was a great moral engine which might be applied to various useful purposes. The most important of these was the suppression of vagrancy and mendicancy. His officials, holding out relief with the one hand, were to be entitled to treat all mendicants who refused to accept of it, not as persons who supplicated charity to relieve their wants, but as professors of the criminal trade of begging, and so amenable to punishment. It was part of his plan, that, until some responsible person should be prepared to answer for his following an honest calling, no beggar should be removed from the workhouse. The suppression of mendicancy would, it was believed, have a great influence in reducing the number of graver crimes. A disposal of all the vagrants of a country within workhouses, unless they find security to work elsewhere, would, undoubtedly, if it came into actual and satisfactory practical operation, have that effect which the Author anticipated from it — of of destroying the nests in which criminals are reared.

The great subject of National Education, for which Brougham has obtained a place in the public mind worthy of its emmence, may appear to some to be treated with indignity, when discussed as subsidiary to a poor law. Bentham, however, was of opinion that the education of the indigent is far more important, in the eye of the public, than that of the rich: more important, because it serves as an instrument of social organization, which the opulent will supply to themselves, on the voluntary principle; while the means of procuring a supply for the poorer classes, becomes a matter of public policy. In this view, as a system which must be provided for by an eleemosynary fund, he considered that National education was connected with the poor law.

The system proposed in the Plan of Pauper Management, unites both training and education. The Author had the sagacity to see, what has been in later times too often exemplified, that the seeds of the higher branches of knowledge cast into minds unprepared for their reception, may produce bad or worthless fruit. His great object was to redeem pauper children from a position in which, as outcasts from society, they were likely to remain during their lives either a burden on the charity of the community or enemies to its property; and to elevate them into the position of productive members. In a community where there are no unproductive members there can be no permanent paupers; and the very best form, in point of economy, which a provision to the poor can assume, is that in which it converts any class of persons from consuming to productive members of society. With this view, the principal end in the education of pauper children, after they have been taught the principles and practice of morality and religion, is to fit them for some trade by which they can make their bread, to train them in those regular habits which a respectable man finds necessary to his happiness, and to accustom them to value those comforts and appliances with which industry and regularity only will supply them. A portion of intellectual instruction should, of course, accompany this training; for, of all inducements which the man who labours with his hands can have to keep him from degrading habits, intellectual resources are the most potent. It is only, however, as accompanying the means of making a livelihood, and in connexion with well-regulated habits, that intellectual instruction can be calculated upon as serviceable to beings in the position of pauper children.*

The remarks which Bentham left behind him, on a proper system of education for the richer classes, are to be found in certain fragmentary essays, brought together under the title of Chrestomathia. The work consists partly in an exposition of the benefits of intellectual instruction, partly in the description of a project for establishing a national school for the middle classes, and partly in an analytical examination of some of the departments of instruction suited to such an institution. He adopted, in a great measure, the system of division of labour suggested by Lancaster and Bell. There are several principles of tuition laid down, the main feature of which is, the establishing a rigid mental discipline in the minds of youth — preventing their thoughts from straying, and taking measures for ascertaining, with respect to the several steps of the progress, that nothing is left in a crude and undigested state, but that whatever is learnt is well learnt. It is generally as a discipline to the mind, that the devotion of so much of the time of youth to the acquisition of classical syntax, prosody, and etymology, is vindicated. There is no doubt that the operation of mastering languages, so philosophical in their structure, and so little capable of being made use of without a scientific acquaintance with them, as the Greek and Latin tongues, is in itself a powerful mental tonic. But if the same discipline can be accomplished by instruction in subjects more likely to be afterwards made practically available by the pupil, there would be undoubted economy in the change. Neither his own personal inclinations, nor his judgment, would have prompted Bentham to deny their due weight to classical studies. “He was a scholar, and a ripe and good one,” in the ordinary sense of the term. He was partial to the Greek language, which he maintained to be, in its structure, the best suited for a scientific nomenclature. His partiality towards it has betrayed itself in many of the titles of his works — witness the Chrestomathia itself, (χϱηςτομάθεια the study of useful things,) Nomography, Deontology, Pannomial Fragments, &c. To his case, therefore, the common remark, that none attack the so generally conceded supremacy of ancient learning, but those who have not had the good fortune to receive a classical education, does not apply.

To those who take much interest in the teaching of the higher branches of knowledge, the Chrestomathia, though only a collection of fragments, must convey many useful hints, from the clear manner in which every branch of instruction is separated from all others, and each is presented in its turn as a topic to be separately exhausted.

The subject of the education of the higher classes of society, has, from a natural analogy, been here treated in juxtaposition with the means of training and instructing the children of the poor. The main object of the present section, however, is to glance at the subsidiary legislative measures for internal organization and improvement contemplated by Bentham; and to these it is now necessary to return.

The concluding chapters of the Constitutional Code, contain a multitude of minor arrangements for purposes of public utility, of which the general Registration system is, perhaps, the most conspicuous. Legislation has made a great stride in relation to this subject since Bentham wrote. He had to suggest the system of a uniform Register of births, marriages, and deaths, so arranged, that the making entry in the register should not depend on the choice of individuals, but should be imperatively enforced. He viewed such a general register as a grand store-house of facts, applicable not only as evidence for legal purposes in relation to the persons appearing on the register, but as providing a fund of vital statistics, upon which political economists might reason, and the legislature act. To make the vital statistics serviceable, in relation to the influence of trades, habits of life, places of residence, &c., on health, he suggested that the professions of the parties should be entered, and, in the entry of each death, the disease or other occasion of it. Those who are acquainted with the general Registration act for England, (6 & 7 Will. IV. c. 86,) will recognise it as founded on the principles laid down by Bentham, as they appear in the Constitutional Code.* The part of the code in which they appear, was not published until after that act had passed, but they had been for ten years promulgated in the Rationale of Evidence. At the time when the Bill for England was under discussion, a similar measure was brought in for Scotland; but it was opposed by the clergy, was dropped, and has not been revived.

The Registration system in the Constitutional Code embraces other elements, which have not been yet experimented on — a Record of arrivals at the age of majority, and of lapses from, and restorations to sanity. The proposal of a General Register, applicable to Real property, and to contracts and other transactions, did not originate with Bentham. The system has been illustrated in Scotland and in France, and partially even in England; and efforts have been made by practical statesmen, of whom Oliver Cromwell was, perhaps, the first, and Lord Campbell has been the last, to put the system in practice on a wider basis. The importance of such a system, and the best arrangements for its operation, are fully examined in more than one of Bentham’s works.*

In the Constitutional Code, provision is made for a public officer, whose duty it is to perform those remedial functions for the public, of which the want is so often felt in a thickly-peopled country, and which magistrates and police authorities cannot easily fulfil. Among the multifarious duties assigned to him, is the settlement of momentary disputes with coachmen, innkeepers, porters, &c. The traveller is much at the mercy of these classes, who, in respect to judicial control, readily distinguish, for their victims, those who will not have time or opportunity to follow up an inquiry. The principle of interference in such cases is no infringement on freedom of trade and labour. The object of all just regulation on the subject, is, not to compel the hirer to employ for, or the hired to work for an arbitrary price, but to settle, by regulation, terms which parties are presumed to accept of when they make no specific stipulation. The Local headman has many other, perhaps more important spheres of action. He is to give information to parties wishing to be acquainted with the wages of labour and the means of living, &c. in his district, to give friendly advice in disputes, explaining the probable results of an appeal to the Law, &c.

The Health-minister has important functions assigned to him in the Constitutional Code. In conjunction with the Indigence-relief minister, he has control over the medical officers of all eleemosynary institutions. He exercises the appropriate functions in hospitals for the sick, lunatic asylums, and prisons. The object in view, in the appointment of such an officer, is to have, in the shape of instruction, direction, and control, the application to the operations of inferior officers, of that skill which can be purchased by high pay and official distinction. This officer is to have other powers for protecting the public health. He has to see that there is a proper supply of water for the public use; to take cognizance of all means by which the public health may be injured, by overcrowded buildings, undrained lands, places of interment, and noxious manufactures; he is to exercise, indeed, in general, the functions of a central officer for the enforcement of sanatory regulations.

In the tracts on the Poor Law there are various minor suggestions for increasing the comforts, and raising the tone of character, of the working classes. The extent to which those who are better informed, and have larger influence in society, may aid them in counteracting their besetting sin, improvidence, is strongly urged. In the Pauper Management, a plan is suggested for the establishment of Frugality Banks,§ the main features of which have been adopted in the legislative establishment of Savings Banks. At the time when he wrote, Friendly Societies had received but slight aid from the legislature, and were subject to all the risks, inconveniences, and miscalculations, which the operations of small bodies of uninstructed men would naturally entail on them. Their vital calculations, founded on imperfect data, were generally erroneous; and it frequently occurred, that a society which, at first, appeared to be prosperous, became exhausted before it met the claims of those who, having longest contributed to its funds, had the best equitable claim to its benefits. The meetings could be held nowhere but in public-houses; and thus the practice of frugality was attempted to be commenced in the midst of those inducements to excess which are its greatest enemies.* These evils received no correction till they were prominently exposed by the select committee appointed in 1825.

The facilitation of the transfer of small sums of money from place to place, is urged, in the Pauper Management, as an important adjunct to frugality and commercial integrity. The plan has been practically adopted in the system of Post-office money-orders.

Though he could not be said to have made any approach to the valuable discovery of Mr Hill, Bentham so far anticipated the modern opinion of the functions of a Post-office, that be viewed it, when established on proper principles, as an institution fraught with internal improvement — with the progress of knowledge, the nourishment of the social virtues, and the facilitation of trade. He thought it ought to meet with encouragement from the legislature, and that it ought not to be a source of revenue.

On the enlightening and civilizing influence of the press, he wrote at more length.§ He considered the editor of a newspaper as the admitted president of a department of the public-opinion tribunal, viz. — that portion of the public who support, or are directed by, the opinions of the newspaper. He was a friend of the perfect freedom of the press — that is to say, of the principle, that those who write in it should be permitted to do precisely what they please, subject to punishment for every offence against person, reputation, or property, which they may commit through a newspaper, just as if they had committed the same offence through any other means. The English law of Libel he considered despotic and capricious. Its principle is, that every man who finds anything in print which offends him, and who has money enough to raise an action, may inflict a heavy punishment on the writer. He sarcastically characterized the formality of a trial as a mockery, when founded on such doctrines; as, the very fact of a man being at the expense of prosecuting is of itself the best evidence of his feelings being hurt. All taxes on knowledge, he considered injuries to the welfare of a state, as an impediment thrown — generally designedly — in the way of national improvement.

See the Tracts on the Poor Law, Works, vol. viii. p. 358 et seq. See also vol. i. p. 314; iii. 72; ix. 13.

The history of his vexations and disappointments in regard to this project, will be found detailed in the Appendix to the Memoirs, (vol. xi. p. 96 et seq.,) and in other parts of the Works. The chief objection which official persons appeared to find in the scheme was, that the terms were too favourable to the public to be practicable — a feature for which either its Author’s sanguine temper, or his practical sagacity must stand responsible.

* See Works, vol. viii. p. 440.

Works, vol. viii. p. 447.

* See Works, vol. viii. p. 395 et seq. The Report on the training of pauper children, presented by the Poor Law Commissioners in 1841, is a practical adaptation and illustration of Bentham’s opinion. It is to be regretted that the commissioners have not been enabled to carry out their practical application of the system to the extent which appears to have been contemplated by them.

See the commencement of vol. viii.

* Works, vol. ix. p. 625 et seq.

Ibid. vol. vi. p. 566 et seq.

Ibid. vol. ix. p. 630-632.

* See Works, vol. v. p. 417; ix. 634; x. 350.

Ibid. vol. ix. p. 612 et seq.

Ibid. vol. ix. p. 443 et seq. It would be an injustice to that friend of Bentham who has so thoroughly laid before the public the grounds on which Sanatory Legislation ought to be based, to allow it to be presumed that the Constitutional Code contains on this subject anything beyond simple suggestions as to the general subjects to which the regulations should apply. The suggestions might have remained unnoticed like many of their author’s other valuable hints. The public owe the full inductive sifting which this subject has received solely to Mr Chadwick, some of whose remarks on sanatory regulations, written long before he could have anticipated an opportunity of bringing forward his views in an authoritative form, were quoted by Bentham as illustrative matter for the Constitutional Code. See Works, vol. ix. p. 648.

§ See Works, vol. viii. p. 407 et seq.

It is a singular illustration of the smallness of the extent to which the very valuable tracts on Pauper Management have been perused — probably from their having been published only in a periodical work, (viz., “The Annals of Agriculture,”) that the first suggestion of Savings Banks is almost universally attributed to the Proposals circulated by Mr Smith of Wendover, two years after the publication of the Pauper Management. In that work, instead of the few crude suggestions with which such projects generally commence, the whole system, with its deferred annuities, and other characteristics, will be found to be distinctly explained.

* See Works, vol. viii. p. 410 et seq.

Ibid. vol. viii. p. 417.

Ibid. vol. viii. p. 583.

§ Ibid. vol. ii. p. 275 et seq.; v. 97 et seq., viii. 580 et seq.; ix. 53 et seq.

Works, vol. i. p. 574 et seq.; v. 97 et seq.

Ibid. vol. ix. p. 451.

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