Billeder på siden
PDF
ePub

thus it might be doubted, whether it might not only shift the misery, without alleviating it; and add another proof to the many that already exist, of the impotency of legislation, when it offers to interfere with the wiser provisions and the more efficient principles of Nature.

We are not now supposing that the man who musters up these various probabilities, could come to a decided conclusion against the scheme which has been suggested. But he might go so far, as most legitimately, upon the strength of them, to decline his positive approbation of it. He might look on it as a scheme which was at best uncertain and hazardous; and if his sturdier antagonist saw nothing but timidity in all these apprehensionsif he remained inflexibly assured of the wisdom of the regulations suggested -- if he resolutely persisted in asserting, that augmented happiness to the lower orders, and augmented tranquillity to the State, would ensue from the enactments and the execution of them if he looked, in short, to the experiment with undoubting confidence, while the other looked to it with feelings of suspicion and reserve-we leave it to the reader to judge, which of the two should have been designated by the name of theorist.

The experiment, however, has been actually made: And it has had the long development of two centuries, -out of which we may gather its actual effect on the circumstances of the people; and, as it were, to afford us every advantage for helping us on to our conclusion, the whole island presents us wich parishes in every variety of condition, and under every variety of treatment as to the management of their poor. We can point to some parishes, where a compulsory provision has obtained ever since the passing of the original statute ; and to others where it has been only introduced at various periods within the last half century :-to others where the elements of the me. thod have been so recently put together, that the method itself is still in embryo; and, finally, to others where it is yet utterly unknown, and the whole relief of Poverty is left to the unfettered operation of Christian precepts, or of the kindlier feelings of na-, ture on the heart and conduct of individuals. So that, if our two political reasoners were to rise from their graves, they would have the whole matter of their debate before them in real and living exemplification. The man of doubt would have experience instead of experiment, and proof instead of probability. And surely, whether, on looking to the parishes of England, he there perceived that, in the matter of supporting the helpless, every domestic tie had gone into dissolution, and that, in the

coldness of a public administration, every kindlier charity was departing from the land-or, looking to the Border parishes, he saw them fast hastening to the lavish expenditure of England, and with as little too of sensible influence on the comforts of their suffering population-or, finally, looking to the parishes of the North, he beheld that, under their cheap economy, all the relative duties of kindred and of neighbourhood were still in unextinguished operation, and that a high minded, but uncomplaining peasantry, did, out of their own unborrowed resources, rear every family, and foster the declining years of every parent who belonged to them--would not he be entitled to look on these various parishes as so many archives on which, since he had left the world; the finger of time had graven in characters of certainty all his anticipations-would not he stand proudly vindicated in his claims to practical wisdom, and his antagonist be more strikingly convicted than ever, of being a most unsound and precipitate theorist?

But how comes it, then, that the reverse of all this takes place in very general estimation? How comes it that he who questions the expediency of poor-rates is usually regarded as a man of visionary, or at least of adventurous speculation ; and that he who resists every change of habit, or of existing institution, is deemed to be a man of sound and practical wisdom, who, unseduced by any ingenious or splendid sophistry, sits immoveably entrenched within the safeguards of experience? He who would have been counted a theorist at the commencement of this great national scheme, is now conceived to have upon his side the whole authority of practice and observation ;-and he who simply inherits the spirit and the impressions of his more judicious antagonist, is now branded as an audacious theorist. How comes it that the two characters have so strangely and so unwarrantably shifted places? What has happened during this intervening period of two hundred years, to justify such an exchange of reputation between them ?' The man who was then so proudly confident in his anticipations of good from the plan, has had every one of his anticipations most wofully blasted; and for this, the successor to his opinions and partialities, obtains the homage that is due to a sound experimental philosopher. The man who humbly expressed his suspicions of the plan, has had every one of them confirmed ; and for this, he who now proceeds upon his conjectures as so many facts, because they have turned out to be so, is denounced as a rash and chimerical projector! So long as the theory was uutried, it was practically wise to doubt it, and theoretical to befriend it. But now that the theory has been tried and found wanting, it would appear that he is the sound

[ocr errors]

experimentalist who defends, and he is the theorist who disowns it!

All this, however, may be referred to that great law of the human constitution, by which we are led to associate with similar circumstances, the expectation of similar results ; and which acts, in general, with all the force and certainty of an iostinct. It is true, also, that it acts, for the most part, with the same saJutary effects. It is very certain that Nature will never deceive us, and that she will always bring out the same result from the same circumstances. But circumstances may be similar, without being in every respect the same; and on this similarity may the strong propensity in question urge us to found an expectation in which we may frequently be disappointed. It is thus that children and the lower animals can be so easily imposed upon. Offer to their notice some general assemblage of objects which impressa es them with a similitude to some former assemblage, and they will look for the same general results. They are not able to assign such particulars in the assemblage as have a causal influence on the production of the consequence which they anticipate. They cannot distinguish the essentials from the accessaries. It were well if the progress to manhood ensured a total deliverance from the errors of this propensity. But, in point of fact, there are many questions on which the heedless exercise of this propensity grows with the growth of men, and strengthens with their strength. If they have been accustomed to provide for some object in one particular way, they never think that it can possibly be provided for, unless in that very way, with all its insignificant specialities, to which they have been habituated. It is thus that they dread the very semblance of innovation, as carrying in it the ruin and overthrow of the whole concern that is at issue. It is utterly in vain to tell them that the thing may be done as well, without this or the other circumstance.

They are such circumstances as were always present in their re. membrance of the matter; and this is reason enough why they cannot conceive that there should be any comfort or security without them. Every appeal to the experience of other times, or to the practice of other places, would make no impression whatever over their own lively and personal recollection of all the details of their own time and their own parish. These practical men will take up indiscriminately with this or with that system, just as it happens to be the established one. If it only have the right of occupancy in their town, this is enough to vest it, in their eye, with all the honours of infallibility. Not one lesson is ever drawn from the great principle of the identity of human nature; out of which it may be inferred that such management as

has been found to succeed with men in one part of the country, may be imported into another. Not one ray of light is ever admitted to shine upon them from the experience of other times or other places. All is blind and headlong imitation of that which is immediately before them. To talk of any thing beyond this, will sound visionary to men whose minds are occupied to the full with that which they handle with their own hands, and see with their own eyes. Of this much they will have a vivid recollection ; and, by their constantly appealing to it, they will appear to stand on the vantage ground of actual observation. Their persons are so surrounded with the materials and the manipulations of practice, that they will both claim and receive the same authority as if their minds were constantly exercised with the lessons and the observations of practice. They, in consequence of this, will be listened to as men of observation. But it is just the observation of men who follow the mere instinct of experience without thought and without discrimination. They cannot tell what it is in the apparatus of their management that has a good, and what it is which has a hurtful influence—but, because familiarized to the sight of the apparatus itself, think that all would go to wreck should one sacrilegious hand offer to inflict upon it the slightest alteration.

It were very convenient to distinguish this class of persons by some short and expressive designation. It would not be fair, however, to call them practical men—for there are many of this description to whose services the community lie under a weight of the deepest obligation, and who, at the same time, by their just discernment of principle, and by their enlightened application of it to the operations of their own department, have earned a well merited title to true practical wisdom. Neither would it be fair to call them merely practical men—for there are many such who, most conscientious in transacting all the details of the actual system, and most patient in the performance of all its drudgeries, are nevertheless without pretension to any understanding, and are never heard to utter any dogmatic asseveration on the absolute merits of the system itselfand who are therefore entitled to the character of a most useful and deserving class of citizens. But there are others who, on the mere strength of a prolonged and manifold officiality, take a far loftier flight-who adventure, and that on the foundation of a hackneyed experience, which goes not beyond the precincts of their own municipality, to affirm of every innovation, that it is wholly visionary and inapplicable-on whom the collected experience of all the parishes in the empire would be utterly thrown away-who could read, for example, such a Report as

[graphic]

that now before us, and, without borrowing from it a single hint for the amendment or the subversion of their existing practice, would still stand up for it as manfully and as determinedly as ever in all its parts, and in all its modifications—who are both most entirely ignorant of the principles of their business, and most entirely wedded to all its circumstantials—who not only cannot move themselves but just in the way in which they were first set agoing, but who pronounce, of every movement which diverges from theirs, that it is a divergence from the wise and cautious line of experience. Such persons stand in precisely the same relation to a man of truly correct and enlightened views on the subject of poor-laws, that a mere lawyer does to an enlightened statesman, or a mere merchant to a sound political economist. It is very true, that a lawyer may be an able legislator, and a merchant may be an able economist; and that there are many of both professions who, without aspiring to the character either of the one or of the other, do fill, and that most usefully and honourably, their respective vocations. But just as some lawyers, with no accomplishment beyond the art of special pleading, will confound one talent with another, in such a way as to think that, because they can skilfully point out the application of the existing laws, they can also profoundly and philosophically defund the wisdom of them; and just as some merchants, with no range of contemplation beyond the transactions of their own counting-house, can fancy in themselves a competency to vindicate all the bounties in which they have shared, and all the monopolies by which they have profited :-So are there many persons who, because they are expert and practised in the business of public charities, and versant in all the points and penmanship of the chamber which they occupy, think that, on this single ground, they may take their bold and comprehensive sweep through the difficulties of the general question-who call out most strenuously for matters, as they are, and that just because they have shut out the light of all that wider experience which indi. cates the way to matters as they should bc-who, without looking back upon other times, or abroad upon other parishes, have only looked, with the most intense confinement of all their faculties, on the little in-field of their own operations, and have gathered therefrom a fancied sufficiency of wisdom to overbear all the reasonings of all the theorists. Such a characiter, compounded of confident pretence on the one hand, and the merest practitionery on the other, it is certainly not easy to express by one brief and memorable designation. But we shall venture, for the present, to call him the disciplc o! mere Localities.

« ForrigeFortsæt »