Page images
PDF
EPUB

to reason and to sound policy than to the feelings of philanthropy and the precepts of the Gospel. For although I shall not readily admit that the proof of moral obligation cannot in any instance be complete, unless the connection be made out between the action which the heart naturally approves and that which a right understanding of the interests of mankind would recommend, (on the contrary, to judge practically of right and wrong, we should feel rather than philosophize, and we should act from sentiment rather than from policy,) — yet we surely acquiesce with the most cheerfulness in our duty when we perceive how the useful and the fair are united in the same action.

I therefore undertake to prove these two things :

First, That poverty is a real evil ; which, without any impeachment of the goodness or wisdom of Providence, the constitution of the world actually admits.

Secondly, That the providential appointment of this evil, in subservience to the general good, brings a particular obligation upon men in civilised society to concur for the immediate extinction of the evil, wherever it appears. “ The poor shall never cease out of the land.” And for this especial reason, be

poor

shall never cease, therefore it is commanded, “ That thou open thine hand wide unto thy brother ; that thou surely lend him sufficient for his need, in that which he wanteth.”

The distribution of mankind into various orders is not more essential to the being of society, than it is conducive to the public good that the fortunes of every individual in every rank should be in a considerable degree uncertain : for were things so ordered that every man's fortune should be invariably determined by the rank in which he should be born, or by

cause the

the employment to which he should be bred, an Epicurean indolence, the great bane of public prosperity, would inevitably take place among all ranks of men ; when industry, of all qualities of the individual the most beneficial to the community, would lose the incitement of its golden dreams; and sloth, of all the vices of the individual the most pernicious to the community, would be released from its worst apprehensions. But to be uncertain in the degree which the public weal demands, the fortunes of the individual must be governed, as we see they are, by an intricate combination of causes, of which no sagacity of human forecast may predict or avert the event. The consequence must be, that the individual's means of subsistence will not always correspond with other circumstances, – that they will sometimes fall greatly short of what belongs to the particular sphere which upon the whole he is best qualified to fill with advantage to the community of which he is a member. This is the evil to which the name of poverty properly belongs. The man who hath food to eat and raiment to put on is not poor, because his diet is plain and his apparel homely; but he is truly poor whose means of subsistence are insufficient for his

proper place in society, as determined by the general complication of his circumstances, — by his birth, his education, his bodily strength, and his mental endowments. By the means of subsistence, I understand not the means of superfluous gratifications; but that present competency which every individual must possess in order to be in a capacity to derive a support from his industry in the proper business of his calling. In every condition of life, something more is wanting to a man's support than that he should earn by his industry, from day to day, the price of lodging, food, and raiment, for himself and for his family. The common labourer must be furnished with his mattock and his spade; the tradesman must have wherewithal to purchase the commodities from the sale of which he is to derive his livelihood : in commerce, a large capital must often be expended upon the expectation of a slow and distant return of profit : those who are destined to the liberal professions are to be qualified for the part which they are to sustain in life by a long and expensive course of education ; and they who are born to hereditary honours, if they succeed, as too often is the case, to estates encumbered by the misfortunes or misconduct of their ancestors, are restrained, by the decorums of their rank, from seeking a reparation of their fortunes in any mercenary occupation.

Without something, therefore, of a previous competency, it is evident, that in every rank of life the individual's industry will be insufficient to his support. The want of this previous competency is poverty ; which, with respect to the whole, is indeed, in a certain sense, no evil : it is the necessary result of that instability of the individual's prosperity which is so far from an evil that it is essential to the general good. Yet the difficulty is a calamity to those on whom it lights, a calamity against which no elevation of rank secures.

Nor is it any indication of inconsistency and contradiction in the management of the world, however it may seem to superficial enquirers, that the distinctions of rank, which the purposes of civil life demand, should be occasionally, as it may seem, confounded, and the different orders mixed and levelled, by a calamity like this, universally incidental. It is, indeed, by this expedient that the merciful providence of God guards civil life against the ruin which would otherwise result from the unlimited progress of its own refinements. The accumulation of power in the higher ranks, were they secure against the chances of life and the shocks of fortune, – that is, in other words, were the constitution of the world such, that wealth should always correspond with other advantages in some invariable proportion, - would so separate the interests of the different orders, that every state would split into so many distinct communities as it should contain degrees : these again would subdivide, according to the inequalities of fortune and other advantages which should obtain in each ; till, in the progress of the evil, civil society would be dissipated and shivered into its minutest parts, by the uncontrolled operation of the very principles to which it owes its existence.

Thus it appears that poverty is, indeed, a real evil in the life of the individual; which, nevertheless, the common good demands, and the constitution of the world accordingly admits.

But so wonderfully hath Providence interwoven the public and the private good, that, while the common weal requires that the life of the individual should be obnoxious to this contingency, the public is nevertheless interested in the relief of real poverty, whereever the calamity alights; for Providence hath so ordained, that so long as the individual languishes in poverty, the public must want the services of a useful member. This, indeed, would not be the case, nor would the calamity to the individual be what it generally is, were the transition easy in civil society from

one rank to another. But the truth is, that as our abilities for any particular employment are generally the result of habits to which we have been formed in an early part of life, combined, perhaps, with what is more unconquerable than habit, - the natural bent of genius,-a man who is the best qualified to be serviceable to the community and to himself in any one situation of life, is by that very ability the most disqualified for the business of any other. .

This is readily understood, if the supposition be made of a sudden transition from the lower stations to the higher. It is easily perceived, that the qualifications of a mechanic or a tradesman would be of no advantage in the pulpit, at the bar, or in the senate,

that the clumsy hand of the common labourer would be ill employed in finishing the delicate parts of any nice machine. But though it may be less obvious, it is not less true, that the difficulty would be just the same in descending from the higher to the lower stations; as there is still the same contrariety of habit to create it. At the tradesman's counter or the attorney's desk, the accomplishments of the statesman or the scholar would be rather of dis-service : the mechanic's delicacy of hand would but unfit him for the labours of the anvil ; and he who has once shone in the gay circles of a court, should he attempt in the hour of distress to put his hand to the plough, would be unable to earn any better wages than the ridicule of every peasant in the village.

Thus, every man's ability of finding a subsistence for himself, and of being serviceable to the public, is limited by his habits and his genius to a certain sphere; which may not improperly be called the sphere of his political activity. Poverty, obstructing political ac

« PreviousContinue »