Poor Man’s Friend_

Eighteen and Twenty Six_

William Cobbett_

At length this state of things became changed: men entered into society; they made laws to restrain individuals from following, in certain cases, the dictates of their own will; they protected the weak against the strong; the laws secured men in possession of lands, houses, and goods, that were called Theirs; the words Mine and Thine, which mean 'my own' and 'thy own,' were invented to designate what we now call 'a property' in things.

To The Working Classes Of Preston_

Burghclere, Hampshire, 22d August, 1826.

My excellent friends,

1. Amongst all the new, the strange, the unnatural, the monstrous things that mark the present times, or, rather, that have grown out of the present system of governing this country, there is, in my opinion, hardly any thing more monstrous, or even so monstrous, as the language that is now become fashionable, relative to the condition and the treatment of that part of the community which are usually denominated the Poor; by which word I mean to designate the persons who, from age, infirmity, helplessness, or from want of the means of gaining anything by labour, become destitute of a sufficiency of food or of raiment, and are in danger of perishing if they be not relieved. Such are the persons that we mean when we talk of The Poor; and, I repeat, that amongst all the monstrous things of these monstrous days, nothing is, in my opinion, so monstrous as the language which we now constantly hear relative to the condition and treatment of this part of the community.

2. Nothing can be more common than to read, in the newspapers, descriptions the most horrible of the sufferings of the Poor, in various parts of England, but particularly in the North. It is related of them, that they eat horse-flesh, grains, and have been detected in eating out of pig-troughs. In short, they are represented as being far worse fed and worse lodged than the greater part of the pigs. These statements of the newspapers may be false, or, at least, only partially true; but, at a public meeting of rate-payers, at Manchester, on the 17th of August, Mr. Baxter, the Chairman, said, that some of the Poor had been starved to death, and that tens of thousands were upon the point of starving; and, at the same meeting, Mr. Potter gave a detail, which showed that Mr. Baxter’s general description was true. Other accounts, very nearly official, and, at any rate, being of unquestionable authenticity, concur so fully with the statements made at the Manchester Meeting, that it is impossible not to believe, that a great number of thousands of persons are now on the point of perishing for want of food, and that many have actually perished from that cause; and that this has taken place, and is taking place, in England.

3. There is, then, no doubt of the existence of the disgraceful and horrid facts; but that which is as horrid as are the facts themselves, and even more horrid than those facts, is the cool and unresentful language and manner in which the facts are usually spoken of. Those who write about the misery and starvation in Lancashire and Yorkshire, never appear to think that any body is to blame, even when the poor die with hunger. The Ministers ascribe the calamity to “over-trading;” the cotton and cloth and other master-manufacturers ascribe it to “a want of paper-money,” or to the Corn-Bill; others ascribe the calamity to the taxes. These last are right; but what have these things to do with the treatment of the poor? What have these things to do with the horrid facts relative to the condition and starvation of English people? It is very true, that the enormous taxes which we pay on account of loans made to carry on the late unjust wars, on account of a great standing army in time of peace, on account of pensions, sinecures and grants, and on account of a Church, which, besides, swallows up so large a part of the produce of the land and the labour; it is very true, that these enormous taxes, co-operating with the paper-money and its innumerable monopolies; it is very true, that these enormous taxes, thus associated, have produced the ruin in trade, manufactures and commerce, and have, of course, produced the low wages and the want of employment; this is very true; but it is not less true, that, be wages or employment as they may, the poor are not to perish with hunger, or with cold, while the rest of the community have food and raiment more than the latter want for their own sustenance. The Law of England says, that there shall be no person to suffer from want of food and raiment. It has placed officers in every parish to see that no person suffer from this sort of want; and lest these officers should not do their duty, it commands all the magistrates to hear the complaints of the poor, and to compel the officers to do their duty. The Law of England has provided ample means of relief for the poor; for, it has authorized the officers, or overseers, to get from the rich inhabitants of the parish as much money as is wanted for the purpose, without any limit as to amount; and, in order that the overseers may have no excuse of inability to make people pay, the law has armed them with powers of a nature the most efficacious and the most efficient and most prompt in their operation. In short, the language of the Law, to the overseer, is this: “Take care that no person suffer from hunger, or from cold; and that you may be sure not to fail of the means of obeying this my command, I give you, as far as shall be necessary for this purpose, full power over all the lands, all the houses, all the goods, and all the cattle, in your parish.” To the Justices of the Peace the Law says: “Lest the overseer should neglect his duty; lest, in spite of my command to him, any one should suffer from hunger or cold, I command you to be ready to hear the complaint of every sufferer from such neglect; I command you to summon the offending overseer, and to compel him to do his duty.”

4. Such being the language of the Law, is it not a monstrous state of things, when we hear it commonly and coolly stated, that many thousands of persons in England are upon the point of starvation; that thousands will die of hunger and cold next winter; that many have already died of hunger; and when we hear all this, unaccompanied with one word of complaint against any overseer, or any justice of the peace! Is not this state of things perfectly monstrous? A state of things in which it appears to be taken for granted, that the Law is nothing, when it is intended to operate as a protection to the poor! Law is always law: if one part of the law may be, with impunity, set at defiance, why not another and every other part of the law? If the law which provides for the succour of the poor, for the preservation of their lives, may be, with impunity, set at defiance, why should there not be impunity for setting at defiance the law which provides for the security of the property and the lives of the rich? If you, in Lancashire, were to read, in an account of a meeting in Hampshire, that, here, the farmers and gentlemen were constantly and openly robbed; that the poor were daily breaking into their houses, and knocking their brains out; and that it was expected that great part of them would be killed very soon: if you, in Lancashire were to hear this said of the state of Hampshire, what would you say? Say! Why, you would say, to be sure, “Where is the Law; where are the constables, the justices, the juries, the judges, the sheriffs, and the hangmen? Where can that Hampshire be? It, surely, never can be in Old England. It must be some savage country, where such enormities can be committed, and where even those, who talk and who lament the evils, never utter one word in the way of blame of the perpetrators.” And if you were called upon to pay taxes, or to make subscriptions in money, to furnish the means of protection to the unfortunate rich people in Hampshire, would you not say, and with good reason, “No: what should we do this for? The people of Hampshire have the Same Law that we have; they are under the same Government; let them duly enforce that law; and then they will stand in no need of money from us to provide for their protection.”

5. This is what common sense says would be your language in such a case; and does not common sense say, that the people of Hampshire, and of every other part of England, will thus think, when they are told of the sufferings, and the starvation, in Lancashire and Yorkshire! The report of the Manchester ley-payers, which took place on the 17th of August, reached me in a friend’s house in this little village; and when another friend, who was present, read, in the speeches of Mr. Baxter and Mr. Potter, that tens of thousands of Lancashire people were on the point of starvation, and that many had already actually died from starvation; and when he perceived, that even those gentlemen uttered not a word of complaint against either overseer or justices of the peace, he exclaimed: “What! are there no poor-laws in Lancashire? Where, amidst all this starvation, is the overseer? Where is the justice of the peace? Surely that Lancashire can never be in England?”

6. The observations of this gentleman are those which occur to every man of sense; when he hears the horrid accounts of the sufferings in the manufacturing districts; for, though we are all well aware, that the burden of the poor-rates presses, at this time, with peculiar weight on the land-owners and occupiers, and on owners and occupiers of other real property, in those districts, we are equally well aware, that those owners and occupiers have derived great benefits from that vast population that now presses upon them. There is land in the parish in which I am now writing, and belonging to the farm in the house of which I am, which land would not let for 20s. a statute acre; while land, not so good, would let, in any part of Lancashire, near to the manufactories, at 60s. or 80s. a statute acre. The same may be said with regard to houses. And, pray, are the owners and occupiers, who have gained so largely by the manufacturing works being near their lands and houses; are they, now, to complain, if the vicinage of these same works causes a charge of rates there, heavier than exists here? Are the owners and occupiers of Lancashire to enjoy an age of advantages from the labours of the spinners and the weavers; and are they, when a reverse comes, to bear none of the disadvantages? Are they to make no sacrifices, in order to save from perishing those industrious and ever-toiling creatures, by the labours of whom their land and houses have been augmented in value, three, five, or perhaps tenfold? None but the most unjust of mankind can answer these questions in the affirmative.

7. But as greediness is never at a loss for excuses for the hard-heartedness that it is always ready to practise, it is said, that the whole of the rents of the land and the houses would not suffice for the purpose; that is to say, that if the poor rates were to be made so high as to leave the tenant no means of paying rent, even then some of the poor must go without a sufficiency of food. I have no doubt that, in particular instances, this would be the case. But for cases like this the LAW has amply provided; for, in every case of this sort, adjoining parishes may be made to assist the hard pressed parish; and if the pressure becomes severe on these adjoining parishes, those next adjoining them may be made to assist; and thus the call upon adjoining parishes maybe extended till it reach all over the county. So good, so benignant, so wise, so foreseeing, and so effectual, is this, the very best of all our good old laws! This law or rather code of laws, distinguishes England from all the other countries in the world, except the United States of America, where, while hundreds of other English statutes have been abolished, this law has always remained in full force, this great law of mercy and humanity, which says, that no human being that treads English ground shall perish for want of food and raiment. For such poor persons as are unable to work, the law provides food and clothing; and it commands that work shall be provided for such as are able to work, and cannot otherwise get employment. This law was passed more than two hundred years ago. Many attempts have been made to chip it away, and some have been made to destroy it altogether; but it still exists, and every man who does not wish to see general desolation take place, will do his best to cause it to be duly and conscientiously executed.

8. Having now, my friends of Preston, stated what the law is, and also the reasons for its honest enforcement in the particular case immediately before us, I will next endeavour to show you that it is founded in the law of nature, and that, were it not for the provisions of this law, people would, according to the opinions of the greatest lawyers, have a right to take food and raiment sufficient to preserve them from perishing; and that such taking would be neither felony nor larceny. This is a matter of the greatest importance; it is a most momentous question; for if it be settled in the affirmative—if it be settled that it is not felony, nor larceny, to take other men’s goods without their assent, and even against their will, when such taking is absolutely necessary to the preservation of life, how great, how imperative, is the duty of affording, if possible, that relief which will prevent such necessity! In other words, how imperative it is on all overseers and justices to obey the law with alacrity; and how weak are those persons who look to “grants” and “subscriptions,” to supply the place of the execution of this, the most important of all the laws that constitute the basis of English society! And if this question be settled in the affirmative; if we find the most learned of lawyers and most wise of men, maintaining the affirmative of this proposition; if we find them maintaining, that it is neither felony nor larceny to take food, in case of extreme necessity, though without the assent, and even against the will of the owner, what are we to think of those (and they are not few in number nor weak in power) who, animated with the savage soul of the Scotch feelosophers, would wholly abolish the poor-laws, or, at least, render them of little effect, and thereby constantly keep thousands exposed to this dire necessity!

9. In order to do justice to this great subject; in order to treat it with perfect fairness, and in a manner becoming of me and of you, I must take the authorities on both sides. There are some great lawyers who have contended that the starving man is still guilty of felony or larceny, if he take food to satisfy his hunger; but there are a greater number of other, and still greater, lawyers, who maintain the contrary. The general doctrine of those who maintain the right to take, is founded on the law of nature; and it is a saying as old as the hills, a saying in every language in the world, that “self-preservation is the first law of nature.” The law of nature teaches every creature to prefer the preservation of its own life to all other things. But, in order to have a fair view of the matter before us, we ought to inquire how it came to pass, that the laws were ever made to punish men as criminals, for taking the victuals, drink, or clothing, that they might stand in need of. We must recollect, then, that there was a time when no such laws existed; when men, like the wild animals in the fields, took what they were able to take, if they wanted it. In this state of things, all the land and all the produce belonged to all the people in common. Thus were men situated, when they lived under what is called the law of nature; when every one provided, as he could, for his self-preservation.

10. At length this state of things became changed: men entered into society; they made laws to restrain individuals from following, in certain cases, the dictates of their own will; they protected the weak against the strong; the laws secured men in possession of lands, houses, and goods, that were called Theirs; the words Mine and Thine, which mean my own and thy own, were invented to designate what we now call a property in things. The law necessarily made it criminal in one man to take away, or to injure, the property of another man. It was, you will observe, even in this state of nature, always a crime to do certain things against our neighbour. To kill him, to wound him, to slander him, to expose him to suffer from the want of food or raiment, or shelter. These, and many others, were crimes in the eye of the law of nature; but, to take share of a man’s victuals or clothing; to go and insist upon sharing a part of any of the good things that he happened to have in his possession, could be no crime, because there was no property in anything, except in man’s body itself. Now, civil society was formed for the benefit of the whole. The whole gave up their natural rights, in order that every one might, for the future, enjoy his life in greater security. This civil society was intended to change the state of man for the better. Before this state of civil society, the starving, the hungry, the naked man, had a right to go and provide himself with necessaries wherever he could find them. There would be sure to be some such necessitous persons in a state of civil society. Therefore, when civil society was established, it is impossible to believe that it had not in view some provision for these destitute persons. It would be monstrous to suppose the contrary. The contrary supposition would argue, that fraud was committed upon the mass of the people in forming this civil society; for, as the sparks fly upwards, so will there always be destitute persons to some extent or other, in every community, and such there are to now a considerable extent, even in the United States of America; therefore, the formation of the civil society must have been fraudulent or tyrannical upon any other supposition than that it made provision, in some way or other, for destitute persons; that is to say, for persons unable, from some cause or other, to provide for themselves the food and raiment sufficient to preserve them from perishing. Indeed, a provision for the destitute seems essential to the lawfulness of civil society; and this appears to have been the opinion of Blackstone, when, in the first Book and first Chapter of his Commentaries on the Laws of England, he says, “the law not only regards life and member, and protects every man in the enjoyment of them, but also furnishes him with every thing necessary for their support. For there is no man so indigent or wretched, but he may demand a supply sufficient for all the necessaries of life from the more opulent part of the community, by means of the several statutes enacted for the relief of the poor; a humane provision dictated by the principles of society.”

11. No man will contend, that the main body of the people in any country upon earth, and of course in England, would have consented to abandon the rights of nature; to give up their right to enjoy all things in common; no man will believe, that the main body of the people would ever have given their assent to the establishing of a state of things which should make all the lands, and all the trees, and all the goods and cattle of every sort, private property; which should have shut out a large part of the people from having such property, and which should, at the same time, not have provided the means of preventing those of them, who might fall into indigence, from being actually starved to death! It is impossible to believe this. Men never gave their assent to enter into society on terms like these. One part of the condition upon which men entered into society was, that care should be taken that no human being should perish from want. When they agreed to enter into that state of things, which would necessarily cause some men to be rich and some men to be poor; when they gave up that right, which God had given them, to live as well as they could, and to take the means wherever they found them, the condition clearly was, the “principle of society;” clearly was, as Blackstone defines it, that the indigent and wretched should have a right to “demand from the rich a supply sufficient for all the necessities of life.”

12. If the society did not take care to act upon this principle; if it neglected to secure the legal means, of preserving the life of the indigent and wretched; then the society itself, in so far as that wretched person was concerned, ceased to have a legal existence. It had, as far as related to him, forfeited its character of legality. It had no longer any claim to his submission to its laws. His rights of nature returned: as far as related to him, the law of Nature revived in all its force: that state of things in which all men enjoyed all things in common was revived with regard to him; and he took, and he had a right to take, food and raiment, or, as Blackstone expresses it, “a supply sufficient for all the necessities of life.” For, if it be true, as laid down by this English lawyer, that the principles of society; if it be true, that the very principles, or foundations of society dictate, that the destitute person shall have a legal demand for a supply from the rich, sufficient for all the necessities of life; if this be true, and true it certainly is, it follows of course that the principles, that is, the base, or foundation, of society, is subverted, is gone; and that society is, in fact, no longer what it was intended to be, when the indigent, when the person in a state of extreme necessity, cannot, at once, obtain from the rich such sufficient supply: in short, we need go no further than this passage of Blackstone, to show, that civil society is subverted, and that there is, in fact, nothing legitimate in it, when the destitute and wretched have no certain and legal resource.

13. But this is so important a matter, and there have been such monstrous doctrines and projects put forth by Malthus, by the Edinburgh Reviewers, by Lawyer Scarlett, by Lawyer Nolan, by Sturges Bourne, and by an innumerable swarm of persons who have been giving before the House of Commons what they call “evidence:” there have been such monstrous doctrines and projects put forward by these and other persons; and there seems to be such a lurking desire to carry the hostility to the working classes still further, that I think it necessary in order to show, that these English poor-laws, which have been so much calumniated by so many greedy proprietors of land; I think it necessary to show, that these poor-laws are the things which men of property, above all others, ought to wish to see maintained, seeing that, according to the opinions of the greatest and the wisest of men, they must suffer most in consequence of the abolition of those laws; because, by the abolition of those laws, the right given by the laws of nature would revive, and the destitute would take, where they now simply demand (as Blackstone expresses it) in the name of the law. There has been some difference of opinion, as to the question, whether it be theft or no theft; or, rather, whether it be a criminal act, or not a criminal act, for a person, in a case of extreme necessity from want of food, to take food without the assent and even against the will, of the owner. We have, amongst our great lawyers, Sir Matthew Hale and Sir William Blackstone, who contend (though as we shall see, with much feebleness, hesitation, and reservation,) that it is theft, notwithstanding the extremity of the want; but there are many, and much higher authorities, foreign as well as English, on the other side. Before, however, I proceed to the hearing of these authorities, let me take a short view of the origin of the poor laws in England; for that view will convince us, that, though the present law was passed but a little more than two hundred years ago, there had been something to effect the same purpose ever since England had been called England.

14. According to the Common Law of England, as recorded in the Mirrour of Justices, a book which was written before the Norman Conquest; a book in as high reputation, as a law-book, as any one in England; according to this book, Chapter 1st, Section 3d, which treats of the “First constitutions made by the antient kings;” According to this work, provision was made for the sustenance of the poor. The words are these: “It was ordained, that the poor should be sustained by parsons, by rectors of the church, and by the parishioners, so that none of them die for want of sustenance.” Several hundred years later, the canons of the church show, that when the church had become rich, it took upon itself the whole of the care and expense attending the relieving of the poor. These canons, in setting forth the manner in which the tithes should be disposed of, say, “Let the priests set apart the first share for the building and ornaments of the church; let them distribute the second to the poor and strangers, with their own hands, in mercy and humility; and let them reserve the third part for themselves.” This passage is taken from the canons of Elfric, canon 24th. At a later period, when the tithes had, in some places, been appropriated to convents, acts of Parliament were passed, compelling the impropriators to leave, in the hands of their vicar, a sufficiency for the maintenance of the poor. There were two or three acts of this sort passed, one particularly in the twelfth year of Richard the Second, chapter 7th. So that here we have the most ancient book on the Common Law; we have the canons of the church at a later period; we have acts of Parliament at a time when the power and glory of England were at their very highest point; we have all these to tell us, that in England, from the very time that the country took the name, there was always a legal and secure provision for the poor, so that no person, however aged, infirm, unfortunate, or destitute, should suffer from want.

15. But, my friends, a time came when the provision made by the Common Law, by the Canons of the Church, and by the Acts of the Parliament coming in aid of those canons; a time arrived, when all these were rendered null by what is called the Protestant Reformation. This “Reformation,” As it is called, sweeped away the convents, gave a large part of the tithes to greedy courtiers, put parsons with wives and children into the livings, and left the poor without any resource whatsoever. This terrible event, which deprived England of the last of her possessions on the continent of Europe, reduced the people of England to the most horrible misery; from the happiest and best fed and best clad people in the world, it made them the most miserable, the most wretched and ragged of creatures. At last it was seen that, in spite of the most horrible tyranny that ever was exercised in the world, in spite of the racks and the gibbets and the martial law of Queen Elizabeth, those who had amassed to themselves the property out of which the poor had been formerly fed, were compelled to pass a law to raise money, by way of tax, for relieving the necessities of the poor. They had passed many acts before the Forty-Third year of the reign of this Queen Elizabeth; but these acts were all found to be ineffectual, till, at last, in the forty-third year of the reign: of this tyrannical Queen, and in the year of our Lord 1601, that famous act was passed, which has been in force until this day; and which, as I said before, is still in force, notwithstanding all the various attempts of folly and cruelty to get rid of it.

16. Thus, then, the present poor-laws are no new thing. They are no gift to the working people. You hear the greedy landowners everlastingly complaining against this law of Queen Elizabeth. They pretend that it was an unfortunate law. They affect to regard it as a great Innovation, seeing that no such law existed before; but, as I have shown, a better law existed before, having the same object in view. I have shown, that the “Reformation,” as it is called, had sweeped away that which had been secured to the poor by the Common Law, by the Canons of the Church, and by ancient Acts of Parliament. There was nothing new, then, in the way of benevolence towards the people, in this celebrated Act of Parliament of the reign of Queen Elizabeth; and the landowners would act wisely by holding their tongues upon the subject; or, if they be too noisy, one may look into their Grants, and see if we cannot find something There to keep out the present parochial assessments.

17. Having now seen the origin of the present poor-laws, and the justice of their due execution, let us return to those authorities of which I was speaking but now, and an examination into which will show the extreme danger of listening to those projectors who would abolish the poor-laws; that is to say, who would sweep away that provision which was established in the reign of Queen Elizabeth, from a conviction that it was absolutely necessary to preserve the peace of the country and the lives of the people. I observed before that there has been some difference of opinion amongst lawyers as to the question, whether it be, or be not, theft, to take without his consent and against his will, the victuals of another, in order to prevent the taker from starving. Sir Matthew Hale and Sir William Blackstone say that it is theft. I am now going to quote the several authorities on both sides, and it will be necessary for me to indicate the works which I quote from by the words, letters, and figures which are usually made use of in quoting from these works. Some part of what I shall quote will be in Latin: but I shall put nothing in that language of which I will not give you the translation. I beg you to read these quotations with the greatest attention; for you will find, at the end of your reading, that you have obtained great knowledge upon the subject, and knowledge, too, which will not soon depart from your minds.

18. I begin with Sir Matthew Hale, (a Chief Justice of the Court of King’s Bench in the reign of Charles the Second,) who, in his Pleas of the Crown, Chap. IX., has the following passage, which I put in distinct paragraphs, and mark A, B, and C.

19. A. “Some of the casuists, and particularly Covarruvius, Tom. I. De furti et rapinæ restitutione, § 3, 4, p. 473; and Grotius, de jure belli, ac pacis; lib. II. cap. 2. § 6, tell us, that in case of extreme necessity, either of hunger or clothing, the civil distributions of property cease, and by a kind of tacit condition the first community doth return, and upon this those common assertions are grounded: ‘Quicquid necessitas cogit, defendit.’ [Whatever necessity calls for, it justifies.] ‘Necessitas est lex temporis et loci.’ [Necessity is the law of time and place.] ‘In casu extremæ necessitatis omnia sunt communia.’ [In case of extreme necessity, all things are in common;] and, therefore, in such case theft is no theft, or at least not punishable as theft; and some even of our own lawyers have asserted the same; and very bad use hath been made of this concession by some of the Jesuiticalcasuists of France, who have thereupon advised apprentices and servants to rob their masters, where they have been indeed themselves in want of necessaries, of clothes or victuals; whereof, they tell them, they themselves are the competent judges; and by this means let loose, as much as they can, by their doctrine of probability, all the ligaments of property and civil society.”

20. B. “I do, therefore, take it, that, where persons live under the same civil government, as here in England, that rule, at least by the laws of England, is false; and, therefore, if a person being under necessity for want of victuals, or clothes, shall, upon that account, clandestinely, and ‘animo furandi,’ [with intent to steal,] steal another man’s goods, it is felony, and a crime, by the laws of England, punishable with death; although, the judge before whom the trial is, in this case (as in other cases of extremity) be by the laws of England intrusted with a power to reprieve the offender, before or after judgment, in order to the obtaining the King’s mercy. For, 1st, Men’s properties would be under a strange insecurity, being laid open to other men’s necessities, whereof no man can possibly judge, but the party himself. And, 2nd, Because by the laws of this kingdom [here he refers to the 43 Eliz. cap. 2] sufficient provision is made for the supply of such necessities by collections for the poor, and by the power of the civil magistrate. Consonant hereunto seems to be the law even among the Jews; if we may believe the wisest of kings. Proverbs vi. 30, 31. ‘Men do not despise a thief, if he steal to satisfy his soul when he is hungry, but if he be found, he shall restore seven-fold, he shall give all the substance of his house.’ It is true, death among them was not the penalty of theft, yet his necessity gave him no exception from the ordinary punishment inflicted by their law upon that offence.”

21. C. “Indeed this rule, ‘in casu extremæ necessitatis omnia sunt communia,’ does hold, in some measure, in some particular cases, where, by the tacit consent of nations, or of some particular countries or societies, it hath obtained. First, among the Jews, it was lawful in case of hunger to pull ears of standing corn, and eat, (Matt. xii. 1;) and for one to pass through a vineyard, or olive-yard, to gather and eat without carrying away. Deut. xxiii. 24, 25. Second, By the Rhodian law, and the common-maritime custom, if the common provision for the ship’s company fail, the master may, under certain temperaments, break open the private chests of the mariners or passengers, and make a distributionof that particular and private provision for the preservation of the ship’s company.” Vide Consolato del Mare, cap. 256. Le Customes de la Mere, p. 77.

22. Sir William Blackstone agrees, in substance, with Hale; but he is, as we shall presently see, much more eager to establish his doctrine; and, we shall see besides, that he has not scrupled to be guilty of misquoting, and of very shamefully garbling, the Scripture, in order to establish his point. We shall find him flatly contradicting the laws of England; but, he might have spared the Holy Scriptures, which, however, he has not done.

23. To return to Hale, you see he is compelled to begin with acknowledging that there are great authorities against him; and he could not say that Grotius was not one of the most virtuous as well as one of the most learned of mankind. Hale does not know very well what to do with those old sayings about the justification which hard necessity gives: he does not know what to do with the maxim, that, “in case of extreme necessity all things are owned in common.” He is exceedingly puzzled with these ancient authorities, and flies off into prattle rather than argument, and tells us a story about “jesuitical” casuists in France, who advised apprentices and servants to rob their masters, and that they thus “let loose the ligaments of property and civil society.” I fancy that it would require a pretty large portion of that sort of faith which induced this Protestant judge to send witches and wizards to the gallows; a pretty large portion of this sort of faith, to make us believe, that the “casuists of France,” who, doubtless, had servants of their own, would teach servants to rob their masters! In short, this prattle of the judge seems to have been nothing more than one of those Protestant effusions which were too much in fashion at the time when he wrote.

24. He begins his second paragraph, or paragraph B., by saying, that he “takes it” to be so and so; and then comes another qualified expression; he talks of civil government “as here in England.” Then he says, that the rule of Grotius and others, against which he has been contending, “he takes to be false, at least,” says he, “by the laws of England.” After he has made all these qualifications, he then proceeds to say that such taking is theft; that it is felony; and it is a crime which the laws of England punish with death! But, as if stricken with remorse at putting the frightful words upon paper; as if feeling shame for the law and for England itself, he instantly begins to tell us, that the judge who presides at the trial is intrusted, “by the laws of England,” with power to reprieve the offender, in order to the obtaining of the King’s mercy! Thus he softens it down. He will have it to be LAW to put a man to death in such a case; but he is ashamed to leave his readers to believe, that an English judge and an English king WOULD OBEY THIS LAW!

25. Let us now hear the reasons which he gives for this which he pretends to be law. His first reason is, that there would be no security for property, if it were laid open to the necessities of the indigent, of which necessities no man but the takers themselves could be the judge. He talks of a “strange insecurity;” but, upon my word, no insecurity could be half so strange as this assertion of his own. Blackstone has just the same argument. “Nobody,” says he, “would be a judge of the wants of the taker, but the taker himself;” and Blackstone, copying the very words of Hale, talks of the “strange insecurity” arising from this cause. Now, then, suppose a man to come into my house, and to take away a bit of bacon. Suppose me to pursue him and seize him. He would tell me that he was starving for want of food. I hope that the bare statement would induce me, or any man in the world that I do call or ever have called my friend, to let him go without further inquiry; but, if I chose to push the matter further, there would be the magistrate. If he chose to commit the man, would there not be a jury and a judge to receive evidence and to ascertain whether the extreme necessity existed or not?

26. Aye, says Judge Hale; but I have another reason, a devilish deal better than this, “and that is, the act of the 43d year of the reign of Queen Elizabeth!” Aye, my old boy, that is a thumping reason! “Sufficient provision is made for the supply of such necessities by collections for the poor, and by the power of the civil magistrate.” Aye, aye! that is the reason; and, Mr. Sir Matthew Hale, there is no other reason, say what you will about the matter. There stand the overseer and the civil magistrate to take care that such necessities be provided for; and if they did not stand there for that purpose, the law of nature would be revived in behalf of the suffering creature.

27. Hale, not content however with this act of Queen Elizabeth, and still hankering after this hard doctrine, furbishes up a bit of Scripture, and calls Solomon the wisest of kings on account of these two verses which he has taken. Hale observes, indeed, that the Jews did not put thieves to death; but, to restore seven-fold was the ordinary punishment, inflicted by their law, for theft; and here, says he, we see, that the extreme necessity gave no exemption. This was a piece of such flagrant sophistry on the part of Hale, that he could not find in his heart to send it forth to the world without a qualifying observation; but even this qualifying observation left the sophistry still so shameful, that his editor, Mr. Emlyn, who published the work under authority of the House of Commons, did not think it consistent with his reputation to suffer this passage to go forth unaccompanied with the following remark: “But their (the Jews’) ordinary punishment being entirely pecuniary, could affect him only when he was found in a condition to answer it; and therefore the same reasons which could justify that, can, by no means, be extended to a corporal, much less to a capital punishment.” Certainly: and this is the fair interpretation of these two verses of the Proverbs. Puffendorf, one of the greatest authorities that the world knows anything of, observes, upon the argument built upon this text of Scripture, “It may be objected, that, in Proverbs, chap. vi. verses 30, 31, he is called a thief, and pronounced obnoxious to the penalty of theft, who steals to satisfy his hunger; but whoever closely views and considers that text will find that the thief there censured is neither in such extreme necessity as we are now supposing, nor seems to have fallen into his needy condition merely by ill fortune, without his own idleness or default: for the context implies, that he had a house and goods sufficient to make seven-fold restitution; which he might have either sold or pawned; a chapman or creditor being easily to be met with in times of plenty and peace; for we have no grounds to think that the fact there mentioned is supposed to be committed, either in time of war, or upon account of the extraordinary price of provisions.”

28. Besides this, I think it is clear that these two verses of the Proverbs do not apply to one and the same person; for in the first verse it is said, that men do not despise a thief if he steal to satisfy his soul when he is hungry. How, then, are we to reconcile this with morality? Are we not to despise a thief? It is clear that the word thief does not apply to the first case; but to the second case only; and that the distinction was here made for the express purpose of preventing the man who took food to relieve his hunger from being confounded with the thief. Upon any other interpretation, it makes the passage contain nonsense and immorality; and, indeed, Grotius says that the latter text does not apply to the person mentioned in the former. The latter text could not mean a man taking food from necessity. It is impossible that it can mean that; because the man who was starving for want of food could not have seven-fold; could not have any substance in his house. But what are we to think of Judge Blackstone, who, in his Book IV., chap. 2, really garbles these texts of Scripture. He clearly saw the effect of the expression, “Men Do Not Despise;” he saw what an awkward figure these words made, coming before the words “A Thief;” he saw that, with these words in the text, he could never succeed in making his readers believe that a man ought to be hanged for taking food to save his life. He clearly saw that he could not make men believe that God had said this, unless he could, somehow or other, get rid of those words about Not Despising the thief that took victuals when he was hungry. Being, therefore, very much pestered and annoyed by these words about Not Despising, what does he do but fairly leave them out! And not only leave them out, but leave out a part of both the verses, keeping in that part of each that suited him, and no more; nay, further, leaving out one word, and putting in another, giving a sense to the whole which he knew well never was intended. He states the passage to be this: “If a thief steal to satisfy his soul when he is hungry, he shall restore seven-fold, and shall give all the substance of his house.” No broomstick that ever was handled would have been too heavy or too rough for the shoulders of this dirty-souled man. Hale, with all his desire to make out a case in favour of severity, has given us the words fairly: but this shuffling fellow; this smooth-spoken and mean wretch, who is himself thief enough, God knows, if stealing other men’s thoughts and words constitute theft; this intolerably mean reptile has, in the first place, left out the words “men do not despise:” then he has left out the words at the beginning of the next text, “but if he be found.” Then in place of the “he,” which comes before the words “shall give” he puts the word “and;” and thus he makes the whole apply to the poor creature that takes to satisfy his soul when he is hungry! He leaves out every mitigating word of the Scripture; and, in his reference, he represents the passage to be in one verse! Perhaps, even in the history of the conduct of crown-lawyers, there is not to be found mention of an act so coolly bloody-minded as this. It has often been said of this Blackstone, that he not only lied himself, but made others lie; he has here made, as far as he was able, a liar of King Solomon himself: he has wilfully garbled the Holy Scripture; and that, too, for the manifest purpose of justifying cruelty in courts and judges; for the manifest purpose of justifying the most savage oppression of the poor.

29. After all, Hale has not the courage to send forth this doctrine of his, without allowing that the case of extreme necessity does, “in some measure,” and “in particular cases,” and, “by the tacit or silent consent of nations,” hold good! What a crowd of qualifications is here! With what reluctance he confesses that which all the world knows to be true, that the disciples of Jesus Christ pulled off, without leave, the ears of standing corn, and ate them “being an hungered.” And here are two things to observe upon. In the first place this corn was not what we call corn here in England, or else it would have been very droll sort of stuff to crop off and eat. It was what the Americans call Indian corn, what the French call Turkish corn; and what is called corn (as being far surpassing all other in excellence) in the Eastern countries where the Scriptures were written. About four or five ears of this corn, of which you strip all the husk off in a minute, are enough for a man’s breakfast or dinner; and by about the middle of August this corn is just as wholesome and as efficient as bread. So that, this was something to take and eat without the owner’s leave; it was something of value; and observe, that the Pharisees, though so strongly disposed to find fault with everything that was done by Jesus Christ and his disciples, did not find fault of their taking the corn to eat; did not call them thieves; did not propose to punish them for theft; but found fault of them only for having plucked the corn on the Sabbath-day! To pluck the corn was to do work, and these severe critics found fault of this working on the Sabbath-day. Then, out comes another fact, which Hale might have noticed if he had chosen it; namely, that our Saviour reminds the Pharisees that “David and his companions, being an hungered, entered into the House of God, and did eat the show-bread, to eat which was unlawful in any-body but the priests.” Thus, that which would have been sacrilege under any other circumstances; that which would have been one of the most horrible of crimes against the law of God, became no crime at all when committed by a person pressed by hunger.

30. Nor has Judge Hale fairly interpreted the two verses of Deuteronomy. He represents the matter thus: that, if you be passing through a vineyard or an olive-yard you may gather and eat, without being deemed a thief. This interpretation would make an Englishman believe that the Scripture allowed of this taking and eating, only where there was a lawful foot-way through the vineyard. This is a very gross misrepresentation of the matter; for if you look at the two texts, you will find, that they say that, “when thou comest into;” that is to say, when thou enterest or goest into, “thy neighbour’s vineyard, then thou mayest eat grapes thy fill at thine own pleasure, but thou shalt not put any in thy vessel;” that is to say, that you should not go and make wine in his vineyard and carry it away. Then in case of the corn, precisely the same law is laid down. You may pluck with your hand; but not use the hook or a sickle. Nothing can be plainer than this: no distinction can be wiser, nor more just. Hale saw the force of it; and therefore, as these texts made very strongly against him, he does not give them at full length, but gives us a misrepresenting abbreviation.

31. He had, however, too much regard for his reputation to conclude without acknowledging the right of seizing on the provisions of others at sea. He allows that private chests may be broken open to prevent men from dying with hunger at sea. He does not stop to tell us why men’s lives are more precious on sea than on land. He does not attempt to reconcile these liberties given by the Scripture, and by the maritime laws, with his own hard doctrine. In short, he brings us to this at last: that he will not acknowledge, that it is not theft to take another man’s goods, without his consent, under any circumstances; but, while he will not acknowledge this, he plainly leaves us to conclude, that no English judge and no English king will ever punish a poor creature that takes victuals to save himself from perishing; and he plainly leaves us to conclude, that it is the poor-laws of England; that it is their existence and their due execution, which deprive everybody in England of the right to take food and raiment in case of extreme necessity.

32. Here I agree with him most cordially; and it is because I agree with him in this, that I deprecate the abominable projects of those who would annihilate the poor-laws, seeing that it is those very poor-laws which give, under all circumstances, really legal security to property. Without them, cases must frequently arise, which would, according to the law of nature, according to the law of God, and as we shall see before we have done, according to the law of England, bring us into a state, or, at least, bring particular persons into a state, which as far as related to them, would cause the law of nature to revive, and to make all things to be owned in common. To adhere, then, to these poor-laws; to cause them to be duly executed, to prevent every encroachment upon them, to preserve them as the apple of our eye, are the duty of every Englishman, as far as he has capacity so to do.

33. I have, my friends, cited, as yet, authorities only on one side of this great subject, which it was my wish to discuss in this one Number. I find that to be impossible without leaving undone much more than half my work. I am extremely anxious to cause this matter to be well understood, not only by the working classes, but by the owners of the land and the magistrates. I deem it to be of the greatest possible importance; and, while writing on it, I address myself to you, because I most sincerely declare that I have a greater respect for you than for any other body of persons that I know any thing of. The next Number will conclude the discussion of the subject. The whole will lie in a very small compass. Sixpence only will be the cost of it. It will creep about, by degrees, over the whole of this kingdom. All the authorities, all the arguments, will be brought into this small compass; and I do flatter myself that many months will not pass over our heads, before all but misers and madmen will be ashamed to talk of abolishing the poor-rates and of supporting the needy by grants and subscriptions.

I am, Your faithful friend and Most obedient servant,
Wm. Cobbett.


... a state of things in which it appears to be taken for granted, that the Law is nothing, when it is intended to operate as a protection to the poor ... law is always law: if one part of the law may be, with impunity, set at defiance, why not another and every other part of the law ... if the law which provides for the succour of the poor, for the preservation of their lives, may be, with impunity, set at defiance, why should there not be impunity for setting at defiance the law which provides for the security of the property and the lives of the rich ...