TAIT’S

EDINBURGH MAGAZINE.

JANUARY, 1856.

SOCIAL LEGISLATION – MR. FORBES MACKENZIE’S ACT.


The political questions of the age sink to comparative insignificance when contrasted with those that affect the moral and social condition of society, in the estimate of many persons, who quietly bear the Bullion Act, which diminishes work and reduces wages, or submit to exclusion from political privileges with exemplary resignation, yet threaten to rebel against the slightest infringement of their beer. The late William Cobbett once said that if Englishmen ever rebelled, it would be for two- pence-half-penny, or thereby. The London agitation of the last year confirmed this bad opinion of the revolutionary tactics of Englishmen. Great topics of public interest abounded, yet the Beer Bill had preference in Hyde-park over the bread meetings, and numerous assemblages threatened to stone Lord Robert Grosvenor for proposing to shut certain shops on the first day of the week. Social legislation comes direct to the habits and homes of individuals, and is felt in all their family and personal arrangements. They do not often pause to reason upon its qualities or tendencies, but work for or against its proposals from impulse or instinct. The Sunday meetings in Hyde-park last summer and in subsequent months, excited much interest out of the metropolis. The numbers were large for a provincial town, but small for Loudon, with its two and a-half millions of inhabitants. They were not meetings for discussion, because a considerable number of persons who might have supported the assailed bills could not, from their principles, attend to discuss the questions upon the day selected for these gatherings. The demonstrations were thus on one side, and, looking to the vast population of London, the selection of the day, of the park, and the professional attendance at all places of the kind, they were not, in any respect – not excepting the roughness imputed to the police and their subjects – comparable to large provincial assemblages on any question of popular interest. Their importance was derived from their locality. Hyde-park is the lounge of the genteel and the rich. It is the centre of aristocratic mansions. It has room for all classes, without confusion or jostling; but when the “tag rag” came west–not for air only, but practical amusement, hatting, hooting, a little stone-throwing, and a small row, in addition to speeches and resolutions, the affair became troublesome. Two sections of the east were engaged evidently in the proceedings – those who speak after they think, and who believed that solid privileges were endangered by Acts of Parliament passed and proposed; and those who think little, speak much, and have no particular are or love for any liberties that are worthy of preservation. The west were willing to legislate for the canaillewhile they kept in their lairs, but when this legislation threatened to bring them out, their effort ceased.

The history of recent legislation on social affairs induces us to consider carefully and minutely several questions arising out of the subject. The middle and upper classes of society can take their own time for any pursuit in which they may wish to engage. They can present a sober front on Sabbaths, because they have Mondays, or Saturdays, or any other days, for indulgence in debauchery; but the working classes must toil for six days, and if debauchery were a good article, they should have the means of enjoying it patent to them at the only time when they can use them. All classes, however, consider “debauchery” a term meant to signify whatever they deem vicious; and therefore any class would resent a proposal to ensure for them opportunities of engaging in its pursuits. The definition of the word is a difficulty. It is impossible to call a glass of beer by that name; but it may be the beginning of many sorrows. When therefore one party require the closing, and another the opening, of beer-shops and public-houses on the first day of the week, they have both much to say for their respective views. The intemperance common on that day amongst the more ignorant and thoughtless classes should close the question; but a large number of individuals resent an infringement on their freedom for no better reason than the welfare of their brethren.

Their argument will not bear discussion. They can hardly state it to others with a grave and sober countenance. A man cannot occupy a decent place in society, and yet refuse to exercise self-denial for the public good. The law compels us all, at twenty turning in a day, to avoid, for public purposes, something that we should gladly do if private interests were the only rule of action. No moral evil exists in sugar that has never paid duty, yet a good subject will not use a smuggled article wilfully. A similar rule affects many practices, not essentially evil to an individual, but rendered wrong by his duty to society. The theory is so generally acknowledged that we are bound on every topic to prove “the public good.” “The end will not justify the means, “and suffering must not be inflicted upon any person for the public benefit alone. The part of Quintus Curtius may not be forced upon private citizens against their will; yet, in municipal and national institutions, the private inclination must bend, in numerous cases, to the public welfare.

An honest man may properly earn his livelihood by feeding and rearing pigs; but he must not pursue this trade in the centre of a dense population. The conservation of city manure is an object of the highest importance to the pecuniary resources of the country; but long ago, in large towns, its private collection was forbidden and suppressed. No evil exists in dunghills. The collection and economy of refuse are most commendable; and we agree with all the pamphlets published on the subject as to its propriety, and with more than one half of them upon its value; yet this desirable operation is not allowed to private persons in towns, and all acquiesce in the propriety of this sanatory restriction. The rule on which we insist is so common that the examples given were almost unnecessary, and more than a hundred similar cases that might be named would only encumber space, without strengthening our position.

The opponents of the bill proposed by Lord R. Grosvenor said that the labouring cases in London could not, from the limited accommodation in their houses, purchase a day’s food in advance, without incurring the risk of having their dinner spoiled by the vitiated atmosphere which they breathed. This argument implies a state of existence which should not be tolerated for twelve months longer, without reference to its vitiating consequences on chops and steaks. The houses should be thrown down in a mass, and the population located in tents, until even wooden huts were erected, rather than allow men to rot like sheep in homes where a round of fresh beef begins to decompose in ten to fifteen hours. The sanitary condition of many localities in Edinburgh and Glasgow cannot be mentioned without reprobation; but they have nothing approaching to this state of misery upon a scale so large as to influence public opinion, and regulate the construction of laws; for although we have once or twice admired the bulk and corpulence of the blue bottle flies in some parts of both the great Scotch cities, and marvelled how they reached in poor houses to their state of prize-cattle fatness, yet such places are not numerous, and we hope that reform is rapidly reducing their number. The world is indebted to the proposers of this bill for indirectly eliciting a blot on metropolitan life which those who have seen it will diligently endeavour to remove.

A second objection originated in a practice more apparent than the corruptive tendencies of a vast number of dwellings, and one that should be altered before the habits of the labouring classes of London upon this subject are censured indiscriminately. The payment of wages at a late hour on Saturday night postpones their expenditure until an early hour on the following morning; therefore, it was said that many classes, unless they could buy food on Sunday, must fast until Monday. The labourers and operatives of London do not always reside “near their employment.” They often do not visit their families and homes from morn to night; and if wages are paid on Saturdays, they cannot lay out the income of the week until it has nearly closed. In some cases it may be entirely closed before they reach home. This habit has originated in the omission of employers to reckon its cost to the families of operatives. Wages paid at alate hour on Saturday evenings are of five per cent. less value, to those classes who wait for their money to buy their food, than their worth twelve or twenty- four hours earlier in the week. Our acquaintance with the more populous districts of London enables as to say that the best shops in every trade are closed at all hours on Sundays. The leading thoroughfares present a Sabbatical appearance of shop doors and window-shutters. The men who always keep open doors do not supply the middle classes. They do not have the business of the more respectable artisans in many localities. They sometimes keep inferior articles, and we believe that the charge on Sundays a superior price, with the exception of dealers in perishable commodities, who may be glad to clear out their stock for what it will bring. But even if the price on all days were uniform, the quality cannot always be the same, and there is reason in the proverb, ” First come, best served.”

A vast number of families in the operative classes do not depend for one week’s food upon that week’s wages; and a large number keep ac- counts in pass-books, which are discharged fortnightly or weekly. To these classes the objection was not available. It was advanced on behalf of families who live “from hand to mouth,” and society is deeply interested in raising them out of that unsatisfactory position; but so long as they are numerous they cannot be forgotten, and legislation must not be shaped in a form likely to increase their distresses. The greater portion of the Anglo-Saxon race work too long, and therefore short hours’ bills are good for them in every sense. They render labour less painful and more regular. The work accomplished under the short-hour system is found to be equal in quantity and superior for quality, in many trades, to that done upon the long and weary plan of toiling from “waking to sleep;” and even in other trades where machinery is employed extensively, short hours only equalise labour, and prevent that overproduction, as it is called, which causes weeks occasionally of ” no time whatever,” but universal idleness, with all its consequential sins or sorrows.

The Sunday of the world, the Sabbath of Christianity, is one security for short time instituted by the Author of all time for bodily rest or mental and spiritual improvement. The friends of short time, of family happiness, and mankind’s progress forward to freedom from every evil, or all the evils that can be reduced or removed, naturally guard this institution–proclaimed first among the Armenian mountains, and then from the frowning cliffs of Arabia–against encroachments by Mammon in any form or shape, either as the genius of pleasure, crowned with fading flowers; or of business, marked by abiding wrinkles. Their objects are twofold; chiefly and first, of a religious character, and, less prominently, of a sanatory nature. The first can only be promoted by moral persuasives. Men cannot be made religious by Act of Parliament; but that sentiment is often repeated by those who forget that men may be made very irreligious by statute. The kings and queens of Castile never made any of their subjects religious by the Inquisition, unless those of them, who, irritated, like the Prince of Orange, at their invasions of all the principles of civil and religious freedom, recoiled to Protestantism; but they made many millions of men comparatively irreligious; for Fenelon and his coadjutors of the Gallican Church could have been no more satisfied with the practice of many Romanist nations on the continent, than an active, zealous priest of Ireland would be pleased with the morality of the South American nations at this day. The proceedings of Catherine de Medicis and her descendants were perhaps more injurious to the Roman than to the Protestant Church in France, where practical infidelity subdued all other forms of religion among the male population of cities and towns for generations. A large proportion of Europeans have, in one sense, been made very irreligious by Act of Parliament, or of kings and priests.

In dealing with the first-day question in its religious character, many persons have forgotten or overlooked the fact that they propose to legislate upon a command which is disregarded by a great number of their fellow subjects. The census of public worship leaves a few millions of persons in England who have evidently no particular attachment to any form of religion. They are represented as infidels by one class, but they might be more properly styled neutrals. Their number, in all the three countries, has increased from causes which we need not discuss; for their existence is an admitted fact that will not permit itself to be now overlooked in any legislation on their personal habits and practices. It either altogether made the Hyde-park meetings, or formed three-fourths of their strength.

The same parties omit another element in prosecuting their labours. They forget that the census of attendance on public worship included many persons in various churches, and even entire sects, who do not consider the fourth commandment binding upon them as Christians, or who interpret it more loosely than many other members of the same bodies. We mention the existence of these parties as another fact that cannot be ignored in legislation. A decided minority in all non-essential matters must yield to the majority, and it our liberty were not infringed upon in other respects, we should not consider it an essential point, that in Mohammedan countries we were compelled to be idle on Fridays; but the majority must be large indeed to enforce conformity to its views in this particular.

The primary purpose of a day of rest is not necessarily that on which it can be advocated with the best advantage. The secondary purpose is the stronger in a political sense, for it interests a number of persons who neglect the primary object. The friends of Lord Robert Grosvenor’s Bill neglected to attain two points which would have helped them to struggle for the third. If they had associated with their legislative measure steps to secure the payment of wages on Thursdays or Fridays, and the general establishment of a half-holiday on Saturday, they would have gained over many enemies, and turned them into friends. The payments of wages before the closing hours of the week cannot be compelled by law, which cannot enforce them even on Saturday night at twelve o’clock. They can only be the object of arrangement between the employers and the employed; but the former would readily adopt Thursday as their pay day if it were rendered fashionable; and the latter might agitate for this in their unions as readily as for an advance of wages, for it would be equal to five per cent. upon their receipts.

The half-holiday movement proceeds favourably in London. It has long been adopted in the manufacturing districts of Scotland with admirable results. It should be the object of earnest pursuit to all friends of the productive classes. The toiled and care-worn London clerk, who returns to his suburban house at a late hour on Saturday evening, and has his Sunday dinner, the only one of all the week with his wife and family, is blamed by those who dine daily at five in their domestic circle – and feel more properly, it may be, and more strongly on this subject-for causing so much labour on the day of rest; but they should aid to give him the cheerful Saturday afternoon in his home. It might and would in the course of time become the warm dinner day, the weekly festivity, the evening of amusement and recreation to the young, and pleasure to the old. No measure of reform would be more gratefully received. The splendid parks of London would be crowded with happy families, relieved from care, on summer Saturday afternoons; and on winter Saturday evenings, lights would sparkle from a thousand windows that now are dark and lonesome. The Sunday would become a Sab- bath of gratitude to many thousands of hearts, who now begin the day at an advanced hour in the forenoon, jaded and fatigued; and close it in perfect weariness at a late hour of night.

Scotland has become an advanced post or experimental field for social legislation, upon this as upon some other topics. Mr. Forbes Mackenzie’s Act has been assailed by its enemies and supported by its friends with extreme vehemence. It is a charter of privileges and rights with one class, and an edict of oppression and tyranny with another. It has been tried less by the reason than by the prejudice of its subjects, and more by their passions than by its results.

We have noticed incidental reports or statements on the subject as they were published, and they have established generally a favourable opinion of the Act, while some of the newspaper correspondents complain of the hardships and sufferings encountered by them, in remote parts of the country, in consequence of its regulations. The Act prevents the transaction of business in ordinary licensed spirit shops or taverns at any hour on the first day of the week, or before eight a.m. and after eleven p.m. on any other day; but an exception is taken in favour of inns or hotels, where bona fide travellers may be supplied on any day and at any hour.

This Act must necessarily have numerous and powerful opponents. All the parties who feel a reduction of their sales, if that has been effected, naturally oppose the cause; and all those who hold strong opinions against the practices and views of “the Sabbatarians,” believing their own freedom of action and enjoyment lowered, quarrel with the restriction. The latter class must, of course, submit to some inconvenience and restraint for the general good. Many of them may be qualified to regulate their own conduct, and many more may hold that opinion without any good ground; but the fate of the bill will be decided ultimately upon the general merits, without undue consideration for the miseries of those who are compelled to become bona fide travellers or drink their excisable liquors for one day out of seven at home, or in a friend’s house. It is an infringement of one liberty, calculated, probably, to promote another liberty, which we wish to see established. The manufacturers, and al the dealers in the goods under partial condemnation, must console themselves with the thought that multitudes have been obliged to change or modify their callings from physical revolutions, and they suffer, in the same way, from the changes of a social revolution.

The only general statement made respecting the operation of the Bill has been issued by the Scottish Temperance League, from answers to a series of questions transmitted by them to the officials of their own societies, to magistrates, and to ministers of the Gospel. The pamphlet contains the opinions of 86 magistrates and city officials, 43 Superintendents of police, 15 governors or officers of prisons, 206 ministers of various denominations, 83 city missionaries, 188 employers, 13,269 working men and their wives, and 89 secretaries of Temperance societies. We deduct the three latter classes, however, as so many members of the Temperance societies might be found, and they would be witnesses in their own favour. The ministers and missionaries may, as in the former case, without doubting the fairness of their testimony, be considered interested witnesses. But the official persons, writing in their public capacity, present a hard mass of opinion, not easily assailable. We presume that information was sought from many magistrates who did not answer their querists; but as one magistrate may often write for himself and companions, and as the large towns of Scotland are fairly represented in the report, we are bound to accept it as the best evidence yet collected. We observe that Inverness is mentioned as one of the burghs where, according to the Temperance correspondent, the Act has been enforced loosely, because the magistracy were, directly or indirectly, connected with the spirit trade; yet, at a recent date, we have had evidence that the Town Council are unanimously favourable to the Bill. The opinions are supported by statistics which, although not so favourable as we might have expected, still exhibit a considerable reduction of crime consequent on, or subsequent to, the operation of the new law.

Society being put to expense for the support of criminals and the suppression of their offences is entitled to adopt any plan that promises to reduce the outlay. Prevention is superior to punishment; and should be adopted in preference, with or without economy. The apprehension of disorderly and drunken persons is more certain in the streets of a Scotch than of an English town. Especially it is more certain than in the metropolis, where an intoxicated person may go at large with impunity, until he becomes ” dead drunk ” and unable to go farther. We have seen the police of London engaged in separating a party who were all drunk and fighting in a public place without the seizure of a single offender. In Edinburgh or Glasgow half a score of sorrowful drinkers, black and blue with blows, and dull with headaches, would have figured next day in the police sheet as drunk and disorderly for a similar offence. We are unable to say whether this leniency promotes the custom of wife-beating, which is scandalously prevalent among one class in the metropolis, but it is extremely misplaced, and only hides an evil that should be exposed, in order to be suppressed. We believe that London expends more money than Scotland on intoxicating drinks, although a different opinion is prevalent. The official return of the cases of drunkenness within the circles of the Edinburgh police were, for the years ending on the 15th May:-