“England, bad as she is, is yet a Reforming Nation.”1 Defoe’s statement is confirmed more in the efforts of reformers than in the social legislation obtained. The historian is immediately struck by the prodigious amount of pamphlets, brochures, and books devoted to this and that particular social problem. The roster of English single-causers begins with such dedicated men as Child, Davenant, Burn, Gee, the two Fieldings, Gilbert, Hanway, Howard, and Eden, ably seconded by a regiment of more neutral fact finders led by Gregory King, John Massie, John Aikin, and Patrick Colquhoun. There seems little doubt that these individuals made a major contribution to social “improvement” by widely publicizing the precise measure of human suffering. Their empirical approach, conveyed by an already advanced free press, awakened a social conscience that precedes the Victorians by a full century. As Henry Fielding put it in 1753: “But if we were to make a Progress through the Outskirts of this Town, and look into the Habitations of the Poor, we should there behold such Pictures of human Misery as must move the Compassion of every Heart that deserves the Name of Human.”2
KeywordsEighteenth Century Social Conscience Human Misery Picking Cotton Poor Relief
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- 1.Daniel Defoe, Review (December 26, 1706), quoted in Dorothy George, London Life in the Eighteenth Century (London, 1925), p. i.Google Scholar
- 2.Henry Fielding, A Proposal for Making an Effective Provision for the Poor (Dublin, 1753), p. 10. Fielding notes that some members of Parliament made this “progress” and were struck by the poverty. Here was a first step toward action.Google Scholar
- 3.Restif de la Bretonne, Les Nuits de Paris or Nocturnal Spectator: A Selection trans., L. Asher and E. Fertig (New York, 1964), p. 68. Reprinted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.Google Scholar
- 1.Turgot’s charity workshops were to serve only as temporary relief while the French consumer “adjusted” to his long-run policy of free trade in grain. It has been cogently argued that this well-intentioned policy actually worsened the plight of the poor by raising grain prices even higher because of transportation costs from province to province. Cf.Google Scholar
- A. R. J. Turgot, Oeuvres ed. E. Daire (Paris, 1844) vol. II, pp. 454ff.Google Scholar