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A Victorian Scrapbook

A Scrapbook of Newspaper Articles Compiled by George Burgess (1829-1905)

Victorian Politics and History

Free Labour

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Transcribed from an original article published in Reynolds Newspaper sometime between 1850 and 1861.* The article written with some sarcasm implies that the working classes of England were effectively not much better off than American slaves of the time. It concludes by asking why should the upper classes be exempted from the forces of supply and demand.

To Quote: -

“Or, to generalise the distinction, why, or how, is it that the purely ornamental, or superfluous, classes are exempted from the operations of the law of supply and demand, whereas the useful and indispensable classes are abandoned, exposed and unprotected, to the most cruel and calamitous of its fluctuations?”

*George Reynolds founded the Reynolds's Weekly Newspaper in May, 1850. Reynolds was a strong supporter of Chartism and in its first edition he stated that his newspaper would be "devoted to the cause of freedom and in the interests of the enslaved masses". Slavery, referenced in this article, was abolished in America by 1865, and Prince Albert (also mentioned here) died in 1861.

See Victorian Web - for victorian view on Chartism


To the Editor of Reynolds’s Newspaper.

Free LabourSIR, - Freedom implies the power to choose, and choice implies the presence of two or more things or situations to select from. There is a certain restricted sense in which every human being who has attained to the years of ordinary discretion may be said to be free. The veriest (various) slave that lives has a choice of two things. He is free to die, or to live in a state of servitude. The nightly traveller who is attacked by the highway robber with the peremptory demand of “You money or your life,” is free to accept or reject the condition on which the leave to live is proffered unto him. The French people have, on the one hand, the choice of accepting death or exile, or, on the other, the choice of acquiescing in the government of their tyrant. The same condition of slavery or death belongs to every sane-minded and able-bodied man and woman in existence. No one who is not afraid of death need serve a tyrant. This, no doubt, is but a very sorry alternative. But, such as it is, it exists. In this sense, and to this extent, that of emancipation from earthly thraldom, every man is master of his destiny. No human being who desires to die can be compelled to live, unless means be employed to force the necessary meat and drink into the stomach. In the days of the African slave trade such forcible administration of the necessaries of existence to a poor negro bent on self-destruction was not, by any means, an uncommon expedient. Instruments to force open the mouth were a regular part of the fitting of a slave ship, and were constantly exposed for sale in the shop windows of Liverpool and elsewhere. This fact, however, does not in the least militate against the conclusion above laid down, for it is manifest that it only required the necessary amount of persistence in the attempt at self-destruction on the part of the slaves, to make the slave merchants and slave-owners abandon the fiendish traffic as a most unprofitable investment.

These consideration suffice to show that a certain measure (infinitesimal, it may be) of freedom is enjoyed by even the most abject and helpless of the human drudges of industry. There is the mastery of life, if not of limb – the power to disappoint the capitalist, if not to benefit the labourer – freedom to quit the world, to lay down the burden of existence, if not the liberty to live a virtuous and happy life. This inheritance is inalienable. The utmost might and ingenuity of tyranny cannot deprive the slave of the power to escape from the cruelty of earthly tormentors; and in this sense, and to the extent, every sane and capable human being may be said to be free, - so that, in point of fact, there is no such thing as absolute slavery in the world. “Uncle Tom” could have disappointed and defeated all the “Legrees” in the universe, if only he could have made up his mind to embrace death, and dare its consequence.

Upon a calm and unprejudiced inquiry, it will be found that the difference in the condition of the black workers of Africa and the white workers of Europe is one of degree rather than of kind. The principal and most essential characteristic of the state termed slavery is that the labourer labours, not for his own or his family’s benefit, but for the benefit of another person, who has the power to determine what proportion of the product on his toil shall be awarded to the labourer. In the Slave States of America, the black workers are constrained to toil for the aggrandizement of their owners, who have the power of flogging their slaves in the event of their refusing to perform the task allotted to them, or in the case that task should be performed in an unsatisfactory manner. In England the employers and masters of labour have not the power of inflicting a flogging on a troublesome or disobedient operative. But they are invested with another power which is, at least equally efficacious in upholding the authority of the employers of labour. I refer, of course, to starvation, as an instrument for the coercion of English operatives. In the Slave States of America the employer says, in effect, to the employed, “Do as you are bidden, or else you shall be flogged.” In England the fait of the employer is, “Accept my terms, or else you shall be starved.” True, there is the other alternative of the workhouse open to the labourer; but it is well known that these establishments are under the control of capitalist, and that the workhouse officials have it in their power to render the lives of the operative who obtains parish relief a perfect hell, so that almost any terms from the employer is preferable to the insulting, degrading assistance which is afforded to the able-bodied, but destitute, applicant for parochial relief.

The chief distinction between the condition of the English operative and the Carolinian negro is, that the former has, to a considerable extent, a choice of masters. In many instances, a working man in this country, if he should happen to be unjustly treated, can transfer his services to a just and humane employer. But this redress is denied him, in the event of a combination of employers for the subjection of operatives being effected.

This choice of masters enables the English operative to slightly avail himself of the fluctuations in the market price of labour. So that, as a mere mercantile commodity, the British or Irish working man is placed on a level with the pigs, horses, sugar, molasses, &c., of the commercial world. When the demand for labour is brisk, the labourer is prized and enjoys a comparatively tolerable state of existence. But the moment the demand has slackened, he diminishes in value; and when the demand has entirely ceased, the labourer is become an incumbrance (encumbrance) and a nuisance, which the divine laws of political economy declare ought to be abated, and, if possible, abolished. Here, sir, I would call attention to the very curious distinction which, as regards the divine law of “supply and demand,” obtains between the operatives of England and the other classes of the community.

The price, if not the value, of operatives rises and falls in the market. How is it that other professions are not liable to the same, or similar, variations? How, or why, is it that a bricklayer’s price should fluctuate, and the price of a Prince Albert should be perennially permanent? Why should an archbishop’s living be placed above the changed and precariousness that appertain to the earning of a coal-heaver*? Or, to generalise the distinction, why, or how, is it that the purely ornamental, or superfluous, classes are exempted from the operations of the law of supply and demand, whereas the useful and indispensable classes are abandoned, exposed and unprotected, to the most cruel and calamitous of its fluctuations? Most of your readers, sir, are quite able to answer this question for themselves. But, inasmuch as there may be a few who are not sufficiently well informed to do this, I will, for their sakes, with your permission, return to the subject in my next.

NORTHUMBRIAN.


*Coal Heaver = a man employed in carrying coal, and especially in putting it in, and discharging it from, ships.