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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 39

The Soil of Great Britain and Ireland. — The Proletariat and the Land

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The Soil of Great Britain and Ireland.

The Proletariat and the Land.

The Proletaire.

By far the largest part of the English people is born in the ranks of the proletariat. The proletaire is a man without a recognised right to an honorable livelihood. He has no legal claim to anything except poor relief. He finds all the material wealth of his native country bespoken, so that he has no opportunity of laboring on his own behoof. No one is required to employ him, or to give him a yard of standing-ground. He may not obstruct the highways, dead or alive. The very seas are appropriated for fisheries. He cannot die in a ditch without trespass. But for the union, that immoral institution so exactly fitted to cast unjust reproach on honest want and to encourage profligacy, he would be legally bound to annihilate himself or vanish when not wanted as a drudge. As Malthus says, he must take himself away; but by what chemical process ought he to evaporate himself? Good Queen Bess hung her surplus subjects, understanding that they required to be provided for; the Roman Cæsars fed the Roman plebs at the cost of the provinces; the Catholic Church sanctifies mendicancy; other societies have practised abortion or infanticide, while Plato and Aristotle, both of whom have been all but canonised by the Christian Church, proposed to regulate child-bearing. It is a peculiarity of the modern Protestant, on the most vital questions, to have no policy, and not to see the need of one, while a school of economists has actually formulated a science of imbecility. Accordingly, the well-fed philosopher pats his fat stomach page 6 after dinner, and, having mumbled through his catechism of supply and demand, thinks he may consign the starving to oblivion.


In speaking of the proletariat it is a common disingenuous trick to class or name together the ignorant, idle, and incapable, as if those adjectives were synonymous, or little more than merely complementary. Far from that, no fact more urgently demands the attention of just men than that a defect of nature or the fault of others may easily entail upon a proletaire precisely the same suffering, want, and degradation as his own vice, or idleness, or folly.

The inferior or less able man, in piteous plight, is cheered on by Manchester, Mr. Smiles, author of "Self-help," and the Gospel of the Almighty Dollar. He must have a becoming pride. He must engage in a free field of competition, and take his fair chance with the rest. The trouble is that he has no chance to take, there being no chance at all about the matter. Visit a race-course where two horses of known and tried capacities contend for the same stakes, the one swift and the other slow, and try to back the swift horse. You cannot do it upon any terms. Any odds bar one! So bawl the book-makers. Such is the slang of the trade. Just so when a dull man and a smart man compete, the smart man's victory is assured. Philosophically there may be room for doubt, but the discomfiture of the dull man has that high degree of probability which is vulgarly called certainty. However, the idea is that, as the saying goes, the world is wide and there is room for all; but there lies the fatal error. It is only in the best of times that there is room for all. Perhaps there may not generally be a very large percentage of hands out of employ, but there is usually a larger increment upon insufficient wages. At any rate, it is a ghastly fact that numbers of people annually perish of starvation. That such is the case may easily be proved. For instance, a severe winter always largely augments the death-rate, yet bright frosty weather is healthy for the well-fed and well-clad classes. Were it not for this circumstance, that multitudes of men prefer death to degradation, State poor relief would be impossible.

If hard be the lot of the inferior man, much worse is that page 7 of the inferior woman. The poor girl without advantages, what a prospect is hers! She is to be crucified between two thieves. She must either marry any sot or ruffian who gives her the opportunity, or else commit herself to the tender mercies of a mill-owner, who will treat her as the knackers do old horses—work her to death in order to line his own pockets. It needs not to be said that girls of the most delicate age are often wholly unfit for severe and wearing drudgery.

Three Political, Axioms.

It is an axiom in America: "No taxation without representation." The propriety of the converse seems equally clear: "No representation without taxation." But there is a third, which strikes me as being more axiomatic in a free State than either of the others—namely, "No adult without property."

If this could be effected, if all could thus be placed upon an equal footing, then the most proper and convenient of all taxes would be a poll-tax. A poll-tax as a variable tax would be the best of all guarantees of the public economy, and it would in a manner compel everyone of common ambition to acquire a knowledge of State affairs such as every citizen should possess. Public business would be dragged into the daylight. Indirect taxation has not these advantages, and yet it may press quite as burden somely on the poor, or more so, besides which it contravenes the principle of Free Trade, and complicates business.

Mr. Greg has proposed to levy a poll-tax on proletaires. The proposal is no less ludicrous than wicked. It is squeezing the dry sponge or else leasing the atmosphere. People who read the Liberator sometimes supposed that Garrison was a negro. No one, from reading Mr. Greg, would take him for a proletaire.

The proprietary classes are always justly called the Conservative and order-loving classes. I shall submit for the reader's consideration whether that supernumerary inhabitant of a State, that pariah, that proletaire, or that one who, for whatever reason, loves not order and finds no interest therein, be not one man too many in that State.?

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It is a commonplace that all wealth consists of two ingredients—the material of it and the labor put into it. Of course, no one can make or create any material; and, although a person may discover, or appropriate, or manipulate, or alter the form of it, making it by such means more serviceable, or, if it be land, may plough, or plant, or fence it, or if a new region may plant a flagstaff on it, and thereby may lay claim to have earned or won it; yet it certainly is not apparent that society, whether the Republic of nations or a particular State, is in any manner bound to admit such a claim in all cases indiscriminately, or to concede the exercise of such a privilege to persons without limit or restriction, and, in fact, no State or society ever did so. It does not appear equitable for a person to take advantage of either chance or skill or any sort of capacity in order to possess himself of more than his fair, even share of the material of production, any more than it is equitable to use force for the same purpose; and violent robbery is just as natural as any other mode of selfishness, nor is it any more painful to the victims of it.

Wealth gets apportioned among the citizens of a State in this wise. In the scrimmage of half-barbarous times, or, later, through the diverse operation of talent or of fortune, A secures 10, B 20. But A's offspring A inherits A's 10, whereas B's offspring 4 B inherit of B's 20 only 5 each. Passing to the tenth generation, 50 A10 have each 100, but they are imbecile; 200 B10 have 0, but they are capable, while 40 C10 inherit debts, vicious morals, and diseased constitutions (enough for all); 50 D10 have 100 each like the A's, but they are capable; but 50 E10 are rich, imbecile, and vicious. And so we find wealth with and without capacity or merit, and vice versa in every degree and variety. At this point the rich ask with Cain: "Are we our brother's keeper?" The reply is doubly yes, both in righteousness and from the necessity of the social state. To let a man die is as wicked as to kill him, and often more injurious both to him and to the republic. The blood of Lazarus is on the head of Dives, who will find his hell hot enough in French revolutions, etc.

In all ancient States, including Greece and Rome, during page 9 their palmiest days, the right—the sacred right—of practising infanticide was universally recognised, and surely nothing could strike one as more natural than the claim of people to do as they will with their own. The prohibition of infanticide may be described as an extremely violent, revolutionary, Democratic, one may almost say incendiary, and assuredly hazardous, piece of legislation. By forbidding infanticide, the modern State virtually recognises in the child an independent claim to life; and this seems to include or to imply a claim to some property, or, in some way, to means of subsistence, or the opportunity of laboring for its own maintenance. One might even say that the two things were identical. He who has not this, independently of anyone's convenience, caprice, or will, is a real slave. Far from enjoying the proud rank of citizen, he only holds his very life on sufferance.


Nearly all the lands of England, though not of Ireland or the Highlands, were got by violence by the Normans and appropriated by the barons, save and except some common lands, which have since been grievously encroached upon, and were held for centuries under the feudal tenure under the feudal Norman Kings, and a large proportion of them are still possessed by the lineal descendants or the direct heirs of those adventurers. The nature of the feudal tenure was this: The baron owed military and civil service to his liege-lord, and his relation to his serfs or tenants was somewhat analogous to that of the sovereign to his vassals and his subjects. That is, as has been said of the sovereign, he possessed a vast but undefined prerogative. Vast, undefined, and inconstant was that prerogative, yet was it never absolute in the one case more than in the other. Moreover, the baron's post was no sinecure. He was a real ruler of his serfs and a real servant of the King and of the State, active enough in both capacities, no figure-head, but indispensable to the machinery of government. Above all, it was the baron's well-recognised business to keep his serfs upon his estate, and not by any means to turn them off it. These are the very facts upon which Carlyle and Froude have always insisted for their own purposes. But gradually the law has been utterly revolutionised, in an extraordinary manner. page 10 The landlord has been relieved of all his burdens, and his most dangerous privileges have been confirmed or enlarged. To such an extent has this been carried that a modern landlord, although perhaps no könig (no cunning man), no dux (no duke or leader), but a poor creature emasculated by ennui, is able to enforce claims by the aid of State-paid police which Warwick the King-maker would not have dared to speak of. The maddest Asian despot was never yet so mad as to propose to turn his subjects adrift upon the seas, yet this very thing has been done in Ireland and the Highlands with every circumstance of cruelty. Shall I say with the Spanish Jesuit Mariana that such a man should be shot down like a wolf? No; all Bibles, all churches, all ages, nations, races, and men of all persuasions, parties, characters, conditions, and in the list a long catalogue of Israelites, beginning with Moses and ending with Lord Beaconsfield, have approved tyrannicide, but I shall not commit myself so far. Yet almost any one of high courage is capable of this deed, and it is something to be calculated upon, an appropriate consequence of given causes.

With what new wine must a man have made himself intoxicated even to conceive the idea of disposing of a county in the same irresponsible manner as a yard of calico? The outrage is more enormous than slavery itself. "France, that is I," said the Grand Monarch, and we call that a very utterance of lunacy. Yet precisely the same sentiment in our landed gentry is applauded by the capitalist press. What sheer heartless mockery to congratulate a man on possessing the priceless boon of liberty, when he has no assurance of the roof which shelters him or the ground whereon he treads! Well might the evicted Irish cottier cry, with as natural pathos as the persecuted Jew, "Nay, take my life too, spare not that."

The memory of those wrongs is not going to be forgotten. It is being handed down as an heirloom from the fathers to the sons. I heard Burke, the Fenian, speak in the Boston Music Hall. The house was crowded with Irish Americans, from the boy who had scarcely well learned how to hate to the wrinkled man who had spent fourscore years in learning it. Burke is a rude fanatic, but true as steel to the marrow of his bones; and when he spoke of Ireland's wrongs, her sorrows and her hopes, the house rang with applause straight page 11 from warm Irish hearts. It sounded in mine ears like this: "If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning." Take the first steamer or train of cars anywhere, and go along until you stop. That is the place to find an Irishman. Alas, not unoften he is emerging from a whisky saloon, and all too ready to drink your honor's health to the detriment of his own. Yet good father Mathew labored not in vain; he was worth O'Connell and O'Brien rolled in one. There, too, in the same town with Pat is the ubiquitous Biddy, with her ingenious blunders and occasional naïve repartees. A devout Catholic is she, and confessor of terrible sins to the honest priest, whose portrait she treasures in her sanctum sanctorum, but her sons will be more Irish than religious. Scattered through many parts of Europe, in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the United States, and almost everywhere stationed with the Queen's troops, are the Irish, and they have sucked in treason with their mother's milk, and the tale of that long agony is not concluded, and the seven centuries' drama is not played out yet.

Now, if a less must be sacrificed for a greater, or a worse for a better, let it be done, of course. It is expedient that one man should die for the people. I have nothing to say against Carlyle's figure of the starved rat, only it does not here apply, for Ireland, though starved enough, is not a rat. An intelligent perusal of Irish history affords no warrant for believing that the Irish belong to an inferior stock.

To return from this digression, since the form of our monarchy has undergone a change, it might have seemed appropriate that our land laws should likewise have been remodelled conformably to the principles of 1688—at the least, that some check should have been put upon landlord rapacity. According to Whig principles, a land ruler would deserve a liberal salary, like a constitutional king. But the principles of 1688 were aristocratic. Suppose the people should elect to have a Democratical land law and a Democratical government too?


With what words shall we describe the battue? What language can sufficiently condemn it? Compare the scandalous waste which it entails and the other mischiefs of it page 12 with the paltry nature of the offset in pleasure and the fewness of those who share it. And what a sport it is! Not to object to it on the score of refinement or humanity, the preserve is surely no school of manly qualities. The Nimrod who rides to the hot corner on a hundred-guinea shooting-cob, and slakes his thirst with champagne cup, can hardly be thought to be cultivating an aptitude for hardship. And if murder must still remain one of the fine arts, why not practise shooting at targets and glass balls?

Sportsmen occasionally have the coolness to remind us that hares and pheasants are edible, just like beef and mutton. The reply is, that when sheep and oxen are left to scamper harum-scarum across country we may discuss the point. Meanwhile it is unnecessary. Suppose a club of schoolboys should insist on having rats preserved in the city granaries for sporting purposes? I dare say rat-flesh would make delicious ragouts. Certain Highland lords have depastured whole mountains in order to convert them into deer forests. Doubtless they have a plausible apology. They have obeyed the doctrines of Ricardo. Those districts would fetch more rent in forest than in pasturage.

Now, mankind is deeply indebted to Adam Smith, but it is less indebted to Adam Smith's disciples, for some of these latter, being men of acute but narrow understandings, have adopted that cheap device for simplifying things on paper; they have laid down as absolute rules, rules which are subject to considerable exceptions. For instance, they have laid down the lust of greed as the master-passion of the soul, always to be reckoned on; and, furthermore, that its free play always best subserves the public weal, whereas, to go no farther, the behavior of game-preservers in the low countries, and again on the Highlands, respectively, disproves both these theories.

Now, the depasturing of a mountain involves, if nothing else, the banishing and virtual and real expatriation of numerous families, because the Highlander's true fatherland is not Great Britain, nor even Scotland, but his own locality. To the town-dweller, to the young, strong, rich, or book-learned, society everywhere extends a welcome, and everywhere is home. Not so to the worn-out Highland cottier. Within the glen where his fathers have been nurtured since long ere the days of Wallace are page 13 gathered the memories which give life charm and sanctity for him. Yet all this protects him not against the Philistinism of a partial culture, nor does the white flower which marks extreme old age. He is turned out that cockneys may shoot grouse, and as he goes he says: "Surely the bitterness of death is past."

In denouncing game, I plead not for the poacher. Whether poachers, as a class, differ much morally from other criminals is extremely doubtful, and the nonsensical notion that game belongs to anyone because it is wild is purely mischievous. The Legislature is abundantly competent to pass any game or fishery laws which may appear judicious, and no Dick or Harry has any God-given claim to lead a riff-raff life.


Now that landowning has been in practice substituted for land-ruling, the purpose of entail and primogeniture no longer exists. Failing more radical remedies, they should be abolished, together with distress and hypothec, which have no raison d'être except sheer favoritism. But if this were done, and even if trade in land could be made free (which does not seem very feasible), that would not solve the land problem. The danger of landowning lies here: Land can be bought for a twenty-five to thirty-five years' purchase—that is to say, for the value of the usufruct of the land for the space of a generation. The after-consequences are not thought of or cared for by anyone. Posterity is left to protect itself, which means left to fight with its hands tied. The same thing is true of all property, only the injury in other cases is both less apparent and also far less considerable.

Undoubtedly the nationalisation of the land could be effected legally, since, in theory, all estates in land are still held of the Crown for the public service, and subject to conditions which may be altered in any manner which the exigencies of the times demand, nor would there be any hardship in the exercise of this prerogative, inasmuch as inheritors and purchasers of estates have always well understood upon what terms they held them, and that landowning is something unknown to the English law. It would not be necessary to buy the land from the present holders, since it was never theirs, but only to provide page 14 them with handsome pensions. When or how a landlord acquired his estates does not affect the question. Any way, he holds them according to the law, and with the attendant risks. At the same time it might be well to buy up the smaller estates at market rates and to compromise with the larger holders. Truly the men of this generation are not answerable for the sins of all their predecessors, whether or no their predecessors have likewise been their forefathers, and a revengeful policy towards them would be no less irrational than wicked. But before any steps at all are taken there is urgent need of deliberation. I am no advocate for shooting Niagara.

The Irish under the Brehon code and the Scottish Highland clansmen held their lands in common, and the ryots of Hindustan held their lands immediately of the sovereign, subject, however, to the government or superintendence of the zemindars, a species of hereditary officials, and at a fixed quit-rent, until John Bull, playing the part of Providence, and with a truly god-like recklessness, deprived those poor peoples of their immemorial rights. There have also been a good many other instances of lands having been held in common, or upon a more or less communal basis. Yet in no very highly advanced state has the land been nationalised. It were idle to deny, therefore, that the question is surrounded with difficulties, and demands the highest statesmanship to solve it.

The most salient features of the existing situation maybe briefly summarised. The poorest land in England, which can grow wheat or grain as cheaply as it can be sent from America or the Black Sea or Baltic ports, now does so rent-free, and lands of better quality are rented, and the amount of the rentals is partly determined by the law of supply and demand, yet not so much so as the price of common articles of merchandise, by reason of some disturbing causes, by far the most operative among which is this, that many landlords lease their farms to old tenants at much below a market price. This is a common custom, and it proceeds from the worthiest motives, for the landed gentry are by no means bad men as men go. But the cheapening of transport rates always tends to throw the poorer lands of old countries out of cultivation, and to reduce the rents of other lands, and this is precisely what is now taking place, page 15 and in the circumstances it inevitably must take place under any system of holdings. It is not the result of the land laws of either England or America. I urge this with some insistence, because it is very mischievous to make random accusations easily shown to be unwarrantable. The speculative farmer is no more aggrieved by paying rent than is the manufacturer by paying usury or rent for houses, or mills, or machinery, or anything else. The aggrieved party, if any, is the public. Of course, the rent-rolls of the gentry are not lost to the country, except in cases of absenteeism, but they are often wastefully or viciously expended, as upon horses, hounds, game and gamekeepers, lacqueys, and retainers, many of them unworthy beings and all of them non-producers. But the worst mischief is that the gentry are possessed of a dangerous power, social and political, and that estates are often badly administered.

America can teach England nothing on the land question. The conditions of the two countries are too dissimilar. And not only so, but trouble is already brewing in America notwithstanding her broad, rich territory. Large estates are growing up on terms of irresponsible ownership, and the U.P.R. Company owns a territory of fertile soil larger than France. What a power in the hands of one corporation! What may not this one day lead to? Much more is to be learned from a study of the land systems of the Continent. If the land were national property, taxation could be discontinued, and the Treasury would still be in receipt of a large annual surplus revenue, incredible as that sounds. That, however, could hardly be embarrassing. Failing other resorts, the Government might constitute itself a gigantic loan society. As to the land, the most suitable plan would seem to be to let it upon long or life leases, with judicious guarantees for the preservation of the soil in good order. If it could be let to capitalists of the Mechi stamp it would probably yield much-improved returns in crops, but the laborer's lot might not be immediately ameliorated. If let to peasants the crop yield would again be good, though not so good. Co-operative farming would be the hopefullest arrangement if it could once be got fairly under weigh. Further experimentation in this line were much to be desired.

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What is most essential is to organise a system which shall produce or favor a high morale in the cultivators. Michelet describes the French peasant's passion for the soil, which he compares to love for its intensity. This is excellent indeed, but I am persuaded that landowning is not necessary to the sentiment. I have known tenant-farmers, and even day laborers, inspired by a like enthusiasm and devotion to the art. Many a leisure Sunday, true Sabbath, have I stood in such society, as Michelet pictures his model peasant, absorbed in worship of the goddess Ceres, nor have I seen such men to be less prone than Michelet's peasant to cast aside the offending weed or stone, regardless of clean clothes, nor have these been among the least moral occasions of my experience. Peasant proprietorship sharply severs the people in a dangerous manner, creating a conservative class, not too fertile in ideas, and an outside aggressive class, blown about with every wind of doctrine. This double evil undeniably exists in France, although the French proletariat is growing soberer and wiser every year, and the French peasant possesses some most admirable qualities. Napoleon's trust was in the peasantry.

Laissez Faire.

There are three sharply distinguished systems of government theoretically advocated, the paternal, the Social Democratic, and the police, Manchester or laissez faire systems. According to the first of these the people is to be governed; according to the second the people is to govern itself; according to the third all government is to be dispensed with, except for the protection of persons and property. The paternal government has been often tried, and with very varying degrees of success, but its faults are obvious, grievous, radical, incurable, above all its hopelessly non-progressive character. The Social Democratic form of society has never existed except on a small scale, and under special conditions not generally attainable. The police government has never been tried, nor could such a government, or no-government, be suffered to exist even by way of experiment, Herbert Spencer to the contrary notwithstanding. The most advanced states have always had some mixed form of government hitherto, and it may be possible that a mixed government is the best in some page 17 cases, or even in all cases. One thing at least is clear. Every government must distribute, as well as protect, property, and do much else beside. The ridiculous imbecility of laissez faire is well illustrated by the land problem.

Virgin Soil.

It is a pretty prevalent delusion that so long as plenty of unused ground remains anywhere there need be no distress among the poor. But the trouble is that the very people who are recommended to emigrate to those distant regions cannot get there, and, what is more, if they were taken there they would forthwith wish themselves back again. Weaklings are at a discount among the pioneers.

The real worth of new lands to a country is moral rather than material. Amid the vast solitudes of those broad, silent plains, where the buffalo and the antelope stilt range, in many a little turf house, almost as obscure as the burrows of the prairie dogs, there is growing up a lot of shoeless, ragged boys and girls whose spirits and whose minds are free.

What a career it is, that of the frontier man! He grapples with a very Cerberus, and chokes him throat by throat. Ere the day dawns he sallies forth, not to return till dark, with axe on shoulder, to hew himself a clearing in the bush. At home remains the wife, with or without young children. This is a brave woman. She cannot (that with her next-door neighbor forty miles off, having no telephone; she has for company the racoons and owls, or now and then a bear. There reigns the silence of the grave; all is hushed in a primeval slumber; to borrow a figure from another sense, it is a very stillness audible, save when Jove's thunder reverberates like untold artillery, or when the tornado in its furious race tears down the giants of the woods. The bush is liable to catch fire and sweep all away; the savages may descend blooded from their internecine wars; or, when with painful toil the man has raised a first patch of maize or buckwheat, the blight may strike it just before the harvest, and the gaunt wolf of famine may show his grim visage on the threshold. Solitude, want, desolation, doubt and danger, five horrors, hem in this lonely pair, but they are self-dependent. Lean page 18 hunger's shadow dims their path, but there is no repining, nor submission, baser; no prayer to heaven; no charity blankets; no lady bountiful with condescension broth. What a morale is theirs, and what high hearts expand beneath their tattered clothes!

It is there, if anywhere, that a pure Democracy may be developed. There are no drudges broke loose and stirred by greed and envy, but sober people with sense of dignity, thirst of knowledge, and the idea of responsibility. There is no caste, and therefore no place for demagoguism. There is not much done, but there exists the raw material of a great society. A new growth and a new morale may be hoped for, and I think expected. In a new world, where taste and culture shall flourish in the absence of caste, a new type of Democrat may arise who would have charmed and converted Tocqueville, most generous yet most hypercritical of aristocrats. And there, it may be, in that far Western land, where Berkeley saw such hope, there is now in the process of formation a Social Democratic Republic.