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Our Brothers’ Keepers
In a society grown steadily more affluent over two centuries, the existence of the poor has raised some baffling questions and surprising answers
December 1972 | Volume 24, Issue 1
The day-to-day treatment of the poor reflected these attitudes. Officials relieved neighbors quickly and without elaborate investigation, supporting them at home where possible or, when their disabilities were too great, in relatives’ or friends’ households. The dependent townsman remained within the community, not forced to enter such an institution as the almshouse; in fact, before 1820 few towns bothered to build a poorhouse. To counter the danger of outsiders, communities enforced stringent settlement laws, establishing property requirements for those who would enter and reside in the town. Transients—vagrants, poor but healthy strangers, nonresident widows with children, or unwed mothers—were moved out of town as quickly as possible. The boundaries were guarded with all the care that sentries give an international frontier.
Americans’ understanding and response to poverty underwent a revolution in the Jacksonian era. Beginning in the 1820’s and increasingly thereafter, observers defined poverty as both unnatural in the New World and capable of being eradicated. Colonial complacency gave way to a reform movement in which a heightened suspicion of the poor went hand in hand with the promise of improvement.
The spread of the ideas of the Enlightenment throughout the nation encouraged this change. The prospect of boundless progress wore away the grim determinism of Calvinist doctrines, so that men no longer believed that misery and want were permanent to society. As popular thinking became increasingly secular, God’s will or the inherent depravity of man no longer seemed a satisfactory explanation for the differences in social conditions. So, too, republican enthusiasm enhanced the prospect of progress. In the aftermath of the Revolution, Americans believed that their Republic would accomplish goals that corrupt European monarchies had missed. An obvious target for action was poverty, an evil that had to exist where aristocrats oppressed peasants but not where men were equal, resources were abundant, and labor scarce.
It was also impossible in Jacksonian America to maintain colonial localism and insularity. Men were now moving all the time,westward to the virgin territories or into the burgeoning cities of New York, Boston, and Philadelphia. A system of poor relief that attempted to distinguish between the neighbor and the stranger was no longer feasible when men picked up stakes on hearing rumors of more fertile land ahead or of new opportunities in growing urban centers. At the same time, citizens’ close identification with their particular community was giving way to a wider view. Now one did not belong exclusively to the town but to the state and nation as well.
But while such considerations increased Americans’ willingness to eradicate poverty, they also encouraged a harsh and suspicious view of the poor. Observers concluded that because of New World wealth no one ought to be poor, and therefore those actually in need had themselves to blame in some degree. The first page of a typical tract on relief divided dependents into two categories: the poor, that is, the worthy but unfortunate, and paupers, the unworthy idlers. But by page 4 of the pamphlet the distinction fell away, and the discussion of poverty centered almost exclusively on the corrupted. After an extensive tour of eastern cities, a Philadelphia investigatory committee in 1827 unhesitantly reported that it was “vice” that had created “here and everywhere, by far the greater part of the poor.” The answer to the paradox of poverty reached by New York’s Society for the Prevention of Pauperism in 1821 was that “the paupers of this city are, for the most part… depraved and vicious, and require support because they are so.” The poor had become objects, not neighbors; people to be acted upon, to be improved, manipulated, elevated, and reformed.
These new ideas and social conditions prompted the almshouse movement. In the Jacksonian period cities and towns eagerly and rapidly constructed special institutions to confine all of the needy, devoting the bulk of public-relief funds to this enterprise. The proponents of the program were a mixed lot, in Boston ranging from the city’s mayor, Josiah Quincy, and its most prominent doctor, Walter Channing, to its noted Unitarian clergyman, Joseph Tuckerman. But they all agreed on certain essentials. Surely the poor were partly to blame for their own misery, having succumbed to the vice of idleness or intemperance. Yet, these critics vigorously insisted, they were not inherently depraved but rather were the victims of the numerous temptations set before them by society. Who else but the towns licensed the grog shops and allowed gambling halls and dens of iniquity to flourish? And who else but the towns supported the poor at home, giving them the wherewithal to subsist without working, the opportunity to languish in vice? Of all methods for supporting the needy, proclaimed MayorQuincy in 1821, “… the most wasteful, the most expensive, and most injurious to their morals, and destructive of their industrious habits, is that of supply in their own families.” Therefore, reformers concluded, to eliminate poverty the poor had to be isolated from temptation and forced to acquire habits of industry and labor. This grandiose task they assigned to the almshouse.