It is just fifty years since William Cobbett published his “Legacy to Labourers,” so-called, as he himself tells us, because he wished the book, after his death, to be “an inmate of the cottages of England.” The main object of the book was to prove by historical references that landlords have no absolute right to the land, but merely hold it under the monarch, who is the representatives of the people. Landlords have the use of the land, but it is not, strictly speaking, their own; nor have they the right to drive the natives from the land, so as to cause them to perish of hunger or cold. The “Legacy to Labourers” is full throughout of interest to Land Reformers, for many of Henry George’s strongest points will be found to be there anticipated; but perhaps the two subjects which Cobbett treats of with most vigour and success are the “burning questions”—as burning now as then—of the administration of the Poor Laws and compulsory emigration. The iniquitous Poor Law of 1834 was then attracting the notice of the country, and Cobbett denounces with fierce invective and righteous scorn the new system of “making it so irksome and painful to obtain any relief, as to prevent people from applying for it.” The economists and philanthropists of the day were recommending the practice of appointing strangers to be the keepers of workhouses—“firm men, not to be moved by distress, whether feigned or real.” “Are we in England,” asks Cobbett, “or are we in hell, while we are reading this?” He points out that the inevitable effect of a system like this would be that “nobody, except poor, wretched, feeble-minded as well as feeble-bodied souls, would ever apply for relief. There being no parish relief, the labourers would be compelled to retrieve whatever wages the farmers chose to give them. For life is precious to every living creature. After exhausting all the resources of supplication, after wives and children had pleaded in vain with streaming eyes the labouring man must submit.” Let the present condition of the working classes testify how amply the events of the last fifty years have fulfilled this prophecy of Cobbett’s! Yet the very class which passed the Poor Law of 1834 now appoints a Royal Commission to enquire into the Housing of the Poor, and affects to be surprised at finding them in a condition which has been directly brought about by its own greed and selfishness!
Again, on the question of Emigration, nothing could be more emphatic than Cobbett’s warning. “To give people,” he writes, “the choice of starvation at home or transportation to Canada is only in fact giving them a choice of the time at which they shall be starved to death.” He proceeds to enlarge on the miseries which many emigrants undoubtedly suffered in their new homes, and to warn English labourers against believing the highly coloured reports published by Emigration Societies. “What monsters,” he adds, (and we would commend his words to some of our modern “philanthropists,”) “are those who compose what are called ‘Emigration Societies’ or Colonial Associations,’ and what a Government, and what a Parliament must those be who not only do not put down, but who seem to encourage, these undertakings; and who can quietly hear men talk of clearing their estates, as we talk of clearing a homestead of vermin!” It is usually understood that homicide is prohibited by the laws of England, but as Cobbett points out, there are various ways of evading the commandment “Thou shalt not kill,” when anything is to be gained by the forbidden process. “If the landlords have a right,” he says, “be the pretence what it may, to eject the natives from the land; if they have a right, taking the whole body of them together, to turn one single family out on the bare ground, without providing for them another place of abode, then they have the right of killing; and this too in the face of the law which declares that constant protection from birth to death is due from the State to every many as the sole foundation of its claim to his allegiance.”
It was not to be wondered that a man who could write like this should be persecuted and calumniated by the capitalists of his time. By his “Legacy to Labourers” Cobbett wish to remind the working people in England “that they once had a friend whom neither the love of gain on the one hand, nor the fear of loss on the other, could seduce from his duty towards God, towards his country, and towards them; that that friend was born in a cottage and bred to the plough; men in mighty power were thirty-four years endeavouring to destroy him; that in spite of all this he became a member of Parliament, freely chosen by the sensible and virtuous and spirited people of Oldham; and that his name was William Cobbett.”
Justice, No. 73, June 6, 1885, p. 2