Cato's Letter No. 133

Of Charity, and Charity-Schools.

John Trenchard (Saturday, June 15, 1723)

SIR, I know well, that any one must run a great deal of hazard, who shall advance any opinions against what is vulgarly called charity, though it be ever so much mistaken or miscalled, as for the most part it is, and ever has been. The giving loose money in the streets to canting and lazy beggars, has obtained the name of charity, though it is generally a mischievous liberality to encourage present idleness, or to reward past extravagancy, and is forbid by severe laws. The founding of monasteries, nunneries, and other miscalled religious houses, has passed too upon the world in late ages for charity, though they have ever proved seminaries of superstition and of papal tyranny, discouragements of matrimony, the sources of depopulation, and have made multitudes of people useless to the world and themselves. The giving lands and revenues to saucy, aspiring, and lazy ecclesiasticks, has been reputed a meritorious action; yet such actions have ever destroyed religion, increased the pride and dominion of the clergy, and depressed, impoverished, and enslaved the laity, for whose sakes alone there ought to be any ecclesiasticks at all. The founding and endowing of universities, colleges, and free-schools, carries an appearance of promoting sciences, learning, and true religion; yet they have been made use of to promote the kingdom of Antichrist, to debauch the principles of the nobility and gentry; to deprave their understandings; advance learned ignorance; load their heads with airy chimeras and fairy distinctions; fill states with desperate beggars and divines of fortune, who must force trade for a subsistence, and become the cudgels and tools of power or factions. A learned author justly compares these establishments to the Trojan horse, which carried hosts of armed men within its bowels, to send them out afterwards to destroy kingdoms.

But there is another new-fangled charity risen up amongst us, called charity-schools, which, I think, threatens the publick more than all which I have mentioned. I would not be understood to condemn every thing of that nature; for, under a proper regulation, something like it may be commendable: But, as they are now employed and managed, I see no good that can accrue to the publick from them, but apprehend a great deal of mischief. These establishments were first begun and encouraged by pious men, many of them dissenters; and then our high clergy every where exclaimed against them as dangerous innovations, and attempts to subvert the Church, and the national religion. But now they have got them under their own management, and they really prove what they foretold they would prove, they continually make harangues and panegyrical elogiums upon them, and upon the persons who promote them. It is become part of their duty (and much better executed than all the rest), to prate people out of their money; to decoy superstitious and factious men out of their shops and their business, and old doting women out of their infirmaries, to hear too often seditious harangues upon the power of the clergy, and of the reverence due to them, and upon the merit of nursing up beggars to be the blind tools of ambitious pedants; and lectures and instructions are there given them, inconsistent with our present establishment of church and state; and we have scarce a news-paper but gives notice of sermons to be preached upon this occasion.

It is certain that there was almost every where a general detestation of popery, and popish principles, and a noble spirit for liberty, at or just before the Revolution; and the clergy seemed then as zealous as the foremost. But when the corrupt part of them found themselves freed from the dangers which they complained of, and could not find their separate and sole advantage in the Revolution, they have been continually attacking and undermining it; and since they saw that it was impossible to persuade those who were witnesses and sufferers under the oppressions of the former governments, wantonly, and with their eyes open, to throw away their deliverance, they went a surer and more artful way to work, though more tedious and dilatory; and therefore have, by insensible degrees, corrupted all the youth whose education has been trusted to them, and who could be corrupted; so that at the end of near forty years, the Revolution is worse established than when it began. New generations are risen up, which knew nothing of the sufferings of their fathers, and are taught to believe there were never any such. The dread of popery is almost lost amongst us; the vilest tenets of it are openly asserted and maintained; men are taught to play with oaths; and it is become fashionable to revile authority more for its commendable actions, than for its excesses. The principles of our nobility and gentry are debauched in our universities, and those of our common people in our charity-schools, who are taught, as soon as they can speak, to blabber out High Church and Ormond; and so are bred up to be traitors, before they know what treason signifies.

This has been long seen, and as long complained of; yet no remedy has been applied, though often promised. Those whose duty and business it ought to have been, have had their time and thoughts so wholly engaged in modelling factions, and enriching themselves, that this great evil has been suffered to go on, and still goes on; it has been continually increasing, and yet increases; but I hope, at last, that those in authority will take the alarm, will think their own safety, and the safety of his Majesty and his people, are highly concerned to remove a mischief which is levelled at all their and our happiness; and that they will not, like their predecessors, disoblige all their friends to gratify their enemies, whom yet they cannot gratify. If this be not done, any one, without much skill in politicks, may safely affirm, that our present establishment cannot long subsist. A free government must subsist upon the affections of the people; and if those affections be perpetually debauched; if the education of youth be altogether inconsistent with the nature of it; and if it must depend only upon converts, pensions, or armies, its duration cannot be long, without a constant succession of miracles: Armies will soon find their own strength, and will play their own game: Foreign armies will neither be thought on nor borne; and it is to be feared, that our domestick ones, upon every disgust, or prospect of advantage, may fall into the intrigues and resentments of their countrymen, when they grow to be general, and consequently will be of least use, when most wanted. We cannot sure, so soon forget what the Parliament army did formerly, and King Jamesís lately, and what was expected from our own in the late conspiracy; and without such expectations, it had been direct madness to have formed or engaged in such an attempt, and the criminals had been more properly sent to Bedlam than to Tyburn, though they deserved both.

But to apply myself more directly to the charity-schools, I shall endeavour to show, that under the false pretence and affectation of charity, they destroy real charity, take away the usual support and provision from the children of lesser tradesmen, and often from those of decayed and unfortunate merchants and gentlemen, and pervert the benevolence, which would be otherwise bestowed upon helpless widows, and poor housekeepers, who cannot by reason of their poverty, maintain their families.

Every country can maintain but a certain number of shop-keepers, or retailers of commodities, which are raised or manufactured by others; and the fewer they are, the better; because they add nothing to the publick wealth; but only disperse and accommodate it to the convenience of artificers, manufacturers and husbandmen, or such who live upon their estates and professions; and serve the publick only by directing and governing the rest; but as there must be many retailers of other menís industry, and the greatest part of them will be but just able to support themselves, and with great pains, frugality, and difficulty, breed up their families, and be able to spare small sums out of their little substance to teach their children to write and cast account, and to put them out apprentices to those of their own degree; so those employments ought to fall to the share of such only; but now are mostly anticipated, and engrossed by the managers of the charity-schools; who, out of other peopleís pockets, give greater sums than the other can afford, only to take the lowest dregs of the people from the plough and labour, to make them tradesmen, and by consequence drive the children of tradesmen to the plough to beg, to rob, or to starve.

The same may be said of servants, who are generally the children of the lesser shop-keepers, though sometimes of decayed merchants and gentlemen, who have given them an education above the lower rank of people, which has qualified them to earn a comfortable subsistence this way, without much labour, to which they have never been used. Now, I have often heard, that one advantage proposed by these charity-schools, is to breed up children to reading and writing, and a sober behaviour; that they may be qualified to be servants: A sort of idle and rioting vermin, by which the kingdom is already almost devoured, who are become every where a publick nuisance, and multitudes of them daily, for want of employment, betake themselves to the highway and house-breaking, others to robbing and sharping, or to the stews; and must do so, if we study new methods to increase their numbers.

I have mentioned another mischief which has flowed from this pretended charity; for it has, in effect, destroyed all other charities, which were before given to the aged, sick and impotent. I am told that there is more collected at the church-doors in a day, to make these poor boys and girls appear in caps and livery-coats, than for all other poor in a year; and there is reason to presume, that less still is given to private charities, where the givers are almost the only witnesses of their own actions: So that this benevolence is a commutation or composition for what was formerly given to widows, orphans, and to broken and unfortunate house-keepers. And how should it be otherwise, when the clergymen in highest repute, stroll about from church to church, nay print publick advertisements of charity sermons to be preached, recommending the merit of this sort of liberality, the service which it does to God and the Church; and but faintly, or perhaps not at all, exhorting to any other: insomuch, that the collections made every winter, by virtue of the Kingís Letter, for the many miserable in this great town, visibly decrease, though these collections be made from house to house, though the names of the givers, and sums given, be entered down, and though all ministers be directed by his Majesty and the Bishop of London, in their sermons, to press this charity upon their congregations; which is notwithstanding seldom done, unless in a faint manner, perhaps at the end of a sermon; whereas, on the other occasion, the ears of the auditors are deafened with the cry of the preacher, and their passions are all inflamed to a profuse liberality; and those who do not give, and give largely too, must incur reproach and contumely.

Oh! but say some pious, and many more impious and hypocritical people, what would you hinder poor boys and girls from being well clothed, from serving God, and being bred scholars? I answer, that there are few instances in which the publick has suffered more, than in breeding up beggars to be what are called scholars, from the grave pedant and the solemn doctor, down to the humble writer and caster of accounts; to attain which characters, does not require the pains and acuteness that are necessary to make a good cobbler: yet they immediately fancy themselves to be another rank of mankind, think that they are to be maintained in idleness, and out of the substance of others, for their fancied accomplishments; are above day-labour, and by an idle education, require a listlessness to it; and when they cannot find the sort of subsistence which they aspire to, are always perplexing the world, and disturbing other people. So that no education ought to be more discountenanced by a state, than putting chimeras and airy notions into the heads of those who ought to have pickaxes in their hands; than teaching people to read, write, and cast account, who, if they were employed as they ought to be, can have no occasion to make use of these acquirements, unless it be now and then to read the Bible, which they seldom or never do: Besides, they are told by their spiritual guides, that they must not understand it.

What benefit can accrue to the publick by taking the dregs of the people out of the kennels, and throwing their betters into them? By lessening the numbers of day-labourers, by whose industry alone, nations are supported, and the publick wealth increased? By multiplying the number of such who add nothing to it, but must live out of the property of the rest? By taking boys and girls from the low and necessary employments of life, making them impatient of the condition which they were born to, and in which they would have thought themselves happy, to be seamstresses, footmen, and servant maids, and to teach them to read ballads? How much more useful a charity would it be, to give the same sums to their parents to help them to raise their families, and breed up their children to spinning or hard-labour; to help them to maintain themselves, and to depend for the future upon their own hands for subsistence? Whereas, this sort of charity is of no use, benefit, or ease to their parents, who must find them meat, drink, washing, and some clothes, during the whole time which they spend at school, and lose, at the same time, the little that they can otherwise earn, or what they would earn themselves, whilst they employed their children in going on errands, and doing little offices, which they can do as well: And all this for the pleasure of seeing them a little better clothed, hearing them sing psalms, and repeating by rote a catechism made for that purpose.

The pretence that this sort of education will render them more useful members of society, and will make them more virtuous and religious, is a mere chimera. How many are hanged at Tyburn that can write and read; or rather how few that cannot? And generally they all die for high church, and for the right line! Who are greater rogues than scholars, as they are called; And what set of people have supplied the town with more whores than our spiritual fathers, who all have the practice of piety by them? Nothing keeps the herd of mankind so honest, as breeding them up to industry, and keeping them always employed in hard-labour, and letting them have no time or inducements from necessity to rob or cheat, or superfluities to debauch with. Who are the persons who have the conduct, and are at the head of these charity-schools? Are they men of the most exemplary piety and morals? No, I am told quite the contrary: They are, for the most part, staunch Jacobites, or, in other words, furious high-church-men; often men of debauched lives and principles; and the masters of these schools are generally enemies to the establishment. And what use do they make of their power? Why! they supply the children with what they want out of their own shops; get credit and interest amongst their neighbours, for their charitable disposition; make use of that credit to promote disaffection to the government; engage the parents and friends of the children in the interest of a popish Pretender, and breed up the children themselves to fight his battles in due time.

I have been very much diverted to see, now and then, one of these poor creatures skip over a kennel as nimble as a greyhound, to get to the other side of the way, that it might be ready to make a low bow to a parson as he passed by; which order of men they are taught almost to adore; and I have been often told (though I do not affirm, and can scarce believe it to be true), that their duty to the clergy is inserted in a catechism that is or has been taught them; but whether such a catechism be committed to print or writing, or not, it is certain that their duty to God is not half so much, I will not say, inculcated into them, but observed by them, as the reverence and respect which they are made to believe is due to these holy men. And what use will be made of this blind adoration to such persons and their power, we may easily judge by what use ever has been made of it; which I think is well worth the time and thoughts of publick authority, as of all men who wish well to their King, their country, and themselves, seriously to reflect upon, and to provide against, before it be too late, and the mischief be accomplished.

T I am, &c.

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