Short Stories
All Titles

In Association with Amazon.com

Home > Authors Index > Browse all available works of George William Curtis > Text of Reform Charity

An essay by George William Curtis

Reform Charity

Title:     Reform Charity
Author: George William Curtis [More Titles by Curtis]

The State Board of Charities in New York would deal severely with Elia if it found him upon the street, stammering out his admiration of the fine histrionic powers of a beggar, and searching in his pocket for a penny. Lamb said that it was shameful to pay a crown for a seat in the theatre to enjoy the representation of woes that you knew to be fictitious, and to grudge a sixpence to the street performer who was so excellent that you could not tell whether his sufferings were real or affected. He is undoubtedly responsible for a great deal of easy and irresponsible alms-giving, which greatly increases human suffering and the expense of society. It is not possible to conceive anything more comical than Lamb's probable reception of a politico-economical or scientific view of charity. He would have felt his genius for humor to be hopelessly surpassed. His view would have been the ludicrous aspect of the idea which is more solemnly held by those who regard ordinary alms-giving as one of the cardinal virtues, and who have a vague conviction that a liberal disbursement of money to the poor in this world is a strong lien upon endless felicity in the next. There is, indeed, something very affecting in the old picture of conventional charity--the groups of disabled and destitute assembling at the great gate or in the courtyard, and the benign priests distributing food and clothing. And there is a similar picturesque interest in the ancient English bounties--a trust which secures to every wayfarer who may demand it a loaf of bread or a mug of beer.

That charity meant this, and nothing more, was long the conviction, as it was the tradition, of society. It was thought to have the highest Christian sanction. There were to be always poor among us. The poor were to be relieved, and relief, or charity, consists in feeding the hungry and clothing the naked. Yet out of that simple, unreflecting, seemingly innocent faith, have sprung enormous suffering, demoralization, and crime. The whole subject of charitable relief was as misunderstood as that of penal imprisonment before John Howard. There will be criminals, was the theory, and they must be punished. They must therefore be secured in jails, and the object of imprisonment is intimidation from crime, not the improvement of criminals. The result of this view was that society dismissed the subject, and regarded prisoners as mere outcasts, so that the inhumanity of their treatment was revolting. Happily the neglect revenged itself. The jails became sores. They were nurseries of loathsome disease. Judges and sheriffs were smitten by the pestilence that exhaled from prisons, and John Howard, like a purifying angel, in cleansing the prisons began also to cleanse society.

So alms-giving and the relief of the poor arrested the attention of humane persons who were not content with Elia's philosophy. They had sometimes watched the skilful street performer, and had seen him slip round the corner and spend at the gin-palace in a dram the money which, with some fine histrionic genius, he had besought for the sick wife and the starving children. They found the wife was also an accomplished histrione, and that the children were receiving parental instruction in the same calling. They found that the amiable, careless, unquestioning alms-giving was breeding a class of paupers, people who did not seek work nor wish to work, but who lived, and who meant to live, by beggary, who bred their children to do likewise, and whose haunts and associations and habits became great nurseries of crime. The evil had become enormous, and was most deeply seated before it was accurately observed. But wise men and wise women everywhere are now, and for some years have been, earnestly engaged in studying how to save society from the curse of pauperism, while taking care that all helpless and innocent suffering shall be relieved. This is what Elia and his amiable, thoughtless friends denounce as "machine charity." But their amiability is only selfishness. How many of those who decry "machine charity" ever went home with a single street beggar to whom they gave, or ever ascertained or cared whether his story was true, or told for any other purpose than to get the price of a dram? What they call their Christian charity and common humanity and apostolic alms-giving is often mere fostering of lying, drunkenness, and crime, and the indefinite increase of suffering.

It is upon this spirit that knaves and charlatans play and prey in establishing great charitable agencies, of which they are managers, and, in the vivid French phrase, touch the funds. There are thousands of kind-hearted people in every city who devote a share of their income to charity. They know that there is immense suffering, and they would gladly do their share in relieving it. But they do not know how to do it. They are conscious that there is deception upon all sides, and they cannot spare the time to ascertain for themselves who, of the host of the poor, are proper objects of charity. But it is only less difficult to decide upon a trusty agency. Here is the chance of the ingenious and plausible rascal. If he can only obtain the co-operation of those whose names make societies respectable, and who will permit him to be the society, and especially to disburse the moneys, he will be as satisfied as Ferdinand Count Fathom with any of his "little games." It is not always difficult for such a rascal to secure the conditions of his success. The consequences are both lamentable and ludicrous. For under this solemn form of a Christian charitable foundation the most selfish purposes are served, and when the mischief is exposed it is denounced as one of the abuses to which delegated or "machine" charity is inevitably liable. To perfect the comedy, this criticism is usually made by those whose own alms are generally transferred from their pockets directly to the till of the dram-shop.

It is evident from the letters that have been written to the newspapers during the winter that there are those who sincerely think that careful inquiry regarding poverty, and regulations of relief based upon it, must somehow deaden human sympathy and deepen the suffering of the poor. This is so ingeniously incorrect a theory that it would be exceedingly amusing if it were not so sincere and even general. The very first thing that careful investigation accomplishes is to acquaint the comfortable class with the real condition of the suffering, and to show the latter that they are not forsaken or turned off with uninquiring alms. They are conscious of an intelligent sympathy with which falsehood will be of no avail. They are taught self-respect by the perception that they are not forsaken, and self-respect is the main-spring of successful exertion. When the street-beggar understands that his tale will be tested, that if he needs succor he will receive it, and that if his plea is but asking for a dram he will not receive it, the number of street-beggars will sensibly decrease. And the sturdy tramp and professional pauper, when they know that they must go to the work-house or starve, will often conclude that even work is better than the poor-house, and they too will cease to be a nuisance and a terror.

Nor need it be feared, on the other hand, that if irresponsible street-giving is stopped nobody will investigate the actual situation of the poor. What is asked of the street-giver is not that he will close his pocket and his hand and his heart and his soul; but that, if he will not take the trouble to inquire before giving, he will give his alms to somebody who will take that trouble, that his alms may be true charity and relieve suffering, instead of relieving nothing whatever, but fostering vice and crime. He must see that he is not a good Christian exercising the heavenly gift of charity, but an indolent and reckless citizen who is promoting poverty and multiplying the public burden of the honest poor. He is that lazy absurd boy who wishes to eat his cake and have it. He would satisfy his soul that he is good because he gives, without seeing that to give ignorantly is, socially, to be bad. Nobody is exhorted to surrender inquiry to others. Every one may inquire for himself. If a beggar stops you and asks for a penny in the name of God, and says that his family is starving, go and see if it is so. If you have not the time--O sophistical Sybarite! inclination--send him to those who, as you know, will inquire. Will his family starve in the meantime? That is something you do not believe yourself. Do you fear that the visitor will not go? Then go yourself. Do your engagements prevent? Then you know that it is a thousand to one the story is but a plea for whiskey. Will you take the chance? Then you become an immediate accomplice in the vast multiplication of hereditary pauperism and crime. The pretence of your giving is Christian charity and humanity; the real cause is indolent self-indulgence and saving yourself trouble.

The charity that is beautiful in the old stories is actual charity. It is the friendly feeding of those who are really hungry, and the clothing of those who shiver with the cold. The Elia's charity is only a refined selfishness, a whim of humor. He rewarded the deceit, he did not relieve the suffering. Of course, his plea was an exquisite jest, and so he felt it to be. But his jest is made earnest and changed into a sober rule of life by gentle Sybarites, who, if they have ever heard of the Englishman Edward Denison, are lost in amazement and cigarette smoke as they meditate his career. The story may be found in a tender and graphic sketch in the entertaining volume of papers by the author of the admirable History of the English People, J. R. Green. Edward Denison, born in 1840, was the son of the Bishop of Salisbury, and nephew of the Speaker, and was educated at Oxford. Then he travelled on the Continent, and studied the condition of the Swiss peasantry. Returning to England, he engaged practically in the work of poor relief as an almoner of a charitable society. He soon learned the uselessness of relief by doles, and, determined to deal with the subject thoroughly, he withdrew from the clubs, Pall Mall, and Mayfair, and taking lodgings in Stepney, made himself the friend of the poor, built and endowed a school, in which he taught, gave lectures, and organized a self-helping relief. He went to France and to Scotland to study their poor-law systems. In 1868 he was elected to Parliament, where his knowledge of the general subject would have been invaluable. But his health failed before he took his seat. He sailed for Melbourne, still intent upon his life's purpose, and died there seven years ago, in his thirtieth year. A little volume of his letters has been published, and Mr. Green's affectionate and pathetic sketch draws the outline of this true modern knight and gentleman, the Sir Launfal of this time. The street-giver, seeking a rule of conduct, may more profitably heed the counsel of Edward Denison than the delicious humor of Charles Lamb.

[The end]
George William Curtis's essay: Reform Charity