English Poor Laws

When the Puritans settled in Massachusetts, they carried certain English laws and traditions along with them. In particular, the Puritans were enamored with the concept of the English “Poor Laws,” a series of statutes designed to allow the English elite to extract involuntary servitude from the poor.

Blackstone summarized the concept as follows:

Our laws . . . have in one instance made a wife provision for breeding up the rising generation; since the poor and laborious part of the community, when past the age of nurture, are taken out of the hands of their parents, by the statutes for apprenticing poor children; and are placed out by the public in such a manner, as may render their abilities, in their several stations, of the greatest advantage to the commonwealth. The rich indeed are left at their own option, whether they will breed up their children to be ornaments or disgraces to their family.

1 W. Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England * 439.

Thus, English law permitted the King’s officials to take away the children of the poor, and conscript them into involuntary servitude for the benefit of the Kingdom. The notion was that wealthy landowners were entitled to enjoy more liberty than those who were poor or of minority heritage, for the latter were unworthy of self-determination.

The English Poor Laws required mandatory apprenticeship for any child or adult who was poor and unemployed. They had no right to object to the compensation or the interference with their own child-rearing activities. If the poor refused to work, they were fined or imprisoned.

The Puritans carried on the English class-based notion of compulsory training, government control of the labor market, apprenticeship of children, and the differential treatment of people based upon ancestry. It was not a large leap from that legal philosophy to the eventual practices of compulsory attendance, state-based child welfare, abrogation of parental liberty, and eugenics.

Most of the Framers of the United States Constitution disliked the Massachusetts approach. As a youthful apprentice, Benjamin Franklin fled from Boston to Philadelphia, and spent the rest of his life criticizing Harvard and the Boston clergy. John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay criticized Plato’s notion of an ideal commonwealth, consisting of children raised by the community under the direction of philosopher-kings. The early American Congress enacted a Northwest Ordinance which operated to keep Massachusetts vices from spreading to the new territories.

Substantial progress really occurred, however, when the Reconstruction Amendments were added to the United States Constitution after the American Civil War. The Thirteenth Amendment, borrowing language directly from the Northwest Ordinance, forbade involuntary servitude. The Fourteenth Amendment prohibited states from depriving citizens of basic liberties, including the parental liberty that had so often been denied to African-American families on the auction-block. Other Amendments protected the right to vote, and dissolved the link between basic rights of citizenship and the ownership of property.

The struggle over the legacy of Poor Laws has continued long after the enactment of the Reconstruction Amendments. On some occasions, Jim Crow laws have been passed in an attempt to extract free labor. E.g. Butler v. Perry, 240 U.S. 328 (1916)(upholding Jim Crow law designed to extract free labor for public works). In other instances, Native American children have been forced into compulsory apprenticeship in boarding schools, despite the objections of their parents. Even more recently, during the 1990’s, some federal politicians have advocated coercive “service learning” schemes for government school students. Compulsory attendance laws and child welfare abuses have yet to be remedied. The perverse economic incentives linger. The legacy of the English Poor Laws remains alive and well.

The Poor Laws were actually a series of statutes passed from A.D. 1330 until 1601: the Statutes of Labourers of 1349-1350, the Poor Law Reforms of 1531 and 1536, the Statute of Artificers of 1563, and the Elizabethan Poor Law of 1601. Key excerpts from some of the statutes are set forth below (bold added for emphasis).

Statute of Labourers of 1349, Chapter 1

Every person under the age of sixty years, not having to live on, being required, shall be bound to serve him that doth require him, or else committed to the gaol, until he find surety to serve.

Statute of Artificers, 1563

An act containing divers orders for artificers, labourers, etc. Although there remain and stand in force presently a great number of acts and statutes concerning the retaining, departing, wages, and orders of apprentices, servants, and labourers, as well in husbandry as in divers other arts, mysteries, and occupations, yet, partly for the imperfection and contrariety that is found and do appear in sundry of the said laws, and for the variety and number of them, and chiefly for that the wages and allowances limited and rated in many of the said statutes are in divers places too small and not answerable to this time, respecting the advancement of prices of all things belonging to the said servants and labourers, the said laws cannot conveniently, without the great grief and burden of the poor labourer and hired man, be put in good and due execution; and as the said several acts and statutes were at the time of the making of them thought to be very good and beneficial for the commonwealth of this realm, as divers of them yet are, so if the substance of as many of the said laws as are meet to be continued shall be digested and reduced into one sole law and statute, and in the same an uniform order prescribed and limited concerning the wages and other orders for apprentices, servants, and labourers, there is good hope that it will come to pass that the same law, being duly executed, should banish idleness, advance husbandry, and yield unto the hired person both in the time of scarcity and in the time of plenty a convenient proportion of wages ...: be it ... enacted that no person which shall retain any servant shall put away his or her said servant, and that no person retained according to this statute shall depart from his master, mistress, or dame before the end of his or her term ... , unless it be for some reasonable and sufficient cause or matter to be allowed before two justices of peace, or one at the least, within the said county, or before the mayor or other chief officer of the city, borough, or town corporate wherein the said master, mistress, or dame inhabiteth, to whom any of the parties grieved shall complain; which said justices or justice, mayor or chief officer, shall have and take upon them or him the hearing and ordering of the matter between the said master, mistress, or dame, and servant according to the equity of the cause....

And for the declaration and limitation what wages servants, labourers, and artificers, either by the year or day or otherwise, shall have and receive, be it enacted ... that the justices of peace ... shall yearly, at every general sessions first to be holden and kept after Easter ... , assemble themselves together; and they so assembled, calling unto them such discreet and grave persons of the said county or of the said city or town corporate as they shall think meet, and conferring together respecting the plenty or scarcity of the time and other circumstances necessary to be considered, shall have authority ... to limit, rate, and appoint the wages ... of ... artificers, handicraftsmen, husbandmen, or any other labourer, servant, or workman ... , and shall ... certify the same, engrossed in parchment with the considerations and causes thereof under their hands and seals, into the queen's most honourable court of chancery, whereupon it shall be lawful to the lord chancellor of England ... , upon declaration thereof to the queen's majesty, her heirs, or successors, or to the lords and others of the privy council for the time being attendant upon their persons, to cause to be printed and sent down ... into every county, to the sheriff and justices of peace there ... , ten or twelve proclamations or more, containing in every of them the several rates appointed by the said justices ... , with commandment by the said proclamations to all persons in the name of the queen's majesty ... straitly to observe the same, and to all justices, sheriffs, and other officers to see the same duly and severely observed....

Provided always, and be it enacted ... , that in the time of hay or corn harvest, the justices of peace and every of them, and also the constable or other head officer of every township, upon request and for the avoiding of the loss of any corn, grain, or hay, shall and may cause all such artificers and persons as be meet to labour ... to serve by the day for the mowing, reaping, shearing, getting, or inning of corn, grain, and hay, according to the skill and quality of the person; and that none of the said persons shall refuse so to do, upon pain to suffer imprisonment in the stocks by the space of two days and one night....

And be it further enacted ... that two justices of peace, the mayor ... of any city, borough, or town corporate, and two aldermen ... shall and may, by virtue hereof, appoint any such woman as is of the age of twelve years and under the age of forty years and unmarried and forth of service, as they shall think meet to serve, to be retained or serve by the year or by the week or day, for such wages and in such reasonable sort and manner as they shall think meet. And if any such woman shall refuse so to serve, then it shall be lawful for the said justices of peace, mayor, or head officers to commit such woman to ward until she shall be bounden to serve as aforesaid.

And be it further enacted that, if any person shall be required by any householder, having and using half a ploughland at the least in tillage, to be an apprentice and to serve in husbandry or in any other kind of art, mystery, or science before expressed, and shall refuse so to do, that then, upon the complaint of such housekeeper made to one justice of peace of the county wherein the said refusal is or shall be made ... , the said justice or the said mayor ... shall have power and authority by virtue hereof, if the said person refuse to be bound as an apprentice, to commit him unto ward, there to remain until he be contented and will be bounden to serve as an apprentice should serve, according to the true intent and meaning of this present act.

And if any such master shall misuse or evil intreat his apprentice, or ... the said apprentice shall have any just cause to complain, or the apprentice do not his duty to his master, then the said master or prentice being grieved and having cause to complain shall repair unto one justice of peace within the said county, or to the mayor ... of the city, town corporate, market town, or other place where the said master dwelleth, who shall by his wisdom and discretion take such order and direction between the said master and his apprentice as the equity of the cause shall require. And if for want of good conformity in the said master, the said justice of peace or ... mayor ... cannot compound and agree the matter between him and his apprentice, then the said justice or ... mayor ... shall take bond of the said master to appear at the next sessions then to be holden in the said county or ... town ... , and, upon his appearance and hearing of the matter before the said justices or the said mayor ... , if it be thought meet unto them to discharge the said apprentice of his apprenticehood, that then the said justices or four of them at the least ... , or the said mayor ... , with the consent of three other of his brethren or men of best reputation within the said ... town ... , shall have power ... , in writing under their hands and seals, to pronounce and declare that they have discharged the said apprentice of his apprenticehood, and the cause thereof; and the said writing, so being made and enrolled by the clerk of the peace or town clerk amongst the records that he keepeth, shall be a sufficient discharge for the said apprentice against his master, his executors, and administrators.... And if default shall be found to be in the apprentice, then the said justices or ... mayor ... , with the assistants aforesaid, shall cause such due correction and punishment to be ministered unto him as by their wisdom and discretions shall be thought meet....

Elizabethan Poor Law of 1601

For the resolution of said scruple and doubt, be it enacted by authority of this present parliament, That all and every such persons that at any time or times from henceforth shall be bounden by indenture to serve as an apprentice in any art, science, occupation, or labour, according to the tenure of this statute, and in manner and form aforesaid, albeit the same apprentice, or any of them, shall be within the age of one and twenty years, at the time of the making of their several indentures, shall be bounden to serve for the years in their several indentures contained, as amply and largely to every intent, as if the same apprentice were of full age at the time of the making of such indentures; any law, usage, or custom to the contrary notwithstanding.

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