LONDON. TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 22, 1846. (Lead Editorial)
Next Friday we believe that Lord George Bentinck will have another opportunity of favouring his admirerers with some of those comprehensive views which they so much require, and which he is so able to give. . . .
The moderation and the confidence of the age will scarcely allow us to speak of "a famine." The very name is forbidden. It must be remembered, however, that there are other famines than those of which we so frequently read in old chronicles, when thousands were everywhere flocking to the cities, and perishing, in that last effort, by the way; when bread rose to many times its previous price, when flocks and herds were slaughtered for the wants of the day and nature relapsed for years into almost primitive desolation. The greater wealth of the age, and the increased production of wheat and other superior grain, reduce bread into a comparatively unimportant item of expenditure in the households of all but the labouring classes. But unhappily as recent experience has shown it is very possible for millions to be reduced very low, even in the sight of full granaries; just as it is possible for an Indian population to be perishing even while fleets laden with the produce of their fields are leaving their shores. It is possible that there should be enough for the wealthy, but none for the poor. When the price of food is too high to leave room for other expenditures, or to allow a profit on manufacture, trade flags and the loom is still, and a thousand lesser industries partake in that general stagnation, which is only another name for famine, disease, mortality and crime. So then the mention of that gloomy word is not necessarily associated with the dreadful images of ancient or of barbarous scarcity. Famine adapts itself to the civilized state. But if it becomes somewhat less gaunt and less universal, still dearth of food must and will be felt; and it is serious an affair as if it led to most appalling demonstrations.
We must say that we see no escape from the envident fact that Europe begins this ensuing year with a most unusually deficient stock of food. In Ireland alone the food of 4,000,000 human mouths has perished. The failure of the same root in other countries amounts, probably, to at least an equal deduction from the aggregate supply. Throughout the continent the lower descriptions of corn, occupying the same place as the potato in Ireland, have partially and in some places totally failed. In very few places is the wheat crop more than an average one. The food of the masses, however, is the question. There can be no doubt whatever that it is seriously deficient. It is impossible to mystify that fact. All the differences, as compared with the crop of last year, which we now know to have been unequal to the demand, are in the direction of decrease. There is no one particular increase at all likely to make up for the fearful deficiency under other items. The result is a plain matter, not so much of calculation as of such forethought as nature has given to a child. A large family that begins the week with considerably less than its usual provision, and without any means of making it up before the next pay day; a crew which finds itself in the middle of the Atlantic with only a fortnight's stores for the three weeks which will elapse before it can get to land, know that they will be obliged to live on diminished rations. To treat that necessity as a merely speculative or possible conclusion would be suicidal folly, and would entail the horros or absolute famine. The case of all Europe is now too thoroughly parallel. We are on the voyage. We are now mid-sea. It is beyond our power of the best management to increase our store. The wealthiest cargo that ever floated, be it gold or diamonds, or silks or spices, cannot be transmuted into biscuits and beef. Nor is there any political alchemy that, in the interval between harvest and harvest, can increase the annual supply, or that can at any time so accelerate the tedious processes of nature of nature as to increase our store at even a few months' notice. For the present we must live on our means. . . .
Some of course will point across the Atlantic. In estimating the power of the United States to supply the deficiencies of Europe, we must consider not their aggregate produce which, on paper, looks vast enough, but their exporting power. That is all that we have to do with; and every body who has watched the history of the corn trade, for even a few months, knows how little America can really export, and how powerfully the smallest rise of demand operates on her power of supply. . . .
The worst symptoms of the Irish famine, as we had to observe yesterday, have begun to show themselves in the way of popular gatherings and processions, which at present are only turbulent, but may soon become outrageous. The twin powers of Fear and Rumour have lent their hands to the colouring of a picture already sufficiently sombre. The people have made up their minds to report the worst and believe the worst. Human agency is now denounced as instrumental in adding to the calamity inflicted by Heaven. It is no longer submission to Providence, but a murmur against the Government. The potatoes were blighted by a decree from on high, but labour is defrauded by the machinations of earthy power. Such are the first aspirations of discontent, inflamed by rumour, and diffused by fear. Such as the thanks that a Government gets for attempting to palliate great afflictions and satisfy corresponding demands by an inevitable but a ruinous beneficence.
The alarm of the populace in the provincial towns has arisen in some cases from the fact of the wages paid by the Government being below the average standard of wages in the vicinity; in others, from the report that it is the intention to reduce them below that standard. This is the secret of the murmur. . . .It is the national character, the national thoughtlessness, the national indolence. It is that which demands the attention of Governments, of patriots, and philanthropists, not a white less than the potato disease. The Government provided work for a people who love it not. It made this the absolute condition of relief. Doing so, it did that which every Executive is boudn to do in similar circumstances. But in laying out its plan, it was obliged to square the execution of it by the habits of the people. It knew that the latter would at all times rather be idle than toil; would live ona small gratuity rather than large or regular earnings; and would trust to the beneficence of a Cabinet rather than to the sweat of their brows, or the steady work of their hands. It saw directly the prospect of more than half a nation becoming complacently dependent upon specious alms. There was but one way to avoid a calamity compared with which the potato blight is a trivial thing. This was to enjoin that work, slovenly and sluggishly performed -- as Government work was sure to be -- should procure subsistence for the peasant, but nothing more. The Government was required to ward off starvation, not to pamper indolence; its duty was to encourage industry, not to stifle it; to stimulate others to give employment, not to outbid them, or drive them from the labour markets. It therefore threw himself between the poor man and his gaunt foe; but it would not interfere between him and his best friend -- the man who would employ him. It diminished the competition which the labourer had to fear; it increased that which none but a selfish proprietor could dislike. It provided literally bread for the famished, but it held out mroe than bread to the active and industrious. The squire and the farmer found that, in order to get labourers at all, they must appeal not only to the indigence, but the acquisitiveness of the poor. . . .In England or Scotland -- in any other country but Ireland . . . Hunger would have been (as elsewhere) the herald of comfort, Necessity the parent of luxuries. The disappearance of the potato, instead of being a curse, might have been hailed as a boon; and the Celtic tiller, eating better food and cultivating a nobler crop, might have desired to wonder how he could ever have existed on so poor and innutricious a root.
But what would happen in other countries never does happen in Ireland. There the process as well as the motive of every action is inverted. Instead of increased exertion and renewed industry, passive submission and despondent indolence awaited a famine epoch. Even the annual migration of labour was suspended in many instances. The English cornfields lacked their wanted reapers. The Celtic features and the Celtic dialect were missed from our northern and eastern harvests. The quays of Liverpool and Bristol were unusually scant of those strongly marked lineaments and that peculiar garb which distinguish the native Irishman from every other denizen of Europe. England was rife of varied employments and multiform speculation. Every hand that could be turned to account was pressed into service. Our own peasantry were, in many counties, insufficient to meet the demands of multiform occupation. Still the Irishman -- he who, in other and less happy seasons, has filched more than his share from the competition of his English fellow-labourer -- he who was erst reviled as a pernicious rival, but who then would have been hailed as a useful and kindly helpmate -- he kept aloof. Here and there you might hear the the western brogue, but almost universally the harvest wooed in vain the sickle of the sister isle. Why was this? Why was it that the prospect -- the certainty of a great calamity, did not animate to great exertions? Alas! the Irish peasant had tasted of famine and found that it was good. He saw the cloud looming in the distance, and he hailed its approach. To him it teemed with goodly manna and salient waters. He wrapped himself up in the ragged mantle of inert expediency and said that he trusted to Providence. But the deity of his faith was the Government -- the mann of his hopes was a Parliamentary grant. He called his submission a religious obedience, and he believed it to be so. But it was the obedience of a religion which by a small but material change, reversed the primaeval decree. It was a religion that holds "Man shall not labour by the sweat of his brow."
All this was natural, and might have been expected from the original character and antecedent conditions of the Irish people. It was the same roote and innate disposition which thwarts and baffles and depresses them whithersoever they turn their steps. Onthe banks of the Liffey or the Liver, the Thames or the St.Lawrence, the Muray or the Mississippi, it's the same thing. It is this that prevents them from working when they can idle; from growing rich when they work; from saving when they receive money. It seems a law of their being -- a hard, a pitiable, a saddening law; but one hitherto unaltered, and -- we hope only to external appearance -- unalterable. But why is it that in Manchester or Leeds or Stockport when he works and is well paid, the Irishman never thrives? The Englishman and the Scotchman from small beginings struggled into comfort, respectability, competence; nay, sometimes, even into wealth and station. The Scoth or English spinner in no few cases has become a manufacturer and a capitalist; the Irish hardly in any. Thrown among mechanics of the two nations -- receiving the same wages they do . . . he rarely attains the same position, or improve his condition in any degree.. . .
All these things are facts beyond doubt and denial. We repeat them not for reproach or contumely, but to show that there are ingredients in the Irish character which must be modified and corrected before either individuals or Government can hope to raise the general condition of the people. It is absurb to prescribe political innovations for the remedy of their sufferings or the alleviations of their wants. Extended suffrage and municipal reform for a peasantry who have for six centuries consented to alternate between starvation on a potato and the doles of national charity! You might as well give them bonbons and ratafas. . . .
We have great faith in the virtues of good food. Without attributing the splendid qualities of the British Lion wholly to the agency of beef steaks, we may pronounce that a people that has been reared on sold edibles will struggle long and hard against the degradation of a poorer sustenance. . . . Le ventre gouverne le monde
For our own parts, we regard the potato blight as a blessing. When the Celts once cease to be potatophagi, they must become carnivorous. With the taste of meats will grow the appetite for them. With this will come steadiness, regularity, and perseverance; unless indeed the growth of these qualities be impeded by the blindness of Irish patriotism, the shortsighted indifference of petty landlords, or the random recklessness of Government benevolence. The first two may retard the improvement of Ireland; the last, continued in a spirit of thoughtless concession, must impoverish both England and Ireland. But nothing will strike so deadly a blow, not only at the dignity of Irish character, but also the elements of Irish prosperity, as a confederacy of rich proprietors to dun the national Treasury, and to eke out from our resources that employment for the poor which they are themselves bound to provide, by every sense of duty, to a land from which they derive their incomes. It is too bad that the Irish landlord should come to ask charity of the English and Scotch mechanic, in a year in which the export of produce to England has been beyond all precedent extensive and productive. But it seems that those who forget all duties forget all shame. The Irish rent must be paid twice over.