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Social Climate of the 1800s

March 22, 2012
Punch Cartoon from 1843 criticizing the Poor Law

Punch Cartoon from 1843 criticizing the Poor Law (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The transformation of the European economy during the Middle Ages from a feudal to capitalist system forced large numbers of peasant men women and children off the land that once supported them in order to make way for the production of cash crops.  No longer, able to shelter or feed themselves they migrated to various urban areas to survive.  In short, this en masse displacement of the now poor and destitute undermined the model of family social control and the order this system once provided leaving many children parent-less as a result.  It also brought crime and its cradle, poverty into the cities causing panic amongst the inhabitants eventually leading to the creation of “Poor Laws” to deal with this burgeoning “dangerous class”.  Already in place were practices such as the “binding out” of children, essentially a form of indentured servitude and the transportation of prisoners to the colonies of the European and British empires.  Free labor is a wonderful thing… for those not doing the labor that is; consequently, for the emerging capitalist class it was only a small step to the use of “spirits” and “agreements of service”.  In addition, since the peasantry and the poor were unwanted in the cities few noticed or complained as these unfortunates were shipped off to distant places.  In the American colonies, the “slave” trade eventually replaced the more costly use of transported children in the plantations of the South however in the slave-less North cheap labor was still required in the factories and the so-called “apprenticeship” programs were set up to address this need.  Children put in these programs worked in the factory by day then lent a hand with chores at night.  However, having lost a significant portion of this valuable source of labor families began to falter and decay, spawning in the process an immense nearly permanent underclass that could no longer care for even greater numbers of their children many of whom now abandoned ended up on the streets.  This combined with the arrival of significant numbers of immigrants from places such as Ireland led to ensconced concentrations of poor in the cities along with sharp increases in juvenile delinquency and crime.  Once more just as there had been in Europe some 75 years previous, a mounting sense of alarm was taking hold of the wealthy in relation to the growing social unrest stemming from the now greater than ever inequality between the rich and poor in America.  Many of whom began to see the escalating numbers of the “dangerous class” in terms of such previous economic upheavals as the French Revolution.  This was the backdrop leading to the formation of the Child Savers, a privileged group of well to do reformers whose stated goal was the prevention of juvenile delinquency but whose true ethos primarily concerned establishing social order whilst simultaneously preserving their wealth and status.  They wanted to reach greater numbers of children than had the so-called houses of refuge and believed family units more rehabilitative than the regimen of forced routine as currently practiced refuge houses.  One strategy used to achieve this was “placing out”, akin to Europe’s use of transportation wherein vagrant children could be sent to live with families called “God’s reformatories” located on the western frontier.  There, the belief was they would become part of the family unit but more often than not; they simply ended up in positions of servitude having to earn their keep.  Due to immigration industrialization and the Civil War, the problems of crime and juvenile delinquency continued to grow in the cities leading to legislative involvement and the institution of “Reform Schools”.  This time known as the Progressive Era saw government expanding in other areas as well and once again, the wealthy concerned about preserving their treasure and power used their considerable influence to set policies of social control favorable to them.  In fact, to this day many of the policies and reforms established then continue to exist in one form or another and are part of both the Criminal Justice and Welfare systems including, professionalization of the police, public defenders, specialized juvenile courts, indeterminate sentencing, and parole, as well as the use of science-based measures of crime and its causes.  According to the Krisberg, apart from reason, becoming a dominant driver of policy and policy makers, these systems of social control will likely continue to grow in both authority and reach as wealth and unchecked capitalistic ambitions increase their hold on the centers of power.

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