"I am for doing good to the poor," said Benjamin Franklin in 1766, "[by] not making them easy in poverty, but leading or driving them out of it." His refusal to endorse government-sponsored assistance reflects the prevailing attitude toward the poor in Colonial times. Many provisions for the indigent were harsh, founded upon the biblical principle in 2 Thessalonians 3:10b: "... if any would not work, neither should he eat." Such harshness, however, was often far from Christian.
The Elizabethan Poor Laws
The pilgrims who migrated to the colonial shores carried with them the pattern of taxpayer-funded poor relief based on the Elizabethan Poor Laws. These codifications created two classes of poor: the worthy -- such as involuntarily unemployed, widows and orphans -- and the unworthy -- potential criminals and drunkards. The former were frequently auctioned into indentured servitude to local farmers; the latter were jailed. The auction of individuals to low-bidding farmers often proved unsuccessful, since the purchasers considered their servants property and frequently starved and mistreated them.
Virginia Legalizes Apprenticeships and Workhouses
By 1643 the burgeoning numbers of the poor were sent to parish vestries for care and housing, which inevitably put something of a strain on parish funds. This condition led to the 1646 Virginia legislature decision that turned poor children out as apprentices to learn a trade. To further alleviate the overabundance of the unemployed, Virginia's legislature led the way in creating workhouses, which not only instilled a need for daily work but also encouraged communal spirits. The colonies followed suit, and young apprenticeships and communal workhouses abounded.
The assistance method that foreshadowed the soup kitchens and breadlines of the Great Depression was Outdoor Relief, a system that set up stations in the slums and byways of the poor to hand out small sums of cash or modest supplies to the impoverished. It also afforded poor individuals the chance to board with families for short periods. Not surprisingly, gifts of cash and supplies to a growing population of nonworkers did not sit well with Colonial Puritans. The 1660s saw the growth of the workhouse as the prevalent form of relief.
Poorhouses and apprenticeships were flawed as social systems, and it may be Colonial Puritan influence that robbed them of effectiveness. Ironically, Governor John Winthrop, a central figure in early colonial settlement, admonished colonists to love and care for the poor. Winthrop's gentle address, "A Model of Christian Charity," adopted the theme that "he that gives to the poor, lends to the Lord and He will repay him. …" Had Winthrop been the voice of the colonies, true charity might have prevailed.
- Founding.com: On the Price of Corn and Management of the Poor, 1766
- Bible Hub: 2nd Thessalonians 3:10
- Flathead Valley Community College: The Elizabethan Poor Laws
- The Social Welfare History Project: Poor Relief
- History.org: Richman, Poorman, Beggarman, Thief: Down but Not Out in Colonial Virginia
- Wayne State College at Massachusetts: Almshouse, Workhouse, Outdoor Relief: Responses to the Poor in Southeastern Massachusetts, 1740-1800
- University of Virginia: We the People: Religious Freedom Page: A Model of Christian Charity
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