Every generation has hard decisions to make, like what is the scope and purpose of government. In this piece, William Leggett addresses what he believes the extent of government involvement should be in "charities." Agree or disagree, Leggett gives a reader something to think about.
This selection comes from the Evening Post, Nov. 28, 1834
August Glen-James, editor
The people ought not to suffer their judgment to be led away by their sympathies. They cannot be too jealous of the exercise of unnecessary powers by the state government. The nearer they keep all power to their own hands, and the more entirely under their own eyes, the more secure are they in their freedom and equal rights.
We have received a copy of a circular letter on the subject of a recommendation made by Governor Marcy to the legislature, at its last session, that an Asylum for Insane Paupers should be erected, at the expense of the State. A select committee was charged with the subject, which reported favorably on the project; but the legislature adjourned without acting upon it. We trust they will adjourn again without acting affirmatively on any such scheme.
The taking care of the insane is no part of the business of the state government. The erecting os such an Asylum as is proposed, and the appointment of the various officers to superintend it, would be placing a good deal more power—where there is already too much—into the hands of the state executive, to be used honestly or corruptly, for good or evil, as these qualities should happen to predominate in his character, or as the temptations to use his official patronage for his own aggrandizement or profit might be strong or weak. We are continually suffering, under one pretence or other, these pilfering of power from the people.
The circular to which we have alluded appeals strongly to the sympathies of its readers. It presents a deplorable and harrowing picture of the miseries endured by insane paupers in the poor-houses of Massachusetts and New Hampshire, and intimates that their condition is no better in many counties of this state. If this is so, the evil ought to be investigated and remedied; but not in the method proposed, by the erection of a splendid state Asylum. The people ought not to suffer their judgment to be led away by their sympathies. They cannot be too jealous of the exercise of unnecessary powers by the state government. The nearer they keep all power to their own hands, and the more entirely under their own eyes, the more secure are they in their freedom and equal rights.
We would have destitute lunatics taken care of, but not under the charge or at the expense of the state government. It ought to be one of the leading objects of the democracy of this country for many years to come to diminish the power of the general and several state government, not to increase it. On the subject of legislation for paupers they ought to be particularly vigilant. In nine cases out of ten, and we believe we might say ninety-nine out of a hundred, poor-laws make more poverty than they alleviate. If the reader has ever employed himself in tracing the history of the poor-laws in England, he will not require any proof of this assertion; if he has not, he could scarcely turn his thoughts to a subject more rife with matters of serious interest.
Lunatic paupers ought certainly to be take care of. Both charity and self-protection require this. But we would remove this guardianship as far from government as possible. Each county should certainly provide for its own; each township would be better, and if it were practicable to narrow it down to the kindred of the insane person, it would be better still. As a general rule, all public charities, except for the single purpose of promoting education, are founded on erroneous principles, and do infinitely more harm than good. See that the people are educated, and then leave every man to take care of himself and of those who have a natural claim on his protection. We have many large charities in this community, founded in the most amiable and benevolent motives, that annually add very largely to the sum of human misery, by ill-judged exertions to relieve it.
The picture of the wretched condition of lunatic paupers, as presented in the circular before us, is certainly very touching, but legislators must not be blinded by tears to the true and permanent interests of man. They must let their feelings of commiseration take counsel of the pauser judgment. They must look at the subject in all its bearings and aspects, before they saddle the people in their collective capacity with another tax, and place the revenue so instituted at the disposal of an executive officer, who may expend it with a view to advance his private ends.
We have said that the account given of the sufferings of these pauper lunatics is touching; yet it would be easy to draw as toughing a picture, and as true too, of the sufferings of sane paupers. Indeed, with many, what a horrible aggravation of their sufferings their very sanity must be,
“Which but supplies a feeing to decay!”
The lunatics are by no means the most unhappy class of paupers, as a class. Insanity comes to many as a friend in their deepest affliction, to mitigate the tortures of a wounded spirit—to
Pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow;
Raze out the written troubles of the brain,
And, with a sweet oblivious antidote,
Cleanse the stuffed bosom of the perilous stuff
Which weighs upon the heart.
Those who are sick and desolate; who have fallen from a high estate—fallen by their own folly, perhaps, and therefore experience the gnawings of remorse, or fallen in consequence of they ingratitude or treachery of others, may easily be supposed to experience keener anguish than the demented inmates of the same abode; since the worst pain man suffers has its seat in the mind, not in the body; and from that species of affliction the crazy are exempt. If this scheme of a grand state lunatic asylum should be carried into effect, we see no reason why next we should not have a grand state poor-house, for the reception of all paupers who had not lost their wits. Other large state charities would probably follow, and one abuse of government would step upon the heels of another. The system is all wrong from beginning to end. We are governed too much. Let the people take care of themselves and of their own sick and insane, each community for itself. Let them, above all things, be extremely cautious in surrendering power into the hands of the government, of any kind, or for any purpose whatever, for governments never surrender power to the people. What they get is theirs “to have and to hold,” ay, and to exercise too, to the fullest extent, nor is it often got back from them, till their grasp os opened with the sword.
Our remarks are cursory and loose, perhaps, as this article has been written in the midst of more than usual interruptions. Let the reader not these infer, however, that we have taken ground on this subject hastily; for such is not the fact. The plan recommended by Governor Marcy last winter, has recently occupied our thoughts, and in every light in which we have viewed it has appeared to us to deserve the opposition of the democratic members of the legislature. We are for giving as few powers to government as possible, and as small an amount of patronage to dispense. Let the aristocracy advocate a strong government; we are for a strong people. [79—83]