Reform as Affecting the Rights of Property

Samuel Joseph May

Berry Street Essay on Reform, 1855


Read before the Ministerial Conference

May 30, 1855


Priests and people, ministers and men have sought long enough for some religions ceremonial, or some theological faith, that should be the great moral panacea. It cannot be found either in the ritual or the creed; nor can the cure be concocted out of anything that the brains of mere theologians have ever devised. The pollution of sin cannot be washed away until the sin itself has been utterly abandoned; and no sin will be abandoned until the sinner is brought to see its filthiness, the harm that it does himself, the corrupting influence it has upon others, the offence it gives to God. It may be impossible for the individual to see and learn all these things by himself. He may need the aid of others who are not deluded as he is. It is the work of the Christian minister and the Christian friend to give this aid to the erring. Where the sin of the individual is peculiar to himself, his reformation may be effected by private appliances. But where the individual is the victim of a vice that is prevalent throughout the community, his complete redemption can be accomplished only by the power of a social reform. Public sentiment must be aroused; all who become friendly to the reform must be brought to cooperate, and the strong arm of law may need to be invoked. To redeem men from the foul vice of intemperance, we have found all these instrumentalities necessary. In order to abolish Slavery, they are all even more indispensable. And we shall find that the evils which proceed from the love of money cannot be corrected in individuals while the public sentiment respecting wealth, and the usages of society towards the rich, and the laws of the State and the nation touching property, continue as they now are.

I know very well there are some ministers and moralists who incline to regard "the love of money" with the institutions and devices of men for the acquisition and perpetuation of property, very much as Dr. Leonard Bacon, of New-Haven, for a long while regarded Slavery, i.e., as an organic sin; by which, if I understood him, he meant a sin so inwrought into the very constitution of society, that the attempt by man to eradicate it would be vain, and the condemnation of the individuals who were involved in the mysteries of its iniquity was uncharitable and cruel. And yet we see with our own eyes that that strong condemnation of our national sin, first uttered and faithfully applied by a poor, unlearned young man in this city—iterated and reiterated in every city, town, and village of the land where they could get a hearing; iterated end reiterated by himself and his despised fellow-laborers through years of contumely, and reproach, and deadly persecution! has at length effectually aroused the people of the non-slaveholding States to see and feel the tremendous wickedness of Slavery—the individual, domestic, social wrongs and vices which are inseparable from it—the perhaps irreparable damage which it has done to our Republic, so that they are now uniting in the declaration that Slavery shall be tolerated no longer; at least not tolerated in any further aggressions upon liberty, which will be found in the event to mean not tolerated at all; for liberty can no more tolerate Slavery by its side than light can tolerate darkness, or love can tolerate hate.

Encouraged, animated by what has already been accomplished in a conflict with one monster wrong, all of which some of us have seen, and in part of which we have been, we may confidently predict that if a corresponding zeal, fidelity, and perseverance shall be put forth in the full exposure and faithful reproof of the wicked devices of men in the acquisition, the hoarding, and the use of money, a public sentiment will be awakened throughout the land, which will demand, and finally procure, the enactment of laws respecting trade and commerce, banks, brokerage, investments, credit, debt, interest, wages, landholding, tariffs, and taxation, that shall hereafter preclude the enormous accumulations of wealth in the hands of a few, promote a more general acquisition of property into moderate competencies, and insure the imposition of public burthens—the governmental, municipal, educational institutions of the State and nation—upon those who are able to bear them, i.e., upon those who have property enough, and to spare. The public sentiment of our Republic ought to be such as to demand, and the laws ought to be such as to insure, that every child of the common Father of men shall have a title to some share of the common inheritance of earth, and that, if by misfortune or misconduct he loses it, it shall not be difficult, certainly not impossible, for him to recover it. The laws ought to be such that it shall be easy for any man and any woman, with a fair share of industry and economy, to secure the necessaries and comforts of life—such that it shall be much more difficult for any one to acquire a fortune, and such that it shall be not worth any man's while to amass or to keep a million or half a million.

I say the laws should be such as to ensure these results. Most persons take it for granted that whatever is lawful is right. Consequently, immoral, inhuman laws are the chief hindrance to the progress of social reform. Little is accomplished until the legislators can be brought to favor the reforms; that is, to enact the newly-discovered right into the law of the land. So long as law continues, as it now is, so much more favorable to the rich than to the poor, little can be done by mere moral suasion to correct the wrong. So long as the capitalist has by law the great advantage he now has, over the laborer, so long will the primary energies of humanity be repressed. We, ministers, may plead as eloquently as we can for the rights of the poor—nevertheless, their estate will not be essentially improved so long as the laws of credit, of wage, of usury, of tariff; of taxation, and land monopoly continue to be what they now are. We may persuade the rich to give seemingly large sums to the relief of the immediate necessities of the poor; but so long as the laws are such that some men can become millionaires, there must, there will be mill-naires, or men not worth a mill—aye, thousands of these for every one of the other denomination.

These things ought not so to be, and we ministers of Christ are the men to say they ought not so to be. If we dare not do our duty—then will the men, who may be called infidels, espouse the cause of the least of Christ's brethren—as they have done in the case of the slaves—and again the Church, as well as the law, will be made to appear hostile to humanity and its Saviour.

We do not hesitate to say—certainly in this country, and in England, no one hesitates to say—that limits ought to be set to an individual acquisition of civil powers. Why then should we hesitate to limit one's accumulation of wealth? That is a great power in the State, and in the Church. Great wealth in the hands of an individual is no blessing to him who possesses it. It is a blight to his children. It is an injury to the community.

Let it not be said that, with equal reason, I might insist that limits should be assigned to an individual’s attainments in knowledge. The things are not similar. Knowledge is a good to be derived from the inexhaustible fulness of the Divine fountain. Any finite being may fill himself to his utmost capacity, and yet leave as much for-others. No one need have less, because another has more.

But money is an institution, a device of men, the representative only of that which has intrinsic value; intended to be a convenient substitute for barter. And yet this mere representative of good may be, aye, is continually so handled by adroit money-getters, that one of them will conjure into his coffers the hard earnings of thousands of his fellow-beings. Each one of them may have far more ability for self-support than he, each one may be the producer of a thousand times more of the necessaries of life than he, and yet the conjurer will hold them all in subjection to himself.

This, obviously, ought not so to be. If it is allowed so to be in our country, then are the children of men in our Republic to endure similar hardships, suffer similar wrongs to those that have ever been imposed upon them under the despotisms of Europe and Asia. But these great evils can be averted, if we, the people, please. A. large majority of us—the sovereign people—are poor, or dependent upon our labor for support. Let us, then, see to it, that we are fairly, proportionately represented in the Legislatures of the States, and of the nation. Let us see to it that the people are fully enlightened upon the nature of money, its legitimate uses, and the evils of its accumulation in the hands of individuals, or of corporations; then will laws be enacted, and institutions established, under which it shall be easy for every  man and woman, with a fair share of industry land economy, to secure the necessaries of life; not difficult for any one to gain a competency, much less easy for an individual to amass a fortune, and not worth any one's while to accumulate a million, or half that sum.

"The law” has been called "a net of securities spread over society.” I must confess it seems to me to be a net so singularly contrived, that little fishes are caught in it, and great fishes pass easily through its meshes. Here is a poor fellow who was, perhaps, born in a brothel, and brought up in a dram-shop, whose childhood was spent in the constant hearing of obscenity and profaneness, whose parents drove him out, so soon as he could go alone, to beg or to pilfer for their support. He has been detected in stealing a sheep or a horse; he is summarily denounced as a thief, thrust into a menagerie of convicts, and ever afterwards is to be regarded with distrust, and denied any fair opportunity to earn an honest living, except, perhaps, by the meanest drudgery of day labor. Here, on the other hand, is a gentleman born in the chamber of one of our stateliest mansions, brought up with all the educational aids of Sunday-schools, week-day schools, academies, and colleges. He may engage in hazardous speculation in stocks or real estate, and in virtue of the figures that appear upon his ledger may assume to be worth hundreds of thousands, may build him a costly dwelling, fill it with the most expensive furniture, and set up a style of living at $10,000 a year. He may take the property of hundreds, the hard earnings it may be of mechanics, the widow's dower, the orphan's patrimony, in exchange for investments in his bloated credit; and if he happens to make an unlucky throw on the table of the exchangers, he will be found not worth enough to pay twenty-five cents upon the dollar. But this man will be allowed to go into bankruptcy, making an assignment of his assets for the benefit of his creditors, and then shall receive an honorable discharge from all legal obligation to pay another cent of what he owes. And if he can borrow, or get some responsible friend to endorse for him, he may enter again upon the career of a speculator, to be more or less fortunate, as it may happen.

Nay, far worse than this. In one-half of the States of our Union, the gentleman who has enjoyed all the advantages of education and of religious culture that the land affords, may take the infants of a certain class of the poor—may sell them "singly or in lots, on the foot or by the pound, to suit purchasers,” and may drive the sorrowing parents off into his fields to labor the livelong day without enjoying the fruits of their toil any more than the horses or mules that are working at their side; the gentleman, I say, in one-half of these United States, may steal human beings, and so far from getting entangled in any meshes of the law that caught and held fast the sheep-stealer, this gigantic sinner may be sent to the hall of legislation to mend the law, or multiply its provisions for the protection of property. And if any who are not respecters of persons venture to intimate that such a gentleman is as deserving of the Penitentiary as was the poor sheep-stealer, the American Church lifts up her holy hands in horror at such an imputation upon one who may be an accepted member for her body; one who may pay liberally for the maintenance of her ministers; may subscribe annually to the support of her foreign missions; or possibly even may have assumed her sacerdotal robes, and may divide the Word of God from her pulpits.

What, I fain would know, must be the effect of the law and the religion of the land that deals thus with the little and the great offenders? How must they appear to an impartial Heavenly Father? How ought they to be regarded by those who desire to be followers of him as dear children? Can there be a doubt that the great social reform which is needed more than all others is the reform of public sentiment, and of the law touching the pursuit, the accumulation, the use of money, and securing the rights of the employed, even more than the privileges of the employer.

How can this reform be accomplished until the poor, the laboring classes, have more to do with the legislation of the land? Being much the larger portion of the people, they have, accord to the fundamental principle of our civil institutions, a right to the larger share in the enactment and administration of the laws. And I insist that it is necessary that they should take to themselves that share. It were as wise and as safe to leave the slaveholder, forever to make laws for the slaves, as it would be to leave the capitalists to make laws for the laborers.

No doubt, great difficulties would beset any attempt to reverse the present order of things and give to the laborer the legal advantage,  rather than to the capitalist. Yet the interest of very much the larger portion of the people demands that the value of labor should not depreciate; that a man's toil for a day should insure him a livelihood for a day. Whereas it can be for the interest of only a few, that the value of money should be maintained; and that would be the interest of their love of ease, or their pride, and not of their necessities. All men to whom God hath given life have a right to live; consequently to a fair share of all the means of living. If they cannot provide for themselves, they must be provided for by others. Now, it is incomparably better for them individually, and for the community, that they should be left to rely upon their own industry and frugality, than upon the charity of the public. If it should be found by the political economist, that it would cost fifty times as much to enable all the people to support themselves, as it does to allow a small portion to accumulate all the wealth, and reduce a large portion to a condition of absolute dependence as paupers, who, that has a particle of respect for humanity, would hesitate to say, Let all the people, who will, have and use the means of self-support, although the laws and customs that would insure this blessed state of things would forever prevent another individual from amassing wealth.

I may not see precisely what the laws and customs that are to effect this change should be. It may require repeated trials of legislation. But that this change ought to be effected I must believe, so long as I believe in the impartiality of God, and in the inalienable rights of man. That it can be effected, I may not doubt, so long as I continue to regard the oppressive inequalities in the condition of my fellow-men as the result of human devices, and not of the Divine intention. That it will be done I am confident, so soon as the religion of Christ, rather than that of Augustine and Calvin, shall be preached and generally believed. It will be done so soon as men have been brought to respect the rights of humanity more than the rights of property. The principle that has guided the legislations of our land, as well as of the monarchies of Europe, was declared by the Great Expounder of our Constitution to be—that the chief end of government is the protection of property.

A. new doctrine, therefore, must be preached, believed, insisted upon in the halls of legislation, not less than in the pulpits of our land; the doctrine "that the development of human nature, the improvement of the condition and character of all men should be the great purpose and tendency of all our civil and social institutions.” Rulers, legislators, political economists are to be brought to see and understand that the true wealth of a nation is to be found in the amount of intelligence, virtuous principle, personal independence, self-possession, and solid comfort of the people generally; not in the amount of money gathered into the public treasury, or hoarded up in the coffers of corporations, or of individuals.