Wednesday, 23 May 2012

23rd May 1812: 'Vindex' expresses sympathy for the plight of the Luddites in the Leeds Mercury

On Saturday 23rd May 1812, the Leeds Mercury carried a letter from a pseudonymous author, 'Vindex', expressing sympathy for the Luddites and questioning the way that technology was being introduced by the manufacturers in the West Riding:

Leeds, May 13th, 1812.

MR. EDITOR, —I should be extremely sorry if there is any thing in the inclosed paper that will preclude its insertion in the Leeds Mercury, for I believe nothing would contribute more to heal the present unhappy differences that prevail about Machinery that a temperate discussion on its propriety and usefulness. It was this opinion that induced me to make the present communication, together with the consideration that nothing like a fair examination of the question as yet appeared before the public.

My hopes that these observations will obtain a place your paper are founded on the liberality of your mind and the independence of your character. You are not, Sir, I believe one of those who would wish to maintain any sentiment principle by the prosecution or suppression of what was contrary thereto, but rather trust it to be rejected or adopted other common sense of mankind.

My object is to say something in behalf of a body of men whose conduct has never been mentioned but to be severely condemned as the most unreasonable and foolish that men could possibly be guilty of.—And even you, Sir, who have generally been distinguished by your moderation, and who usually endeavour more to convince than to abuse, have not failed to bestow on them, pretty liberally, the epithets of misled multitude, miserable wretches, deluded men; and all this without ever examining into the subject of their complaints, or enquiring how far they are founded on reason.

But I shall now proceed to examine the principal object of this paper, namely, the question, How far they are commendable who wish to introduce Machinery at this time as a substitute for manual labour. And, secondly, How far they are justifiable who oppose it.

As to the first, I think there can be no difference of opinion amongst men, tolerably informed, only as to the type of manner of introducing it; for it would be evidently absurd to employ men to perform that business which might be conveniently executed by a machine, unless, by throwing a number of men out of employment, the detriment to society would exceed the advantages; and that this is the case at present I think is pretty evident, for there are already a great deal more men than can find employment.—There is, I believe, no reason to be afraid from the dearness of our manufactures, that we shall lose ground on foreign nations, for all foreigners are yet at agreat distance behind us, both in the price and quality of their manufactures, and, what is of much greater consequence, both in industry and skill. In times of peace, indeed, when we have all other nations to contend with, Machinery will prove an useful auxiliary enabling us to undersell them; but at the present juncture, when we have few other markets than our own settlements, it can make no difference to the Merchants whether their cloth be dressed by hand or machinery, provided they in this respect be unanimous.

I may add too, that the introduction of Machinery has been much too sudden and general; but there has not been time given to those who are injured by it to obtain employment in any other way; and that, upon the whole, those who introduce Machinery at this time, are not entitled to that approbation they have generally received.

I come now to consider, How far they are justifiable who oppose it. My first observation is, that a man’s trade is a kind of hereditary right which he has derived from his parents, it is a sort of property to him for which he has paid, and ought to be held as sacred as any other kind of property whatever; it is not reasonable that a man who has spent a long and labourious apprenticeship in order to learn a difficult business, in expectation that the public would employ him, should at once be deprived of all advantage from exercising it, and reduced to the rank of a common labourer. That this will be the case is evident, for by the general substitution of Machinery numbers will be obliged to seek for common labour, where their work will be much increased, and they will not receive above one-third of their former wages.

Now, Sir, if any other order of men, the Clergy or Military, for instance, was affected in so serious a manner, by increasing their duty and taking away two-thirds of their salary, would it not excite violent discontents among them? and would they not oppose, by every means in their power, a system so ruinous to their interests, however beneficial it might prove to the public?

If it becomes necessary for the good of the community that a trade should be abolished, those who exercise it should not all at once be thrown out of employment and left destitute; they ought to have a compensation for the loss of it. Without this, it would be as unjust as taking the land of a private individual for the benefit of a public road, and not giving him a fair valuation for it. This is an injustice that never takes place in one case, nor ought it ever in the other.

I have only one thing more to touch upon, that is, certain Resolutions published by the “Merchants and Manufacturers,” which have produced a great effect on the minds of the labouring classes, and will, I believe, account for the general complacency with which they look upon the depredations lately committed: These Resolutions insinuate that poor people have grown too high and independent, and that it is necessary to humble them.

I shall conclude with an observation from the celebrated author of “The Wealth of Nations,” who says, “that we cannot surely murmur at those being well clothed and lodged, who clothe and lodge the whole community.” I remain, yours, &c.

VINDEX.

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