Political economists debated earnestly on the morality of aiding the poor because of the consequent risk of stultifying initiative and self-help among the lower orders. The real problem of course was cost, but the protagonists couched their arguments in moralistic terms. More and more as the debate progressed, one finds that the authorities cited by protagonists tended to lace their arguments with a dose of providentialism.
Providence, the divine will, was declared to have a large bearing on the subject, as it generally does when the rich debate the poor, or the strong con- front the weak. it was the era in which in America the indigenous Americans were going down before a similar doctrine: manifest destiny.
A central figure in the debate was a classical economist. Nassau William Senior, the first professor of political economy at Oxford University, preached, among other things, that it was not the duty of the state to alleviate poverty that came about through the fault of the individual.
English poor law owed a great deal to his theories and, during the Famine, Whig apologists would see to it that the idea of Irish culpability for Irish poverty would become widespread among the British public. “lazy beds” was used as a term of derision to indicate that the Irish even brought their laziness to bear on their potato cultivation. Nassau Senior criticized Irish landlords for neglecting “the duty for the performance of which Providence created [them,] the keeping down population.”
A Royal Commission, of which Nassau Senior was a member, issued a report in 1834, which became the new Poor Law Act of 1834. He was a confidant of the prime minister’s and cabinet members and through his writings in such journals as The Edinburgh Review became one of the most influential voices raised in the great debate concerning how Irish poverty should be tackled. In England, Nassau Senior is remembered as being a very pleasant man who became a lifelong friend of, among others, Alexis de Tocqueville.
"The Famine Plot: England's Role in Ireland's Greatest Tragedy" by Tim Pat Coogan is available from Barnes & Noble.
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