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ON LUXURY, IDLENESS, AND
From a Letter to Benjamin Vaughan, Esq.*
written in 1784.
It is wonderful how preposterously the affairs of this world are managed. Naturally one would ima. gine that the interest of a few individuals should give way to general interest: but individuals manage their affairs with so much more application, industry, and address, than the public do iheirs, that general interest most commonly gives way to particular. We assemble parliaments and councils, to have the benefit of their collected wisdom; but we necessarily have, at the same time, the inconvenience of their collected passions, prejudices, and private interests. By the help of these, artful men overpower their wisdom, and dupe its possessors; and if we may judge by the acts, arrests, and edicts, all the world over,
for regu. lating commerce, an assembly of great men is the greatest fool upon earth.
I have not yet, indeed, thought of a remedy for luxury. I am not sure that in a great state it is ca. pable of a remedy; nor that the evil is in itself always so great as is represented. Suppose we include the definition of luxury all unnecessary expense, and then let us consider whether laws to prevent such expense are possible to be executed in a great country, and whether, if they could be executed, our people generally would be a happier, or even richer. Is not the hope of being one day able to purchase and enjoy luxuries, a great spur to labour and industry? May not luxury, therefore, produce more than is consumes, if, without such a spur, people would be, as they are naturally enough inclined to be, lazy and indolent. To this purpose I remember a circum
* Member of parliament for the horough of Caine, in Wiltshire, between whom and our author tharo sabaisted a very close friendsbip.
stance. The skipper of a shallop, einployed be. tween Cape May and Philadephia, had done us some small service, for which he refused to be paid. My wife understanding that he had a daughter, sent lier a present of a new fashioned cap. Three years after, this skipper being at my house with an old farmer of Cape May, his passenger, he mentioned the cap, and how much his daughter had been pleased with it. “But (said he) it proved a dear cap to our congregation."—“How so?"-"When my daughter appeared with it at meeting, it was so much admired, that all the girls resolved to get such caps from Philadelphia ; and my wife and I computed that the whole could not have cost less than a hundred pounds.”—“True (said the farmer) but you do not tell all the story. I think the cap was nevertheless an advantage to us; for it was the first thing that put oilr girls upon knitting worsted mittens for sale at Philadelphia, that they might have wherewithal to buy caps and ribbons ibere; and you know that that industry has continued, and is likely to continue and increase to a much greater value, and answer better purposes." Upon the whole, I was inore reconciled to this little piece of luxury, since not only the girls were made happier by having tine caps, but the Philadelphians by the supply of warm mittens,
In our commercial towns upon the sea coast for. tunes will occasionally be made. Some of those who grow rich, will be prudent, live within bounds, and preserve what they have gained for their posterity; others, fond of showing their wealth, will be extravagant, and ruin themselves. Laws cannot prevent this; and perhaps it is not always an evil to the pub, lic. A shilling spent idly by a fool, nay be picked up by a wiser person, who knows better what 10 do with it. It is therefore not lost. A vain, silly tellow, builds a fine house, furnishes it richly, lives in it expensively, and in a few years ruins himself; but the masons, carpenters, smiths, and other honest trades. men, have been by his employ assisted in maintaining and raising their families; the farmer has been paid for his labour and encouraged, and the estate is now in better hands. In some cases, indeed, certain modes of luxury may be a public evil, in the same manner as it is a private one. If there be a nation, for instance, that exports its beef and linen, to pay for the importation of claret and porter, while a great part of its people live upon potatoes, and wear no shirts; wherein does it differ from the sot, who lets his family starve, and sells his clothes to buy drink? Our American commerce is, I confess, a little in this way. We sell our victuals to the islands for rum and sugar; the substantial necessaries of life for superfluities. But we have plenty, and live well nevertheless; though by being soberer, we might be richer.
The vast quantity of forest land we have yet to clear, and put in order for cultivation, will for a long time keep the body of our nation laborious and frugal. Forming an opinion of our people, and their manners, hy what is seen among the inhabitants of the sea-ports, is judging from an improper sample. The people of the trading towns may be rich ang luxurious, while the country possesses all the virtues that tend to promote happiness and public prosperity Those towns are not much regarded by the country they are hardly considered as an essential part of the States; and the experience of the last war has shown that their being in the possession of the enemy die not necessarily draw on the subjection of the coun try; which bravely continued to maintain its free dom and independence notwithstanding:
It has been computed by some political arithme ticians, that if every man and woman would wor four hours each day on something useful, that labou
necesse ries and comforts of life; want and misery would banished out of the world, and the rest of the twenty four hours might be leisure and pleasure.
What occasions then so much want and misery It is the employment of men and women in wory that produce neither the necessaries nor conv. niences of life; who, with those who do nothin consume necessaries raised by the laborious. T explain this:
The first elements of wealth are obtained by labor from the earth and waters. I have land, and rai
corn. With this I feed a family that does nothing, my corn will be consumed, and at the end of the year I shall be no richer than I was at the beginning. But, if, while I feed them, I employ them, some in spinning, others in making bricks, &c. for building, the value of my corn will be arrested and remain with me, and at the end of the year we may be all better clothed and better lodged. And if, instead of em. ploying a man I feed in making bricks, I employ him in fiddling for me, the corn he eats is gone, and no part of his manufacture remains to augment the wealth and convenience of the family; I shall, there'ore, be the poorer for this fiddling man, unless the 'est of my family work more, or eat less, to make up he deficiency he occasions.
Look round the world, and see the millions employed n doing nothing, or in something that amounts to lothing, when the necessaries and conveniences of ife are in question. What is the bulk of commerce, or which we fight and destroy each other, but the oil of millions for superfluities, to the great hazard nd loss of many lives, by the constant dangers of the
How much labour is spent in buildings, and tting great ships, to go to China and Arabia for tea nd coffee, to the West Indies for sugar, to America ir tobacco ? These things cannot be called the neessaries of life, for our ancestors lived very comortably without them.
A question may be asked-Could all these people ow employed in raising, making, or carrying supervities, be subsisted by raising necessaries ?" I think ey might. The world is large, and a great part of
is still uncultivated. Many hundred millions of res in Asia, Africa, and America, are still in a rest; and a great deal even in Europe. On a hun. ed acres of this forest, a man might become a subintial farmer; and a hundred thousand men emoyed in clearing each his hundred acres, would rdly brighten a spot large enough to be visible in the moon, unless with Herschel's telescope; 80 zt are the regions still in wood. It is, however, some confort to reflect that upon whole, the quantity of industry and prudence
among mankind exceeds the quantity of idleness and folly. Hence the increase of good buildings, farms cultivated, and populous cities filled with wealth, all over Europe, which a few ages since were only to be found on the coast of the Mediterranean; and this notwithstanding the mad wars continually raging, by which are often destroyed in one
year, the works of many years peace. So that we may hope, the luxury of a few merchants on the coast will not be the ruin of America.
One reflection more, and I will end this long rambling letter. Almost all the parts of our bodies require some expense. The feet demands shoes; the legs, stockings; the rest of the body, clothing; and the belly a good deal of victuals. Our eyes, though exceedingly useful, ask when reasonable, only the cheap assistance of spectacles, which could not much impair our finances. But the eyes of other people are the eyes that ruin us. If all but myself were blind, I should want neither fine clothes, fine houses nor fine furniture.
READING in the newspapers the speech of My. Jackson in congress, against meddling with the affair of slavery, or attempting to mend the condition of slaves, it put me in mind of a similar speech, made about one hundred years since, by Sidi Mahomet Ibrahim, a merober of the divan of Algiers, which may be seen in Martin's account of his consulship, 1687. It was against granting the petition of the sect called Erika, or Purists, who prayed for the abolition of piracy and slavery, as being unjust-Mr. Jackson does not quote it; perhaps he has not seen it. If, therefore, some of its reasonings are to be found in his eloquent speech, it may not only show that men's interests operate, and are operated on