William Ellery Channing.

The works of William E. Channing, D.D.: With an introduction online

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general enemy of his race, but as their
own worst foe.

In the next place, how much of the I
depression of laborers may be traced to
the want of a strict economy ! The pros-
perity of this country has produced a
wastefulness that has extended to the
laboring multitude. A man, here, turns
with scorn from fare that in many coun-
tries would be termed luxurious. It is,
indeed, important that the standard of
living in all classes should be high ; that
is, it should include the comforts of life,
the means of neatness and order in our
dwellings, and such supplies of*our wants
as are fitted to secure vigorous health.
But how many waste their earnings on
indulgences which may be spared, and
thus have no resource for a dark day,
and are always trembling on the brink of
pauperism ! Needless expenses keep
many too poor for self-improvement.
And here let me say, that expensive
habits among the more prosperous labor-
ers often interfere with the mental cult-
ure of themselves and their families.
How many among them sacrifice im-
provement to appetite ! How many
sacrifice it to the love of show, to the
desire of outstripping others, and to
habits of expense which grow out of
this insatiable passion ! In a country
so thriving and luxurious as ours, the
laborer is in danger of contracting arti-
ficial wants and diseased tastes ; and to
gratify these he gives himself wholly to
accumulation, and sells his mind for
gain. Our unparalleled prosperity has
not been an unmixed good. It has in-
flamed cupidity, has diseased the imagi-
nation with dreams of boundless success,
and plunged a vast multitude into exces-
sive toils, feverish competitions, and
exhausting cares. A laborer having
secured a neat home and a wholesome
table, should ask nothing more for the
senses ; but should consecrate his leisure,
and what may be spared of his earnings,
to the culture of himself and his family,
to the best books, to the best teaching,



to pleasant and profitable intercourse, to
sympathy and the offices of humanity,
and to the enjoyment of the beautiful in
nature and art. Unhappily, the laborer,
if prosperous, is anxious to ape the rich
man, instead of trying to rise above
him, as he often may, by noble acquisi-
tions. The young in particular, the ap-
prentice and the female domestic, catch
a taste for fashion, and on this altar
sacrifice too often their uprightness, and
almost always the spirit of improvement,
dooming themselves to ignorance, if not
to vice, for a vain show. Is this evil
without remedy ? Is human nature
always to be sacrificed to outward dec-
oration ? Is the outward always to
triumph over the inward man? Is noble-
ness of sentiment never to spring up
among us ? May not a reform in this
particular begin in the laboring class,
since it seems so desperate among the
more prosperous ? Cannot the laborer,
whose condition calls him so loudly to
simplicity of taste and habits, take his
stand against that love of dress which
dissipates and corrupts so many minds
among the opulent ? Cannot the labor-
ing class refuse to measure men by out-
ward success, and pour utter scorn on all
pretensions founded on outward show or
condition ? Sure I am that, were they
to study plainness of dress and simplicity
of living, for the purpose of their own
true elevation, they would surpass in in-
tellect, in taste, in honorable qualities,
and in present enjoyment, that great
proportion of the prosperous who are
softened into indulgence or enslaved to
empty show. By such self-denial, ho\v
might the burden of labor be lightened,
and time and strength redeemed for im-
provement !

Another cause of the depressed con-
dition of not a few laborers, as I believe,
is their ignorance on the subject of
health. Health is the working man's
fortune, and he ought to watch over it
more than the capitalist over his largest
investments. Health lightens the efforts
of body and mind. It enables a man to
crowd much work into a narrow com-
pass. Without it, little can be earned,
and that little by slow, exhausting toil.
For these reasons I cannot but look on
it as a good omen that the press is cir-
culating among us cheap works, in which
much useful knowledge is given of the
structure, and functions, and laws of the



6o



ON THE ELEVATION OF



human body. It is in no small measure
through our own imprudence that disease
and debility are incurred, and one rem-
edy is to be found in knowledge. Once
let the mass of the people be instructed
in their own frames ; let them under-
stand clearly that disease is not an acci-
dent, but has fixed causes, many of
which they can avert, and a great amount
of suffering, want, and consequent intel-
lectual depression will be removed. I
hope I shall not be thought to digress
too far, when I add, that were the mass
of the community more enlightened on
these points, they would apply their
knowledge, not only to their private
habits, but to the government of the
city, and would insist on municipal regu-
lations favoring general health. This
they owe to themselves. They ought to
require a system of measures for effect-
ually cleansing the city ; for supplying
it with pure water, either at public ex-
pense or by a private corporation ; and for
prohibiting the erection or the letting of
such buildings as must generate disease.
What a sad thought is it, that in this
metropolis, the blessings which God
pours forth profusely on bird and beast,
the blessings of air, and light, and water,
should, in the case of many families, be
so stinted or so mixed with impurities,
as to injure instead of invigorating the
frame ! With what face can the great
cities of Europe and America boast of
their civilization, when within their lim-
its thousands and ten thousands perish
for want of God's freest, most lavish
gifts ! Can we expect improvement
among people who are cut off from
nature's common bounties, and want
those cheering influences of the ele-
ments which even savages enjoy ? In
this city, how much health, how many
lives are sacrificed to the practice of
letting cellars and rooms which cannot
be ventilated, which want the benefits
of light, free air, and pure water, and the
means of removing filth ! We forbid by
law the selling of putrid meat in the
market. Why do we not forbid the
renting of rooms in which putrid, damp,
and noisome vapors are working as sure
destruction as the worst food ? Did
people understand that they are as truly
poisoned in such dens as by tainted
meat and decaying vegetables, would
they not appoint commissioners for
houses as truly as commissioners for



markets ? Ought not the renting of un-
tenantable rooms, and the crowding of
such numbers into a single room as must
breed disease, and may infect a neigh-
borhood, be as much forbidden as the
importation of a pestilence ? I have
enlarged on this point, because I am
persuaded that the morals, manners,
decencies, self-respect, and intellectual
improvement, as well as the health and
physical comforts of a people, depend on
no outward circumstances more than on
the quality of the houses in which they
live. The remedy of the grievance now
stated lies with the people themselves.
The laboring people must require that the
health of the city shall be a leading ob-
ject of the municipal administration, and
in so doing they will protect at once the
body and the mind.

I will mention one more cause of the
depressed condition of many laborers,
and that is, sloth, " the sin which doth
most easily beset us." How many are
there who, working languidly and re-
luctantly, bring little to pass, spread
the work of one hour over many, shrink
from difficulties which ought to excite
them, keep themselves poor, and thus
doom their families to ignorance as well
as to want !

In these remarks I have endeavored
to show that the great obstacles to the
improvement of the laboring classes
are in themselves, and may therefore
be overcome. They want nothing but
the will. Outward difficulty will shrink
and vanish before them, just as far as
they are bent on progress, just as far as
the great idea of their own elevation
shall take possession of their minds.
I know that many will smile at the sug-
gestion, that the laborer may be brought
to practise thrift and self-denial, for the
purpose of becoming a nobler being.
But such sceptics, having never expe-
rienced the power of a grand thought
or generous purpose, are no judges of
others. They may be assured, how-
ever, that enthusiasm is not wholly a
dream, and that it is not wholly unnat-
ural for individuals or bodies to get the
idea of something higher and more in-
spiring than their past attainments.

III. Having now treated of the ele-
vation of the laborer, and examined the
objections to it, I proceed, in the last
place, to consider some of the circum-
stances of the times which encourage



THE LABORING CLASSES.



61



hopes of the progress of the mass of
the people. My limits oblige me to
confine myself to very few. And,
first, it is -an encouraging circumstance,
that the respect for labor is increasing,
or rathe* that the old prejudices against
manual toil, as degrading a man or put-
ting him in a lower sphere, are wearing
away : and the cause of this change is
full of promise ; for it is to be found
in the progress of intelligence, Chris-
tianity, and freedom, all of which cry
aloud against the old barriers created
between the different classes, and chal-
lenge especial sympathy and regard for
those who bear' the heaviest burdens,
and create most of the comforts of
social life. The contempt of labor of
which I have spoken is a relic of the
old aristocratic prejudices which for-
merly proscribed trade as unworthy of
a gentleman, and must die out with
other prejudices of the same low origin.
And the results must be happy. It is
hard for a class of men to respect them-
selves who are denied respect by all
around them. A vocation looked on as
degrading will have a tendency to de-
grade those who follow it. Away, then,
with the idea of something low in man-
ual labor. There is something sho^ck-
ing to a religious man in the thought
that the employment which God has
ordained for the vast majority of the
human race should be unworthy of any
man, even of the highest. If, indeed,
there were an employment which could
not be dispensed with, and which yet
tended to degrade such as might be de-
voted to it, I should say that it ought
to be shared by the whole race, and
thus neutralized by extreme division,
instead of being laid, as the sole voca-
tion, on one man or a few. Let no
human being be broken in spirit or
trodden under foot for the outward
prosperity of the State. So far is
manual labor from meriting contempt
or slight, that it will probably be found,
when united with true means of spir-
itual culture, to foster a sounder judg-
ment, a keener observation, a more
creative imagination, and a purer taste,
than any other vocation. Man thinks
of the few, God of the many ; and the
many will be found at length to have
within their reach the most effectual
means of progress.

Another encouraging circumstance of



the times is the creation of a popular
literature, which puts within the reach
of the laboring class the means of
knowledge in whatever branch they
wish to cultivate. Amidst the worthless
volumes which are every day sent from
the press for mere amusement, there
are books of great value in all depart-
ments, published for the benefit of the
mass of readers. Mines of inestimable
truth are thus open to all who are re-
solved to think and learn. Literature
is now adapting itself to all wants ; and
I have little doubt that a new form of
it will soon appear for the special ben-
efit of the laboring classes. This will
have for its object to show the progress
of the various useful arts, and to pre-
serve the memory of their founders,
and of men who have laid the world
under obligation by great inventions.
Every trade has distinguished names in
its history. Some trades can number,
among those who have followed them,
philosophers, poets, men of true gen-
ius. I would suggest to the members
of this Association whether a course of
lectures, intended to illustrate the his-
tory of the more important trades, and
of the great blessings they have con-
ferred on society, and of the eminent
individuals' who have practised them,
might not do much to instruct, and, at
the same time, to elevate them. Such
a course would carry them far into the
past, would open to them much inter-
esting information, and at the same time
introduce them to men whom they may
well make their models. I would go
farther. I should be pleased to see the
members of an important trade setting
apart an anniversary for the commem-
oration of those who have shed lustre
on it by their virtues, their discoveries,
their genius. It is time that honor
should be awarded on higher principles
than have governed the judgment of
past ages. Surely the inventor of the
press, the discoverer of the compass,
the men who have applied the power of
steam to machinery, have brought the
human race more largely into their
debt than the bloody race of con-
querors, and even than many benefi-
cent princes. Antiquity exalted into
divinities the first cultivators of wheat
and the useful plants, and the first
forgers of metals : and we, in these
maturer ages of the world, have still



62



ON THE ELEVATION OF



greater names to boast in the records
of useful art. Let their memory be
preserved to kindle a generous emula-
tion in those who have entered into their
labors.

Another circumstance, encouraging
the hope of progress in the laboring
class, is to be found in the juster views
they are beginning to adopt in regard
to the education of their children. On
this foundation, indeed, our hope for all
classes must chiefly rest. All are to
rise chiefly by the care bestowed on the
young. Not that I would say, as is
sometimes rashly said, that none but the
young can improve. I give up no age as
desperate. Men who have lived thirty,
or fifty years, are not to feel as if the
door was shut upon them. Every man
who thirsts to become something better
has in that desire a pledge that his labor
will not be in vain. None are too old
to learn. The world, from our first to
our last hour, is our school, and the
whole of life has but one great purpose,
education. Still, the child, uncor-
rupted, unhardened, is the most hopeful
subject ; and vastly more, I believe, is
hereafter to be done for children, than
ever before, by the gradual spread of a
simple truth, almost too simple, one
would think, to need exposition, yet up
to this day wilfully neglected ; namely,
that education is a sham, a cheat, unless
carried on by able, accomplished teach-
ers. The dignity of the vocation of a
teacher is beginning to be understood ;
the idea is dawning on us that no office
can compare in solemnity and impor-
tance with that of training the child ; that
skill to form the young to energy, truth,
and virtue, is worth more than the
knowledge of all other arts and sci-
ences ; and that, of consequence, the
encouragement of excellent teachers is
the first dtity which a community owes
to itself. I say the truth is dawning,
and it must make its way. The instruc-
tion of the children of all classes, espe-
cially of the laboring class, has as yet
been too generally committed to unpre-
pared, unskilful hands, and of course the
school is in general little more than a
name. The whole worth of a school lies
in the teacher. You may accumulate
the most expensive apparatus for in-
struction ; but without an intellectual,
gifted teacher, it is little better than
rubbish ; and such a teacher, without



apparatus, may effect the happiest re-
sults. Our university boasts, and with
justice, of its library, cabinets, and phil-
osophical instruments ; but these are
lifeless, profitless, except as made effect-
ual by the men who use them. A few
eminent men, skilled to understand,
reach, and quicken the minds of the
pupils, are worth all these helps. And
I say this, because it is commonly
thought that the children of the labor-
ing class cannot be advanced, in con-
sequence of the inability of parents to
furnish a variety of books and other
apparatus. But in education, various
books and implements are not the great
requisites, but a high order of teachers.
In truth, a few books do better than
many. The object of education is not
so much to give a certain amount of
knowledge, as to awaken the faculties,
and give the pupil the use of his own
mind ; and one book, taught by a man
who knows how to accomplish these ends,
is worth more than libraries as usually
read. It is not necessary that much
should be taught in youth, but that a
little should be taught philosophically,
profoundly, livingly. For example, it is
not necessary that the pupil be carried
over the history of the world from the
deluge to the present day. Let him be
helped to read a single history wisely,
to apply the principles of historical evi-
dence to its statements, to trace the
causes and effects of events, to pene-
trate into the motives of actions, to
observe the workings of human nature
in what is done and suffered, to judge
impartially of action and character, to
sympathize with what is noble, to detect
the spirit of an age in different forms
from our own, to seize the great truths
which are wrapped up in details, and to
discern a moral Providence, a retribu-
tion, amidst all corruptions and changes ;
let him learn to read a single history
thus, and he has learned to read all his-
tories ; he is prepared to study, as he
may have time in future life, the whole
course of human events : he is better
educated by this one book than he
would be by all the histories in all lan-
guages as commonly taught. The edu-
cation of the laborer's children need
never stop for want of books and appa-
ratus. More of them would do good, but
enough may be easily obtained. What
we want is, a race of teachers acquainted



THE LABORING CLASSES.



with the philosophy of the mind, gifted
men and women, who shall respect
human nature in the child, and strive
to touch and gently bring out his best
powers and sympathies ; and who shall
devote themselves to this as the great
end of life. This good, I trust, is to
come, but it comes slowly. The estab-
lishment of normal schools shows that
the want of it begins to be felt. This
good requires that education shall be
recognized by the community as its
highest interest and duty. It requires
that the instructors of youth shall take
precedence of the money-getting classes,
and that the woman of fashion shall fall
behind the female teacher. It requires
that parents shall sacrifice show and
pleasure to the acquisition of the best
possible helps and guides for their chil-
dren. Not that a great pecuniary com-
pensation is to create good teachers ;
these must be formed by individual im-
pulse, by a genuine interest in educa-
tion ; but good impulse must be sec-
onded by outward circumstances ; and
the means of education will always bear
a proportion to the respect in which the
office of teacher is held in the commu-
nity.

Happily, in this country, the true idea
of education, of its nature and supreme
importance, is silently working and gains
ground. Those of us who look back
on half a century, see a real, great
improvement in schools and in the
standard of instruction. What should
encourage this movement in this coun-
try is, that nothing is wanting here to
the intellectual elevation of the laboring
class but that a spring should be given
to the child, and that the art of thinking
justly and strongly should be formed in
early life ; for, this preparation being
made, the circumstances of future life
will almost of themselves carry on the
work of improvement. It is one of the
inestimable benefits of free institutions,
that they are constant stimulants to the
intellect ; that they furnish, in rapid suc-
cession, quickening subjects of thought
and discussion. A whole people at the
same moment are moved to reflect, rea-
son, judge, and act on matters of deep
and universal concern ; and where the
capacity of thought has received wise
culture, the intellect, unconsciously, by
an almost irresistible sympathy, is kept
perpetually alive. The mind, like the



body, depends on the climate it lives in,
on the air it breathes ; and the air of
freedom is bracing, exhilarating, ex-
panding, to a degree not dreamed of
under a despotism. This stimulus of
liberty, however, avails little, except
where the mind has learned to think for
the acquisition of truth. The unthink-
ing and passionate are hurried by it into
ruinous excess.

The last ground of hope for the ele-
vation of the laborer, and the chief and
the most sustaining, is the clearer de-
velopment of the principles of Chris-
tianity. The future influences of this
religion are not to be judged from the
past. Up to this time it has been made
a political engine, and in other ways
perverted. But its true spirit, the spirit
of brotherhood and freedom, 'is begin-
ning to be understood, and this will
undo the work which opposite princi-
ples have been carrying on for ages.
Christianity is the only effectual remedy
for the fearful evils of modern civiliza-
tion, a system which teaches its mem-
bers to grasp at every thing, and to rise
above everybody, as the great aims of
life. Of such a civilization the natural
fruits are, contempt of others' rights,
fraud, oppression, a gambling spirit in
trade, reckless adventure, and commer-
cial convulsions, all tending to impover-
ish the laborer and to render every con-
dition insecure. Relief is to come, and
can only come, from the new application
of Christian principles, of universal jus-
tice and universal love, to social institu-
tions, to commerce, to business, to active
life. This application has begun, and
the laborer, above all men, is to feel its
happy and exalting influences.

Such are some of the circumstances
which inspire hopes of the elevation of
the laboring classes. To these might
be added other strong grounds of en-
couragement, to be found in the princi-
ples of human nature, in the perfections
and providence of God, and in the pro-
phetic intimations of his word. But
these I pass over. From all I derive
strong hopes for the mass of men. I do
not, cannot see, why manual toil and
self-improvement may not go on in
friendly union. I do not see why the
laborer may not attain to refined habits
and manners as truly as other men. I
do not see why conversation under his
humble roof may not be cheered by wit



6 4



ON THE ELEVATION OF



and exalted by intelligence. I do not
see why, amidst his toils, he may not
cast his eye around him on God's glo-
rious creation, and be strengthened and
refreshed by the sight. 1 do not see
why the great ideas which exalt human-
ity those of the Infinite Father, of
perfection, of our nearness to God, and
of the purpose of our being may not
grow bright and strong in the laborer's
mind. Society, I trust, is tending tow-
ards a condition in which it will look
back with astonishment at the present
neglect or perversion of human powers.
In the development of a more enlarged
philanthropy, in the diffusion of the
Christian spirit of brotherhood, in the
recognition of the equal rights of every
human being, we have the dawn and
promise of a better age, when no man
will be deprived of the means of ele-
vation but by his own fault ; when the
evil doctrine, worthy of the arch-fiend,
that social order demands the depression
of the mass of men, will be rejected with
horror and scorn; when the great object
of the community will be to accumulate
means and influences for awakening and
expanding the best powers of all classes;
when far less will be expended on the
body and far more on the mind ; when
men of uncommon gifts for the instruc-
tion of their race will be sent forth to
carry light and strength into every sphere
of human life ; when spacious libraries,
collections of the fine arts, cabinets of
natural history, and all the institutions
by which the people may be refined and
ennobled, will be formed and thrown
open to all ; and when the toils of life,
by a wise intermixture of these higher
influences, will be made the instruments
of human elevation.

Such are my hopes of the intellectual,
moral, religious, social elevation of the
laboring class. I should not, however,
be true to myself, did I not add that I



Online LibraryWilliam Ellery ChanningThe works of William E. Channing, D.D.: With an introduction → online text (page 12 of 174)