“We read of the asskind preaching to mankind; and why may not men preach to asses?”
Thus declares the preface of what is possibly the most incendiary set of sermons from 18th– century England, Sermons to Asses (1768). Though largely forgotten today, Asses delivered one of the first populist wake-up calls. Drawing unprecedented attention to the dismal conditions faced by impoverished Britons and the influence wielded by landed elites during elections, James Murray (1732-1782) would urge his countrymen to ditch their political apathy, speak up, and vote responsibly–because “You will stand recorded for asses to all generations, if you do not assert your liberties when you have it in your power.” Not surprisingly, these sermons attained great popularity on both sides of the Atlantic, with 7 editions issued in 2 years; no doubt the colonists were thrilled, if not inspired by his criticism of Parliament and tacit message of rebellion. But it is not surprising either that the powers-that-be and their supporters quietly allowed this Newcastle minister and activist to sink into oblivion after his death.
Murray begins effectively enough in the first of four sermons by invoking the tribe of Issachar, (son of Jacob and Leah, Gen. 30:16-8) portraying it in such a way that ordinary Englishmen could immediately recognize as a portrait of their nation:
The tribe of Issachar were an inactive, slothful, and sluggish people: they loved rest more than liberty, and chose to be slaves, rather than exert themselves, and assert their privileges. There was a reason for it. Issachar saw that the land was good, and rest pleasant for him, and agreeable to his slothful, and sluggish disposition–Self interest prevailed more with him than public welfare and national happiness. There are many such asses as Issachar that prefer present ease and advantage to public liberty and national freedom.
In short, the average John Bull was sitting a little too comfortably on his ass–or rather, arse—oblivious to the injustice and inequities surrounding him: not unlike the average American today (Tea Partiers and Occupy Wall Street notwithstanding) more preoccupied with the events played out on American Idol than on the political stage. Quite plainly, the placid Englishman lacked the willpower to contest “two burdens of civil and religious oppression.” Despite whatever grumblings he might utter, he dutifully paid high taxes on his basic necessities and conformed to the Church of England. Little wonder that conditions for ordinary Britons were far from tolerable.
If the hardship suffered by the common Briton was sufficiently trying, it was much worse for the poor. Unlike many then (and now) who preferred to blame poverty on the alleged character flaws of the poor (e.g., lazy, feckless, and wasteful etc.), Murray commiserated with the indigent. Wasn’t it a shame that they were “obliged to couch down between two burdens: one of taxes, and another of artificial scarcity of provisions” : a scarcity that flew in the face of abundant crops? Especially in a prosperous nation? Observing that “All asses are not equally strong” and ought to be “burdened according to their strengths and abilities,” he urged that “meat, drink, and clothing should be made as easy as possible” because “the poor cannot well live with less necessary food than the rich”; the fact that laborers did not possess “the power to raise their wages or lower the price of goods” made matters all the worse.
But more worrisome was the overall lack of concern for the poor. If they complained, local and national governments tended to ignore them. And when the poor resorted to stealing and rioting, they faced dire consequences:
If they complain, they are not heard; if they resist, they are belaboured like ASSES: or if, through hunger and want, they should be compelled to rise up to relieve themselves, then they must wait the issue of a trial in some court of justice….Merciful Lord! would any people rise in mobs to disturb a peaceable nation: if they could kep it? Nay it is pinching hunger that is the cause of it.
The government’s inaction, then, is the very cause of disorder and chaos. Something is terribly wrong when the representatives and the people “are like the fishes of the sea, the great devour the small;–only with this difference, that we are devoured by LAW.” It’s hard not to conclude here that government of, by, and for the great and powerful is hardly viable. Considering that a revolution was about to take place across the Channel some 23 years later, propelled by a people fed up with paying exorbitant prices for bread and disproportionately high taxes, Murray’s remarks were quite prescient.
Before turning to his discussion of corrupt electioneering and the exorbitant influence of monied peers in another post, I’d like to reflect a bit on poverty here today, nearly 250 years after the publication of Sermons to Asses. First of all, what is particularly striking today is a return to the general conditions of the late eighteenth century–in spite of the fact that agriculture is no longer the chief mainspring of our economy. Although it could be argued that the poor today enjoy higher standards of living in comparison with their counterparts from 1768, could it not also be said that class inequities and privileges remain as stark as ever, particularly with the decline of social mobility over the last few decades? (Ironic how the New World has traded places with the Old in this respect as the US lags behind even the UK.)
According to Mingay’s classic study of the 18th-century English landed elite, the titled nobility (e.g., dukes, earls, counts, etc. ) comprised slightly less than 1% of the nation but earned 15% of the national income (mostly in the form of rent): a statistic that mirrors that of the 1% in America. Likewise, the remaining 19% of the landed interest (gentry and wealthy farmers) earned nearly 50% of the national income–again, much the same as our top 20%: a remarkable affinity considering our generally improved levels of literacy (near 90% vs. 60%). And just as 50% of Murray’s population lived at subsistence levels, nearly 1 out of 2 American families today are either low-income or poor. Moreover, if the wealthiest landowners acquired even more wealth (particularly with the rapid enclosure of the commons) while the wages of the poor and laboring classes declined towards the close of the 18th century, the trajectories of the wealthiest 1% and the lower income families have also widened at the close of the 20th century. Could it be that the present gap in America between the haves and have-nots has met or even exceeded that of the 18th century? A scary thought indeed: but not quite so scary as some of the general attitudes variously displayed by members of our state and federal government.
For we too continue to face the challenges addressed by Murray. As Jesse Jackson has observed in words reminiscent of our feisty Newcastle minister, too many of those in power–like Romney–“are woefully silent about the predicament of the poor.” Given the broad reluctance to raise taxes on the wealthiest whether on a state or national level, the brunt of a recession inevitably falls on those with lower or fixed incomes as monies for food, health care, and energy are reduced. If anything, these “safety nets,” so complacently assumed by Romney, are far from guaranteed, especially with the ever lurking possibilities of food inflation (as in early last year) and spikes in gas prices. For instance, even though Obama promised in his state of the union speech of 2011 that he would not balance the budget on the backs of the most vulnerable, he nonetheless proceeded to slash funding for community service block grants, food stamps, and Low Income Home Energy Assistance (LIHEAP) by 45%. In Pennsylvania, Governor Corbett made noises about removing people under 60 from food stamp rolls if they had more than $2000 in their savings account (and $3,250 if they were over 60). Fortunately in both cases, there was sufficient opposition to stem some of these drastic cuts. But all in all, the general insensitivity to the plight of the poor is only barely more compassionate than a call for the return to Dickensian child labor.