Plus ça change! Ingersoll on not ‘encouraging the needy and working poor in their idleness and their crimes’, and teaching people to reply upon their own resources and move from dependence to independence….

ingersoll2Col. Robert G. Ingersoll’s reply to Rev. John Hall and Warner van Norden, March 10, 1892 (from Vol. VII of Ingersoll’s ‘Lectures and Essays‘)

The attention of the Morning Advertiser readers was, in the issue of February 27th, called to two sets of facts transpiring contemporaneously in this city. One was the starving condition of four hundred cloakmakers who had struck because they could not live on reduced wages.

Arbitration had failed; two hundred of the number, seeing starvation staring them in the face, were forced to give up the fight, and the remaining number continued to do battle for higher wages.

While these cloakmakers were in the extremity of destitution, millionaires were engaged in subscribing to a fund “for the extension of the church.” The extension committee, received at the home of Jay Gould, had met with such signal success as to cause comment throughout the city.

The host subscribed ten thousand dollars, his daughter twenty-five hundred and the assembled guests sums ranging between five hundred and one thousand. The Morning Advertiser made inquiry as to whether any of the money contributed for the extension of the church would find its way into the pockets of the hungry cloakmakers.

Dr. John Hall said he did not have time to discuss the matter of aiding the needy poor, as there were so many other things that demanded his immediate attention.

Mr. Warner Van Norden, Treasurer of the Church Extension Committee, was seen at his office in the North American Bank, of which institution he is President. He took the view that the cloakmakers had brought their trouble upon themselves, and it was not the duty of the charitable to extend to them direct aid.

Generally speaking, he was not in favor of helping the poor and needy of the city, save in the way employed by the church.

“The experience of centuries, said he, “teaches us that the giving of alms to the poor only encourage them in their idleness and their crimes. The duty of the church is to save men’s a souls, and to minister to their bodies incidentally.

“It is best to teach people to rely upon their own resources. If the poor felt that they could get material help, they would want it always. In these days if a man or woman can’t get along it’s their own fault. There is my typewriter. She was brought up in a tenement house. Now she gets two dollars a day, and dresses better than did the lords and ladies of other times. You’ll find that where people are poor, it’s their own fault.

“After all, happiness does not lie in the enjoyment of material things—it is the soul that makes life worth living. You should come to our Working Girls’ Club and see this fact illustrated. There you will see girls who have been working all day, singing hymns and following the leader in prayer.”

Don’t you think there are many worthy poor in this city who need material help?” was asked.

“No, sir; I do not,” said Mr. Van Norden. “If a man or woman wants money, they should work for It.”

“But is employment always to be had?”

“I think it is by Americans. You’ll find that most of the people out of work are those who are not adapted to the conditions of this country.

Colonel Robert Ingersoll was asked what he thought of such philosophy.—New York Morning Advertiser, March 10,1892.


Question. Have you read the article in the Morning Advertiser entitled “Workers Starving”?

Answer. I have read it, and was greatly surprised at the answers made to the reporter of the Advertiser.

Question. What do you think of the remarks of the Rev. John Hall and by Mr. Warner Van Norden, Treasurer of the “Church Extension Committee”?

Answer. My opinion is that Dr. Hall must have answered under some irritation, or that the reporter did not happen to take down all he said. It hardly seems probable that Dr. Hall should have said that he had no time to discuss the matter of aiding the needy poor, giving as a reason that there were so many other things that demanded his immediate attention. The church is always insisting that it is, above all things, a charitable institution; that it collects and distributes many millions every year for the relief of the needy, and it is always quoting: “Sell that thou hast and give to the poor.” It is hard to imagine anything of more importance than to relieve the needy, or to succor the oppressed. Of course, I know that the church itself produces nothing, and that it lives on contributions; but its claim is that it receives from those who are able to give, and gives to those who are in urgent need.

I have sometimes thought, that the most uncharitable thing in the world is an organized charity. It seems to have the peculiarities of a corporation, and becomes as soulless as its kindred. To use a very old phrase, it generally acts like “a beggar on horseback.”

Probably Dr. Hall, in fact, does a great deal for the poor, and I imagine that he must have been irritated or annoyed when he made the answer attributed to him in the Advertiser. The good Samaritan may have been in a hurry, but he said nothing about it. The Levites that passed by on the other side seemed to have had other business. Understand me, I am saying nothing against Dr. Hall, but it does seem to me that there are few other matters more important than assisting our needy fellow-men.

Question. What do you think of Mr. Warner Van Norden’s sentiments as expressed to the reporter?

Answer. In the first place, I think he is entirely mistaken. I do not think the cloakmakers brought their trouble upon themselves. The wages they receive were and are insufficient to support reasonable human beings. They work for almost nothing, and it is hard for me to understand why they live at all, when life is so expensive and death so cheap. All they can possibly do is to earn enough one day to buy food to enable them to work the next. Life with them is a perpetual struggle. They live on the edge of death. Under their feet they must feel the side of the grave crumbling, and thus they go through, day by day, month by month, year by year. They are, I presume, sustained by a hope that is never realized.

Mr. Van Norden says that he is not in favor of helping the poor and needy of the city, save in the way employed by the church, and that the experience of centuries teaches us that the giving of alms to the poor only encourages them in their idleness and their crimes.

Is Mr. Van Norden ready to take the ground that when Christ said: “Sell that thou hast and give to the poor,” he intended to encourage idleness and crime?

Is it possible that when it was said, “It is better to give than to receive,” the real meaning was, It is better to encourage idleness and crime than to receive assistance?

For instance, a man falls into the water. Why should one standing on the shore attempt to rescue him? Could he not properly say: “If all who fall into the water are rescued, it will only encourage people to fall into the water; it will make sailors careless, and persons who stand on wharves, will care very little whether they fall in or not. Therefore, in order to make people careful who have not fallen into the water, let those in the water drown.” In other words, why should anybody be assisted, if assistance encourages carelessness, or idleness, or negligence?

According to Mr. Van Norden, charity is out of place in this world, kindness is a mistake, and hospitality springs from a lack of philosophy. In other words, all should take the consequences of their acts, not only, but the consequences of the acts of others.

If I knew this doctrine to be true, I should still insist that men should be charitable on their own account. A man without pity, no matter how intelligent he may be, is at best only an intellectual beast, and if by withholding all assistance we could finally people the world with those who are actually self-supporting, we would have a population without sympathy, without charity—that is to say, without goodness. In my judgment, it would be far better that none should exist.

Mr. Van Norden takes the ground that the duty of the church is to save men’s souls, and to minister to their bodies incidentally. I think that conditions have a vast deal to do with morality and goodness. If you wish to change the conduct of your fellow-men, the first thing to do is to change their conditions, their surroundings; in other words, to help them to help themselves—help them to get away from bad influences, away from the darkness of ignorance, away from the temptations of poverty and want, not only into the light intellectually, but into the climate of prosperity. It is useless to give a hungry man a religious tract, and it is almost useless to preach morality to those who are so situated that the necessity of the present, the hunger of the moment, overrides every other consideration. There is a vast deal of sophistry in hunger, and a good deal of persuasion in necessity.

Prosperity is apt to make men selfish. They imagine that because they have succeeded, others and all others, might or may succeed. If any man will go over his own life honestly, he will find that he has not always succeeded because he was good, or that he has always failed because he was bad. He will find that many things happened with which he had nothing to do, for his benefit, and that, after all is said and done, he cannot account for all of his successes by his absolute goodness. So, if a man will think of all the bad things he has done—of all the bad things he wanted to do—of all the bad things he would have done had he had the chance, and had he known that detection was impossible, he will find but little foundation for egotism.

Question. What do you say to this language of Mr. Van Norden. “It is best to teach people to rely upon their own resources. If the poor felt that they could get material help they would want it always, and in this day, if a man and woman cannot get along, it is their own fault”?

Answer. All I can say is that I do not agree with him. Often there are many more men in a certain trade than there is work for such men. Often great factories shut down, leaving many thousands out of employment. You may say that it was the fault of these men that they learned that trade; that they might have known it would be overcrowded; so you may say it was the fault of the capitalist to start a factory in that particular line, because he should have known that it was to be overdone.

As no man can look very far into the future, the truth is it was nobody’s fault, and without fault thousands and thousands are thrown out of employment. Competition is so sharp, wages are so small, that to be out of employment for a few weeks means want. You cannot say that this is the fault of the man who wants bread. He certainly did not wish to go hungry; neither did he deliberately plan a failure. He did the best he could. There are plenty of bankers who fail in business, not because they wish to fail; so there are plenty of professional men who cannot make a living, yet it may not be their fault; and there are others who get rich, and it may not be by reason of their virtues.

Without doubt, there are many people in the city of New York who cannot make a living. Competition is too sharp; life is too complex; consequently the percentage of failures is large. In savage life there are few failures, but in civilized life there are many. There are many thousands out of work and out of food in Berlin to-day. It can hardly be said to be their fault. So there are many thousands in London, and every other great city of the world. You cannot account for all this want by saying that the people who want are entirely to blame.

A man gets rich, and he is often egotistic enough to think that his wealth was the result of his own unaided efforts; and he is sometimes heartless enough to say that others should get rich by following his example.

Mr. Van Norden states that he has a typewriter who gets two dollars a day, and that she dresses better than the lords and ladies did of olden times. He must refer to the times of the Garden of Eden. Out of two dollars a day one must live, and there is very little left for gorgeous robes. I hardly think a lady is to be envied because she receives two dollars a day, and the probability is that the manner in which she dresses on that sum—having first deducted the expenses of living—is not calculated to excite envy.

The philosophy of Mr. Van Norden seems to be concentrated into this line: “Where people are poor it is their own fault.” Of course this is the death of all charity.

We are then informed by this gentleman that “happiness does not lie in the enjoyment of material things—that it is the soul that makes life worth living.”

Is it the soul without pity that makes life worth living? Is it the soul in which the blossom of charity has never shed its perfume that makes life so desirable? Is it the soul, having all material things, wrapped in the robes of prosperity, and that says to all the poor: It is your own fault; die of hunger if you must—that makes life worth living?

It may be asked whether it is worth while for such a soul to live.

If this is the philosophy of Mr. Van Norden, I do not wish to visit his working girls’ club, or to “hear girls who have been working all day singing hymns and following the leader in prayer.” Why should a soul without pity pray? Why should any one ask God to be merciful to the poor if he is not merciful himself? For my own part, I would rather see poor people eat than to hear them pray. I would rather see them clothed comfortably than to see them shivering, and at the same time hear them sing hymns.

It does not seem possible that any man can say that there are no worthy poor in this city who need material help. Neither does it seem possible that any man can say to one who is starving that if he wants money he must work for it. There are hundreds and thousands in this city willing to work who can find no employment. There are good and pure women standing between their children and starvation, living in rooms worse than cells in penitentiaries—giving their own lives to their children—hundreds and hundreds of martyrs bearing the cross of every suffering, worthy of the reverence and love of mankind. So there are men wandering about these streets in search of work, willing to do anything to feed the ones they love.

Mr. Van Norden has not done himself justice. I do not believe that he expresses his real sentiments. But, after all, why should we expect charity in a church that believes in the dogma of eternal pain? Why cannot the rich be happy here in their palaces, while the poor suffer and starve in huts, when these same rich expect to enjoy heaven forever, with all the unbelievers in hell? Why should the agony of time interfere with their happiness, when the agonies of eternity will not and cannot affect their joy? But I have nothing against Dr. John Hall or Mr. Van Norden—only against their ideas. (from Vol. VII of Lectures and Essays)