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Past and Present: Thomas Carlyle, 1843

Book 4 Chapter 3: The One Institution

What our Government can do in this grand Problem of the Working Classes of England? Yes, supposing the insane Corn-Laws totally abolished, all speech of them ended, and ‘from ten to twenty years of new possibility to live and find wages’ conceded us in consequence: what the English Government might be expected to accomplish or attempt towards rendering the existence of our labouring millions somewhat less anomalous, somewhat less impossible, in the years that are to follow those ‘ten or twenty,’ if either ‘ten’ or ‘twenty’ there be?

It is the most momentous question. For all this of the Corn-Law abrogation, and what can follow therefrom, is but as the shadow on King Hezekiah’s Dial: the shadow has gone back twenty years; but will again, in spite of Free-Trades and Abrogations, travel forward its old fated way. With our present system of individual Mammonism and Government by Laissez-faire, this Nation cannot live. And if in the priceless interim, some new life and healing be not found, there is no second respite to be counted on. The shadow on the Dial advances thenceforth without pausing. What can Government do? This that they call ‘organising of Labour’ is, if well understood, the Problem of the whole Future, for all who will in future pretend to govern men. But our first preliminary stage of it, How to deal with the actual Labouring Millions of England? this is the imperatively pressing Problem of the Present, pressing with a truly fearful intensity and imminence in these very years and days. No Government can longer neglect it: once more, what can our Government do in it?

Governments are of very various degrees of activity: some altogether lazy Governments, in ‘free countries’ as they are called, seem in these times almost to profess to do, if not nothing, one knows not at first what. To debate in Parliament, and gain majorities; and ascertain who shall be, with a toil hardly second to Ixion’s, the Prime speaker and spoke-holder, and keep the Ixion’s wheel going, if not forward, yet round? Not altogether so: - much, to the experienced eye, is not what it seems! Chancery and certain other Law-Courts seem nothing; yet in fact, they are, the worst of them, something: chimnies for the devilry and contention of men to escape by; - a very considerable something! Parliament too has its tasks, if thou will look; fit to wear out the lives of toughest men. The celebrated Kilkenny Cats, through their tumultuous congress, cleaving the ear of Night, could they be said to do nothing? Hadst thou been of them, thou hadst seen! The feline beast laboured, as with steam up - to the bursting point; and death-doing energy nerved every muscle: they had a work then; and did it! On the morrow, two tails were found left, and peaceable annihilation: the neighbourhood delivered from despair.

Again, are not Spinning Dervishes an eloquent emblem, significant of much? Hast thou noticed him, that solemn-visaged Turk, the eyes shut; dingy wool mantle circularly hiding his figure; - bell-shaped; like a dingy bell set spinning on the tongue of it? By centrifugal force the dingy wool mantle heaves itself; spreads more and more, like upturned cup widening into upturned saucer: thus spins he, to the praise of Allah and advantage of his country, fast and faster, till collapse ensue, and sometimes death! -

A Government such as ours, consisting of from seven to eight hundred Parliamentary Talkers, with their escort of able Editors and Public Opinion; and for head, certain Lords and servants of the Treasury, and Chief Secretaries and others, who find themselves at once Chiefs and No-Chiefs, and often commanded rather than commanding, - is doubtless a most complicate entity and none of the alertest for getting on with business! Clearly enough, if the Chiefs be not self-motive and what we call men, but mere patient lay-figures without self-motive principle, the Government will not move any whither; it will tumble disastrously, and jumble, round its own axis, as for many years past we have seen it do. - And yet a self-motive man who is not a lay-figure, place him in the heart of what entity you may, will make it move more or less! The absurdest in Nature he will make a little less absurd; he. The unwieldliest he will make to move; - that is the use of his existing then. He will at least have the manfulness to depart out of it, if not; to say, “I cannot move in thee, and be a man; like a wretched drift-log dressed in man’s clothes and minister’s clothes, doomed to a lot baser than belongs to man, I will not continue with thee, tumbling aimless on the Mother of Dead Dogs here: - adieu!

For on the whole it is the lot of Chiefs everywhere, this same. No Chief in the most despotic country but was a servant withal; at once an absolute commanding General, and a poor Orderly-Serjeant, ordered by the very men in the ranks, - obliged to collect the vote of the ranks too, in some articulate or inarticulate shape, and weigh well the same. The proper name of all kings is minister, Servant. In no conceivable Government can a lay-figure get forward! This Worker, surely he above all others, has to spread out his Gideon Fleece, and collect the monitions of Immensity; the poor Localities, as we said, and Parishes of Palace-yard or elsewhere, having no due monition in them. A Prime Minister even here in England, who shall dare believe the heavenly omens, and address himself like a man and hero to the great dumb-struggling heart of England; and speak out for it, and act out for it, the God’s-Justice it is writhing to get uttered, and perishing for want of, - yes, he too will see awaken round him, in passionate burning all defiant loyalty, the heart of England, and such a ‘support’ as no Division-List or Parliamentary Majority was ever yet known to yield a man! Here as there, now as then, he who can and dare trust the Heavenly Immensities, all earthly Localities are subject to him. We will pray for such a man and First-Lord; - yes, and far better, we will strive and incessantly make ready, each of us, to be worthy to serve and second such a First-Lord! We shall then be as good as sure of his arriving; - sure of many things, let him arrive or not.

Who can despair of Governments that passes a soldier’s guard-house, meets a red-coated man on the streets! That a body of men could be got together to kill other men when you bade them: this, a priori, does it not seem one of the impossiblest things? Yet look, behold it: in the stolidest of Donothing Governments that impossibility is a thing done. See it there, with buff belts, red coats on its back; walking sentry at guard-houses, brushing white breeches in barracks; an indisputable palpable fact. Out of grey Antiquity, amid all finance difficulties, Scaccarium Tallies, ship-monies, coat-and-conduct monies, and vicissitudes of chance and time, there down to the present blessed hour it is.

Often in these painfully decadent and nascent Times, with their distresses, inarticulate gaspings and ‘impossibilities;’ meeting a tall Life Guardsman in his snow-white trowsers, or seeing those two statuesque Life Guardsmen in their frowning bearskins, pipe-clayed buckskins, on their coal-black, sleek, fiery quadrupeds, riding sentry at the Horse Guards, - it strikes one with a kind of mournful interest, how, in such universal down-rushing and wrecked impotence of almost all old institutions, this oldest Fighting Institution is still so young. Fresh complexioned, firm-limbed, six feet by the standard, this fighting man has verily been got up, and can fight. While so much has not yet got into being; while so much has gone gradually out of it and become an empty semblance or clothes-suit; and highest Kings’-cloaks, mere chimeras parading under them so long, are getting unsightly to the earnest eye, unsightly, almost offensive, like a costlier kind of scare-crow’s blanket, - here still is a realty!

The man in horsehair wig advances, promising that he will get me ‘justice:’ he takes me into Chancery-Law-Courts, into decades, half centuries of hubbub, of distracted jargon; and does get me disappointment, almost desperation; and one refuge: that of dismissing him and his ‘justice’ altogether out of my head. For I have work to do; I cannot spend my decades in mere arguing with other men about the exact wages of my work: I will work cheerfully with no wages, sooner than with a ten-years’ gangrene or Chancery Law-suit in my heart! He of the horse-hair wig is a sort of failure; no substance, but a fond imagination of the mind. He of the shovel-hat, again, who comes forward professing that he will save my soul, - O ye Eternities, of him, in this place be absolute silence! - But he of the red coat, I say is a success and no failure! He will veritably, if he get orders, draw out a long sword and kill me. No mistake there. He is a fact and not a shadow. Alive in this year, Forty-three, able and willing to do his work. In dim old centuries, with William Rufus, William of Ipres, or far earlier, he began; and has come down safe so far. Catapult has given place to cannon, pike has given place to musket, iron mail-shirt to coat of red cloth, saltpetre rope-match to percussion cap; equipments, circumstances have all changed, and again changed: but the human battle-engine, in the inside of any or each of these, ready still to do battle, stands there, six feet in standard size. There are Pay Offices, Woolwich Arsenals; there is a Horse-Guards, War-Office, Captain-General; persuasive Serjeants, with tap of drum, recruit in market towns and villages; - and, on the whole, I say, here is your actual drilled fighting-man; here are your actual ninety-thousand of such; ready to go into any quarter of the world and fight!

Strange, interesting, and yet most mournful to reflect on. Was this, then, of all the things mankind had some talent for, the one thing important to learn well, and bring to perfection: this of successfully killing one another? Truly you have learned it well, and carried the business to a high perfection. It is incalculable what, by arranging, commanding, and regimenting, you can make of men. Three thousand straight-standing firm-set individuals, who shoulder arms, who march, wheel, advance, retreat, and are, for your behoof, a magazine charged with fiery death, in the most perfect condition of potential activity; few months ago till the persuasive sergeant came, what were they? Multiform ragged losels, runaway apprentices, starved weavers, thievish valets; an entirely broken population, - fast tending towards the treadmill. But the persuasive serjeant came; by tap of drum enlisted, or found lists of them, took heartily to drilling them; - and he and you have made them this! Most potent, effectual for all work whatsoever, is wise planning, firm combining and commanding among men. Let no man despair of Governments who looks on these two sentries at the Horse-Guards, and our United-Service Clubs! I could conceive an Emigration Service, a Teaching Service, considerable varieties of United and Separate Services, of the due thousands strong, all effective as this Fighting Service is; all doing their work, like it; - which work, much more than Fighting, is henceforth the necessity of these New Ages we are got into! Much lies among us, convulsively, nigh desperately struggling to be born.

But mean Governments, as mean-limited individuals do, have stood by the physically indispensable; have realized that and nothing more. The soldier is perhaps one of the most difficult things to realize; but Governments had they not realized him, could not have existed: accordingly he is here. O Heavens, if we saw an army ninety thousand strong, maintained and fully equipt, in continual real action and battle against Human Starvation, against Chaos, Necessity, Stupidity, and our real ‘natural enemies,’ what a business were it! Fighting and molesting not ‘the French,’ who, poor men, have a hard enough battle of their own in the like kind, and need no additional molesting from us, - but fighting and incessantly spearing down and destroying Falsehood, Nescience, Delusion, Disorder, and the Devil and his Angels! Thou thyself, cultivated reader, hast done something in that alone true warfare; but, alas, under what circumstances was it? Thee no beneficent drill-sergeant, with any effectiveness, would rank in line beside thy fellows; train, like a true didactic artist, by the wit of all past experience to do thy soldiering; encourage thee when right, punish thee when wrong, and everywhere with wise word-of-command say, Forward on this hand, Forward on that! Ah, no: thou hadst to learn thy small-sword and platoon exercise where and how thou couldst; to all mortals but thyself it was indifferent whether thou shouldst ever learn it. And the rations, and shilling a-day, were they provided thee, - reduced as I have known brave Jean-Pauls, learning their exercise, to live on ‘water without the bread!’ The rations; or any furtherance of promotion to Corporalship, Lance-Corporalship, or due cat-o’-nine-tails, with the slightest reference to thy deserts, were not provided. Forethought even as of a pipe-clayed drill-serjeant, did not preside over thee. To Corporalship, Lance-Corporalship, thou didst attain; alas, also to the halberts and cat: but thy rewarder and punisher seemed blind as the Deluge: neither lance-corporalship, nor even drummer’s cat, because both appeared delirious, brought thee due profit!

It was well, all this, we know; - and yet it was not well! Forty soldiers, I am told, will disperse the largest Spitalfields mob: forty to ten thousand, that is the proportion between drilled and undrilled. Much there is which cannot yet be organized in this world; but somewhat also which can, somewhat also which must. When one thinks, for example, what Books are become and becoming for us, what Operative Lancashires are become; what a Fourth Estate and innumerable Virtualities not yet got to be Actualities are become and becoming, - one sees organisms enough in the dim huge Future; and ‘united services’ quite other than the red coat one; and much, even in these years, struggling to be born.

Of Time-Bill, Factory-Bill and other such Bills the present Editor has no authority to speak. He knows not (it is for other than he to know) in what specific ways it may be feasible to interfere, with Legislation, between the Workers and the Master Workers; - knows only and sees, what all men are beginning to see, that Legislative interference, and interferences not a few are indispensable; that as a lawless anarchy of supply-and-demand, on market wages alone, this province of things cannot longer be left. Nay, interference has begun: there are already Factory Inspectors, who seem to have no lack of work. Perhaps there might be Mine-Inspectors too: - might there not be Furrowfield Inspectors withal, and ascertain for us how on seven and sixpence a week a human family does live! Interference has begun, must continue, must extensively enlarge itself, deepen and sharpen itself. Such things cannot longer be idly lapped in darkness, and suffered to go on unseen: the Heavens do see them; the curse, not the blessing of the Heavens is on an Earth that refuses to see them.

Again, are not Sanitary Regulations possible for a Legislature? The old Romans had their Ædiles, who would, I think, in direct contravention to supply-and-demand, have rigorously seen rammed up into total Abolition many a foul cellar in our Southwarks, Saint-Gileses, and dark poison-lanes; saying sternly “Shall a Roman Man dwell there?” The Legislature at whatever cost of consequences, would have had to answer, “God forbid!” - The Legislature, even as it now is, could order all dingy Manufacturing Towns to cease from their soot and darkness, to let in the blessed sunlight, the blue of Heaven, and become clear and clean; to burn their coal smoke namely, and make flame of it. Baths, free air, a wholesome temperature, ceilings twenty feet high, might be ordained by Act of Parliament, in all Establishments licensed as Mills. There are such Mills already extant; - honour to the builders of them! The Legislature can say to others; Go ye and do likewise; better if you can.

Every toiling Manchester, its smoke and soot all burnt, ought it not among so many world-wide conquests, to have a hundred acres or so of free greenfield with trees on it, conquered for its little children to disport in; for its all-conquering workers to take a breath of twilight air in? You would say so? A willing Legislature could say so with effect. A willing Legislature could say very many things! And to whatsoever ‘vested interest’ or such like stood up, gainsaying merely, ‘I shall lose profits!’ - the willing Legislature would answer, ‘Yes, but my sons and daughters, will gain health, life, and a soul.’ - ‘What is to become of our Cotton-trade?’ cried certain Spinners, when the Factory-Bill was proposed, ‘What is to become of our invaluable Cotton-trade?’ The Humanity of England answered steadfastly: “Deliver me those rickety perishing souls of infants, and let your Cotton-trade take its chance. God himself commands the one thing; not God especially the other thing. We cannot have prosperous Cotton-trades at the expense of keeping the Devil a partner in them!” -

Bills enough, were the Corn-Law Abrogation Bill once passed, and a Legislature willing! Nay, this one Bill, which lies yet unenacted, a right Education Bill, is not this of itself the sure parent of innumerable wise Bills, - wise regulations, practical methods and proposals, gradually ripening towards the state of Bills? To irradiate with intelligence, that is to say, with order, arrangement and all blessedness, the Chaotic, Unintelligent: how, except by educating, can you accomplish this? That thought, reflection, articulate utterance and understanding be awakened in these individual million heads, which are the atoms of your Chaos; there is no other way of illuminating any Chaos! The sum-total of intelligence that is found in it, determines the extent of order that is possible for your Chaos, - the feasibility and rationality of what your Chaos will dimly demand from you, will gladly obey when proposed by you! It is an exact equation: the one accurately measures the other. - If the whole English People, during these ‘twenty years of respite,’ be not educated, with at least schoolmaster’s educating, a tremendous responsibility before God and men will rest somewhere! How dare any man, especially a man calling himself minister of God, stand up in any Parliament or place, under any pretext or delusion, and for a day or an hour, forbid God’s light to come into the world, and bid the Devil’s Darkness continue in it one hour more! For all light and science, under all shapes, in all degrees of perfection is of God; all darkness, all nescience, is of the Enemy of God. The schoolmaster’s creed is somewhat awry? Yes, I have found few creeds, entirely correct; few light-beams shining white, pure of admixture: but of all creeds and religions now or ever before known, was not that of thoughtless, thriftless Animalism, of Distilled Gin, and Stupor and Despair, unspeakably the least orthodox? We will exchange it even with Paganism, with Fetishism; and, on the whole, must exchange it with something.

An effective ‘Teaching Service’ I do consider that there must be, some Education-Secretary, Captain-General of Teachers, who will actually contrive to get us taught. Then again, why should there not be an ‘Emigration Service,’ and Secretary, with adjuncts, with funds, forces, idle Navy-ships, and ever-increasing apparatus; in fine an effective System of Emigration, - so that, at length, before our twenty years of respite ended, every honest willing workman who found England too strait, and the ‘Organisation of Labour’ not yet sufficiently advanced, might find likewise a bridge built to carry him into new Western Lands, there to organise with more elbow-room some Labour for himself? There to be a real blessing, raising new corn for us, purchasing new webs and hatchets from us; leaving us at least in peace, - instead of staying here to be a Physical-force Chartist, unblessed and no blessing! Is it not scandalous to consider that a Prime Minister could raise within the year, as I have seen it done, a Hundred and Twenty Millions Sterling to shoot the French; and we are stopt short for want of the hundredth part of that to keep the English living? The bodies of the English living; and the souls of the English living: - these two ‘Services,’ an Education Service and an Emigration Service, these with others will actually have to be organised!

A free bridge for Emigrants: why, we should then be on a par with America itself, the most favoured of all lands that have no Government; and we should have, besides, so many traditions and mementos of priceless things which America has cast away. We could proceed deliberately to ‘organise Labour,’ not doomed to perish unless we effected it within year and day; - every willing Worker that proved superfluous, finding a bridge ready for him. This verily will have to be done; the Time is big with this. Our little Isle is grown too narrow for us, but the world is wide enough yet for another Six thousand Years. England’s sure markets will be among new Colonies of Englishmen in all quarters of the Globe. All men trade with all men, when mutually convenient, and are bound to do it by the Maker of Men; our friends of China who guiltily refused to trade, in these circumstances, - had we not to argue with them, in cannon shot at last, and convince them that they ought to trade! ‘Hostile Tariffs’ will rise, to shut us out; and then again will fall, to let us in: but the Sons of England, speakers of the English language were it nothing more, will in all times have the ineradicable predisposition to trade with England. Mycale was the Pan-Ionion, rendezvous of all the Tribes of Ion, for old Greece: why should not London long continue the All-Saxon home, rendezvous of all the ‘Children of the Harz-Rock’ arriving in select samples, from the Antipodes and elsewhere, by steam and otherwise, to the ‘season’ here! - What a Future; wide as the world, if we have the heart and heroism for it, - which, by God’s blessing, we shall:

Keep not standing fixed and rooted,
Briskly venture, briskly roam;
Head and hand, where’er thou foot it,
And stout heart are still at home.

In what land the sun does visit,
Rarely we, whate’er betide!
To give space for wandering is it
That the world was made so wide. [Goethe, Wilhelm Meister]

Fourteen hundred years ago it was by a considerable ‘Emigration Service,’ never doubt it, by much enlistment, discussion and apparatus, that we ourselves arrived in this remarkable Island, - and got into our present difficulties among others.

It is true the English Legislature, like the English People, is of slow temper; essentially conservative. In our wildest periods of reform, in the long Parliament itself, you notice always the invincible instinct to hold fast by the Old; to admit the minimum of New; to expand, if it be possible, some old habit or method, already found fruitful, into new growth for the new need. It is an instinct worthy of all honour; akin to all strength and all wisdom. The Future hereby is not dissevered from the Past, but based continuously on it; grows with all the vitalities of the Past, and is rooted down deep into the beginnings of us. The English Legislature is entirely repugnant to believe in ‘new epochs.’ The English Legislature does not occupy itself with epochs; has indeed, other business to do than looking at the Time Horologe and hearing it tick! Nevertheless new epochs do actually come; and with them new imperious peremptory necessities, - so that even an English Legislature has to look up, and admit, though with reluctance, that the hour has struck. The hour having struck, let us not say “impossible:” - it will have to be possible! “Contrary to the habits of Parliament, the habits of Government?” Yes: but did any Parliament or Government ever sit in a year Forty-three before? One of the most original unexampled Years and Epochs; in several important respects, totally unlike any other! For Time, all-edacious and all-feracious, does move on: and the Seven Sleepers, awakening hungry after a hundred years, find that it is not their old nurses who can now give them suck!

For the rest, let not any Parliament, Aristocracy, Millocracy, or member of the Governing Class, condemn with much triumph this small specimen of ‘remedial measures;’ or ask again, with the least anger, of this Editor: What is to be done, How that alarming problem of the Working Classes is to be managed? Editors are not here, foremost of all, to say How. A certain Editor thanks the gods that nobody pays him three hundred thousand a year: two hundred thousand, twenty thousand, or any similar sum of cash, for saying How; - that his wages are very different, his work somewhat fitter for him. An Editor’s stipulated work is to apprise thee that it must be done. The ‘way to do it,’ is to try it, knowing that thou shalt die if it be not done. There is the bare back, there is the web of cloth; thou shalt cut me a coat to cover the bare back, those whose trade it is. ‘Impossible?’ Hapless Fraction, dost thou discern Fate then, half unveiling herself in the gloom of the future, with her gibbet-cords, her steel-whips, and very authentic Tailor’s Hell; waiting to see whether it is ‘possible?’ Out with thy scissors, and cut that cloth or thy own windpipe!

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