A Christmas Carol
© Laurence B. Winn
Dec 1, 1998 (updated 04/30/16)
A carol -- it's a song of joy. But it is also a box or enclosure, from which the word carrel derives. Of course, Charles Dickens knew this when he wrote, tongue-in-cheek, A Christmas Carol (1843). His is a story about the effects of the Enclosures Acts and Bills on 19th century England. Every year at this time, I take in the tale again, each season finding myself more in sympathy with Ebenezer Scrooge.
Enclosure, the individual’s inability to leave a place or a circumstance, cheapens labor. It also cheapens life. When human beings perceive themselves without options, they may become pressed to the breaking point. Then they make decisions based on a premise that resembles the military concept of triage. The word “triage” means to pick or to cull. It is the sorting of casualties into three groups: those who can be expected to survive without help, those who will die regardless of treatment, and those who will perish unless given immediate aid. When human beings, some of them at least, think themselves in the last category, they are apt to extinguish even their offspring to preserve their lives or their sanity.
"Within the logic of triage, there is nothing sacred about human life," writes Richard L. Rubenstein in The Age of Triage: Fear and Hope in an Over-crowded World (1983). Mothers trapped by enclosure in England of the 19th century reacted very much as they do virtually everywhere today, by killing their children, usually through neglect. It is, of course, immoral, but necessity trumps philosophy.
These circumstances echo the sentiments of Thomas Jefferson about Europe. Of the larger European cities, Jefferson observed in his Notes on Virginia (published around 1782 and rewritten in 1804) that a lack of food and other essentials had brought "a depravity of morals, a dependence and corruption, which renders them an undesirable accession to a country whose morals are sound."
In the England of Charles Dickens, it was common wisdom that industrial machinery was responsible for wrecking English families. The big engines made it possible to employ women and children in occupations that formerly required a man's muscle power, the argument went.
Actually, surplus labor is what cheapened wages to the extent that entire families had to work, the same as it does now. We know because of what happened in England when the jobs went away, even though the engines of industry remained. During the American Civil War, when the United States Navy blockaded southern ports, it not only weakened the Confederacy militarily and economically, but inflicted economic pain on Great Britain by preventing the shipment of cotton to English factories. During the so-called "cotton crisis", a physician sent by the English government to investigate the sanitary condition of the cotton operatives discovered that the crisis had produced several advantages. One of them was that women "now had leisure to give their infants the breast, instead of poisoning them with 'Godfrey's cordial'” (an opium derivative that allowed working mothers to get some sleep).
Political economists in England of the 1860s observed a correlation between infant death rates and employment of mothers. Medical researchers in England of that time found that mothers employed by industry or in farm gangs not only neglected their offspring, but often resorted to ill-disguised infanticide and dosing the children with opiates.
The sale of opium for the use of adults was a major item of commerce of the nineteenth century. Infants that were given the drug "shrank into little old men" or "wizened like little monkeys", according to the literature of the day. "We here see how India and China avenged themselves on England", wrote Marx in a footnote to Das Kapital (1867).
The obvious similarity between Dickens' time and ours does not prove, as doubtless some people will suggest, that "things have always been that way". They weren't that way on the American frontier of the same period. They aren't that way in the memories of most of Americans born before 1960.
What it does demonstrate is the similarity of circumstances. The catch phrase "surplus population" fit England well in the mid-nineteenth century. Dickens makes effective use of it in A Christmas Carol when he causes Scrooge to respond to a plea for charity to prevent the deaths of orphans, "They'd better do it then, and decrease the surplus population".
That was then, as they say. Still, every Christmas season Scrooge seems a little more modern in his attitudes. Ebenezer has gone global because enclosure has.