Some of us had the honour of his personal acquaintance, and all who knew him admired his thorough probity, his perseverance, and his practical philanthropy. He was not by any means intellectually a great man; and his was not, in politics, a commanding figure. He was a good speaker on any subject which he had thoroughly made his own and mastered, but he never shone as a debater in the House of Commons, where the years of his best activity were spent, nor even later on in the less eager and disturbing atmosphere of the House of Lords. He had, undoubtedly, some of the objectionable qualities of the fanatic about him. Where religious questions were concerned his opponents declared him to be a mere bigot, and it is certain that he had many strong prejudices, and was sometimes provokingly wrong-headed. All the same he was a genuine philanthropist, and when he kept to his own particular questions he was safe and steady as a rock. Lord Ashley made himself the pioneer of the parliamentary movement for the regulation of the work of women and children in factories and he succeeded after many efforts in obtaining the appointment of a Commission to inquire into the whole subject. The Commission took all the evidence available, and were able to present Parliament and the public with an array of indisputable facts to show the utterly destructive effect, both moral and physical, caused by the overtasking of women and children; and Lord Ashley at once set to work to agitate for the passing of some measures which would limit the hours and regulate the conditions under which women and children were to be kept to labour. His efforts raised a furious controversy, and brought up for settlement also an important economical question.
Karl Of Shaftesbury, K.G. (1801-1885).
The outcry raised by Lord Ashley's opponents was that his agitation was directed towards a legislative interference with the freedom of contract. There is a great tendency in the English mind to be governed by phrases, to turn some favourite phrase into an oracle, and allow it to deliver judgment in the teeth of whatever evidences and facts. For years and years after Lord Ashley had started his movement there were numbers of Englishmen filled with a fond belief that the words "freedom of contract" settled every question which could possibly come within the reach of the principle they were supposed to embody. Was it really proposed, Lord Ashley's opponents asked in stern accents, that Parliament should interfere with the freedom of contract; with the right of one man to hire labour, and the right of another man to let it out for hire? If a grown woman chooses to agree with an employer that she is to work so many hours a day at a specified rate of payment, what right has the Imperial Parliament to say that she shall not be free to sell her labour on such conditions as she finds suitable to her? If a man is willing to let out the labour of his children for so many hours a day at a specified rate of payment, has Parliament a right to step in and say that a man shall not deal with his own children as he thinks best for his interest and for theirs ? Is it really proposed that the State shall assume the rights of paternity over all the children of the working classes in towns, and say when they may work and when they may not work? It did not seem to have occurred to many of Lord Ashley's opponents to ask themselves whether in such cases there is always any real and equal freedom of contract. The hard-worked artisan in a city with half a dozen children whom he finds it hard to support - is he really quite as free in the contract for their labour as the capitalist who offers to hire it, and who can get plenty of offers from others if some one particular working man declines to agree with his terms?
The opposition to Lord Ashley's measures did not always come, however, from hard-headed and hard-hearted economists who believed in freedom of contract because the freedom was all on their own side. Many men of the highest character and the most unselfish motives, many owners of factories who had through all their lives been filled with the kindliest feelings towards their work-people, were bitterly opposed to the whole principle underlying Lord Ashley's efforts. Such men were sincerely convinced, in many cases, that the economic laws settled, and alone could settle, every trade difficulty; and that Parliament could do no good, and could only do harm, by any attempt at interference with these inexorable influences. We have lost a good deal of our faith in the extreme beneficence of economic laws since that time, when so many were inclined to give to them a strength and a sanctity which mere instinct alone teaches us not to assign to the physical laws. We know that legislation cannot banish winter or prevent storms, but we know also that we can build houses to shelter us against the winter and the storm. At that time there was an opinion widely abroad among certain of the commercial and trading classes of England that a happy era was fast approaching when almost everything would be left to the settlement of the economic laws and the magic principle of freedom of contract.
It was the dream then of many men, not otherwise much given to dreaming, that a time was fast approaching when the whole postal system of civilised countries would be left in the hands of private competition and freedom of contract. We have drifted far away from those ideas of late years, but they were just beginning to take form and strength at the time when Lord Ashley was making his beneficent efforts to regulate the labour of women and children in factories. Lord Ashley was supported by a great many landowners, for whom, naturally, the working of factories had no direct personal concern, and who could therefore afford to be philanthropic at the expense of the factory owners. These latter and their friends therefore turned fiercely on the landowners, and asked, "Why don't you call for the regulation of the working hours of women and children on your own farms and on your own fields?" They argued that the condition of wretched children employed in agricultural labour was far more pitiable, and far more deserving of the intervention of Parliament, than that of the well-paid and well-cared-for labourers in the factories, who were able to take care not only of themselves, but also of their wives and children. Then, again, the manufacturers urged that it would be utterly impossible to apply any general rule to all the various forms of employment in factories.