A Christmas Carol’s timeless fascination is the product of a particular moment in history. Dickens first conceived of his project as a pamphlet, which he planned on calling, “An Appeal to the People of England on behalf of the Poor Man’s Child.” After thinking about it, he decided instead to place his arguments as part of the plot of a story.
Dickens began writing in the spring of 1843 after reading a government report on child labor in the United Kingdom. It was a compilation of interviews with children by a journalist friend of Dickens, and it detailed their crushing labors.
He read of girls who sewed dresses 16 hours a day, six days a week, rooming—like Martha Cratchit—above the factory floor. He read of 8-year-old children who dragged coal carts through tiny subterranean passages 11-hours a day. These were not exceptional stories, but ordinary. Dickens wrote to one of the government investigators that the descriptions left him “stricken.”
This brutal reality of child labor was the result of revolutionary changes in British society. The population of England had grown 64% between Dickens’ birth in 1812 and the year of the child labor report. Workers were leaving the countryside to crowd into new manufacturing centers and cities. Meanwhile, there was a revolution in the way goods were manufactured: cottage industry was upended by a trend towards workers serving as unskilled cogs laboring in the pre-cursor of the assembly line, hammering the same nail or gluing the same piece—as an 11-year-old Dickens had to do—hour after hour, day after day.
Employers thought of their workers as tools as interchangeable as any nail or gluepot. Workers were treated as commodities: not individual humans, but resources whose value was measured to the ha-penny by how many nails they could hammer in an hour. During the 1840’s a job was hard to come by and the poor took whatever work they could get. Oftentimes, children took the lowliest jobs that paid the least.
Like now, there were concerns that helping the poor would just make things worse. That poor people were poor, because they were lazy and immoral. Helping them would only encourage their malingering. However, if they were to be helped, the conditions should be so unpleasant as to discouraged them from seeking it. The workhouses were seen as the perfect solution. Families were split up, food was minimal and the work painful. “Those who are badly off,” says the unreformed Scrooge, “must go there.”
This concept was associated with the ideas of Rev. Thomas Malthus. The Reverend cautioned against intervening when people were hungry because it would only lead to an increase in their population. He thought it better the poor should starve and thus “decrease the surplus population.”
Friedrich Engels read the same report on child labor that Dickens did and, with his collaborator Karl Marx, envisioned an eventual revolution. Thomas Paine, in the foregoing generation, had argued in Rights of Man for a kind of system of welfare, including tax credits for help raising children, old age pensions and national disability insurance. What Dickens proposed in A Christmas Carol, was still radical, in that it rejected the “modern” ideas about work and the economy
What he wrote was that employers are responsible for the well-being of their employees. Their workers are not of value only to the extent to which they contribute to a product for the cheapest possible labor cost. They are of value as “fellow-passengers to the grave,” in the words of Scrooge’s nephew, “and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys.” Employers owe their employees as human beings—no better, but no worse, than themselves.
*Based on an article by JOHN BROICH DECEMBER 13, 2016