The French Revolution and the atrocities that accompanied it discredited enlightened thinking and for a time Canning's ‘Friend of Humanity’ in the Anti-Jacobin was a stock figure of ridicule, a self-important do-gooder. But the tide was too strong to be held back and, once the dark days had gone, humanitarianism reasserted itself. Romilly attempted to reduce the great number of capital offences, Elizabeth Fry campaigned for women in prison, Shaftesbury for children in mines and factories, Plimsoll for merchant seamen in peril on unseaworthy vessels. There were improvements in the treatment of the mentally ill, beating and confinement giving way to patience and understanding. gibbeting, slavery, the press-gang, public executions vanished. Flogging in the armed forces disappeared, the stigma of illegitimacy was gradually removed. The advance of democracy meant that, in the 20th cent., humanitarianism became the creed of governments, expected to reform and protect. Crofters were assisted to purchase their plots, industrial workers were protected by safety legislation, the disabled helped and encouraged. The balance to be struck between mollycoddling and indifference has always been debated. The motives of humanitarians have always been mixed. In the 18th cent. the trustees of the Foundling hospital pointed out that every abandoned infant saved was one more adversary against the French, and much of the public concern in the 1900s about the condition of the people was because of the poor quality of recruits for the Boer war. But as a force, particularly in its international role, humanitarianism is neither discredited, nor perhaps exhaustible. ‘Do-gooder’ is still a term of reproach, as humanitarian was in 1830, but there are worse things to be.
J. A. Cannon
"humanitarians." The Oxford Companion to British History. . Encyclopedia.com. (March 19, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/humanitarians
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