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humanitarians

humanitarians. The word ‘humanitarian’ was a 19th-cent. invention and usually had a contemptuous flavour, denoting a tedious, self-advertising busybody. But the roots of humanitarianism run deep. A feeling of concern for one's fellow-creatures is presumably as old as humanity itself, even if it has often been confined to one's own family, tribe, clan, or neighbours. The duty of giving alms and the need for good works was an integral part of the Christian message, though donations were often private in character or local in scale—almshouses, schools, bequests, and charities. In the 18th cent. this stream of philanthropy was reinforced and modified in two ways. First, many of the problems facing a rapidly changing and teeming society could only be attacked on a grander scale, calling for communal or national effort. The early Georgian period saw the establishment of a large number of hospitals, London and provincial, and although often associated with individuals like Thomas Guy or Captain Coram, they looked to a wider community for support and maintenance. They appointed management committees, elected trustees, issued appeals to the public, organized concerts to raise funds, sought patronage. This impulse was joined by a stream from the Enlightenment which, for all its occasional fatuities, had generous aspirations—to eradicate serfdom and slavery, to banish torture and barbaric punishments, to improve the lot of debtors in prison and lunatics in madhouses, to protect women and children from exploitation. Indeed, the philosophes have been called ‘the party of humanity’ and, though they were thin on the ground in England (less so in Scotland), reformers were plentiful. Oglethorpe strove to help debtors, Howard campaigned for prison reform, Gilbert tried to improve poor relief, Wilberforce worked for the abolition of the slave trade, and Jonas Hanway—once memorably described as the greatest bore in British history—worked on behalf of orphans and chimney sweeps.

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

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