"Indiscriminate Charity." The New-York Tribune, 2 Jan. 1877, p. 2.

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"Indiscriminate Charity." The New-York Tribune, 2 Jan. 1877, p. 2.





To the Editor of The Tribune.

SIR: WE women, who have children of our own, found the story of the baby frozen to death in its mother’s breast, the other night, while she sat in a crowded street, vainly asking help from Christian people, but cheerless reading for Christ’s birthday. Your recommendation to your readers that they should personally attend to such cares of want as came in their way, certainly would appear to ordinary human beings only the dictates of plain common sense, as well as the direct teaching of Him who bade us individually feed the hungry and clothe the naked. But the objections urged to this course by those who probably represent the morality and philanthropy of society, seemed to me more comfortless than the story of the poor dead baby. If their arguments are right, verily, in spite of Christmas fires and well-warmed church pews, the wind blows due east in the world to-day, and cold. 

There is no use in discussing this especial case any longer—the baby is dead, the mother is left with her drunken husband to console her, and the Christian women who turned a deaf ear to her cry for pity the other night satisfy themselves, no doubt, with the reflection that the police were to blame, who should have arrested her for street-begging. But there are other starving mothers and freezing babies, and it is necessary we should consider how to treat them, gravely and calmly, uninfluenced by either mawkish sentimentality or that cold-blooded logic which is equally narrow and unjust. The larger cities, as we all know, are full just now of men out of work, professional beggars, the cold, the hungry, the suffering; there they are, on one side, a great army, tricky and criminal, if you will, sometimes; but, after all, men and women with bodies, brains, and souls, precisely like those whose chances in life have been better. On the other side is society, well-to-do, philanthropic, Christian, made up also of men and women, placed by the accident of birth or character, education and circumstance, above the level of the convict’s call, cold, or starvation. On one side is need; on the other means and good will to relieve the need, a means and will which have impressed themselves on countless asylums, hospitals, organized charities, small and great, as well as educational systems. Still the connecting link is lacking. The dangerous classes grow more dangerous with every year; the prisons are as full; and in our cellars and courts in Philadelphia, and your tenement-houses in New-York, this Winter, there is a great and immediate want which no organized society does or can reach. Rich and poor do not strike hands heartily. Dives and Lazarus are still at odds. Julia Deems’s child freezes on her breast, while Christian women brush past her and leave her to the police. 

Now what is needed? To me, it seems, mere direct individual intercourse between the classes. One of your correspondences, a man whose kindness of heart is proverbial, declares that Rum is at the bottom of the evil. We all know that measurably he is right. Two-thirds of our pauperism and crime would be removed if liquor were gone; the poor squander their earnings on it, &c, &c. Nobody justifies Rum. But there is another side to the question. There the liquor is; and as long as society fails to furnish a man with education, or work, food or fire, and a five-cent glass of whisky will warm, feed, and give him an hour’s delirium of joy, I, for one, have no heart to blame him when he takes it. The fault lies further back. Nor does the drunkenness of the dead baby’s father diminish one whit the guilt of those who let the baby die. As we have set feeling aside in this matter, let us at least keep our logic clear. 

There are other feeble pleas in apology of individual neglect of the poor, the chief of which is that there is so much trickery and imposture among them. Undoubtedly are the rich all honest in purpose and clean in hands when they set about earning a living. I protest, in the name of sense and decency, against the argument which holds every man in a ragged coat as swindler and every woman who asks bread a drunkard until they prove themselves innocent. It was the argument of those who passed Julia Deems by; and—there is the baby, dead.

Your correspondent urges that there are so many begging women and drugged babies on the street that it is impossible for men who have work to do for their own families to examine into each case; and he is right, unless we recognize the needs of our poorer brothers as being our “work” as well as the making of money. A man’s own children, let us believe, will not be worse fed or educated because of the time he gives to those whom Christ commit to his care. It is not weak superstition which trusts to the old surety, “He that giveth to the poor tendeth to the Lord.” Indiscriminate alms-giving is wisest to the worthy poor and a premium on imposture, but to the indiscriminate cruelty which condemns all alike, instead, I have no time to give. 

The fact is, that to those who have most carefully conserved the condition of the so-called dangerous classes, the statistics of prison reform bureaus of charity and the systems for their relief, the truth has been more apparent with each year that the failure in these systems arises from this very disposition of individual men and women to throw the ones of responsibility wholly on to organized charitable bodies, the refusal, in short, of educated people to recognize in the needy, men and women like themselves. With each year the habit has grown during which treats pauperism, ignorance, and crime as separate entities, not as so many human beings, and deals with them in masses through the machinery of corporate bodies. What has been the result? Our prisons were costly palaces in which the sole object was to make the prisoner self-supporting until he was turned out hardened in crime to prey upon society again; in county alms-houses and jails, and in church-going communities, vice and barbarities were practiced which I dare not write, until individual Christian men began to work of reform, in which personal care is given to the convict in his cell, and on his discharge. The success of this work depends upon the personal relations established between the criminal and his helper, the appeal in detail to his especial needs and character.

Organized movements and charitable societies are necessary, doubtless; but before we hand over the personal responsibility which Christ laid upon each of us to them, they must prove themselves able and fit for the office. Now, first, there are few of these societies which have not already urged their pleas for money, declaring themselves unable to cope with the exceptional need of the Winter. And secondly, it is not money nor victuals alone which the hungry man or fallen woman needs at the hands of brother men; it is the human compassion, the trust, the strong word and loving touch which shall heal soul as well as body and give them another chance for this world and for Heaven. How much of these will they receive from corporate societies? What charitable machinery may become when left to itself by individual Christians has been shown this year in this State by the assignment of two great reformatory institutions for the torture of lunacies, torture which ended in death. There is a certain hardening process which the managers of these wholesale charities pass through, inevitable, probably, from their frequent contact with fraud, but which is undoubtedly as injurious in its results upon themselves as upon the poor, and renders them unable to rise to any view of the relations between them but those which Gradgrind[1] himself would recognize. 

The mother of the dying baby the other night had no claim according to their code upon the Christian community, except arrest from the police when she violated the law by crying out in her agony. In a word, when a man shifts his personal responsibility for the poor wholly to legal action or organized associations, does he not rob his needy brother and himself of that reality of human brotherhood which Christ taught, and which is, after all, our only enduring bond, the vitality that holds the elements of society together? Or was the teaching of the Nazarae after all a mistake, to be amended by modern experience? There were legal enactments in Jewry for the cure of the poor. Were the priest and Levite who passed the wounded man by, leaving him to official care, orderly, admirable citizens, and the Good Samaritan a disintegrator of society? In the attended code, shall the awful words, “I was a stranger, and ye took me not in: naked and ye clothed me not; sick and ye visited me not; for, inasmuch as ye did it not to one of the least of those my brethren, ye did it not to me,”[2] apply only to the bureau of charity or the municipal police, and not to you and me!


Philadelphia, Dec. 26, 1876.



1. Thomas Gradgrind of Charles Dickens’s 1854 Hard Times; someone who privileges cold calculation.

2. A paraphrase of Matthew 25:43-45.


Abigail Fagan
University of Connecticut



Abigail Fagan University of Connecticut, “"Indiscriminate Charity." The New-York Tribune, 2 Jan. 1877, p. 2.,” Rebecca Harding Davis: Complete Works, accessed February 7, 2023, http://rebeccahardingdaviscompleteworks.com/items/show/39.

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