Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Helping the Poor—a Traditional American Value

Conservative politicians talk a lot about traditional values. One that doesn't get much air-play from Republicans is unambiguously promoted in The New England Primer 1777 Edition [link]:
Give of your portion to the poor,
  As riches do arise;
And from the needy, naked soul,
  Turn not away your eyes.

For he who doth not hear the cry
  Of those who stand in need,
Will cry himself; and not be heard,
  When he does hope to speed.

If God hath given you increase,
  And blessed well your store,
Remember you are put in trust,
  And should relieve the poor.
I'm not making this stuff up! If you search on "new england primer" (no quotes) and look for these phrases, you'll see this and more.

As Marilynne Robinson notes in The death of Adam: essays on modern thought, we tend to think we know what these books say. I'll confess I had no idea what would be in The New England Primer and was pleasantly surprised to find that our country's history was not just about the so-called "pillars of pioneer wisdom" (self-reliance, industry, etc.), but also a lot of concern for the poor. This included slaves, by the way—at least for some parts of the country. (One selling point for domestically-produced maple syrup was that it was not harvested with slave labor—unlike, say, some sugar from the tropics.)

I wonder if the so-called pillar of self-reliance ever was a major part of early American thought. If it was in fact a modern invention, if it really wasn't ever a real pillar of pioneer wisdom, that would elevate my respect for those old pioneers. As the Bible tells us, He who trusts in himself is a fool (Proverbs 28:26), even as it talks about caring for the poor more than about almost anything else.

from January 2012

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