Montesquieu, Smith and Burke on the ‘labouring poor’: An eighteenth-century debate

Plassart, Anna (2024). Montesquieu, Smith and Burke on the ‘labouring poor’: An eighteenth-century debate. In: O'Flaherty, Niall and Mills, R.J.W. eds. Ideas of poverty in the Age of Enlightenment. Studies in early modern European history. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, pp. 128–147.



This chapter raises questions about the widespread view that the 1790s were the radical turning point when our modern concept of poverty emerged. Anna Plassart places Edmund Burke’s famous mockery of the notion of the ‘labouring poor’ as ‘political canting language’ in the context not of the French Revolution, but of an ongoing eighteenth-century debate among enlightened social theorists about the character of poverty in modern commercial states. Burke’s indictment did not symbolise the end of paternalism and the beginning of free market liberalism. Certainly, it was a rhetorical move in response to radicalism in 1795. But he was also participating in an ongoing conversation about the concept of the ‘labouring poor’. To Burke, there were only the ‘idle’ poor: the purported ‘labouring poor’ were the expected productions of economic laws and their situation was unalterable. The framing of the labouring poor as an oxymoron was deployed by Burke, Frederick Eden, Patrick Colquohoun and Jeremy Bentham, but they were all, directly or indirectly, relying on the formulation found half a century earlier in Montesquieu’s Spirit of the Laws (1748). Through identifying the Montesquieuian origins of this critique, Plassart encourages us to think beyond the stark or binary analyses of the radical 1790s and to assess the changing status of long-established arguments.

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