Mindworks’ Weblog

Thinking Matters

Why the Tea Party really wouldn’t like Charles Dickens

Posted by Andrew Cooper on February 15, 2012

The young Charles Dickens

I came across the following passage from Dickens’ ‘American Notes’ last night. American Notes is his account of his first visit to America in January 1842, when he was 29 years of age. Based on what I’ve read so far it’s well worth a read. His account of his extremely stormy Atlantic crossing is hilarious. The thought crossed my mind as I read it that, if he were alive today, Dickens could have had a backup career as a stand-up when he wasn’t actually writing novels. (Are there any stand-up comedian novelists, I wonder? And if not why not?)

Anyway, here’s the passage that the Tea Party really wouldn’t like. It’s written as part of a reflection on his visit to Boston and its nearby ‘University of Cambridge’.

Above all, I sincerely believe that the public institutions and charities of this capital of Massachusetts are as nearly perfect, as the most considerate wisdom, benevolence, and humanity, can make them. I never in my life was more affected by the contemplation of happiness, under circumstances of privation and bereavement, than in my visits to these establishments.

It is a great and pleasant feature of all such institutions in America, that they are either supported by the State or assisted by the State; or (in the event of their not needing its helping hand) that they act in concert with it, and are emphatically the people’s. I cannot but think, with a view to the principle and its tendency to elevate or depress the character of the industrious classes, that a Public Charity is immeasurably better than a Private Foundation, no matter how munificently the latter may be endowed. In our own country, where it has not, until within these later days, been a very popular fashion with governments to display any extraordinary regard for the great mass of the people or to recognise their existence as improvable creatures, private charities, unexampled in the history of the earth, have arisen, to do an incalculable amount of good among the destitute and afflicted.

But the government of the country, having neither act nor part in them, is not in the receipt of any portion of the gratitude they inspire; and, offering very little shelter or relief beyond that which is to be found in the workhouse and the jail, has come, not unnaturally, to be looked upon by the poor rather as a stern master, quick to correct and punish, than a kind protector, merciful and vigilant in their hour of need.’

Good, isn’t it? (I’m not talking to you, Tea Party members.)

Overall, Charles Dickens was famously unimpressed by the USA but I haven’t read that part yet.

American Notes is available to read free online and if you use the wonderful Calibre software it will send it to your e-reader of choice.


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