Charles Dickens to Boston: Hate the Poor Less

Dickens in 1842, when he visited Boston.

Dickens in 1842, when he visited Boston.

When Charles Dickens visited Boston in February 1842, the city was seething with anti-immigrant (specifically Irish) and anti-Catholic hate that had already seen the Ursuline convent riot and would soon witness the rise of the Know-Nothing Party. The bigotry of the age moved even Dickens, who deplored Popery, to condemn anti-Catholic hate in Barnaby Rudge (1840-41).

It was against the background of a growing and despised immigrant underclass that he delivered these words to the Boston brahmins at a dinner in his honor. Although admittedly sentimental, his Christian plea not to step on the poor still has a simple appeal.

I believe that Virtue shows quite as well in rags and patches, as she does in purple and fine linen. I believe that she and every beautiful object in external nature, claims some sympathy in the breast of the poorest man who breaks his scanty loaf of daily bread. I believe that she goes barefoot as well as shod. I believe that she dwells rather oftener in alleys and by−ways than she does in courts and palaces, and that it is good, and pleasant, and profitable to track her out, and follow her. I believe that to lay one’s hand upon some of those rejected ones whom the world has too long forgotten, and too often misused, and to say to the proudest and most thoughtless “These creatures have the same elements and capacities of goodness as yourselves, they are moulded in the same form, and made of the same clay; and though ten times worse than you, may, in having retained anything of their original nature amidst the trials and distresses of their condition, be really ten times better;” I believe that to do this is to pursue a worthy and not useless vocation.

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