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Alexander Cockburn
Alexander Cockburn
13 Jul 2012
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The Affordable Care Act: Decision Effects

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Suffer the Little Children


Newt Gingrich, who recently admitted that his own childhood was comfortable, seems to have a problem with youth — poor youth, that is. Back in 1994, the Gingrich master plan to shrink the welfare rolls was to ship the children of the poor off to orphanages. He told a Harvard audience not so long ago that child labor laws are "truly stupid," and schools should fire janitors and replace them with poor children.

Later, he modified this to "What if they became assistant janitors and their jobs were to mop the floor and clean the bathroom?"

Gingrich insists that his tots-to-janitors plan answers his latest national crisis: Poor kids have no habit of work "unless it's illegal." Thus, the former speaker of the house updates Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, who said, "Give me the child until he is seven. Afterward anyone can have him." Let the infant hand receive the lifelong impress of the janitor's mop.

The rationales of those attacking child labor laws haven't changed much down the decades. A glance at "The Town Labourer, 1760-1832: the New Civilization" by J.L. and Barbara Hammond about the histories of the town and country laborers in Britain, provides vivid samples from the early phases of the industrial era.

As the "new civilization" of the industrial age took hold, reformers fought futilely, down the decades, against appalling cruelties — particularly in the coalmines and coal fire chimneys. The first report of the Commission on the Employment of Children and Young Persons in 1832 reported on children working as "trappers," opening and shutting the doors guiding drafts of air through the mine; as "fillers" loading the skips when the men had hewn out the coal; and as "pushers" or "hurriers" shoving or pulling the carts along.

"The trappers generally sat in a little hole, made at the side of the door, holding a string in their hand, for twelve hours, usually in the dark." In the West Riding of Yorkshire, hurrying or pushing the carts was done by girls — in the words of the report, "Chained, belted, harnessed like dogs in a go-kart, black, saturated with wet, and more than half naked — crawling on their hands and feet, and dragging their heavy loads behind them — they present an appearance indescribably disgusting and unnatural." In many mines, the main gates were from 24 inches to 30 inches high and some parts of the tunnels were only 18 inches in height.

Children often began their careers as chimney sweeps at 4 or 5, thus fulfilling Gingrich's hopes that they would have a work ethic instilled in them at the earliest feasible moment.

The Hammonds write, "They started with a period of extreme misery, mental and physical, until they became inured to their trade.

Their terror of the pitch-dark and often suffocating passage had to be overcome by a greater terror below. In order to induce them to climb up, the more humane masters would threaten to beat them, or perhaps only promise them plum-pudding at the top; the less humane would set straw on fire below or thrust pins into their feet ... When the 'repugnance' of ascending the chimney ... had been overcome, there followed many months of acute physical suffering from the sores on elbows and knees ... A witness in 1788 stated that he had known many boys serve four or five years without once being washed. They slept almost invariably, with the soot, in a cellar."

If the chimneys were too small, the boys would be called down and told to strip and sent up naked. In 1818, chimneys in the houses of the rich were being built seven inches square. "It was, in fact, in big mansions and public offices that the difficult chimneys were found, and it was precisely in these chimneys with their horizontal reaches that there was danger of suffocation for the human brush. The child would make his way up to the top of the chimney, and then descend slowly, sweeping the soot down as he went. When he reached the bend where the flue turned at right angles, he would find great masses of soot into which he might slide as into a death trap. If he lost his head and got jammed, his fate was sealed unless his cries could bring help in time."

Regulations were passed by the British Parliament from time to time, but were flouted before the ink was dry. The House would pass laws, but the Lords, whose chimneys were being swept, crushed the bills. In 1819, the parliamentary transcript, Hansard, recorded Lord Lauderdale, a particularly implacable opponent of reform, as saying something that could as easily have been spouted by Gingrich: "If the legislature attempted to lay down a moral code for the people, there was always a danger that every feeling of benevolence would be extirpated."

Alexander Cockburn is co-editor with Jeffrey St. Clair of the muckraking newsletter CounterPunch. He is also co-author of the new book "Dime's Worth of Difference: Beyond the Lesser of Two Evils," available through To find out more about Alexander Cockburn and read features by other columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at



3 Comments | Post Comment
Ay, who dares argue with such self-righteousness? The trouble with these folks who sound so utterly holy and immune to any defensible rebuttal couldn't manage even a hotdog stand if their lives depended on it.
Comment: #1
Posted by: Masako
Fri Dec 16, 2011 9:17 PM
Ay, who dares argue with such self-righteousness? The trouble with these folks who sound so utterly holy and immune to any defensible rebuttal is that they couldn't manage even a hotdog stand if their lives depended on it.
Comment: #2
Posted by: Masako
Sat Dec 17, 2011 8:24 PM
Obama is a fraud and sellout

The Republicans are fools

This is not what the founding fathers envisioned for America

RON PAUL 2012 will be our last chance

Comment: #3
Posted by: Soothsayer
Tue Dec 20, 2011 9:21 AM
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