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Copyright (c) 1996 University of San Francisco School of Law
University of San Francisco Law Review

ARTICLE: Work or Starve: Regulation of the Poor in Colonial America

Fall, 1996

31 U.S.F. L. Rev. 35


By William P. Quigley *


"[Those] who would not work must not eat." 1

"For those who Indulge themselves in Idleness, the Express Command of God unto us, is, That we should let them Starve." 2

COLONIAL POOR LAWS have, not surprisingly, helped shape subsequent poor laws of the United States. From the very inception of colonial poor laws, the choice for the poor, with few exceptions, was to work, or starve.

I. Introduction
The ability of a poor person to work was the preeminent in determining whether they were worthy of public assistance. Those determined able to work were not eligible for help; people already working were not eligible. Although widows and children in need were given assistance, they also were expected to work. Only those deemed unable to work were considered truly worthy of poor relief. Of course this rule did not apply to slaves, free blacks, and Native Americans.

This Article traces the development of pre-revolutionary American colonial laws for the working and nonworking poor. 3 Capturing the essence of colonial poor laws is somewhat like trying to chart the origin of the Mississippi. There are numerous sources, and any article describing this topic can only briefly identify the major tributaries. 4 Consequently, this Article sketches out the major themes and developments of colonial poor laws on the Atlantic seaboard. 5

The English colonization of America was undertaken for property and profit. Poverty and idleness had no place in the push for colonization; in fact it was considered sinful. ...
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