Precedents From The Past
WHEN the indigent transient crossed the border into the Empire State during the hungry years of the Great Depression, the people he met there, like Americans everywhere, represented a complex mixture of values, traditions, and ideals which were the product of generations of American experience and centuries of English heritage. For the transient, the values that were most important in this encounter were those that would help to determine the welcome to be accorded him by the state, the community, and the individual. What went into that welcome was an explosive mixture of English and American laws, customs, and attitudes.
The first element in the social, cultural, and legal concoction that determined the "appropriate" attitude toward the wandering poor came from our English heritage. To begin with, centuries of harsh and repressive English vagrancy laws had encouraged a very definite fear of wandering strangers. Working against the very social and economic forces that were preparing the mobile surplus labor pool that was to feed England's industrial revolution, the landowning class was formulating laws as early as the fourteenth century to keep their labor immobile by branding wandering laborers as criminal and subjecting them to corporal punishment. 1
As the problem persisted, subsequent laws became more inclusive and prescribed punishment progressively more severe. Under Henry VII authorization was given for a search through the realm for "idle vagabonds and suspected persons living suspiciously." Those apprehended were to be punished by three days in the stocks on bread and water. During the reign of Henry VIII the increase in