With depression looming as a continual threat to the U.S. economy in the late 19th century, Americans debated how the government should respond to hard times—a question still unanswered today. Manufacturers—then as now—usually took the position that government should not interfere with the workings of the “free market.” When J. H. Walker, a shoe manufacturer from Worcester, Massachusetts, testified in 1878 before a congressional committee investigating “the causes of the general depression in labor and business,” he argued simply that the government should do nothing at all for the vast army of unemployed. “Leave them alone; that is the remedy,” he declared.
Q. . . . The most important fact before this committee is that we have in this country a large amount of unemployed labor.
A. A man might just as well hang himself because he has a boil, as to talk about changing our laws or institutions because the country has a local ache just now.
Q. What remedy are we to take for this surplus population?
A. Let them alone; that is the remedy.
Q. You think they will take care of themselves?
A. Let them alone. “The man who will not work shall not eat.”
Q. Men say they cannot get work to do.
A. They lie, and they tell the truth,—both. That is true of individuals. It always has been; it always will be. It is a melancholy fact, a fact to touch the heart of any living being, to see a man with his wife and children depending upon him, honestly asking for work, and unable to get it . . .
Q. What should we do with them?
A. They must be cared for now, as they have been, in the past for a very brief period. . . . But the government, as a government, can do nothing by any additional laws. . . .
Q. Are we to have these panics in the future as we have had them? Can they be avoided?
A. Nothing will prevent “panics” until human nature is radically changed. Their comparative severity will increase with advancing civilization, unless the disposition to protect themselves . . . by saving a portion of their earnings is more universal among the people than it now is. . . . The laws and institutions of the country can no more be adjusted to them than they can be to the condition of yellow fever. . . .
Source: U.S. Congress, House, Investigation by a Select Committee of the House of Representatives relative to the Causes of the General Depression in Labor and Business etc, 45th Cong.3d. Session, Mis. Doc. No. 29 (Washington D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1879).