Cyclopædia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States

Edited by: Lalor, John J.
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New York: Maynard, Merrill, and Co.
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Includes articles by Frédéric Bastiat, Gustave de Molinari, Henry George, J. B. Say, Francis A. Walker, and more.
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ATELIERS NATIONAUX. An atelier means in French, a place where workmen or artists, such as masons, carpenters, painters, sculptors, etc., work under a common direction. The same term is applied sometimes to a collection of workingmen. An atelier can be established in the open air; nevertheless the place of labor for ship-carpenters, stone-cutters, for instance, whose work is almost always performed in the open air, is more generally called in French a chantier, that is, a yard.


—We have nothing to say here of ateliers or French workshops in general, in so far as they are subject to the ordinary law. Since the law of March 17, 1791, which abolished the old régime of corporations in France, there have been no special regulations in that country for private workshops. The regulations which limit the hours of labor for children in factories, do not concern us now. We have here some observations to make on certain public ateliers, organized by the French government with a view of aiding unemployed workmen, and which have been designated by the name of ateliers nationaux.


—This last expression recalls nothing to-day but the organized movement of workmen which took place after the revolution of 1848, and which became so threatening to the public peace. Nevertheless it was not the first attempt of this kind made. In ancient times ateliers of charity, so called, had been established in France, with the object now of furnishing employment to unoccupied workmen especially during dull seasons, and now to put an end to mendicancy, by employing the indigent in various kinds of labor appropriate to their age and sex.


—The establishment of ateliers of charity in France goes back to rather a remote period. An edict of 1545 ordered the employment of able-bodied mendicants in public works. Ordinances of the 13th of April, 1685, of the 10th of February, 1699, and of Aug. 6, 1709, regulated the conduct of these ateliers. Louis XVI. extended this mode of assistance to the whole kingdom; he caused public works to be opened in every province during the dull season, and encouraged them by immunities and exemptions—In 1790, the beginning of the public troubles having caused a great number of private establishments to be closed, and left many laborers without work, vast public ateliers in the environs of the capital were opened. Besides, a capital of 30,000 francs was placed at the disposal of each of the departments, to give employment to the people everywhere according to the plan adopted for Paris. It was a very small amount in view of the object proposed, and apparently this sum of 30,000 francs was merely a sort of premium offered to encourage the departmental authorities who should enter on the path indicated by the legislature of the country. The law of July 12-22, 1791, regulated, by precise directions and strict orders, work in the public ateliers as well as the wages of the workmen. In addition, the organization of ateliers of charity was brought into the vast plan proposed to the constituent assembly for the suppression of mendicancy.


—It does not appear that these plans, executed in an imperfect manner, it is true, attained their object at that time. In spite of the opening of public ateliers, the misery of the poor and the enforced idleness of the workmen went on increasing. Still the convention did not hesitate to adopt the same method of public aid which fitted but too well into its general plan. It had often promised to come to the relief of every form of human misery, and the organization of public ateliers was one of the principal means which it proposed to adopt to make good its promises. But it was with these measures as with so many others announced by this stormy assembly; the time of putting them into execution did not come.


—Later, the law of the 24th Vendemiaire, year XII., gave a more regular and constant organization to ateliers of charity. The question was then, as it had been formerly, how to succeed in remedying enforced idleness and how to suppress mendicancy. Without entering into the details of this law, which was precise and foreseeing enough in its provisions, it suffices us to say that it did not attain the object which it proposed to itself any better than those which preceded it. Perhaps it might have been concluded, from this experience, that this method of public assistance is not so rational or efficacious as was supposed; but it appears so natural to want to obtain labor for those who need it, and compel those to labor who refuse to labor through misconduct or idleness, and so natural for men to flatter themselves that they can realize at small cost this double advantage, that they could not renounce the employment of the same means again.


—Recourse was had to it again in 1830, as in all critical periods; but the greatest as well as the most unsuccessful trial made in this direction was that which took place in 1848, in the establishment of the ateliers nationaux.


—The disturbance produced by the revolution of February having curtailed credit, diminished the demand for labor and thrown a large number of laborers into the street, the thought immediately occurred to men, as it had before, to organize public workshops in order to give employment to workmen during the stop-page of private establishments; and, in organizing these ateliers on a vaster scale, a more ambitious name was given them. At this period the ideas of certain socialist schools were spread generally among the people, who received them favorably. Various systems were current, having in view to substitute in a general way, for private establishments, public ateliers organized under the control of the state, and to which the name of ateliers nationaux was given in advance. Then, in order to aid laborers without work, it was resolved to employ them temporarily at the expense of the state. The ateliers which were established with this intent, naturally received in advance the name of ateliers nationaux. People seemed to consider them as a first attempt at applying the socialistic systems then in favor. And it is thus that real ateliers of assistance, very similar in substance to those that had been organized in 1790, 1830, and at so many previous periods, received a designation altogether new, which general usage in France has sanctioned.


—Not that in the minds of those who established the ateliers nationaux in 1848, there was really an attempt at realizing socialistic utopias. Those who took part in that work have defended themselves against having had such a thought, and we have no right to ascribe it to them in spite of themselves. It is certain, however, that the ideas which were current at that time, and even the ambitious name adopted, gave to the ateliers of assistance established in 1848 a special character and a new importance, very much greater than they had at any previous time. The organization of these ateliers produced most lamentable results, well fitted to disgust men forever with any attempt of the kind. They became a place of refuge not only for workmen reduced to involuntary idleness, but also for those who refused to labor of their own accord, through a spirit of turbulence or of idleness, and who found it convenient to obtain, at the expense of the state, a harmful leisure, too often devoted to fomenting civil commotion. It is thus that while completing the disorganization of private ateliers, they contributed, in no small degree, to extend the evils of enforced idleness, which they seemed destined to cure. At the same time they became a standing menace to the public peace.


—It is proper to add that, in 1848, less discretion and reserve were used than at other times in the admission of men to employment on account of the state. None of the precautions recommended, for example, by the law of the 24th Vendemiaire, year XII., were then observed. All who presented themselves were admitted, almost without distinction and without choice, especially in the first period; and it was only when the number admitted had attained colossal proportions that this course had to be abandoned. It was a corollary to this idea, almost officially admitted at that time, that the state owed labor to all who needed it. Moreover, either through negligence, want of care, or the real difficulty of the circumstances, poor provision, we might say none at all, was made for the effective employment of the men whom the state was supposed to put to labor for its own advantage. Both tools and work were wanting. During several months an enormous number of workmen were seen, estimated by some at 110,000 or 120,000 men, and whose number has never been exactly known now occupied in simply stirring the earth without any object, but more frequently in doing nothing at all, or in devising ways among themselves to direct tumultuous movements on the public square. This whole mass of humanity was seen hovering over the boundaries of Paris like a cloud, threatening general destruction. This was perhaps the most cruel and terrible of the embarrassments of this unsettled time.


—We shall leave to others the task of treating the questions of principle involved in this important subject. It is enough for us to have presented a short resumé of the facts. However we can not conclude without remarking how dangerous in itself is the method of assistance which consists in establishing public works to give employment to unoccupied workmen, and with what difficulty it answers the object proposed. It is not so easy as some think for a government to create at once extraordinary works in time of crisis and dearth of employment. A commercial crisis which influences in so unfortunate a manner the credit of private men, and which often forces them to restrict or suspend their work, influences in a manner no less disastrous public credit and the finances.


—It is besides in the very nature of things, that works improvised in this manner, especially in times of agitation and trouble, should be always badly organized and badly conducted. Therefore, even when unfortunately, critical times appear, when honest workmen are forced to stop work, if the government is in a condition to dispose of any extraordinary funds to aid them, perhaps it is better to devote it to a wise distribution of assistance to them at their homes than in works ill conceived, the least inconvenience of which is always to devour in useless outlay a good part of the means in hand.


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