Representatives of the people,

We respect the magnitude and the difficulty of your task. We are not those who, by the temerity of their accusations, have the misfortune to weaken the last power capable of saving society. You continue, with just slowness, your work, by which history will praise you to have consumed months, if you have worked for the age. But you will not have worked for a day, if you have neglected this formidable question of misery, which does not bear any delay. Do not think that you have done enough for having voted subsidies that have just been exhausted, having regulated the working hours, when work is still only a dream, and having rejected the rest of Sunday to workers who reproach you for the idleness of their weeks.

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Frederic Ozanam, article «Aux gens de bien» [To good people], in L’Ère Nouvelle, nº 151, September 15, 1848.

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Reflection:

  1. We continue reflecting, as in previous weeks, with the article “Aux gens de bien” [To good people] that Frederic published in the newspaper L’Ere Nouvelle a few months after the insurrection of June, those that Alexis de Tocqueville – 19th century French jurist, politician and historian – defined as

“the largest and the most singular [insurrection] that has taken place in our history and, perhaps, in any other: the largest, because, during four days, more than one hundred thousand men took part in it (…), and the most singular, because the insurgents fought without a war cry (…) What distinguished it, moreover, (…) was that it did not propose to change the form of government, but to alter the order of society. Certainly, it was not a political struggle (…), but a class struggle, a kind of slave war. (…) It should be seen in it only a brutal and blind, but powerful, effort of the workers to escape the miseries of his condition.” (Alexis de Tocqueville, Recuerdos de la Revolución de 1848. Madrid, Ed. Nacional, 1984, pp. 184-185).

  1. After a broad exposition of cases, showing the misery suffered by the workers and the poor in Paris, Ozanam begins to ask the different social classes to do something to change such a devastating reality. He addressed the rich, then the priests, and now it’s the politicians’ turn.
  2. Frederic’s first words to the representatives of the people are of respect and trust: he trusts in their ability to transform social reality, although he reproaches them for their slowness. He reminds them that history will recognize their work if they have a broad outlook and do not neglect the “formidable question of misery.”
  3. As we have already seen on many occasions, the “social question” and the situation of the workers in those early days of the industrial revolution were issues that greatly troubled Frederic.
  4. Politicians are asked to go further: not only regulate the “hours of work” and “Sunday rest,” but also work indefatigably so that there is work for workers with decent conditions. Some fifty years after the appearance of “Aux gens de bien,” Pope Leo XII collected this concern in the encyclical Rerum Novarum, and condemned the oppression and virtual slavery of the numerous poor by “a handful of very rich people,” demanding fair wages and the right to organize unions.
  5. Unemployment, together with the unworthy conditions of work, continue to be endemic problems of our world, especially in the less developed areas. There continue to be unjust wages, labor exploitation, limitation of workers’ and trade union rights, child exploitation, endless days of work … Again, we could say that reality has changed little, in some places, compared to what Ozanam lived.
  6. Our mission, as Vincentians, is also to act on the causes of poverty, and act together. In this sense, we should reflect on whether our presence in public forums, in the circles where these problems are settled and regulated, is enough.

Questions for dialogue:

  1. Do I take care of my “political formation”? Am I critical of the injustices that I see around me? Do I denounce them?
  2. What could we do, as a Vincentian Family, to improve the quality of life of workers, where manifestly unjust situations exist?
  3. Do we do enough now, in this sense?

Javier F. Chento
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