Making a Myth of John Howard for Social Science

face of a prisoner

In late nineteenth-century Britain, John Howard had become a fanciful figure in a founding myth for British social science. William A. Guy, one of the Vice Presidents of the Statistical Society of London, set out this myth in a paper read to the Statistical Society in 1873. Guy authored papers as William A. Guy, M.B., F.R.C.P., F.R.S. He was a doctor living in London, a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians, and a Fellow of the Royal Society. Guy served as dean of the medical college of King’s College from 1846 to 1858, was elevated to President of the Statistical Society in 1873, and then served as President of the Royal Society in 1876-77.^ Guy thus occupied the highest positions of authority in British science.

Guy declared John Howard to be “founder of a new epoch both in statistics and humanity” and “one of the foremost statists of his time.” According to Guy:

The statist (or, if you prefer the term, statistician) I take to be one who devotes himself to inquiries practically important to the State, as the legislative and administrative centre of the nation,… one who shares with all men of science a love of truth for its own sake, coupled with supreme indifference, so it be truth, to the form it assumes,…one who spares neither time nor labour in the prosecution of the particular inquiry in which he is engaged – who plans it with care and foresight, pursues it with patient industry, and takes note with minute accuracy and particularity of all the facts that bear upon it.

Guy contrasted Howard’s motives with those of religious zealots:

What highly wrought religious emotions have prompted the founders and apostles of new religions to undertake and perform, that and nothing less did this man {Howard} do under the compulsion of a sense of duty, sobered down by the most minute and laborious attention to fact

As scholars often do, Guy urged study of Howard’s writings:

To understand Howard, his work and his motives, a man must study his writings. From them he will learn how reasonable were the motives that impelled him to action, how careful and systematic his mode of procedure, how calm, philosophical, and yet original and far-sighted, the views he formed, how searching and comprehensive his inquiries. … by his magic method of inspection and record, he had in one short year brought about the legal reform of English prisons

Guy concluded by identifying himself and the gathered members of the Statistical Society of London with Howard: “we who live in this year 1873 are but the disciples of the modest, noble Howard.”^

Guy and other members of the Statistical Society were not careful, systematic disciples of Howard. Prison reform legislation apparently motivated Howard’s initial prison inquiries, rather than those inquiries producing reform in a year. Howard effectively practiced applied theater, rather than merely sober observation. Moreover, Howard’s motives were far from reasonable in the sense that Guy described. In a representative entry of his diary, Howard wrote:

when I consider & look into my Heart I doubt I tremble, such a vile Creature, Sin folly & imperfection in every action, oh dreadful thot a Body of sin & death I carry about with me, ever ready to depart from God, & with all the dreadful Catalogue of Sins committed my Heart faints within me … I once more in the Dust before the Eternal God acknowledge my Sins heinous and aggravated in his Sight…oh compassionate & devine Redeemer save me from the dreadful guilt and Power of Sin^

A later twentieth-century scholar noted, “Even those eighteenth century biographers still steeped in the Bunyanesque tradition found some of Howard’s diary entries reading ‘like the ravings of a lunatic.’”^ Howard was also capable of expressing strong emotions with much greater verbal control. In a letter to his close friend Richard Price, a leading eighteenth-century philosopher, Howard wrote:

permit me to say with great sincerity my ardent wishes are for your Health and success in that great and good Cause you are embarkt in, the Honour of God and the true knowledge of Jesus Christ.^

In the eighteenth century, Protestant dissenters from the Church of England understood religious liberty, seeking truth, and devotion to God to be intimately related. Guy’s portrayal of the “statist (or, if you prefer the term, statistician)” retained Howard’s commitment to truth-seeking. But it replaced devotion to God with devotion to the state. It replaced religious liberty with a passionless methodology.

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