Howard’s Extreme Social Tradeoff for Public Knowledge

face of a prisoner

John Howard’s enormous exertions to create public knowledge about prison conditions contrast sharply with his lack of investment in ordinary communication with family and friends. Constraints of time and energy imply tradeoffs in human activities. Personal dispositions vary across persons. No one can do everything. For an individual to be different from others is normal. Howard, however, made extreme choices between creating public knowledge and engaging in ordinary communication. Howard, moreover, became a new type of public hero. Howard’s life illustrates, in the communicative circumstances of eighteenth-century England, important communicative choices and their effects.

Howard’s actions indicate that he valued relatively little ordinary communication with family and friends. For example, in March, 1765, Howard’s wife died four days after giving birth to their only child, a son.^ Howard cared deeply for his son. Yet he also traveled extensively while his son was young: two months in Bath in 1766, two months in the Netherlands in 1769, and most of 1770 in Europe. Beginning in November 1773 and ending only with his death in Russia in 1790, Howard spent many months inspecting prisons, lazarettos, and hospitals in places far from home. He visited prisons throughout England in 1773, 1774, 1776, 1779, 1782, and 1788. He traveled widely in Europe in 1775, 1778, 1781, 1783, 1786, and 1789, with some of the trips extending into Poland, Russia, Turkey, Malta, and Portugal. While traveling, Howard communicated with adult friends through letters. There is no evidence that Howard corresponded with his son. Howard traveled on his own initiative to collect information that he considered to be important. The work that he undertook surely constrained greatly his opportunities to communicate with his young son.

Howard limited his communication with his son even when he was physically near to him. Howard’s son “frequently declared that he was afraid of his father.”^ Regarding Howard’s relationship with his son, one of Howard’s friends stated:

That Mr. H’s idea of education led him (as it has done many other wise and good men) to regard implicit obedience in a child as an essential groundwork, I readily admit; and that he managed so as to attain this point completely, I likewise know to be true. …That Mr. H’s conduct, with respect to his child, was such as was more likely to excite fear than affection, I have admitted, in asserting that inculcating perfect and unlimited obedience was his primary object.^

“Perfect and unlimited obedience” is a highly unlikely feature of a close, day-to-day, personal relationship.^ Similarly, fear is not consistent with extensive, personal communication. Contemporaries perceived Howard to have loved his son.^ Howard’s friends insisted that Howard did not cause his son to be judged insane and confined to an asylum. That is probably true. Yet it is also true that Howard’s communication with his son was highly limited in scope and time.

Howard also extraordinarily limited his communication with friends and acquaintances. An obituary of Howard noted that he “never partook of the public or private repasts to which he was so frequently invited.”^ One of Howard’s friends explained:

{Mr. H.} declined every invitation to diner or supper; not so much because he could not be a partaker of the repast, but for the same reason which prevented his going to any place of public entertainment, or even so much as looking into a news paper, viz. that he would suffer nothing to interrupt, for a moment, the main object of his pursuit; and that he employed the whole of his time, not devoted to sleep, in arranging the minutes or observations he had been making through the day.^

Howard apparently was keenly aware of the value of time. He linked time closely to purpose:

The value he set upon his time was, indeed, most remarkable. Punctual to the minute in every engagement he made, he usually sat, when in conversation, with his watch in his hand, which he rested upon his knee, and though in the midst of an interesting anecdote or argument, so soon as the moment he had fixed for his departure arrived, he arose, took up his hat, and left the house.^

In 1778, after meeting Howard for the first time, Jeremy Bentham wrote with admiration about Howard’s concentration on acquiring information about prison conditions:

His thoughts, his conversation, his writings are confined to this one object. Prospects, palaces, and pictures he passes by with an indifference equal to that of the Cynic and much better grounded.^

One of Howard’s friends recalled:

He {Howard} mentioned being once prevailed upon in Italy to go and hear some extraordinary fine music; but, finding his thoughts too much occupied by it, he would never repeat the indulgence.^

Howard enjoyed conversing and socializing with women. He wrote letters directly to Samuel Whitbread’s wife.^ Howard’s communication with women was unlikely to be directly related to his prison examinations. Nonetheless, collecting and disseminating information about prisons apparently predominated among Howard’s practice of communication from November 1773 through to his death in 1790.

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