Front Page Titles (by Subject) Chapter III.: NO UNION OF MASTERS. - Illustrations of Political Economy, vol. 3
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Chapter III.: NO UNION OF MASTERS. - Harriet Martineau, Illustrations of Political Economy, vol. 3 
Illustrations of Political Economy (3rd ed) in 9 vols. (London: Charles Fox, 1832). Vol. 3.
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The text is in the public domain.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
NO UNION OF MASTERS.
The achievements of the twenty-five who canvassed for support during Sunday were such as to put Clack into high spirits. The list of names with signatures or marks annexed, amounted to several thousands; and if the orator had been allowed to have his own way, he would have proclaimed war against the masters at once, and the turn-out would have begun on the Monday morning: but there were a few soberer folks than himself engaged in the consultation; and these smiled at his brag of the many thousand pounds that would pour in from Leeds, Coventry, Liverpool, Glasgow, anti other places, and insisted upon offering the masters the option of a peaceable agreement before any measures of opposition were taken.
Clack retorted that these men were afraid of their wives, and declared that they might wait long for a strike if it was necessary to refrain till the women voted for it, since there was never a woman yet who did not hate a turn-out as she would the plague.
This observation called forth some joke at his expense, for Clack was known to be engaged to be married, and it was thought he spoke from awkward experience. In the eagerness of defence he went a step too far. He asked if it was likely, knowing the disposition of the women on this subject, that he should consult any woman breathing as to the part he should take, or provoke opposition from any female tongue, or care for it if he should happen to meet with it. These words were, as he might have expected, carried to the ears which should never have heard them, and prevented his next meeting with his betrothed from being the pleasantest in the world. While a storm was brewing at a distance in consequence of his indiscreet boast, Clack made himself very merry with those who were less bold than himself.
“Where is Hare to-day? Henpecked, I warrant. Did not he promise faithfully to be one of the twenty-five?”
“Yes, and he is no where to be found,” said a neighbour.
“But I wonder, Clack, you troubled yourself to take a promise from such a shilly-shally fellow as Hare. His being married has nothing to do with it: he was never in the same mind for an hour together from his youth up.”
“How did he get married then?”
“O there was another and a steadier mind concerned in that matter, you know: not that I mean any harm against his wife: she is as mild as she is sensible. I only mean that her judgment strengthens his when they have to act together.”
“Then I suppose she does not like the idea of a strike any better than the other women, and persuades him not to come?”
“More likely she knows nothing of it. If there is one thing rather than another that Hare is afraid of, it is combination. That imprisonment of his father under the old combination laws made him a coward for life; and there is no use in telling him that the law leaves us to manage our own business now as long as we keep the peace.”
“He does, indeed, make a pitiful figure between his dread of belonging to the Union and his horror of being left out. But why do we waste our breath upon him ? Who has seen Allen to-day, and why does he not come? We shall count his modesty for backwardness if he does not take care.”
“Don't be in a hurry to blame a better man than yourself,” said a neighbour. “Allen has been in the country all day.”
There was no offence in such a comparison; for Alien was generally looked up to as the first man in that branch of the Union, though he was so little aware of his own merits that he did not come forward so much as he should have done, except on urgent occasions; and then he never failed to do all that was expected of him.
When the petition to the masters to hold a public meeting was prepared, and when Clack had appointed himself and two others to carry it round the next day, the Committee terminated their present sitting.
The first firm to which the deputies addressed their petition was that of Mortimer and Rowe.
“Are the partners at home?” they inquired.
“I don't know whether Mr. Mortimer is here yet, but there is Mr. Rowe. Sir! Mr. Rowe!” called the clerk, as he saw the junior partner making his escape, “these men wish to speak with you, sir, if you please.”
Mr. Rowe, perceiving that he had been seen, came forward to be spoken with.
“A public meeting,—equalization of wages, ——aye, very fair: hum! very well, my good fellows. Well: what do you want me to do?”
“To give your voice in favour of this public meeting.”
“Why, you know you have a good friend in me. You surely cannot anticipate any difficulty with me. I am a friend of peace, you know. No man more so.”
“Aye, sir: but there is more than one sort of peace. The masters have called it peace when they had all their own way, and their men were cowed by the law and dared not openly resist. The men call it peace when the two parties have confidence in each other, and make a cordial agreement, and keep to it. This is what we want at the present time,”
So said Gibson, whose turn it was to be spokesman; but Clack could not help putting in his word.
“And if either party refuses peace, you know, sir, the next thing is war.”
“O, no war!” said Mr. Rowe. “A cordial agreement, as you say, is the right thing. So, for this purpose you wish for a public meeting. Well; I shall be happy to attend a public meeting, if——”
“We are happy to find you so agreeable, air. Will you just sign for self and partner, if you please.”
“Sign! I see no signatures.”
“Because you happen to be the first person we have applied to, sir; that is all. We hope for signatures plenty before the day is over. Will you please to sign, as you approve of the meeting?”
Mr. Rowe suddenly recollected that he must consult his partner who sat in a back room. The men had not to wait long. The junior partner, indeed, did not appear again, but Mr. Mortimer indeed, forth, looking not a whit less haughty than usual. He begged the deputies would make the best of their way off his premises, as he had nothing to say to them.
What were his sentiments respecting the meeting, if they might inquire?
His sentiments were, that the masters had been far too tolerant already of the complaints of the men; too tolerant it was time the lower orders were taught their proper place. He had neither leisure nor inclination to argue with any of them, either there or elsewhere; so the sooner they took themselves off the better.
“You may live to change your sentiments, sir,” observed Gibson.
“Beware of threats!” said Mr. Mortimer. “There is law yet for the punishment of threats, remember.”
“I have neither forgotten the law, Mr. Mortimer, nor used threats. I said, and I say again, you may live to change your sentiments; and, for your own sake, it is to be hoped you will. Good morning, sir.”
“He is too busy even to wish us good morning,” observed Clack. “How coolly he looked over the letter he took from his clerk, as if we were not worth attending to for a moment!”
“Haughty as he is,” said Gibson, “I would sooner bear with his pride than Rowe's behaviour or Elliot's.”
“They are young men, Gibson, and Mortimer is old, and we would sooner bear with an old man's mistakes than a young man's, be they what they may! Where next? To Elliott's?”
“Yes, we are sure of being ill-treated there; so the sooner it is over the better.”
As they approached Mr. Elliott's house, they perceived that gentleman mounted on his favourite hunter, and in the act of leaving his own door. He was too much occupied with his own affairs to see them coming, for the most important part of his morning's business was setting off for his ride; and he had eyes for little else while he was admiring the polish of his boots, adjusting his collar, settling the skirts of his coat, and patting his horse's neck. Clack was not the man for ceremony; he came straight up before the horse, and laid his hand on the handsome new rein, saying, “By your leave, sir—”
“Hands off,” cried Elliott, giving him a cut across the knuckles with his riding.whip. “How dare you stop me? How dare you handle my rein with your greasy fingers?”
“How would you get such a rein, I wonder, sir, if we did not grease our fingers in your service?” said Clack, indignantly.
“I'm in a hurry,” said Elliott; “you can speak to the people within, if you want any thing.”
“We will not detain you, sir,” said Taylor, who was now spokesman, “but nobody but yourself can answer our question.” And he told the story in a few words, and put the petition into the gentleman's hands.
Elliott glanced his eye over it as well as the restlessness of his horse would permit, and then struck it contemptuously with his riding-whip into the mud, swore that that was the proper place for such a piece of insolence, rode up against the men, and pranced down the street without bestowing another look or word upon them.
“Pride comes before a fall; let the gentleman take care of himself,” said Gibson, quietly picking up the petition and wiping off the mud with his handkerchief.
Clack talked about using his greasy fingers to cram the soiled petition down the gentleman's throat, and seemed disposed to harangue the laughing bystanders; but his more prudent companions took him by the arm and led him away. Mr. Elliott's clerk, who had seen the whole proceeding from an upper window, and was ashamed of his master's conduct, came after them, out of breath, to ask them in while he copied the petition, which was not, as he observed, fit to show to any other gentleman. Gibson thanked him for his civility, but observed that the soiled paper would tell part of their story better than they could tell it themselves. The clerk, therefore, slowly returned, saying to himself that it is a pity when young men, coming to a large fortune obtained in trade, forget by whose means their wealth was acquired, and by what tenure it is held.
After visiting several manufacturers, some of whom were more and others less favourable to their claims than they expected, the deputies requested an interview with Mr. Wentworth. Mr. Wentworth had been rich as a young man, had failed through unavoidable misfortunes, and had worked his way up again to a competence, after having paid every shilling he owed. He was now an elderly man, homely in his person, somewhat slovenly in his dress, not much given to talk, and, when he did speak, causing some surprise and weariness to strangers by the drawling twang of his speech. Those who knew him well, however, had rather hear his voice than any music; and such of his men as belonged to the Union agreed that ten words from him were worth a speech of an hour long from Clack. There was, to be sure, no need for so many words from him as from other people, for he practised a great variety of inarticulate sounds, the meaning of which was well understood by those accustomed to converse with him, and served all the purposes of a reply.
Mr. Wentworth was sitting at his desk when the deputies were introduced. As they uncovered their heads and made their bow, some murmurings and clutterings reached them which they understood as a welcome. He looked steadily at them from under his shaggy eyebrows while they explained their business, and then took the petition to look over.
“You can hardly have any paper-makers in your Union,” said he, chuckling as he unfolded the sheet; “or are you saving your pence against a strike, that you can't afford paper as fair as your writing?”
“Aye, aye; wait a while and you will see him grow wiser,” was his observation on hearing the story of Elliott's insolence. “We were all boys before we were men.—Hum:—equalization.— Who will avouch that this equalization is all that you want?”
“I, sir,” said the ever-ready Clack—“I drew it up, and so I ought to know.”
Gibson observed, that though no further object was expressly contemplated by the Union, he would not answer for their not increasing their demands as they proceeded. If there was any attempt to equalize the wages by reducing all to the lowest now given, the Union would demand an advance.
“Who gives the lowest?” inquired Mr. Wentworth.
“Except some upstarts whom we can easily manage, Mortimer and Rowe give the lowest, and you, sir, the next lowest, and Elliott the highest.”
“Who was lamenting lately that the combination laws were repealed, so that the masters cannot be prosecuted for oppression? Who proposed to burn them in effigy, tied to one another's necks?”
The deputies looked at one another, and then answered that all this was only private talk of one of their meetings; it was never meant for earnest.
“Well, I only let you know that you may look about your Committee-room and find where the little bird builds that carries the matter; and if you can't find her, take care that she has nothing to carry that you would be ashamed to own. Did you learn from her that the masters combine against you”
“We learn it from our own eyes, and ears, and senses,” said Clack. “Have not masters oppressed their men from the beginning of the world?”
“Indeed I don't know,” said Mr. Wentworth. “If Adam had a gardener under him in Paradise, they might have tried to turn one another out, but I never heard of it.”
“Stuff and nonsense, sir, begging your pardon. Don't we know that masters always have Lorded it over the poor? They were born with a silver spoon in their mouths, and———”
“I wonder where mine is,” observed Mr. Wentworth; “I will look in my mother's plate chest for it.”
The orator went on,—
“They openly treat us like slaves as long as they can, and when we will bear it no longer, they plot in secret against us. They steal to one another's houses when they think we are asleep; they bolt their doors and fill their glasses to their own prosperity, and every bumper that goes down their throats is paid for with the poor man's crust.”
“They must have made the little bird tipsy, Clack, before she carried you such a strange story as that.”
“Don't tell me, sir, that it is not true! Don't tell me!”
“I am not telling you anything; for the plain reason, that I have nothing to tell. I only want to ask you one or two things, as you seem to know so much more than we do. Pray what have the masters combined for just now?”
“To lower our wages, to be sure.”
“And yet Mortimer pays one rate, and I another, and Elliott another. Why don't I ask as much labour for my money as Mortimer?”
“You dare not,” cried Clack.
“You know it's not fair,” said Taylor.
“You are not the man to grind the poor,” said Gibson.
“You have not hit it, any of you. You all seem to think it is a matter of pure choice with us, what wages we give.”
“To be sure,” said Clack, “and that is the reason we want parliament to settle the matter at once and for ever.”
“Parliament has no more choice in the matter than we masters,” drily observed Mr. Wentworth. “If ever Parliament passes a Bill to regulate wages, we must have a rider put to it to decree how much rain must fall before harvest.”
Clack muttered something about not standing any longer to be trifled with; but his companions thought it possible that Mr. Wentworth might have something to say that was worth hearing, and persuaded the orator to be quiet. Gibson inquired,—
“Where then does the choice rest, sir, if neither with the government nor the masters?”
“Such power as there is rests with those who take, not with those who give wages. Not such power as tips our friend's tongue there,” nodding at Clack, “not such power as you gain by the most successful strike, not such power as combination gives you, be it peaceable or threatening; but a much more lasting power which cannot be taken from you. The power of the masters is considerable, for they hold the administration of capital; but it is not on this that the rate of wages depends. It depends on the administration of labour; and this much greater power is in your hands.”
The deputies thought that they who pay wages must always have power over those who receive.
“That is as much as saying that wages are a gift. I thought you had supposed them your right.”
All were eager to urge the rights of industry.
“Aye, all very true; no right can be clearer when we see what wages are. Come, Clack, tell us, (for who knows if you don't?) tell us what wages Adam gave his under gardeners. You can't say? Why, I thought you knew all that the masters did at the beginning of the world. Well, when Adam was some hundred years old, (you may trust me, for I am descended from him in a straight line,) he said to Eve, ‘Stay you here and spin with the women, while I go yonder and set my men to delve; and don't expect us back in a hurry, for tillage is tough work here to what it was in Eden, and we must gather our crops before we can bring them to market. Come, my good fellows, work bard and you shall have your shares.’ ‘And pray, sir,’ said the men, ‘what are we to live upon while our fruit and vegetables are growing?’ ‘Why,’ says Adam, ‘instead of my sharing the fruit with you when it is grown, suppose you take your portion in advance. It may be a convenience to you, and it is all the same thing to me.’ So the men looked at the ground, and calculated how much digging and other work there would be, and then named their demand; not in silver money with king George's head upon it, but food and clothing, and tools.”
“Then at harvest time,” observed Gibson, “the whole produce belonged to Adam?”
“Of course. The commodity was made up, like all commodities, of capital and labour: Adam's capital and the men's labour.”
“And of a deal besides,” cried Clack, “If it was grain, there was the root, and the stalk, and the ear; and if it was fruit, there was the rind, and the pulp, and the juice.”
“Begging your pardon, friend, there was nothing but capital and labour. Without labour, and the soil and the tools which made the capital, there would have been neither grain nor fruit; and if grain and fruit grew wild, they could be no commodity without labour, any more than the diamond in the mine, and the pearl in the sea, are a commodity before the one is dug, and the other fished up. Well, Adam and his men expected to get as much by their crop as would pay for their subsistence and their toil; and this much the men asked, and Adam was willing to give, and a fair surplus remained over for himself. So they made their bargain, and he bought their share of the commodity, and had to himself all the flax and other things that his produce exchanged for in the market. And so that season passed off, and all were contented.”
“And what happened next season, sir?”
“Next season, twice the number of men came to ask work in the same plot of ground. Adam told them that he had very little more wages to pay away than he had the year before, so that if they all wanted to work under him they must be content with little more than half what each had formerly earned. They agreed, and submitted to be rather pinched; but they hoped it would be only for a time, as it was a very fine harvest indeed, so much labour having been spent upon it, and there being a fine profit into Adam's pocket.”
“Did they wear pockets then, sir?”
“No doubt; for the women were improving their tailoring, as much as the men their gardening, and expecting, like them, to increase their gains in consequence; and so they would have done, but that four times the number of labourers appeared next year, so that, notwithstanding the increase of capital, each had not so much as one-third the original wages; and the men grew very cross, and their wives very melancholy. But how could Adam help it?”
“Why did not the men carry their labour elsewhere?” asked Clack contemptuously.
“Why do you go on spinning for Mortimer and Rowe, when Elliott pays higher wages?”
“Because nobody is taking on new hands. I can't get work.”
“Well, nobody was taking on new hands in Adam's neighbourhood; all the capital was already employed.”
“But I don't mean to go on so,” said Clack. “I shall strike with all the rest of Mortimer's men, if we don't get better paid.”
“Aye, it is as I thought, Clack. Adam's head labourer was your grandfather, for he said just the same thing you are saying; and what is more, he did it. They all turned out, every man of them, and let the field take care of itself.”
“And what happened?”
“Only half a harvest came up; so that, of course, wages were lower than ever next year. The worst folly of all was that they went on to blame Adam, though he showed them that the harvest would not even pay its own expenses; much less leave anything to divide between him and them. ‘You talk to me,’ says he, ‘as if I could get capital down from the clouds as fast as I please: whereas you might have seen from he beginning, that I have a certain quantity and no more. If you choose to bring a thousand labourers to live upon the capital which was once divided among a hundred, it is your fault and not mine that you are badly off.’”
“If the thousand men agreed to live for so little, it was their own affair, to be sure.”
“And if they did not agree, their bidding against each other could not shift the blame upon Adam. If there was such competition among the men as to enable him to obtain more labour for the same wages, he was not to blame, was he, for employing three men for what he had at first paid to one?”
“Nor were the men to blame, sir, for bargaining for such wages as were to be had.”
“Certainly. Where then was the evil?”
“Clearly in there being too many hands for the work to be done,” replied Gibson. “But who could help that, sir?”
“Nobody could relieve the immediate pressure, Gibson, unless some had the means of taking themselves off, or of applying their labour to some employment which was less overstocked; but all had it in their power to prevent the evil returning. By foresight and care, labour may be proportioned to capital as accurately as my machinery to the power of my steam-engine.”
“What has all this to do with our petition?” asked the orator, who was impatient of remaining so long in the background.
“A great deal,” replied Gibson. “Mr. Wentworth means to point out how much rests with the masters, and how much with the men, and to warn us against a strike. But, sir, about equalization of wages: you think that fair enough, I suppose. In the very same market, and under the very same circumstances, labour ought to be paid at the same rate, surely?”
“One circumstance, you know, is the extent of the master's capital, which is seldom the same in any two cases, capital, and on which his power of waiting for his returns depends. But I agree with you that a man cannot safely lower his rate of wages much and permanently below that of his competitors, and that an equalization of wages is desirable for all parties; so I will sign my agreement to your wish for a public meeting. Coming, Charles, coming.”
Gibson had observed Mr. Wentworth's old gray pony in the yard for some time, and he now saw that Charles looked tired of leading it backwards and forwards while the animal turned its head one way and another, as if looking for its usually punctual master. another, While helping the gentleman on with the heavy great-coat, which he wore winter and summer, the deputy apologized for having kept the rider and his steed so long asunder.
“Never mind,” drawled Mr. Wentworth. “Dobbin and I have two rounds, a long, and a short; and I dare say he has made up his mind already which it will be to-day. If I have helped you to a short cut to your business, you will not think your time wasted any more than I.” Then as he buttoned the last button, and pulled his hat over his brows. “That's well: all tight. Hey ho, Dobbin! Good day to ye all.”
The shaggy pony pricked up his ears, quickened his pace, and well nigh nodded to his master at the sound of his voice. When Mr. Wentworth scrambled up into the saddle and left the yard at a funeral pace, the deputies looked with much more respect on him and his equipage, than on the brilliant spectacle they had met at Elliott's door.