Front Page Titles (by Subject) Eighteenth-Century Attitudes Towards Business W. A. SPECK University of Leeds - The Representation of Business in English Literature
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Eighteenth-Century Attitudes Towards Business W. A. SPECK University of Leeds - Arthur Pollard, The Representation of Business in English Literature 
The Representation of Business in English Literature, edited and with an Introduction by Arthur Pollard. Foreword by John Blundell (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2009).
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Eighteenth-Century Attitudes Towards Business
In the early eighteenth century, literary reactions to business activity were largely conditioned by the impact of the Glorious Revolution of 1688 upon society. Above all they were influenced by the rise of the fiscal-military state and by its creation of a special relationship between the government and the City generated by the so-called Financial Revolution.1 Later, in the middle decades of the century, literary responses to commerce addressed the effects of economic growth and a rising standard of living, which some welcomed as “progress” but others deplored as “luxury.”2 Towards the end of the century incipient industrialisation and class struggle were emerging as themes informing some writings, anticipating the debate between the pessimists and the optimists over the changes wrought by the Industrial Revolution. But the most vociferous literary responses to business activity in the closing decades of the century were responding to the campaign to abolish the slave trade in the British Empire, a campaign which triumphed in 1807.
The term Financial Revolution sums up those measures introduced to underwrite the wars against Louis XIV which occupied the years 1689 to 1697 and 1702 to 1713. These required revenues on a quite unprecedented scale. Moreover, the taxes voted by Parliament, although initially adequate for war finance, took time to reach the Treasury. Meanwhile, allies and the armed forces had to be paid and equipped, necessitating the anticipation of revenues. The government therefore resorted to loans secured on the various taxes, at first short term but increasingly long term, until a national debt came into being which depended on faith in the regime’s ability to pay the interest. This system of public credit was enshrined in the Bank of England, established in 1694. In return for its privileged financial status the Bank lent £1,200,000 to the Treasury. In 1709 an Act of Parliament increased its capital to £4,402,343 and allowed it to lend another £2,900,000. Other corporations were also involved in the new financial machinery. The East India Company was frequently tapped for loans in return for the confirmation of its privileges. During the 1690s, when there were two companies vying for the government’s favours, the state received substantial sums from this source. Thus in 1698, when the “new” East India Company was incorporated, it lent £2,000,000 to the government while in 1708, just before the rival concerns joined to form the United East India Company, a further sum of £1,200,000 was advanced. In 1711 the financial mechanism was completed with the launching of the South Sea Company, which incorporated the state’s short-term creditors and transformed some £9,000,000 of debt into the new corporation’s stock. These links between the state and the City created a fiscal-military complex which underpinned Britain’s newly acquired Great Power status.
REACTIONS TO THE NEW FISCAL-MILITARY STATE
Reactions to this new financial machinery were mixed. Some welcomed them, but many criticised them. The fiscal-military state created huge vested interests which depended on the success of the novel experiment in public credit. The members of the financial corporations and those who serviced them in the stock exchange, together with the bureaucrats employed in the revenue system, not to mention the armed forces, all had a stake in it. Among those who welcomed its creation were the subscribers to the stock of the three great companies. These numbered around ten thousand individuals, about a third of whom were proprietors of Bank and East India stock. They were overwhelmingly based in London and the Home Counties and derived their incomes largely from non-landed sources. Relatively few landowners had surplus capital to invest in Bank, East India or South Sea stock. Spokesmen for the landed classes were very critical of the “monied interest,” as the investors in government loans were called. Thus J. Briscoe wrote A Discourse on the Late Funds of the Million Act, Lottery Bank and Bank of England Shewing that They Are Injurious to the Nobility and Gentry and Ruinous to the Trade of the Nation, in which he argued that they were
like a canker, which will eat up the gentlemen’s estates in land and beggar the trading part of the nation and bring all the subjects in England to be the monied men’s vassals.3
In 1709 Henry St. John observed that
we have been twenty years engaged in the two most expensive wars that Europe ever saw. The whole burden of this charge has lain upon the landed interest during the whole time. The men of estates have, generally speaking, neither served in the fleets nor armies, nor meddled in the public funds and management of the treasure. A new interest has been created out of their fortunes and a sort of property which was not known twenty years ago is now increased to be almost equal to the terra firma of our island.4
Jonathan Swift inveighed against this new monied interest the following year in the Examiner, observing that
through the contrivance and cunning of stock jobbers there hath been brought in such a complication of knavery and cozenage, such a mystery of iniquity, and such an unintelligible jargon of terms to involve it in, as were never known in any other age or country in the world.5
He pursued the same theme vigorously in The Conduct of the Allies. In it he claimed that in William’s reign “a set of upstarts . . . fell upon these new Schemes of raising Mony, in order to create a Mony’d Interest that might in time vie with the Landed.”6
By “a set of upstarts” Swift meant the Whigs who came to power under William III. For the dispute over the conflict of interests allegedly created by the Financial Revolution got caught up in the disputes between the Tory and Whig parties of the later Stuart era. Tories claimed to represent the landed interest and accused the Whigs of cultivating the monied interest. The reality was of course different from the rhetoric. While most landowners probably were Tory, a significant minority were Whigs. And while most investors in the “funds,” as stock in the Bank and the East India Company came to be known, were Whigs, there were nevertheless Tory speculators too. But the rhetoric of party propaganda and polemic has a life of its own quite apart from reality. Thus in the years between 1945 and 1979 the Conservatives were identified with the middle class and the Labour party with the working class, despite the fact that some business and professional voters voted Labour while many more workers voted Conservative.
Certainly Whig writers like Joseph Addison set themselves up as spokesmen for the monied interest. On 3 March 1711 he published an essay in the Spectator shortly before an unsuccessful bid by the Tories to wrest control of the Bank of England from the Whigs. It described an allegorical dream in which Mr. Spectator saw Public Credit as a beautiful virgin on a throne of gold. Upon the walls were such symbols of English liberty as Magna Carta, the Toleration Act and the Act of Settlement, which she cherished. Her health responded immediately to news reports which were hourly read to her, an allusion to the way that the stock exchange reacted to good and bad news. She was then menaced by six phantoms, Tyranny and Anarchy, Bigotry and Atheism, Republicanism and Jacobitism, the last in the person of the Old Pretender who brandished a sword in his right hand and was rumoured to have a sponge in his left. The sword he pointed at the Act of Settlement, while the sponge was to wipe out the National Debt. At their approach Public Credit fainted, while money bags piled behind her throne. Fortunately she was rescued by such friendly forces as Liberty and the future George I, the Protestant successor.7
John Arbuthnot, the Tory creator of John Bull, by contrast, was as critical as Swift of the City and its financial institutions. In his History of John Bull, law is an allegory for war, and the celebrated statement “law is a bottomless pit” is a metaphor for the vast public debt incurred by England in the War of the Spanish Succession. In order to finance his law suit “John began to borrow money upon Bank stock, East India bonds, now and then a farm went to pot.” This put him in the hands of scriveners—financiers who would lend on landed securities:
such fellows are like your wiredrawing mills, if they get hold of a man’s finger they will pull his whole body at last, till they squeeze the heart, blood and guts out of him.8
Not all Whigs were uncritical of the new machinery of public credit. Daniel Defoe could extol the City in his Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain and in his Essays on public credit and loans and yet deplore the Villainy of Stock Jobbers. Other Whig writers deplored not just the unscrupulous manipulation of the financial machinery but the machine itself. Thus in Cato’s Letters, published in the aftermath of the South Sea Bubble of 1720, John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon attacked the Bank, the East India Company and the South Sea Company. “The benefits arising by these companies,” they asserted:9
generally and almost always fall to the share of the stock-jobbers, brokers and those who cabal with them; or else are the rewards of clerks, thimble men, and men of nothing; who neglect their honest industry to embark in those cheats, and so either undo themselves and families, or acquire sudden great riches; then turn awkward statesmen, corrupt boroughs where they have not, nor can have, any natural Interests; bring themselves into the Legislature with their peddling and jobbing talents about them, and so become brokers in politicks as well as in stock.
The bursting of the Bubble, when many who had speculated in South Sea stock were ruined, seemed to confirm the gloomy prophecies of those like Briscoe and Swift who had predicted that the Financial Revolution would be a social disaster. “The world is turned upside down, topsie turvy,” remarked Charles Gildon; “those who had plentiful fortunes are now in want, and those that were in want, have now got plentiful fortunes.”10
While most of these Cassandras were Tories, a significant voice amongst the critics of the City’s new institutions and their involvement with the Bubble was that of opposition or Country Whigs like Trenchard and Gordon. They were moved to write Cato’s Letters by the debacle. In them they called for those responsible to be brought to justice, including corrupt politicians as well as the Directors of the South Sea Company. “Shall a poor pick pocket be hanged for filching away a little loose money,” they demanded, “and wholesale thieves who rob nations of all that they have be esteemed and honoured?” They even published a letter, allegedly from the public hangman, “asserting his right to the necks of the overgrown brokers.”11
What they shared with Tories was a suspicion of the Court, meaning the ministry and its adherents in the City, whom they accused of conspiring to create a government machine which would benefit monied and military men at the expense of the landed interest and the rest of the mercantile community. Since in their view the constitution was sustained by the stake landowners had in society and the economy, the new interests of money and the expanded machinery of the state brought into being to sustain a standing army threatened to subvert the constitutional freedoms enjoyed by freeborn Englishmen. They were resisting the growth of the military-fiscal state.
The rhetoric which they employed to articulate this resistance has also been identified as “civic humanism.” The leading historian of this ideology is Professor J. G. A. Pocock.12 He traces its pedigree to Machiavelli’s cynical exposure of the motives of politicians, and how men in power constantly endeavour to become more powerful. Virtuous citizens must therefore be perpetually vigilant to resist moves by those in authority to undermine their liberty. These Machiavellian notions were transmitted into English political discourse in the eighteenth century through the medium of James Harrington’s Oceana, written in the mid-1650s as a solution to the problem of preserving the English republic. His investigation of English history in the previous two centuries had led him to the conclusion that power was ultimately based on landed property. Thus he argued that, before the advent of the Tudors, there had been what he termed a Gothic constitution in which the power of the Kings, the Lords and the Commons had been more or less equal. This was because the Crown, the nobility and the gentry had each owned roughly similar amounts of land. Between 1485 and 1640, however, the Crown and the nobility had alienated land to the Commons. This shift in landed wealth caused an accompanying shift in the balance of power, from the Crown and the Lords to the Commons. The readjustment resulted in the Civil War. As Harrington put it, the dissolution of the Gothic constitution caused the war, not the war the dissolution of the constitution. He was concerned to prevent a similar seismic movement which would cause the Commonwealth to collapse, and proposed an agrarian law which would stop men from acquiring enough landed property to threaten the stability of the republic.
With the Restoration in 1660 the Gothic constitution was restored. In constitutional theory the Crown, Lords and Commons were again equally balanced forces. This was regarded as a perfect polity, since at any time two of the three could offset the tendency of a third to acquire more power. Thus the Crown and the Lords could combine to defeat a bid by the Commons to create a democracy, the Crown and the Commons could between them prevent the Lords from aspiring towards oligarchy, and the Lords and Commons could defeat the Crown’s bid for tyranny. During the 1680s, however, the Crown came near to erecting an absolute monarchy by keeping parliament in abeyance. The Glorious Revolution was therefore held to have restored equilibrium. The Country writers, however, urged that the subjects should exercise eternal vigilance to prevent it being overturned again. They argued that it was threatened by the development of the fiscal-military state. The growth of the armed forces posed a direct threat, while the Financial Revolution threatened it indirectly. Thus the Court’s special relationship with the City gave it opportunities to corrupt the independence of Parliament and ultimately of the electorate. The South Sea Bubble narrowly averted the complete subversion of the constitution. Hence the hostility of Country rhetoric to the new machinery of public credit.
Professor Pocock sees this rhetoric in the form of civic humanism as the dominant paradigm of the period before the French Revolution. It certainly was influential, not least in the ideology of colonial resistance to British claims of sovereignty in the War of American Independence. But there were other ideological stances less inimical to the institutions of public credit. As we have seen, Addison and Defoe both welcomed the City’s relationship with the state. Bernard Mandeville was another who positively advocated the advantages of the fiscal-military state. His Fable of the Bees took issue with those who criticised it for being a means of corrupting the constitution. Mandeville did not deny that it was corrupt—on the contrary, he depicted it as being soused in corruption up to the ears. But where its critics saw this as a source of weakness he asserted that it was a source of strength. As he expressed it in a notorious paradox, “private vices, public benefits.” The paradox he explained by asserting that such vices as lust and envy generate consumer demand which stimulates the economy.
DEBATE ON LUXURY: STANDARDS AND QUALITY
Mandeville was contributing to a debate which went beyond the pros and cons of public credit to the question of whether economic growth in general was beneficial to society. This debate centred round the word “Luxury” in the sense of demands for commodities which drove up the standard and the cost of living. Mandeville was quite convinced that it was beneficial. Luxury “employed a million of the poor.” It was particularly the conspicuous consumption of the aristocracy whose demand for buildings, furniture, equipages and clothes stimulated the urban economy. Above all, it was the insistence of upper-class women on luxury goods which swelled the demand for them: “. . . the variety of work that is performed and the number of hands employed to gratify the fickleness and luxury of women is prodigious.”13
Swift was convinced that Luxury was detrimental to social well-being. He got Gulliver to complain that he wore “the workmanship of a hundred tradesmen; the building and furniture of my house employ as many more; and five times the number to adorn my wife.” He was particularly scathing about the extravagance of women, asserting that “this whole globe of earth must be at least three times gone round, before one of our better female Yahoos could get their breakfast, or a cup to put it in,” while
in order to feed the luxury and intemperance of the males, and the vanity of the females, we sent away the greatest part of our necessary things to other countries, from whence in return we brought the materials of diseases, folly and vice to spend among ourselves.14
The dispute over luxury was thus at bottom a debate about the impact of overseas trade on society. Reactionaries like Swift deplored its allegedly corrosive effect on manners and morals, while progressive thinkers like Mandeville welcomed its contribution to improving the standard of living and the quality of life. Among the enthusiasts for the burgeoning commercial activity in the middle of the eighteenth century was the poet John Dyer, who published a georgic poem in four books, The Fleece, in 1757. It celebrated the providential ordering of the global economy, whereby God had distributed different resources throughout the world, the exchange of which between nations benefitted mankind. Commerce was therefore part of the divine plan, and did not deserve aristocratic disdain.
The bulk of The Fleece was an encomium on the textile industry. Describing the district around Leeds, Dyer observed that “all is joy; And trade and business guide the living scene.” Among the more reactionary was John Brown, who published a celebrated Estimate of the Manners and Principles of the Times in 1756. In it he claimed that there were three stages of commerce. The first was confined to the exchange of necessities. The second was concerned with trade in conveniences. The third exploited demand for luxuries. Where the first two stages were beneficial the third was pernicious since it eroded morality and rendered a nation effeminate. Brown was convinced that it had already corrupted the English aristocracy and threatened to corrupt the middle and lower orders. By 1763 an anonymous tract, The Tryal of the Lady Allurea Luxury, lamented that “almost every order of people amongst us, even to the meanest of the mechanics, are seduced by her malice.”
The novelist Tobias Smollett joined in the debate. His Complete History of England, as well as his novels, can be read as a diatribe against the rising tide of luxury provoked by excessive demand, especially from females. Thus in the History luxury is vividly portrayed as a tidal wave which swept in with the Revolution of 1688 and inundated the country under the Hanoverians until by 1748 “an irresistible tide of luxury and excess” had “flowed through all degrees of the people, breaking down all the mounds of civil polity and opening a way for licence and immorality.”15 Similar sentiments are expressed in all his novels but above all in Humphry Clinker. Matthew Bramble was taken aback by the prodigal size of London. “There are many causes that contribute to the daily increase of this enormous mass,” he observed, “but they may be all resolved into the grand source of luxury and corruption.” This was attributed by Lismahago to “the sudden affluence occasioned by trade” which “forced open all the sluices of luxury and overflowed the land with every species of profligacy and corruption.” The contagion had even reached his native Scotland.
The Scots, not content with their own manufactures and produce, which would very well answer all necessary occasions, seem to vie with each other in purchasing superfluities from England, such as broadcloth, velvets, stuffs, silks, lace, furs, jewels, furniture of all sorts, sugar, rum, tea, chocolate and coffee.16
Like Mandeville and Swift, Smollett attributed the rise of luxury above all to the insatiable demand of women for a luxurious life style, giving several examples in the novel of wives who had ruined their husbands by living beyond their means. The sexism was quite explicit, for the classical figure Luxuria was a female. Luxury was accused of emasculating society and making it more effeminate.
THE FINANCIAL REVOLUTION—BRIBERY AND CORRUPTION
The debate over Luxury to some extent paralleled that provoked by the Financial Revolution. Those who criticised it tended to be critics of the Court, accusing the regime of exploiting demands for luxury goods in order to corrupt the people, while those who accepted it were more inclined to be Court supporters. Country writers blamed a corrupt aristocracy for conniving with the Court but were also suspicious of plutocrats in the City of London, whether they derived their wealth from stocks or overseas trade. Thus Pope castigated Sir Balaam in his Epistle to Bathurst. A “Citizen of sober fame,” he is tempted by the devil first by the theft of a diamond then by investments which yield profits “in one abundant show’r of Cent per Cent.” He sells himself to the prime minister, Sir Robert Walpole, by accepting a place at Court and his soul to the devil by accepting a bribe. Pope draws a contrast between corrupt merchants like Sir Balaam who sell out to the Court and independent merchants like the patriot Sir John Barnard who deplore the corruption of the times.
There were two quite distinct Londons in eighteenth-century literature. One was the City, the centre of business and commercial life, inhabited by tradesmen and merchants. The other was the Court end of town, frequented by the aristocracy and gentry who visited the capital for the season or even built town houses there in the new streets and squares north of Oxford Street. These represented two distinct sets of values. The City was generally praised as the habitat of frugal, respectable citizens who added to the nation’s wealth and well-being. For there was general agreement that England was a trading nation and that the business community contributed to the nation’s prosperity. In this respect it is significant that when John Bull, who became the nation’s symbol, made his first appearance he was not the bucolic farmer he later became but “the richest tradesman in all the country.”17 By contrast, the aristocrats who could afford town houses in London at the Court end of town were generally regarded as decadent. The West End was consequently decried as the scene of luxury and debauchery.
There were some critics of the City who represented merchants as being grasping and avaricious, having profit as their only motive and treating people as commodities. The type was a stock character on the stage. Sir Humphrey Staple, a merchant in a play by Leonard Welsted which appeared in 1727, deplored the representation of his kind in drama. He complains that
The wits and poets make it their business in their plays and prologues to abuse their betters, and that they treat persons of good reputation very injuriously, giving them nicknames such as Nikin, Gripe, Scrape-all, Split farthing and the like; Now Sir I must be plain to tell you that this licence is unreasonable, and that persons of substance and credit ought not to be libell’d by your poets and people of that character.18
Yet Staple himself deserves this reputation for his treatment of his daughter as an asset to be marketed on the marriage market. As he puts it: “my daughter is my merchandise, and I’ll not part with her upon credit; something for something and nothing for nothing, as I often say, is our family wisdom.” He is rebuked for treating his offspring as “a commodity to be disposed of” by another character who tells him “beauty is not the common merchandise, to be sold by cant and auction, or to be put up by inch of candle. That is for African slaves, not free born British ladies.”
Hogarth depicts another grasping merchant like Staple in the mercantile father who sells his daughter into wedlock with a noble lord’s son in Marriage à la mode. The merchant’s motive is pure greed, for his daughter’s marriage to the aristocratic rake is doomed from the start, as the image in the first plate of the two dogs chained together symbolises. His miserliness is also depicted in the final plate as he takes the wedding ring off his dead daughter’s finger. The unsuitability of a nouveau riche tradesman as a husband for the daughter of a well-established landed family is one of the reasons why the odious Solmes, a “prosperous upstart, mushroomed into rank,” is objectionable to Richardson’s Clarissa.
Despite these representations of the unacceptable face of business, there are signs that the image of merchants in literature was slowly improving during the early eighteenth century. Among poets, Edward Young wrote an ode in 1729 on British trade, “The Merchant.” This was a celebration of the role of commerce.19
In drama the more favourable representation of merchants was largely due to the efforts of Whig dramatists like Sir Richard Steele and George Lillo. Sealand in Steele’s The Conscious Lovers (1723) is often seen as a turning point in the characterisation of the merchant, as he is eminently honest and upright. “We merchants are a species of gentry that have grown into the world this last century,” he declaims, “and are as honourable and almost as useful as you landed folks.” Though the disclaimer is ironic there is still a defensive view of commerce in The Conscious Lovers. It was not until the appearance of George Lillo’s The London Merchant in 1731 that a major production extolled the virtues of trade in its principal characters.
DEFOE CHAMPIONS COMMERCE
Before that Daniel Defoe had championed the commercial community. Defoe was an unflagging advocate of trade throughout his long career as a journalist and a novelist, from his Essay upon Projects published in 1698 to his Compleat English Tradesman which appeared in the years 1726 and 1727. His Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain boasted that
this whole kingdom, as well as the people, as the land, and even the sea, in every part of it, are employed to furnish something . . . to supply the city of London with provisions.20
He delighted in the forest of masts below London Bridge, whose ships connected the capital not only to the rest of the kingdom but to the most distant parts of the world. The result was to make Britain “the most flourishing and opulent country in the world.” His fiction was equally enthusiastic about the benefits arising from commerce. He even introduced a real merchant, Sir Robert Clayton, into Roxana. Sir Robert lectures the heroine on the advantages of trade over land, telling her “that an Estate is a pond, but that a Trade was a spring; that if the first is once mortgag’d it seldom gets clear, but embarrass’d the person for ever; but the merchant had his estate continually flowing.”21
Robinson Crusoe can be read as a paean of praise to business activity. Crusoe starts out not as a merchant but as a mariner, leaving home at the age of eighteen when he was too old to be apprenticed either to a tradesman or as a clerk to an attorney. As a mariner, however, he made a profit on his first voyage to Guinea, exchanging toys worth £40 for gold dust worth nearly £300, which he says “made me both a sailor and a merchant.” He therefore “set up for a Guiney trader.” Later he became a planter in Brazil and after four years began to prosper, until he estimated that in another three or four years he would be worth £3,000 or even £4,000. Then he made the fateful decision to enter the slave trade, which led to his shipwreck and his long sojourn on an island. During his stay there Crusoe becomes a basketmaker, a boatbuilder, a carpenter, a miller, a potter, a tailor and an umbrella maker.
From the bare outline of Crusoe’s adventures Defoe might not seem to have found much to commend in the merchant’s calling. Yet though Crusoe is inclined to blame Fate for his misfortune, Defoe makes him the author of his own misery, partly through his lack of piety but mainly through his want of prudence. It is his impious refusal to obey his father’s wishes which leads to his first shipwreck in the Yarmouth roads, but it is his imprudently overreaching himself in business ventures which indirectly causes his solitary confinement on the island. Defoe, who had himself failed in business, blamed such failures not on economic conditions but on moral and personal faults in the businessman. As he put it in The Compleat English Tradesman:
There must be some failure in the tradesman, it can be no where else; either he is less sober and less frugal, less cautious of what he does, who he trusts, how he lives, and how he behaves, than tradesmen used to be; or he is less industrious, less diligent, and takes less care and pains in his business, or something is the matter.22
Crusoe himself admits that, at a time when his plantation was beginning to flourish, “for me to think of such a voyage was the most preposterous thing that ever man in such circumstances could be guilty of.” He triumphs over adversity by learning to be both pious and prudent. It is especially in his acquisition of skills for physical survival that Defoe indicates his admiration of the characteristics which enabled men to survive in trade.
Joseph Addison also championed the commercial community in the pages of the Spectator. “There are not more useful members in a commonwealth than merchants,” he observed in one essay. “They knit mankind together in a mutual intercourse of good offices, distribute the gifts of Nature, find work for the poor, add Wealth to the Rich, and magnificence to the Great.” In the archetypal merchant he created with Sir Andrew Freeport, one of the leading members of the Spectator Club, he epitomised these virtues. At his first appearance we are told that he is:
a merchant of great eminence in the City of London: a person of indefatigable industry, strong reason and great experience. His notions of trade are noble and generous, and (as every rich man has usually some sly way of jesting, which would make no great figure were he not a rich man) he calls the sea the British common.23
And yet in the end Sir Andrew sells out and becomes a country gentleman. When he resigned from the Spectator Club he informed its members that he was leaving business to set up as a landed proprietor:
as the greatest part of my estate has been hitherto of an unsteady and volatile nature, either tost upon seas or fluctuating in funds; it is now fixed and settled in substantial acres and tenements.
In this respect Sir Andrew Freeport is the archetype of the successful businessman who acquires a country estate and leaves commerce. Their upwardly mobile ambitions were both satirised and sanctioned by contemporary writers. And ultimately the goal of landownership has been criticised for eroding the entrepreneurial spirit in England.
The entrepreneurs who rose by manipulating the fiscal system set up in the Financial Revolution to acquire landed estates and set themselves up as country gentlemen were stock characters in the political satire of the age. The archetype of these was Thomas Double, a character created by Charles Davenant, who started out as a shoemaker’s apprentice in London, but left shoemaking to buy a place in the Customs with money bequeathed to him by his grandmother “who sold barley-broth and furmity by Fleet ditch.” In James II’s reign, however, he was convicted of fraud and turned out of the Customs service. Where he had previously been a loyal Tory, he now became “a furious Whig.” When his grandmother’s legacy ran out he was “forced to be a corrector of a private press in a garret, for three shillings a week.” Then the Revolution improved his condition, for he was able by an outrageous confidence trick to pass himself off as an agent of the Prince of Orange and by even more brazen cheating at dice to win money from the man he had conned. He then set out to make his fortune from the new regime, starting with shares in the discovery of concealed Crown lands, and moving into the big time with enormous frauds in the disposal of confiscated Irish estates. Double claimed the credit for the Financial Revolution, which had “run the nation head over ears in debt by our funds, and new devices.” He confessed that £50,000 had stuck to his fingers when he acted as receiver of taxes, and although it had cost him £20,000 to buy off a parliamentary inquiry by bribing MPs, he still had enough left to live at ease, with his country seat, a town house and a coach and six.24
A GENTRY OF WAR PROFITEERS?
Tory satirists built on Davenant’s Double to depict a whole new upstart gentry of Whig war profiteers who allegedly upheld the corrupt ministry of Walpole. They were indulging in what has been termed “the politics of nostalgia,” imagining a golden age when the country had been ruled by its hereditary aristocracy and gentry, before access to landed estates had been opened up to parvenus from the City of London.25 That such an era existed largely in their imaginations was irrelevant, as was the fact that entry into the landed classes remained very restricted throughout the eighteenth century. Most businessmen who aspired to life in the countryside sought a house in the country with a few acres rather than a country house with tenanted farms. Travellers noticed these country homes on the approaches to London in Essex and Surrey. Thus in Stratford, Essex, John Macky observed in 1714:
above two hundred little country houses for the conveniency of the citizens in summer, where their wives and children generally keep, and their husbands come down on Saturdays and return on Mondays.26
Similarly, Defoe noted on the other side of town, along the road from Richmond to London, “citizens’ country houses whither they retire from the hurries of business, and from getting money, to draw their breath in a clean air.”27 Most businessmen who had houses in the country were commuters rather than landed gentry. Nevertheless, it only needed a few notorious examples in reality to feed the nostalgic myth. The most outstanding was the acquisition by the goldsmith Sir Charles Duncombe of the Helmsley estate of the second Duke of Buckingham, reputedly for £80,000 in cash, to feed the paranoia of the landed interest. As Pope expressed it:
Upstart landowners who were allegedly usurping the place of traditional landlords were accused of introducing inappropriate business methods into estate management. Traditionally, country gentlemen were expected to act as patriarchs presiding over their local communities. The relationship between them and their tenants and neighbours was one of reciprocal rights and duties. Inferiors owed deference to their superiors but these in turn were required to treat those below them with sympathy and understanding, not rack-renting them in the interests of profit maximisation. The new breed of landlord was accused of acting more like patricians than patriarchs, reducing the traditional relationship to a crude cash nexus. Pope epitomised these contrary types in the characters of the Man of Ross and Timon. The Man of Ross, who was based on a real character, John Kyrle, who lived at Ross on Wye, was depicted as an exemplary patriarch.
By contrast, Timon exploited his position as a landlord to gratify his own aspirations rather than to satisfy those of his neighbours.
Timon has no sense of serving the community. He uses his wealth only to indulge his own vanity. His dining-room is described as a temple, the object of his worship being himself. Pope had to admit, however, that Mandeville had a point when he claimed that the conspicuous consumption of the aristocracy stimulated economic growth. As he conceded of Timon:
Yet such side-effects of luxury and vanity were not as beneficial to society in Pope’s view as an economy in harmony with nature. The Man of Ross with his traditional patriarchal ways stimulated economic activity more naturally than did Timon. This is symbolised by their variant uses of water. Thus the Man of Ross conducted water from the dry rock:
At Timon’s villa:
After Timon’s death the estate will be developed more in conformity with nature, so that
Swift drew a similar contrast between a patriarchal landlord practising traditional methods of estate management and upstart landowners exploiting new techniques in the persons of Lord Munodi and his neighbours whom Gulliver met in Balnibari. Munodi is presented as an archetypal patriarch. “Everything about him,” Gulliver recorded, “was magnificent, regular and polite.” He treated the traveller with much kindness and in a most hospitable manner in his town house and then took him to his country seat, where Gulliver did not “remember to have seen a more delightful prospect.” The estate was divided into neat and prosperous farms, while the house was “a noble structure, built according to the best rules of ancient architecture.” Gulliver notes that the neighbouring lands are barren in contrast, but Munodi confesses that his old-fashioned methods are derided by his neighbours and that
he doubted he must throw down his houses in town and country, to rebuild them after the present mode; destroy all his plantations, and cast others into such a form, as modern usage required; and give the same directions to all his tenants.33
The severest condemnation of businesslike methods of estate management found expression in a poem by Oliver Goldsmith, The Deserted Village. Goldsmith linked changes in the countryside to the rise of luxury which in his view caused a rise in the standard of living for the privileged classes but not to the mass of the rural population: “the rich man’s joys increase, the poor’s decay.” Auburn, an idyllic example of a traditional community, is transformed by a “tyrant,” “one only master” who “grasps the whole domain,” and “trade’s unfeeling train” into “The Deserted Village.” “The man of wealth and pride,” like Timon, “has robbed the neighbouring fields of half their growth” in order to extend the bounds of his country house. Worse still, he has enclosed “the fenceless fields” and even the common land. As a result the villagers are forced out to seek a livelihood either in a town or in the colonies.
Other writers were more inclined to applaud than to deplore what they saw as the refreshing of the landed classes by new entrants from the business community. Addison made this quite clear by the contrast he drew between the traditional landlord, Sir Roger de Coverley, and the policy which Sir Andrew Freeport intended to adopt towards the estate he acquired through commercial success. Sir Roger is an archetypal patriarch, “the best master in the world,” with “a mixture of the father and the master of the family.” “Family” is here used to denote Sir Roger’s household as well as his immediate kin. His servants have a particular fondness for him, greeting him with joy when he makes his way from London to his Worcestershire seat in the company of Mr. Spectator:
some of them could not refrain from tears at the sight of their old master, and every one of them pressed forward to do something for him, and seemed discouraged if they were not employed.
The baronet’s kindness to his servants extended to their children, so that he paid the premium for his coachman’s grandson to become apprenticed. He is kind to his tenants as well as to his servants, so that “the greatest part of Sir Roger’s estate is tenanted by persons who have served himself or his ancestors.” Being a good churchman he has given all his fellow parishioners a hassock and a copy of the Book of Common Prayer. In short, as Sir Roger confides to Mr. Spectator, he “resolved to follow the steps of the most worthy of my ancestors . . . in all the methods of hospitality and good neighbourhood.” In return he is “beloved and esteemed by all about him. He receives a suitable tribute for his universal benevolence to mankind in the returns of affection and goodwill which are paid him by every one that lives within his neighbourhood.”35
Sir Roger de Coverley’s old-fashioned values are not upheld by the merchant Sir Andrew Freeport. There is an explicit rejection of the baronet’s ideas in favour of a more business-oriented ideology in a passage wherein the two members of the Spectator Club discuss charity. Sir Andrew objects to Sir Roger’s indiscriminate benefaction:
“If to drink so many hogsheads is to be hospitable, we do not contend for the fame of that virtue; but it would be worthwhile to consider whether so many artificers at work ten days together by my appointment, or so many peasants made merry on Sir Roger’s charge, are the more obliged? . . . Sir Roger gives to his men, but I place mine above the necessity or obligation of my bounty.”36
Sir Andrew’s practical rather than sentimental approach to such matters is extolled when he buys an estate and plans to run it along lines very different from the traditional methods employed by Sir Roger:
“This will give me great opportunity of being charitable in my way, that is, in setting my poor neighbours to work, and giving them a considerable subsistence out of their own industry. My gardens, my fishponds, my arable and pasture grounds shall be my several hospitals or rather workhouses, in which I propose to maintain a great many indigent persons who are now starving in my neighbourhood. . . . As in my mercantile employment I so disposed my affairs, that from whatever corner of the compass the wind blew it was bringing home one or other of my ships; I hope, as a husbandman, to contrive it so, that not a shower of rain, or a glimpse of sunshine shall fall upon my estate without bettering some part of it, and contributing to the products of the season.”37
Although Robinson Crusoe extolled the advantages of the middle station of life at the outset of his career, he ended it as a substantial landowner and proprietor of an overseas colony. Walter Shandy, the presumed father of Sterne’s Tristram, was a country gentleman established at Shandy Hall at the time of Tristram’s birth, but “was originally a Turkey merchant” who “had left off business for some years in order to retreat to, and die upon, his paternal estate.”
WEALTH AND GREATNESS THE CAUSE OF CORRUPTION
Adam Smith both commented on and criticised this social aspiration to emulate the great landed proprietors. In The Theory of Moral Sentiments he observed the “disposition of mankind to go along with all the passions of the rich and the powerful.” He went on to deplore it as
the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments. That wealth and greatness are often regarded with the respect and admiration which are due only to wisdom and virtue; and that the contempt, of which vice and folly are the only proper objects, is often most unjustly bestowed upon poverty and weakness, has been the complaint of moralists of all ages.38
The discrepancy between the social and moral hierarchies was also a concern of the eighteenth-century novel. Although it is often regarded as a bourgeois art form it is much more concerned with the landed classes than with the business world. Eighteenth-century novelists explored the social relationships of the aristocracy and gentry rather than those of the middle classes. Insofar as they dealt with concerns of those below the landed elite they tended to discuss professional men—the clergy, doctors, lawyers and soldiers—rather than merchants and manufacturers.
Until the 1790s novelists did not generally attack the landed elite per se. On the contrary, while they castigated landlords who abused their privileged position, they held out the prospect of their heroes and heroines acquiring elite status as a desirable goal. Under the impact of the French Revolution, however, novels began to appear which challenged the desirability of identifying with aristocracy as such. In Gothic novels aristocrats were depicted as exploiters of their position in society in order to exert social and psychological terror over their inferiors. The most notorious of these figures was Montoni, the tyrannical Italian nobleman of Anne Radcliffe’s sensational Mysteries of Udolpho. He was but the archetype of Gothic villains in this popular genre. Jacobin novels were even more explicit in their condemnation of aristocrats. Godwin’s Caleb Williams castigated not just individuals who failed to live up to the patriarchal ideals of aristocracy but the very system itself which sustained the landed elite in its position.
Writers in the late eighteenth century did not, however, espouse bourgeois values to offset those of the aristocracy. On the contrary they deplored the increasing urbanisation of the century’s closing decades and advocated a rural rather than an urban way of life. In the incipient class war associated with industrialisation they tended to sympathise with the poor against their new exploiters, the industrial entrepreneurs. The early Romantics thus anticipated the debate on whether the social impact of the Industrial Revolution had been more detrimental than beneficial, a debate which still can divide historians into optimists and pessimists. The Romantic view was definitely pessimistic.
William Cowper anticipated the Lake poets in many ways in his poem The Task, and not least in deploring the way men had lost sight of Nature in cities which “breathe darkness all day long.” The celebrated Preface to Lyrical Ballads in 1798 criticised “the increasing accumulation of men in cities.” As for the impact of industry, Blake’s condemnation of “dark satanic mills” is well known, though it can be disputed whether it refers to factories or mental processes. A less equivocal critique of industrialisation came from Robert Southey who, writing about the increase in poverty in his Letters from England (1807), claimed that
many causes have contributed to the rapid increase of this evil. . . . But the manufacturing system is the main cause; it is the inevitable tendency of that system to multiply the number of the poor, and to make them vicious, diseased and miserable.
He illustrated these propositions by getting the fictitious author of the Letters, Don Manuel Alvarez Espriella, to visit a Manchester cotton mill. It employed two hundred hands, including small children. The mill owner assured Espriella that they were well treated. “Here Commerce is the queen witch,” observed the Don, “and I had no talisman strong enough to disenchant those who were daily drinking of the golden cup of her charms.” For in Southey’s view the reality was very different. Debauchery, disease, ignorance and poverty were prevalent. The employees either died of diseases inherent in their environment,
or they live to grow up without decency, without comfort and without hope, without morals, without religion, and without shame, and bring forth slaves like themselves to tread in the same path of misery.39
LITERARY CONDEMNATION OF THE SLAVE TRADE
The comparison of workers with slaves was highly charged in the year 1807, which saw the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire. That had come about remarkably quickly following a campaign which really got going only twenty years before. Previously there had been isolated condemnation of slavery and the traffick in Africans which had been echoed in literature. Even John Dyer, whose poem The Fleece enthused about commerce, drew the line at the slave trade. Lawrence Sterne wrote a critique of the treatment of Africans by Europeans in the last volume of Tristram Shandy. While he was working on it he received a letter from Ignatius Sancho, the Duke of Montagu’s black butler. Ignatius wrote: “I am one of those people whom the illiberal and vulgar call a nigger.” He had read and admired Tristram Shandy and also Sterne’s Sermons. One sermon in particular, “Job’s Account of the Shortness and Troubles of Life Considered,” had impressed him because of what he called a “truly affecting passage” on slavery. “Consider slavery—what it is,” Sterne observed in it, “how bitter a draught! and how many millions have been made to drink of it.” Sancho asked Sterne to write further on the subject, which “handled in your own manner, would ease the yoke of many, perhaps occasion a reformation throughout our islands.” Sterne obliged by including a passage in the ninth volume of Tristram Shandy in which Corporal Trim asks Uncle Toby, doubtingly, if a negro has a soul. Toby replies: “ ‘I suppose God would not leave him without one, any more than thee or me’ . . . ‘Why then, an’ please your honour, is a black wench to be used worse than a white one?’ ‘I can give no reason,’ said my uncle Toby. ‘Only,’ cried the Corporal, shaking his head ‘because she has no one to stand up for her.’ ‘’Tis that very thing, Trim,’ quoth my uncle Toby, ‘which recommends her to protection—and her brethren with her; ’tis the fortune of war which has put the whip into our hands now—where it may be hereafter, heaven knows.’ ”40
“In 1776 Adam Smith wrote the economic death warrant for slavery,” observes David Shields in one of the few investigations of the literary response to the campaign to abolish slavery.
In a passage that became quasi-scriptural among abolitionists during the 1800s, Smith declared that “the experience of all ages and nations, I believe, demonstrates that the work done by slaves, though it appears to cost only their maintenance, is in the end the dearest of all. A person who can acquire no property, can have no other interest but to eat as much, and to labour as little as possible.”41
Shields notes “the formation in the 1770s of a school of poets whose members included William Cowper, John Marjoribanks and Hannah More” who took up the cause of slaves. He also singles out James Field Stansfield’s The Guinea Voyage as “the rhetorical horizon of anti-slavery poetry.”42 In it Stansfield imagines the African being handed over to a slave ship.
Historians have lately stressed the economic rather than the evangelical causes behind the abolition of the slave trade in 1807.43 The literary response to the campaign, however, appealed more to the hearts than to the purses of readers in the closing decades of the eighteenth century.
[1. ] See J. Brewer, The Sinews of Power: War, Money and the English State, 1688-1783 (1989); P. G. M. Dickson, The Financial Revolution in England: A Study in the Development of Public Credit, 1688-1756 (1967).
[2. ] See especially J. Sekora, Luxury: The Concept in Western Thought, Eden to Smollett (1977).
[3. ] J. Briscoe, A Discourse on the Late Funds . . . (1696), 2.
[4. ] Bodleian Library MS Eng. Misc. e. 180 ff. 4-5.
[5. ]Prose Works of Jonathan Swift, ed. H. Davis, 14 vols. (1939-68), vol. iii (1940), 6-7.
[6. ]Ibid., vol. vi (1951), 10.
[7. ]The Spectator, ed. D. F. Bond, 5 vols. (1965).
[8. ] J. Arbuthnot, The History of John Bull, ed. A. W. Bower and R. A. Erikson (1976), 11, 38, 64.
[9. ] J. Trenchard and T. Gordon, Cato’s Letters, 4 vols. (1755), vol. iii, 206-13.
[10. ] C. Gildon, All for the Better; or, The World Turned Upside Down (1720), 3.
[11. ] Trenchard and Gordon, op. cit., vol. i, 131-44.
[12. ] See especially, J. G. A. Pocock, The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Revolution (1975).
[13. ] B. Mandeville, The Fable of the Bees, ed. P. Harth (1970).
[14. ] J. Swift, Gulliver’s Travels, ed. H. Davis (1956), 19-20, 56, 252-54.
[15. ] T. Smollett, The Continuation of the Complete History of England, 4 vols. (1760-61), vol. i, 56.
[16. ] T. Smollett, The Expedition of Humphry Clinker, ed. P. Miles (1993), 209.
[17. ] Arbuthnot, op. cit., 11.
[18. ] L. Welsted, The Dissembled Wanton: or, My Son Get Money (1727), 26.
[19. ] David Shields, Oracles of Empire: Poetry, Politics, and Commerce in British America, 1690-1750 (1990), 23-25. Shields claims that “the task of British literature, according to Young, was to recognise trade as the predominant heroic action in the modern era.”
[20. ] D. Defoe, A Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain, ed. P. Rogers (1971), 54.
[21. ] D. Defoe, Roxana, ed. John Mullan (1996), 170.
[22. ] D. Defoe, The Compleat English Tradesman, 2 vols. (1727), vol. 2, vi.
[23. ]Spectator, vol. i, 10-11; vol. iv, 468.
[24. ] C. Davenant, The True Picture of a Modern Whig (1701), 15-31.
[25. ] Isaac Kramnick, Bolingbroke and His Circle: The Politics of Nostalgia in the Age of Walpole (1968).
[26. ] J. Macky, A Journey Through England (1732), 30.
[27. ] Defoe, Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain, 171.
[28. ]The Poems of Alexander Pope, ed. J. Butt (1963), 624.
[29. ] Ibid., 582.
[30. ] Ibid., 592.
[31. ] Ibid., 594.
[32. ] Ibid.
[33. ] Defoe, Gulliver’s Travels, 175-76.
[34. ] O. Goldsmith, The Deserted Village (1770), 16-17.
[35. ]Spectator, vol. i, 439-40, 454-55, 460, 464, 498.
[36. ] Ibid., vol. ii, 20-21.
[37. ] Ibid., vol. iv, 467-68.
[38. ] A. Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, ed. D. D. Raphael and A. L. McFie (1976), 61-62.
[39. ] R. Southey, Letters from England, ed. J. Simmons (1951), 142-47, 207-13.
[40. ] L. Sterne, Tristram Shandy (Everyman, 1914), 447.
[41. ] Shields, op. cit., 86, citing The Wealth of Nations. As Shields notes (241): “no adequate literary history of the abolitionist poets exists, and to write one would be a worthy effort.”
[42. ] Ibid., 82. To them might be added William Blake, who wrung the withers with his poem “The Little Black Boy.”
[43. ] J. Walvin, Slaves and Slavery: The British Colonial Experience (1992), 88-100.