Front Page Titles (by Subject) SECTION XII. The despotic Spirit is inclined to discourage Commerce, as unfavourable to its Purposes. - The Works of Vicesimus Knox, vol. 5
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SECTION XII. The despotic Spirit is inclined to discourage Commerce, as unfavourable to its Purposes. - Vicesimus Knox, The Works of Vicesimus Knox, vol. 5 
The Works of Vicesimus Knox, D.D. with a Biographical Preface. In Seven Volumes (London: J. Mawman, 1824). Vol. 5.
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The despotic Spirit is inclined to discourage Commerce, as unfavourable to its Purposes.
Is man a reasonable creature? Is he then most perfect and happy, when his conduct is regulated by reason? If so, then the boasted age of chivalry was an age of folly, madness, and misery. It was an age in which a romantic imagination triumphed by force over the plainest and strongest decisions of common sense. It was an age in which pride and wanton insolence trampled on the rights and happiness of human nature. To express my idea of it in a word, it was an age of Quixotism, in which Europe appeared as one vast country of bedlamites. Yet, wonderful to relate, men have lately arisen, pretending to extraordinary degrees of the distinctive faculty of man, professing the most unbounded philanthropy, but at the same time regretting that the age of chivalry is no more.
The truth is, the spirit of chivalry was highly favourable to the spirit of despotism. Every feudal baron was a petty tyrant, little differing from the chieftain of banditti. They were absolute sovereigns over their vassals. Their castles were fortified palaces, from which they issued, regardless of government or law, like lions or tigers from their dens, to deform the land with blood and devastation. What was the situation of the people, the million, in those days of mischievous folly? It was scarcely better than that of the negroes in the islands of America. And are these times to be regretted in the present day? Yes, certainly, by those who pine at seeing the condition of the multitude meliorated, and who consider the unfortunate part of their fellow-creatures as a herd of swine.
At this period of English history, slaves, natives of England, were bought and sold on English ground, just in the same manner as the negroes in Africa. One of the chief articles of export from England, in the time of the Anglo-Saxons was the slave. Slaves were always appendant to manors, like the stock of cattle on a farm. They were attached to the soil, and were conveyed or descended with the estate, under the name of villains regardant, glebæ adscriptitii. They were never considered as citizens; they had no vote, no rights; and were in every respect, in the eye of the great men who possessed them, like goods, chattels, and beasts of burden.
As honest labour was considered as slavish, so also was every kind of trade. The only class esteemed, was that which we should now call gentlemen or esquires. And what was their employment? Destruction of their fellow-creatures. They neither toiled nor spun; but they wielded the sword, and shed blood under the banners of their chief, whenever he thought proper to wage war with an unoffending neighbour. They were, however, honourable men; all, all honourable men. But honour will not fill the belly, nor clothe the back; and pride was obliged to stoop for food, raiment, dwellings, and all the comforts and accommodations of life, to the villain and vassal; who were exactly in the rank occupied by modern tradesmen, mechanics, and artisans. The gentleman of those days availed himself of their labour and ingenuity, and then despised them. The gentlemen of modern days, who admire the age of chivalry, and who adopt tory and arbitrary principles, would be glad to consider this useful and ingenious class of citizens in the same light. “Perish our commerce, live our constitution. Perish the loom, the plough, the hammer, the axe; but flourish the sword. Sink the merchant ship, but let the man of war ride on the waves in all her glory.”
Such sentiments resemble those of the feudal barons, the darkest despots that ever disgraced human nature. The old feudal barons, however, could not always find employment for the sword at home; and Peter the monk told them they would be rewarded in heaven by waging war on Palestine. They embarked with the blessings of the pope on their banners. It was a fortunate event for the despised vassals who were left at home. Both commerce and liberty are greatly indebted to the crusades for their subsequent flourishing state. In the absence of the tyrants, the tradesmen and artisans exercised their art and industry on their own account, and gradually acquired a degree of independence. Many of the barons never returned to oppress them. Many returned, greatly injured in strength, spirit, and property. Consequently they lost their power. Charters were now sold or granted, and commerce lifted up her front in defiance of pride, that, looking down from her castle on the ship and manufacturer, despised her lowly occupation, while she envied her opulence. The country was enriched by arts which the nobles deemed vile. The mass of the people acquired property, and with it, power and independence. The tyranny of the feudal system, and the nonsense of chivalry, which endeavoured to create a fantastic merit, independent of virtue and utility, soon vanished when the human mind was at liberty to think for itself; and men were emboldened to act freely by a consciousness of possessing skill and property.
But while the human heart is subject to pride, and fond of power, the spirit of tyranny, which actuated the old barons in feudal times, will manifest itself, in some mode or degree, whenever opportunities occur. Commerce was despised under the late monarchy in France; and commerce, we have reason to think, is looked upon with a jealous eye in England, by those who are violently attached to senseless grandeur.
Men of this description are averse from commerce, not only from pride, but from policy. They see commerce enriching and exalting plebeians to a rank in society equal to their own; and often furnishing the means of luxurious enjoyment and splendour, which they themselves, with all the pride of birth and the presumption of office, cannot support. Though a war may injure trade, and ruin manufacturing towns, yet it is eagerly engaged in, if it gratifies the revenge of courts, and the pride of nobles. Its ill effects on commerce may be a recommendation of it to those who exclaim, “Perish commerce, live our constitution.” It reduces that aspiring greatness of the merchant, which treads on the heels of the grandee, and overtops him. It bleeds the body which appears in the eyes of the great to show symptoms of plethora. It clips the wings which seem ready to emulate the flight of the eagle. It lops the tree which gives umbrage by its shadow. The favourers of absolute power would have a nation of gentlemen soldiers, of courtiers, and of titled noblemen; and they view with pain, a nation of gentlemen merchants, of men independent both in spirit and fortune, enlightened by education, improved by experience, enriched by virtues and useful exertion, possessing principles of honour founded on honesty, and therefore quite as scrupulous and nice as if they had been bred in idleness, bloated with the pride of ancestry, tyrannically imperious over the active classes, and at the same time abject slaves to courtly fashion.
But, as in a commercial nation, it is impossible to prevent men of this description from sometimes acquiring princely fortunes, it becomes a very desirable object, among the politicians attached to arbitrary power, to corrupt the principal commercial houses, by raising in them the spirit of vanity and ambition. They have already acquired money more than sufficient for all the purposes of aggrandizement. The next object is honour; that is, a title. A baronetage is a charming lure to the whole family. Any favour indeed from the court is a feather. A title is now and then judiciously bestowed. This operates on the rising race, and teaches them to undervalue their independence in competition with the smile of a minister. The minister, indeed, has means of gratifying the avarice as well as the vanity of the commercial order. Contracts are delicious douceurs to the aspiring trader: they not only enrich, but lead to a connection with the powers that be, and pave with gold the road of ambition.
But the sun of tory favour which irradiates the tops of the mountain, seldom reaches the vale. The millions of humbler adventurers in commerce and manufacture, who are enriching their country, and accommodating human life, in ten thousand modes that require both virtue and skill, are viewed by the promoters of arbitrary power with sovereign contempt. The truth is, that most of these, notwithstanding the disdain with which they are treated, are some of the most independent members of the community. They constitute a very large portion of the middle rank. They are a firm phalanx, and commonly enlisted on the side of liberty. They can scarcely be otherwise; for they have little to hope or fear from those who call themselves their superiors. They perform a work, or vend a commodity, equivalent to the compensation they receive; and owe no obligation beyond that which civility or benevolence, towards those with whom they negotiate, imposes. The customer applies to them for his own convenience. If they be fair traders, they vend their wares at the market price; and if one will not accede to it, they wait patiently for another offer. They do not think themselves bound to make any unmanly submissions to those who deal with them for their own advantage.
A numerous body of men like these, possessing, in the aggregate, a vast property, and consequently, if they could act in concert, a vast power also, cannot but be an object of uneasiness to the copartners in a proud aristocracy, wishing to engross to themselves the whole world, with all its pleasures, honours, emoluments, and rights. As they cannot destroy this body, their next endeavour is to vilify it, to render it insignificant, to discourage its attention to public affairs, to lessen its profits, and to embarass its operations, by taxes on its most vendible productions. They would gladly render a tradesman as contemptible in England as it was in France before the revolution. In France, we all know, under its despotic kings, no virtue, no merit, no services to the public or mankind, could wipe off the filthy stain fixed on the character by merchandise. The poorest, most villainous and vicious idiot, who partook of noblesse, would have been esteemed, in that unhappy period, infinitely superior to a Barnard or a Gresham.
My purpose in these remarks is to exhort the mercantile order to preserve their independence, by preserving a just sense of their own dignity. I see with pain and alarm the first men in a great city, the metropolis of the world, whose merchants are princes, crowding with slavish submission to the minister of the day, seconding all his artful purposes in a corporation, calling out the military on the slightest occasion, at once to overawe the multitude, and at the same time to annihilate their own civil and constitutional authority. If they would but preserve their independence, and retain a due attachment to the people, and the rights of their fellowcitizens, their power and consequence would be infinitely augmented, and the very minister who buys or cajoles them would hold them in high estimation. Ultimately, perhaps, their present sordid views might be accomplished with greater success; as they certainly would be, if accomplished at all, with more honour and satisfaction.
Instead of separating their interests, I would say, let our commerce and our constitution ever flourish together. Certain I am, that a flourishing commerce, by giving power and consequence to the middle and lower ranks of the people, tends more than all the military associations to preserve the genuine spirit of the constitution.