Front Page Titles (by Subject) SECTION XVI. The Spirit of Truth, Liberty, and Virtue, public as well as private, chiefly to be found in the Middle Ranks of the People. - The Works of Vicesimus Knox, vol. 5
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SECTION XVI. The Spirit of Truth, Liberty, and Virtue, public as well as private, chiefly to be found in the Middle Ranks of the People. - 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 Spirit of Truth, Liberty, and Virtue, public as well as private, chiefly to be found in the Middle Ranks of the People.
Nemo altero nobilior, nisi cui rectius ingenium et artibus bonis aptius. Qui imagines in atrio exponunt et nomina familiæ suæ.—Noti magis quam nobiles sunt.—Dicenda hæc fuerunt ad contundendam insolentiam hominum ex fortunâ pendentium.∗
The people of this land are usually divided into nobility, gentry, and commonalty. The nobility and gentry seem to be estimated as officers in an army; the commonalty, or the whole body of the people, as the rank and file.
There might be no original impropriety in these appellations; but that of commonalty has been often used, by aristocratical upstarts, with insolence. The commonalty comprise the grand mass of the nation; form the great fabric of the political building; while the gentry, after all, are but the carving and gilding, or the capitals of the pillars, that add to the support of the roof, but constitute neither the walls nor the foundation. The commonalty, therefore, being the main fabric, are worthy, in the eye of reason, of the highest esteem, and the first degree of a patriot's solicitude. There can be no rational end in our government but the happiness of the whole people, king, lords, and commons.
The commonalty are, beyond all comparison, the most numerous order: and as every individual of them is entitled to comfort and security in a well-regulated nation, the whole together must demand the greatest attention of the philosopher, the divine, the philanthropist, of every man of sense, goodness of heart, and liberality. The pomp and parade, the superfluous luxury, the vain distinctions of the few, sink to nothing, compared, in the mind of reasonable and humane men, with the happiness of the million.
It is certainly true, that the greatest instances of virtue and excellence of every kind have originated in the middle order. “Give me neither poverty nor riches,” was a prayer founded on a knowledge of human nature, and fully justified by experience. The middle station affords the best opportunities for improvement of mind, is the least exposed to temptation, and the most capable of happiness and virtue.
This opinion has long been received and acknowledged. I could cite, from the sermons of our best divines on Agur's Prayer, many passages in confirmation of it. I dwell upon it now, for no other reason, but because it has lately been the fashion, among those who are alarmed for their privileges by the French revolution, to run down the people, and to cry up that silly spirit of chivalry which established the systems of false honour, claiming rank and respect from society, without rendering it any service, without possessing any just claim to esteem, much less to public honour, exclusive privileges, and titular distinction. The terms sans culottes, canaille, bourgeoise, scum of the earth, venal wretches, and the never to be forgotten swinish multitude, have been reserved for the people, especially those among them who have had sense and spirit enough personally to oppose the progress of despotic principles and practices. Every thing that malice, urged by the fear of losing the ribands, the titles, and the solid pence, which a corrupt and corrupting minister can bestow, has been thrown out, in newspapers hired by the people's money, for the purpose of vilifying the people.
It is time, therefore, that the people should vindicate their honour. What are these insolent courtiers, what these placemen and pensioners, who live on the public bounty, that they should thus insult those whose bread they eat? For the most part, they are persons who, if they were stripped of the false splendour of great mansions, numerous retinues, painted carriages, would appear among the meanest and most despicable members of society. They indeed are to be pitied and borne with, while they abstain from insulting the people; but when their silly pride presumes to trample on the mass of the community, they become deserving of contempt as well as commiseration.
These are the persons whom a patriotic lord describes “as giving themselves up to the pursuit of honours and dignities, as loving the splendour of a court, and attaching themselves to the cause of monarchy, (not from any conviction that monarchy is the most favourable to human happiness, not even from personal attachment to the monarch,) but because they see in the increased power of the monarch the source of additional weight and splendour to those (that is themselves) who surround the throne, and an increase of value to the favours which the sovereign can confer; such as stars, garters, ribands, and titles.”
But is a passion, childish from its vanity, and diabolical in its unfeeling greediness, to be borne with any longer, when, not content with engrossing the profits of office and the pageantry of state, it dares to speak of the middle and lower classes, as beings scarcely deserving notice, as mere nuisances when not employed in the servile office of administering to aristocratic pride.
Virtue is nobility. Personal merit, useful, generous, benevolent exertion, the only honourable distinction. The trappings which every tailor can make to clothe a poor puny mortal, add no real dignity. In ages of ignorance, they might strike with awe. Those ages are no more. Nor will they ever return, notwithstanding the efforts of petty despots, (fearing the loss of those distinctions which they know they never earned,) to keep the people in the grossest ignorance.
God Almighty, who gives his sun to shine with as much warmth and radiance on the cottage as on the palace, has dispensed the glorious privilege of genius and virtue to the poor and middle classes, with a bounty perhaps seldom experienced in any of the proud pretenders to hereditary or official grandeur. Let us call to mind a few among the worthies who have adorned the ages that have elapsed: Socrates; was he noble in the sense of a king at arms? Would he have condescended to be bedizened with ribands, and stars, and garters? Cicero; was he not a novus homo? a man unconnected with patricians, and deriving his glory from the purest fountain of honour, his own genius and virtue? Demosthenes would have scorned to owe his estimation to a pedigree.
Who were the great reformers, to whom we of England and all Europe are indebted for emancipation from the chains of superstition? Erasmus and Luther; Erasmus, as the monks of his day objected to him, laid the egg, and Luther hatched it. But was it Archbishop Erasmus? Lord Luther, Marquis Luther, Sir Martin Luther? Did they, either of them, seek the favour of courts? Were they not among the swinish multitude?
Thomas Paine contributed much, by his “Common Sense,” to the happy revolution in America. I need not observe, that he had nothing of the lustre of courts or nobility to recommend him. The virulent malice of courtiers and venal scribblers has blackened him as they once blackened Luther, when they asserted of him, that he was actually a devil incarnate, disguised in the shape of a monk with a cowl. I do not advert to any of his subsequent political publications. I only say, if they are so contemptible as they are said by courtiers and aristocrats to be, why not undertake the easy task of refuting him? Bloody wars and prosecutions are no refutation.
“Who is this Luther?” (said Margaret, governess of the Netherlands.) The courtiers around her replied, “He is an illiterate monk.” “Is he so?” (said she) “I am glad to hear it. Then do you, gentlemen, who are not illiterate, who are both learned and numerous, do you, I charge you, write against this illiterate monk. That is all you have to do. The business is easy; for the world will surely pay more regard to a great many scholars, and great men, as you are, than to one poor illiterate monk.”
Many did write against him, and poured forth the virulence of a malice unchecked by truth, and encouraged by crowned heads. But Luther prevailed, and we Englishmen have reason to celebrate the victory of truth and virtue over corrupt influence and cruel persecution.
The greatest scholars, poets, orators, philosophers, warriors, statesmen, inventors and improvers of the arts, arose from the lowest of the people. If we had waited till courtiers had invented the art of printing, clock-making, navigation, and a thousand others, we should probably have continued in darkness to this hour. They had something else to do, than to add to the comforts and conveniencies of ordinary life. They had to worship an idol, with the incense of flattery, who was often much more stupid than themselves, and who sometimes had no more care or knowledge of the people under him, or their wants, than he had of arts or literature.
The education of the middle classes is infinitely better than the education of those who are called great people. Their time is less consumed by that vanity and dissipation which enfeebles the mind, while it precludes opportunity for reading and reflection. They usually have a regard to character, which contributes much to the preservation of virtue. Their honour and integrity are valued by them, as pearls of great price. These are their stars, and these their coronets. They are for the most part attached to their religion. They are temperate, frugal, and industrious. In one particular, and that one adds a value above all that courts can give, they greatly excel the great, and that particular is sincerity. They are in earnest in their words and deeds. They have little occasion for simulation and dissimulation. Courtiers are too often varnished, factitious persons, whom God and nature never made; while the people preserve the image uneffaced, which the Supreme Being impressed when he created man.
[∗]“No man is nobler born than another, unless he is born with better abilities and a more amiable disposition. They who make such a parade with their family pictures and pedigrees, are, properly speaking, rather to be called noted or notorious than noble persons. I thought it right to say thus much, in order to repel the insolence of men who depend entirely upon chance and accidental circumstances for distinction, and not at all on public services and personal merit.”