Nobility and Trade
by Albany Poyntz
The subject before us is too closely connected with the prejudices of
mankind not to call for consideration. The question is delicate, but we
hazard the argument, though at the risk of giving offence.
The honours conceded to men of pre-eminent merit, who have rendered
service to their country, or to humanity in general, excite no
dissatisfaction;—the reaction begins with the second generation.
Hereditary nobility is a time-honoured prejudice. The founder of an
illustrious race is entitled to the respect of his contemporaries; but his
descendants become esteemed in proportion to the value attached to their
name. Unless they have conferred on it additional lustre, the inherited
rank exacts little consideration.
Conquest was the origin of the most ancient nobility, as well as the
foundation of royalty. In France, from Clovis to Philip le Bel, there
were no other races of nobility; but after the reign of the latter, the
Kings of France exercised the right of ennoblement. From a right, nobility
in France became a concession. It is clear, therefore, that the power of
ennoblement, from the time of Philip le Bel, extinguished the illusions
concerning nobility which had previously prevailed. The facile formation
of nobility, the metamorphosis of the serf of yesterday into the baron of
the morrow, undeceived the multitude as to the right divine they had
hitherto attributed to the nobles; and deteriorated the consequence of the
order. From that epoch, illustrious names started forth from the middle
classes to figure at the Courts of Sovereigns; and in each succeeding
reign, we find names issuing from obscurity to cast a halo over the pages
of history. Many such still figure there; and some have added fresh lustre
to the names bequeathed them by their ancestors.
A King of France one day ennobled all the burghers of Paris; who refused
the honour, conscious that, all being noble, nobility must cease to exist.
The homage we pay to a great historical name is a justifiable feeling.
Among the ancient privileges of such nobility, one of the finest was that
of defending the country against foreign invasion. Previous to the use of
artillery, our armies were chiefly composed of cavalry. The infantry
became important under Francis I. at the battle of Marignan; after which,
this privilege became of less account. Till then, the defence of the
country was entrusted to its nobility.
At the first declaration of war, the King convoked the chief vassals of
the crown; who, in their turn, assembled their Barons and Counts,
according to the order of the feudal system,—their vassals, and their
vassals’ vassals; all marching under the banners of their chiefs. Many
were reduced to ruin by such expeditions. Montesquieu asserts that fear is
the soul of a despotic government, honour of a monarchical, and virtue of
a republican. Were he now alive, he would perhaps assign money as the
pivot of the representative system. How do things proceed in a citizen
kingdom? Precisely as in feudal times! Upon the first decision of a loan,
Government convenes the whole financial vassalage, confers with the Barons
and Counts of the Stock Exchange, with the puissant lords of speculations,
and humbler knights of stock jobbing. Armed cap-à-pie with the
irresistible credit of the great vassals, after a series of combats of
which the stock-jobbers are the heralds and trumpeters, they defeat the
unfortunate Gauls of the Exchange; while the triumphant Franks risk
nothing in the expedition. There is little exaggeration in this
comparison. It often happens that a mere substitution, and not the
overthrow of a system, takes place.
Feudalism still exists, not only in the financial world, but among
individuals engaged in the same profession. Now that the law of
constitutional governments has proclaimed the principle of equality, the
thirst for distinction and supremacy has become more prevalent than ever.
In military and civil communities, a hierarchy is indispensable to exact
respect from the lower towards the higher grades; without which, all
discipline would be impossible. But among men equally free, engaged in the
same calling, and eating the same bread, we can imagine nothing more
absurd than the assumed superiority of the fortunate over the
unprosperous. The insolence of the tradesman in a great way of business
towards the tradesman commencing his career far exceeds the insolence of
the patrician towards the plebeian; and the field officer of a regiment is
often seen to treat his subalterns as though they were footmen.
That artists and men of letters should mutually treat each other according
to the reputation they may have acquired, is not surprising; seeing that,
in spite of the mercantile nature of modern literary productions, and the
dramatic and literary societies formed for the protection of their
material interests, men of letters, poets, painters, architects,
sculptors, musicians, and even actors, assume in the eyes of the public
precisely the place assigned to each by public favour and success;
standing on the ground of their individual, and not upon their corporate,
Nevertheless, in all academies of art, science, and literature, the
principle of equality prevails. The only persons they regard as inferior,
are those who on their deaths will probably succeed to their places.
Though we have alluded with sneering levity to the Counts and Barons of
Finance, we have no intention of speaking lightly on the subject. Nothing
can be more serious than the substitution of financial supremacy for those
more gloriously earned honours, the extinction of which would strike a
death-blow at civilisation.
There are several banks in Europe exceeding in wealth and power the
richest citizens of Rome after the conquest of Asia. Independent of steam,
of gigantic undertakings, manufacturing or commercial, there is another
predominating power of the utmost importance; the enormous accumulation of
capital in the hands of a few, not to be lavished like that of the Romans
in patronage of the arts, or acts of beneficence; but doled out in
speculative fractions, often fatal to the interests of honest industry,
and rarely conducing to the interests of the country.
In feudal times, the extortions of the Barons were undeniable; and
compulsory labour was a humiliating hardship. But upon their return from
the wars, when exacting from their serfs compensation for their shattered
armour, it was at least for the defence of the soil, as well as to face
the enemy again, if necessary, that these benevolences were required. In
countries where the feudal system is yet in force, such as Russia, the
moral existence of the serfs is inferior to that of our manufacturing
workmen; while as regards subsistence, the condition of the serfs is much
less precarious. Like our peasants of old, they enjoy their family ties,
breathe the fresh air, and tread upon their native soil; tilling the land
for the benefit of their Lord, instead of receiving a grudging
remuneration for their labour.
Having frequently inquired of heads of manufactories, the wages of their
workmen; we have received such evasive answers, as to be reduced to our
own conjectures on the subject.
Suppose that in a manufactory, one hundred pair of hands be daily
employed, and that the profits be £2000 per annum, it is clear that every
individual produces £20. A mutual convention exists; the master having the
power of dismissing the workman, and the latter of quitting the master;
the former being liable to the disasters of fire or bankruptcy, from which
the workman is exempt. The manufacturer having embarked his capital, has
an unquestionable right to high profits. But all this, is nevertheless
serfdom under another form; and we behold with pity these industrious
beings, breathing the burning and mephitic air prevailing in the
factories. The serf when sick, is cared for by his Lord; but the factory
man is dismissed without ceremony. For in the manufacturing districts, man
counts but as a machine, which if worn out, is replaced by another.
We can scarcely be surprised, therefore, if the financial and
manufacturing aristocracy,—the strongbox nobility,—assume at the present
day the consequence of the chivalrous nobility of the olden time. It is
but fair, however, to admit that there are generous-minded manufacturers;
just as there were good-hearted Barons among the feudal tyrants.
Much might be added on this subject; but a further disquisition would only
prolong into a political discussion, what we have only pretended to treat
on the score of vulgar prejudice.