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, merit.

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.