Page images
PDF
EPUB

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 inde. pendence. 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 un

dervalue their independence in competition with the śmile 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 bė, and pave with gold the road of ambition. 1. 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 enrichisg their country, and accomniodating 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, imposés. 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, can

not 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 attens tion 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

« PreviousContinue »