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Chapter 22

OF THE DIGNITY OF TRADE IN ENGLAND

MORE THAN IN OTHER COUNTRIES


It is said of England, by way of distinction, and we all value ourselves upon it, that it is a trading country; and King Charles II., who was perhaps that prince of all the kings that ever reigned in England, that best understood the country and the people that he governed, used to say, 'That the tradesmen were the only gentry in England.' His majesty spoke it merrily, but it had a happy signification in it, such as was peculiar to the bright genius of that prince, who, though he was not the best governor, was the best acquainted with the world of all the princes of his age, if not of all the men in it; and, though it be a digression, give me leave, after having quoted the king, to add three short observations of my own, in favour of England, and of the people and trade of it, and yet without the least partiality to our own country.

I. We are not only a trading country, but the greatest trading country in the world.

II. Our climate is the most agreeable climate in the world to live in.

III. Our Englishmen are the stoutest and best men (I mean what we call men of their hands) in the world.

These are great things to advance in our own favour, and yet to pretend not to be partial too; and, therefore, I shall give my reasons, which I think support my opinion, and they shall be as short as the heads themselves, that I may not go too much off from my subject.

1. We are the greatest trading country in the world, because we have the greatest exportation of the growth and product of our land, and of the manufacture and labour of our people; and the greatest importation and consumption of the growth, product, and manufactures of other countries from abroad, of any nation in the world.[37]

2. Our climate is the best and most agreeable, because a man can be more out of doors in England than in other countries. This was King Charles II.'s reason for it, and I cannot name it, without doing justice to his majesty in it.

3. Our men are the stoutest and best, because, strip them naked from the waist upwards, and give them no weapons at all but their hands and heels, and turn them into a room, or stage, and lock them in with the like number of other men of any nation, man for man, and they shall beat the best men you shall find in the world.

From this digression, which I hope will not be disagreeable, as it is not very tedious, I come back to my first observation, that England is a trading country, and two things I offer from that head.

First, our tradesmen are not, as in other countries, the meanest of our people.

Secondly, some of the greatest and best, and most flourishing families, among not the gentry only, but even the nobility, have been raised from trade, owe their beginning, their wealth, and their estates, to trade; and, I may add,

Thirdly, those families are not at all ashamed of their original, and, indeed, have no occasion to be ashamed of it.

It is true, that in England we have a numerous and an illustrious nobility and gentry; and it is true, also, that not so many of those families have raised themselves by the sword as in other nations, though we have not been without men of fame in the field too.

But trade and learning have been the two chief steps by which our gentlemen have raised their relations, and have built their fortunes; and from which they have ascended up to the prodigious height, both in wealth and number, which we see them now risen to.

As so many of our noble and wealthy families are raised by, and derive from trade, so it is true, and, indeed, it cannot well be otherwise, that many of the younger branches of our gentry, and even of the nobility itself, have descended again into the spring from whence they flowed, and have become tradesmen; and thence it is, that, as I said above, our tradesmen in England are not, as it generally is in other countries, always of the meanest of our people.

Indeed, I might have added here, that trade itself in England is not, as it generally is in other countries, the meanest thing the men can turn their hand to; but, on the contrary, trade is the readiest way for men to raise their fortunes and families; and, therefore, it is a field for men of figure and of good families to enter upon.

N.B. By trade we must be understood to include navigation, and foreign discoveries, because they are, generally speaking, all promoted and carried on by trade, and even by tradesmen, as well as merchants; and the tradesmen are at this time as much concerned in shipping (as owners) as the merchants; only the latter may be said to be the chief employers of the shipping.

Having thus done a particular piece of justice to ourselves, in the value we put upon trade and tradesmen in England, it reflects very much upon the understanding of those refined heads, who pretend to depreciate that part of the nation, which is so infinitely superior in number and in wealth to the families who call themselves gentry, or quality, and so infinitely more numerous.

As to the wealth of the nation, that undoubtedly lies chiefly among the trading part of the people; and though there are a great many families raised within few years, in the late war, by great employments, and by great actions abroad, to the honour of the English gentry; yet how many more families among the tradesmen have been raised to immense estates, even during the same time, by the attending circumstances of the war, such as the clothing, the paying, the victualling and furnishing, &c, both army and navy! And by whom have the prodigious taxes been paid, the loans supplied, and money advanced upon all occasions? By whom are the banks and companies carried on?--and on whom are the customs and excises levied? Have not the trade and tradesmen born the burden of the war?--and do they not still pay four millions a-year interest for the public debts? On whom are the funds levied, and by whom the public credit supported? Is not trade the inexhausted fund of all funds, and upon which all the rest depend?

As is the trade, so in proportion are the tradesmen; and how wealthy are tradesmen in almost all the several parts of England, as well as in London! How ordinary is it to see a tradesman go off the stage, even but from mere shopkeeping, with from ten to forty thousand pounds' estate, to divide among his family!--when, on the contrary, take the gentry in England from one end to the other, except a few here and there, what with excessive high living, which is of late grown so much into a disease, and the other ordinary circumstances of families, we find few families of the lower gentry, that is to say, from six or seven hundred a-year downwards, but they are in debt and in necessitous circumstances, and a great many of greater estates also.

On the other hand, let any one who is acquainted with England, look but abroad into the several counties, especially near London, or within fifty miles of it. How are the ancient families worn out by time and family misfortunes, and the estates possessed by a new race of tradesmen, grown up into families of gentry, and established by the immense wealth, gained, as I may say, behind the counter, that is, in the shop, the warehouse, and the counting-house! How are the sons of tradesmen ranked among the prime of the gentry! How are the daughters of tradesmen at this time adorned with the ducal coronets, and seen riding in the coaches of the best of our nobility! Nay, many of our trading gentlemen at this time refuse to be ennobled, scorn being knighted, and content themselves with being known to be rated among the richest commoners in the nation. And it must be acknowledged, that, whatever they be as to court-breeding and to manners, they, generally speaking, come behind none of the gentry in knowledge of the world.

At this very day we see the son of Sir Thomas Scawen matched into the ducal family of Bedford, and the son of Sir James Bateman into the princely house of Marlborough, both whose ancestors, within the memory of the writer of these sheets, were tradesmen in London; the first Sir William Scawen's apprentice, and the latter's grandfather a porter upon or near London Bridge.

How many noble seats, superior to the palaces of sovereign princes (in some countries) do we see erected within few miles of this city by tradesmen, or the sons of tradesmen, while the seats and castles of the ancient gentry, like their families, look worn out, and fallen into decay. Witness the noble house of Sir John Eyles, himself a merchant, at Giddy-hall near Rumford; Sir Gregory Page on Blackheath, the son of a brewer; Sir Nathaniel Mead near Wealgreen, his father a linen-draper, with many others too long to repeat; and, to crown all, the Lord Castlemains at Wanstead, his father Sir Josiah Child, originally a tradesman.

It was a smart, but just repartee, of a London tradesman, when a gentleman, who had a good estate too, rudely reproached him in company, and bade him hold his tongue, for he was no gentleman. 'No, Sir,' says he, 'but I can buy a gentleman, and therefore I claim a liberty to speak among gentlemen.'

Again, in how superior a port or figure (as we now call it) do our tradesmen live, to what the middling gentry either do or can support! An ordinary tradesman now, not in the city only, but in the country, shall spend more money by the year, than a gentleman of four or five hundred pounds a-year can do, and shall increase and lay up every year too, whereas the gentleman shall at the best stand stock still, just where he began, nay, perhaps decline; and as for the lower gentry, from a hundred pounds a-year to three hundred, or thereabouts, though they are often as proud and high in their appearance as the other--as to them, I say, a shoemaker in London shall keep a better house, spend more money, clothe his family better, and yet grow rich too. It is evident where the difference lies; an estate's a pond, but a trade's a spring: the first, if it keeps full, and the water wholesome, by the ordinary supplies and drains from the neighbouring grounds, it is well, and it is all that is expected; but the other is an inexhausted current, which not only fills the pond, and keeps it full, but is continually running over, and fills all the lower ponds and places about it.

This being the case in England, and our trade being so vastly great, it is no wonder that the tradesmen in England fill the lists of our nobility and gentry; no wonder that the gentlemen of the best families marry tradesmen's daughters, and put their younger sons apprentices to tradesmen; and how often do these younger sons come to buy the elder son's estates, and restore the family, when the elder, and head of the house, proving rakish and extravagant, has wasted his patrimony, and is obliged to make out the blessing of Israel's family, where the younger son bought the birthright, and the elder was doomed to serve him.

Trade is so far here from being inconsistent with a gentleman, that, in short, trade in England makes gentlemen, and has peopled this nation with gentlemen; for after a generation or two the tradesmen's children, or at least their grand-children, come to be as good gentlemen, statesmen, parliament-men, privy-counsellors, judges, bishops, and noblemen, as those of the highest birth and the most ancient families, and nothing too high for them. Thus the late Earl of Haversham was originally a merchant; the late Secretary Craggs was the son of a barber; the present Lord Castlemain's father was a tradesman; the great-grandfather of the present Duke of Bedford the same; and so of several others. Nor do we find any defect either in the genius or capacities of the posterity of tradesmen, arising from any remains of mechanic blood, which it is pretended should influence them, but all the gallantry of spirit, greatness of soul, and all the generous principles, that can be found in any of the ancient families, whose blood is the most untainted, as they call it, with the low mixtures of a mechanic race, are found in these; and, as is said before, they generally go beyond them in knowledge of the world, which is the best education.

We see the tradesmen of England, as they grow wealthy, coming every day to the Herald's Office, to search for the coats-of-arms of their ancestors, in order to paint them upon their coaches, and engrave them upon their plate, embroider them upon their furniture, or carve them upon the pediments of their new houses; and how often do we see them trace the registers of their families up to the prime nobility, or the most ancient gentry of the kingdom!

In this search we find them often qualified to raise new families, if they do not descend from old; as was said of a certain tradesman of London that if he could not find the ancient race of gentlemen from which he came, he would begin a new race, who should be as good gentlemen as any that went before them. They tell us a story of the old Lord Craven, who was afterwards created Earl of Craven by King Charles II., that, being upbraided with his being of an upstart nobility, by the famous Aubery, Earl of Oxford, who was himself of the very ancient family of the Veres, Earls of Oxford, the Lord Craven told him, he (Craven) would cap pedigrees with him (Oxford) for a wager. The Earl of Oxford laughed at the challenge, and began reckoning up his famous ancestors, who had been Earls of Oxford for a hundred years past, and knights for some hundreds of years more; but when my Lord Craven began, he read over his family thus:--'I am William Lord Craven; my father was Lord Mayor of London, and my grandfather was the Lord knows who; wherefore I think my pedigree as good as yours, my lord.' The story was merry enough, but is to my purpose exactly; for let the grandfather be who he would, his father, Sir William Craven, who was Lord Mayor of London, was a wholesale grocer, and raised the family by trade, and yet nobody doubts but that the family of Craven is at this day as truly noble, in all the beauties which adorn noble birth and blood, as can be desired of any family, however ancient, or anciently noble.

In Italy, and especially at Venice, we see every day the sons of merchants, and other trades, who grow in wealth and estates, and can advance for the service of their country a considerable sum of money, namely, 60,000 to 100,000 dollars, are accepted to honour by the senate, and translated into the list of the nobility, without any regard to the antiquities of their families, or the nobility of blood; and in all ages the best kings and sovereign princes have thought fit to reward the extraordinary merit of their subjects with titles of honour, and to rank men among their nobility, who have deserved it by good and great actions, whether their birth and the antiquity of their families entitled them to it or not.

Thus in the late wars between England and France, how was our army full of excellent officers, who went from the shop, and from behind the counter, into the camp, and who distinguished themselves there by their merit and gallant behaviour. And several such came to command regiments, and even to be general officers, and to gain as much reputation in the service as any; as Colonel Pierce, Wood, Richards, and several others that might be named.

All this confirms what I have said before, namely, that trade in England neither is nor ought to be levelled with what it is in other countries; nor the tradesmen depreciated as they are abroad, and as some of our gentry would pretend to do in England; but that, as many of our best families rose from trade, so many branches of the best families in England, under the nobility, have stooped so low as to be put apprentices to tradesmen in London, and to set up and follow those trades when they have come out of their times, and have thought it no dishonour to their blood.

To bring this once more home to the ladies, who are so scandalised at that mean step, which they call it, of marrying a tradesman--it may be told them for their humiliation, that, however they think fit to act, sometimes those tradesmen come of better families than their own; and oftentimes, when they have refused them to their loss, those very tradesmen have married ladies of superior fortune to them, and have raised families of their own, who in one generation have been superior to those nice ladies both in dignity and estate, and have, to their great mortification, been ranked above them upon all public occasions.

The word tradesman in England does not sound so harsh as it does in other countries; and to say a gentleman-tradesman, is not so much nonsense as some people would persuade us to reckon it: and, indeed, as trade is now flourishing in England, and increasing, and the wealth of our tradesmen is already so great, it is very probable a few years will show us still a greater race of trade-bred gentlemen, than ever England yet had.

The very name of an English tradesman will, and does already obtain in the world; and as our soldiers by the late war gained the reputation of being some of the best troops in the world, and our seamen are at this day, and very justly too, esteemed the best sailors in the world, so the English tradesmen may in a few years be allowed to rank with the best gentlemen in Europe; and as the prophet Isaiah said of the merchants of Tyre, that 'her traffickers were the honourable of the earth,' (Isaiah, xxiii. 8.)

In the meantime, it is evident their wealth at this time out-does that of the like rank of any nation in Europe; and as their number is prodigious, so is their commerce; for the inland commerce of England--and it is of those tradesmen, or traffickers, that I am now speaking in particular--is certainly the greatest of its kind of any in the world; nor is it possible there should ever be any like it, the consumption of all sorts of goods, both of our own manufacture, and of foreign growth, being so exceeding great.

If the English nation were to be nearly inquired into, and its present opulence and greatness duly weighed, it would appear, that, as the figure it now makes in Europe is greater than it ever made before--take it either in King Edward III.'s reign, or in Queen Elizabeth's, which were the two chief points of time when the English fame was in its highest extent--I say, if its present greatness were to be duly weighed, there is no comparison in its wealth, the number of its people, the value of its lands, the greatness of the estates of its private inhabitants; and, in consequence of all this, its real strength is infinitely beyond whatever it was before, and if it were needful, I could fill up this work with a very agreeable and useful inquiry into the particulars.

But I content myself with turning it to the case in hand, for the truth of fact is not to be disputed--I say, I turn it to the case in hand thus: whence comes it to be so?--how is it produced? War has not done it; no, nor so much as helped or assisted to it; it is not by any martial exploits; we have made no conquests abroad, added no new kingdoms to the British empire, reduced no neighbouring nations, or extended the possession of our monarchs into the properties of others; we have grained nothing by war and encroachment; we are butted and bounded just where we were in Queen Elizabeth's time; the Dutch, the Flemings, the French, are in view of us just as they were then. We have subjected no new provinces or people to our government; and, with few or no exceptions, we are almost for dominion where King Edward I. left us; nay, we have lost all the dominions which our ancient kings for some hundreds of years held in France--such as the rich and powerful provinces of Normandy, Poictou, Gascoigne, Bretagne, and Acquitaine; and instead of being enriched by war and victory, on the contrary we have been torn in pieces by civil wars and rebellions, as well in Ireland as in England, and that several times, to the ruin of our richest families, and the slaughter of our nobility and gentry, nay, to the destruction even of monarchy itself, and this many years at a time, as in the long bloody wars between the houses of Lancaster and York, the many rebellions of the Irish, as well in Queen Elizabeth's time, as in King Charles I.'s time, and the fatal massacre, and almost extirpation of the English name in that kingdom; and at last, the late rebellion in England, in which the monarch fell a sacrifice to the fury of the people, and monarchy itself gave way to tyranny and usurpation, for almost twenty years.

These things prove abundantly that the rising greatness of the British nation is not owing to war and conquests, to enlarging its dominion by the sword, or subjecting the people of other countries to our power; but it is all owing to trade, to the increase of our commerce at home, and the extending it abroad.

It is owing to trade, that new discoveries have been made in lands unknown, and new settlements and plantations made, new colonies placed, and new governments formed in the uninhabited islands, and the uncultivated continent of America; and those plantings and settlements have again enlarged and increased the trade, and thereby the wealth and power of the nation by whom they were discovered and planted. We have not increased our power, or the number of our subjects, by subduing the nations which possessed those countries, and incorporating them into our own, but have entirely planted our colonies, and peopled the countries with our own subjects, natives of this island; and, excepting the negroes, which we transport from Africa to America, as slaves to work in the sugar and tobacco plantations, all our colonies, as well in the islands as on the continent of America, are entirely peopled from Great Britain and Ireland, and chiefly the former; the natives having either removed farther up into the country, or by their own folly and treachery raising war against us, been destroyed and cut off.

As trade alone has peopled those countries, so trading with them has raised them also to a prodigy of wealth and opulence; and we see now the ordinary planters at Jamaica and Barbadoes rise to immense estates, riding in their coaches and six, especially at Jamaica, with twenty or thirty negroes on foot running before them whenever they please to appear in public.

As trade has thus extended our colonies abroad, so it has, except those colonies, kept our people at home, where they are multiplied to that prodigious degree, and do still continue to multiply in such a manner, that if it goes on so, time may come that all the lands in England will do little more than serve for gardens for them, and to feed their cows; and their corn and cattle be supplied from Scotland and Ireland.

What is the reason that we see numbers of French, and of Scots, and of Germans, in all the foreign nations in Europe, and especially filling up their armies and courts, and that you see few or no English there?

What is the reason, that when we want to raise armies, or to man navies in England, we are obliged to press the seamen, and to make laws and empower the justices of the peace, and magistrates of towns, to force men to go for soldiers, and enter into the service, or allure them by giving bounty-money, as an encouragement to men to list themselves?--whereas the people of other nations, and even the Scots and Irish, travel abroad, and run into all the neighbour nations, to seek service, and to be admitted into their pay.

What is it but trade?--the increase of business at home, and the employment of the poor in the business and manufactures of this kingdom, by which the poor get so good wages, and live so well, that they will not list for soldiers; and have so good pay in the merchants' service, that they will not serve on board the ships of war, unless they are forced to do it?

What is the reason, that, in order to supply our colonies and plantations with people, besides the encouragement given in those colonies to all people that will come there to plant and to settle, we are obliged to send away thither all our petty offenders, and all the criminals that we think fit to spare from the gallows, besides what we formerly called the kidnapping trade?--that is to say, the arts made use of to wheedle and draw away young vagrant and indigent people, and people of desperate fortunes, to sell themselves--that is, bind themselves for servants, the numbers of which are very great.

It is poverty fills armies, mans navies, and peoples colonies. In vain the drums beat for soldiers, and the king's captains invite seamen to serve in the armies for fivepence a-day, and in the royal navy for twenty-three shillings per month, in a country where the ordinary labourer can have nine shillings a-week for his labour, and the manufacturers earn from twelve to sixteen shillings a-week for their work, and while trade gives thirty shillings per month wages to the seamen on board merchant ships. Men will always stay or go, as the pay gives them encouragement; and this is the reason why it has been so much more difficult to raise and recruit armies in England, than it has been in Scotland and Ireland, France and Germany.

The same trade that keeps our people at home, is the cause of the well living of the people here; for as frugality is not the national virtue of England, so the people that get much spend much; and as they work hard, so they live well, eat and drink well, clothe warm, and lodge soft--in a word, the working manufacturing people of England eat the fat, and drink the sweet, live better, and fare better, than the working poor of any other nation in Europe; they make better wages of their work, and spend more of the money upon their backs and bellies, than in any other country. This expense of the poor, as it causes a prodigious consumption both of the provisions, and of the manufactures of our country at home, so two things are undeniably the consequence of that part.

1. The consumption of provisions increases the rent and value of the lands, and this raises the gentlemen's estates, and that again increases the employment of people, and consequently the numbers of them, as well those who are employed in the husbandry of land, breeding and feeding of cattle, &c, as of servants in the gentlemen's families, who, as their estates increase in value, so they increase their families and equipages.

2. As the people get greater wages, so they, I mean the same poorer part of the people, clothe better, and furnish better, and this increases the consumption of the very manufactures they make; then that consumption increases the quantity made, and this creates what we call inland trade, by which innumerable families are employed, and the increase of the people maintained, and by which increase of trade and people the present growing prosperity of this nation is produced.

The whole glory and greatness of England, then, being thus raised by trade, it must be unaccountable folly and ignorance in us to lessen that one article in our own esteem, which is the only fountain from whence we all, take us as a nation, are raised, and by which we are enriched and maintained. The Scripture says, speaking of the riches and glory of the city of Tyre--which was, indeed, at that time, the great port or emporium of the world for foreign commerce, from whence all the silks and fine manufactures of Persia and India were exported all over the western world--'That her merchants were princes;' and, in another place, 'By thy traffic thou hast increased thy riches.' (Ezek. xxviii. 5.) Certain it is, that our traffic has increased our riches; and it is also certain, that the flourishing of our manufactures is the foundation of all our traffic, as well our merchandise as our inland trade.

The inland trade of England is a thing not easily described; it would, in a word, take up a whole book by itself; it is the foundation of all our wealth and greatness; it is the support of all our foreign trade, and of our manufacturing, and, as I have hitherto written, of the tradesmen who carry it on. I shall proceed with a brief discourse of the trade itself.

FOOTNOTES:

[37] [We have here a pleasing trait of the superior sagacity of Defoe, in as far as it was a prevalent notion down to his time, and even later (nor is it, perhaps, altogether extinguished yet), that the prosperity of a country was marked by its excess of exports over imports. Defoe justly ranks the amount of importation on a level with that of exportation, as indicative of the well-being of the country.]


Daniel Defoe

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