English Life


A CIVILIZATION is a people given social order by government, law, religion, morals, customs, and education, and left sufficiently free to invent and experiment, to develop friendship, charity, and love, and to beget art, literature, science, and philosophy. How did these forms of order and liberty operate in the England of 1789 to 1815, and what did they produce?

First, the natural diversity of men—in heritage, opportunity, and skills-arranged them into classes each of which contributed a supporting share to the corporate life. There were no castes in England, for an individual of outstanding wealth or excellence might rise from one class to another, even to the peerage; and the relationship of peer to peasant was often one of friendly intercourse, rarely that of Brahmin to Untouchable. Serfdom had disappeared, though only a small minority of peasants owned the land they tilled. The noble paid taxes like the rest, and sometimes (unlike their French compeers) engaged in commerce or industry. Only the eldest living son of a nobleman shared in his nobility; the other children were legally (not socially) commoners.

Many unnatural inequalities remained. The concentration of wealth was unusually high. Equality before the law was nullified by the cost of litigation. Accused lords could be tried only by the House of Lords (a jury of their peers); this “privilege of peerage” survived till 1841. Careless men of no pedigree might be forcibly impressed into the Navy. Commoners rarely reached high office in the Navy or the Army, in the civil service, the universities, or the law. A ruling class of nobles and gentry seldom allowed to the undistinguished mass any share in determining the personnel or policies of the government.

Perhaps class consciousness was keenest in the bourgeoisie, which remained proudly aloof from the peasantry and the proletariat, and dreamed of peerages. Within itself there were jealous strata: the industrial capitalist looked down upon the neighborhood shopkeeper;* the great merchant who had graced money with adventure stood aloof from the industrialist; and the swelling nabobs, who had gilded their colonial gleanings with patriotism and religion, were forming a class of their own. As in France, so in England, no one seemed content anymore with the place to which Providence, capacity, or chance had assigned him; everyone was busy climbing or falling; the restlessness of modernity began. The basic struggle was of the capitalist to replace the aristocrat at the helm of state; in France it took a generation; in England it took centuries.

So, till 1832, the nobility was supreme, and smiled at its challengers. In its strictest sense it consisted, in 1801, of 287 “temporal” peers or peeresses, and twenty-six Anglican bishops, who, as “spiritual lords,” were entitled to sit in the House of Lords. The temporal peers were ranked, in descending order, as princes of the (royal) blood, dukes, marquesses, earls, viscounts, and barons. To all of these except princes and dukes the appellation “lord” could be properly applied; and their titles carried down, generation after generation, to the eldest son. Their wealth was based upon the ownership of vast areas, tilled by tenant farmers and hired laborers, and bringing such rents as the Duke of Newcastle’s £120,000, or Viscount Palmerston’s more usual £12,000, a year.2 The combined estates of the Dukes of Bedford, Norfolk, and Devonshire could have covered an average county.3 Below these lords temporal and spiritual England ranked 540 baronets and their wives, entitled to prefix “Sir” or “Lady” to their Christian names, and to transmit these titles in their families. Next were 350 knights and their wives, entitled to the same prefixes, but not to transmit them. Below these came some six thousand squires or “gentry”—landowners born in old and accepted families, and authorized to bear a coat of arms. All these groups below the “lords” constituted the lesser nobility, but they were generally included in the “aristocracy” that ruled England.

It does not seem to have felt that there was anything wrong in minority rule. Its members bore with stoic equanimity the poverty of the peasants, the degradation of the factory workers, and the spoliation of Ireland. Poverty, they believed, was the natural and necessary penalty of incompetence or sloth, and weak-kneed theorists must not be allowed to transform Britain into a democracy resting on a degenerative dole. Despite anarchist dreamers like William Godwin or Percy Shelley, some government is necessary; without it the people become a mob, dangerous to every individual and every liberty. Napoleon was not prejudiced in favor of England, yet he said at St. Helena, “It would be a European disaster if the English aristocracy were to disappear, if it were handed over to a London mob.”4 All government is by a minority or by a despot, and the ruling minority is either an aristocracy of birth or a plutocracy of wealth. Democracy, of course, is the latter, for only wealth can finance campaigns, or pay the cost of persuading the people to vote for the moneyed minority’s candidate. Men democratically chosen are rarely equipped, by birth and training, to deal successfully with the problems of government, much less with international relations. An aristocracy of birth is a school of statesmanship. Some of its graduates may become worthless wastrels, but a saving few acquire, by long association with the problems and personnel of rule, the ability to deal with critical affairs without endangering the nation by their bungling. Moreover, a properly functioning aristocracy wins from the people a habit of obedience, and a respect for authority, which are boons to public order and security.

Such arguments, subtly phrased and obscurely felt, seem to have persuaded the majority of the English nation. But they did not convince the rising bourgeoisie, which resented the power of landed wealth to control ministries and Parliament; they were angrily repudiated by rebellious labor; and they were sharply questioned by an intelligentsia shocked to observe, and resolved to reveal, the means by which a self-serving aristocracy was governing England.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!