A Textual Commentary of Daniel Defoe
Letter XXII, The Complete English Tradesman, 1726
Of the Dignity of Trade in England more than in Other Countries
After he published in 1713 A General History of Trade, this work (in two volumes) is regarded as the « first comprehensive business texbook which combines economic theory and analysis with a thorough understanding of business conditions and problems » (Stevens). He focuses on the domestic tradesman (warehouse-keepers, shopkeepers, wholesale dealers or retailers of goods) and provides him with practical advice to start or extend a business. His book is based on his own experience as an entrepreneur. Indeed, in addition of being a successful writer, after he published his popular novels Robinson Crusoe (1719) or Moll Flanders (1722), this son of a wealthy dissenter tallow chandler ran, throuhgout his life, various businesses including hosiery, wine, tobacoo, a brick and pantile factory, and went bankrupt twice. Therefore he wrote from first-hand experience.
In this particular letter, his case in favour of tradesmen revolves around three major points that I will be looking at. First, he praises the commercial achievements of England as a « trading country », then he compares tradesmen and the gentry in terms of socio-economic contribution and background, and finally he emphasizes tradesmen’s entitlement to gentleman status on an equal footing -if not superior-, to the nobility.
I. England as a Great « Trading Country » : The Wealth of England
The opening of his letter focuses on England’s commercial success in the world. He repeats several times the superlative « greatest » (l.13, 22, 23, 24). His overuse of superlatives shows his strident nationalism and pride. Then, he backs up his claims with three reasons. One of them relates to the exportation and importation of agricultural and manufactured goods .
Agriculture, Commerce and Manufacture. Indeed, at the beginning of the 18th century Britain enjoyed a successful and developing economy. First, British agriculture advanced more rapidly than any other European nation thanks to four interrelated factors : better management of the land (enclosure movement), a favorable climate (as Defoe stresses on l. 15), more livestock and an improved crop yield (crop rotation, fallowing and introduction of forage crops) (Chappine). In addition of its growing agricultural output, industry, commerce and shipbuilding started to take off. In A Tour through the Whole Island of Great Britain, written around 1700, Defoe depicted the main and various manufacturing regions where textile features prominently (trade of serges in Devon or stuff-weaving in Norfolk, etc.). Woollen cloth (and silk) still outproduced cotton which was nevertheless progressing. English output of linen quadrupled between 1720 and 1775, thanks to Ireland and Scotland (700 000 spindles). As factories did not exist yet, domestic production relied on the « putting-out system », where workers would manufacture from home individual articles (clothes, nails, buttons, shoes, etc.) from raw materials provided by the merchants who then assembled and sold them on the national and European market. This form of « proto-industrialization » was known as the cottage « industry ». This growth of production along with the improvement of roads, railways and canals and the absence of tariff barriers or toll gates led to a significant increase in domestic trade. Similarly, consuming was stimulated by the rise of retail shops and window-shopping. England was also at the leading edge of power sources. The great coalfield of Northeast England produced the most significant part of coal which had been used to heat, boil, brew, smelt and malt since the end of the 17th century. The diversifying uses of coal in 18th century manufacturing, along with the advent of iron (following the discovery of coke smelting in 1709), provided Britain with an invaluable technological leadership (Rule).
Although technical change was still slow (water-powered or steam-powered mills only appeared in the late 18th century), manufacturing developments, characterized by a steady growth and the expansion and improvement of traditional methods of production, were significant and paved the way for the industrial revolution (Aravamudan).
Colonial Empire and Mercantilism. Since 1707, Britain has included Scotland (Act of Union) and the colony of Ireland. In 1714, it defeated Spain and France in the War of Succession. The ensuing Treaty of Utrecht granted England many valuable acquisitions such as land and colonies in the Americas and the Mediterranean, along with Minorca and Gibraltar from Spain. It also gained the right to import slaves into Spanish colonies in Americas. Thus it rose to the position of « pre-eminent and commercial power » in Europe while London had supplanted Amsterdam as Europe’s financial center (Aravamudan). These military victories due to British naval superiority gave rise to the masculine ideal Englishman as a hardened empire-builder with a« stiff upper lip » (what Defoe describes from l.31 to 35, as« stoutest men… »).
In addition, the mother country took great advantage of its first colonial Empire in North America and the West Indies (Caribbean colonies) and India through trading posts operated by the East India Company. In the second half of the 17th century, a succession of mercantilist acts (Navigation Acts, Acts of Trade, etc.) were passed to secure British interests over colonies’ importation and exportation through various monopolies and trade barriers. Thus colonies were captive markets to the direct benefit of Britain (Nester). This activity is reflected from l.67 through 72. Therefore overseas trade (including slavery) was of central importance in the expansion of the economy though its growth was still moderate until 1740 (0.8 % annual rate of growth of the foreign trade sector) where it really picked up (Thomas and McCloskey). Yet, Defoe was not a strict mercantilist (for instance, he bitterly opposed the East India Company) but he supported monopoly and antimonopoly playing off against each other along with protectionist measures (Aravamudan).
II. Tradesmen vs Gentry : A Love-Hate Relationship
After his general tribute to British commercial expansion, Defoe goes on to deal with the core issue of his paper : the defense of merchants against social prejudice. Here, his argumentation is ambivalent as he both levels criticisms at the gentry in opposition to Tradesmen, but also attempts to connect the two competing social categories in order to show « the nobility » of trade.
Common background. He insists first on the connection between tradesmen and the gentry, in order to deny the common belief that tradesmen are « the meanest of our people », in other words from the lower orders. L. 40-44 and l.47-66, he points out that noble families are often of tradesmen descent (« rais’d by and derive from trade ») rather than military background (« by the sword ») according to the feudal tradition. Moreover younger offspring often return to or engage in trade themselves (« descended again into the spring… » ; « younger sons [are] put apprentices to tradesmen » l.161) as they cannot inherit (primogeniture right). He goes back to this same idea in the last section of the letter, in l.160-63 and l. 169-191 by giving numerous examples of tradesmen related to the gentry, generation after generation.
Finally, he mentions a common practice on the rise at that time, what we would call nowadays, « interclass » or « cross-class marriage », that is to say an alliance between two different social groups/orders. The nobility used to marry within their peers (strong endogamy) to preserve the « purity » and the exclusiveness of their « race ». Yet, as Defoe stresses it, compelled by financial need they had to resolve themselves to pick husbands and wives for their progeny from the lower but richer orders who can help them maintain and keep their estates and standard of living.
This provides more evidence of the social inter-mingling of tradesmen and nobility. « The alliance of city money and aristocratic property (…)produce[d] the huge landscaped estates so much a feature of 18th century England« , Janet Todd points out (p11) with regard to this phenomenon.
Opposition and Criticism. That said, he also draws a distinct line, somewhat paradoxically, between their members. In l. 79-93, he emphasizes the great economic contribution of tradesmen to the wealth of the country. To do so, he uses a series of rhetorical questions to add weight to his view.
He cites the funding of the war effort during the Spanish succession war against Spain and France (when tradesmen supported the government’s debt by buying securities it issued, which helped establish an efficient stock market in London (Dickson), the providing of equipment for the army and the navy, and their general input in capital (loans, taxes, banks…). Thus, they had become the backbone of the English economy.
From l.94 to 104, he praises the work ethic and probity of the tradesmen, as thrifty and good property managers in opposition with the extravagance and neglect of the indebted gentry. He repeats this attack against the latter in l.130 (« worn out », « fallen into decay »), l.100 (« excessive high living ») and l.164 (« proving rakish and extravagant »). The figure of the aristocratic rake (in the wake of the « Restoration rake ») was still very popular and disapproved of (as depicted by Hogarth in his famous « A Rake’s Progess » in 1732). They were accused of lax morals, wasting money (including during the Grand Tour where they spent lavishly), gambling and depravation (indulging in prostitution).
The Pond and the Spring. He concluded that not only were tradesmen worth as much as the gentry but they even outdid them. He relies on an effective metaphor to prove this superiority in l.152 where he likens the (country) estate to a pond which can provide resources (in terms of employment and creation of wealth) in a limited quantity whereas the trade, just like a spring, is an unlimited source of economic growth thanks to its continuous development and investments. This point is also stressed when he compares tradesmen and gentry’s expenses in l.143-45.
III. The Yearning for Gentlemanly Recognition
Despite his disapproval of the gentry’s lifestyle, he nonetheless expresses the ardent desire of tradesmen, including himself, to be part of « high society » and gain social respectability and esteem. More specifically, he refers throughout his text, to the very much sought-after status of gentleman. This « ultimate benchmark » has been historically associated with the nobility as land was the main source of status and power. It referred to a man of gentle disposition following the ideal of chivalric code. In the 17th and 18th centuries, this definition shifted with the advent of civility, conduct, politeness and etiquette taught by courtesy books very popular with the middle-class audience. This latter was indeed eager to emulate the manners of the élite to take on their increasing influence (Berberich, 18). The middling orders shared a common passion for « aping the manners and morals of the gentry (…), as soon as they possessed the material means to do so » (Langford, 67). Todd also echoes this tendency : « The business class reared leisured children whose way of life aped the image of the aristocrat » (p.11). Similarly, Defoe raves about « palaces superior to those of princes and the gentry (…) erected by tradesmen » (l.126 ).
On the other hand, the aristocracy sought to set themselves apart from the commoners they despised, as business preoccupations and « economic greed » were considered « base ».
They believed a noble gentleman should be able to live a life of leisure without working (Gilmour).
Defoe regrets this attitude as he complains about the gentry (« refined heads ») « scorning » tradesmen or that they were « proud and high in their appearance » (l.149). Indeed, social acknowledgement was essential as « a gentleman was a gentleman only if he was accepted as one by the rest of society based on an assessment of his manners, behaviour, education and upbringing »(Maura.A Henry, 314). Elite society acted as gatekeepers by sorting « applicants » out.
Consequently, Defoe suggests, in the wake of Richard Steele in The Spectator who stated that « Nobility consists in Virtue not in birth » (The Guardian, 1713), a new definition of what it meant to be a gentleman, by connecting it to « worth » (self-fashioned gentleman) rather than « birth ». His goal was to make it more inclusive (even though it was still related to money) and meritocratic. He claims that « trade is not inconsistent with a Gentleman » or even that « trade makes gentleman » because after all, « A tradesman can buy a gentleman » !, as he quotes wittily.
Tradesmen’s vs. Gentry’s education. Finally, Defoe is careful to counter the traditional view that a classical education in Latin and Greek (received by the upper orders) is necessary to pretend to the refinement of a gentleman. As the middling orders had usually little formal education or a practical one acquired in dissenter academies (ase Defoe had), he insists that tradesmen «generally go beyond [the gentry] in knowledge of the world which is the best education » (l.184). This statement shows that he not only wants equality with the gentry but even to dominate them.
Conclusion. Through his case in favour of tradesmen, Defoe echoes the social tensions of his time which would last for another century with the increasing rise of the middle class. Professionals and merchants challenged the social hierarchy and the landed nobility’s preeminence (Henry) along with its socio-political and cultural values. He articulates this shift in class power that had taken place to their advantage since the Glorious Revolution and even more with the Hanoverian succession of 1714. Yet, despite the importance of money in politics and society, a rise in the world still had to be ratified by land ownership (Todd, p11). [Alexandra Galakof]
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