How The Commerce Of Towns Contributed To The Improvement Of The Country

The increase and riches of commercial and manufacturing towns

contributed to the improvement and cultivation of the countries to which

they belonged, in three different ways:

First, by affording a great and ready market for the rude produce of

the country, they gave encouragement to its cultivation and further

improvement. This benefit was not even confined to the countries in

which they were situated, bu
extended more or less to all those with

which they had any dealings. To all of them they afforded a market

for some part either of their rude or manufactured produce, and,

consequently, gave some encouragement to the industry and improvement

of all. Their own country, however, on account of its neighbourhood,

necessarily derived the greatest benefit from this market. Its rude

produce being charged with less carriage, the traders could pay the

growers a better price for it, and yet afford it as cheap to the

consumers as that of more distant countries.

Secondly, the wealth acquired by the inhabitants of cities was

frequently employed in purchasing such lands as were to be sold, of

which a great part would frequently be uncultivated. Merchants are

commonly ambitious of becoming country gentlemen, and, when they do,

they are generally the best of all improvers. A merchant is accustomed

to employ his money chiefly in profitable projects; whereas a mere

country gentleman is accustomed to employ it chiefly in expense. The one

often sees his money go from him, and return to him again with a profit;

the other, when once he parts with it, very seldom expects to see any

more of it. Those different habits naturally affect their temper and

disposition in every sort of business. The merchant is commonly a bold,

a country gentleman a timid undertaker. The one is not afraid to lay out

at once a large capital upon the improvement of his land, when he has

a probable prospect of raising the value of it in proportion to the

expense; the other, if he has any capital, which is not always the case,

seldom ventures to employ it in this manner. If he improves at all, it

is commonly not with a capital, but with what he can save out or his

annual revenue. Whoever has had the fortune to live in a mercantile

town, situated in an unimproved country, must have frequently observed

how much more spirited the operations of merchants were in this way,

than those of mere country gentlemen. The habits, besides, of order,

economy, and attention, to which mercantile business naturally forms a

merchant, render him much fitter to execute, with profit and success,

any project of improvement.

Thirdly, and lastly, commerce and manufactures gradually introduced

order and good government, and with them the liberty and security of

individuals, among the inhabitants of the country, who had before lived

almost in a continual state of war with their neighbours, and of servile

dependency upon their superiors. This, though it has been the least

observed, is by far the most important of all their effects. Mr Hume is

the only writer who, so far as I know, has hitherto taken notice of it.

In a country which has neither foreign commerce nor any of the finer

manufactures, a great proprietor, having nothing for which he can

exchange the greater part of the produce of his lands which is over and

above the maintenance of the cultivators, consumes the whole in rustic

hospitality at home. If this surplus produce is sufficient to maintain a

hundred or a thousand men, he can make use of it in no other way than by

maintaining a hundred or a thousand men. He is at all times, therefore,

surrounded with a multitude of retainers and dependants, who, having

no equivalent to give in return for their maintenance, but being fed

entirely by his bounty, must obey him, for the same reason that soldiers

must obey the prince who pays them. Before the extension of commerce and

manufactures in Europe, the hospitality of the rich and the great, from

the sovereign down to the smallest baron, exceeded every thing which, in

the present times, we can easily form a notion of Westminster-hall was

the dining-room of William Rufus, and might frequently, perhaps, not be

too large for his company. It was reckoned a piece of magnificence in

Thomas Becket, that he strewed the floor of his hall with clean hay or

rushes in the season, in order that the knights and squires, who could

not get seats, might not spoil their fine clothes when they sat down on

the floor to eat their dinner. The great Earl of Warwick is said to

have entertained every day, at his different manors, 30,000 people; and

though the number here may have been exaggerated, it must, however, have

been very great to admit of such exaggeration. A hospitality nearly of

the same kind was exercised not many years ago in many different parts

of the Highlands of Scotland. It seems to be common in all nations

to whom commerce and manufactures are little known. I have seen, says

Doctor Pocock, an Arabian chief dine in the streets of a town where

he had come to sell his cattle, and invite all passengers, even common

beggars, to sit down with him and partake of his banquet.

The occupiers of land were in every respect as dependent upon the great

proprietor as his retainers. Even such of them as were not in a state

of villanage, were tenants at will, who paid a rent in no respect

equivalent to the subsistence which the land afforded them. A crown,

half a crown, a sheep, a lamb, was some years ago, in the Highlands of

Scotland, a common rent for lands which maintained a family. In some

places it is so at this day; nor will money at present purchase a

greater quantity of commodities there than in other places. In a country

where the surplus produce of a large estate must be consumed upon the

estate itself, it will frequently be more convenient for the proprietor,

that part of it be consumed at a distance from his own house, provided

they who consume it are as dependent upon him as either his retainers

or his menial servants. He is thereby saved from the embarrassment of

either too large a company, or too large a family. A tenant at will, who

possesses land sufficient to maintain his family for little more than

a quit-rent, is as dependent upon the proprietor as any servant or

retainer whatever, and must obey him with as little reserve. Such a

proprietor, as he feeds his servants and retainers at his own house, so

he feeds his tenants at their houses. The subsistence of both is derived

from his bounty, and its continuance depends upon his good pleasure.

Upon the authority which the great proprietors necessarily had, in such

a state of things, over their tenants and retainers, was founded the

power of the ancient barons. They necessarily became the judges in

peace, and the leaders in war, of all who dwelt upon their estates.

They could maintain order, and execute the law, within their respective

demesnes, because each of them could there turn the whole force of all

the inhabitants against the injustice of anyone. No other person had

sufficient authority to do this. The king, in particular, had not. In

those ancient times, he was little more than the greatest proprietor

in his dominions, to whom, for the sake of common defence against their

common enemies, the other great proprietors paid certain respects.

To have enforced payment of a small debt within the lands of a great

proprietor, where all the inhabitants were armed, and accustomed to

stand by one another, would have cost the king, had he attempted it by

his own authority, almost the same effort as to extinguish a civil war.

He was, therefore, obliged to abandon the administration of justice,

through the greater part of the country, to those who were capable of

administering it; and, for the same reason, to leave the command of the

country militia to those whom that militia would obey.

It is a mistake to imagine that those territorial jurisdictions took

their origin from the feudal law. Not only the highest jurisdictions,

both civil and criminal, but the power of levying troops, of coining

money, and even that of making bye-laws for the government of their own

people, were all rights possessed allodially by the great proprietors of

land, several centuries before even the name of the feudal law was known

in Europe. The authority and jurisdiction of the Saxon lords in England

appear to have been as great before the Conquest as that of any of the

Norman lords after it. But the feudal law is not supposed to have

become the common law of England till after the Conquest. That the most

extensive authority and jurisdictions were possessed by the great lords

in France allodially, long before the feudal law was introduced

into that country, is a matter of fact that admits of no doubt. That

authority, and those jurisdictions, all necessarily flowed from the

state of property and manners just now described. Without remounting to

the remote antiquities of either the French or English monarchies, we

may find, in much later times, many proofs that such effects must always

flow from such causes. It is not thirty years ago since Mr Cameron of

Lochiel, a gentleman of Lochaber in Scotland, without any legal warrant

whatever, not being what was then called a lord of regality, nor even a

tenant in chief, but a vassal of the Duke of Argyll, and with out being

so much as a justice of peace, used, notwithstanding, to exercise the

highest criminal jurisdictions over his own people. He is said to have

done so with great equity, though without any of the formalities of

justice; and it is not improbable that the state of that part of the

country at that time made it necessary for him to assume this authority,

in order to maintain the public peace. That gentleman, whose rent never

exceeded £500 a-year, carried, in 1745, 800 of his own people into the

rebellion with him.

The introduction of the feudal law, so far from extending, may be

regarded as an attempt to moderate, the authority of the great allodial

lords. It established a regular subordination, accompanied with a

long train of services and duties, from the king down to the smallest

proprietor. During the minority of the proprietor, the rent, together

with the management of his lands, fell into the hands of his immediate

superior; and, consequently, those of all great proprietors into the

hands of the king, who was charged with the maintenance and education of

the pupil, and who, from his authority as guardian, was supposed to have

a right of disposing of him in marriage, provided it was in a manner not

unsuitable to his rank. But though this institution necessarily tended

to strengthen the authority of the king, and to weaken that of the great

proprietors, it could not do either sufficiently for establishing order

and good government among the inhabitants of the country; because it

could not alter sufficiently that state of property and manners from

which the disorders arose. The authority of government still continued

to be, as before, too weak in the head, and too strong in the inferior

members; and the excessive strength of the inferior members was the

cause of the weakness of the head. After the institution of feudal

subordination, the king was as incapable of restraining the violence of

the great lords as before. They still continued to make war according

to their own discretion, almost continually upon one another, and very

frequently upon the king; and the open country still continued to be a

scene of violence, rapine, and disorder.

But what all the violence of the feudal institutions could never have

effected, the silent and insensible operation of foreign commerce and

manufactures gradually brought about. These gradually furnished the

great proprietors with something for which they could exchange the whole

surplus produce of their lands, and which they could consume themselves,

without sharing it either with tenants or retainers. All for ourselves,

and nothing for other people, seems, in every age of the world, to have

been the vile maxim of the masters of mankind. As soon, therefore, as

they could find a method of consuming the whole value of their rents

themselves, they had no disposition to share them with any other

persons. For a pair of diamond buckles, perhaps, or for something as

frivolous and useless, they exchanged the maintenance, or, what is the

same thing, the price of the maintenance of 1000 men for a year, and

with it the whole weight and authority which it could give them. The

buckles, however, were to be all their own, and no other human creature

was to have any share of them; whereas, in the more ancient method

of expense, they must have shared with at least 1000 people. With

the judges that were to determine the preference, this difference

was perfectly decisive; and thus, for the gratification of the most

childish, the meanest, and the most sordid of all vanities they

gradually bartered their whole power and authority.

In a country where there is no foreign commerce, nor any of the finer

manufactures, a man of £10,000 a-year cannot well employ his revenue in

any other way than in maintaining, perhaps, 1000 families, who are all

of them necessarily at his command. In the present state of Europe, a

man of £10,000 a-year can spend his whole revenue, and he generally does

so, without directly maintaining twenty people, or being able to command

more than ten footmen, not worth the commanding. Indirectly, perhaps,

he maintains as great, or even a greater number of people, than he could

have done by the ancient method of expense. For though the quantity of

precious productions for which he exchanges his whole revenue be very

small, the number of workmen employed in collecting and preparing it

must necessarily have been very great. Its great price generally arises

from the wages of their labour, and the profits of all their immediate

employers. By paying that price, he indirectly pays all those wages and

profits, and thus indirectly contributes to the maintenance of all the

workmen and their employers. He generally contributes, however, but a

very small proportion to that of each; to a very few, perhaps, not a

tenth, to many not a hundredth, and to some not a thousandth, or even

a ten thousandth part of their whole annual maintenance. Though he

contributes, therefore, to the maintenance of them all, they are all

more or less independent of him, because generally they can all be

maintained without him.

When the great proprietors of land spend their rents in maintaining

their tenants and retainers, each of them maintains entirely all his

own tenants and all his own retainers. But when they spend them in

maintaining tradesmen and artificers, they may, all of them taken

together, perhaps maintain as great, or, on account of the waste which

attends rustic hospitality, a greater number of people than before. Each

of them, however, taken singly, contributes often but a very small

share to the maintenance of any individual of this greater number. Each

tradesman or artificer derives his subsistence from the employment, not

of one, but of a hundred or a thousand different customers. Though

in some measure obliged to them all, therefore, he is not absolutely

dependent upon any one of them.

The personal expense of the great proprietors having in this manner

gradually increased, it was impossible that the number of their

retainers should not as gradually diminish, till they were at last

dismissed altogether. The same cause gradually led them to dismiss

the unnecessary part of their tenants. Farms were enlarged, and the

occupiers of land, notwithstanding the complaints of depopulation,

reduced to the number necessary for cultivating it, according to the

imperfect state of cultivation and improvement in those times. By the

removal of the unnecessary mouths, and by exacting from the farmer the

full value of the farm, a greater surplus, or, what is the same thing,

the price of a greater surplus, was obtained for the proprietor, which

the merchants and manufacturers soon furnished him with a method of

spending upon his own person, in the same manner as he had done the

rest. The cause continuing to operate, he was desirous to raise his

rents above what his lands, in the actual state of their improvement,

could afford. His tenants could agree to this upon one condition only,

that they should be secured in their possession for such a term of years

as might give them time to recover, with profit, whatever they should

lay not in the further improvement of the land. The expensive vanity of

the landlord made him willing to accept of this condition; and hence the

origin of long leases.

Even a tenant at will, who pays the full value of the land, is not

altogether dependent upon the landlord. The pecuniary advantages which

they receive from one another are mutual and equal, and such a tenant

will expose neither his life nor his fortune in the service of the

proprietor. But if he has a lease for along term of years, he is

altogether independent; and his landlord must not expect from him even

the most trifling service, beyond what is either expressly stipulated

in the lease, or imposed upon him by the common and known law of the


The tenants having in this manner become independent, and the retainers

being dismissed, the great proprietors were no longer capable of

interrupting the regular execution of justice, or of disturbing the

peace of the country. Having sold their birth-right, not like Esau,

for a mess of pottage in time of hunger and necessity, but, in the

wantonness of plenty, for trinkets and baubles, fitter to be the

playthings of children than the serious pursuits of men, they became

as insignificant as any substantial burgher or tradesmen in a city.

A regular government was established in the country as well as in the

city, nobody having sufficient power to disturb its operations in the

one, any more than in the other.

It does not, perhaps, relate to the present subject, but I cannot

help remarking it, that very old families, such as have possessed some

considerable estate from father to son for many successive generations,

are very rare in commercial countries. In countries which have little

commerce, on the contrary, such as Wales, or the Highlands of Scotland,

they are very common. The Arabian histories seem to be all full of

genealogies; and there is a history written by a Tartar Khan, which

has been translated into several European languages, and which contains

scarce any thing else; a proof that ancient families are very common

among those nations. In countries where a rich man can spend his revenue

in no other way than by maintaining as many people as it can maintain,

he is apt to run out, and his benevolence, it seems, is seldom so

violent as to attempt to maintain more than he can afford. But where he

can spend the greatest revenue upon his own person, he frequently has

no bounds to his expense, because he frequently has no bounds to his

vanity, or to his affection for his own person. In commercial countries,

therefore, riches, in spite of the most violent regulations of law to

prevent their dissipation, very seldom remain long in the same family.

Among simple nations, on the contrary, they frequently do, without any

regulations of law; for among nations of shepherds, such as the Tartars

and Arabs, the consumable nature of their property necessarily renders

all such regulations impossible.

A revolution of the greatest importance to the public happiness, was in

this manner brought about by two different orders of people, who had not

the least intention to serve the public. To gratify the most childish

vanity was the sole motive of the great proprietors. The merchants and

artificers, much less ridiculous, acted merely from a view to their

own interest, and in pursuit of their own pedlar principle of turning

a penny wherever a penny was to be got. Neither of them had either

knowledge or foresight of that great revolution which the folly of the

one, and the industry of the other, was gradually bringing about.

It was thus, that, through the greater part of Europe, the commerce and

manufactures of cities, instead of being the effect, have been the cause

and occasion of the improvement and cultivation of the country.

This order, however, being contrary to the natural course of things, is

necessarily both slow and uncertain. Compare the slow progress of those

European countries of which the wealth depends very much upon their

commerce and manufactures, with the rapid advances of our North American

colonies, of which the wealth is founded altogether in agriculture.

Through the greater part of Europe, the number of inhabitants is not

supposed to double in less than five hundred years. In several of

our North American colonies, it is found to double in twenty or

five-and-twenty years. In Europe, the law of primogeniture, and

perpetuities of different kinds, prevent the division of great estates,

and thereby hinder the multiplication of small proprietors. A small

proprietor, however, who knows every part of his little territory, views

it with all the affection which property, especially small property,

naturally inspires, and who upon that account takes pleasure, not only

in cultivating, but in adorning it, is generally of all improvers the

most industrious, the most intelligent, and the most successful. The

same regulations, besides, keep so much land out of the market, that

there are always more capitals to buy than there is land to sell, so

that what is sold always sells at a monopoly price. The rent never

pays the interest of the purchase-money, and is, besides, burdened with

repairs and other occasional charges, to which the interest of money

is not liable. To purchase land, is, everywhere in Europe, a most

unprofitable employment of a small capital. For the sake of the superior

security, indeed, a man of moderate circumstances, when he retires from

business, will sometimes choose to lay out his little capital in land.

A man of profession, too whose revenue is derived from another source

often loves to secure his savings in the same way. But a young man,

who, instead of applying to trade or to some profession, should employ a

capital of two or three thousand pounds in the purchase and cultivation

of a small piece of land, might indeed expect to live very happily and

very independently, but must bid adieu for ever to all hope of either

great fortune or great illustration, which, by a different employment

of his stock, he might have had the same chance of acquiring with

other people. Such a person, too, though he cannot aspire at being a

proprietor, will often disdain to be a farmer. The small quantity of

land, therefore, which is brought to market, and the high price of

what is brought thither, prevents a great number of capitals from being

employed in its cultivation and improvement, which would otherwise have

taken that direction. In North America, on the contrary, fifty or sixty

pounds is often found a sufficient stock to begin a plantation with.

The purchase and improvement of uncultivated land is there the most

profitable employment of the smallest as well as of the greatest

capitals, and the most direct road to all the fortune and illustration

which can be required in that country. Such land, indeed, is in North

America to be had almost for nothing, or at a price much below the value

of the natural produce; a thing impossible in Europe, or indeed in

any country where all lands have long been private property. If landed

estates, however, were divided equally among all the children, upon the

death of any proprietor who left a numerous family, the estate would

generally be sold. So much land would come to market, that it could no

longer sell at a monopoly price. The free rent of the land would go no

nearer to pay the interest of the purchase-money, and a small capital

might be employed in purchasing land as profitable as in any other way.

England, on account of the natural fertility of the soil, of the great

extent of the sea-coast in proportion to that of the whole country,

and of the many navigable rivers which run through it, and afford the

conveniency of water carriage to some of the most inland parts of it,

is perhaps as well fitted by nature as any large country in Europe to be

the seat of foreign commerce, of manufactures for distant sale, and of

all the improvements which these can occasion. From the beginning of

the reign of Elizabeth, too, the English legislature has been peculiarly

attentive to the interest of commerce and manufactures, and in reality

there is no country in Europe, Holland itself not excepted, of which

the law is, upon the whole, more favourable to this sort of industry.

Commerce and manufactures have accordingly been continually advancing

during all this period. The cultivation and improvement of the country

has, no doubt, been gradually advancing too; but it seems to have

followed slowly, and at a distance, the more rapid progress of commerce

and manufactures. The greater part of the country must probably have

been cultivated before the reign of Elizabeth; and a very great part of

it still remains uncultivated, and the cultivation of the far greater

part much inferior to what it might be, The law of England, however,

favours agriculture, not only indirectly, by the protection of commerce,

but by several direct encouragements. Except in times of scarcity, the

exportation of corn is not only free, but encouraged by a bounty. In

times of moderate plenty, the importation of foreign corn is loaded with

duties that amount to a prohibition. The importation of live cattle,

except from Ireland, is prohibited at all times; and it is but of

late that it was permitted from thence. Those who cultivate the land,

therefore, have a monopoly against their countrymen for the two greatest

and most important articles of land produce, bread and butcher's meat.

These encouragements, although at bottom, perhaps, as I shall endeavour

to show hereafter, altogether illusory, sufficiently demonstrate at

least the good intention of the legislature to favour agriculture.

But what is of much more importance than all of them, the yeomanry of

England are rendered as secure, as independent, and as respectable,

as law can make them. No country, therefore, which the right of

primogeniture takes place, which pays tithes, and where perpetuities,

though contrary to the spirit of the law, are admitted in some cases,

can give more encouragement to agriculture than England. Such, however,

notwithstanding, is the state of its cultivation. What would it have

been, had the law given no direct encouragement to agriculture besides

what arises indirectly from the progress of commerce, and had left the

yeomanry in the same condition as in most other countries of Europe? It

is now more than two hundred years since the beginning of the reign of

Elizabeth, a period as long as the course of human prosperity usually


France seems to have had a considerable share of foreign commerce, near

a century before England was distinguished as a commercial country.

The marine of France was considerable, according to the notions of the

times, before the expedition of Charles VIII. to Naples. The cultivation

and improvement of France, however, is, upon the whole, inferior to

that of England. The law of the country has never given the same direct

encouragement to agriculture.

The foreign commerce of Spain and Portual to the other parts of Europe,

though chiefly carried on in foreign ships, is very considerable. That

to their colonies is carried on in their own, and is much greater, on

account of the great riches and extent of those colonies. But it has

never introduced any considerable manufactures for distant sale into

either of those countries, and the greater part of both still remains

uncultivated. The foreign commerce of Portugal is of older standing than

that of any great country in Europe, except Italy.

Italy is the only great country of Europe which seems to have been

cultivated and improved in every part, by means of foreign commerce and

manufactures for distant sale. Before the invasion of Charles VIII.,

Italy, according to Guicciardini, was cultivated not less in the most

mountainous and barren parts of the country, than in the plainest and

most fertile. The advantageous situation of the country, and the

great number of independent status which at that time subsisted in it,

probably contributed not a little to this general cultivation. It is not

impossible, too, notwithstanding this general expression of one of the

most judicious and reserved of modern historians, that Italy was not at

that time better cultivated than England is at present.

The capital, however, that is acquired to any country by commerce and

manufactures, is always a very precarious and uncertain possession, till

some part of it has been secured and realized in the cultivation and

improvement of its lands. A merchant, it has been said very properly, is

not necessarily the citizen of any particular country. It is in a great

measure indifferent to him from what place he carries on his trade; and

a very trifling disgust will make him remove his capital, and, together

with it, all the industry which it supports, from one country to

another. No part of it can be said to belong to any particular country,

till it has been spread, as it were, over the face of that country,

either in buildings, or in the lasting improvement of lands. No vestige

now remains of the great wealth said to have been possessed by the

greater part of the Hanse Towns, except in the obscure histories of the

thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. It is even uncertain where some of

them were situated, or to what towns in Europe the Latin names given to

some of them belong. But though the misfortunes of Italy, in the end

of the fifteenth and beginning of the sixteenth centuries, greatly

diminished the commerce and manufactures of the cities of Lombardy and

Tuscany, those countries still continue to be among the most populous

and best cultivated in Europe. The civil wars of Flanders, and the

Spanish government which succeeded them, chased away the great commerce

of Antwerp, Ghent, and Bruges. But Flanders still continues to be one of

the richest, best cultivated, and most populous provinces of Europe. The

ordinary revolutions of war and government easily dry up the sources of

that wealth which arises from commerce only. That which arises from the

more solid improvements of agriculture is much more durable, and cannot

be destroyed but by those more violent convulsions occasioned by the

depredations of hostile and barbarous nations continued for a century or

two together; such as those that happened for some time before and after

the fall of the Roman empire in the western provinces of Europe.