The Rise and Fall of England: 2. Pre-Industrial England
APRIL 01, 1968 by CLARENCE B. CARSON
Dr. Carson, Professor of History at Grove City College, Pennsylvania, will be remembered for his earlier FREEMAN series, The Fateful Turn, The American Tradition, and The Flight from Reality.
England’s rise to greatness came after major political changes that afforded substantial liberty for Englishmen. There have been many efforts in recent generations to attribute productiveness, prosperity, and industrial leadership to almost everything except morality and liberty — such diverse factors as war, inflation, natural resources, government "promotion" of manufacturing, exploitation of workers, and technology.
The technological explanation is particularly alluring, for it is easy to see that an increase in the productivity of workers makes more goods available. So it does, if the workmen continue to work effectively, if the machines are utilized, and if what is wanted is produced. But then, technological advance is not an accident itself. It, too, is the result of inventiveness stimulated by incentives and relief from fetters; in short, it, too, is the result of morality and liberty.
The role of liberty and morality in the development of England’s prosperity and leadership becomes clearer as one examines the situation in England before the change occurred. It has been shown that civilizational leadership was hardly usual for England, that the many wars in her past had not produced abundant prosperity, that such natural resources as were to be found in that land had not distinguished her thus far in productiveness, and so on. In short, England’s greatness, when it came, should be attributed to new factors: to morality and liberty.
The Political Setting
In the century or so before England began to industrialize on a large scale there was widespread oppression and hardship. Now, oppression and hardship were not peculiar to England of all nations nor to this time in history. On the contrary, oppression and hardship have been the lot of most peoples in most times everywhere. It is the relative exceptions to this that are noteworthy. But oppression has different forms in different times, and there are degrees of it as well.
It was in terms of the particular forms of oppression in England that an amelioration of it began to take place. Moreover, the increasing liberty — the freeing of the energies of the people led to the industrialization which alleviated much of the hardship. It will be seen, too, that the hardship was not simply the result of inferior technology but, more directly, of the oppression itself.
Many Englishmen were inclined to blame the oppressions of the first half of the seventeenth century on the Stuart monarchs who ruled. It is true that James I (1603-1625) insisted upon all his prerogatives, defending them on the offensive grounds of the Divine Right of Kings, and that Charles I (1625-1649) attempted to rule without going through the motions of dependence upon Parliament. But it would be difficult to prove that the Stuarts were more oppressive than the Tudors who preceded them. The Tudors had flattered the members of Parliament, however, by allowing them to participate in the despotic decisions. Of equal importance, the Tudors did not press issues to a constitutional head, while the Stuarts in pressing their claims to their ancient prerogatives raised troublesome constitutional questions. At any rate, there should be little doubt that the government of England was despotic at the outset of the seventeenth century.
It was not a despotism that sprang from the personality of a king alone. The system that prevailed provided considerable opportunity for despotism. At the beginning of the seventeenth century, England had a class system which was a relic of feudalism. The classes had lost that independence, however, which had earlier enabled them to balance and offset the power of the monarch. When Parliament acted with the king, there were none who could effectively oppose the action. When Parliament refused to act with the king, it had no means of action; it would be dismissed, most likely. The basis of independence was there potentially, as we shall see later; but for the time, power was concentrated and had been for the past century. Whether it was exercised in an enlightened fashion or not, it was despotic.
The Forms of Oppression
Three different kinds of oppression and persecution can be distinguished: political, religious, and economic. All the oppression was by the government, of course, and was in an important sense political; but for purposes of discussion the oppression within the government itself is denominated political, while persecution of those not within government is referred to as religious or economic.
In many respects, political oppression was the mildest, but it got a great deal of attention because it frequently involved men who had a forum from which to speak. The great constitutional issues of the first half of the seventeenth century frequently involved the freedom and independence of the members of the House of Commons and of judges. The freedoms for which Commons contended were freedom of speech, i.e., freedom to discuss whatever matters they desired when Parliament was in session; freedom from arrest while Parliament was in session or for what had been said and done there; and the right of initiative and alteration of legislation.
Monarchs of the time assumed that they would bring before Parliament such matters as would be considered and that these might be discussed and decided upon, but none others. Thus, Elizabeth I (1558-1603) had said:
For liberty of speech her majesty commandeth me to tell you, that to say yea or not to bills, God forbid that any man should be restrained or afraid to answer according to his best liking, with some short declaration of his reason therein, and therein to have a free voice, which is the very true liberty of the house, not as some suppose to speak there of all causes as him listeth, and to frame a form of religion, or a state of Government as to their idle brains shall seem meetest, She sayeth no king fit for his state will suffer such absurdities.1
James I was more emphatic in 1621, when he commanded the Speaker of Commons "to make known in our name unto the House, that none therein shall presume henceforth to meddle with anything concerning our Government or deep matters of State."2
Persecution Under Charles
It was under Charles I, however, that the most extensive political persecution occurred. When both houses of Parliament persisted in inquiring into foreign affairs in 1625, Charles dissolved Parliament and had the Speaker of the House of Commons, Sir John Eliot, imprisoned in the Tower of London. Parliament had not enacted a law requiring the payment of Tunnage and Poundage, but Charles, badly in need of funds, simply imposed it without parliamentary consent. "Seventy gentlemen, of whom twenty-seven were members of parliament, had to be imprisoned for refusing to contribute to the loan."3 After a stormy session in 1629, Sir John Eliot was once again sent to prison where he died in 1632, and Charles ruled eleven years without Parliament. When Parliament finally was called again in 1640, Charles could no longer work his will or even succeed in subduing its members by arrests; the time of rebellion was at hand.
In like manner, the early Stuarts attempted to work their wills upon the courts. "In 1616 Chief Justice Coke was dismissed for refusing to defer to James I in giving judgment. Ten years later Charles dismissed Chief Justice Crew for refusing to admit the legality of a forced loan…. During the personal government of Charles I repeated dismissals reduced the judges to a state in which they enforced monopolies, abandoned Coke’s attempt to restrict the jurisdiction of Church courts, and declared Ship Money legal."4 In short, the courts were made effective instruments for the despotic will of the king.
The Church of England
The religious oppression of Stuart England is known to Americans, because it was this that drove Pilgrims, Puritans, Baptists, Quakers, and Catholics to migrate in considerable numbers to the New World. Nowhere does the determination to maintain conformity by stamping out differences appear more clearly.
The Church of England was established. This meant that everyone "had to attend services in his parish church every Sunday, and was liable to legal penalties if he did not. He had to pay tithes, one-tenth of his produce or his profits, to a clergyman whom he had no say in choosing, and of whom he might heartily disapprove. He was liable to the jurisdiction of Church courts, which punished him not only for ‘heresy,’ nonattendance at church, or sexual immorality, but also for working on Sundays or saints’ days, for nonpayment of tithes, sometimes even for lending money at interest. "5 Moreover, the Church kept a close watch over and a tight rein on thought and education. "Books were strictly censored, and the censorship was in the hands of the Bishops. Education was an ecclesiastical monopoly…. No person might teach in a school or private family unless licensed by his Bishop.""
Anyone who differed from the established church was in difficulty, potential or actual. Dissenters, both Protestant and Catholic, were persecuted. During Elizabeth’s reign Catholics, particularly, were the subject of disabling legislation: an act of 1571 made it treason to declare that Elizabeth ought not to be queen or to bring in a papal Bull. An act of 1581 made it a high crime to attempt to convert a subject to the Catholic faith and set forth penalties for saying or hearing a Mass. During her reign more than two hundred Catholics were put to death.
Dissenting Protestants were not spared either. A small sect began to hold meetings, called Conventicles. An act of 1593 provided imprisonment for anyone who attended one of these meetings, banishment from England for a second offense, and execution for those who returned to England after having been banished. That matters were little improved for such dissenters under James I will appear from the account made by William Bradford of what happened to a company of them who tried to leave England for Holland in 1608. They arranged with a man for a ship to take them over.
But when he had them and their goods aboard, he betrayed them, having beforehand complotted with the searchers and other officers so to do; who took them, and put them into boats, and there rifled and ransacked them, searching to their shirts for money, yea even the women further than became modesty; and then carried them back into the town and made them a spectacle and wonder to the multitude which came flocking on all sides to behold them. Being thus first, by these catchpoll officers rifled and stripped of their money, books and much other goods, they were presented to the magistrates, and messengers sent to inform the Lords of the Council of them; and so they were committed to ward. Indeed the magistrates used them courteously and showed them what favour they could; but could not deliver them till order came from the Council table. But the issue was that after a month’s imprisonment the greatest part were dismissed and sent to the places from which they came; but seven of the principal were still kept in prison and bound over to the assizes?
Perhaps the most amazing persecution during the reign of James I was that for alleged witchcraft. The king had produced a book on demonology a few years before he came to the throne of England. "In 1604 an act increasing the penalties against witches was passed by the English Parliament and under it many thousands of witches were condemned and burnt in the first twelve years of the reign."8
The persecution of Puritans reached its peak during the eleven years when Charles I ruled without Parliament. Puritans were within the ranks of the Church of England, but they wished to reform it in various ways. Archbishop William Laud, acting under the auspices of Charles I, undertook to bring them completely in line or drive them out. "Archiepiscopal visitations took place everywhere to ensure that the altar stood at the eastern end of the churches, that paid lecturers should not invade the parishes to preach puritanism, that the services set out in the Common Prayer Book were used, and that extreme sabbatarianism was stamped upon. Puritan pamphleteers… were savagely punished by the Star Chamber." In the decade from 1630 to 1640 nearly 20,000 of the Puritans came to New England.
Efforts at Economic Stability
Economic oppression was usually more subtle than religious persecution, though hardly less devastating in its extended effects. Two intertwined principles dictated this oppression: the now ancient Medieval goal of stability and a later system which was being given theoretical formulation in the seventeenth century which we know as mercantilism.
The goal of economic stability is readily understood; it is the principle of maintaining things as they are — prices, wages, products, rents, workers — by legislation or fiat. Mercantilism jibed perfectly with the royal absolutism of the time. It was a system of economic planning by which the monarch made economic activities an extension of his will for the supposed benefit of the kingdom. Regarding the effort to maintain stability, one historian says that the governments of the early Stuarts were "suspicious of social change and social mobility, of the rapid enrichment of capitalists, afraid of the fluctuations of the market and of unemployment, of vagabondage and social unrest."¹º Thus, "throughout the early Stuart period, governments thought it their duty to regulate industry, wages, and working conditions. In times of dearth they ordered Justices of the Peace to buy up corn and sell it below cost price; they forbade employers to lay off workers whose products they could not sell."¹1
The most famous of the attempts to maintain things as they were over the centuries were the laws against enclosure. Enclosure was the practice of combining the many plots of a manorial estate into a single farm, and frequently enclosing it for the pasturing of sheep (though it might also be used for commercial row crop farming). From time to time the government tried to prevent this, one of the more determined efforts being made under Charles I.
Many of the deleterious effects of this "stability" regulation were understood at the time.
Government regulation, in so far as it was enforced, rendered the English economy inflexible, less able to react to changes in demand than a free market would have been. In 1631 the Hertfordshire Justices of the Peace protested that "this strict looking to markets is the reason why the markets are smaller, the corn dearer." Free trade would produce better results: the Dorset Justices agreed with them. Lancashire Justices refused in 1634 to cause unemployment by enforcing apprenticeship regulations; nor would they prosecute middlemen whose activities were essential for spinners and weavers of linen, who could not afford time off to go to Preston market to buy flax. In Essex it was "found by experience that the raising of wages cannot advance the relief of the poor," since employers would not take men on at the enforced higher wage rates.12
There is nothing new about the ill effects of government interference with the market, as these instances show.
The most notable development of mercantilism in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries was in the establishment of monopolies. It was the habit of the monarchs to grant charters or patents to individuals or companies to have the exclusive right to engage in a certain trade or to make, sell, or purvey certain goods. One historian lists the following items as being thus monopolized at one time or another during the first four decades of the seventeenth century: bricks, glass, coal, iron, tapestries, feathers, brushes, combs, soap, starch, lace, linen, leather, gold thread, beaver, belts, buttons, pins, dyes, butter, currants, red herrings, salmon, lobsters, salt, pepper, vinegar, tin, beer, hops, barrels, bottles, tobacco, dice, cards, pens, writing paper, gunpowder, and so on. Little was left to be monopolized, except bread, as a member of Parliament noted in 1601.13
The impact of all this was quite predictable: inconveniences, scarcities, high prices, obstacles to enterprise, inflexibility, and great burdens, particularly on the poor. "By the late sixteen-thirties the economy was beginning to suffer. The clothing industry was hit by increased cost of soap and alum, and by the scarcity of potash caused by suppression of imports. The Greenland Company lacked oil. The salt monopoly embarrassed the Fishing Society. The rise in the price of coal hit nearly all industries. ‘No freeman of London,’ said a pamphlet of 1640, `after he hath served his years and set up his trade, can be sure long to enjoy the labour of his trade, but either he is forbidden longer to use it, or is forced at length with the rest of his trade to purchase it as a monopoly, at a dear rate, which they and all the kingdom pay for… "14 Mercantilism had not yet reached its high tide in England, but it was well under way under the Stuart monarchs.
A Land of Many Oppressions
Pre-industrial England, then, was a land of many oppressions. It was a land in which those who dared to oppose the monarch risked not only their positions but their lives and liberty as well, a land in which freedom of religion had hardly been conceived, a land in which there were all sorts of obstacles to enterprise, in which privileged favorites dominated trade, in which government policy opposed change, and in which the king intervened in the economy to try to replenish the royal purse. These policies produced their full quota of evils: the toadying politicians who altered their courses to accommodate every change of royal whim, the ecclesiastical corruption, and the economic waste following from intervention. Preindustrial England was a land of widespread hardship for the many and of great bounty for the privileged few, mainly royal favorites.
There was nothing particularly new about the hardships of most people in seventeenth and eighteenth century England. Most people at most times have suffered such hardships, sometimes worse. But it is worth examining the material conditions of this time because of the notion that hardships of later centuries were products of industrialization; that business fluctuations, that child labor, that unemployment, that grinding and unremitting labor for long hours were introduced by something called the "Industrial Revolution." The best antidote to this perverse view of things is to look into the pre-industrial situation prior to 1750 in England.
Evidence of Hardship
Since the survey of oppression has dealt mainly with the first half of the seventeenth century, it would be appropriate to take the same time period for a survey of material conditions. However, information for this period is often lacking or imprecise. There is much incidental evidence of hardship, particularly by way of expressed concern for the lot of the poor for this period: the passage of the famous Elizabethan Poor Law in 1601, the concern about Enclosure, and the pamphleteering of the Levellers and other reformers of the middle of the century.
Little more can be said, however, than some such formulation as this by an historian: "Certainly though the rich were often extremely rich (a landowner was not accounted really rich with less than £50,000 in property), the poor were always very poor." He goes on to explain why the lot of some of these poor may have been getting worse: "The steady rise in prices since the beginning of the sixteenth century had fallen heavily on those who depended on a day wage, more especially since wages were fixed and, at least in theory, held down by law."¹5 It is only in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries that more precise information becomes available. This will serve almost as well for our purposes as would earlier information if it were available, because the economic oppression of the earlier period was still rampant, though the political and religious oppression was being somewhat alleviated.
A generation or so ago, Dr. Dorothy George researched and wrote a book dealing with preindustrial conditions. The following account is dependent mainly on her work. She was moved to do this, in part at least, because she understood that a myth had been purveyed about a kind of Golden Age which had supposedly preceded industrialization. Her research did not bear out any such condition. On the contrary, she found evidence of widespread hardship and most difficult conditions of life.
One writer who made a tabulation, of sorts, of conditions in the late seventeenth century estimated that at least half the population lived in abject poverty, were not, in effect, self-supporting. Even those who lived on farms could not, in most cases, afford to eat well. A contemporary of the times describes the situation this way:
The poor tenants are glad of a piece of hanged bacon once a week and some few that can kill a Bull eat now and then a bit of hanged beef enough to tries the Stomach of an ostrige. He is a rich man that can afford to eat a joint of fresh meat… once in a month or fortnight. If their sow pigged or their hens breed chickens, they cannot afford to eat them but must sell them to make their rent. They cannot afford to eat the eggs that their hens lay, nor the apples or pears that grow on their trees (save some that are not vendible) but must make money of all. All the best of their butter and cheese they must sell, and feed themselves and children and servants with skim cheese and skim milk and whey curds.¹6
The poorest of the lot, and they were quite numerous, were the cottagers who lived on but a little land and managed to eke out a bare existence from it sometimes.
Women and Children
Child labor was not, of course, an innovation that came with the industrial revolution. Children have labored from time immemorial, as have women. Farmers must always have worked their children on the farms. Nor was the work of children in manufacturing new to the nineteenth century. Indeed, at the beginning of the eighteenth century it was considered a work of charity and good will to find or provide work for women and children. Frequently, a man could not keep his family on what he made. "But," as Daniel Defoe said at the time, "if this man’s wife and children can at the same time get employment,… this alters the case, the family feels it… and as they grow, they do not run away to be footmen and soldiers…"¹7
One child, put out to work by his father at the age of seven, went through two seven-year apprenticeships but still could not make a living at his trade. His second apprenticeship had been as a hosier, and he bought his own stocking frame, thinking that he might be able to go into the business. But it was no use: "I visited several warehouses; but alas! all proved blank. They would neither employ me, nor give for my goods any thing near prime cost. I was so affected, that I burst into tears, to think that I should have served seven years to a trade at which I could not get my bread," so the boy describes his experience.¹8
Intervention Creates Problems
Of course, child labor did not begin with the industrial revolution; no more did so-called business cycles. Dr. George says of the earlier time, "that there was an alternating rhythm of boom and slump, much affected by political causes (and mitigated by the progressive growth of trade) is fairly clear."¹9 By attributing them to political causes she had also pinned down the most likely source of them.
One historian gives an example from the time of the early Stuarts of how government intervention caused a depression. England had for a long time been a major exporter of cloth. Customarily English cloth was sent to the Netherlands for some finishing and to be dyed. James I was persuaded that great benefit would accrue to the royal treasury and perchance to the kingdom if all the finishing work could be done in England and an Englishman could have a monopoly of the trade. He canceled the privileges of those who had formerly been authorized to export cloth and gave a patent to a new company which was authorized to export finished and dyed goods only. The undertaking "was a total failure…. The Dutch at once prohibited the import of any English cloths, finished or not…." The company soon had to "admit defeat and obtain permission to export undyed cloth. Unable to sell abroad, they could not afford to buy at home. There was a crisis of overproduction: 500 bankruptcies were reported. Despite wage cuts and emigration, unemployment soared."²º Quite often, however, the causes of business cycles cannot be so readily pinned down.
Obviously, unemployment was not something that mysteriously put in an appearance with the "industrial revolution." On the contrary, the rigidities of the sixteenth, seventeenth, and a portion of the eighteenth centuries produced frequent widespread unemployment. Shifts in demand for goods from wartime to peacetime were particularly difficult to adjust to in an age when so many of those changes had to await the authorization of the monarch. Seasonal unemployment was also endemic. "This was general in most trades. Before the days of steam, seaborne trade was usually seasonal and always irregular. Sometimes the Thames was so crowded with shipping that the lightermen, waterside workers, and even the Custom-house men were quite unable to deal with it. Sometimes a contrary wind kept the Pool of London almost empty."²¹
Tyranny Prevails in Absence of Known Alternatives
The inhabitants of pre-industrial England, then, were many of them oppressed, and there was regular as well as recurring hardship. Some people probably would have been without material goods in any case, but it should be clear that there was a close relation between the oppression and the hardship. A concerted effort had been made to make all aspects of the life of people in England a reflection of the desires and will of the monarch. Power was centralized, concentrated, and despotically used. Economic matters were not decided freely according to the rational choice of the people but reflected, so far as they could make it so, the changing whims of monarchs.
However irrational these political, religious, and economic arrangements might appear to some of us, they had their apologists, rationalizers, and defenders in that day, as they usually do in any times. Indeed, at the beginning of the seventeenth century, hardly anyone could conceive of a free society. We who have received such a belief are quite often unaware of how dependent freedom is upon a great faith.
There were profound justifications for the absolutism of the seventeenth century. Men of the sixteenth and seventeenth century knew of nowhere else to look for order and peace than to monarchs. Hardly anyone believed that a society could subsist without having one, and only one, established religion. "No bishops, no king,” said James I, for he perceived that the hierarchy of the civil power relied upon the hierarchical arrangements of the Church for its acceptance and support. Men in that age thought about economic matters, as do many in our time, that unless they were controlled and directed by government, chaos and disorder would prevail. It was a perilous thing, from every angle, to question the authority of the monarch, however despotically it might be exercised.
There were, of course, bold men in the seventeenth century who would not only challenge the authority of the Stuarts but who would dare to order and carry out the execution of Charles I. Whether this was a blow for liberty or not will probably remain always in doubt. But that Englishmen were beginning to conceive of ways to lighten the yoke and even establish liberty there is no doubt. When they did establish liberty, they did so in terms of certain principles and practices which had been evolving for a very long time. It is appropriate now to take a look at these foundations.
The next chapter in this series covers the "Foundations of Political Liberty."
¹ Kenneth R. Mackenzie, The English Parliament (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1950), P. 37.
3 Lacey B. Smith, This Realm of England (Boston: D. C. Heath, 1966), p. 210.
4 Christopher Hill, The Century of Revolution (New York: W. W. Norton, 1961), p. 68.
5 Ibid., pp. 75-76.
6 Ibid., p. 76.
7 William Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation, Samuel E. Morison, intro. (New York: Modern Library, 1967), p. 12.
8 Maurice Ashley, England in the Seventeenth Century (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1952), p. 37.
9 Ibid., p. 68.
10 Hill, op. cit., p. 28.
¹¹ Ibid., p. 29.
12 Ibid., p. 31.
13 See ibid, pp. 32-33.
¹4 Ibid., pp. 33-34.
¹5 Ashley, op. cit., p. 22.
¹6 Quoted in Dorothy George, England in Transition (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1964), p. 12.
¹7 Quoted in ibid., p. 23.
¹8 Quoted in ibid., pp. 62-63.
¹9 Ibid., pp. 53-54.
20 Hill, op. cit., p. 36.
2¹ George, op. cit., p. 57.
Great orchestras once filled this silent hall
with strains of concord making spirits soar
and stirring those who heard to thoughts and deeds
beyond the reach of less-inspired men.
We legislated music free to all
intending but to share the blessing more
and now with weeping don our mourning weeds,
for not a soul has learned to play since then.
JAMES E. MC ADOO