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   Chapter 13 THE BASIS OF CLASS DISTINCTION

The War and Unity By Various Characters: 16132

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


Birth and Property have been during most of human history the chief points on which class distinction has turned. Behind them both, I fear it must be confessed, there is that which lies at the root of all civilisation, namely force. I presume that the first class distinction was between the group of people who could command and the group who had to obey. The second group no doubt consisted in most cases of conquered enemies who were turned into slaves. They were outsiders, the men of a lower level.

But the master group, if I may so call it, would have its descendants, who by virtue of family relationships would seek to keep their position. This, I conclude, is the fountain head of that stream of blue blood which has played so large a part in class distinction. It is not difficult to make out a strong case for it from the point of view of human evolution. The processes of primitive warfare may have led to the survival of the fittest or the selection of the best. At a time when the sense of social responsibility was limited in the extreme, it may have been a good thing that the management of men should have rested mainly in the hands of those who by natural endowments and force of character came to the top. It is unnecessary to dwell at length on the immense influence both in our own country and elsewhere which this blood distinction of class has exercised. It is writ large in the history of the word "gentleman," both in the English word and its Latin ancestor. The Latin word "generosus," always the equivalent of "gentleman" in English-Latin documents, signifies a person of good family. It was used no doubt in this sense by the Rev. John Ball, the strike leader, as we should call him in modern terms, of the 14th century, in the lines which formed a kind of battlecry of the rebels:

When Adam delved and Eve span,

Who was then the gentleman?

A writer of a century later, William Harrison, says: "Gentlemen be those whom their race and blood or at least their virtues do make noble and known."

But the distinction is older than this. According to Professor Freeman it goes back well nigh to the Conquest. Not indeed the distinction of blood, for that is much older, but the formation of a separate class of gentlemen. It has been maintained however by some writers that this is rather antedating the process, and that the real distinction in English life up to the 14th century was between the nobiles, the tenants in chivalry, a very large class which included all between Earls and Franklins; and the ignobiles, i.e. the villeins, the ordinary citizens and burgesses. The widely prevalent notion that a gentleman was a person who had a right to wear coat armour is apparently of recent growth, and is possibly not unconnected with the not unnatural desire of the herald's office to magnify its work.

It is evident that noble blood in those days was no more a guarantee of good character than it is in this, for, according to one of the writers on the subject, the premier gentleman of England in the early days of the 15th century was one who had served at Agincourt, but whose subsequent exploits were not perhaps the best advertisement for gentle birth. According to the public records he was charged at the Staffordshire Assizes with house-breaking, wounding with intent to kill, and procuring the murder of one Thomas Page, who was cut to pieces while on his knees begging for his life[19].

The first gentleman, commemorated by that name on an existing monument, is John Daundelion who died in 1445.

In the 14th and 15th centuries the chief occupation of gentlemen was fighting; but later on, when law and order were more firmly established, the younger sons of good families began to enter industrial life as apprentices in the towns, and there began to grow up a new aristocracy of trade. To William Harrison, the writer to whom I have already referred, merchants are still citizens, but he adds: "They often change estate with gentlemen as gentlemen do with them by mutual conversion of the one into the other."

Since those days the name has very properly come to be connected less with blue blood than-if I may coin the phrase-with blue behaviour. In 1714, Steele lays it down in the Tatler that the appellation of gentleman is never to be fixed to a man's circumstances but to his behaviour in them. And in this connexion we may recall the old story of the Monarch, said by some to be James II, who replied to a lady petitioning him to make her son a gentleman: "I could make him a noble, but God Almighty could not make him a gentleman."

Before we leave the class distinctions based mainly on birth and blood, it is well to remark that in England they have never counted for so much as elsewhere. It is true of course that the nobility and gentry have been a separate class, but they have been constantly recruited from below. Distinction in war or capability in peace was the qualification of scores of men upon whom the highest social rank was bestowed in reign after reign in our English history. Moreover, birth distinction has never been recognised in law, in spite of the fact that the manipulation of laws has not always been free from bias. The well known words of Macaulay are worth quoting in this connexion:

There was a strong hereditary aristocracy: but it was of all hereditary aristocracies the least insolent and exclusive. It had none of the invidious character of a caste. It was constantly receiving members from the people, and constantly sending down members to mingle with the people. Any gentleman might become a peer, the younger son of a peer was but a gentleman. Grandsons of peers yielded precedence to newly made knights.

The dignity of knighthood was not beyond the reach of any man who could by diligence and thrift realise a good estate, or who could attract notice by his valour in battle.

... Good blood was indeed held in high respect: but between good blood and the privileges of peerage there was, most fortunately for our country, no necessary connection.... There was therefore here no line like that which in some other countries divides the patrician from the plebeian. The yeoman was not inclined to murmur at dignities to which his own children might rise. The grandee was not inclined to insult a class into which his own children must descend.... Thus our democracy was, from an early period, the most aristocratic, and our aristocracy the most democratic in the world; a peculiarity which has lasted down to the present day, and which has produced many important moral and political effects[20].

If blood counted for much in distinctions of class, property counted for more. The original distinction between the "haves" and the "have nots" has persisted throughout history and is with us to-day.

In the ancient village, no doubt, the distinction was of the simplest. On the one hand was the man who by force or by his own energy became possessed of more cattle and more sheep than his fellows; on the other hand was the man who, in default of such property, was ready and willing to give his services to the bigger man, whether for wages, or as a condition of living in the village and sharing in the rights of the village fields and pastures. Here presumably we have the origin of that institution of Landlordism which still looms so large in our social life. In the early days it was probably more a matter of cattle than of land. The possessor of cattle in the village would hire out a certain number of them to a poorer neighbour, who would have the right to feed them on the common land. Thus, even in primitive times, a class distinction based on property began to grow up.

Early in history there was found in most villages a chief man who had the largest share of the land. Below him there would be three or four landowners of moderate importance and property. At the end of the scale were the ordinary labourers and villagers, among whom the rest of the village lands were divided as a rule on fairly equal terms.

Closely all

ied to this of course was the organisation of the village from the point of view of military service. Parallel to this more peaceful organisation of society was the elaborate Feudal System, by which, from the King downwards, lands were held in virtue of an obligation on the part of each class to the one above it to produce men for the wars in due proportion of numbers and equipment.

From this point of view property in land meant also property in men, labourers in peace and soldiers in war.

As time went on the class distinctions of birth and property began more and more to coincide. It was Dr Johnson who made the remark that "the English merchant is a new species of gentleman."

The form of property which was always held to be in closest connexion with gentle blood was land. This has been so in a pre-eminent degree since our English Revolution at the end of the 17th century. From that time onwards the smaller landowners, yeomen and squires with small holdings, begin to disappear and the landed gentry become practically supreme. Political power in a large measure rested with them, and the result was that numbers of men who had made money in trade were eager to use it in the purchase of land, for this meant the purchase of social and political influence.

It was no doubt this craze for the possession of land which led to the process of enclosing the common lands of the village, a process on which no true Englishman can look back in these days without shame and sorrow. It is no doubt arguable that from an economic point of view the productive power of the land was increased, that agriculture was more efficiently and scientifically managed by the comparatively few big men than it would have been by the many small men who were displaced. None the less the price was too high, for it meant a still further accentuation of class distinction. It meant the further enrichment of the big man, and the further impoverishment of the small man. And between the two there grew up a class of farmers, separate from the labourers, whose outlook on the whole did not make for those relations of neighbourliness and even kinship which had been among the fine characteristics of the ancient village.

Nor is this the end of the story, for the distinction between the "haves" and the "have nots" was still further accentuated, and the two classes driven still further apart, by the far-reaching Industrial Revolution of the late 18th and early 19th century.

The alienation between the farmer and the labourer was exactly paralleled by the alienation which gradually crept in between the manufacturer and the workers. The growth of the factory system was indeed so rapid that only the keenest foresight could have provided against these evils. The same may be said of the amazing development of the towns, particularly in Lancashire and the West Riding of Yorkshire, which quickly gathered round the new hives of industry. Unfortunately that foresight was lacking. On the one hand the science of town-planning had hardly been born, on the other hand a lightning accumulation of large fortunes turned the heads of the commercial magnates, dehumanised industry, and broke up the fellowship which in older and simpler days had obtained between the employer and his men.

It is a charge which we frequently bring against the enemy in these days, a charge only too well founded, that they are expert in everything except understanding human nature. The same may be said of those who were concerned in the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century. The growing wealth of the country which should have united masters and men in a truer comradeship, and a richer life, achieved results which were precisely the opposite. It developed a greed of cash which we have not yet shaken off, and money was accumulated in the pockets of men who had had neither aptitude nor training in the art of spending it. The workers were reduced to a state not far removed from a salaried slavery, and the difference between the "haves" and the "have nots" was perhaps more acute than at any other time in our history. The causes of this were many and complex. Not the least of them was the fact that the masters of industry were captured by a false theory of economics according to which the fund which was available for the remuneration of labour could not at any given time be greater or less than it was. Human agency could not increase its volume, it could only vary its distribution. And further, as every man has the right to sell his labour for what he can obtain for it, any interference between the recipients was held to be unjust.

"That theory," as Mr Hammond has told us, "became supreme in economics, and the whole movement for trade-union organisation had to fight its way against this solid superstition[21]."

The doctrine of free labour achieved a wonderful popularity; but then, as the writer I have just quoted reminds us: "Free labour had not Adam Smith's meaning: it meant the freedom of the employer to take what labour he wanted, at the price he chose and under the conditions he thought proper[22]."

More and more therefore the employers and the workers drifted apart, and the supreme misfortune was that the one power which might have drawn them together was itself in a state of semi-paralysis in regard to the corporate responsibility of the community. That power was religion. There were times, as I shall endeavour to point out later, when Christianity was able to produce an atmosphere of comradeship stronger than the differences of class. But to the very great loss of both country and Church this was not one of them.

At the moment when the corporate message of the Church was needed, it was looking the other way, and concentrating its thought on the individual. The Reformation was in large measure a revolt from the imperial to the personal conception of religion. I do not deny that this revolt was necessary and beneficial. But the reaction from the corporate aspect of Christianity went too far. When this reaction was further reinforced by the Puritan movement, which with all its strength and its fine austerity fastened its attention on the minutiae of personal conduct, and left the community as such almost out of sight, it is not surprising to find that religion at the end of the 18th, and through a large part of the 19th century, failed to produce just that sense of brotherhood which would have mitigated the whole situation and prevented much of the practical paganism which I have described.

Even the great revival connected with the name of John Wesley brought all its fire to bear on the conversion of the man, when the social unit which was most in need of that conversion was the community. The result of all this was that, partly owing to ignorance, partly owing to prejudice, partly owing to the misreading of the New Testament, the messengers of religion had no message of corporate responsibility for nation or class. There was no one to lift aloft the torch of human brotherhood over the dark and gloomy landscape of English life. So far from that, the people who figured large in religion were convinced quite honestly that the division of classes was a heaven sent order, with which it would be impious to interfere, and further that the main message of religion to the people at large was an authoritative injunction to good behaviour, and patient resignation to the circumstances in which Providence had placed them. The notion that the organisation of Society, particularly on its industrial side, was wholly inconsistent with the ideals of the New Testament never so much as entered their heads, and any suggestion to this effect would have been regarded not merely as revolutionary but sacrilegious.

I have ventured on this very rough description of class distinctions, before our modern days, because it is through the study of our forefathers' mistakes and a truer understanding of our forefathers' inspirations that we may hope to create a better world in the days that are coming.

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