The nobility and descendants of noblemen during the age of commercial expansion. It is the contention here that the business classes of the eighteenth century stemmed from those of former centuries, after the fashion of the Buddenbrooks. However, there were newcomers, and it is probable that among the effective elements in business were many who came from noble stock.Next Page
The competition offered by the younger sons of nobles is well portrayed by Wertenbaker, who writes: 70
Some writers have pointed to the number of families in Virginia that were entitled to the use of coats-of-arms as convincing proof that the aristocracy of the colony was founded by men of high social rank. It is true that in numerous instances Virginians had the right to coats-of-arms, but this does not prove that their blood was noble, for in most cases these emblems of gentility came to them through ancestors that were mercantile in occupation and instinct. During the 17th century the trades were in high repute in England, and to them resorted many younger sons of the gentry. These youths, excluded from a share in the paternal estate by the laws of primogeniture, were forced either into the professions or the trades. It was the custom for the country gentleman to leave his eldest son the whole of his landed estates . . . the fourth [son] was sent to London to learn the art of weaving, of watch making or the like. It was the educating of the youngest sons in the trades that gave rise to the close connection between the commercial classes in England and the gentry. Great numbers of merchants in the trading cities were related to the country squire or even to the nobleman.
The landed nobility not only began early to intermarry with the commercial aristocracy -- they also began early to enter business activities themselves. Abram writes: 71
Perhaps this lack of ready money was one of the reasons why nobles were willing to marry the daughters of rich merchants. Some of them replenished their purses by engaging in trade. Ralph, Earl of Westmoreland (1422 - 4), the Marquis of Suffolk (1445 - 6) . . . and even members of the royal family were amongst those who received licenses to export wool.
The extent to which the nobility was eager to take part in business ventures is written large in the history of the American colonies. In his great work, The Colonial Period of American History, Andrews 72 uses eighteen pages to describe the ventures of the following, among others: Sirs: Georges, Lenox, Arundel, Surrey, Calvert, Eyles, Montgomery, Heath; Lord Stafford; the Duke of Montague; John Percival, second Earl of Egmont; and Lord Fairfax.
It is clear that the English nobility did not disdain commercial pursuits, nor did the French disdain holding mercantile monopolies, in contrast to the manner of Roman aristocrats. They followed instead, the lead of the first commercial nations of Europe, Italy and the Low Countries, where the nobility and its half-brother, the commercial aristocracy, were engaged in the new undertakings. In reputable works dealing with this period the nobility, as a rule, is given a prominent place in the commercial activities (notably wherever monopolized) of the nations of Western Europe.
Social class rigidities at the end of the eighteenth century. Much has been written about the social class rigidities of feudalism and of the social class fluidity of capitalism, especially in its earlier stages. One of the great virtues of the laissez-faire economic order was supposed to be the way in which it facilitated the upward percolation of persons of talent from among the lower orders of society. As a part of the propaganda of bourgeois capitalism, textbooks have frequently referred to the aristocrats and nobles as decadent, and much abuse has been heaped upon the feudal order associated with the nobility.
Spengler refers to the "old aristocratic society" as being "fragile and sickly in certain respect . . . " and he philosophizes about the bourgeois era by saying that "a live society renews itself perpetually by precious blood which pours into it from below and from outside." 73 What Spengler does not show, or even investigate for his readers, is how "fresh" and how "new" the blood of the bourgeoisie was. Nor does he show whether it was the noble families which were decadent or the agrarian-mercantile system. What happened to the system was one thing; what happened to the families of the nobility was quite another.
70. Thomas J. Wertenbaker, Patrician and Plebeian in Virginia (Charlottesville, 1910) pp. 24 - 25.
71. Abram, op. cit., pp. 16 - 17.
72. Charles M. Andrews, The Colonial Period of American History, vol. II (New Haven, 1936) pp. 222 - 240.
73. Oswald Spengler, The Hour of Decision (New York, 1934) pp. 90 - 91.