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The Dotted Line

ISSUE:  Autumn 1926

A History of the English People, 1815–1830. By Élie Halévy. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company. $6.00.

The Rise of Modern Industry. By J. L. Hammond and Barbara Hammond. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company. $2.75.

Religion and the Rise of Capitalism. By R. H. Tawney. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company.

These three books are representative of the very best work in their field, and one of them is a great book. I beg the judicious reader, already irritated by this lamentably familiar fanfare of reviewer’s approbation, to permit me to justify my statement. It is a statement which can, after all, in rare instances be true.


Elie Halévy’s book is the second volume to be translated in his really extraordinary “History of the English People.” It will prove less interesting to the general reader than the first, because it is a fairly technical and highly political narrative, whereas Volume I was a penetrating description of England around the year 1815.

I do not mean that Volume II is either dull or unreadable; but it assumes, not so much an historian’s store of information, as an historian’s interests. The reader who is relatively unfamiliar with the place and period ought first to read the sort of stock account given in a general history of modern Europe. He will then be in a position to test M. Halévy’s discrimination and originality.

To most of us it is not a very inspiring period: the upper classes are still shivering with funk at their narrow squeak from Revolution; Metternich thrones it on the Continent; Napoleon eats out his heart at Saint Helena. It is the period of that “damned legitimacy” that sickened Byron. Castlereagh, Canning, and the other jackals are at large, justifying Napoleon’s claim to have been the son of the Revolution and protector of the weak. It is the period above all of the massacre by a frightened government of the demonstrators on St. Peter’s Fields, Manchester. That massacre was instantly hailed by the enemies of Wellington, the Iron Duke, conqueror of Waterloo, as the battle of Peterloo; and the phrase is still in the mouths of British Labor: “The Battle of Peterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton,” where diminutive members of the upper classes learned to keep down the mob. After 1815 the European nations were recoiling from a vision too grandiose for their human understanding. It was a reaction made familiar to our generation by the normalcy of a Harding, following the generosity—inspired or idiotic—of a Wilson. We are therefore not surprised at Castlereagh’s turgid and often quite meaningless eloquence in the Commons, at Canning’s cynical opportunism and narrow nationalism, parading in the stolen trappings of liberty: Canning, the man who broke the Holy Alliance—because it was not a paying proposition for England. Need we wonder at M. Halévy’s chief conclusion: that English politics, far from displaying the two-party, Whig-Tory conflict that is supposed to be, and was later in the century, their principal feature, repeatedly toyed with the idea of a coalition in the Lloyd George style? I believe that M. Halévy has destroyed once for all the picture of a Tory landlord aristocracy grappling with Whig factory owners: he has indeed shown that it was the country squire who demanded and got reform of the rotten boroughs, because those boroughs counteracted the influence of the county vote he controlled. And it was in this age of facades and pretended principles that the noble English doctrine of free trade gained its growth, for the so simple reason that England’s industrial supremacy, after the turmoil of the Napoleonic wars on the Continent, was secure, and she rather naturally desired “free and open competition.” “Every man for himself and the devil take the hindmost!” is the remark ascribed to the elephant as he danced among the chickens. Free trade assumed the moral proportions which the commercial rehabilitation of Europe has taken on in the eyes of contemporary Englishmen.

And what monarchs typified the age! M. Halévy does not labor the point: George III, “the old, mad king”; George IV, “followed to his grave by the contempt of the Nation”; William IV, “an old fool like his brother” but “an honest good-hearted fool.”

So much for the subject. It has found a better historian than it perhaps deserved. M. Halévy is that type of European scholar that is the despair of self-critical Americans. Not only is his work the sort of pure scholarship rarely produced in this country; it is the sort rarely produced in England even. His is the Latin cultural heritage, and it is perhaps the most powerful the civilized world can show. For the Englishman is, when all is said and done, a half-mad Angle, divided between football and stealing colonies: a mysterious fellow! And a thoroughly bad European. In the period of divine monarchy he beheaded his king; and while powerful European countries fought to control Europe, with almost indecent foresight he built a colonial empire on the side. He became a shopkeeper, and paymaster to coalition after coalition against a little Corsican with a genuine vision of European solidarity. And then under Canning, when the forces of “order” had overthrown Revolution, he turned liberal because he wanted to sell things to South American republics. His descendants have nothing whatever to teach him about splendid isolation: considering the English Channel is only a score of miles wide, he has done himself very well.

Therefore there is a great deal to be gained by having a real European—and a certain type of Frenchman is all of that—examine the English system and particularly English diplomacy after Waterloo. A truly good American historian would have the advantage of being “outside,” even outside of England. m. Halévy has the advantage of being more inside Europe than England herself.

I repeat, his distinction is not only in presenting a fine, compact fabric of historical thought; it is in the possession of what to most Americans would have to remain relatively “derived” interests. In brief, it is in his wanting to explain these phenomena to himself, in his feeling that they are his problems; for he derives instantly therefrom a right to speak of them.


I do not believe that Mr. and Mrs. Hammond are right in one of their fundamental assumptions in this book: that the barbarities of the industrial revolution were made possible by the similar mora) assumptions of the slave trade. Perhaps I am interpreting too literally their chapter on the “Shadow of the Slave Trade.” Personally, I believe that the Devil-hypothesis, though nowadays rather discredited, has more to be said for it. Naturally, it must be a great advantage to the Devil, as it is to an automobile salesman, to “sell” a Christian anything, since every article has its accessories. But I think the Devil is really more interested in doing business with us, no matter what the commodity, than in interesting buyers in anything particularly exclusive. Why indeed should he bother to “talk up” any one article when he carries such a complete stock? He knows well that, once in the shop door, his customer is sold. Now it seems to me that the slave trade was one of a number of manifestations that Christians were trafficking with the Devil, in that they were beginning to look on their neighbors as “things” rather than as brothers. Once that concession is made, opportunity will be the measure of sin. The same objection may be made to Mr. and Mrs. Hammond’s assumption that the destruction of village life in England was chiefly responsible for the rise of an impersonal and savage industrial system. Am I quibbling when I yet agree with them that each concession did deepen the rut of sin? And that quite possibly industry “borrowed at its origins from the methods” of slavery in America, as they claim it did?

The book treats of the development of large-scale commerce, of the reasons for England’s precocious industrial development, of the application of steam to industry and transport, and very interestingly of the growth of the iron, cotton, and pottery industries. But the thing that “makes” it, is the writers’ brilliant analysis of the “social consequences” of the industrial revolution.

There is in this book a rather fine, and not tiresome, indignation. For this self-control I admire its authors extravagantly. I know of no subject in modern history more likely to bring on pernicious vomiting combined with a sense of moral degradation than the industrial revolution as set forth in this book or in M. Halévy’s first volume. Why we Occidentals expect to build on that basis a lovely or enduring civilization may well mystify Mahatma Gandhi. The Hammonds rightly observe that the official government reports on conditions in South Wales in the ‘forties are “as terrible as anything written in the English language.” If the spectacle of five-year-old “parish apprentices” working under the lash for twelve and a half hours a day, walking in the course of it twenty miles about a spinning-machine, happens not to shock and disgust the reader, there are plenty of other details to choose from. Cobbett scored when he replied to those who claimed a reduction in child labor would handicap Britain in the race for markets: that England’s manufacturing supremacy depended on 30,000 little girls. Fortunately “few parish pauper children grew up to trouble their betters.” No, the Devil-hypothesis is better, and the Faust legend is your only true history of the modern world. The sin occurred when we agreed to obey forces which are beyond moral control—an excellent definition of the Devil, by the way—for the increased physical comfort that is the hallmark of the modern period. It is our habit of “signing on the dotted line,” of holding stock in corporations we cannot direct, that is responsible for our troubles; our trick of giving blank checks. Then when a check is cashed, and the imperialism we winked at flowers in a perfectly good world war, everybody writes books to find out which Power was responsible. (“Power” is another authentic name for the Devil.) And I feel that once Europeans sacrificed—oh, ever so piecemeal—the powerful Christian nexus that bound man to man in Christ’s love and that has manifested itself in scores of cathedrals for all men to see; once that bond in Christ was lost or slurred or, as it were, conveniently postponed until the little matter of trade routes to the East could be settled, and until the local monarch could get a good standing army free from all moral claims except obedience to its paymaster, then I and you and all of us fell down.


Which brings me to the oniy book of the three that I should venture to call great, an adjective one would use more willingly but that the word is something over-worn. To avoid it, let us call the book moving, which can scarcely be said of most books written by economists. Mr. Taw-ney’s difficulty is that he is trying to be a Christian, while at the same time he has a wide reputation as an economist. This distressing combination has, somewhat inevitably, pushed him into the left wing in English economic thought. He is a socialist. Not that this brands him in England as it would in our country; because he is keeping such extremely good company. So many of England’s intellectual, and even social, aristocrats have given up capitalism as a bad job and as a bit vulgar to boot, that there is almost a snobbish touch about it. The group of which Mr. Taw-ney, the Hammonds, and the Webbs are important members, have quite inevitably reminded the world that before the Mayflower and Pocahontas, and therefore well beyond the claims of most aristocrats today, here or in Europe, Europe was organized along lines more understandable to the socialist as well as the die-hard Tory than to the “nice people” of our generation. And when Babbitt urges shooting down English strikers, he rarely knows how many of their sympathizers in England would never allow Babbitt —socially speaking—within shooting distance. One ought to advise for him a course of reading that included Taw-ney—not forgetting “The Acquisitive Society”—were it ever advisable to advise Babbitt on anything.

Perhaps Mr. Tawney, like many of us, was staggered in his youth by the discrepancy between professed religion and the common practices of business. He has resolved this dualism in your and my everyday life by simply pointing out that originally there was only one moral code, in business as elsewhere, and that code Christian. In those days the “radicals” were as much feared and detested as now, but they were the business men. Greed was not called enterprise; nor avarice, economy. The leading thinkers were shocked by a new idea of life; and this idea “was, in short, the theory of property which was later to be accepted by all civilized communities.” There was no “right to property” inherent in man: property was hopelessly involved with, and conditioned upon, various duties. We still, of course, talk of obligations, but “If property be an unconditional right, emphasis on its obligations is little more than the graceful parade of a flattering, but innocuous, metaphor.” “The law of nature had been invoked . . . by medieval writers as a moral restraint upon economic self-interest.” By a sleight of hand that is one of man’s proudest accomplishments, property unconnected with morality was derived in the eighteenth century from the “law of nature.” A sort of “Political Arithmetic” had become fashionable, that could justify queer things. And society was no longer “a community of classes with varying functions, untied to each other by mutual obligations arising from their relation to a common end. It is a joint stock company rather than an organism, and the liabilities of its shareholders are strictly limited.”

Mr. Tawney is not such an amateur in historical research nor indeed such an amateur in human nature as to suppose that the medieval conception was generally adhered to in practice. His is frankly an attempt to compare the economic theory of one period with that of another. Surely nobody is so hopelessly addicted to Realpolitik as to suppose that the moral conceptions of the desirable if unat-tained for any given generation are not worth the study. He has succeeded in demonstrating that the business axioms on which our modern civilization rests were held for centuries as opposed to the teachings of Christ, and that this point of view was set forth in an admirable body of thought-fni literature. May I add, with humility, an observation? The eighteenth-century and nineteenth-century economists never succeeded in answering those objections; they got round them by positing different axioms. It is extraordinary how few real issues in history have been settled as neatly as we commoniy suppose; more generally all the persons really capable of comprehending the issues, considerately die off, leaving us in self-satisfied possession of the field of battle. Even without an inquisition, a heretic will eventually die. If all the gentlemen now alive would only die, we should have in a few decades a voluminous literature showing up the futility of good manners—we have already made a beginning in this direction—written by persons who were qnite unable to understand good manners.

Mr. Tawney’s irony is of the highest quality, as is his deep humanity. I think his description of Latimer would fit himself, and that is why he is drawn to Latimer: “Combining gifts of humor and invective which are not very common among bishops, his fury at oppression did not prevent him from greeting the Devil with a burst of uproarious laughter, as of a satirical gargoyle carved to make the sinner ridiculous in this world before he is damned in the next.” He is skeptical of some things. He finds that Calvin “appeals from Christian tradition to commercial common sense, which he is sanguine enough to hope will be Christian.” He quotes Ames, a seventeenth-century Puritan writer: “To wish to buy cheap and to sell dear is common (as Augustine observes), but it is a common vice.” The triumph of what he nicely calls the “economic virtues,” “converted a natural frailty into a resounding virtue. After all, it appears, a man can serve two masters, for—so happily is the world disposed—he may be paid by one while he works for the other.” And “The demonstration that distress is a proof of demerit, though a singular commentary on the lives of Christian saints and sages, has always been popular with the prosperous. By the lusty plutocracy of the Restoration, roaring after its meat, and not indisposed, if it could not find it elsewhere, to seek it from God, it was welcomed with a shout of applause.”

Mr. Tawney’s most important conclusion is that the Protestant Revolt did not let loose capitalism on the world, nor did it even condone it. Luther loathed it with all the hatred and fear of a peasant. Calvin accepted it, but proposed to dedicate it to God. But both attacked the Catholic Church, which was the only organization prepared to combat its evils; and both tended towards placing the regulation of society in the hands of the State, whereupon morality became confused with reasons of state. Moreover, “The distinctive note of English Puritan teaching was . . . individual responsibility, not social obligation.” And individualism in religious faith led to individualism in moral standards, which has meant social chaos.

The book is quite superb in its sympathetic understanding of religious groups as well as of individuals. Laud, for example, is judged as “pedantic, irritable and intolerant, yet not without the streak of harsh nobility which belongs to all who love an idea, however unwisely, more than their own ease . . .” The chapter on the Puritan movement, a most wise and gentle chapter, is slyly headed by a quotation from Tyndale’s translation of Genesis: “And the Lorde was with Joseph, and he was a luckie felowe.” Aspiring himself to nobility of thought, the author can understand the aspirations of others:

“There is a magic mirror in which each order and organ of society, as the consciousness of its character and destiny dawns upon it, looks for a moment, before the dust of conflict or the glamour of success obscures its vision. In that enchanted glass, it sees its own lineaments reflected with ravishing allurements; for what it sees is not what it is, hut what in the eyes of mankind and of its own heart it would be. The feudal noblesse had looked, and had caught a glimpse of a world of fealty and chivalry and honor. The monarchy looked, or Laud and Strafford looked for it; they saw a nation drinking the blessings of material prosperity and spiritual edification from the cornucopia of a sage and paternal monarchy—a nation ‘fortified and adorned . . . the country rich . . . the church flourishing . . . trade increased to that degree that we were the exchange of Christendom . . . all foreign merchants looking upon nothing as their own but what they laid up in the warehouses of this kingdom.’ In a far-off day the craftsman and laborer were to look, and see a band of comrades, where fellowship should be known for life and lack of fellowship for death. For the middle classes of the early seventeenth century, rising not yet triumphant, that enchanted mirror was Puritanism. What it showed was a picture grave to sternness, yet not untouched with a sober exaltation—an earnest, zealous, godly generation, scorning delights, punctual in labor, constant in prayer, thrifty and thriving, filled with a decent pride in themselves and their calling, assured that strenuous toil is acceptable to Heaven, a people like those Dutch Calvinists whose economic triumphs were as famous as their iron Protestantism—’thinking, sober, and patient men, and such as believe that labor and industry is their duty towards God.’ Then an air stirred and the glass was dimmed. It was long before any questioned it again.”


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