TOPICS OF THE DAY.
• MR. BRIGHT ON THE GRANDEUR OF COMMERCE.
MR. BRIGHT'S political power is greatly diminished by the over-cultivation of his mind. Of those who read that remark at least one-half will smile or laugh according to temperament at its obvious absurdity, but it is true never- theless. There are degrees in all things, and if the member for Birmingham were only a little more ignorant, a little less governed by his intellect, if he could only despise culture, and deride history, and contemn philosophy with a little more faith and heartiness, he would be a stronger man. Unfor- tunately for him he cannot do these things with the complete- ness with which his great rival does them, his intellect, like all massive intellects, like Cromwell's, for example, or Mira- beau's, having a tendency towards cultivation, a sympathy for kmowledge and culture, an instinctive belief that training rather strengthens the muscles a resentful but real respect for science which becomes to it in practical politics exceed- ingly burdensome. We question whether in the depths of his heart Mr. Bright does not rather admire Lord Derby for translating Homer so well, whether, representative though his Lordship may be of all that is detestable to the Man- chester mind,—of feudal ideas, and landed influence, and Oxford culture, the great demagogue does not in his heart dis- like him the less because he can render Greek so well. He can- not help thinking that philosophy is after all only argu- ment scientifically pursued, that science is but deduction from rigidly observed facts, that history must teach something, even though it be only the history of wretched little races who owned very few square miles of soil, who went up annually to an old Temple or believed the Ilissus a river, and the impres- sion harasses him. Sometimes it produces an invative against antiquated culture, sometimes a resolve to use the weapons which he feels rather than sees to cut so sharply, upon his own side of the great struggle. On Monday, when opening the new Birmingham Exchange, he tried the second plan, and endeavoured to create a belief in the grandeur and in the destinies of commerce by an appeal to history. Instead of denouncing the past, as vulgar men of his school are apt to do, he tried to show that the past was all upon his side, that it proved his dogma, that if ignorance were startled by his theory, cultivation must nevertheless accept it as, whether trim or false, at least in accord with the highest experience of mankind.
It was a bold and a wise attempt, showing a more thorough appreciation of the English mind than we ever remember Mr.
Bright to have displayed before. Englishmen being practical people, cannot be made to believe that history is all useless, that experience—and history is only experience tabulated and annotated—can be worthless in politics any more than in business, that a series of experiments carefully made by com- petent persons can deserve to be thrown aside as having no conceivable bearing upon the matter in hand. If it could only be made clear to them that democracy in Mr. Bright's sense of that word had ever tended to high civilization, or that the foolish had ever governed the wise to the benefit of both, or that the thirst for money had ever developed nobility of character, half his object would be attained. He would speak to men with a preconceived bias in favour of his ideas in- stead of a preconceived bias against him, would move over a smooth road instead of eternally tugging an endless load up- hill. He was right and wise in his effort, and it was his mis- fortune that he made it for the first time on so impracticable a topic. History can be made to prove many things,—that Ctesarism tends to human happiness (vide Mr. Disraeli passim) that Republicanism has always been strong, that aristocracy has always been enduring, that a bad currency has destroyed empires, that equality is possible, that in short almost any ex- treme assertion has at some time or other been demonstrably true. But no perversion of history short of systematic falsification such as the French Royalists tried when they made Napoleon Marquis de Bonaparte, Lieutenant-General of Louis XVII., can possibly be made to support Mr. Bright's theorem that commerce is the first cause and permanent accompaniment of freedom and civilization. The refutation of Mr. Bright's theory, as explained by his own illustrations, is the car- dinal truth of history. So far from commerce being the cause or even the accompaniment of progress and civilization, the world owes everything to States which were not only not commercial, but were on the whole hostile to commercial pro- gress, and to men who had nothing to do with trade. If history teaches anything of any kind, it teaches us that we owe the highest spiritual thought to the Jews, the highest political life to the citizens of Attica, and the sovereignty of law, - which is the key of civilization, to the people and senate of Rome. The lawgivers of Palestine proscribed commerce, interdicted maritime effort, cursed usury, and devised the most complicated and subtle system of land tenure ever in- vented by man,—a system specially intended to maintain per- petual entails, and with them the-ascendancy of the "landed interest." Let Mr. Bright just think for five minutes how the laws of usury and the law of the jubilee were intended to work, and say whether he believes it possible for a race who obeyed the Five Books to be a commercial people. As as matter of fact they were not; Solomon, the royal monopolist,. being their only great trader, and he dependent on his alliance with the idolatrous Phenicians. The prophets, who were the perfect examples of the highest Jewish mind, were never tired of cursing Tyre and Sidon and every other Bristol and Liver- pool of those days.. Greece traded no doubt, but Attica developed the ideas to which mankind owes free political civilization before commerce had taken her great start, and it was not from the trading cities of Ionia, but from Athens, the queenly city which called trade huckstering, and worshipped art, and believed in patriotism, and succeeded in maritime adventure, and tried in spite of her minute population the great career of fructifying conquest, that civilization springs. Rome, it is true, under the Empire, brought with her what we shall never see again,---real free trade, absolute freedom of commerce among all civilized men. But she rose- without a trading idea, by adopting a constitution aristocratic and military to a point at which Lord Ellenborough would shudder, and a polity whose central object was the conquest of the world, rose by the destruction of the single commercial and maritime power of the old world, by asserting with evil unscrupulousness but magnificent energy that earth belonged to the classes Mr. Bright despises,—the warrior and the states- man. The commercial accidents of her system did not greatly tend to her freedom. Her great nobles were, it is true, bankers to a man, bankers who lent money to their clients and to municipalities and to kingdoms, but her most formidable revolt was directed against the credit laws, and provinces. endured military execution rather than pay up the intolerable usury they owed. Free trade she had, no doubt, in perfec- tion, and when the system had lasted 700 years all wealth belonged to the great "captains of industry," the men who owned more than five thousand slaves, and the provinces, crushed by direct taxation and poverty, could not find men enough to resist the great colonies of armed and free settlers from the North, who knew nothing of commerce, but who could conquer, and found, and learn. The Phenicians ? says Mr. Bright. Find their monuments. Carthage ? The Roman patriciat razed it to the ground. Genoa and Venice ? Well, we will admit that commerce did there produce a result, and if Mr. Bright likes it he is welcome to his illustration. If he of all men on earth thinks that government by a compact and despotic aristocracy, nar- row beyond all historic precedent, cruel beyond the example of kings, greedy and selfish beyond all that we know of Bourbons and Hapsburgs, aided civilization, he is welcome to his theory. When the old civilization had died out, as all slave civilizations inevitably die out, its germs were preserved by communistic agricultural establishments called convents, as. innocent of trade as country rectors now are, and were fostered. by the Papacy, which thought any commerce save in indul- gences rather indicative of worldliness. Was it for trade that the Northmen, with their stern belief in the rights of the individual, settled in France and England, Sicily and Palestine, carrying everywhere reverence for courage and hatred of royal despotism? Holland, suggests Mr. Bright, and its com- mercial cities ? Well, Holland traded no doubt, and what else did it do ? Will he point to one solitary advantage which the commercial cities of the Netherlands ever secured for mankind which the non-commercial city of Geneva did not secure in tenfold measure. The 'history of Holland is the perfect answer to all who believe in the divinity of trade, for it is the history of a nation of traders, brave, intelligent, and enterprising, who have through ages succeeded in trade, and who, because they have succeeded in trade, have done nothing save for themselves, have left no mark on the world, have added nothing to literature or thought, have not even succeeded in building up a great or powerful State. They were too few ? How many were there in Attica when Plato wrote the Gorgias, or in Castile whs. she conquered the New World, or in England when her navigators explored earth and founded the American Republic ? Why even Portugal, the land of " honour," and " valour," and " loyalty," and " vain- glory," and all manner of ideas despised_at Manchester, has stamped herself deeper into the world and the world's history than the infinitely superior race who dragged Holland out of the sea. We believe that the more carefully history is studied the more certain it will seem that there has been but one really great commercial State on earth, and that one is Great Britain, and she is great not be- cause she is commercial, but because she is something more. The Anglo-Saxon loves commerce because he loves activity, and enterprise, and victory over nature as well as man, and because he is essentially a sensualist, and wants tea, and spices, and Bilk, and generous wine, and all that the cheerless North will not produce for his enjoyment. But he is not great because of these wants, or because he supplies them, but because of an imperial instinct which hates fraud, and lying, and waste of power, and savagery of all kinds. He cannot follow the true commercial rule, make money of the Japanese as the Dutch did, and let the Japanese do as they like. He must civilize the Japanese, kick them into honesty, flog them into tolerance, cannon them into material civiliza- tion. And so rather than be wearied with the eternal strug- gle he suspends commerce, and often at the cost of trade, as in India, conquers, and rules, and becomes great. Is it trade that has made the French a people whose ideas permeate the world as water permeates sand, or trade which has made the Germans leaders of thought, or trade which has for fourteen hundred years kept a knot of Italian priests in the fore- front of the world's affairs ? Is it to trade we owe the two great uprisings of freedom,—the Reformation and the French Revolution ? Did trade produce Benedict or Galileo, Luther or Shakespeare, Newton or the Encyclopaedists, any one of the half-hundred of men who have palpably forwarded the progress of the human race ? Mr. Bright says that what- ever of social, or industrial, or political freedom we enjoy in these islands comes from the growth of trade. Does it ? An armed baronage who despised trade released us from the yoke of the feudal Kings ; a monk who invented gunpowder re- leased us from the thraldom of the men in mail ; a poor priest and a selfish King broke down the power of the Church ; the
armed yeomanry headed by two country members struck down right divine; the noblesse in arms broke up hereditary right,
and bitterly exclusive aristocrats handed over the country
from the noblesse to the bulk of the middle-class. We affirm deliberately that all which has been accomplished by all
traders in all ages for human freedom—by Carthage, and Venice, and Holland, by Arkwright, and Peel, and Mr. Cobden, is as nothing compared with the freedom won by three poor Oermans who never sold aught or bought aught save their din- ners and their raiment—Martin Luther, Schwartz, and Guten- burg.
Commerce has indeed one mighty political function, but it is not that of watching progress or of maintaining freedom. Its office is so to enrich the masses of mankind by equalizing and utilizing the natural resources of all countries, that relieved from misery and from endless toil they may rise to the point 'where the Thought from which civilization springs becomes visible to their minds. Thought is to commerce what heat is to coal,—a principle which can make of a dull substance the
medium of warmth and nourishment to mankind; but does Mr.
Bright believe that heat and coal stand on the same level in the economy of the world ? Let him despise the warrior if he will, though he thrills at every telegram which tells him how Sherman and Grant are fighting out the liberation of a conti- nent, but at least let him not delude Englishmen by assertions that the trader is the equal of the statesman, or the thinker, or the theologian,—that human freedom owes to the passion for cheap clothes what it owes to the old Bishops who devised
representative government, to those sceptic courtiers of a roue
King who made of the people the first Estate, or to the half- .dozen of country gentlemen who, amidst the yells of the great traders of England, laid the axe at the root of human -slavery. It is not for him, who would, we verily believe, die to bring prosperity to the cottage, who maintains as the cardinal truth that justice is stronger than armies, to place Locke and Sir John Child, Wilberforce and Arkwright, on an equal level.