If we were to imagine ourselves standing on a hill, looking down on the full sweep of history stretched out before us in the valley of human memory, we would observe the social edifices of man rising and falling in revolutions with the periodicity of seasons. We would witness hands reaching up like a wave from below to shake, capture, or sweep away the architecture of society. It would become apparent that of all the engines of change, economic phenomena have often been the catalysts of social and political revolution—a premise for which we can find recourse in Adam Smith, who perceived and attempted to describe one such grand revolution. In Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, which was, perhaps not coincidentally, published in 1776, we find a comprehensive treatment of what we now call “capitalism”—though he never actually refers to it by that name. Smith’s treatise adumbrates how political power can flow from economic power, thus bringing about changes, often unintentionally, in society.

In a chapter titled, “Of the Rise and Progress of Cities and Towns, After the Fall of the Roman Empire,” Smith sketches a portrait of man as he emerged from the ruins of Rome. “They consisted, indeed,” writes Smith, “of a very different order of people from the first inhabitants of the ancient republics of Greece and Italy.”[1] Smith raises a question: why had the character of the Romans changed by the time of the empire’s collapse? That change, Smith tells us, was conducive to the “servile condition”[2] of the feudal system that arose after the fall of Rome. Smith invites us to look back even farther, before the heady days of empire, when the Romans yet thought of themselves as devout and stalwart farmers—keepers of family, folk, and fatherland. Though Smith does not tarry here for long, it will be useful to examine Rome’s transition from a republic to an empire, albeit with reckless brevity, that we may see the course of human events that led into and out of feudalism.

The Roman Republic, writes Smith, was “composed chiefly of the proprietors of lands, among whom the public territory was originally divided, and who found it convenient to build their houses in the neighbourhood of one another, and to surround them with a wall, for the sake of common defence.”[3] As farmers, the Roman character was initially independent and hardy, for the “fatigues of war”[4] were made familiar by ordinary life. “They who live by agriculture generally pass the whole day in open air,” Smith writes, “exposed to all the inclemencies of the seasons.”[5] But as they subjugated their neighbors and collected themselves in towns and cities, the conquerors themselves became victims of their empire. The land was consolidated in the hands of a wealthy elite and worked by foreign slaves, thus poor Romans were dispossessed of what they had harvested by the sword and cultivated with the plow. This story perhaps begins to sound familiar to the modern ear.

As slaves were increasingly used to work the land, more Romans left the country for urban areas to find work, where they were kept docile with bread and circuses. Indeed, the Roman ruling class seemed to understand that their way of life bred dependency and kept that knowledge in their imperial quiver. Tacitus was among the most astute observers of this. “Then too our manner of dress became stylish and there was widespread use of the toga,” he writes of the Britons subjugated by his father-in-law, Agricola, “and gradually they gave in to the attractions of vices, porticoes and baths and the elegance of banquets.”[6] According to Tacitus, Agricola encouraged the Britons to move out of the country for urban areas. Men of country, after all, bitterly cling to their weapons and their beliefs, making them standing threats to the state. To this point, Smith also notes that some emperors[7] pulled Roman armies away from the frontiers to make them less “formidable,” scattering the men in provincial towns where they grew soft.[8] With the long afternoon of Pax Romana, writes Tacitus, “slothfulness came in together with peace, after manliness and liberty alike were lost,”[9] and this condition “was called civilization among those who did not know better, although it was part of slavery.”[10] It seems that Tacitus’ real aim was to show the Romans of his day that they wore the same chains, though gilded, as those they subjugated, insofar that the political and military arrangements of the empire resulted in increasing socio-economic dependency. Not only did the conditions of servility in the twilight of the Roman Empire prefigure feudalism, but the basic outline of those events forms a recurring historical pattern: republics have a tendency to become empires, empires tend to dominate foreigners and citizens alike, and free governments tend to be subverted by a wealthy elite.

Now we rejoin Smith on the road to serfdom where we left him, amid the chaos that followed the destruction of Rome. “The towns were deserted,” writes Smith, “and the country was left uncultivated, and the western provinces of Europe, which had enjoyed a considerable degree of opulence under the Roman empire, sunk into the lowest state of poverty and barbarism.”[11] It was amid the ensuing tumult that the warlords who became the sovereigns and nobility of Europe emerged to carve out their plots. In the hands of a few was the greatest share of land held. These new elites ensconced themselves in castles on their estates, where they reigned as “the judges in peace, and the leaders in war,” letting land to tenants and taking from them their pound of flesh.[12] “The security of a landed estate, therefore, the protection which its owner could afford to those who dwelt on it, depended upon its greatness.”[13] Land is wealth; wealth is power. “To divide it was to ruin it,” Smith notes, “and to expose every part of it to be oppressed and swallowed up by the incursions of its neighbours.”[14] That principle gave rise to primogeniture, which, along with the introduction of entails, further consolidated land in the hands of a few families for generations.[15] The introduction of systematic feudal law was, in Smith’s view, an attempt to moderate the lords by the sovereigns, but one that ultimately fell short of its mark.[16] The political arrangements of feudalism ensured economic stagnation and suppressed social mobility, while lords perpetually made war on each other, and frequently on anyone wearing the nominal title of “king.” Agriculture was suppressed by entails and the laws of primogeniture; commerce was hindered by burdensome taxation. Passage, pontage, lastage, and stallage—altogether called “duties of passage”—were levied on merchants for crossing bridges, traversing certain manors, and participating in fairs.[17] In time, however, some sovereigns exempted merchants in their lands from these taxes, essentially patronizing those who they believed could benefit them through their activities.[18] It came to pass that the towns in which these merchants settled became hubs of commerce, giving rise to a new species of medieval man: the burgher.

What began with tax exemptions led to the formation of incorporated societies, complete with town boards and magistrates. “For in those disorderly times it might have been extremely inconvenient to have left them to seek this sort of justice from any other tribunal.”[19] For the burghers, a politics and government by law, rather than privilege, under which contracts and commerce would be honored was ideal. Mere merchants became magistrates and engaged in the business of “making bye-laws for their own government, of building walls for their own defence, and of reducing all their inhabitants under a sort of military discipline, by obliging them to watch and ward.”[20] Certainly, it might seem strange, according to Smith, that sovereigns would sow the seeds of “independent republics in the heart of their own dominions.”[21] But these little republics were the natural allies of a sovereign besieged by marauding lords. In fact, the more contentious the relationship between the sovereign and his lords, the more inclined the sovereign was to rule with a “liberal” hand over the towns—that is, with a very light touch. Already, then, were economic forces driving political change.

On the burghers went, empowering themselves to the chagrin of the nobility. But whereas the vainglorious nobles waged war for the sake of plunder, the militias of the cities were raised as defensive forces—mutual defense leagues between towns were essentially forays in crafting foreign policy.[22] So it was that in those days, by an odd twist, that the independent spirit of the early Roman Republic was reborn among merchants creating good government by laws. As they steadily expanded trade and industry, burgher militias in France and England became so powerful that they could resist being taxed by sovereigns without their consent—here we are getting to something like “no taxation without representation.” In Switzerland and Italy, the nobility found itself confronted with militias that could best their armies on the field. The burghers, however, never acquired the same taste for warfare as their well-born adversaries, because war is not always good for business. The great nobles looked with alarm as the burghers whom they, writes Smith, “considered not only as of a different order, but as a parcel of emancipated slaves, almost of a different species from themselves,” snatched the levers of political power from their hands.[23] In time, the burghers brought the nobility to heel, “obliging them to pull down their castles in the country, and to live, like other peaceable inhabitants, in the city.”[24]

All of this seemed to happen under the auspices of serendipity, insofar that there was no unified strategy. There was no diet of burghers, brought together to decide, deliberately and explicitly, that they were going to make a bid for world power. The burgher, “led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention,” ushered in a politics that involved more than war and plunder.[25] By pursuing his economic interest, the burgher promoted the most progressive developments of society and metamorphosed into a member of the merchant elite that broke the political power of Europe’s old nobility. In time, however, perhaps upon becoming conscious of their supremacy, the burghers worked to maintain the economic framework in which their social dominance was assured, by seizing the political and legal machinery of their countries. The “mercantile system” arose when merchants were able to obtain privileges by lobbying governments to monopolize trade and industry.[26] Through the creation of exclusive privileges of corporations,[27] statutes of apprenticeship,[28] exclusive rights to trade routes,[29] merchants became the new lords of Europe. Smith finds this altogether unsurprising. “People,” he writes, “of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the publick, or in some contrivance to raise prices”—merchants’ monopolizing tendencies were natural.[30] That statement, with its skeptical tone, ought to tell us that Smith was not a cold, calculating apologist for avarice.

A careful reading of Smith’s greatest work reveals a mind struggling to describe a phenomenon that, on the one hand, offered a path up from serfdom; and, on the other hand, had become yet another scheme of exploitation. Smith hammers away at the dross, attempting to reveal the truth and morality of this system, and yet it is unclear if any system can permanently resist corruption or destruction. The only constant man has ever known is change, but it is only after change has come that he can look back and see clearly the forces and patterns that ushered it into history.

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[1] Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, ed. R.H. Campbell and Andrew S. Skinner (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1976), 397.

[2] Smith, 397.

[3] Ibid., 397.

[4] Ibid., 693.

[5] Ibid., 692-693.

[6] Tacitus, Agricola, Germany, and Dialogue on Orators, trans. Herbert W. Benario (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1991), 39-40.

[7] Smith says that there is disagreement about whether it was Diocletian or Constantine.

[8] Smith, 704.

[9] Tacitus, 33.

[10] Tacitus, 40.

[11] Ibid., 381-382.

[12] Ibid., 383.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid., 382.

[16] Ibid., 417-418.

[17] Ibid., 397-398.

[18] Ibid., 398.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid., 400-401.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Smith, 401-402.

[23] Ibid., 402.

[24] Ibid., 403.

[25] Ibid., 456.

[26] Smith, 78.

[27] Smith, 145.

[28] Smith, 135-136.

[29] Smith, 449.

[30] Smith, 145.

The featured image is “Queen Philippa Interceding for the Lives of the Burghers of Calais” and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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