Aristocracy, etymologically, the "rule of the best," a form of government variously defined and appreciated at different times and by different authorities. Aristotle classified good governments under three heads - monarchy, aristocracy and commonwealth, to which he opposed the three perverted forms - tyranny or absolutism, oligarchy and democracy or mob-rule. The distinction between aristocracy and oligarchy, which are both necessarily the rule of the few, is that whereas the few apcaroc will govern unselfishly, the oligarchs, being the few wealthy ("plutocracy" in modern terminology), will allow their personal interests to predominate. Under the conditions of the present day the distinction of aristocracy, democracy and monarchy cannot be rigidly maintained from a purely governmental point of view.
From a political view monarchy and nobility are strongly opposed. Even the modified form of absolute monarchy which existed in some Western countries, while it preserved, perhaps even strengthened, the social position of a nobility, destroyed its political power. Under the fully-developed despotisms of the East a real nobility was impossible; the prince raised and thrust down as he pleased. It was only in a commonwealth that a nobility can really rule; that is, it is only in a commonwealth that the nobility can really be an aristocracy. And even in a democratic commonwealth the sentiment of nobility may exist, though all legal privilege has been abolished or has never existed. That is to say, traditional feeling may give the members of certain families a strong preference, to say the least, in election to office. This was the case at Athens; it was largely the case in the democratic cantons of Switzerland; indeed the nobility of Rome itself, after the privileges of the patricians were abolished, rested on no other foundation.
The word acquired a social rather than a political sense as practically equivalent to "nobility." In England nobility is apt to be confounded with the peculiar institution of the British peerage. Nobility is not the same thing as aristocracy. This last is a word which is often greatly abused; but, whenever it is used with any regard to its true meaning, it is a word strictly political, implying a particular form of government. Aristocracy implies the existence of nobility; but nobility does not imply aristocracy; it may exist under any form of government.
The growth of the peerage set up a new standard of nobility, a new form of the nobility of office. The peer - in strictness, the peer in his own person only, not even his children - became the only noble; the ideas of nobility and gentry thus became divorced in a way in which they are not in any other country. Those who would elsewhere have been counted as the nobility, the bearers of coat-armour bygood right, were hindered from forming a class holding any substantial privilege. In a word, the growth of the peerage hindered the existence in England of any nobility in the continental sense of the word. The esquires, knights, lesser barons, even the remote descendants of peers, that is, the noblesse of other countries, in England remained gentlemen, but not noblemen.
By the middle of the 19th Century British subjects were divided, politically, into two classes - the Nobility, and the Commons. Below these was a mass of population, which used to be commonly termed the rabble, or dregs of society, having no political rights. But the nomenclature which obtained is deduced from social gradation. In this classification, English society is divided into three grades - the Aristocracy, consisting of the Nobility and Gentry; the Middle class; and the Working class. The Aristocracy par excellence consisted of the titled nobility of the realm, who inherit rank and lands by primogeniture. The descendants of the younger sons of nobility simply rank as gentry. They belong to the aristocracy by right of blood, and enjoy the social distinction thus conferred. The noble English Aristocracy held its position in virtue of blood and wealth. The heir to the title inherits the lands, as essential to maintain his rank. Daughters and younger sons must be provided for by the savings of their aristocratic parents. These descendants of noble houses are numbered in the ranks of the Gentry so long as they have sufficient property to support them without resorting to any industrial pursuit. In Great Britain, branches of the Aristocracy may, consistently with their caste, become clergymen or lawyers ; may enter the army or navy; or occupy a post under government, in some department of the civil administration. All other pursuits are considered degrading. As soon as necessity compels the adoption of any industrial occupation, social position is lost, and the person sinks, as the case may be, into the Middle, or the Working class. It is, therefore, the special care of aristocratic parents to provide for their younger children. The Middle class was distinguished from the noble Aristocracy above them, as being of plebeian descent, and engaged in some business avocation; and from the Working class below, as possessing sufficient means to obviate the necessity of personal labor. The Middle class had its own aristocracy, consisting of the great merchants, manufacturers, shippers; an aristocracy of wealth, as distinguished from the aristocracy of blood. The mass of the Middle class comprised all embarking capital in industrial pursuits who do not engage in personal labor - the merchant who overlooks his clerks; the manufacturer; the gentleman farmer who employs his capital in the cultivation of rented lands; and all persons not of noble blood, engaged in the learned professions and government service. The Working class comprised all who are in service; and all who engage in personal labor, in any department of business. Shop, or storekeepers who attend behind their own counter, clerks, teachers, governesses, artisans, mechanics, laborers, swell the ranks of the Working class. But the aristocratic principle is as visible, here, as in the classes above them. The shopkeeper who works in his own store is much higher in the social scale than those who work for hire. The teacher and the clerk hold themselves above the mechanic who labors with his hands; and the latter, having regular, steady employment at fixed wages, regard themselves as immeasurably superior to the millions of laborers employed in commerce, in agriculture, and in the various menial departments of industry. These three grades of society - the Aristocracy, the Middle class, the Working class, are universally recognized in England. There are first, second, and third class seats in lecture rooms, theaters, and churches; first, second, and third class cars on railroads; and the undertakers announce upon their signs, "First class burials," "Second class burials," "Third class burials," with the respective charges attached to each. The system of centralized commerce that prevails has benefited the landed nobility, who have increased their rents four fold; and the Middle class aristocracy, who engross the manufacturing and commercial industry of the world; but it has grievously oppressed the great mass of British population belonging to all these classes. Its tendency is to increase the aggregation of wealth, and to multiply the burdens of poverty. The British Aristocracy had always been the richest nobility in the world; but, its wealth was inordinately increased. It derived all the advantage of the high prices of provisions and raw material induced by the establishment of manufactures. The nobility have increased their rents, so as to restrict the profits of the farmers within as narrow limits as before, and compel the wages of the farm laborer to be stinted to a degree that deprives them of all the comforts of life. The titled nobility further increased their wealth by intermarriages with the heiresses of the Middle class aristocracy. The British Islands were once full of small farms owned by resident farmers. But this yeoman class of country squires was rapidly becoming extinct. The nobility were buying up more lands in every generation. The aggregation of landed estates has already progressed so far that some half a dozen nobles own half the lands in England. In a few years more the nobility will possess almost all the lands in Great Britain. While the landed nobility were thus increasing their wealth, by imposing heavier rents, and by intermarriages with the commercial aristocracy, the younger scions of the noble aristocracy, who constitute the great majority of the aristocratic class, suffered severely from the commercial system which, by concentrating manufactures and commerce in England, exaggerated the price of all the necessaries of life. The lower orders endure excessive privations; but it was doubtful whether the poorer class of the Aristocracy were not the most wretched people in England. Reared in the enjoyment of luxury, and with all the inflated pride of their class, they were turned upon the world without the means necessary to support their rank. Their best hope was to obtain a settlement in life by marrying heiresses of the Middle class aristocracy. Failing this, the more fortunate obtain, by the influence of relatives, appointments under government. But even these had meager salaries, scarcely sufficient for support, much less to meet the expenses incident to their position in society. They marry and raise families with that pinching economy which sacrifices comfort in the attempt to keep up appearances. But, worst of all, they have not the means of settling their children in life ; their pinched resources being strained to the utmost, to afford them an education suited to their quality. The second generation of the younger branches of the Aristocracy would begin to feel severely the miseries of their position. Debarred from engaging in business by the pride of descent, they were utterly without resources to maintain their pretensions. They became, of necessity, hangers on of their noble relations. A few were so fortunate as to obtain the patronage and aid of the head of their house; but he was usually too much occupied in saving fortunes for his own younger children to extend much assistance to his brother's family. Some of them were so fortunate as to marry heiresses. The others must become starving curates, pinch their way in the law, or accept some very subordinate position under government. They were provided for in some humble way; for they are too nearly related to the head of the house to be allowed to forfeit caste, by engaging in trade. In the next generation, however, the children of the humble curates, struggling lawyers, army lieutenants, must crush their pride of descent, to engage in any humble employment that may offer the means of subsistence. This struggle between pride and poverty racked the soul with agony. The humble plebeian, whatever his privations, endured only physical suffering. He pined with hunger and shivered with cold; but he knew nothing of the torture of a spirit vainly struggling in fierce revolt against its destiny. Perhaps no class on earth endured such complicated miseries as the impoverished scions of Aristocracy. They were wretched before, with means miserably inadequate to their wants. But the cost of living is vastly increased by the enhancement of prices caused by the centralization of commerce. The system which aggrandizes the Nobility who inherit titles and estates, makes victims of the great mass of the class distinguished by noble blood. The antiquity of the English aristocracy is so universally acknowledged, both at home and abroad, that it seems rather late in the day to invite a discussion upon it. Continental nations, among the older families of which revolution in some shape has made such merciless havoc, point to our immunity in this respect with feelings akin almost to envy, and most intelligent foreigners who have written on our country concur in their expressions of respect for that venerable body in whose names and titles are written many of the most prominent events of English history. Nevertheless, and the fact is not a little singular, the notions of our own people on the subject are singularly loose and undefined. The rapid changes which the progress of opinions, the increase of commerce, and the comparatively sudden accumulations of large fortunes have brought about, have caused a sort of fusion between the different ranks of our social system, tending in a great measure to confuse the claims of those who can legitimately boast of antiquity of blood. The first thing that a happy speculator or a successful trader does upon realizing wealth, or it may be an independence, is to hunt up a coat of arms which will harmonize with the name he bears, or with the traditions which his forefathers have left behind them. With this, and a recently purchased estate, he ranks in the opinion of the careless world among the gentry. Happy circumstances place him, perhaps, in the commission of the peace. His private character is probably unassailable, and two generations later the origin of his rise in life is forgotten in the position transmitted to his descendants. Those who claim for the gentry of England the best blood in the kingdom forget this, and are often therefore as much in the wrong as those who attribute the same distinction to the peerage alone. Who are the " nobility" of England ? Are they to be found in the peerage ? We reply, Yes, because, of the most ancient families of our gentry, very many members have received titles for services rendered to their king and country who are to this day represented in the Upper House. Are they to be found among the untitled gentry ? Again we reply in the affirmative, because the natural nobility of every country is always in the first instance its landed proprietary. It has, however, become too much the habit of loose thinkers to accept either of these positions in that unqualified sense which would go to negative the other; and it appears to us, therefore, that we shall be rendering a service to the community by defining the extent in which each may be understood. The subject too, in connection with the work the title of which stands at the foot of our first page, has a practical aspect to which it will be necessary to refer later. One reason why this subject has become confused is furnished by the use of the word " commoner," which has crept into our vocabulary as signifying all those of gentle birth who are untitled. The expression, whatever its origin, suggests in the gentry a certain inferiority as regards social rank and position, which happens to be the very reverse of truth. Again, a fictitious interpretation has come to be put upon the word "ennobled." We hear of an individual who is about to be created a peer as on the point of being " ennobled" or " raised" to the peerage. Now, if he is a " gentleman," and can claim by descent and coat of arms his right to rank among the " gentry" of the land in the strict meaning of the term, he is " noble" whether he become a peer or not. Very many of our peers were noble, generations before they were titled, and if they possessed that true pride which becomes the real lord of the soil, their descendants now would lay far more stress on that early nobility which they share in common with their ancestors and kinsfolk, than in the coronet they now wear. The old saying, Fit nobilis, naseitur generosus, really means that any man may acquire a title, but the nobility of the " gentleman," as the term was early understood, is born with him. When the nurse of James I. implored him to make her son a gentleman, that shrewd monarch replied, " My good woman, a gentleman I could never make him, though I could make him a lord." Sir Bernard Burke, if we remember rightly, who declares that out of all the barons who signed Magna Charta, not six are represented now in the House of Peers. And probably the number of those represented by lineal male descendants is still less. In the same way, Mr. Shirley calculates that no more than 320 families of the ancient gentry which were in existence previous to the year 1500 are represented now in the male line. The genealogical student, therefore, if he wishes to be severe, or at the least exact, will be able to arrive without much difficulty at the very summary conclusion that the old nobility of England, whether titled or the reverse, has in the course of centuries dwindled to a point in which the rareness of the article can alone com penBate for its numerical insignificance. The nobility of an Englishman in the days of chivalry was invariably tested by his shield. An English gentleman of four quarters was admissible into the Order of Malta. When a person was "ennobled," lands were in general annexed to the grant of arms, and it was not until there were no more lands to give, that the system of conferring a coat of arms by patent to which a title was annexed came into practice. From that moment the " nobility" of the country became twofold, the most vancient being the "natural nobility," as that of the landholders, the more modern the " titled," or that of the peerage by patent. The proof, however, of the high esteem in which the first was held, is to be found in the contempt with which the gentry regarded the newly-made nobles. They denounced the system of patents as "an innovation; a dangerous stretch of the prerogative." There are numberless instances to be found in ancient histories in which the nobility of the gentry is thus expressly recognised. Perkin "Warbeck in his proclamation, quoted by Lord Verulam in the latter's " History of Henry VII," accuses the king of having "caused to be cruelly murdered divers nobles" and he enumerates the names of five untitled gentlemen. In Bailey's Dictionary (ed. 1707) a gentleman is stated to be "one who received his nobility from his ancestors and not from the gift of any prince or state." In the statutes of the Order, temp. Henry VIII., a "gentleman of blood" is described to be he that is "descended of three degrees of noblesse" i.e. of name and coat of arms, his parents being of course both noble. The gentry were, moreover, eligible to the Order of the Garter, and all their disputes were referable only to the Lord High Constable of England or to the Earl Marshal - a fact which is conclusive upon the point. The most conclusive proof is to be found in the possible changes which an elevation to the peerage may cause in the coat of arms of the newly-titled gentleman. Let us suppose the case of a cadet of a noble untitled family being made a peer. As cadet of his house he must carry in his arms a mullet or a cinque-foil, or other mark of inferiority, in spite of his coronet, while his elder brother would bear his arms without any diminution whatever.
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