The Industrial Revolution, 1760-1830

By T. S. Ashton | Go to book overview
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5
'Individualism' and 'Laisser-Faire'

IN THE eighteenth century the characteristic instrument of social purpose was not the individual or the State, but the club. Men grew up in an environment of institutions which ranged from the cock-and-hen club of the tavern to the literary group of the coffee-house, from the 'box' of the village inn to the Stock Exchange and Lloyd's, from the Hell Fire Club of the blasphemers to the Holy Club of the Wesleys, and from the local association for the prosecution of felons to the national Society for the Reformation of the Manners among the Lower Orders and the Society of Universal Good Will. Every interest, tradition, or aspiration found expression in corporate form. The idea that, somehow or other, men had become self-centred, avaricious, and anti-social is the strangest of all the legends by which the story of the industrial revolution has been obscured.

It would have been remarkable indeed if, in a community so compact of associations, the industrialist had remained aloof from his fellows. The hedges that were rising about the fields, and the factory walls that enclosed the workers and machines, were not the symbols of a growing individualism but the conditions of a more efficient administration of resources. The firm itself was less often a one-man concern than a partnership, each member of which brought to a common stock his special gift of skill, capital, or knowledge of the market. The partners of one firm were in close, and often daily, contact with those of other firms. They met as worshippers at the same church or chapel, as privates or officers in the same

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