English People in the Eighteenth Century

By Dorothy E. Marshall | Go to book overview

Chapter Four
THE NOBILITY, THE GENTRY AND THE MIDDLING SORT

WHAT advantages and disadvantages could a society so constituted offer to its individual members? Such questions are always easier to ask than answer since they imply some recognition of the need of a standard by which those advantages and disadvantages can be assessed. The demands that men make on any society are not static. What had seemed good to the medieval Englishman would not have seemed good to his eighteenth-century descendant, nor are the criteria of that period necessarily valid to the citizen of to-day. However objectively historians set out to study their material, subjective judgments tend to creep in and they are tempted to use contemporary standards as a measuring rod for past conditions. Yet such judgments are both unhistorical and unfair. Nobody who fails to realize, or realizing deplores, the fact that eighteenth-century England accepted, as morally right, a society based on class distinction, can hope to understand it. Classes might well be fluid, their components might vary, individuals and families might pass up or down the social ladder, but the general framework of the class structure not only remained but was accepted as right and proper, as something without which no community could organize itself or live in harmony. It was a matter on which Dr. Johnson expressed himself forcibly, declaring to Boswell:

Sir, I would no more deprive a nobleman of his respect than of his money. I consider myself as acting a part in the great system, and do to others as I would have them do to me. Sir, I would behave to a nobleman as I would expect he should behave to me were I a nobleman and he Sam Johnson. Sir, there is one Mrs. Macauley in this town, a great republican. I came to her one day and said I was quite a convert to her republican system, and thought mankind all upon a footing; and I begged that her footman might be allowed to dine with me. She has never liked me since.

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