The English Middle Classes in the Eighteenth Century

E.N. Williams describes how English merchants and manufacturers amassed huge fortunes, enlarged their political influence, and raised their social status, while many trades of the previous century became dignified and lucrative professions.

When the Georgian period opened, the merchants were the driving force of the English economy. As Defoe said (biased though he was, of course): “The Commerce of England is an immense and almost incredible Thing.” And the world-wide success of English merchants gives the lie to the fatuous remark of Dr. Johnson’s to Mrs. Thrale. “Do not be frighted,” he said, when she was having trouble running her late husband’s brewery.

“Trade could not be managed by those who manage it, if it had much difficulty.” Nothing could be farther from the truth. The Georgian merchants were not buoyed up on some impersonal tide of economic change: they fought every inch of the way up the graphs that record their achievements.

Some of them fought so successfully that they thrust themselves outside the classes considered here, by becoming gentlemen. The greatest of them belonged to the companies of the City of London. Their agents were importing iron from Sweden, tea from China, and sugar from the West Indies. They bought tobacco in Virginia and sold it in Moscow; and they sold English cloth in the four corners of the earth.

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