Aristocrats and Bourgeois


The eighteenth century was an aristocratic century, particularly in England.  In all areas of western Europe, the aristocratic class gained economic and social stature.  In England they even achieved political supremacy. Aristocrats were not the only class to benefit from economic and social transformations in eighteenth century.  The bourgeoisie, that is to say the urban merchant and manufacturing class, also expanded in size and social significance.  Aristocrats and bourgeois shared many values and interests in common, though they sometimes came into conflict.  Indeed, this conflict played an important role in the French Revolution at the end of the century, while England avoided revolution because these two major classes found enough common ground and common cause to work together to maintain their constitutional monarchy established in the “Glorious Revolution” of 1689.


The portrait of Mr. and Mrs. Andrews by Thomas Gainsborough represents a prosperous gentry couple in the middle of the 18th century.  In this painting, one can observe the elegant and leisured lifestyle of the aristocratic and gentry (that is to say landowning) classes of Britain.  The Andrews appear with their extensive and prosperous land as the backdrop.  This painting illustrates the social and economic power of the landowning classes of the 18th century.  Mr. Andrews has clearly benefited from his complete control of his property afforded by the enclosure of the land, and the ending of the medieval system of village farming and sharing of common lands.  Mr. Andrews, as sole owner of the land, can decide how the land is to be used and who shall work for him.  He has both the ability and incentive to maximize his productivity and his income, because a higher income would place him in a higher social status.  He has even earned enough money to pay one of England’s best artists to immortalize him and his wife.  Mr. Andrews may not have an real aristocratic title, but he has achieved great success and honor.  Gentry like him also may exercise real power through the House of Commons in Parliament, which they dominated.  The more money one had, the more likely one was to be able to dominate local politics and perhaps become a member of Parliament.  And since 1689, Parliament was the true ruler of England.


The political victory of the English aristocracy came with their successful overthrow of King James II, and his replacement by William and Mary.  James had hope to turn back a century of English history, and restore Catholicism and limit Parliamentary power.  He hoped, in short, to establish absolute monarchy in England along the lines of his contemporary, Louis XIV of France.  The English aristocracy (including the gentry) were opposed to both of these goals.  The king had very little support, especially when he arbitrarily removed judges who would not rule as he wished, and when he arrested most of the leading bishops.  But how does one replace a legitimate monarch?  The aristocrats of Parliament, led by the Earl of Shaftesbury, devised a plan to invite William of Orange, the leading aristocrat in Holland, and husband of James’s daughter, to “invade” England.  When James fled without a shot being fired, Parliament declared that James had “vacated” the throne, and installed William and Mary as joint monarchs.  The most significant feature of this “Glorious Revolution” was that the aristocracy had disposed of an unpopular and incompetent monarch, demonstrating their supreme power.  This was underscored by having the new monarchs sign a “Bill of Rights” which placed limits on royal power, and required the assent of parliament in governing the kingdom.  With the Bill of Rights, the principle of the rule of law was established.  By the same token, the principle of absolute monarchy was rejected.  Parliament, that is to say the landowning classes, would be the guardians of the law.


In England, and even in those countries where aristocrats did not triumph over monarchs, the aristocracy gained social and political influence by virtue of its growing prosperity.  This wealth was based in part upon significant agricultural improvements, including new crops and new farming techniques.  It was also based upon the wealth created by the growth of global trade in luxury consumer commodities such as tea, coffee, alcohol, silk, cotton, sugar, tobacco and opium.  In England and Holland the landowning class was able to benefit by becoming investors and entrepreneurs in their own right.  They often used their capital to buy shares of trading companies in the new stock market, or to buy bonds sold by the government on the new bond market.  Although there was no stock or bond market in France, or in German or Italian lands, their were many new opportunities to invest and make money. 


The bourgeoisie expanded significantly in western Europe as trade to the east Indies and the Americas boomed.  Insofar as both groups prospered from investment and trade, they had significant interests in common.  But they inhabited different parts of economic and social life.  Aristocrats worked diligently to preserve their prestige and privilege by denigrating those who made their livelihood by working.  They demonstrated this by a leisured lifestyle of hunting, horse breeding and racing, partying, and more admirably, by greater education and sophistication.  On the other hand, members of the bourgeoisie sometimes envied the aristocratic classes, and sometimes they criticized them as morally inferior.  Defenders of the bourgeoisie emphasized the moral value of work and the virtue of effort and innovation.  Likewise they asserted the superiority of faithful marriage, in contrast to the rather more lax standards of the aristocracy (take for example the British royal family of today). 


Which would prevail, the values that these classes had in common, or those which divided them?   For much of the century, unity prevailed.  Many bourgeois Englishmen were able to enter Parliament or otherwise rise in the ranks of social acceptability if they were willing to maintain deference for the landowning classes.  Aristocrats, particularly in England, made certain that laws would favor the freedom of capital and enterprise, allowing both aristocratic and bourgeois familes to prosper.  In Europe generally, economic interests bound both sides together.  The two classes also shared an interest in the spirit of the enlightenment, which embraced the ideas of science and progress, in contrast with religion and tradition.  Aristocrats were enamored with classical architecture and classical texts. They were prepared to challenge a medieval conservatism which upheld the power of monarchy and the established church.  Aristocrats had reason to admire the Roman republic (which was dominated by aristocrats) and classical learning, which seemed to uphold ideals of civic and moral independence for the wealthy classes.  The enlightenment enthusiasm for science arose from the idea that new learning would extend prosperity and social power to those capable of grasping it.  The bourgeoisie shared this interest in rejecting the past and embracing new learning. 


The enlightenment spirit captured aristocrats and bourgeois alike, but this unity of spirit did not solve all problems.  While more widespread wealth and access to books and learning may have been an opportunity for greater equality between aristocrats and wealthy bourgeoisie, this dynamic was also a threat to aristocratic superiority and privilege.  In France, German lands, and other places were monarchy remained supreme, the bourgeoisie were blocked from social advancement by the monopolization of political power by the monarchy, and the system of royal patronage which reserved social privilege for aristocrats.  Both social and political tensions grew in these regions, and even in Britain, were social status was more fluid, there was a significant cultural split which was to manifest itself later in the century in religious terms as a divide between evangelicals and non-evangelicals, as we shall see later.


The eighteenth century was in several respects the age of aristocracy.  The aristocracy grew in size, status and power.  Many of the same economic and social forces that lifted the aristocracy also raised a new bourgeois class.  The rise and competition of these classes determined much of the social and political future of modern Europe.