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Sir George Clark


Oxford Univ Press, NYC., 1961, 380 pgs., index, maps, notes, paperback


Reviewer comment
- This book is a history of the same periods that are included in Carl Friedrich's - The Age of the Baroque - and Frederick Nussbaum's The Triumph of Science and Reason. I focus on the sections describing economics and finance. These provide more historical background for readers of Dr. McCloskey's three volumes on the bourgeoise and Felix Martin's book on the history of money. It also includes more background on warfare, diplomacy, 'state' building and political theory for Philip Bobbitt's great book - Shield of Achilles., in which he descries the creation of the concept of 'state' and its development; and the dramatic changes in wealth, financial activity and prices described by David Fischer in The Great Wave which describes the several price - revolutions in Europe since 1200.
The Seventeenth Century in western Europe was a time of major change - the central period in which Europe crossed from its Medieval era to its Modern era. As the chapter titles indicate, the author has focused on the typical topics from economics of daily life to philosophy and high level art and architecture. It is frequently called "The Age of the Baroque" or considered an age during which wielding of power dominated, or in which knowledge was transformed into power.
Fron the chaper titles the reader here can see the scope of this valuable history, but for our purposes we confine comment to the sections dealing with economics, commerce, fianace, trade.


Chapter 1 - Introductory
"Somewhere about the middle of the seventeenth century European life was so completely transformed in many of its aspects that we commonly think of this as one of the great watersheds of modern history, comparable with the Renaissance or Reformation or the French Revolution".
"Within a few years of the execution of Charles I and the Peace of Westphalia, the long economic process of the price-revolution, through which the wealth of Europe had expanded, came to an end, to be followed by a new phase of restriction and new commercial conflicts between states".
It was a century, as the author notes, that began with Galileo and concluded with Newton. He comments that the changes in all spheres of life were connected, but that: "A historian who wished to carve the meat of reality at the joints will not be satisfied with a vague perception that all these things are connected: he will investigate how they are connected, and how closely". Sir George writes that, of necessity, he has focused on some major subjects, but left out others such as agriculture, family life, music and law.
He continues with a general discussion on the meaning of 'civilization' and the understanding of the concept during different centuries. And he devotes much space to discussion of the influence of Asia and the changing role of and attitude toward religion as components of 'civilization'.


Chapter 2 - Population
"One of the clearest differences between the seventeenth century and the twentieth is that nowadays government is conducted on the basis of statistics, but then there were scarcely any statistics to be had, and such as existed were very little used".
"While this is quite generally the case it is nowhere more clear than in the matter of what are now called 'vital statistics', the figures relating to births, deaths, marriages, and population. No country in modern Europe had a regular, periodical, national census before the French Revolution".
"By means of certain rules of thumb or certain presumptions about the structure of society, it is possible to infer what was the population of a country from the known, if not always very trustworthy, figures of its taxable returns or religious sects or military levies".
"There is, indeed, no doubt at all that the population of Europe, taken as together, and of almost every part of it, as long as the unit taken is not so small as a single town or village, was very much smaller than it is now".

The author continues by providing as much 'statistics' as he can on the population of countries, towns, and other places.


Chapter 3 - Economic Policy and Ideas
"The growth of population, if and where it came about, was part of the larger fact that this was a time of economic progress". The author writes that with expanding economic activity there were "more rich men and there were richer men".
"On the economic side also it was more than a change of scale. As markets, businesses, transactions became larger, they necessarily came to be different in kind. In all organizations a change of size means a change of system, and economic progress in the sense of advancing wealth had its counterpart in changing organization".
"Business success with other forces was impelling Europe in the direction of capitalism".
"In the seventeenth century the process of accumulation was going on. Many different types of men by various means wee becoming capitalists".

The author continues with separate descriptions of economic change and change in the management of economic affairs in England, France, Spain, Holland and Germany.

"The Dutch influence was more purely economic". (That is in comparison with the other countries mentioned. It was less in non-economic social affairs and more in economic activities and methods.) He discusses how this was already understood by the English who marveled at Dutch advances in business and finance. And the British didn't wait long to begin copying.

"The first thing that enabled them to do so was the immigration of Dutchmen to our shores". "The diversity of their occupations shows how important the movement was". He lists many. "Nor was the superiority of the Dutch confined to these numerous kinds of technical skill. There was much to copy in their social organization". "They were certainly before us, and were held up by various writers as deserving imitation in banking".

The author discusses a wide variety of changes, many enabled by the end of medieval ideas and regulations. He quotes Adam Smith's excellent appraisal of the changes in economic policy, especially of the former problem created by 'mercantile system'. This leads him into a lengthy discussion of just what 'mercantilism' actually was.

"It was a system of political economy, that is to say it was a system for the regulation of economic matters by the state. It was, in Adam Smith's words, a system for 'enriching the people', and its essence is that it was to do so by means of commerce, and more particularly by the state regulation of commerce". And by 'regulation' they meant and Sir George writes - they meant regulation of everything. Sir George provides much interesting detail and commentary on it. This enables us to visualize its recurring elements today.

"These two elements of protection and regimentation remained throughout the mercantile epoch the fundamental principles of economic organization, but with this great difference (from medieval era), that now it was the state, no longer the town or its organ, the guild, which granted the privilege and protected against the unprivileged and the foreigner". He continues by discussing the reasons for this role of the state, noting that it is an error to think that monarchs and their ministers didn't understand their economic needs.

"From the primary political need for order and security he (Francis Bacon) deduces the necessity for an active government supervision of every department of economic life". "So it came about that the state became the watchful and despotic guardian of economic interests of its inhabitants. As the seventeenth century went on it learnt to apply its whole strength in this effort". "Thus the consequences, like the causes, of the mercantile system extended far beyond the economic sphere; but it was none the less in that sphere that it had its centre. The key to it was the enrichment of the nation. The nation, the people ruled by one state, became the economic unit".

Sir George continues with more detail. Then discusses the, misunderstood today, priority mercantilists had in obtaining and keeping gold and silver. They well understood the necessity to do this in terms of the nature of their financial systems and the central role played by currency, coins of gold and silver. Basically, the expanding daily commerce required more and more currency for daily exchange, and that meant more gold in circulation. And "they wanted coin to pay their armies".

Interestingly the Dutch alone wanted coin and uncoined bullion in order to sell it at a profit. To them gold and silver were commodities to be exchanged for a profit. Of course their own commercial affairs were not dependent on coins as a means of exchange. But some economists today deny that money can be a commodity. And there is much more of value for today in this chapter.


Chapter 4 - Commerce, Finance, and Communications
This is another chapter filled with facts and analysis of the period, but also with lessons for us today. The author begins with extensive discussion of international and local commerce, what goods were being exchanged, and from where to where and why. He cites the 'revolution in prices' - read The Great Wave.
He then discusses the changes in organizational structure of the merchant class's way of doing business, with the creation of joint stock companies. These were approved by the governments as monopolies. Some became wealthy and some collapsed. He notes that by Adam Smith's time there were 5 great English companies and the three greatest were the - East India Company , Bank of England, and the South Sea Company.

"Every one of these companies in every country owed its existence to an act of the state. Government aid, often in other forms as well, but always in one indispensable form was the grant of a monopoly". After providing much interesting detail he turns to banking.

"Not less important in economic history than the changes in the organization of commerce and even more directly important for their involvement in political development were the changes in finance. The two are, of course, closely interwoven, and we have already once or twice touched upon the latter of them". "One of the factors in the rise of capitalism was the need of large sums of money for military purposes at the end of the Middle Ages. War had become a great industry which princes could not carry on with their own resources, and which they had to resign to condottiere and capitalists". Initially the princes could rely on the great banking houses such as the Fuggers'.
"This age ended when the need for money rose to still greater proportions, and the banker dynasties could no longer meet it. The change which made the next step in the swelling of finances possible was the substitution of the credit of the state for the credit of private financial houses. War became an industry of the state. The only credit adequate to carry it on was the credit of the states, or more exactly of the great lending states, around which were grouped fringes of smaller, poorer, subsidized, or borrowing states, the clients of the great allies who financed their little armies for them".

(Please read Bobbitt and Fischer on this.) Indeed this was the same factor that caused the creation of the abstract concept of the 'state' itself.
Sir George describes the financial collapse of Spain and the at least temporary success of France with its great minister, Colbet. Then he turns to England and Holland. The English were doing fairly well from reign of Elizabeth I, "the one solvent monarch of her time' until the Stuarts failed up to the 'stop on the exchequer' by Charles II.

"The one state which throughout the century was always solvent was the Dutch republic".

The reasons, which the author sets out in detail, are still good lessons.
"That was really the most important point of all. Sound public finance is not likely to exist except on a basis of sound private finance; and sound private finance comes into existence when there is a healthy business community to give it employment and keep it straight".

Not one whose financial affairs and means are manipulated by a anti-business central bank.

From finance the author turns to transportation. He gives us some enlightening and humorous anecdotes about the deplorable condition of roads, neglected since the end of the Roman Empire.


Chapter 5 - Industries
"If we wish to find a link between th edevelopment of industry and the wider intelectual life of a community, it is natural to seek it in the history of mechanical and chemical invention".

But, Sir George writes, there is a problem, namely that the eagerness of all concerned to claim credit for anything of value has resulted in a confusion of claims, not only by individuals but by towns, and countries eager to uphold 'favorite sons'.

"In the seventeenth century the face of European life was being changed by the gradual dissemination of processes and devices which had been hit upon in the sixteenth or earlier". He provides an extensive list of specific items and processes. But, he notes, there are too many even to list. Nevertheless, he discusses the general situation and gives considerable credit in France to minister Colbert. He writes that a major cause of retarded develoment was the retention of Medieval rules and constraints, but that these were being abolished."

As we know today, there is always a strong effort by those who benefit from the status quo to block any change that might cause a reduction in their own influence or profits.


Chapter 6 - Comparative Constitutional History


Chapter 7 - Armies


Chapter 8 - Navies


Chapter 9 - International Law and Diplomacy


Chapter 10 - Frontiers


Chapter 11 - The Interests of the States


Chapter 12 - Relations with Asia by Land


Chapter 13 - Colonies


Chapter 14 - Political thought


Chapter 15 - Mathematics and Science


Chapter 16 - Philosophy


Chapter 17 - Classical and Historical Studies


Chapter 18 - Education


Chapter 19 - Religion


Chapter 20 - Literature


Chapter 21 - Painting and Architecture


Appendix: Races and Languages


Return to Xenophon.