Voltaire: On Commerce

TENTH LETTER

ON COMMERCE

Commerce, which has enriched the citizens of England, has helped make them free, and this freedom has in turn extended commerce; hence the greatness of the state. It is commerce which gradually established the naval forces that have made the English the masters of the sea. They have now close to two hundred war ships. Posterity will perhaps be surprised to learn that a little island which has but a small quantity of lead, tin, clay and wool became so powerful through its commerce that it could send in 1723 three fleets to three extremities of the world at the same time, one to Gibraltar, conquered and maintained by its arms; another to Porto-Bello, to deprive the king of Spain of the enjoyment of the treasures of the Indies; and the third to the Baltic Sea to prevent the powers of the north from fighting.

When Louis XIV made Italy tremble, and his armies, already in possession of Savoy and Piedmont, were on the point of taking Turin, Prince Eugene had to march from the remotest parts of Germany to the assistance of the duke of Savoy. He had no money, without which cities can neither be taken nor defended. He had recourse to the English merchants. In half an hour's time they lent him fifty millions, with which he liberated Turin, beat the French, and wrote this short note to those who had lent him the money: "Gentlemen, I have received your money, and flatter myself I have employed it to your satisfaction."

All this gives an English merchant a just pride, and causes him, not without reason, to compare himself to a citizen of Rome. Thus the younger son of a peer of the realm does not disdain trade. Lord Townshend, secretary of state, has a brother who is satisfied with being a merchant in the city. At the time when Lord Oxford ruled all England, his younger brother was a merchant at Aleppo, whence he would not depart, and where he died.

This custom, which is now unhappily dying out, appears monstrous to a German, whose head is full of the hereditary privilege of his family. They can never conceive how it is possible that the son of an English peer should be no more than a rich and powerful bourgeois, while in Germany everyone is a prince. I have known more than thirty highnesses of the same name, whose whole fortunes and estate put together amounted to a few coats of arms and their pride.

In France anybody is a marquis who wants to be; and whoever comes from the obscurity of some remote province with money in his pocket and a name that ends with "ac" or "ille," can say "A man of my quality and rank"; and hold merchants in the most sovereign contempt. The merchant hears his profession spoken of scornfully so often, that he is foolish enough to blush because of it. I do not know, however, which is the most useful to his country, a powdered lord, who knows to a minute when the king rises or goes to bed, perhaps to stool, and who gives himself airs.



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