As an intellectual historian studying ideas and political discourses of the early modern period, I learned a great deal from the many economic historians I met in Exeter. To acknowledge the powerful impact of quantitative analysis brought me to ask myself whether there could be an alternative methodology to integrate crunching numbers with the theoretical speculation revolving around pamphlets and treatises. The roundtables were especially thought-provoking in addressing the issue of the agency of employers and workers along the spectrum going from coercion to freedom, and in pointing at the additional social, political and cultural angles that could dictate an agenda for future research. Nevertheless, it was striking to me that, for as much as all the contributions brilliantly dissected the plethora of different forms of labour coexisting in early modern Europe, the very first term of the equation summarising the three-days conference, freedom, was seldom mentioned.
Whereas fidgeting with concepts might not be the best way to reconstruct the historical reality of workers in a given context, to define what particular actors perceived as freedom is necessary to understand the degree of coercion that employers implemented on the workforce in a determined society. Scholars have long complicated Isaiah Berlin’s dichotomy between positive and negative concepts of liberty, to retrieve different genealogies of freedom. The neo-Roman conception of freedom as non-domination has recently challenged the liberal freedom as non-interference traditionally associated with the market, bringing the contemporary debates on liberty to include the economic sphere. Robert Taylor’s work has pointed towards the power of exit from the markets to curtail their arbitrary power and promote the implementation of freedom as non-domination within a capitalist society. Likewise, Alan Thomas’ model of a property-owning democracy has aimed at restructuring the markets to eradicate the conflict between capital and labor. I consider these contributions to be all the more crucial in the wake of signals such as the rhetoric of productivity displayed during the Covid-19 pandemic, the unionisation of Amazon’s workers and some forty million people being victims of forced labour worldwide today.[i]
In the space I have been allocated, I would like to present a case study on the relation between freedom and work in the context of seventeenth-century Scotland. My paper contended that arguments for coerced labour in pre-Union Scotland should be read contextually to the late humanist tradition of reason of State theory applied to political economy. Especially during the unprecedented economic crisis of the 1690s, several publications steered the public debates towards economic improvement, and towards the necessity of setting the idle poor to work in order to exploit the totality of the nations’ workforce in the name of the common good. This certainly did not constitute the first time that the labour of common people was considered as a resource over which the community had jurisdiction. However, royal proclamations, parliamentary acts and pamphleteers now employed overlapping forms of economic discourses to advance this programme. In the context of the birth of a new economic science, these discourses merged the vocabulary borrowed from English ‘political arithmetic’ with the emulation of the Dutch commercial empire.[ii] From the projector of the Darien scheme William Paterson to the physician Sir Robert Sibbald, from the improver James Donaldson to several anonymous authors, all produced detailed plans to extract free labour from the population. Yet, similarly to our discussions in Exeter, the definition of the actual status of the poor when enrolled in one of these draconian schemes is at best glossed over by virtually all the publications, except one.[iii]
The Two Discourses concerning the Affairs of Scotland (1698), written by the republican activist Andrew Fletcher of Saltoun, goes a great length to convince its audience that the servants it would compel to work would still enjoy a certain degree of freedom. Inspired by the classical example of Greek helotry mixed with the legacy of feudalism, Fletcher elaborates a structure of domestic serfdom to reabsorb the unemployed population into different economic sectors. The idle poor would become ‘servants’ to ‘every man of a certain Estate’ and would ‘bring great profit to the Master’ by cultivating their lands or working in their manufactories in exchange for lodging, food and clothing.[iv] Fletcher does regard the fact the servants ‘could possess nothing, and might be sold’ to be ‘an alienation of their Service without their consent’,[v] but ‘the condition of such a servant […] is to be esteemed free; because in the most essential things he is only subject to the Laws, and not to the will of his Master’.[vi] To reject any accusation of introducing slavery in Scotland, Fletcher attempts a difficult balancing act between the interpretations of Roman law of two Dutch jurists: Hugo Grotius and Ulric Huber. While Grotius’ De Jure Belli ac Pacis (1625) provided Fletcher with the legal arguments to define a system of perpetual servitude that fell just short from slavery, the latter crucially removes the voluntary contractual dimension from Grotius’ definition within the framework of natural law theory. Fletcher considers the servants to be sui iuris, that is free to act according to his own will, ‘in every thing, except their duty as Servants’.[vii] The latter would only alienate their work to their masters without being sub potestate. Following Huber’s definition in Disgressiones Justinianeae (1670), Fletcher argues that a slave is someone who is subjected to another’s power, while the poor in his scheme would be ‘under the protection of the law’. [viii]
The status of Fletcher’s servants would be defined by the individuals’ natural rights giving way to a set of limited civil rights and a consistent set of duties, enforced by the public to contribute to Scotland’s national economic interest. Fletcher’s version of unfree labour, full of its theoretical tensions, belongs to an extensive series of historical justifications to support the limitation of freedom in the name of economic stability. What degree and kind of freedom workers should enjoy, therefore, remains a crucial issue.
Giovanni Lista completed his PhD in intellectual history at the European University Institute (2018), and has been an early career fellow at the Lichtenberg-Kolleg in Göttingen (2018- 2019). While working on his first monograph for Oxford Studies in the Enlightenment, his research interests are moving from early modern British republicanism to seventeenth- and eighteenth-century political economy. This paper will present the results of his archival research in Scotland, financed by a SHR Trust scholarship (September 2021), and of his experience as the organizer of the conference ‘Coerced Labour in the Early Modern World (1500-1800)’ for the International Society of Intellectual History.
[i] See at least Quentin Skinner, Liberty Before Liberalism: An Inaugural Lecture Delivered Before the University of Cambridge on 12th November 1997 (Cambridge University Press, 1998); Philip Pettit, Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government (Clarendon Press, 1997); Bruce David Baum and Robert Nichols, eds., Isaiah Berlin and the Politics of Freedom: ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’ 50 Years Later (Routledge, 2013); Robert S. Taylor, Exit Left: Markets and Mobility in Republican Thought (Oxford University Press, 2017); Alan Thomas, Republic of Equals: Predistribution and Property-Owning Democracy (Oxford University Press, 2017).
[ii] Some essential works are C. A. Davids and Jan Lucassen, eds., A Miracle Mirrored: The Dutch Republic in European Perspective (Cambridge University Press, 1995); Jonathan Israel, The Dutch Republic: Its Rise, Greatness and Fall, 1477-1806 (Clarendon Press, 1998); Oscar Gelderblom, The Political Economy of the Dutch Republic (Ashgate, 2009); Arthur Weststeijn, Commercial Republicanism in the Dutch Golden Age: The Political Thought of Johan & Pieter de La Court (Brill, 2012); Julian Hoppit, ‘Political Arithmetic in Eighteenth-Century England’, The Economic History Review, 49, n°3 (August 1996): 516–540; Shigemi Muramatsu, ‘Some Types of National Interest in the Anglo-Scottish Union of 1707: Scotland’s Responses to England’s Political Arithmetic’, Journal of Economics, Kumamoto-Gakuen University 3, n°1 (September 1996): 1–14; Paul Slack, ‘Measuring the National Wealth in Seventeenth-Century England’, The Economic History Review, New Series, 57, n°4 (November 2004): 607–35; Ted McCormick, William Petty: And the Ambitions of Political Arithmetic (Oxford University Press, 2009); Ted McCormick, ‘Political Arithmetic’s 18th Century Histories: Quantification in Politics, Religion, and the Public Sphere’, History Compass 12, n°3 (March 2014): 239–251; Paul Slack, The Invention of Improvement: Information and Material Progress in Seventeenth-Century England (Oxford University Press, 2014).
[iii] Anon., Proposals for Improving Able Beggars to the Best Advantage, Edinburgh, 1693; Sincere well-wisher to the honour and interest of his country, An Essay against the Transportation and Selling of Men to the Plantations of Forreigners with Special Regard to the Manufactories, and Other Domestick Improvements of the Kingdom of Scotland, Edinburgh, 1699; Philo-Caledon., Scotland’s Present Duty, or, A Call to the Nobility, Gentry, Ministry and Commonality of This Land, Edinburgh, 1700; George Ridpath, Scotland’s Grievances Relating to Darien,, Edinburgh, 1700; Anon., A Serious Advice to the African and Indian Company, Edinburgh, 1700; Anon., A Letter from One in the Country, to a Member of Parliament, Intreating This Session, May Take to Their Consideration, the Lamentable Condition of the Poor, Edinburgh, 1700); Anon., A Letter to a Member of Parliament, Occasioned, by the Growing Poverty of the Nation, from the Want and Decay of Trade, Edinburgh, 1700; James Donaldson, Certain and Infallible Measures Laid down. Whereby the Whole Begging-Poor of the Kingdom May Be Alimented at Much Less Charge than They Are at Present, Edinburgh, 1701; William Paterson, Proposal and Reasons for Constituting a Council of Trade, Edinburgh, 1701; Sir Robert Sibbald, Discourses Anent the Improvements May Be Made in Scotland for Advancing the Wealth of the Kingdom; in Three Parts, unpublished manuscript, 1698.
[iv] Andrew Fletcher, Two Discourses Concerning the Affairs of Scotland, Edinburgh, 1698, 28.
[v] Ibid., 15.
[vi] Ibid., 16.
[vii] Ibid., 15.
[viii] Ibid., 15.