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Among the Greeks there was more political freedom, the principle of their governments generally was more purely democratic, and there was not, as among the Romans, a privileged aristocracy engrossing all dignities, and under the sanction of law, holding the people in hopeless degradation. But the mechanic was equally ignorant and equally despised; and although the law enslaved him not, yet custom, stronger than law, retained public honors within a few ancient families, and as the operative was in the early ages, so he remained as long as Grecian history had a name.
I have not spoken of Grecian or Roman art, as that subject is a familiar one, and also because our object is to trace what the operative classes have been, rather than what they have done; and a mere catalogue of temples and statues and pictures, would neither lend the subject new light, nor develope new principles.
In pursuing our task, as connected with the other nations of antiquity, we find ourselves for the most part compelled to make use of Grecian authorities; and so profound was the contempt of the Greeks for every other people, that they are merely noticed as events in their history have a bearing upon the destinies of Greece: we can only gather then, as it were incidentally, along the scanty record of political convulsions, some detached hints, which seem to indicate that the condition of operatives among them was not greatly different from what it now is in the more barbarous nations of Asia; the inferior classes, as they were called, being considered little better than beasts of burden, born to be taxed, and plundered, and slaughtered, at the king's pleasure; and subject in all things to the will of every inferior despot, whom chance or court favor may
have placed over them; and so they lived, and died, genera
tion after generation, unpitied, unimproved, hopeless ; leaving the same mournful legacy of labor and sorrow to their descendants, age after age. .
So was it too in Egypt, where existing monuments afford us the evidence which history denies : long lines of laborers dragging immense stones; groups of artisans and husbandmen, all urged to their task by the whip of the taskmaster, are the frequent subjects of their basreliefs and pictures; affording melancholy evidence that there, also, labor was considered a degradation, and the laborer a slave.
And how could it have been otherwise? The nations of antiquity had not the means of popular instruction; the ignorance of the populace was a non-conductor, over which the electric spark of intelligence might not pass; and however vivid may have been the light elicited from individual talent, it could not penetrate the surrounding darkness. But although the minds of the commonalty slumbered, their passions were awake. Intellectual illumination could not reach them, but vice and sensuality could, and with fatal effect; for as the degeneracy of courts gradually infected the mass of the people, the old habits of simplicity and industry were relaxed, and the whole mass of society became more and more corrupt; until finally, with scarce an effort to save it, the decaying fabric of the ancient civilization was ingulfed by that mighty northern wave which rushed over the land, purifying while it destroyed, and sweeping away every vestige of the existing social order; but bringing with it also the elements of another, destined to carry forward the human race in a career of improvement, which the dreams of antiquity had never imagined.
Arnid the universal breaking up of society which took place at the destruction of the Roman empire, the con
dition of the operative classes seems on the whole to have somewhat improved; the greater part of the mechanic arts, however, being useless to the barbarian hordes which then ruled Europe, were utterly lost; those only being preserved, which even in that imperfect state of society were indispensable; and which, being exercised by a comparatively small number of persons, were prized accordingly. The worker in iron seems, as may be expected, to have been held in special esteem. Without him indeed their rude communities could not have held together. He made their swords, their spears, their axes, the iron work of their wagons, and their defensive armor; their only civilization in fact was that of the anvil and the forge. We learn therefore that the office of the king's chief smith was one of considerable dignity, and at the court of the kings of Wales his place at table was next to the royal chaplain.
As the wandering tribes of barbarians gradually settled down into regularly organized governments, the mechanic arts were by degrees recovered, until they attained some resemblance to what they anciently were, although in certain particulars we do not seem even yet, with all the resources of modern science, to have fully recovered what was lost. When the feudal system became perfected, mechanics again lost their social rank, and notwithstanding that many handicrafts were exercised in considerable perfection, their professors ceased to be held in esteem, and were treated with that capricious tyranny which belonged to the age; being munificently rewarded one day, to be plundered and perhaps murdered the next. Individual rights were totally disregarded, and life and property became so insecure, amid the universal robbery which every petty noble considered his privilege, that the inhabitants of the towns in
various countries of Europe, were compelled to organize themselves into armed communities for the common defence; and after a long contest the feudal nobles, finding that the free cities could not be conquered, were obliged to recognize their privileges, and treat with them as independent powers.
This struggle commenced at different times in various countries. The Lombard cities, it is supposed, first became republican in the eleventh century, and there, as in Tuscany also, we find them making war upon and reducing the neighboring nobles to subjection; so that in the twelfth century there was scarcely a noble family in those parts of Italy which did not profess allegiance to some city. In France, some of the towns possessed charters as early as the twelfth century; and in Germany, about the same time, they gradually obtained their privileges; sometimes by purchase, sometimes by force. With the political history of this movement we have nothing to do; but it is interesting to us as mechanics to notice the fact, that in the free republics of Italy, the communes of France, and the free cities of Germany, the artisan was a free man, enjoying the right of suffrage, and eligible generally to the magistracy. We find everywhere also the same division of the operatives into guilds or companies, each with its own peculiar organization, and electing its own officers, civil and military. The odious feudal customs, which had for centuries ground the common people into the dust, were universally abolished, and life and property were apparently as perfectly secured as with us at the present day. In his social capacity also the mechanic was as much respected, and his importance in the community as universally admitted
But this state of things could not last, as it was in advance of the intelligence of the people, who, ignorant, and brutal, and turbulent, were always ripe for those contests of opposing factions, which ambitious demagogues were then, as now, continually on the watch to excite, and turn to their own account. Thus within the walls citizen was ever struggling against citizen, and party against party; while without, city warred against city, and province against province, until a reäction again took place, and wearied with never-ending contention, the tired republics of Italy were glad to purchase tranquillity at the expense of liberty. In France, also, the result was the same, and the more reflecting citizens soon found that they had thrown off the yoke of their feudal lords, only to bend beneath another scarcely less oppressive, namely, the tyranny and cupidity of their own magistrates, sustained constantly by a large portion of the people, too ignorant to know their own rights, and too vicious to respect the rights of others. Under these circumstances, commune after commune petitioned the king to resume their charters, which he was always graciously pleased to do, and thus the mechanics of the cities sunk back into the social nothingness from which they had emerged. A blow however had been struck, from which the aristocracy never recovered; and although mechanics lost their social position, they had gained immensely compared with their condition in former ages, by the increased security which was now given to the exercise of their professions, and also that the absolute personal slavery which was the cause of their original revolt, was done away for ever. In thus tacitly acknowledging themselves unfit for self government, they afford also the useful lesson, that intelligence