Ben Dew
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Conceptions of Polish and Russian poverty in the British Enlightenment

One locus for new eighteenth-century ways of thinking about poverty was found in the ‘philosophical histories’ of the High Enlightenment. Ben Dew shows that much enlightened historical writing focused on charting socio-economic improvement in ways that implied trajectories of the ‘natural’ progress of society from poverty and savagery, via feudalism based on slavery, to commercial prosperity and civility. While the reduction of poverty was something achieved over the longué durée due to incremental economic improvement, it could be aided by reforming or abandoning the socio-economic structures and institutions of earlier forms of society. British travel writers reporting back on eighteenth-century Poland and Russia understood the level of poverty in those countries as analogous to that experienced in feudal Western Europe. Thinking about how Europe emerged out of serfdom and slavery informed discussion of how Eastern Europe could do the same. Moreover, accounts of serf-holding societies in Eastern Europe were utilised, in turn, by British critics of slavery and other exploitative aspects of Britain’s growing commercial empire. What is profoundly significant here is that changes in European understanding of the trajectory of history—the very notions of improvement over time—were necessary as a pre-condition to any conceptualisation of poverty as something subject to human control and potentially eradicable.

One of the ways the Enlightenment conceptualised poverty was as a long-standing, historical problem with social, political and economic origins. This approach was of particular importance to the various narratives of human progress which characterised much British writing of the era.1 Indeed, the major historical shifts Enlightenment authors sought to analyse – in conjectural history, man’s passage through the hunting, pastoral, agricultural and commercial stages; in narrative history, the demise of the feudal system and the rise of commercial polities – involved the overcoming of particular varieties of poverty.2 Commentators were aware, however, that movement through these developmental processes had not been the same across the globe. Such an observation paved the way for one of the defining intellectual tropes of the period: the transformation of time into space as people from other places came to be viewed as not just different, but rather ‘temporally prior and backwards’.3 The chapter that follows examines the significance of this approach for British travel writing on Poland and Russia. It has been widely noted in the existing literature that eighteenth-century accounts of these nations by ‘Western’ commentators emphasised their poverty and lack of development.4 What I want to demonstrate, however, is that this poverty was conceived of in explicitly historical terms. These were states whose failures arose from their continued reliance on the feudal, non-free forms of labour which had characterised medieval ‘Western Europe’ and which had been much criticised in Enlightenment discourse.5 To visit Poland and Russia was, therefore, to experience the Britain of the twelfth or thirteenth century, complete with its powerful and affluent nobles and its poor, indentured slave labour force.6 Such ideas explicitly shaped the character of the discourse on these nations ensuring that it was dominated by reflections on the differences between slave and free labour and analysis of the political processes through which a state might move from the former system to the latter. Understanding these processes, it was assumed, necessitated a study of the mechanisms Western nations had employed to dismantle their own feudal institutions.

My discussion opens by outlining in general terms the ways that ideas about feudal and commercial societies were utilised in discussions of ‘Eastern’ Europe in the second half of the eighteenth century. I then move on to explore the three most detailed anglophone comparative accounts of Poland and Russia of the period. The first two texts are relatively obscure: Joseph Marshall’s Travels […] in the Years 1768, 1769 and 1770 (1772) and John Williams’ The Rise, Progress, and Present State of the Northern Governments (1777). The third – William Coxe’s Travels into Poland, Russia, Sweden and Denmark (1784) – was more successful, running to five editions. This work did much to shape debates on feudalism and slavery in Eastern Europe and, by means of a series of comparisons, in the Atlantic world. Underpinning its influence, however, was a fundamental irony. Coxe conceived of the development of commercial society along British lines as normative. Later accounts, however, employed his discussions of Eastern European slavery to problematise and critique key elements of Britain’s commercial empire.

For eighteenth-century British commentators, the key features of Polish and Russian society were products of the two countries’ separation from the main currents of modern European history. Historical thought of the period, as J. G. A. Pocock has argued, was rooted in the idea that development in Europe could be conceptualised as an ‘Enlightened narrative’. This narrative recounted the processes through which civil society had emerged out of the ‘barbarism and religion’ of the medieval period and it had two themes: (1) the emergence of a system of sovereign states in which ‘ruling authority was competent to maintain civil government; and (2) the emergence of ‘a shared civilization of manners and commerce […] through which the independent states could be thought to constitute a confederation or republic’.7 In accounts of these developments, the key distinction was that between feudal and commercial societies. Europe from the seventh to the eleventh centuries, it was generally agreed, had been dominated by feudal forms of property and power relations. Under this system, power had graduated towards a militarised class of nobles who were able to obtain supreme jurisdiction within their own fiefdoms. This group’s independence ensured monarchs were unable to execute the laws and the continent descended into anarchy and a seemingly endless succession of conflicts. The bulk of the populace, meanwhile, was reduced to a state of servitude and, particularly in the countryside, slavery. Given this state of affairs, feudal society’s core characteristics were: anarchy; gross inequality; and, as a result of the pernicious influence exerted on the spirit of industry by feudal institutions, the complete absence of commerce. A feudal society was, therefore, necessarily a poor one.

Discussions of feudalism’s demise are to be found in a range of British accounts from the period, foremost among them those by David Hume, William Robertson and Adam Smith.8 What unites these commentaries is their insistence on the key role commerce played in undermining the power of the feudal nobility. There is, however, some difference in emphasis between them. Hume’s Essays and Smith’s Wealth of Nations are particularly concerned with the effects of the introduction of new luxury goods from overseas. The extensive spending of the great proprietors on these ‘trinkets and baubles’ served to absorb their wealth and undermine their power, and to pass both to the emerging class of merchants who furnished such goods. The narrative works of history by Hume and Robertson, meanwhile, provided an explanation of the specific political reforms which had engendered these processes. Given its direct concern with European affairs, and the fact that Coxe explicitly references it, Robertson’s work is of particular significance here.9 For Robertson, the driving force of change was a series of innovations in the government of Europe’s towns and cities. The origins of this movement lay in Italy; the Italian city-states, newly enriched through the trade generated by the Crusades, had been able to shake off the ‘yoke of their insolent Lords’ and establish independent, municipal jurisdictions, governed by laws.10 These innovations gave the urban population civil liberty and political power, and inspired those living in agricultural districts, often in conditions of slavery, to seek their own enfranchisement. Key to this turn of events was the growing authority of monarchs. Support from the Crown had been of central importance, Robertson argued, in enabling the cities to gain and preserve their liberties in the face of opposition from ‘the domineering spirit of the nobles’.11 Such developments helped to forge an alliance between townsfolk and their Princes. The former willingly provided the latter with ‘such supplies of money as added new force to government’ thereby ensuring that monarchs once again become ‘the heads of the community’ with wide-ranging military and legal influence.12 These shifts in power were to prove highly beneficial: peace and order were restored; serfdom and slavery were abolished; and, perhaps most importantly, a ‘spirit of industry’ arose, which drove developments in commerce and manufacture.13 Consequently, the poverty and gross inequalities of feudalism entered into abeyance as new commercial forms of society, supported by both monarchs and their non-noble subjects, emerged.

Within Robertson’s model, the key mechanism for economic development was emulation. Seeing the benefits that Italy’s reforms had brought about, other states soon imitated them, first France and later Germany, Spain, England and Scotland.14 Poland and Russia played no part in Robertson’s narrative; this was an exclusively ‘Western’ story. Commentators who were interested in these states, however, worked on the core assumption that the regulations that had brought commercial improvements elsewhere had never managed to establish themselves fully in the lands to the east of Germany. As a result, Poland and Russia continued to be governed by feudal-style institutions that resembled those of twelfth- and thirteenth-century ‘Western’ polities. The continued prevalence of feudalism, it was agreed, constituted the key barrier to Polish and Russian development. Feudal landowners were prevented from engaging in economic affairs by the contempt in which they held everything other than marshal occupations. Moreover, the system of serfdom – or, as British commentators generally labelled it, ‘slavery’ – which dominated agriculture in both Poland and Russia undermined economic efficiency.15 In a commercial state, the prospect of self-advancement acted as a motivation to free labourers; serfs or slaves, however, could not benefit from their own endeavours and had little reason to work diligently and no capacity to invest in land or industry. Consequently, feudal polities like Poland and Russia lacked the key psychological drives which underpinned modern forms of agriculture, and the manufacture, trade and publicly beneficial forms of wealth creation they supported.

Slavery ensured that there were fundamental similarities between Russia and Poland, and notable distinctions between these countries and other European states. When accounting for the survival of feudalism and slavery, however, commentators turned to an analysis of the Polish and Russian systems of government, and here it was acknowledged there were significant differences. The core issue, given the pivotal role it had played in the demise of feudalism elsewhere, was the relationship between the nobility and the monarchy. And in their treatment of this matter, Marshall, Coxe and Williams drew on the general political typology developed by Montesquieu in The Spirit of the Laws (1748). States, Montesquieu had argued, could be divided into three categories: despotisms, monarchies and republics. The latter category was further subdivided into democracies and aristocracies.16 Earlier anglophone commentators had viewed Poland as having a mixed constitution – similar in form, but massively inferior to that of Britain.17 Enlightenment-era accounts, however, followed Montesquieu’s lead in conceiving of Poland’s government as an aristocracy in which, despite the presence of a ruling monarch, all meaningful political power rested with the nobility. This group did not govern collectively – as was the case with the superior form of aristocratic government practised in Venice – but held personal power over their serfs. Such a form of rule constituted, in the words of William Paley, ‘the most odious’ of ‘all species of domination’ as ‘the freedom and satisfaction of private life are more constrained and harassed by it, than by the most vexatious laws, or even by the lawless will of an arbitrary monarch’.18 The problems in Poland’s political system, meanwhile, had been further worsened by two political innovations, both of which received widespread attention in British accounts. First, from the end of the sixteenth century onwards, Poland was a fully elective monarchy. As such, on the demise of a Polish monarch any prince in Christendom could submit himself for an election in which every ‘noble gentleman’ had a vote. Second, the reign of Jan Kazimierz (1648–1668) saw the introduction of the liberum veto, the infamous mechanism whereby a session of the Polish diet could be broken up by an objection from any one of its deputies. Such innovations reduced the influence of the monarchy and gave the nobility new and pernicious forms of liberty and power. The situation in Russia was very different. A Russian monarch, as the diplomat George McCartney writing in 1768 observed, could:

without form or process of law, deprive any subject of life, liberty or estate; seize the public treasure however appropriated; raise or debase the value of the coin; make peace or war; augment or diminish her troops; frame new laws, or repeal old ones; and finally, nominate her successor to the throne […].19

Russia, therefore, conformed precisely to Montesquieu’s definition of a despotism; this was a state in which ‘one alone, without law and without rule, draws everything along by his will and his caprices’.20

These analyses of the socio-economic and political frameworks did much to shape the general tenor of writing about ‘Eastern’ Europe and ensured that writers focused on two issues. First, they were concerned with how poor ‘feudal’ countries had sought in the past, and might seek in the future, to transform themselves into rich and powerful commercial polities. Such discussions provided commentary on both the existing social order – specifically the role of slavery – and Poland and Russia’s contrasting political systems. The key task for writers was to establish the extent to which Polish and Russian political systems could mimic the kind of changes that had enabled ‘Western’ monarchs to drive development. Second, there was a need – or at least a perceived need – to provide comparative forms of analysis and explain the relevance of discussions of two distant lands to an anglophone audience. To this end authors looked at the similarities and differences between Polish and Russian, and British practices, and reflected on the ways that accounts of ‘Eastern’ states might constitute a useful form of knowledge. As will be demonstrated below, individual commentators came to very different conclusions on these issues.

Joseph Marshall’s Travels provides an account of the author’s trip around northern Europe in the late 1760s and early 1770s. The author’s obscurity and the lack of any documentary evidence beyond the Travels itself that Marshall was ever physically present in the places he describes, has resulted in both eighteenth-century reviewers and modern scholars expressing doubts about the account’s veracity.21 Regardless of such issues, the work constitutes a useful example of a comparative discussion which, in spite of its awareness of the core socio-economic similarities between Russia and Poland, is primarily concerned with their contrasting historical trajectories.

Marshall travelled across Poland – or at least claimed to do so – in the late 1760s as it was in the midst of civil war.22 The conflict, as he conceived of it, was a symptom of a wider and seemingly terminal process of national decline. At one level, the root issue was a confessional one: the antagonism which had sparked military action arose from the prevalence of a pernicious form of Catholic bigotry that sought the absolute destruction of the Protestant and Greek (Orthodox) minorities.23 Even more significant, however, was a series of explicitly political problems. Poland’s aristocratic system of government had helped to ensure that the country’s slave population was tyrannised by the masters and the country lacked any strong centralised power structure; as a result, the region remained in a perpetual state of anarchy.24 His conclusion was that: ‘Poland will never see times of tolerable order, till her kings have abundantly more power.’25 The consequences of the current state of affairs, meanwhile, were depopulation and a particularly melancholy variety of poverty: indeed, the narrative is dominated by descriptions of ‘mansions in ruins’; cottages ‘as mean as can be conceived’; deserted villages; and ‘fields entirely waste’.26

Russia, for Marshall, was also a poor country. While it had three times as many inhabitants as England, it failed to produce a greater public revenue; a comparison between the two states demonstrated, therefore, that it was ‘liberty, trade and manufactures’ which were the key drivers of public wealth not population.27 What distinguished Russia from Poland, however, was its government. As Tim Hochstrasser outlines in Chapter 1 in this volume, Catherine II, inspired in part by her engagement with Enlightened circles in France, had initiated a series of reforms which sought to alleviate Russian poverty. Marshall offered fulsome praise for both these measures, and those of Peter I, arguing that they had transformed the state for the better across a range of economic activities including commerce, manufacture and – most importantly given Russia’s extensive, rich and largely uncultivated territories – agriculture. Indeed, it was in relation to agriculture that Catherine was proving to be a particularly effective ruler: she had given the peasant populace new liberties; introduced a scheme in which noblemen were obliged to enfranchise one of their serf families every year; and successfully encouraged Polish peasants to settle in western Russia.28 In sharp contrast to Poland, therefore, Russia, through its despotic rulers, had something approaching the centralised form of government which had brought about reform in Western Europe. This ensured that it was a rising power.

Poland’s political problems meant that there were no realistic opportunities for recovery. Rather, it seemed likely to Marshall that the superior political and economic opportunities offered by Germany and Russia would lead to increased emigration from Polish territories. The challenge for Russia, meanwhile, was to continue the process of economic development on which it had embarked. To an extent, this simply required that the country work to abolish its feudal institutions and align itself more closely with the practices of the rest of Europe.29 For Marshall, however, such reforms constituted a very long-term goal. As things stood, Russia’s agricultural labourers were so ‘habituated to slavery that it would be a vain attempt to free them under all masters’.30 Instead, what was required was the further improvement of Crown lands and a scheme which ensured that noblemen received favour at court ‘in proportion to the cultivation of their estates’.31 Marshall’s contention here was that Russian landowners have the opportunity ‘by means of the slavery of their peasants, to work very great effects, if they pleased to undertake them’.32 His proposal, therefore, was to produce a distinctively Russian spur to industry; rather than relying on the self-interest of the labourers, the Tsars should appeal to the self-interest of the nobility. Russia’s journey out of poverty and slavery would, as a consequence, be different to that of the rest of Europe.

In his discussions of these issues, Marshall worked on the core assumption that a description of Europe’s northern nations, particularly one preoccupied with economic issues, could provide useful instruction for a British audience. However, the different historical trajectories of Poland and Russia meant that they offered contrasting lessons. Poland, for Marshall, functioned in the main as a warning, an example of how a defective political infrastructure created poverty and misery. The situation with Russia was more complicated. On occasions, Marshall explored the contrasts between Russia and Britain emphasising the differences between British liberty, civilisation and wealth, and Russian despotism, barbarism and poverty. He was also interested, however, in the resemblances between the two states as large multi-national empires, and the areas in which Russian practices were superior to British ones. This focus led him to draw on Russian inspiration for a series of proposals aimed at improving the management of Britain’s own imperial territories. An account, for example, of the substantial surplus which Russia had amassed through its trade in tar, beeswax and hemp with Britain, led him to develop a scheme for sourcing these products from Britain’s colonies. Similarly, a discussion of the merits of hemp growing in the Ukraine was used to justify an ambitious programme for an American hemp industry.33 Russia’s status as a feudal power did not, therefore, imply for Marshall that its practices could not be usefully imitated and emulated by Britain.

What is also worth noting here is Marshall’s awareness of the wider parallels that existed with regard to labour practices in British, Russian and Polish territories. To describe the working practices of enslaved peoples in these territories, Marshall found it necessary to develop a series of comparisons with Britain. Thus, while Russian ‘slaves’ in the remote wastelands and forests were said to live ‘tolerably’ well, those in more cultivated areas are described as appearing ‘very near on the same rank, as the blacks in our sugar colonies’.34 This comparison was then extended later in the Travels with the observation that, ‘the oppressed state of the Russian peasants is an absolute freedom’ when compared to that of the lower ranks in Poland, who experience a despotism such ‘as the planters in the West-Indies use over their African slaves’.35 Importantly, therefore, the imperial perspective Marshall took with regard to British affairs served to question the notion of an absolute contrast between Eastern and Western practices.

A very different analysis of the relationship between Poland and Russia was developed by John Williams. Although Williams appears to have travelled widely across Europe, his account was in no sense a work of travel literature. Rather, he drew on a range of published histories and archival sources to provide a complete a chronological history of the states of the north: the United Provinces, Denmark, Sweden, Russia and Poland. These narratives were supplemented by shorter thematic chapters which dealt with government, manners, laws and commerce, revenues and resources, and revolutions. Williams took a broadly universalist perspective. As was explained in the preface, his account was based on the assumptions that human nature was fundamentally the same across different locales and that all governments had been established upon common principles: the ‘original form of government’ was an ‘elective and limited monarchy’ founded ‘upon compact’.36 The history of the north, as he conceived of it, was essentially the narrative of the various political revolutions through which this compact had come to be corrupted. In tracing these processes, much of Williams’ approach was conventional. Russia, he argued, had quickly descended into a form of despotism, which had more in common with the practices of Turkey and Persia than those of Europe.37 It was only during the reign of Peter I that efforts had been made to draw ‘people out of that state of barbarity in which they had been involved for so many centuries’.38 Poland, in contrast, had been a normal European state until the Catholic clergy, supported by the nobility, had transformed it into a republican aristocracy dominated by a particularly ‘abject’ form of ‘slavery’.39 These differing historical trajectories – one of development and one of decline – ensured that there was a sharp contrast between Russian and Polish attitudes to commerce, particularly at the level of government. Peter’s reforms had sought to ‘enrich and civilize’ his subjects through encouraging foreign ‘men of genius, merchants and traders’ to settle in Russia. In Poland, however, ‘not only the laws […], but the customs and dispositions of the people are contrary to those of a commercial nation’.40 As a result, ‘Poland, which for several hundred years past has been regarded as a civilised nation, is now in a more uncultivated and more unimproved state than any part of the Russian dominions.’41

To an extent, such a state of affairs meant that Poland and Russia required different approaches to commercial statecraft from their governments. In Russia, commerce and the contact with the outside world were bringing wealth and with it the beginnings of refinement and civilisation. Poland’s aristocratic system and its economic backwardness, however, meant the limited commerce the Commonwealth did undertake was disadvantageous. The nobility’s desire for foreign luxury goods led them to ‘press’ their labourers to produce ever greater quantities of grain, the only product with which the Commonwealth was able to trade. Given such a situation, Williams could only endorse Montesquieu’s argument that it would be better if Poland stopped trading altogether.42 Despite this contrast, Polish and Russian social institutions remained, Williams maintained, in need of the same basic reforms. Peter’s mistake had been his failure to give the Russian serfs their freedom. Had he done so, ‘his dominions would at this time have been ten times as rich and flourishing as they actually are’.43 The fact he had not, however, ensured that Russia remained, like its immediate neighbour, in a state of chronic and unnatural underdevelopment. Concluding his discussion of Polish agriculture, Williams noted:

It is a general observation, that no kingdom can brought into a flourishing situation, in proportion to her powers, by agriculture, manufactures and commerce, while the bulk of her subjects are in a state of slavery. […] Upon the whole therefore I must make the same observation upon Poland respecting this matter, that I have already done upon Russia, which is that this kingdom will still continue in a state of poverty and ignorance of the fine arts and manufactures till the whole system of their government is changed, and till the bulk of the people are suffered to enjoy the natural rights of mankind, and to think and act like human beings.44

What we see in Williams’ account, therefore, is a double argument against slavery. His contention that limited government rooted in compact was the original and natural form of rule allowed him to present systems based on slavery as fundamentally ‘unnatural’. Running alongside these arguments, meanwhile, was an economic case against non-free labour. Labourers, he maintained, will always be ‘idle and careless’ if they cannot benefit directly in material terms from their endeavours.45 Without a free labour force agriculture, arts and manufacture would always fail regardless of the encouragement – or not – that was offered by government. As a consequence, with regard to economic development, the similarities between Poland and Russia were of more importance than the differences; until their socio-economic systems changed, they would, for Williams, inevitably be poor countries.

Williams’ universalism, his belief that human nature was fundamentally the same in all locales, gave him clear grounds for arguing that an account of ‘northern’ European history was of direct relevance to British politics. Indeed, his preface explicitly made the point that ‘speculating on foreign events’, particularly those concerning the dissolution of governments, could enable people to ‘provide the better and earlier against [similar dangers] which may happen at home’.46 When he came to discuss the actual ways that knowledge of other states might be useful, Williams, theoretically at least, maintained that a more developed society might learn from a less developed one.47 His core argument, however, was that ‘sensible and civilized people’ and ‘barbarians’ provided two distinctive types of knowledge: ‘by seeing the qualities of the one [the former] they will learn to imitate them, and by seeing the faults of the other, they will learn to avoid them’.48 In this sense a knowledge of Polish and Russian slavery, and the poverty that it produced, simply provided confirmation regarding the superiority of Britain’s commercial system over the feudalism and slavery of Russia and Poland.

These ideas, however, were complicated by the repeated allusions that Williams made to the employment of slavery in Britain’s imperial territories. In relation to Russia, for example, he noted that at the time of Peter’s accession to the throne in 1682 ‘there were at least ten millions of people in the Russian dominions who were in a state of slavery equal to that of the Negroes in the West Indies’.49 Little had improved in the intervening years. ‘Seven tenths of the population’ continued to be ‘bought and sold in the same manner as the negro slaves are in the West-Indies’.50 Life for Polish serfs was, if anything, even worse: ‘the situation of the negroes in many of our West-India plantations is superior to theirs’.51 Williams’ argument here, it should be emphasised, is a rather slippery one. At one level, he implies that, for religious and racial reasons, Polish and Russian slavery were more unnatural than that which was taking place on British territories. The crime in Northern Europe is that people who are ‘called Christians’ are being treated like ‘negro slaves’.52 Despite this, he was not particularly sympathetic to slavery. His core claim – a common one in abolitionist writing – was that slavery inevitably corrupts not just the enslaved person but also the slave owner. As he noted, ‘if the more civilized part of mankind were invested with such an absolute power over their fellow-creatures, from which there was no appeal, I am afraid, like many of our West-India planters and modern Nabob-Makers, they would not be much less tyrannical and oppressive’.53 This led him to conclude that ‘we must attribute the want of humanity and the social virtues in the principal part of the Polish nobility to the extreme viciousness of their government and to the infamous conduct of their clergy’.54 The similarities between the ‘tyrannical and oppressive’ behaviour of the Poles and slave-owners on British territories, however, implied, by the same logic, a fundamental failure on the part of the British Government. Also of significance here were Williams’ economic arguments against slavery. Indeed, when viewed alongside his comments on the connections between Britain and ‘Eastern’ European practices, they raise a significant question about Britain’s management of its imperial workforce. If, as is stated, non-free forms of labour had served to impoverish Poland and Russia, then what were the consequences of similar methods being applied to British territories? Williams’ work avoids any direct engagement with this issue but, as we shall see, later writers were to confront it head on.

The origins of a good deal of this engagement lie in the account developed by William Coxe in his Travels into Poland Russia, Sweden and Denmark. Coxe, an Anglican minister, travel writer and historian, based his discussion on the Grand Tour of northern Europe he completed as tutor and travelling companion to the young Earl of Pembroke in the late 1770s. Much of his commentary, like Marshall’s, took the form of a day-by-day narrative describing the specific people, buildings and landscapes he encountered on his journey. This diary-style commentary, however, was ‘interspersed with historical relations and political enquiries’ of the sort provided by Williams.55 The resulting work was a detailed, scholarly account, which sought to explore the complex relationship between the Polish and Russian social systems and their forms of government.

Central to Coxe’s analysis was his conception of Poland and Russia as feudal polities; as such, he maintained, they were organised around a different and fundamentally inferior system of social relations to other European states. Indeed, after having witnessed Russian and Polish ‘slavery’, Coxe described the satisfaction he felt in Sweden to find himself ‘among freemen in a kingdom where there is a more equal division of property; where there is no vassalage, where the lowest orders enjoy a security of their persons and property; and where the advantages resulting from this right are visible to the commonest observer’.56 The survival of feudal institutions was used to explain a number of phenomena observed in the Travels: rural poverty, particularly in Poland, and the gross inequalities that characterised Polish and Russian towns.57 While feudalism was the primary cause of poverty and underdevelopment in both Poland and Russia, the reason for its persistence in the two states, Coxe argued, was fundamentally different and emerged directly from their systems of government. Poland, Coxe argued with direct reference to the account developed by William Robertson, had begun the transformation in societal relations of the sort experienced elsewhere in Europe, but these processes had been retarded by the weakness of its monarchical institutions.58 It was these failures which led the state into decline and gave the country as a whole its ‘ruined grandeur’ and its sense of ‘melancholy decay’.59 Russia’s problems were, in a sense, the reverse of Poland’s. Russia had a highly centralised form of government, and this enabled its monarchs to pursue Enlightened programmes of reform with speed, rigour and success. As a result, Russia was, for Coxe, an advancing state in a way that Poland was not; indeed, Coxe predicted that the growing ‘spirit of humanity’ that had emerged in Russia would, in time, form the basis for the emergence of ‘a more equal freedom’ for the Tsar’s subjects. However, while the power of the Tsars had initiated the process of reform, it also served to preclude the slower and deeper forms of social transformation. To become a wealthy, commercial state, Coxe assumed, Russia required a significant shift in property and power relations of the sort that had occurred in other European states during the late medieval period. Until the people enjoyed a full security in their persons and property – something that was impossible in a despotic regime – such changes could not take place. For, Coxe asked, ‘what should encourage them to succeed in any art, when they do not themselves reap the benefits of their labour, but are taxed in proportion to their profits and industry?’ Ultimately, therefore, political factors had, to date, functioned as a limit on socio-economic development in Russia.

The key characteristic of Coxe’s account, therefore, is an awareness of the ways in which political and socio-economic causes interacted with one another in determining the wealth or poverty of a particular locale. In the main, as we have seen, such an approach served to emphasise the superiority of Russia over Poland; Coxe was appalled at Polish ideas regarding noble liberty and could not conceive of a successful polity which did not have a strong, hereditary monarch at its helm. There was one area, however, where Poland had achieved more success than its neighbour. While Coxe noted and praised measures introduced by Catherine allowing peasants on Crown lands to enrol themselves among the merchants and burghers, he was surprised to find that none of Russia’s other landowners had experimented with schemes for enfranchisement. Poland, in contrast, had seen significant developments in this area. The Travels’ key source of information here was the Polish reformer Józef Wybicki, a keen reader of the works of Montesquieu and David Hume, and a staunch opponent of non-free forms of labour. Coxe met Wybicki when in Poland and went on to quote at length from the Pole’s 1777–1778 work, Listy Patriotyczne (Patriotic Letters).60 In his account, Wybicki had provided some detailed commentary on a series of enfranchisement schemes, foremost among them that developed by Andrzej Zamoyski, a prominent Polish nobleman and Chancellor of Poland from 1764–1767. Through drawing on Wybicki’s discussion, Coxe was able to provide evidence that granting peasants their liberty had substantially reduced poverty. Villages which had been enfranchised had seen landowners’ revenues triple, the peasants’ financial dependence on landowners reduce, and labour motivation and birth rates, a key marker of the wealth of a particular locale for eighteenth-century commentators, increase rapidly (the latter by c. 80 per cent per year).61 In addition, Coxe emphasised that the reforms had produced genuine social benefits. Not only had drunkenness and the crime it helped to engender been reduced, but the bonds between nobility and peasants had been strengthened.62

Coxe himself did not attach huge importance to these reforms. The lack of any legal support for the process of enfranchisement at a national level, he argued, meant that it would be possible for them to be overturned by anyone who inherited a ‘free’ estate. More generally, Coxe did not see enfranchisement as a sign of a wider recovery in Poland’s political and economic fortunes; he expected – correctly, as events transpired – that Poland, in time, would be swallowed up by its larger and more powerful neighbours. Underpinning Coxe’s work, meanwhile, was a series of assumptions about poverty which were stated perhaps most clearly in his 1790 work A Letter to Richard Price. This account constituted a critical response to Price’s 1789 sermon, A Discourse on the Love of One’s Country, a defence of the French Revolution with an implicit call for constitutional reform in England.63 Coxe’s disagreement with Price was, in a sense, methodological. The ideas that underpinned Price’s Discourse were, Coxe contended, rooted in ‘speculation’ and ‘theory’ and led by a desire to prompt the British nation to ‘adopt foreign and unsettled motives, and to quit national and established principles’.64 In place of such experiments, Coxe argued for a more evidence-based approach.65 His own qualifications to comment on political affairs, it was emphasised, were a product of experience. He was, he reminded his readers, ‘a man who has twice travelled over the greatest part of Europe; who has examined with peculiar attention, not only the different governments, but the different shades in each government; who has been careful to distinguish the practice from the theory, and has made the condition of the lower class people the particular object of his attention’.66 Such a focus on the ‘lower classes’ was valuable because it demonstrated that the English constitution is ‘that in which the true principles of liberty are best understood and practised’; in no other country that he had visited, Coxe concluded, did ‘persons of all ranks and denominations possess such solid comforts, such real and substantial happiness’.67 Coxe’s experiences of poverty in countries like Poland and Russia, therefore, provided an empirical vindication for Britain’s own constitutional arrangements.

Other writers, however, were to see things differently. By far the most frequently quoted section of the Travels was its description of the reforms to the serf system instigated by Zamoyski and his countrymen. Engagement with this passage was driven by debates in the 1780s and 1790s concerning the Atlantic slave trade; indeed, it was the value of Coxe’s work to ongoing campaigns against slavery that led to it being deployed in a range of abolitionist pamphlets and newspaper polemics during these years.68 Its appeal was threefold. First, it provided an economic argument against slavery. The Times of 27 April 1789, for example, repeated Coxe’s claim that noblemen in Poland who had broken ‘the fetters of slavery’ had seen productivity among their labourers increase threefold and substantial growth in their incomes.69 Given the parallels between previous Polish labour practices and ‘our slavery in the west’, the author concluded that such achievements provided a demonstration that abolition was in the interests not just of enslaved peoples but also of those who owned them.70 Second, Coxe’s work was used to allay fears that the abolition of slavery would lead to a rise in licentiousness and disorder. Thus Woodfall’s Register in April 1790 repeated Coxe’s account of a Polish peasant who on being told of his liberation observed: ‘when we had no other property but the stick in our hands, we were destitute of all encouragements to a right conduct; but the fear of forfeiting what we shall henceforth possess, will be a constant restraint’.71 Such comments, the author concluded, showed ‘the moral effects of slavery, and of liberty rightly understood’.72 Finally, the Travels were used to show the benefits of slower types of reform over more sudden kinds of change. William Dickson’s work is instructive here. In his Letters on Slavery, after noting the that the abolition of the African trade would be an excellent preparation for the gradual annihilation of slavery itself ‘in our islands’, Dickson provided a lengthy footnote made up of quotations from Coxe.73 This summarised the experiments engaged in by Zamoyski and concluded with a reference, also derived from Coxe, to a prize-winning Russian dissertation which recommended that peasants be given a ‘gradual succession of privileges, and to follow the slow, but sure method of instruction and improvement’.74 Taken in sum, therefore, the value of the Zamoyski passage is clear: it provided a useful example of a transition between an inefficient slave-based economic system and an efficient ‘free’ one, which had increased productivity and wealth while maintaining order and a workable social hierarchy.

While these newspaper accounts draw on the same broad assumptions about slavery and free labour which underpinned accounts of the transition between feudal and commercial societies, they do not explicitly make the connection between slavery and feudalism. Other writers, however, engaged directly with this framework. The most notable example here is The Effects of Slavery on Morals and Industry, a 1793 work by the American lexicographer and abolitionist, Noah Webster. Webster’s approach to his subject was comparative: he used a range of examples from across the world and across history to show that slavery was a fundamentally inefficient mode of labour in the sense that it impoverished enslaved individuals, landowners and governments. Examples concerning Polish and Russian poverty, all of which were derived from Coxe, played a key role in demonstrating this thesis. At one level, these countries functioned as warnings. In the twelfth century, Webster asserted, both nations had been subject to ‘feudal system’ and, as such, English and Polish peasants ‘were nearly in the same situation’.75 However, whereas the English ‘churles’, in time, become ‘free tenants’ with legal rights, the Poles did not.76 This, Webster concluded referencing Robertson and Adam Smith, ‘is the principal circumstance which has rendered the agriculture of England flourishing, and the farmers more intelligent, wealthy and respectable than the miserable serfs in Poland’.77 Despite such claims, however, Webster was by no means uncritical of English practices and did not believe that states like America should seek to copy the gradual process of development which had let to the demise of feudalism. A better model was to be found in the approach taken to reform in Poland by Zamoyski and his contemporaries, which Webster summarised at length. The advantages of this approach lay in its practicality. The ultimate challenge for any abolitionist, as Webster conceived of things, was to find an approach to reform which meliorated ‘the condition of the blacks’, who remained ‘very nearly in the situation of the villains in England under the first princes of the Norman line’, without essentially injuring the enslaved person, the master and the public.78 Zamoyski’s model had achieved that aim by enriching workers and landowners and Webster concluded his discussion with a passionate plea: what America needed was its own Zamoyski who would be willing to hazard a Polish-style experiment in the Southern states. As such, Polish practices constituted a worthy object for emulation.


For British commentators of the latter part of the eighteenth century, Polish and Russian poverty were products of these states’ feudal institutions. To an extent, such a contention enabled commentators to show the similarities between Poland and Russia and their absolute difference from, and inferiority to, the countries to the West. Two caveats, however, need to be added to such a claim. First, the key role ascribed to monarchs in the transition of ‘Western’ nations from the feudal societies to commercial ones meant that discussion of feudalism always contained reflections on issues relating to government. Consequently, an awareness of the sharp differences between aristocratic Poland and despotic Russia acted as a limiting factor on the development of an idea of Eastern Europe. Or, to put it another way, just as notions of feudal poverty acted as a centripetal force linking Poland and Russia together, so political analysis provided a centrifugal counter force. Writers ascribed contrasting levels of importance to these forces, and this was one of the primary differences between their analyses. Second, and even more importantly, the ideas of feudalism which underpinned discussions of poverty prevented Poland and Russia from ever being viewed as absolute ‘opposites’ or ‘others’ within British discourse. Underpinning the narrative developed by Robertson and his contemporaries was the notion that individual nations did not have their own entirely unique characters and histories. Rather there were structural affinities between the ways development had been, and continued, to be experienced by European nations; one feudal society had core similarities with another, whatever the differences in time and space that separated them. This idea was key to the way in which discussions of Russia and Poland functioned. At one level, analysis focused on the contrast, in the present, between ‘Eastern’ feudalism and ‘Western’ commerce. However, the premise of such discussions was not that Polish and Russian practices and institutions were irredeemably alien, but rather that they resembled those of medieval Britain. And even if Britain’s transformation from a feudal to a commercial nation could not and should not be copied exactly, its pattern of development provided certain guidelines for other states, particularly regarding the value of slower and deeper forms of change over quicker and more superficial ones. Such a conceptualisation was, of course, based on a fundamentally normative idea of progress in which British institutions were conceived of as an ideal solution to the problems faced by less-developed, poorer nations. What is equally noteworthy, however, are the ways in which writers used discussion of feudalism and feudal poverty to identify a series of affinities between ‘Western’ and ‘Eastern’ nations. Particularly when the imperial economy was taken into consideration, British writers found parallels – and sometimes troubling ones – between feudal Russia and Poland, and the slavery utilised in British territories. Moreover, a focus on the kinds of reforms which had been undertaken on Polish and Russian territories allowed these nations to be conceived, on occasions, as worthy objects of emulation in their own right. Again, it was the idea of a shared feudalism which made such examples relevant to the anglophone world. By paying attention to the historical ideas which underpin accounts of Poland and Russia, this chapter provides, therefore, a new perspective on Enlightenment poverty. Such a focus reveals the centrality of a sophisticated comparative framework rooted in ideas of feudalism, which could be used both to defend current practices and to express anxieties regarding them.


1 On historical writing, see Karen O’Brien, Narratives of Enlightenment (Cambridge: Cambridge: University Press, 1997); J. G. A. Pocock, Barbarism and Religion, 6 vols (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999–2015), esp. vol. ii.
2 On conjectural history, see Mark Salber Phillips, Society and Sentiment (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2000); and Frank Palmeri, State of Nature, Stages of Society (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 2016). On narrative history, see Phillip Hicks, Neoclassical History and English Culture (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1996).
3 David L. Blaney and Naeem Inayatullah, Savage Economics (Abingdon: Routledge, 2010), pp. 8–10.
4 See, for example: Norman Davies, ‘The Languor of So Remote an Interest’: British Attitudes to Poland, 1772–1832’, Oxford Slavonic Papers, XVI (1983), 79–90 at 81–82; Stanisław Kot, Rzeczpospolita Polska w literaturze politycznej Zachodu (Kraków: Nakładem Krakowskiej spółki wydawniczej, 1919), pp. 176–240. In relation to Russia, see the work of Anthony Cross, especially Russia Under Western Eyes, 15171825 (London: Elek Books, 1971), pp. 39–43; and ibid., In the Lands of the Romanovs: An Annotated Bibliography of First-hand English-language Accounts of the Russian Empire, 16131917 (Cambridge: Open Book Publishers, 2014). See also Larry Wolff, Inventing Eastern Europe (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1994).
5 For Scottish discussions, see Alison Webster, ‘The Contribution of the Scottish Enlightenment to the Abandonment of the Institution of Slavery’, The European Legacy, 8:4 (2003), 481–489. For the French debate, see Andrew S. Curran, The Anatomy of Blackness (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011).
6 The conception of ‘poverty’ referred to here was fundamentally different to that discussed by Istvan Hont in his hugely influential account of the ‘rich country/poor country debate’. Key to the work of the authors Hont dealt with – David Hume, Adam Smith and Dugald Stewart among them – was the extent to which the abundant cheap labour and, consequently, low prices of a poor nation might enable it to ‘catch-up’ with more affluent polities. Poland and Russia were conceived, however, as being in a kind of second division of European polities; their feudal infrastructures, particularly their reliance on slavery, ensured they could never, without a complete social and political transformation, compete commercially with richer states. See Istvan Hont, Jealousy of Trade (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2005).
7 Pocock, Barbarism and Religion, vol. ii, pp. 20–21.
8 Specifically David Hume, ‘Of Commerce’, ‘Of Refinement in the Arts’, Essays, Moral, Political, Literary, ed. Eugene F. Miller (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 1987), pp. 253–280; David Hume, History of England, 6 vols (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 1983); Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, eds R. H. Campbell, A. S. Skinner, and W. B. Todd, 2 vols (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 1982), pp. 411–427; William Robertson, The Progress of Society in Europe, ed. Felix Gilbert (Chicago, IL and London: University of Chicago Press, 1972), which is the opening section of The History of the Reign of the Emperor Charles V, 3 vols (London, 1769).
9 Coxe, Travels, vol. i, p. 126, n.
10 Robertson, Progress, p. 29.
11 Ibid., p. 32.
12 Ibid., p. 32, p. 52.
13 Ibid., p. 32.
14 Ibid., p. 31.
15 For discussions of reform to serfdom during this period in a range of Enlightened absolutist states, see Tim Hochstrasser’s Chapter 1 in this volume.
16 Montesquieu, Spirit of the Laws, trans. and ed. Anne M. Cohler, Basia C. Miller and Harold S. Stone (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), p. 10.
17 See: Anna Plassart, ‘Burke, Poland and the Commonwealth of Europe’, Historical Journal, 63:4 (2020), 885–910 at 889.
18 William Paley, The Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy, third edition (London, 1786), p. 456. Paley was drawing upon the ideas of David Hume; for example, Hume, Essays, p. 17.
19 George Macartney, An Account of Russia (London, 1768), p. 91.
20 Montesquieu, Spirit of the Laws, p. 91.
21 See: Monthly Review, 55 (1777), 430–431; Wolff, Inventing, pp. 81–83; Maciej Laskowski, ‘Joseph Marshall: A Traveller of “Perfect Obscurity” in Stanislavian Poland and other parts of Europe’, Polish Anglo-Saxon Studies, 20 (2017), 5–21. Laskowski looks at claims from Danish scholars that Marshall was in fact John (or Joseph or George) Hill, a miscellaneous writer.
22 The conflict was between supporters of the monarch, Stanisław August Poniatowski and the Confederation of the Bar, an association of the nobility who were critical of Russia’s influence on the King and opposed to his reformist agenda. See: Jerzy Lukowski, Liberty’s Folly (London: Routledge, 1991), pp. 197–204.
23 Joseph Marshall, Travels through Holland, Flanders, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Lapland, Russia, the Ukraine, and Poland. In the years 1768, 1769, and 1770, 3 vols (London, [1772]), vol. iii, p. 263.
24 Ibid., vol. iii, p. 188.
25 Ibid., vol. iii, p. 262 (the page is mislabelled p. 230).
26 Ibid., vol. iii, pp. 238–239.
27 Ibid., vol. iii, p. 125.
28 Ibid., vol. iii, p. 126, pp. 153–159.
29 Ibid., vol. iii, p. 146.
30 Ibid., vol. iii, p. 157.
31 Ibid., vol. iii, p. 156.
32 Ibid.
33 This was a fashionable proposition. See, for example, the similar scheme developed by Arthur Young in Political Essays Concerning the Present State of the British Empire (1772), p. 404. Young’s work was published on 4 February (see Daily Advertiser, 22 January), Marshall’s work was announced on 4 April of the same year (see Gazetteer and Newly Daily Advertiser, 4 April).
34 Marshall, Travels, vol. iii, p. 166.
35 Ibid., vol. iii, pp. 243–244.
36 John Williams, The Rise, Progress, and Present State of the Northern Governments, 2 vols (London, 1777), vol. i, pp. v–vi.
37 Ibid., vol. ii, p. 78, p. 110, p. 113.
38 Ibid., vol. ii, p. 103.
39 Ibid., vol. ii, p. 656.
40 Ibid., vol. ii, p. 645.
41 Ibid., vol. ii, pp. 645–646.
42 Ibid., vol. ii, p. 647.
43 Ibid., vol. ii, p. 206.
44 Ibid., vol. ii, pp. 650–651.
45 Ibid., vol. ii, p. 649.
46 Ibid., vol. i, p. v.
47 Ibid., vol. ii, p. 316.
48 Ibid.
49 Ibid., vol. ii, p. 205.
50 Ibid., vol. ii, pp. 316–317.
51 Ibid., vol. ii, p. 642.
52 Ibid., vol. ii, p. 205.
53 Ibid., vol. ii, p. 640.
54 Ibid.
55 William Coxe, Travels into Poland, Russia, Sweden and Denmark, 2 vols (London 1784), title page.
56 Ibid., vol. ii, p. 502.
57 Ibid., vol. ii, p. 137, vol. ii, p. 93.
58 Ibid., vol. i, p. 126, n.
59 Ibid., vol. i, p. 142.
60 See: Józef Wybicki, Listy Patriotyczne, ed. Kazmierz Opałek (Wrocław: Zakład Imienia Ossolińskich, 1955). Coxe’s examples are principally taken from letter 8, pp. 174–175.
61 Coxe, Travels, vol. i, pp. 132–134.
62 Ibid., vol. i, p. 134.
63 William Coxe, A Letter to the Rev. Richard Price (1790).
64 Ibid., p. 4.
65 Coxe’s claims, it should be emphasised, were polemical in nature. Price himself took an explicitly evidence-based approach in much of his work, most notably Observations on Reversionary Payments (1771).
66 Coxe, Letter, pp. 44–45.
67 Ibid., p. 45.
68 See, for example: The Times, 27 April 1789, 12 May 1789; Woodfall’s Register, 23 June 1789, 18 July 1789, 16 April 1790; Morning Post, 17 June 1791. See also William Dickson, Letters on Slavery (London, 1789), pp. 89–90; Noah Webster, Effects of Slavery on Morals and Industry (Hartford, CT, 1793). Coxe’s claims about the Zamoyski reforms were later challenged by George Burnett in his View of the Present State of Poland (London, 1807), pp. 106–109. The Coxe/Burnett debate was taken up in a series of later American discussions about slavery. See, for example: Thomas R. Dew, Review of the Debate in the Virginia Legislature (Richmond VA, 1832); The Anti-Slavery Monthly Reporter, 12 August 1840.
69 The Times, 27 April 1789.
70 Ibid.
71 Woodfall’s Register, 16 April 1790.
72 Ibid.
73 William Dickson, Letters on Slavery (London, 1789), p. 89.
74 Ibid., p. 90.
75 Webster, Effects of Slavery, p. 22.
76 Ibid.
77 Ibid.
78 Ibid., p. 37.
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