The Wealth of Nations

Book 3, Chapter 3

the Rise and Progress of Cities and Towns, After the Fall of the Roman Empire

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Chapter 3 Summary


After the fall of the Roman Empire, landowners lived in fortified castles on their own estates; towns were chiefly inhabited by tradesmen and mechanics, in more or less the same servile conditions as the peasants.


But despite these conditions, the inhabitants of towns had more freedom than their country-dwelling counterparts. The kings of a particular country derived revenue from poll taxes charged for land rented out as farmland (sub-contracted) for a fee; the townspeople, or burghers, frequently got to farm the revenues which arose out of their own town. At first, the farmland was rented out to the burghers for a specific number of years; over time, however, it became standard practice to rent it to them in perpetuity. This was the origin of a free burgh, free burghers or free traders, when the burghers established corporations, with their own laws, town councils and government, and built walls for their security, which they defended against attack.


In those days, no sovereign was able to protect his weaker subjects from the oppression of the great lords. The lords despised the burghers due to their wealth, and plunders were frequent. The burghers hated and feared the lords, as did the king. This resulted in the burghers and king mutually supporting each other against the lords. It was in the king's interest to ensure the burghers were as secure and independent of the lords as possible. He therefore granted the burghers their own magistrates, and the privilege of making bylaws for their own government, as well as the right to build walls for their defense. He also introduced a form of military discipline for them. As such, he gave them all the means of security and independence it was in his power to bestow.


In Britain, the cities became so strong that the sovereign could not impose a tax on them (besides the abovementioned farm rent) without their consent. They were often asked to send deputies to the kingdom’s general assembly, where they sometimes joined with clergy and barons to grant extraordinary aid to the king. Being more favorable to his power, these deputies seem to have been employed by the king as a counterbalance at these assemblies, against the authority of the great lords.


As a result, order and good government was established in the cities, together with liberty and security for the inhabitants—while in the country, people were exposed to violence and chaos.


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