- Commercial Capitalism, Classical Republicanism, and the Man of Sensibility in The History of Sir George Ellison
George Ellison, the protagonist of Sarah Scott’s The History of Sir George Ellison (1766), is a colonial merchant and, through marriage, the owner of a plantation in Jamaica. He is appalled by the living conditions of his slaves and ameliorates their situation. As a merchant and a plantation owner, he makes a fortune that eventually allows him to return to England. There, too, he vigorously promotes reform, so that the second half of the novel includes, as the reviewer for the Critical Review remarked, “innumerable instances of our hero’s charity, hospitality, and beneficence.” 1 Needless to say, virtually all of his projects, both in Jamaica and in England, are successful and bring upon Ellison the lavish thanks of the beneficiaries.
Not surprisingly, then, critics usually read Ellison as a man of sensibility and The History of Sir George Ellison as a sentimental novel. This approach to the novel and its hero has yielded powerful readings of the text. 2 I want to suggest here that the man of sensibility is only one of three ideologies of identity operating in Scott’s novel. The other two are civic man, the ideal of classical republicanism, and political economy’s homo economicus, the selfish individual pursuing his economic self-interest. This essay reads Scott’s novel as an unsuccessful attempt to contain commercial capitalism within classical republicanism, to reconcile, in other words, homo economicus with civic man by equipping the former with the character and personality of the latter. 3 For the purposes of this essay, the differences between civic man and economic man can be reduced to their different views of the relationship between a man and his property. Civic [End Page 557] man regards property as the prerequisite for a man’s participation in political life, but property determines neither his relations with other men nor his character. 4 In contrast, economic man is first and foremost a proprietor of things, and, as such, he interacts with other men within an economic system that regulates the exchange of things.
Reconciling civic man with homo economicus is not a simple task. According to J. G. A. Pocock, in the eighteenth century “[t]he dominant paradigm for the individual inhabiting the world of value was that of civic man; but the dominant paradigm for the individual as engaged in historic actuality was that of economic and intersubjective man, and it was peculiarly hard to bring the two together.” 5 At the level of character, Scott’s novel appears to succeed in reconciling in Sir George Ellison the civic individual with the colonial merchant. The novel suggests that Ellison can both remain entirely separate from the world of homo economicus, entirely unaffected by commercial capitalism, and, at the same time, become a successful merchant. Economic man, essentially private and focused on advancing his own primarily economic interests, and civic man, essentially public and intent on advancing the public good, are fused in this novel by the man of sensibility, who sentimentalizes the former and privatizes the latter. Yet, as this essay will demonstrate, at the level of plot, the worlds of civic humanism and of commercial capitalism remain separated by a gap the man of sensibility cannot ultimately bridge; indeed, as we will see, economic man not only triumphs over civic man, but that triumph is facilitated, paradoxically, by civic man and the man of sensibility.
In the course of the novel, Ellison is both the individual inhabiting the world of value and the individual engaged in historic actuality, both civic man and colonial merchant. The opening chapter of the novel introduces Ellison as the eldest son of a “younger son of an ancient and opulent family” (p. 5). Ellison’s family, thus, has a landed background. However, although he inhabits the world of value, he is not a landed gentleman. 6 In entrusting George Ellison with 2,500 pounds, two-thirds of his fortune, George’s father hopes that his eldest son, who is “perfectly sober, humane, and generous, and at the same time an exceeding good economist,” will succeed in...