A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court
by Mark Twain
Chapter 33 - Sixth Century Political Economy
HOWEVER, I made a dead set at him, and before the first third of the
dinner was reached, I had him happy again. It was easy to do -- in a country of ranks and
castes. You see, in a country where they have ranks and castes, a man isn't ever a man, he
is only part of a man, he can't ever get his full growth. You prove your superiority over
him in station, or rank, or fortune, and that's the end of it -- he knuckles down. You
can't insult him after that. No, I don't mean quite that; of course you CAN insult him, I
only mean it's difficult; and so, unless you've got a lot of useless time on your hands it
doesn't pay to try. I had the smith's reverence now, because I was apparently immensely
prosperous and rich; I could have had his adoration if I had had some little gimcrack
title of nobility. And not only his, but any commoner's in the land, though he were the
mightiest production of all the ages, in intellect, worth, and character, and I bankrupt
in all three. This was to remain so, as long as England should exist in the earth. With
the spirit of prophecy upon me, I could look into the future and see her erect statues and
monuments to her unspeakable Georges and other royal and noble clothes-horses, and leave
unhonored the creators of this world -- after God -- Gutenburg, Watt, Arkwright, Whitney,
Morse, Stephenson, Bell.
The king got his cargo aboard, and then, the talk not turning
upon battle, conquest, or iron-clad duel, he dulled down to drowsiness and went off to
take a nap. Mrs. Marco cleared the table, placed the beer keg handy, and went away to eat
her dinner of leavings in humble privacy, and the rest of us soon drifted into matters
near and dear to the hearts of our sort -- business and wages, of course. At a first
glance, things appeared to be exceeding prosperous in this little tributary kingdom --
whose lord was King Bagdemagus -- as compared with the state of things in my own region.
They had the "protection" system in full force here, whereas we were working
along down toward free-trade, by easy stages, and were now about half way. Before long,
Dowley and I were doing all the talking, the others hungrily listening. Dowley warmed to
his work, snuffed an advantage in the air, and began to put questions which he considered
pretty awkward ones for me, and they did have something of that look:
"In your country, brother, what is the wage of a master bailiff, master hind,
carter, shepherd, swineherd?"
"Twenty-five milrays a day; that is to say, a quarter of a cent.
The smith's face beamed with joy. He said:
"With us they are allowed the double of it! And what may a mechanic get --
carpenter, dauber, mason, painter, blacksmith, wheelwright, and the like?"
"On the average, fifty milrays; half a cent a day."
"Ho-ho! With us they are allowed a hundred! With us any good mechanic is allowed a
cent a day! I count out the tailor, but not the others -- they are all allowed a cent a
day, and in driving times they get more -- yes, up to a hundred and ten and even fifteen
milrays a day. I've paid a hundred and fifteen myself, within the week. 'Rah for
protection -- to Sheol with free-trade!"
And his face shone upon the company like a sunburst. But I didn't scare at all. I
rigged up my pile-driver, and allowed myself fifteen minutes to drive him into the earth
-- drive him ALL in -- drive him in till not even the curve of his skull should show above
ground. Here is the way I started in on him. I asked:
"What do you pay a pound for salt?"
"A hundred milrays."
"We pay forty. What do you pay for beef and mutton -- when you buy it?" That
was a neat hit; it made the color come.
"It varieth somewhat, but not much; one may say 75 milrays the pound."
"WE pay 33. What do you pay for eggs?"
"Fifty milrays the dozen."
"We pay 20. What do you pay for beer?"
"It costeth us 8 1/2 milrays the pint."
"We get it for 4; 25 bottles for a cent. What do you pay for wheat?"
"At the rate of 900 milrays the bushel."
"We pay 400. What do you pay for a man's towlinen suit?"
"We pay 6. What do you pay for a stuff gown for the wife of the laborer or the
"We pay 8.4.0."
"Well, observe the difference: you pay eight cents and four mills, we pay only
four cents." I prepared now to sock it to him. l said: "Look here, dear friend,
WHAT'S BECOME OF YOUR HIGH WAGES YOU WERE BRAGGING SO ABOUT A FEW MINUTES AGO?" --
and I looked around on the company with placid satisfaction, for I had slipped up on him
gradually and tied him hand and foot, you see, without his ever noticing that he was being
tied at all. "What's become of those noble high wages of yours? -- I seem to have
knocked the stuffing all out of them, it appears to me."
But if you will believe me, he merely looked surprised, that is all! he didn't grasp
the situation at all, didn't know he had walked into a trap, didn't discover that he was
IN a trap. I could have shot him, from sheer vexation. With cloudy eye and a struggling
intellect he fetched this out:
"Marry, I seem not to understand. It is PROVED that our wages be double thine; how
then may it be that thou'st knocked therefrom the stuffing? -- an miscall not the wonderly
word, this being the first time under grace and providence of God it hath been granted me
to hear it."
Well, I was stunned; partly with this unlooked-for stupidity on his part, and partly
because his fellows so manifestly sided with him and were of his mind -- if you might call
it mind. My position was simple enough, plain enough; how could it ever be simplified
more? However, I must try:
"Why, look here, brother Dowley, don't you see? Your wages are merely higher than
ours in NAME, not in FACT."
"Hear him! They are the DOUBLE -- ye have confessed it yourself."
"Yes-yes, I don't deny that at all. But that's got nothing to do with it; the
AMOUNT of the wages in mere coins, with meaningless names attached to them to know them
by, has got nothing to do with it. The thing is, how much can you BUY with your wages? --
that's the idea. While it is true that with you a good mechanic is allowed about three
dollars and a half a year, and with us only about a dollar and seventy-five --"
"There -- ye're confessing it again, ye're confessing it again!"
"Confound it, I've never denied it, I tell you! What I say is this. With us HALF a
dollar buys more than a DOLLAR buys with you -- and THEREFORE it stands to reason and the
commonest kind of common-sense, that our wages are HIGHER than yours."
He looked dazed, and said, despairingly:
"Verily, I cannot make it out. Ye've just said ours are the higher, and with the
same breath ye take it back."
"Oh, great Scott, isn't it possible to get such a simple thing through your head?
Now look here -- let me illustrate. We pay four cents for a woman's stuff gown, you pay
8.4.0, which is four mills more than DOUBLE. What do you allow a laboring woman who works
on a farm?"
"Two mills a day."
"Very good; we allow but half as much; we pay her only a tenth of a cent a day;
"Again ye're conf --"
"Wait! Now, you see, the thing is very simple; this time you'll understand it. For
instance, it takes your woman 42 days to earn her gown, at 2 mills a day -- 7 weeks' work;
but ours earns hers in forty days -- two days SHORT of 7 weeks. Your woman has a gown, and
her whole seven weeks wages are gone; ours has a gown, and two days' wages left, to buy
something else with. There -- NOW you understand it!"
He looked -- well, he merely looked dubious, it's the most I can say; so did the
others. I waited -- to let the thing work. Dowley spoke at last -- and betrayed the fact
that he actually hadn't gotten away from his rooted and grounded superstitions yet. He
said, with a trifle of hesitancy:
"But -- but -- ye cannot fail to grant that two mills a day is better than
Shucks! Well, of course, I hated to give it up. So I chanced another flyer:
"Let us suppose a case. Suppose one of your journeymen goes out and buys the
"1 pound of salt; 1 dozen eggs; 1 dozen pints of beer; 1 bushel of wheat; 1
tow-linen suit; 5 pounds of beef; 5 pounds of mutton.
"The lot will cost him 32 cents. It takes him 32 working days to earn the money --
5 weeks and 2 days. Let him come to us and work 32 days at HALF the wages; he can buy all
those things for a shade under 14 1/2 cents; they will cost him a shade under 29 days'
work, and he will have about half a week's wages over. Carry it through the year; he would
save nearly a week's wages every two months, YOUR man nothing; thus saving five or six
weeks' wages in a year, your man not a cent. NOW I reckon you understand that 'high wages'
and 'low wages' are phrases that don't mean anything in the world until you find out which
of them will BUY the most!"
It was a crusher.
But, alas! it didn't crush. No, I had to give it up. What those people valued was HIGH
WAGES; it didn't seem to be a matter of any consequence to them whether the high wages
would buy anything or not. They stood for "protection," and swore by it, which
was reasonable enough, because interested parties had gulled them into the notion that it
was protection which had created their high wages. I proved to them that in a quarter of a
century their wages had advanced but 30 per cent., while the cost of living had gone up
100; and that with us, in a shorter time, wages had advanced 40 per cent. while the cost
of living had gone steadily down. But it didn't do any good. Nothing could unseat their
Well, I was smarting under a sense of defeat. Undeserved defeat, but what of that? That
didn't soften the smart any. And to think of the circumstances! the first statesman of the
age, the capablest man, the best-informed man in the entire world, the loftiest uncrowned
head that had moved through the clouds of any political firmament for centuries, sitting
here apparently defeated in argument by an ignorant country blacksmith! And I could see
that those others were sorry for me -- which made me blush till I could smell my whiskers
scorching. Put yourself in my place; feel as mean as I did, as ashamed as I felt --
wouldn't YOU have struck below the belt to get even? Yes, you would; it is simply human
nature. Well, that is what I did. I am not trying to justify it; I'm only saying that I
was mad, and ANYBODY would have done it.
Well, when I make up my mind to hit a man, I don't plan out a love-tap; no, that isn't
my way; as long as I'm going to hit him at all, I'm going to hit him a lifter. And I don't
jump at him all of a sudden, and risk making a blundering half-way business of it; no, I
get away off yonder to one side, and work up on him gradually, so that he never suspects
that I'm going to hit him at all; and by and by, all in a flash, he's flat on his back,
and he can't tell for the life of him how it all happened. That is the way I went for
brother Dowley. I started to talking lazy and comfortable, as if I was just talking to
pass the time; and the oldest man in the world couldn't have taken the bearings of my
starting place and guessed where I was going to fetch up:
"Boys, there's a good many curious things about law, and custom, and usage, and
all that sort of thing, when you come to look at it; yes, and about the drift and progress
of human opinion and movement, too. There are written laws -- they perish; but there are
also unwritten laws -- THEY are eternal. Take the unwritten law of wages: it says they've
got to advance, little by little, straight through the centuries. And notice how it works.
We know what wages are now, here and there and yonder; we strike an average, and say
that's the wages of to-day. We know what the wages were a hundred years ago, and what they
were two hundred years ago; that's as far back as we can get, but it suffices to give us
the law of progress, the measure and rate of the periodical augmentation; and so, without
a document to help us, we can come pretty close to determining what the wages were three
and four and five hundred years ago. Good, so far. Do we stop there? No. We stop looking
backward; we face around and apply the law to the future. My friends, I can tell you what
people's wages are going to be at any date in the future you want to know, for hundreds
and hundreds of years."
"What, goodman, what!"
"Yes. In seven hundred years wages will have risen to six times what they are now,
here in your region, and farm hands will be allowed 3 cents a day, and mechanics 6."
"I would't I might die now and live then!" interrupted Smug, the wheelwright,
with a fine avaricious glow in his eye.
"And that isn't all; they'll get their board besides -- such as it is: it won't
bloat them. Two hundred and fifty years later -- pay attention now -- a mechanic's wages
will be -- mind you, this is law, not guesswork; a mechanic's wages will then be TWENTY
cents a day!"
There was a general gasp of awed astonishment, Dickon the mason murmured, with raised
eyes and hands:
"More than three weeks' pay for one day's work!"
"Riches! -- of a truth, yes, riches!" muttered Marco, his breath coming quick
and short, with excitement.
"Wages will keep on rising, little by little, little by little, as steadily as a
tree grows, and at the end of three hundred and forty years more there'll be at least ONE
country where the mechanic's average wage will be TWO HUNDRED cents a day!"
It knocked them absolutely dumb! Not a man of them could get his breath for upwards of
two minutes. Then the coal-burner said prayerfully:
"Might I but live to see it!"
"It is the income of an earl!" said Smug.
"An earl, say ye?" said Dowley; "ye could say more than that and speak
no lie; there's no earl in the realm of Bagdemagus that hath an income like to that.
Income of an earl -- mf! it's the income of an angel!"
"Now, then, that is what is going to happen as regards wages. In that remote day,
that man will earn, with ONE week's work, that bill of goods which it takes you upwards of
FIFTY weeks to earn now. Some other pretty surprising things are going to happen, too.
Brother Dowley, who is it that determines, every spring, what the particular wage of each
kind of mechanic, laborer, and servant shall be for that year?"
"Sometimes the courts, sometimes the town council; but most of all, the
magistrate. Ye may say, in general terms, it is the magistrate that fixes the wages."
"Doesn't ask any of those poor devils to HELP him fix their wages for them, does
"Hm! That WERE an idea! The master that's to pay him the money is the one that's
rightly concerned in that matter, ye will notice "
"Yes -- but I thought the other man might have some little trifle at stake in it,
too; and even his wife and children, poor creatures. The masters are these: nobles, rich
men, the prosperous generally. These few, who do no work, determine what pay the vast hive
shall have who DO work. You see? They're a 'combine' -- a trade union, to coin a new
phrase -- who band themselves together to force their lowly brother to take what they
choose to give. Thirteen hundred years hence -- so says the unwritten law -- the 'combine'
will be the other way, and then how these fine people's posterity will fume and fret and
grit their teeth over the insolent tyranny of trade unions! Yes, indeed! the magistrate
will tranquilly arrange the wages from now clear away down into the nineteenth century;
and then all of a sudden the wage-earner will consider that a couple of thousand years or
so is enough of this one-sided sort of thing; and he will rise up and take a hand in
fixing his wages himself. Ah, he will have a long and bitter account of wrong and
humiliation to settle."
"Do ye believe -- "
"That he actually will help to fix his own wages? Yes, indeed. And he will be
strong and able, then."
"Brave times, brave times, of a truth!" sneered the prosperous smith.
"Oh, -- and there's another detail. In that day, a master may hire a man for only
just one day, or one week, or one month at a time, if he wants to."
"It's true. Moreover, a magistrate won't be able to force a man to work for a
master a whole year on a stretch whether the man wants to or not."
"Will there be NO law or sense in that day?"
"Both of them, Dowley. In that day a man will be his own property, not the
property of magistrate and master. And he can leave town whenever he wants to, if the
wages don't suit him! -- and they can't put him in the pillory for it."
"Perdition catch such an age!" shouted Dowley, in strong indignation.
"An age of dogs, an age barren of reverence for superiors and respect for authority!
The pillory --"
"Oh, wait, brother; say no good word for that institution. I think the pillory
ought to be abolished."
"A most strange idea. Why?"
"Well, I'll tell you why. Is a man ever put in the pillory for a capital
"Is it right to condemn a man to a slight punishment for a small offense and then
There was no answer. I had scored my first point! For the first time, the smith wasn't
up and ready. The company noticed it. Good effect.
"You don't answer, brother. You were about to glorify the pillory a while ago, and
shed some pity on a future age that isn't going to use it. I think the pillory ought to be
abolished. What usually happens when a poor fellow is put in the pillory for some little
offense that didn't amount to anything in the world? The mob try to have some fun with
him, don't they?"
"They begin by clodding him; and they laugh themselves to pieces to see him try to
dodge one clod and get hit with another?"
"Then they throw dead cats at him, don't they?"
"Well, then, suppose he has a few personal enemies in that mob and here and there
a man or a woman with a secret grudge against him -- and suppose especially that he is
unpopular in the community, for his pride, or his prosperity, or one thing or another --
stones and bricks take the place of clods and cats presently, don't they?"
"There is no doubt of it."
"As a rule he is crippled for life, isn't he? -- jaws broken, teeth smashed out?
-- or legs mutilated, gangrened, presently cut off? -- or an eye knocked out, maybe both
"It is true, God knoweth it."
"And if he is unpopular he can depend on DYING, right there in the stocks, can't
"He surely can! One may not deny it."
"I take it none of YOU are unpopular -- by reason of pride or insolence, or
conspicuous prosperity, or any of those things that excite envy and malice among the base
scum of a village? YOU wouldn't think it much of a risk to take a chance in the
Dowley winced, visibly. I judged he was hit. But he didn't betray it by any spoken
word. As for the others, they spoke out plainly, and with strong feeling. They said they
had seen enough of the stocks to know what a man's chance in them was, and they would
never consent to enter them if they could compromise on a quick death by hanging.
"Well, to change the subject -- for I think I've established my point that the
stocks ought to be abolished. I think some of our laws are pretty unfair. For instance, if
I do a thing which ought to deliver me to the stocks, and you know I did it and yet keep
still and don't report me, YOU will get the stocks if anybody informs on you."
"Ah, but that would serve you but right," said Dowley, "for you MUST
inform. So saith the law."
The others coincided.
"Well, all right, let it go, since you vote me down. But there's one thing which
certainly isn't fair. The magistrate fixes a mechanic's wage at 1 cent a day, for
instance. The law says that if any master shall venture, even under utmost press of
business, to pay anything OVER that cent a day, even for a single day, he shall be both
fined and pilloried for it; and whoever knows he did it and doesn't inform, they also
shall be fined and pilloried. Now it seems to me unfair, Dowley, and a deadly peril to all
of us, that because you thoughtlessly confessed, a while ago, that within a week you have
paid a cent and fifteen mil --"
Oh, I tell YOU it was a smasher! You ought to have seen them to go to pieces, the whole
gang. I had just slipped up on poor smiling and complacent Dowley so nice and easy and
softly, that he never suspected anything was going to happen till the blow came crashing
down and knocked him all to rags.
A fine effect. In fact, as fine as any I ever produced, with so little time to work it
But I saw in a moment that I had overdone the thing a little. I was expecting to scare
them, but I wasn't expecting to scare them to death. They were mighty near it, though. You
see they had been a whole lifetime learning to appreciate the pillory; and to have that
thing staring them in the face, and every one of them distinctly at the mercy of me, a
stranger, if I chose to go and report -- well, it was awful, and they couldn't seem to
recover from the shock, they couldn't seem to pull themselves together. Pale, shaky, dumb,
pitiful? Why, they weren't any better than so many dead men. It was very uncomfortable. Of
course, I thought they would appeal to me to keep mum, and then we would shake hands, and
take a drink all round, and laugh it off, and there an end. But no; you see I was an
unknown person, among a cruelly oppressed and suspicious people, a people always
accustomed to having advantage taken of their helplessness, and never expecting just or
kind treatment from any but their own families and very closest intimates. Appeal to ME to
be gentle, to be fair, to be generous? Of course, they wanted to, but they couldn't dare.
The Celtic Hammer June 22, 1996