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An Essay on the History of Civil Society, Eighth Edition online

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strongest of all in the times of ignorance, does not, however, even then
supersede the cares of a national defence; and in the advanced state of
arts, gives the greatest scope and facility to commerce.

Thriving and independent nations were accordingly scattered on the shores
of the Pacific and the Atlantic. They surrounded the Red Sea, the
Mediterranean, and the Baltic; while, a few tribes excepted, who retire
among the mountains bordering on India and Persia, or who have found some
rude establishment among the creeks and the shores of the Caspian and the
Euxine, there is scarcely a people in the vast continent of Asia who
deserves the name of a nation. The unbounded plain is traversed at large by
hordes, who are in perpetual motion, or who are displaced and harassed by
their mutual hostilities. Although they are never perhaps actually blended
together in the course of hunting, or in the search of pasture, they cannot
bear one great distinction of nations, which is taken from the territory,
and which is deeply impressed by an affection to the native seat. They move
in troops, without the arrangement or the concert of nations; they become
easy accessions to every new empire among themselves, or to the Chinese and
the Muscovite, with whom they hold a traffic for the means of subsistence,
and the materials of pleasure.

Where a happy system of nations is formed, they do hot rely for the
continuance of their separate names, and for that of their political
independence, on the barriers erected by nature. Mutual jealousies lead to
the maintenance of a balance of power; and this principle, more than the
Rhine and the Ocean, than the Alps and the Pyrenees in modern Europe; more
than the straits of Thermopylae, the mountains of Thrace, or the bays of
Salamine and Corinth in ancient Greece, tended to prolong the separation,
to which the inhabitants of these happy climates have owed their felicity
as nations, the lustre of their fame, and their civil accomplishments.

If we mean to pursue the history of civil society, our attention must be
chiefly directed to such examples, and we must here bid farewell to those
regions of the earth, on which our species, by the effects of situation or
climate, appear to be restrained in their national pursuits, or inferior in
the powers of the mind.



We have hitherto observed mankind, either united together on terms of
equality, or disposed to admit of a subordination founded merely on the
voluntary respect and attachment which they paid to their leaders; but, in
both cases, without any concerted plan of government, or system of laws.

The savage, whose fortune is comprised in his cabin, his fur, and his arms,
is satisfied with that provision, and with that degree of security, he
himself can procure. He perceives, in treating with his equal, no subject
of discussion that should be referred to the decision of a judge; nor does
he find in any hand the badges of magistracy, or the ensigns of a perpetual

The barbarian, though induced by his admiration of personal qualities, the
lustre of a heroic race, or a superiority of fortune, to follow the banners
of a leader, and to act a subordinate part in his tribe, knows not, that
what he performs from choice, is to be made a subject of obligation. He
acts from affections unacquainted with forms; and when provoked, or when
engaged in disputes, he recurs to the sword, as the ultimate means of
decision, in all questions of right.

Human affairs, in the mean time, continue their progress. What was in one
generation a propensity to herd with the species, becomes in the ages which
follow, a principle of natural union. What was originally an alliance for
common defence, becomes a concerted plan of political force; the care of
subsistence becomes an anxiety for accumulating wealth, and the foundation
of commercial arts.

Mankind, in following the present sense of their minds, in striving to
remove inconveniencies, or to gain apparent and contiguous advantages,
arrive at ends which even their imagination could not anticipate; and pass
on, like other animals, in the track of their nature, without perceiving
its end. He who first said; "I will appropriate this field; I will leave it
to my heirs;" did not perceive, that he was laying the foundation of civil
laws and political establishments. He who first ranged himself under a
leader, did not perceive, that he was setting the example of a permanent
subordination, under the pretence of which, the rapacious were to seize his
possessions, and the arrogant to lay claim to his service.

Men, in general, are sufficiently disposed to occupy themselves in forming
projects and schemes; but he who would scheme and project for others, will
find an opponent in every person who is disposed to scheme for himself.
Like the winds that come we know not whence, and blow whithersoever they
list, the forms of society are derived from an obscure and distant origin;
they arise, long before the date of philosophy, from the instincts, not
from the speculations of men. The crowd of mankind are directed, in their
establishments and measures, by the circumstances in which they are placed;
and seldom are turned from their way, to follow the plan of any single

Every step and every movement of the multitude, even in what are termed
enlightened ages, are made with equal blindness to the future; and nations
stumble upon establishments, which are indeed the result of human action,
but not the execution of any human design. [Footnote: De Retz's Memoirs.]
If Cromwell said, that a man never mounts higher, than when he knows not
whither he is going; it may with more reason be affirmed of communities,
that they admit of the greatest revolutions where no change is intended,
and that the most refined politicians do not always know whither they are
leading the state by their projects.

If we listen to the testimony of modern history, and to that of the most
authentic parts of the ancient; if we attend to the practice of nations in
every quarter of the world, and in every condition, whether that of the
barbarian or the polished, we shall find very little reason to retract this
assertion. No constitution is formed by concert, no government is copied
from a plan. The members of a small state contend for equality; the members
of a greater, find themselves classed in a certain manner that lays a
foundation for monarchy. They proceed from one form of government to
another, by easy transitions, and frequently under old names adopt a new
constitution. The seeds of every form are lodged in human nature; they
spring up and ripen with the season. The prevalence of a particular species
is often derived from an imperceptible ingredient mingled in the soil.

We are therefore to receive, with caution, the traditionary histories of
ancient legislators, and founders of states. Their names have long been
celebrated; their supposed plans have been admired; and what were probably
the consequences of an early situation, is, in every instance, considered
as an effect of design. An author and a work, like cause and effect, are
perpetually coupled together. This is the simplest form under which we can
consider the establishment of nations: and we ascribe to a previous design,
what came to be known only by experience, what no human wisdom could
foresee, and what, without the concurring humour and disposition of his
age, no authority could enable an individual to execute.

If men, during ages of extensive reflection, and employed in the search of
improvement, are wedded to their institutions; and, labouring under many
acknowledged inconveniencies, cannot break loose from the trammels of
custom; what shall we suppose their humour to have been in the times of
Romulus and Lycurgus? They were not surely more disposed to embrace the
schemes of innovators, or to shake off the impressions of habit: they were
not more pliant and ductile, when their knowledge was less; not more
capable of refinement, when their minds were more circumscribed.

We imagine, perhaps, that rude nations must have so strong a sense of the
defects under which they labour, and be so conscious that reformations are
requisite in their manners, that they must be ready to adopt, with joy,
every plan of improvement, and to receive every plausible proposal with
implicit compliance. And we are thus inclined to believe, that the harp of
Orpheus could effect, in one age, what the eloquence of Plato could not
produce in another. We mistake, however, the characteristic of simple ages:
mankind then appear to feel the fewest defects, and are then least desirous
to enter on reformations.

The reality, in the mean time, of certain establishments at Rome and at
Sparta, cannot be disputed: but it is probable; that the government of both
these states took its rise from the situation and genius of the people, not
from the projects of single men; that the celebrated warrior and statesman,
who are considered as the founders of those nations, only acted a superior
part among numbers who were disposed to the same institutions; and that
they left to posterity a renown, pointing them out as the inventors of many
practices which had been already in use, and which helped to form their own
manners and genius, as well as those of their countrymen.

It has been formerly observed, that, in many particulars, the customs of
simple nations coincide with what is ascribed to the invention of early
statesmen; that the model of republican government, the senate, and the
assembly of the people; that even the equality of property, or the
community of goods, were not reserved to the invention or contrivance of
singular men.

If we consider Romulus as the founder of the Roman state, certainly he who
killed his brother, that he might reign alone, did not desire to come under
restraints from the controling power of the senate, nor to refer the
councils of his sovereignty to the decision of a collective body. Love of
dominion is, by its nature, averse to restraint; and this chieftain, like
every leader in a rude age, probably found a class of men ready to intrude
on his councils, and without whom he could not proceed. He met with
occasions, on which, as at the sound of a trumpet, the body of the people
assembled, and took resolutions, which any individual might in vain
dispute, or attempt to control; and Rome, which commenced on the general
plan of every artless society, found lasting improvements in the pursuit of
temporary expedients, and digested her political frame in adjusting the
pretensions of parties which arose in the state.

Mankind, in very early ages of society, learn to covet riches, and to
admire distinction: they have avarice and ambition, and are occasionally
led by these passions to depredations and conquest: but in their ordinary
conduct, are guided or restrained by different motives; by sloth or
intemperance; by personal attachments, or personal animosities; which
mislead from the attention to interest. These motives or habits render
mankind, at times, remiss or outrageous: they prove the source of civil
peace or of civil disorder, but disqualify those who are actuated by them,
from maintaining any fixed usurpation; slavery and rapine, in the case of
every community, are first threatened from abroad, and war, either
offensive or defensive, is the great business of every tribe. The enemy
occupy their thoughts; they have no leisure for domestic dissentions. It is
the desire of every separate community, however, to secure itself; and in
proportion as it gains this object, by strengthening its barrier, by
weakening its enemy, or by procuring allies, the individual at home
bethinks him of what he may gain or lose for himself: the leader is
disposed to enlarge the advantages which belong to his station; the
follower becomes jealous of rights which are open to encroachment; and
parties who united before, from affection and habit, or from a regard to
their common preservation, disagree in supporting their, several claims to
precedence or profit.

When the animosities of faction are thus awakened at home, and the
pretensions of freedom are opposed to those of dominion, the members of
every society find a new scene upon which to exert their activity. They had
quarrelled, perhaps, on points of interest; they had balanced between
different leaders; but they had never united as citizens, to withstand the
encroachments of sovereignty, or to maintain their common rights as a
people. If the prince, in this contest, finds numbers to support, as well
as to oppose his pretensions, the sword which was whetted against foreign
enemies, may be pointed at the bosom of fellow subjects, and every interval
of peace from abroad, be filled with domestic war. The sacred names of
liberty, justice, and civil order, are made to resound in public
assemblies; and, during the absence of other alarms, give to society,
within itself, an abundant subject of ferment and animosity.

If what is related of the little principalities which, in ancient times,
were formed in Greece, in Italy, and over all Europe, agrees with the
character we have given of mankind under the first impressions of property,
of interest, and of hereditary distinctions; the seditions and domestic
wars which followed in those very states, the expulsion of their kings, or
the questions which arose concerning the prerogatives of the sovereign, or
privilege of the subject, are agreeable to the representation which we now
give of the first step toward political establishment, and the desire of a
legal constitution.

What this constitution may be in its earliest form, depends on a variety of
circumstances in the condition of nations: it depends on the extent of the
principality in its rude state; on the degree of disparity to which mankind
had submitted before they begun to dispute the abuses of power: it depends
likewise on what we term _accidents_, the personal character of an
individual, or the events of a war.

Every community is originally a small one. That propensity by which mankind
at first unite, is not the principle from which they afterwards act in
extending the limits of empire. Small tribes, where they are not assembled
by common objects of conquest or safety, are even averse to a coalition.
If, like the real or fabulous confederacy of the Greeks for the destruction
of Troy, many nations combine in pursuit of a single object, they easily
separate again, and act anew on the maxims of rival states.

There is, perhaps a certain national extent, within which the passions of
men are easily communicated from one, or a few, to the whole; and there are
certain numbers of men who can be assembled, and act in a body. If, while
the society is not enlarged beyond this dimension, and while its members
are easily assembled, political contentions arise, the state seldom fails
to proceed on republican maxims, and to establish democracy. In most rude
principalities, the leader derived his prerogative from the lustre of his
race, and from the voluntary attachment of his tribe: the people he
commanded were his friends, his subjects, and his troops. If we suppose,
upon any change in their manners, that they cease to revere his dignity,
that they pretend to equality among themselves, or are seized with a
jealousy of his assuming too much, the foundations of his power are already
withdrawn. When the voluntary subject becomes refractory; when considerable
parties, or the collective body, choose to act for themselves; the small
kingdom, like that of Athens, becomes of course a republic.

The changes of condition, and of manners, which, in the progress of
mankind, raise up to nations a leader and a prince, create, at the same
time, a nobility and a variety of ranks, who have, in a subordinate degree,
their claim to distinction. Superstition, too, may create an order of men,
who, under the title of priesthood, engage in the pursuit of a separate
interest; who, by their union and firmness as a body, and by their
incessant ambition, deserve to be reckoned in the list of pretenders to
power. These different orders of men are the elements of whose mixture the
political body is generally formed; each draws to its side some part from
the mass of the people. The people themselves are a party upon occasion;
and numbers of men, however classed and distinguished, become, by their
jarring pretensions and separate views, mutual interruptions and checks;
and have, by bringing to the national councils the maxims and apprehensions
of a particular order, and by guarding a particular interest, a share in
adjusting or preserving the political form of the state.

The pretensions of any particular order, if not checked by some collateral
power, would terminate in tyranny; those of a prince, in despotism; those
of a nobility or priesthood, in the abuses of aristocracy; of a populace,
in the confusions of anarchy. These terminations, as they are never the
professed, so are they seldom even the disguised object of party: but the
measures which any party pursues, if suffered to prevail, will lead, by
degrees, to every extreme.

In their way to the ascendant they endeavour to gain, and in the midst of
interruptions which opposite interests mutually give, liberty may have a
permanent or a transient existence; and the constitution may bear a form
and a character as various as the casual combination of such multiplied
parts can effect.

To bestow on communities some degree of political freedom, it is perhaps
sufficient, that their members, either singly, or as they are involved with
their several orders, should insist on their rights; that under republics,
the citizen should either maintain his own equality with firmness, or
restrain the ambition of his fellow citizen within moderate bounds; that
under monarchy, men of every rank should maintain the honours of their
private or their public stations; and sacrifice neither to the impositions
of a court, nor to the claims of a populace, those dignities which are
destined, in some measure, independent of fortune, to give stability to the
throne, and to procure a respect to the subject.

Amidst the contentions of party, the interests of the public, even the
maxims of justice and candour, are sometimes forgotten; and yet those fatal
consequences which such a measure of corruption seems to portend, do not
unavoidably follow. The public interest is often secure, not because
individuals are disposed to regard it as the end of their conduct, but
because each, in his place, is determined to preserve his own. Liberty is
maintained by the continued differences and oppositions of numbers, not by
their concurring zeal in behalf of equitable government. In free states,
therefore, the wisest laws are never, perhaps, dictated by the interest and
spirit of any order of men: they are moved, they are opposed, or amended,
by different hands; and come at last to express that medium and composition
which contending parties have forced one another to adopt.

When we consider the history of mankind in this view, we cannot be at a
loss for the causes which, in small communities, threw the balance on the
side of democracy; which, in states more enlarged in respect to territory
and number of people, gave the ascendant to monarchy; and which, in a
variety of conditions and of different ages, enabled mankind to blend and
unite the characters of different forms; and, instead of any of the simple
constitutions we have mentioned, [Footnote: Part I. Sect. 10.] to exhibit a
medley of all.

In emerging from a state of rudeness and simplicity, men must be expected
to act from that spirit of equality, or moderate subordination, to which
they have been accustomed. When crowded together in cities, or within the
compass of a small territory, they act by contagious passions, and every
individual feels a degree of importance proportioned to his figure in the
crowd, and the smallness of its numbers. The pretenders to power and
dominion appear in too familiar a light to impose upon the multitude, and
they have no aids at their call, by which they can bridle the refractory
humours of a people who resist their pretensions. Theseus, king of Attica,
we are told, assembled the inhabitants of its twelve cantons into one city.
In this he took an effectual method to unite into one democracy, what were
before the separate members of his monarchy, and to hasten the downfal of
the regal power.

The monarch of an extensive territory has many advantages in maintaining
his station. Without any grievance to his subjects, he can support the
magnificence of a royal estate, and dazzle the imagination of his people,
by that very wealth which themselves have bestowed. He can employ the
inhabitants of one district against those of another; and while the
passions that lead to mutiny and rebellion, can at any one time seize only
on a part of his subjects, he feels himself strong in the possession of a
general authority. Even the distance at which he resides from many of those
who receive his commands, augments the mysterious awe and respect which are
paid to his government.

With these different tendencies, accident and corruption, however, joined
to a variety of circumstances, may throw particular states from their bias,
and produce exceptions to every general rule. This has actually happened in
some of the later principalities of Greece, and modern Italy, in Sweden,
Poland, and the German Empire. But the united states of the Netherlands,
and the Swiss cantons, are, perhaps, the most extensive communities, which,
maintaining the union of nations, have, for any considerable time, resisted
the tendency to monarchical government; and Sweden is the only instance of
a republic established in a great kingdom on the ruins of monarchy.

The sovereign of a petty district, or a single city, when not supported, as
in modern Europe, by the contagion of monarchical manners, holds the
sceptre by a precarious tenure, and is perpetually alarmed by the spirit of
mutiny in his people, is guided by jealousy, and supports himself by
severity, prevention, and force.

The popular and aristocratical powers in a great nation, as in the case of
Germany and Poland, may meet with equal difficulty in maintaining their
pretensions; and, in order to avoid their danger on the side of kingly
usurpation, are obliged to withhold from the supreme magistrate even the
necessary trust of an executive power.

The states of Europe, in the manner of their first settlement, laid the
foundations of monarchy, and were prepared to unite under regular and
extensive governments. If the Greeks, whose progress at home terminated in
the establishment of so many independent republics, had under Agamemnon
effected a conquest and settlement in Asia, it is probable that they might
have furnished an example of the same kind. But the original inhabitants of
any country, forming many separate cantons, come by slow degrees to that
coalition and union into which conquering tribes, in effecting their
conquests, or in securing their possessions, are hurried at once.
Cæsar encountered some hundreds of independent nations in Gaul, whom even
their common danger did not sufficiently unite. The German invaders, who
settled in the lands of the Romans, made, in the same district, a number
of separate establishments, but far more extensive than what the ancient
Gauls, by their conjunction and treaties, or in the result of their wars,
could, after many ages, have reached.

The seeds of great monarchies, and the roots of extensive dominion, were
every where planted with the colonies that divided the Roman empire. We
have no exact account of the numbers, who, with a seeming concert,
continued, during some ages, to invade and to seize this tempting prize.
Where they expected resistance, they endeavoured to muster up a
proportional force; and when they proposed to settle, entire nations
removed to share in the spoil. Scattered over an extensive province, where
they could not be secure, without maintaining their union, they continued
to acknowledge the leader under whom they had fought; and, like an army
sent by divisions into separate stations, were prepared to assemble
whenever occasion should require their united operations or counsels.

Every separate party had its post assigned, and every subordinate chieftain
his possessions, from which he was to provide his own subsistence, and that
of his followers. The model of government was taken from that of a military
subordination, and a fief was the temporary pay of an officer proportioned

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Online LibraryAdam FergusonAn Essay on the History of Civil Society, Eighth Edition → online text (page 12 of 26)