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

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to his rank. [Footnote: See Dr. Robertson's History of Scotland, B.
1. - Dalrymple's Hist. of Feudal Tenures.] There was a class of the people
destined to military service, another to labour, and to cultivate lands for
the benefit of their masters. The officer improved his tenure by degrees,
first changing a temporary grant into a tenure for his life; and this also,
upon the observance of certain conditions, into a grant including his

The rank of the nobles became hereditary in every quarter, and formed a
powerful and permanent order of men in every state. While they held the
people in servitude, they disputed the claims of their sovereign; they
withdrew their attendance upon occasion, or turned their arms against him.
They formed a strong and insurmountable barrier against a general despotism
in the state; but they were themselves, by means of their warlike
retainers, the tyrants of every little district, and prevented the
establishment of order, or any regular applications of law. They took the
advantage of weak reigns or minorities, to push their encroachments on the
sovereign; or having made the monarchy elective, they, by successive
treaties and stipulations, at every election, limited or undermined the
monarchical power. The prerogatives of the prince have been, in some
instances, as in that of the German empire in particular, reduced to a mere
title; and the national union itself preserved in the observance only of a
few insignificant formalities.

Where the contest of the sovereign, and of his vassals, under hereditary
and ample prerogatives annexed to the crown, had a different issue, the
feudal lordships were gradually stript of their powers, the nobles were
reduced to the state of subjects, and, obliged to hold their honours, and
exercise their jurisdictions, in a dependence on the prince. It was his
supposed interest to reduce them to a state of equal subjection with the
people, and to extend his own authority, by rescuing the labourer and the
dependent from the oppressions of their immediate superiors.

In this project the princes of Europe have variously succeeded. While they
protected the people, and thereby encouraged the practice of commercial and
lucrative arts, they paved the way for despotism in the state; and with the
same policy by which they relieved the subject from many oppressions, they
increased the powers of the crown.

But where the people had, by the constitution, a representative in the
government, and a head, under which they could avail themselves of the
wealth they acquired, and of the sense of their personal importance, this
policy turned against the crown; it formed a new power to restrain the
prerogative, to establish the government of law, and to exhibit a spectacle
new in the history of mankind; monarchy mixed with republic, and extensive
territory governed, during some ages, without military force.

Such were the steps by which the nations of Europe have arrived at their
present establishments: in some instances they have come to the possession
of legal constitutions; in others, to the exercise of a mitigated
despotism; or they continue to struggle with the tendency which they
severally have to these different extremes.

The progress of empire, in the early ages of Europe, threatened to be
rapid, and to bury the independent spirit of nations in a grave like that
which the Ottoman conquerors found for themselves, and for the wretched
race they had vanquished. The Romans had by slow degrees extended their
empire; they had made every new acquisition in the result of a tedious war,
and had been obliged to plant colonies, and to employ a variety of
measures, to secure every new possession. But the feudal superior being
animated, from the moment he gained an establishment, with a desire of
extending his territory, and of enlarging the list of his vassals,
procured, by merely bestowing investiture, the annexation of new provinces,
and became the master of states, before independent, without making any
material innovation in the form of their policy.

Separate principalities were, like the parts of an engine, ready to be
joined, and, like the wrought materials of a building, ready to be erected.
They were in the result of their struggles put together or taken asunder
with facility. The independence of weak states was preserved only by the
mutual jealousies of the strong, or by the general attention of all to
maintain a balance of power.

The happy system of policy on which European states have proceeded in
preserving this balance; the degree of moderation which is, in adjusting
their treaties, become habitual even to victorious and powerful monarchies,
does honour to mankind, and may give hopes of a lasting felicity, to be
derived from a prepossession, never, perhaps, equally strong in any former
period, or among any number of nations, that the first conquering people
will ruin themselves, as well as their rivals.

It is in such states, perhaps, as in a fabric of a large dimension, that we
can perceive most distinctly the several parts of which a political body
consists; and observe that concurrence or opposition of interests, which
serve to unite or to separate different orders of men, and lead them, by
maintaining their several claims, to establish a variety of political
forms. The smallest republics, however, consist of parts similar to these,
and of members who are actuated by, a similar spirit. They furnish examples
of government diversified by the casual combinations of parties, and by the
different advantages with which those parties engage in the conflict.

In every society there is a casual subordination, independent of its formal
establishment, and frequently adverse to its constitution. While the
administration and the people speak the language of a particular form, and
seem to admit no pretensions to power, without a legal nomination in one
instance, or without the advantage of hereditary honours in another, this
casual subordination, possibly arising from the distribution of property,
or from some other circumstance that bestows unequal degrees of influence,
gives the state its tone, and fixes its character.

The plebeian order at Rome having been long considered as of an inferior
condition, and excluded from the higher offices of magistracy, had
sufficient force, as a body, to get, this invidious distinction removed;
but the individual still acting under the impressions of a subordinate
rank, gave in every competition his suffrage to a patrician, whose
protection he had experienced; and whose personal authority he felt. By
this means the ascendancy of the patrician families was, for a certain
period, as regular as it could be made by the avowed maxims of aristocracy:
but the higher offices of state being gradually shared by plebeians, the
effects of former distinctions were prevented or weakened. The laws that
were made to adjust the pretensions of different orders were easily eluded.
The populace became a faction, and their alliance was the surest road to
dominion. Clodius, by a pretended adoption into a plebeian family, was
qualified to become tribune of the people; and Caesar, by espousing the
cause of this faction, made his way to usurpation and tyranny.

In such fleeting and transient scenes, forms of government are only modes
of proceeding, in, which successive ages differ from one another. Faction
is ever ready to seize all occasional advantages; and mankind, when in
hazard from any party, seldom find a better protection than that of its
rival. Cato united with Pompey in opposition to Caesar, and guarded against
nothing so much as that reconciliation of parties, which was in effect to
be a combination of different leaders against the freedom of the republic.
This illustrious personage stood distinguished in his age like a man among
children, and was raised above his opponents, as much by the justness of
his understanding, and the extent of his penetration, as he was by the
manly fortitude and disinterestedness with which he strove to baffle the
designs of a vain and childish ambition, that was operating to the ruin of

Although free constitutions of government seldom or never take their rise
from the scheme of any single projector, yet are they often preserved by
the vigilance, activity, and zeal of single men. Happy are they who
understand and who choose this object of care; and happy it is for mankind
when it is not chosen too late. It has been reserved to signalize the lives
of a Cato or a Brutus, on the eve of fatal revolutions; to foster in secret
the indignation of Thrasea and Helvidius; and to occupy the reflections of
speculative men in times of corruption. But even in such late and
ineffectual examples, it was happy to know, and to value, an object which
is so important to mankind. The pursuit, and the love of it, however
unsuccessful, has thrown its principal lustre on human nature.



While the mode of subordination is casual, and forms of government take
their rise, chiefly from the manner in which the members of a state have
been originally classed, and from a variety of circumstances that procure
to particular orders of men a sway in their country, there are certain
objects that claim the attention of every government, that lead the
apprehensions and the reasonings of mankind in every society, and that not
only furnish an employment to statesmen, but in some measure direct the
community to those institutions, under the authority of which the
magistrate holds his power. Such are the national defence, the distribution
of justice, the preservation and internal prosperity of the state. If these
objects be neglected, we must apprehend that the very scene in which
parties contend for power, for privilege, or equality, must disappear, and
society itself no longer exist.

The consideration due to these objects will be pleaded in every public
assembly, and will produce, in every political contest, appeals to that
common sense and opinion of mankind, which, struggling with the private
views of individuals, and the claims of party, may be considered as the
great legislator of nations.

The measures required for the attainment of most national objects are
connected together, and must be jointly pursued; they are often the same.
The force which is prepared for defence against foreign enemies, may be
likewise employed to keep the peace at home: the laws made to secure the
rights and liberties of the people, may serve as encouragements to
population and commerce; and every community, without considering how its
objects may be classed or distinguished by speculative men, is, in every
instance, obliged to assume or to retain that form which is best fitted to
preserve its advantages, or to avert its misfortunes.

Nations, however, like private men, have their favourite ends, and their
principal pursuits, which diversify their manners, as well as their
establishments. They even attain to the same ends by different means; and,
like men who make their fortune by different professions, retain the habits
of their principal calling in every condition at which they arrive. The
Romans became wealthy in pursuing their conquests; and probably, for a
certain period, increased the numbers of mankind, while their disposition
to war seemed to threaten the earth with desolation. Some modern nations
proceed to dominion and enlargement on the maxims of commerce; and while
they only intend to accumulate riches at home, continue to gain an imperial
ascendant abroad.

The characters of the warlike and the commercial are variously combined:
they are formed in different degrees by the influence of circumstances,
that more or less frequently give rise to war, and excite the desire of
conquest; of circumstances, that leave a people in quiet to improve their
domestic resources, or to purchase, by the fruits of their industry, from
foreigners, what their own soil and their climate deny.

The members of every community are more or less occupied with matters of
state, in proportion as their constitution admits them to share in the
government, and summons up their attention to objects of a public nature. A
people are cultivated or unimproved in their talents, in proportion as
those talents are employed in the practice of arts, and in the affairs of
society they are improved or corrupted in their manners, in proportion as
they are encouraged and directed to act on the maxims of freedom and
justice, or as they as they are degraded into a state of meanness and
servitude. But whatever advantages are obtained, or whatever evils are
avoided, by nations, in any of these important respects, are generally
considered as mere occasional incidents: they are seldom admitted among the
objects of policy, or entered among the reasons of state.

We hazard being treated with ridicule, when we require political
establishments, merely to cultivate the talents of men, and to inspire then
sentiments of a liberal mind: we must offer some motive of interest, or
some hopes of external advantage, to animate the pursuits, or to direct the
measures, of ordinary men. They would be brave, ingenious, and eloquent,
only from necessity, or for the sake of profit: they magnify the uses of
wealth, population, and the other resources of war; but often forget that
these are of no consequence without the direction of able capacities, and
without the supports of a national vigour. We may expect, therefore, to
find among states the bias to a particular policy taken from the regards to
public safety; from the desire of securing personal freedom or private
property; seldom from the consideration of moral effects, or from a view to
the real improvement of mankind.



When we imagine what the Romans must have felt when the tidings came that
the flower of their city had perished at Cannæ; when we think of what the
orator had in his mind when he said, "That the youth among the people was
like the spring among the seasons;" when we hear of the joy with which the
huntsman and the warrior is adopted, in America, to sustain the honours of
the family and the nation; we are made to feel the most powerful motives to
regard the increase and preservation of our fellow citizens. Interest,
affection, and views of policy, combine to recommend this object; and it is
treated with entire neglect only by the tyrant who mistakes his own
advantage, by the statesman who trifles with the charge committed to his
care, or by the people who are become corrupted, and who consider their
fellow subjects as rivals in interest, and competitors in their lucrative

Among rude societies, and among small communities in general, who are
engaged in frequent struggles and difficulties, the preservation and
increase of their members is a most important object. The American rates
his defeat from the numbers of men he has lost, or he estimates his victory
from the prisoners he has made; not from his having remained the master of
a field, or being driven from a ground on which he encountered his enemy. A
man with whom he can associate in all his pursuits, whom he can embrace as
his friend; in whom he finds an object to his affections, and an aid in his
struggles, is to him the most precious accession of fortune.

Even where the friendship of particular men is out of the question, the
society, being occupied in forming a party that may defend itself, or annoy
its enemy, finds no object of greater moment than the increase of its
numbers. Captives who may be adopted, or children of either sex who may be
reared for the public, are accordingly considered as the richest spoil of
an enemy. The practice of the Romans in admitting the vanquished to share
in the privileges of their city, the rape of the Sabines, and the
subsequent coalition with that people, were not singular or uncommon
examples in the history of mankind. The same policy has been followed, and
was natural and obvious wherever the strength of it state consisted in the
arms of a few, and where men were valued in themselves, without regard to
estate or fortune.

In rude ages, therefore, while mankind subsist in small divisions, it
should appear, that if the earth be thinly peopled, this defect does not
arise from the negligence of those who ought to repair it. It is even
probable, that the most effectual course that could be taken to increase
the species, would be, to prevent the coalition of nations, and to oblige
mankind to act in such small bodies as would make the preservation of their
numbers a principal object of their care. This alone, it is true, would not
be sufficient; we must probably add the encouragement for rearing families,
which mankind enjoy under a favourable policy, and the means of subsistence
which they owe to the practice of arts.

The mother is unwilling to increase her offspring, and is ill provided to
rear them, where she herself is obliged to undergo great hardships in the
search of her food. In North America, we are told, that she joins to the
reserves of a cold or a moderate temperament, the abstinencies to which she
submits, from the consideration of this difficulty. In her apprehension, it
is matter of prudence, and of conscience, to bring one child to the
condition of feeding on venison, and of following on foot, before she will
hazard a new burden in travelling the woods.

In warmer latitudes, by the different temperament, perhaps, which the
climate bestows, and by a greater facility in procuring subsistence, the
numbers of mankind increase, while the object itself is neglected; and the
commerce of the sexes, without any concern for population, is made a
subject of mere debauch. In some places, we are told, it is even made the
object of a barbarous policy, to defeat or to restrain the intentions of
nature. In the island of Formosa, the males are prohibited to marry before
the age of forty; and females, if pregnant before the age of thirty six,
have an abortion procured by order of the magistrate, who employs a
violence that endangers the life of the mother, together with that of the
child. [Footnote: Collection of Dutch Voyages.]

In China the permission given to parents to kill or to expose their
children, was probably meant as a relief from the burden of a numerous
offspring. But notwithstanding what we hear of a practice so repugnant to
the human heart, it has not, probably, the effects in restraining; which it
seems to threaten; but, like many other institutions, has an influence the
reverse of what it seemed to portend. The parents marry with this means of
relief in their view, and the children are saved.

However important the object of population may be held by mankind, it will
be difficult to find, in the history of civil policy, any wise or effectual
establishments, solely calculated to obtain it. The practice of rude or
feeble nations is inadequate, or cannot surmount the obstacles which are
found in their manner of life. The growth of industry, the endeavours of
men to improve their arts, to extend their commerce, to secure their
possessions, and to establish their rights, are indeed the most effectual
means to promote population: but they arise from a different motive; they
arise from regards to interest and personal safety. They are intended for
the benefit of those who exist, not to procure the increase of their

It is, in the mean time, of importance to know, that where a people are
fortunate in their political establishments, and successful in the pursuits
of industry, their population is likely to grow in proportion. Most of the
other devices thought of for this purpose, only serve to frustrate, the
expectations of mankind or to mislead their attention.

In planting a colony, in striving to repair the occasional wastes of
pestilence or war, the immediate contrivance of statesmen may be useful;
but if, in reasoning on the increase of mankind in general, we overlook
their freedom and their happiness, our aids to population become weak and
ineffectual. They only lead us to work on the surface, or to pursue a
shadow, while we neglect the substantial concern; and in a decaying state,
make us tamper with palliatives, while the roots of an evil are suffered to
remain. Octavius revived or enforced the laws that related to population at
Rome; but it may be said of him, and of many sovereigns in a similar
situation, that they administer the poison, while they are devising the
remedy; and bring a damp and a palsy on the principles of life, while they
endeavour, by external applications to the skin; to restore the bloom of a
decayed and sickly body.

It is indeed happy for mankind, that this important object is not always
dependent on the wisdom of sovereigns, or the policy of single men. A
people intent on freedom, find for themselves a condition in which they may
follow the propensities of nature with a more signal effect, than any which
the councils of state could devise. When sovereigns, or projectors, are the
supposed masters of this subject, the best they can do, is to be cautious
of hurting an interest they cannot greatly promote, and of making breaches
they cannot repair.

"When nations were divided into small territories, and petty commonwealths,
where each man had his house and his field to himself, and each county had
its capital free and independent; what a happy situation for mankind," says
Mr. Hume; "how favourable to industry and agriculture, to marriage and to
population!" Yet here were, probably no schemes of the statesman, for
rewarding the married, or for punishing the single; for inviting foreigners
to settle, or for prohibiting the departure of natives. Every citizen
finding a possession secure, and a provision for his heirs, was not
discouraged by the gloomy fears of oppression or want; and where every
other function of nature was free, that which furnished the nursery could
not be restrained. Nature has required the powerful to be just; but she has
not otherwise intrusted the preservation of her works to their visionary
plans. What fuel can the statesman add to the fires of youth? Let him only
not smother it, and the effect is secure. Where we oppress or degrade
mankind with one hand, it is vain, like Octavius, to hold out in the other,
the baits of marriage, or the whip to barrenness. It is vain to invite new
inhabitants from abroad, while those we already possess are made to hold
their tenure with uncertainty; and to tremble, not only under the prospect
of a numerous family, but even under that of a precarious and doubtful
subsistence for themselves. The arbitrary sovereign who has made this the
condition of his subjects, owes the remains of his people to the powerful
instincts of nature, not to any device of his own.

Men will crowd where the situation is tempting, and, in a few generations,
will people every country to the measure of its means of subsistence. They
will even increase under circumstances that portend a decay. The frequent
wars of the Romans, and of many a thriving community; even the pestilence,
and the market for slaves, find their supply, if, without destroying the
source, the drain become regular; and if an issue is made for the
offspring, without unsettling the families from which they arise. Where a
happier provision is made for mankind, the statesman, who by premiums to
marriage, by allurements to foreigners, or by confining the natives at
home, apprehends, that he has made the numbers of his people to grow, is
often like the fly in the fable, who admired its success in turning the
wheel, and in moving the carriage: he has only accompanied what was already
in motion; he has dashed with his oar, to hasten the cataract; and waved
with his fan, to give speed to the winds.

Projects of mighty settlement, and of sudden population, however successful
in the end, are always expensive to mankind. Above a hundred thousand
peasants, we are told, were yearly driven, like so many cattle, to
Petersburgh, in the first attempts to replenish that settlement, and yearly
perished for want of subsistence. [Footnote: Strachlenberg.] The Indian
only attempts to settle in the neighbourhood of the plantain, [Footnote:
Dampier.] and while his family increases, he adds a tree to the walk.

If the plantain, the cocoa, or the palm, were sufficient to maintain an
inhabitant, the race of men in the warmer climates might become as numerous
as the trees of the forest. But in many, parts of the earth, from the

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Online LibraryAdam FergusonAn Essay on the History of Civil Society, Eighth Edition → online text (page 13 of 26)