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

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nature of the climate, and the soil, the spontaneous produce being next to
nothing, the means of subsistence are the fruits only of labour and skill.
If a people, while they retain their frugality, increase their industry,
and improve their arts, their numbers must grow in proportion. Hence it is,
that the cultivated fields of Europe are more peopled than the wilds of
America, or the plains of Tartary.

But even the increase of mankind which attends the accumulation of wealth,
has its limits. The _necessary of life_ is a vague and a relative
term: it is one thing in the opinion of the savage; another in that of the
polished citizen: it has a reference to the fancy, and to the habits of
living. While arts improve, and riches increase; while the possessions of
individuals, or their prospects of gain, come up to their opinion of what
is required to settle a family, they enter on its cares with alacrity. But
when the possession, however redundant, falls short of the standard, and a
fortune supposed sufficient for marriage is attained with difficulty,
population is checked, or begins to decline. The citizen, in his own
apprehension, returns to the state of the savage; his children, he thinks,
must perish for want; and he quits a scene overflowing with plenty, because
he has not the fortune which his supposed rank, or his wishes, require. No
ultimate remedy is applied to this evil, by merely accumulating wealth; for
rare and costly materials, whatever these are, continue to be sought; and
if silks and pearl are made common, men will begin to covet some new
decorations, which the wealthy alone can procure. If they are indulged in
their humour, their demands are repeated; for it is the continual increase
of riches, not any measure attained, that keeps the craving imagination at

Men are tempted to labour, and to practise lucrative arts, by motives of
interest. Secure to the workman the fruit of his labour, give him the
prospects of independence or freedom, the public has found a faithful
minister in the acquisition of wealth, and a faithful steward in hoarding
what he has gained. The statesman, in this, as in the case of population
itself, can do little more than avoid doing mischief. It is well, if, in
the beginnings of commerce, he knows how to repress the frauds to which it
is subject. Commerce, if continued, is the branch in which men, committed
to the effects of their own experience, are least apt to go wrong.

The trader, in rude ages, is short sighted, fraudulent and mercenary; but
in the progress and advanced state of his art, his views are enlarged, his
maxims are established: he becomes punctual, liberal, faithful, and
enterprising; and in the period of general corruption, he alone has every
virtue, except the force to defend his acquisitions. He needs no aid from
the state, but its protection; and is often in himself its most intelligent
and respectable member. Even in China, we are informed, where pilfering,
fraud, and corruption, are the reigning practice with all the other orders
of men, the great merchant is ready to give, and to procure confidence:
while his countrymen act on the plans, and under the restrictions, of a
police adjusted to knaves, he acts on the reasons of trade, and the maxims
of mankind.

If population be connected with national wealth, liberty and personal
security is the great foundation of both: and if this foundation be laid in
the state, nature has secured the increase and industry of its members; the
one by desires the most ardent in the human frame, the other by a
consideration the most uniform and constant of any that possesses the mind.
The great object of policy, therefore, with respect to both, is, to secure
to the family its means of subsistence and settlement; to protect the
industrious in the pursuit of his occupation; to reconcile the restrictions
of police, and the social affections of mankind, with their separate and
interested pursuits.

In matters of particular profession, industry, and trade, the experienced
practitioner is the master, and every general reasoner is a novice. The
object in commerce is to make the individual rich; the more he gains for
himself, the more he augments the wealth of his country. If a protection be
required, it must be granted; if crimes and frauds be committed, they must
be repressed; and government can pretend to no more. When the refined
politician would lend an active hand, he only multiplies interruptions and
grounds of complaint; when the merchant forgets his own interest to lay
plans for his country, the period of vision and chimera is near, and the
solid basis of commerce withdrawn. He might be told, that while he pursues
his advantage, and gives no cause of complaint, the interest of commerce is

The general police of France, proceeding on a supposition, that the
exportation of corn must drain the country where it has grown, had, till of
late, laid that branch of commerce under a severe prohibition. The English
landholder and the farmer had credit enough to obtain a premium for
exportation, to favour the sale of their commodity; and the event has
shown, that private interest is a better patron of commerce and plenty,
than the refinements of state. One nation lays the refined plan of a
settlement on the continent of North America, and trusts little to the
conduct of traders and shortsighted men: another leaves men to find their
own position in a state of freedom, and to think for themselves. The active
industry and the limited views of the one, made a thriving settlement; the
great projects of the other were still in idea.

But I willingly quit a subject in which I am not much conversant, and still
less engaged by the object for which I write. Speculations on commerce and
wealth have been delivered by the ablest writers; and the public will
probably soon be furnished with a theory of national economy, equal to what
has ever appeared on any subject of science whatever. [Footnote: Mr. Smith,
author of the Theory of Moral Sentiment] But in the view which I have taken
of human affairs, nothing seems more important than the general caution
which the authors to whom I refer so well understand, not to consider these
articles as making the sum of national felicity, or the principal object of
any state. In science we consider our objects apart; in practice it were an
error not to have them all in our view at once.

One nation, in search of gold and of precious metals, neglect the domestic
sources of wealth; and become dependent on their neighbours for the
necessaries of life: another so intent on improving their internal
resources, and on increasing their commerce, that they become dependent on
foreigners for the defence of what they acquire. It is even painful in
conversation to find the interest of merchants give the tone to our
reasonings, and to find a subject perpetually offered as the great business
of national councils, to which any interposition of government is seldom,
with propriety, applied, or never, beyond the protection it affords.

We complain of a want of public spirit; but whatever may be the effect of
this error in practice, in speculation it is none of our faults: we reason
perpetually for the public; but the want of national views were frequently
better than the possession of those we express: we would have nations, like
a company of merchants, think of nothing but monopolies, and the profit of
trade, and, like them too, intrust their protection to a force which they
do not possess in themselves.

Because men, like other animals, are maintained in multitudes, where the
necessaries of life are amassed, and the store of wealth is enlarged, we
drop our regards for the happiness, the moral and political character of a
people; and, anxious for the herd we would propagate, carry our views no
farther than the stall and the pasture. We forget that the few have often
made a prey of the many; that to the poor there is nothing so enticing as
the coffers of the rich; and that when the price of freedom comes to be
paid, the heavy sword of the victor may fall into the opposite scale.

Whatever be the actual conduct of nations in this matter, it is certain,
that many of our arguments would hurry us, for the sake of wealth and of
population, into a scene where mankind, being exposed to corruption, are
unable to defend their possessions; and where they are, in the end, subject
to oppression and ruin. We cut off the roots, while we would extend the
branches, and thicken the foliage.

It is possibly from an opinion that the virtues of men are secure, that
some, who turn their attention to public affairs, think of nothing but the
numbers and wealth of a people: it is from a dread of corruption, that
others think of nothing but how to preserve the national virtues. Human
society has great obligations to both. They are opposed to one another only
by mistake; and even when united, have not strength sufficient to combat
the wretched party, that refers every object to personal interest, and that
cares not for the safety or increase of any stock but its own.



It is impossible to ascertain how much of the policy of any state has a
reference to war, or to national safety. "Our legislator," says the Cretan
in Plato, "thought that nations were by nature in a state of hostility: he
took his measures accordingly; and observing that all the possessions of
the vanquished pertain to the victor, he held it ridiculous to propose any
benefit to his country, before he had provided that it should not be

Crete, which is supposed to have been a model of military policy, is
commonly considered as the original from which the celebrated laws of
Lycurgus were copied. Mankind, it seems, in every instance, must have some
palpable object to direct their proceedings, and must have a view to some
point of external utility, even in the choice of their virtues. The
discipline of Sparta was military; and a sense of its use in the field,
more than the force of unwritten and traditionary laws, or the supposed
engagement of the public faith obtained by the lawgiver, may have induced
this people to persevere in the observance of many rules, which to other
nations do not appear necessary, except in the presence of an enemy.

Every institution of this singular people gave a lesson of obedience, of
fortitude, and of zeal for the public: but it is remarkable that they chose
to obtain, by their virtues alone, what other nations are fain to buy with
their treasure; and it is well known, that, in the course of their history,
they came to regard their discipline merely on account of its moral
effects. They had experienced the happiness of a mind courageous,
disinterested, and devoted to its best affections; and they studied to
preserve this character in themselves, by resigning the interests of
ambition, and the hopes of military glory, even by sacrificing the numbers
of their people.

It was the fate of Spartans who escaped from the field, not of those who
perished with Cleombrotus at Leuctra, that filled the cottages of Lacedemon
with mourning and serious reflection: [Footnote: Xenophon.] it was the fear
of having their citizens corrupted abroad, by intercourse with servile and
mercenary men, that made them quit the station of leaders in the Persian
war, and leave Athens, during fifty years, to pursue, unrivalled, that
career of ambition and profit, by which she made such acquisitions of power
and of wealth. [Footnote: Thucydides, Book I.]

We have had occasion to observe, that in every rude state the great
business is war; and that in barbarous times, mankind being generally
divided into small parties, are engaged in almost perpetual hostilities.
This circumstance gives the military leader a continued ascendant in his
country, and inclines every people, during warlike ages, to monarchical

The conduct of an army can least of all subjects be divided: and we may be
justly surprised to find that the Romans, after many ages of military
experience, and after having recently felt the arms of Hannibal in many
encounters, associated two leaders at the head of the same army, and left
them to adjust their pretensions, by taking the command, each a day in his
turn. The same people, however, on other occasions, thought it expedient to
suspend the exercise of every subordinate magistracy, and in the time of
great alarms, to intrust all the authority of the state in the hands of one

Republics have generally found it necessary, in the conduct of war, to
place great confidence in the executive branch of their government. When a
consul at Rome had proclaimed his levies, and administered the military
oath, he became from that moment master of the public treasury, and of the
lives of those who were under his command. [Footnote: Polybius.] The axe
and the rods were no longer a mere badge of magistracy, or an empty
pageant, in the hands of the lictor; they were, at the command of the
father, stained with the blood of his own children; and fell, without
appeal, on the mutinous and disobedient of every condition.

In every free state, there is a perpetual necessity to distinguish the
maxims of martial law from those of the civil; and he who has not learned
to give an implicit obedience, where the state has given him a military
leader, and to resign his personal freedom in the field, from the same
magnanimity with which he maintains it in the political deliberations of
his country, has yet to learn the most important lesson of civil society,
and is only fit to occupy a place in a rude, or in a corrupted state, where
the principles of mutiny and of servility being joined, the one or the
other is frequently adopted in the wrong place.

From a regard to what is necessary in war, nations inclined to popular or
aristocratical government, have had recourse to establishments that
bordered on monarchy. Even where the highest office of the state was in
common times administered by a plurality of persons, the whole power and
authority belonging to it was, on particular occasions, committed to one;
and upon great alarms, when the political fabric was shaken or endangered,
a monarchical power has been applied, like a prop, to secure the state
against the rage of the tempest. Thus were the dictators occasionally named
at Rome, and the stadtholders in the United Provinces; and thus, in mixed
governments, the royal prerogative is occasionally enlarged, by the
temporary suspension of laws, [Footnote: In Britain, by the suspension of
the _Habeas Corpus_.] and the barriers of liberty appear to be
removed, in order to vest a dictatorial power in the hands of the king.

Had mankind, therefore, no view but to warfare, it is probable that they
would continue to prefer monarchical government to any other; or at least
that every nation, in order to procure secret and united councils, would
intrust the executive power with unlimited authority. But happily for civil
society, men have objects of a different sort: and experience has taught,
that although the conduct of armies requires an absolute and undivided
command; yet a national force is best formed, where numbers of men are
inured to equality; and where the meanest citizen may consider himself,
upon occasion, as destined to command as well as to obey. It is here that
the dictator finds a spirit and a force prepared to second his councils; it
is here too that the dictator himself is formed, and that numbers of
leaders are presented to the public choice; it is here that the prosperity
of a state is independent of single men, and that a wisdom which never
dies, with a system of military arrangements permanent and regular, can,
even under the greatest misfortunes, prolong the national struggle. With
this advantage the Romans, finding a number of distinguished leaders arise
in succession, were at all times almost equally prepared to contend with
their enemies of Asia or Africa; while the fortune of those enemies, on the
contrary, depended on the casual appearance of singular men, of a
Mithridates, or of a Hannibal.

The soldier, we are told, has his point of honour, and a fashion of
thinking, which he wears with his sword. This point of honour, in free and
uncorrupted states, is a zeal for the public; and war to them is an
operation of passions, not the mere pursuit of a calling. Its good and its
ill effects are felt in extremes: the friend is made to experience the
warmest proofs of attachment, the enemy the severest effects of animosity.
On this system the celebrated nations of antiquity made war under their
highest attainments of civility, and under their greatest degrees of

In small and rude societies, the individual finds himself attacked in every
national war; and none can propose to devolve his defence on another. "The
king of Spain is a great prince," said an American chief to the governor of
Jamaica, who was preparing a body of troops to join in an enterprise
against the Spaniards: "Do you propose to make war upon so great a king
with so small a force?" Being told that the forces he saw were to be joined
by troops from Europe, and that the governor could then command no more:
"Who are these then," said the American, "who form this crowd of
spectators? Are they not your people? And why do you not all go forth to so
great a war?" He was answered, that the spectators were merchants, and
other inhabitants, who took no part in the service: "Would they be
merchants still," continued this statesman, "if the king of Spain, was to
attack you here? For my part, I do not think that merchants should be
permitted to live in any country: when I go to war, I leave nobody at home
but the women." It should seem that this simple warrior considered
merchants as a kind of neutral persons, who took no part in the quarrels of
their country; and that he did not know how much war itself may be made a
subject of traffic; what mighty armies may be put in motion from behind the
counter; how often human blood is, without any national animosity, bought
and sold for bills of exchange; and how often the prince, the nobles, and
the statesmen, in many a polished nation, might, in his account, be
considered as merchants.

In the progress of arts and of policy, the members of every state are
divided into classes; and in the commencement of this distribution, there
is no distinction more serious than that of the warrior and the pacific
inhabitant; no more is required to place men in the relation of master and
slave. Even when the rigours of an established slavery abate, as they have
done in modern Europe, in consequence of a protection, and a property,
allowed to the mechanic and labourer, this distinction serves still to
separate the noble from the base, and to point out that class of men who
are destined to reign and to domineer in their country.

It was certainty never foreseen by mankind, that, in the pursuit of
refinement, they were to reverse this order; or even that they were to
place the government, and the military force of nations, in different
hands. But is it equally unforeseen, that the former order may again take
place? And that the pacific citizen, however distinguished by privilege and
rank, must one day bow to the person with whom he has intrusted his sword?
If such revolutions should actually follow, will this new master revive in
his own order the spirit of the noble and the free? Will he renew the
characters of the warrior and the statesman? Will he restore to his country
the civil and military virtues? I am afraid to reply. Montesquieu observes,
that the government of Rome, even under the emperors, became, in the hands
of the troops, elective and republican: but the Fabii or the Bruti were
heard of no more after the praetorian bands became the republic.

We have enumerated some of the heads under which a people, as they emerge
from barbarity, may come to be classed. Such are, the nobility, the people,
the adherents of the prince; and even the priesthood have not been
forgotten; when we arrive at times of refinement, the army must be joined
to the list. The departments of civil government and of war being severed,
and the pre-eminence being given to the statesman, the ambitious will
naturally devolve the military service on those who are contented with a
subordinate station. They who have the greatest share in the division of
fortune, and the greatest interest in defending their country, having
resigned the sword, must pay for what they have ceased to perform; and
armies, not only at a distance from home, but in the very bosom of their
country, are subsisted by pay. A discipline is invented to inure the
soldier to perform, from habit, and from the fear of punishment, those
hazardous duties, which the love of the public, or a national spirit, no
longer inspire.

When we consider the breach that such an establishment makes in the system
of national virtues, it is unpleasant to observe, that most nations who
have run the career of civil arts, have, in some degree, adopted this
measure. Not only states, which either have wars to maintain, or precarious
possessions to defend at a distance; not only a prince jealous of his
authority, or in haste to gain the advantage of discipline, are disposed to
employ foreign troops, or to keep standing armies; but even republics, with
little of the former occasion, and none of the motives which prevail in
monarchy, have been found to tread in the same path. If military
arrangements occupy so considerable a place in the domestic policy of
nations, the actual consequences of war are equally important in the
history of mankind. Glory and spoil were the earliest subject of quarrels:
a concession of superiority, or a ransom, were the prices of peace. The
love of safety, and the desire of dominion, equally lead mankind to wish
for accessions of strength. Whether as victors or as vanquished, they tend
to a coalition; and powerful nations considering a province, or a fortress
acquired on their frontier, as so much gained, are perpetually intent on
extending their limits.

The maxims of conquest are not always to be distinguished from those of
self defence. If a neighbouring state be dangerous, if it be frequently
troublesome, it is a maxim founded in the consideration of safety, as well
as of conquest, that it ought to be weakened or disarmed: if, being once
reduced, it be disposed to renew the contest, it must from thenceforward be
governed in form. Rome never avowed any other maxims of conquest; and she
every where sent her insolent armies under the specious pretence of
procuring to herself and her allies a lasting peace, which she alone would
reserve the power to disturb.

The equality of those alliances which the Grecian states formed against
each other, maintained, for a time, their independence and separation; and
that time was the shining and the happy period of their story. It was
prolonged more by the vigilance and conduct which they severally applied,
than by the moderation of their councils, or by any peculiarities of
domestic policy which arrested their progress. The victors were sometimes
contented, with merely changing to a resemblance of their own forms, the
government of the states they subdued. What the next step might have been
in the progress of impositions, is hard to determine. But when we consider,
that one party fought for the imposition of tributes, another for the
ascendant in war, it cannot be doubted, that the Athenians, from a national
ambition, and from the desire of wealth; and the Spartans, though they
originally only meant to defend themselves, and their allies, were both, at
last, equally willing to become the masters of Greece; and were preparing
for each other at home that yoke, which both, together with their
confederates, were obliged to receive from abroad.

In the conquests of Philip, the desire of self-preservation and security
seemed to be blended with the ambition natural to princes. He turned his
arms successively to the quarters on which he found himself hurt, from
which he had been alarmed or provoked; and when he had subdued the Greeks,
he proposed to lead them against their ancient enemy of Persia. In this he
laid the plan which was carried into execution by his son.

The Romans, become the masters of Italy, and the conquerors of Carthage,
had been alarmed on the side of Macedon, and were led to cross a new sea in
search of a new field, on which to exercise their military force. In
prosecution of their wars, from the earliest to the latest date of their

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Online LibraryAdam FergusonAn Essay on the History of Civil Society, Eighth Edition → online text (page 14 of 26)