Adam Ferguson.

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

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before single men, and senates are passive, as if composed of members who
had no opinion or sense of their own; on whose side have the defences of
freedom given way, or to whom shall we impute their fall? To the subject,
who has deserted his station; or to the sovereign, who has only remained in
his own, and who, if the collateral or subordinate members of government
shall cease to question his power, must continue to govern without

It is well known, that constitutions framed for the preservation of
liberty, must consist of many parts; and that senates, popular assemblies,
courts of justice, magistrates of different orders, must combine to balance
each other, while they exercise, sustain, or check the executive power. If
any part is struck out, the fabric must totter, or fall; if any member is
remiss, the others must encroach. In assemblies constituted by men of
different talents, habits, and apprehensions, it were something more than
human that could make them agree in every point of importance; having
different opinions and views, it were want of integrity to abstain from
disputes: our very praise of unanimity, therefore, is to be considered as a
danger to liberty. We wish for it at the hazard of taking in its place the
remissness of men grown indifferent to the public; the venality of those
who have sold the rights of their country; or the servility of others, who
give implicit obedience to a leader, by whom their minds are subdued. The
love of the public, and respect to its laws, are the points in which
mankind are bound to agree; but if, in matters of controversy, the sense of
any individual or party is invariably pursued, the cause of freedom is
already betrayed.

He whose office it is to govern a supine or an abject people, cannot, for a
moment, cease to extend his powers. Every execution of law, every movement
of the state, every civil and military operation, in which his power is
exerted, must serve to confirm his authority, and present him to the view
of the public as the sole object of consideration, fear, and respect. Those
very establishments which were devised, in one age, to limit or to direct
the exercise of an executive power, will serve, in another, to remove
obstructions, and to smooth its way; they will point out the channels in
which it may run, without giving offence, or without exciting alarms, and
the very councils which were instituted to check its encroachments, will,
in a time of corruption, furnish an aid to its usurpations.

The passion for independence, and the love of dominion, frequently arise
from a common source: there is, in both, an aversion to control; and he
who, in one situation, cannot brook a superior, may, in another, dislike to
be joined with an equal.

What the prince, under a pure or limited monarchy, is, by the constitution
of his country, the leader of a faction would willingly become in
republican governments. If he attains to this envied condition, his own
inclination, or the tendency of human affairs, seem to open before him the
career of a royal ambition: but the circumstances in which he is destined
to act, are very different from those of a king. He encounters with men who
are unused to disparity; he is obliged, for his own security, to hold the
dagger continually unsheathed. When he hopes to be safe, he possibly means
to be just; but is hurried, from the first moment of his usurpation, into
every exercise of despotical power. The heir of a crown has no such quarrel
to maintain with his subjects: his situation is flattering; and the heart
must be uncommonly bad that does not glow with affection to a people, who
are at once his admirers, his support, and the ornaments of this reign. In
him, perhaps, there is no explicit design of trespassing on the rights of
his subjects; but the forms intended to preserve their freedom are not, on
this account, always safe in his hands.

Slavery has been imposed upon mankind in the wantonness of a depraved
ambition, and tyrannical cruelties have been committed in the gloomy hours
of jealousy and terror; yet these demons are not necessary to the creation,
or to the support of an arbitrary power. Although no policy was ever more
successful than that of the Roman republic in maintaining a national
fortune; yet subjects, as well as their princes, frequently imagine that
freedom is a clog on the proceedings of government: they imagine, that
despotical power is best fitted to procure despatch and secrecy in the
execution of public councils; to maintain what they are pleased to call
_political order_, [Footnote: Our notion of order in civil society
being taken from the analogy of subjects inanimate and dead, is frequently
false; we consider commotion and action as contrary to its nature; we think
that obedience, secrecy, and the silent passing of affairs through the
hands of a few, are its real constituents. The good order of stones in a
wall, is their being properly fixed in the places for which they are hewn;
were they to stir, the building must fall: but the good order of men in
society, is their being placed where they are properly qualified to act.
The first is a fabric made of dead and inanimate parts, the second is made
of living and active members. When we seek in society for the order of mere
inaction and tranquillity, we forget the nature of our subject, and find
the order of slaves, not that of freemen.] and to give a speedy redress of
complaints. They even sometimes acknowledge, that if a succession of good
princes could be found, despotical government is best calculated for the
happiness of mankind. While they reason thus, they cannot blame a
sovereign, who, in the confidence that he is to employ his power for good
purposes, endeavours to extend its limits; and, in his own apprehension,
strives only to shake off the restraints which stand in the way of reason,
and which prevent the effect of his friendly intentions.

Thus prepared for usurpation, let him, at the head of a free state, employ
the force with which he is armed, to crush the seeds of apparent disorder
in every corner of his dominions; let him effectually curb the spirit of
dissention and variance among his people; let him remove the interruptions
to government, arising from the refractory humours and the private
interests of his subjects: let him collect the force of the state against
its enemies, by availing himself of all it can furnish in the way of
taxation and personal service: it is extremely probable that, even under
the direction of wishes for the good of mankind, he may break through every
barrier of liberty, and establish a despotism, while he flatters himself
that he only follows the dictates of sense and propriety.

When we suppose government to have bestowed a degree of tranquillity which
we sometimes hope to reap from it, as the best of its fruits, and public
affairs to proceed, in the several departments of legislation and
execution, with the least possible interruption to commerce and lucrative
arts; such a state, like that of China, by throwing affairs into separate
offices, where conduct consists in detail, and in the observance of forms,
by superseding all the exertions of a great or a liberal mind, is more akin
to despotism than we are apt to imagine.

Whether oppression, injustice, and cruelty, are the only evils which attend
on despotical government, may be considered apart. In the mean time it is
sufficient to observe, that liberty is never in greater danger than it is
when we measure national felicity by the blessings which a prince may
bestow, or by the mere tranquillity which may attend on equitable
administration. The sovereign may dazzle with his heroic qualities; he may
protect his subjects in the enjoyment of every animal advantage or
pleasure: but the benefits arising from liberty are of a different sort;
they are not the fruits of a virtue, and of a goodness, which operate in
the breast of one man, but the communication of virtue itself to many; and
such a distribution of functions in civil society, as gives to numbers the
exercises and occupations which pertain to their nature.

The best constitutions of government are attended with inconvenience; and
the exercise of liberty may, on many occasions, give rise to complaints.
When we are intent on reforming abuses, the abuses of freedom may lead us
to encroach on the subject from which they are supposed to arise. Despotism
itself has certain advantages, or at least, in times of civility and
moderation, may proceed with so little offence, as to give no public alarm.
These circumstances may lead mankind, in the very spirit of reformation, or
by mere inattention, to apply or to admit of dangerous innovations in the
state of their policy.

Slavery, however, is not always introduced by mistake; it is sometimes
imposed in the spirit of violence and rapine. Princes become corrupt as
well as their people; and whatever may have been the origin of despotical
government, its pretensions, when fully declared, give rise between the
sovereign and his subjects to a contest which force alone can decide. These
pretensions have a dangerous aspect to the person, the property, or the
life of every subject; they alarm every passion in the human breast; they
disturb the supine; they deprive the venal of his hire; they declare war on
the corrupt as well as the virtuous; they are tamely admitted only by the
coward; but even to him must be supported by a force that can work on his
fears. This force the conqueror brings from abroad; and the domestic
usurper endeavours to find in his faction at home.

When a people is accustomed to arms, it is, difficult for a part to subdue
the whole; or before the establishment of disciplined armies, it is
difficult for any usurper to govern the many by the help of a few. These
difficulties, however, the policy of civilized and commercial nations has
sometimes removed; and by forming a distinction between civil and military
professions, by committing the keeping and the enjoyment of liberty to
different hands, has prepared the way for the dangerous alliance of faction
with military power, in opposition to mere political forms and the rights
of mankind.

A people who are disarmed in compliance with this fatal refinement, have
rested their safety on the pleadings of reason and of justice at the
tribunal of ambition and of force. In such an extremity laws are quoted and
senators are assembled in vain. They who compose a legislature, or who
occupy the civil departments of state, may deliberate on the messages they
receive from the camp or the court; but if the bearer, like the centurion
who brought the petition of Octavius to the Roman senate, shew the hilt of
his sword, [Footnote: Sueton.] they find that petitions are become
commands, and that they themselves are become the pageants, not the
repositories of sovereign power.

The reflections of this section may be unequally applied to nations of
unequal extent. Small communities, however corrupted, are not prepared for
despotical government; their members, crowded together and contiguous to
the seats of power, never forget their relation to the public; they pry,
with habits of familiarity and freedom, into the pretensions of those who
would rule; and where the love of equality, and the sense of justice, have
failed, they act on motives of faction, emulation, and envy. The exiled
Tarquin had his adherents at Rome; but if by their means he had recovered
his station, it is probable that, in the exercise of his royalty, he must
have entered on a new scene of contention with the very party that restored
him to power.

In proportion as territory is extended, its parts lose their relative
importance to the whole. Its inhabitants cease to perceive their connection
with the state, and are seldom united in the execution of any national, or
even any factious designs. Distance from the seats of administration, and
indifference to the persons who contend for preferment, teach the majority
to consider themselves as the subjects of a sovereignty, not as the members
of a political body. It is even remarkable, that enlargement of territory,
by rendering the individual of less consequence to the public, and less
able to intrude with his counsel, actually tends to reduce national affairs
within a narrower compass, as well as to diminish the numbers who are
consulted in legislation, or in other matters of government.

The disorders to which a great empire is exposed, require speedy
prevention, vigilance, and quick execution. Distant provinces must be kept
in subjection by military force; and the dictatorial powers, which, in free
states, are sometimes raised to quell insurrections, or to oppose other
occasional evils, appear, under a certain extent of dominion, at all times
equally necessary to suspend the dissolution of a body, whose parts were
assembled, and must be cemented, by measures forcible, decisive, and
secret. Among the circumstances, therefore, which, in the event of national
prosperity, and in the result of commercial arts, lead to the establishment
of despotism, there is none, perhaps, that arrives at this termination with
so sure an aim, as the perpetual enlargement of territory. In every state,
the freedom of its members depends on the balance and adjustment of its
interior parts; and the existence of any such freedom among mankind,
depends on the balance of nations. In the progress of conquest, those who
are subdued are said to have lost their liberties; but from the history of
mankind, to conquer, or to be conquered, has appeared, in effect, the same.



Mankind, when they degenerate, and tend to their ruin, as well as when they
improve, and gain real advantages, frequently proceed by slow, and almost
insensible steps. If, during ages of activity and vigour, they fill up the
measure of national greatness to a height which no human wisdom could at a
distance foresee; they actually incur, in ages of relaxation and weakness,
many evils which their fears did not suggest, and which, perhaps, they had
thought far removed by the tide of success and prosperity.

We have already observed, that where men are remiss or corrupted, the
virtue of their leaders, or the good intention of their magistrates, will
not always secure them in the possession of political freedom. Implicit
submission to any leader, or the uncontrolled exercise of any power, even
when it is intended to operate for the good of mankind, may frequently end
in the subversion of legal establishments. This fatal revolution, by
whatever means it is accomplished, terminates in military government; and
this, though the simplest of all governments, is rendered complete by
degrees. In the first period of its exercise over men who have acted as
members of a free community, it can have only laid the foundation, not
completed the fabric, of a despotical policy. The usurper who has
possessed, with an army, the centre of a great empire, sees around him,
perhaps, the shattered remains of a former constitution; he may hear the
murmurs of a reluctant and unwilling submission; he may even see danger in
the aspect of many, from whose hands he may have wrested the sword, but
whose minds he has not subdued, nor reconciled to his power.

The sense of personal rights, or the pretension to privilege and honours,
which remain among certain orders of men, are so many bars in the way of a
recent usurpation. If they are not suffered to decay with age, and to wear
away in the progress of a growing corruption, they must be broken with
violence, and the entrance to every new accession of power must be stained
with blood. The effect, even in this case, is frequently tardy. The Roman
spirit, we know, was not entirely extinguished under a succession of
masters, and under a repeated application of bloodshed and poison. The
noble and respectable family still aspired to its original honours; the
history of the republic, the writings of former times, the monuments of
illustrious men, and the lessons of philosophy fraught with heroic
conceptions, continued to nourish the soul in retirement, and formed those
eminent characters, whose elevation, and whose fate, are, perhaps, the most
affecting subjects of human story. Though unable to oppose the general bent
to servility, they became, on account of their supposed inclinations,
objects of distrust and aversion, and were made to pay with their blood,
the price of a sentiment which they fostered in silence, and which glowed
only in the heart.

While despotism proceeds in its progress, by what principle is the
sovereign conducted in the choice of measures that tend to establish his
government? By a mistaken apprehension of his own good, sometimes even that
of his people, and by the desire which he feels on every particular
occasion, to remove the obstructions which impede the execution of his
will. When he has fixed a resolution, whoever reasons or remonstrates
against it is an enemy; when his mind is elated, whoever pretends to
eminence, and is disposed to act for himself, is a rival. He would leave no
dignity in the state, but what is dependent on himself; no active power,
but what carries the expression of his momentary pleasure. [Footnote:
Insurgere paulatim munia senatus, magistratuum, legum in se trahere.]
Guided by a perception as unerring as that of instinct, he never fails to
select the proper objects of his antipathy or of his favour. The aspect of
independence repels him; that of servility attracts. The tendency of his
administration is to quiet every restless spirit, and to assume every
function of government to himself. [Footnote: It is ridiculous to hear men
of a restless ambition, who would be the only actors in every scene,
sometimes complain of a refractory spirit in mankind: as if the same
disposition, from which they desire to usurp every office, did not incline
every other person to reason and to act at least for himself.] When the
power is adequate to the end, it operates as much in the hands of those who
do not perceive the termination, as it does in the hands of others by whom
it is best understood: the mandates of either, when just, should not be
disputed; when erroneous or wrong, they are supported by force.

You must die, was the answer of Octavius to every suit from a people that
implored his mercy. It was the sentence which some of his successors
pronounced against every citizen that was eminent for his birth or his
virtues. But are the evils of despotism confined to the cruel and
sanguinary methods, by which a recent dominion over a refractory and a
turbulent people is established or maintained? And is death the greatest
calamity which can afflict mankind under an establishment by which they are
divested of all their rights? They are, indeed, frequently suffered to
live; but distrust and jealousy, the sense of personal meanness, and the
anxieties which arise from the care of a wretched interest, are made to
possess the soul; every citizen is reduced to a slave; and every charm by
which the community engaged its members, has ceased to exist. Obedience is
the only duty that remains, and this is exacted by force. If, under such an
establishment, it be necessary to witness scenes of debasement and horror,
at the hazard of catching the infection, death becomes a relief; and the
libation which Thrasea was made to pour from his arteries, is to be
considered as a proper sacrifice of gratitude to Jove the Deliverer.
[Footnote: Porrectisque utriusque brachii venis, postquam cruorem effudit,
humum super spargens, proprius vocato Quaestore, _Libemus_, inquit,
_Jovi Liberatori_. Specta juvenis; et omen quidem Dii prohibeant;
ceterum in ea tempora natus es, quibus firmare animum deceat constantibus
exemplis. _Tacit. Ann. lib._ 16.]

Oppression and cruelty are not always necessary to despotical government;
and even when present, are but a part of its evils. It is founded on
corruption, and on the suppression of all the civil and the political
virtues; it requires its subjects to act from motives of fear; it would
assuage the passions of a few men at the expense of mankind; and would
erect the peace of society itself on the ruins of that freedom and
confidence from which alone the enjoyment, the force, and the elevation of
the human mind, are found to arise.

During the existence of any free constitution, and whilst every individual
possessed his rank and his privilege, or had his apprehension of personal
rights, the members of every community were, to one another, objects of
consideration and of respect; every point to be carried in civil society
required the exercise of talents, of wisdom, persuasion, and vigour, as
well as of power. But it is the highest refinement of a despotical
government, to rule by simple commands, and to exclude every art but that
of compulsion. Under the influence of this policy, therefore, the occasions
which employed and cultivated the understandings of men, which awakened
their sentiments, and kindled their imaginations, are gradually removed;
and the progress by which mankind attained to the honours of their nature,
in being engaged to act in society upon a liberal footing, was not more
uniform, or less interrupted, than that by which they degenerate in this
unhappy condition.

When we hear of the silence which reigns in the seraglio, we are made to
believe, that speech itself is become unnecessary; and that the signs of
the mute are sufficient to carry the most important mandates of government.
No arts, indeed, are required to maintain an ascendant where terror alone
is opposed to force, where the powers of the sovereign are delegated entire
to every subordinate officer: nor can any station bestow a liberality of
mind in a scene of silence and dejection, where every breast is possessed
with jealousy and caution, and where no object, but animal pleasure,
remains to balance the sufferings of the sovereign himself, or those of his

In other states, the talents of men are sometimes improved by the exercises
which belong to an eminent station; but here the master himself is probably
the rudest and least cultivated animal of the herd; he is inferior to the
slave whom he raises from a servile office to the first places of trust or
of dignity in his court. The primitive simplicity which formed ties of
familiarity and affection betwixt the sovereign and the keeper of his
herds, [Footnote: See Odyssey.] appears, in the absence of all affections,
to be restored, or to be counterfeited amidst the ignorance and brutality
which equally characterize all orders of men, or rather which level the
ranks, and destroy the distinction of persons in a despotical court.

Caprice and passion are the rules of government with the prince. Every
delegate of power is left to act by the same direction; to strike when he
is provoked; to favour when he is pleased. In what relates to revenue,
jurisdiction, or police, every governor of a province acts like a leader in
an enemy's country; comes armed with the terrors of fire and sword; and
instead of a tax, levies a contribution by force he ruins or spares as
either may serve his purpose. When the clamours of the oppressed, or the
reputation of a treasure amassed at the expense of a province, have reached
the ears of the sovereign, the extortioner is indeed made to purchase
impunity by imparting a share, or by forfeiting the whole of his spoil; but
no reparation is made to the injured; nay, the crimes of the minister are
first employed to plunder the people, and afterwards punished to fill the
coffers of the sovereign.

In this total discontinuance of every art that relates to just government
and national policy, it is remarkable, that even the trade of the soldier
is itself great neglected. Distrust and jealousy, on the part of the
prince, come in aid of his ignorance and incapacity; and these causes
operating together, serve to destroy the very foundation on which his power
is established. Any undisciplined rout of armed men passes for an army,
whilst a weak, dispersed, and unarmed people are sacrificed to military
disorder, or exposed to depredation on the frontier from an enemy, whom the
desire of spoil, or the hopes of conquest, may have drawn to their

The Romans extended their empire till they left no polished nation to be
subdued, and found a frontier which was every where surrounded by fierce
and barbarous tribes; they even pierced through uncultivated deserts, in
order to remove to a greater distance the molestation of such troublesome

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Online LibraryAdam FergusonAn Essay on the History of Civil Society, Eighth Edition → online text (page 25 of 26)