Adam Ferguson.

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

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presented by either, the traveller or the inhabitant may submit from a
sense of necessity or fear; but he lies under no obligation from a motive
of duty or justice.

The multiplicity of forms, in the mean time, which different societies
offer to our view, is almost infinite. The classes into which they
distribute their members, the manner in which they establish the
legislative and executive powers, the imperceptible circumstances by which
they are led to have different customs, and to confer on their governors
unequal measures of power and authority, give rise to perpetual
distinctions between constitutions the most nearly resembling each other,
and give to human affairs a variety in detail, which, in its full extent,
no understanding can comprehend, and no memory retain.

In order to have a general and comprehensive knowledge of the whole, we
must be determined on this, as on every other subject, to overlook many
particulars and singularities, distinguishing different governments; to fix
our attention on certain points, in which many agree; and thereby establish
a few general heads, under which the subject may be distinctly considered.
When we have marked the characteristics which form the general points of
coincidence; when we have pursued them to their consequences in the several
modes of legislation, execution, and judicature, in the establishments
which relate to police, commerce, religion, or domestic life; we have made
an acquisition of knowledge, which, though it does not supersede the
necessity of experience, may serve to direct our inquiries, and, in the
midst of affairs, give an order and a method for the arrangement of
particulars that occur to our observation.

When I recollect what the President Montesquieu has written, I am at a loss
to tell, why I should treat of human affairs; but I too am instigated by my
reflections, and my sentiments; and I may utter them more to the
comprehension of ordinary capacities, because I am more on the level of
ordinary men. If it be necessary to pave the way for what follows on the
general history of nations, by giving some account of the heads under which
various forms of government may be conveniently ranged, the reader should
perhaps be referred to what has been already delivered on the subject by
this profound politician and amiable moralist. In his writings will be
found, not only the original of what I am now, for the sake of order, to
copy from him, but likewise probably the source of many observations,
which, in different places, I may, under the belief of invention, have
repeated, without quoting their author.

The ancient philosophers treated of government commonly under three heads;
the Democratic, the Aristocratic, and the Despotic. Their attention was
chiefly occupied with the varieties of republican government, and they paid
little regard to a very important distinction, which Mr. Montesquieu has
made, between despotism and monarchy. He too has considered government as
reducible to three general forms; and, "to understand the nature of each,"
he observes, "it is sufficient to recal ideas which are familiar with men
of the least reflection, who admit three definitions, or rather three
facts: that a republic is a state in which the people in a collective body,
or a part of the people, possess the sovereign power; that monarchy is that
in which one man governs, according to fixed and determinate laws; and a
despotism is that in which one man, without law, or rule of administration,
by the mere impulse of will or caprice, decides, and carries every thing
before him."

Republics admit of a very material distinction, which is pointed out in the
general definition; that between democracy and aristocracy. In the first,
supreme power remains in the hands of the collective body. Every office of
magistracy, at the nomination of this sovereign, is open to every citizen;
who, in the discharge of his duty, becomes the minister of the people, and
accountable to them for every object of his trust.

In the second, the sovereignty is lodged in a particular class, or order of
men; who, being once named, continue for life; or, by the hereditary
distinctions of birth and fortune, are advanced to a station of permanent
superiority. From this order, and by their nomination, all the offices of
magistracy are filled; and in the different assemblies which they
constitute, whatever relates to the legislation, the execution, or
jurisdiction, is finally determined.

Mr. Montesquieu has pointed out the sentiments or maxims from which men
must be supposed to act under these different governments.

In democracy, they must love equality; they must respect the rights of
their fellow citizens; they must unite by the common ties of affection to
the state.

In forming personal pretensions, they must be satisfied with that degree of
consideration they can procure by their abilities fairly measured with
those of an opponent; they must labour for the public without hope of
profit; they must reject every attempt to create a personal dependence.
Candour, force, and elevation of mind, in short, are the props of
democracy; and virtue is the principle of conduct required to its

How beautiful a pre-eminence on the side of popular government! And how
ardently should mankind wish for the form, if it tended to establish the
principle, or were, in every instance, a sure indication of its presence!

But perhaps we must have possessed the principle, in order, with any hopes
of advantage, to receive the form; and where the first is entirely
extinguished, the other may be fraught with evil, if any additional evil
deserves to be shunned where men are already unhappy.

At Constantinople or Algiers, it is a miserable spectacle when men pretend
to act on a foot of equality: they only mean to shake off the restraints of
government, and to seize as much as they can of that spoil, which, in
ordinary times, is engrossed by the master they serve.

It is one advantage of democracy, that the principal ground of distinction
being personal qualities, men are classed according to their abilities, and
to the merit of their actions. Though all have equal pretensions to power,
yet the state is actually governed by a few. The majority of the people,
even in their capacity of sovereign, only pretend to employ their senses;
to feel, when pressed by national inconveniencies, or threatened by public
dangers; and with the ardour which is apt to arise in crowded assemblies,
to urge the pursuits in which they are engaged, or to repel the attacks
with which they are menaced.

The most perfect equality of rights can never exclude the ascendant of
superior minds, nor the assemblies of a collective body govern without the
direction of select councils. On this as count, popular government may be
confounded with aristocracy. But this alone does not constitute the
character of aristocratical government. Here the members of the state are
divided, at least, into two classes; of which one is destined to command,
the other to obey. No merits or defects can raise or sink a person from one
class to the other. The only effect of personal character is, to procure to
the individual a suitable degree of consideration with his own order, not
to vary his rank. In one situation he is taught to assume, in another to
yield the pre-eminence. He occupies the station of patron or client, and is
either the sovereign or the subject of his country. The whole citizens may
unite in executing the plans of state, but never in deliberating on its
measures, or enacting its laws. What belongs to the whole people under
democracy, is here confined to a part. Members of the superior order are
among themselves, possibly, classed according to their abilities, but
retain a perpetual ascendant over those of inferior station. They are at
once the servants and the masters of the state, and pay, with their
personal attendance and with their blood, for the civil or military honours
they enjoy.

To maintain for himself, and to admit in his fellow citizen, a perfect
equality of privilege and station, is no longer the leading maxim of the
member of such a community. The rights of men are modified by their
condition. One order claims more than it is willing to yield; the other
must be ready to yield what it does not assume to itself; and it is with
good reason that Mr. Montesquieu gives to the principle of such governments
the name of _moderation_, not of _virtue_.

The elevation of one class is a moderated arrogance; the submission of the
other a limited deference. The first must be careful, by concealing the
invidious part of their distinction, to palliate what is grievous in the
public arrangement, and by their education, their cultivated manners, and
improved talents, to appear qualified for the stations they occupy. The
other, must be taught to yield, from respect and personal attachment, what
could not otherwise be extorted by force. When this moderation fails on
either side, the constitution totters. A populace enraged to mutiny, may
claim the right of equality to which they are admitted in democratical
states; or a nobility bent on dominion, may choose among themselves, or
find already pointed out to them, a sovereign, who, by advantages of
fortune, popularity, or abilities, is ready to seize for his own family,
that envied power which has already carried his order beyond the limits of
moderation, and infected particular men with a boundless ambition.
Monarchies have accordingly been found with the recent marks of
aristocracy. There, however, the monarch is only the first among the
nobles; he must be satisfied with a limited power; his subjects are ranged
into classes; he finds on every quarter a pretence to privilege that
circumscribes his authority; and he finds a force sufficient to confine his
administration within certain bounds of equity and determinate laws. Under
such governments, however, the love of equality is preposterous, and
moderation itself is unnecessary. The object of every rank is precedency,
and every order may display its advantages to their full extent. The
sovereign himself owes great part of his authority to the sounding titles
and the dazzling equipage which he exhibits in public. The subordinate
ranks lay claim to importance by a like exhibition, and for that purpose
carry in every instant the ensigns of their birth, or the ornaments of
their fortune. What else could mark out to the individual the relation in
which he stands to his fellow subjects, or distinguish the numberless ranks
that fill up the interval between the state of the sovereign and that of
the peasant? Or what else could, in states of a great extent, preserve any
appearance of order, among members disunited by ambition and interest, and
destined to form a community, without the sense of any common concern?

Monarchies are generally found where the state is enlarged, in population
and in territory, beyond the numbers and dimensions that are consistent
with republican government. Together with these circumstances, great
inequalities arise in the distribution of property; and the desire of
pre-eminence becomes the predominant passion. Every rank would exercise its
prerogative, and the sovereign is perpetually tempted to enlarge his own;
if subjects, who despair of precedence, plead for equality, he is willing
to favour their claims, and to aid them in reducing pretensions, with which
he himself is, on many occasions, obliged to contend. In the event of such
a policy, many invidious distinctions and grievances peculiar to
monarchical government, may, in appearance, be removed; but the state of
equality to which the subjects approach is that of slaves, equally
dependent on the will of a master, not that of freemen, in a condition to
maintain their own.

The principle of monarchy, according to Montesquieu, is honour. Men may
possess good qualities, elevation of mind, and fortitude; but the sense of
equality, that will hear no encroachment on the personal rights of the
meanest citizen; the indignant spirit, that will not court a protection,
nor accept as a favour what is due as a right; the public affection, which
is founded on the neglect of personal considerations, are neither
consistent with the preservation of the constitution, nor agreeable to the
habits acquired in any station assigned to its members.

Every condition is possessed of peculiar dignity, and points out a
propriety of conduct, which men of station are obliged to maintain. In the
commerce of superiors and inferiors, it is the object of ambition, and of
vanity, to refine on the advantages of rank; while, to facilitate the
intercourse of polite society, it is the aim of good breeding to disguise,
or reject them.

Though the objects of consideration are rather the dignities of station
than personal qualities; though friendship cannot be formed by mere
inclination, nor alliances by the mere choice of the heart; yet men so
united, and even without changing their order, are highly susceptible of
moral excellence, or liable to many different degrees of corruption. They
may act a vigorous part as members of the state, an amiable one in the
commerce of private society; or they may yield up their dignity as
citizens, even while they raise their arrogance and presumption as private

In monarchy, all orders of men derive their honours from the crown; but
they continue to hold them as a right, and they exercise a subordinate
power in the state, founded on the permanent rank they enjoy, and on the
attachment of those whom they are appointed to lead and protect. Though
they do not force themselves into national councils and public assemblies,
and though the name of senate is unknown, yet the sentiments they adopt
must have weight with the sovereign; and every individual, in his separate
capacity, in some measure, deliberates for his country. In whatever does
not derogate from his rank, he has an arm ready to serve the community; in
whatever alarms his sense of honour, he has aversions and dislikes, which
amount to a negative on the will of his prince.

Entangled together by the reciprocal ties of dependence and protection,
though not combined by the sense of a common interest, the subjects of
monarchy, like those of republics, find themselves occupied as the members
of an active society, and engaged to treat with their fellow creatures on a
liberal footing. If those principles of honour which save the individual
from servility in his own person, or from becoming an engine of oppression
in the hands of another, should fail; if they should give way to the maxims
of commerce, to the refinements of a supposed philosophy, or to the
misplaced ardours of a republican spirit; if they are betrayed by the
cowardice of subjects, or subdued by the ambition of princes; what must
become of the nations of Europe?

Despotism is monarchy corrupted, in which a court and a prince in
appearance remain, but in which every subordinate rank is destroyed; in
which the subject is told, that he has no rights; that he cannot possess
any property, nor fill any station independent of the momentary will of his
prince. These doctrines are founded on the maxims of conquest; they must be
inculcated with the whip and the sword; and are best received under the
terror of chains and imprisonment. Fear, therefore, is the principle which
qualifies the subject to occupy his station; and the sovereign, who holds
out the ensigns of terror so freely to others, has abundant reason to give
this passion a principal place with himself. That tenure which he has
devised for the rights of others, is soon applied to his own; and from his
eager desire to secure, or to extend his power, he finds it become, like
the fortunes of his people, a creature of mere imagination and unsettled

Whilst we thus, with so much accuracy, can assign the ideal limits that may
distinguish constitutions of government, we find them, in reality, both in
respect to the principle and the form, variously blended together. In what
society are not men classed by external distinctions, as well as personal
qualities? In what state are they not actuated by a variety of principles;
justice, honour, moderation, and fear? It is the purpose of science not to
disguise this confusion in its object, but, in the multiplicity and
combination of particulars, to find the principal points which deserve our
attention; and which, being well understood, save us from the embarrassment
which the varieties of singular cases might otherwise create. In the same
degree in which governments require men to act from principles of virtue,
of honour, or of fear, they are more or less fully comprised under the
heads of republic, monarchy, or despotism, and the general theory is more
or less applicable to their particular case.

Forms of government, in fact, mutually approach or recede by many, and
often insensible gradations. Democracy, by admitting certain inequalities
of rank, approaches to aristocracy. In popular, as well as aristocratical
governments, particular men; by their personal authority, and sometimes by
the credit of their family, have maintained a species of monarchical power.
The monarch is limited in different degrees: even the despotic prince is
only that monarch whose subjects claim the fewest privileges, or who is
himself best prepared to subdue them by force. All these varieties are but
steps in the history of mankind, and, mark the fleeting and transient
situations through which they have passed; while supported by virtue, or
depressed by vice.

Perfect democracy and despotism appear to be the opposite extremes at which
constitutions of government farthest recede from each other. Under the
first, a perfect virtue is required; under the second, a total corruption
is supposed: yet, in point of mere form, there being nothing fixed in the
ranks and distinctions of men beyond the casual and temporary possession of
power, societies easily pass from a condition in which every individual has
an equal title to reign, into one in which they are equally destined to
serve. The same qualities in both, courage, popularity, address, and
military conduct, raise the ambitious to eminence. With these qualities,
the citizen or the slave easily passes from the ranks to the command of an
army, from an obscure to an illustrious station. In either, a single person
may rule with unlimited sway; and in both, the populace may break down
every barrier of order, and restraint of law.

If we suppose that the equality established among the subjects of a
despotic state has inspired its members with confidence, intrepidity, and
the love of justice; the despotic prince, having ceased to be an object of
fear, must, sink among the crowd. If, on the contrary, the personal
equality which is enjoyed by the members of a democratical state, should be
valued merely as an equal pretension to the objects of avarice and
ambition, the monarch may start up anew, and be supported by those who mean
to share in his profits. When the rapacious and mercenary assemble in
parties, it is of no consequence under what leader they inlist, whether
Cæsar or Pompey; the hopes of rapine or pay are the only motives from which
they become attached to either.

In the disorder of corrupted societies, the scene has been frequently
changed from democracy to despotism, and from the last too, in its turn, to
the first. From amidst the democracy of corrupt men, and from a scene of
lawless confusion, the tyrant ascends a throne with arms reeking in blood.
But his abuses, or his weaknesses, in the station he has gained, in their
turn awaken and give way to the spirit of mutiny and revenge. The cries of
murder and desolation, which in the ordinary course of military government
terrified the subject in his private retreat, sound through the vaults, and
pierce the grates and iron doors of the seraglio. Democracy seems to revive
in a scene of wild disorder and tumult; but both the extremes are but the
transient fits of paroxysm or languor in a distempered state.

If men be anywhere arrived at this measure of depravity, there appears no
immediate hope of redress. Neither the ascendancy of the multitude, nor
that of the tyrant, will secure the administration of justice; neither the
license of mere tumult, nor the calm of dejection and servitude, will teach
the citizen that he was born for candour and affection to his fellow
creatures. And if the speculative would find that habitual state of war
which they are sometimes pleased to honour with the name of _the state of
nature_, they will find it in the contest that subsists between the
despotical prince and his subjects, not in the first approaches of a rude
and simple tribe to the condition and the domestic arrangement of nations.


* * * * *



* * * * *



The history of mankind is confined within a limited period, and from every
quarter brings an intimation that human affairs have had a beginning.
Nations, distinguished by the possession of arts, and the felicity of their
political establishments, have been derived from a feeble original, and
still preserve in their story the indications of a slow and gradual
progress, by which this distinction was gained. The antiquities of every
people, however diversified, and however disguised, contain the same
information on this point.

In sacred history, we find the parents of the species, as yet a single
pair, sent forth to inherit the earth, and to force a subsistence for
themselves amidst the briars and thorns which were made to abound on its
surface. Their race, which was again reduced to a few, had to struggle with
the dangers that await a weak and infant species; and after many ages
elapsed, the most respectable nations took their rise from one or a few
families that had pastured their flocks in the desert.

The Grecians derive their own origin from unsettled tribes, whose frequent
migrations are a proof of the rude and infant state of their communities;
and whose warlike exploits, so much celebrated in story, only exhibit the
struggles with which they disputed the possession of a country they
afterwards, by their talent for fable, by their arts, and their policy,
rendered so famous in the history of mankind.

Italy must have been divided into many rude and feeble cantons, when a band
of robbers, as we are taught to consider them, found a secure settlement on
the banks of the Tiber, and when a people, yet composed only of one sex,
sustained the character of a nation. Rome, for many ages, saw, from her
walls, on every side, the territory of her enemies, and found as little to
check or to stifle the weakness of her infant power, as she did afterwards
to restrain the progress of her extended empire. Like a Tartar or a
Scythian horde, which had pitched on a settlement, this nascent community
was equal, if not superior, to every tribe in its neighbourhood; and the
oak which has covered the field with its shade, was once a feeble plant in
the nursery, and not to be distinguished from the weeds by which its early
growth was restrained.

The Gauls and the Germans are come to our knowledge with the marks of a
similar condition; and the inhabitants of Britain, at the time of the first
Roman invasions; resembled, in many things, the present natives of North
America: they were ignorant of agriculture; they painted their bodies; and
used for clothing the skins of beasts.

Such, therefore, appears to have been the commencement of history with all
nations, and in such circumstances are we to look for the original
character of mankind. The inquiry refers to a distant period, and every
conclusion should build on the facts which are preserved for our use. Our
method, notwithstanding, too frequently, is to rest the whole on
conjecture; to impute every advantage of our nature to those arts which we
ourselves possess; and to imagine, that a mere negation of all our virtues
is a sufficient description of man in his original state. We are ourselves
the supposed standards of politeness and civilization; and where our own
features do not appear, we apprehend, that there is nothing which deserves
to be known. But it is probable that here, as in many other cases, we are
ill qualified, from our supposed knowledge of causes, to prognosticate
effects, or to determine what must have been the properties and operations,

Online LibraryAdam FergusonAn Essay on the History of Civil Society, Eighth Edition → online text (page 7 of 26)