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even of our own nature, in the absence of those circumstances in which we
have seen it engaged. Who would, from mere conjecture, suppose, that the
naked savage would be a coxcomb and a gamester? that he would be proud or
vain, without the distinctions of title and fortune? and that his principal
care would be to adorn his person, and to find an amusement? Even if it
could be supposed that he would thus share in our vices, and, in the midst
of his forest, vie with the follies which are practised in the town; yet no
one would be, so bold as to affirm, that he would likewise, in any
instance, excel us in talents and virtues; that he would have a
penetration, a force of imagination and elocution, an ardour of mind, an
affection and courage, which the arts, the discipline, and the policy of
few nations would be able to improve. Yet these particulars are a part in
the description which is delivered by those who have had opportunities of
seeing mankind in their rudest condition; and beyond the reach of such
testimony, we can neither safely take, nor pretend to give, information on
the subject.

If conjectures and opinions formed at a distance, have not sufficient
authority in the history of mankind, the domestic antiquities of every
nation must, for this very reason, be received with caution. They are, for
the most part, the mere conjectures or the fictions of subsequent ages; and
even where at first they contained some resemblance of truth, they still
vary with the imagination of those by whom they are transmitted, and in
every generation receive a different form. They are made to bear the stamp
of the times through which they have passed in the form of tradition, not
of the ages to which their pretended descriptions relate. The information
they bring, is not like the light reflected from a mirror, which delineates
the object from which it originally came; but, like rays that come broken
and dispersed from an opaque or unpolished surface, only give the colours
and features of the body from which they were last reflected.

When traditionary fables are rehearsed by the vulgar, they bear the marks
of a national character; and though mixed with absurdities, often raise the
imagination, and move the heart: when made the materials of poetry, and
adorned by the skill and the eloquence of an ardent and superior mind, they
instruct the understanding, as well as engage the passions. It is only in
the management of mere antiquaries, or stript of the ornaments which the
laws of history forbid them to wear, that they become even unfit to amuse
the fancy, or to serve any purpose whatever.

It were absurd to quote the fable of the Iliad or the Odyssey, the legends
of Hercules, Theseus, or Oedipus, as authorities in matter of fact relating
to the history of mankind; but they may, with great justice, be cited to
ascertain what were the conceptions and sentiments, of the age in which
they were composed, or to characterize the genius of that people, with
whose imaginations they were blended, and by whom they were fondly
rehearsed and admired.

In this manner fiction may be admitted to vouch for the genius of nations,
while history has nothing to offer that is entitled to credit. The Greek
fable accordingly conveying a character of its authors, throws light on
some ages of which no other record remains. The superiority of this people
is indeed in no circumstance more evident than in the strain of their
fictions, and in the story of those fabulous heroes, poets, and sages,
whose tales, being invented or embellished by an imagination already filled
with the subject for which the hero was celebrated, served to inflame that
ardent enthusiasm, with which so many different republics afterwards
proceeded in the pursuit of every national object.

It was no doubt of great advantage to those nations, that their system of
fable was original, and being already received in popular traditions,
served to diffuse those improvements of reason, imagination, and sentiment,
which were afterwards, by men of the finest talents, made on the fable
itself, or conveyed in its moral. The passions of the poet pervaded the
minds of the people, and the conceptions of men of genius, being
communicated to the vulgar, became the incentives of a national spirit.

A mythology borrowed from abroad, a literature founded on references to a
strange country, and fraught with foreign allusions, are much more confined
in their use: they speak to the learned alone; and though intended to
inform the understanding, and to mend the heart, may, by being confined to
a few, have an opposite effect. They may foster conceit on the ruins of
common sense, and render what was, at least innocently, sung by the
Athenian mariner at his oar, or rehearsed by the shepherd in attending his
flock, an occasion of vice, or the foundation of pedantry and scholastic

Our very learning, perhaps, where its influence extends, serves, in some
measure, to depress our national spirit. Our literature being derived from
nations of a different race, who flourished at a time when our ancestors
were in a state of barbarity, and consequently, when they were despised by
those who had attained to the literary arts, has given rise to a humbling
opinion, that we ourselves are the offspring of mean and contemptible
nations, with whom the human imagination and sentiment had no effect, till
the genius was in a manner inspired by examples, and directed by lessons
that were brought from abroad. The Romans, from whom our accounts are
chiefly derived, have admitted, in the rudeness of their own ancestors, a
system of virtues, which all simple nations perhaps equally possess; a
contempt of riches; love of their country, patience of hardship, danger,
and fatigue. They have, notwithstanding vilified, our ancestors for having
resembled their own; at least, in the defect of their arts, and in the
neglect of conveniencies which those arts are employed to procure.

It is from the Greek and the Roman historians, however, that we have not
only the most authentic and instructive, but even the most engaging
representations of the tribes from whom we descend. Those sublime and
intelligent writers understood human nature, and could collect its
features, and exhibit its characters, in every situation. They were ill
succeeded in this task by the early historians of modern Europe; who,
generally bred to the profession of monks, and confined to the monastic
life, applied themselves to record what they were pleased to denominate
facts, while they suffered the productions of genius to perish, and were
unable, either by the matter they selected, or the style of their
compositions, to give any representation of the active spirit of mankind in
any condition. With them, a narration was supposed to constitute history,
whilst it did not convey any knowledge of men; and history itself was
allowed to be complete, while, amidst the events and the succession of
princes that are recorded in the order of time, we are left to look in vain
for those characteristics of the understanding and the heart, which alone,
in every human transaction, render the story either engaging or useful.

We therefore willingly quit the history of our early ancestors, where Cæsar
and Tacitus have dropped them; and perhaps till we come within the reach of
what is connected with present affairs, and makes a part in the system on
which we now proceed, have little reason to expect any subject to interest
or inform the mind. We have no reason, however, from hence to conclude,
that the matter itself was more barren, or the scene of human affairs less
interesting, in modern Europe, than it has been on every stage where
mankind were engaged to exhibit the movements of the heart, the efforts of
generosity, magnanimity, and courage.

The trial of what those ages contained, is not even fairly made, when men
of genius and distinguished abilities, with the accomplishments of a
learned and a polished age, collect the materials they have found, and,
with the greatest success, connect the story of illiterate ages with
transactions of a later date. It is difficult even for them, under the
names which are applied in a new state of society, to convey a just
apprehension of what mankind were, in situations so different, and in times
so remote from their own.

In deriving from historians of this character the instruction which their
writings are fit to bestow, we are frequently to forget the general terms
that are employed, in order to collect the real manners of any age from the
minute circumstances that are occasionally presented. The titles of
_Royal_ and _Noble_ were applicable to the families of Tarquin,
Collatinus, and Cincinnatus; but Lucretia was employed in domestic industry
with her maids, and Cincinnatus followed the plough. The dignities, and
even the offices, of civil society, were known many ages ago, in Europe, by
their present appellations; but we find in the history of England, that a
king and his court being assembled to solemnize a festival, an outlaw, who
had subsisted by robbery, came to share in the feast. The king himself
arose to force this unworthy guest from the company; a scuffle ensued
between them; and the king was killed. [Footnote: Hume's History, chap. 8.
p. 278] A chancellor and prime minister, whose magnificence and sumptuous
furniture were the subject of admiration and envy, had his apartments
covered every day in winter with clean straw and hay, and in summer with
green rushes or boughs. Even the sovereign himself, in those ages, was
provided with forage for his bed. [Footnote: Hume's History, chap. 8. p.73]
These picturesque features, and characteristical strokes of the times,
recal the imagination from the supposed distinction of monarch and subject,
to that state of rough familiarity in which our ancestors lived, and under
which they acted, with a view to objects, and on principles of conduct,
which we seldom comprehend, when we are employed to record their
transactions, or to study their characters.

Thucydides, notwithstanding the prejudice of his country against the name
of _Barbarian_, understood that it was in the customs of barbarous
nations he was to study the more ancient manners of Greece.

The Romans might have found an image of their own ancestors, in the
representations they have given of ours; and if ever an Arab clan shall
become a civilized nation, or any American tribe escape the poison which is
administered by our traders of Europe, it may be from the relations of the
present times, and the descriptions which are now given by travellers, that
such a people, in after ages, may best collect the accounts of their
origin. It is in their present condition that we are to behold, as in a
mirror, the features of our own progenitors; and from thence we are to draw
our conclusions with respect to the influence of situations, in which we
have reason to believe that our fathers were placed.

What should distinguish a German or a Briton, in the habits of his mind or
his body, in his manners or apprehensions, from an American, who, like him,
with his bow and his dart, is left to traverse the forest; and in a like
severe or variable climate, is obliged to subsist by the chase?

If, in advanced years, we would form a just notion of our progress from the
cradle, we must have recourse to the nursery; and from the example of those
who are still in the period of life we mean to describe, take our
representation of past manners, that cannot, in any other way, be recalled.



From one to the other extremity of America; from Kamtschatka westward to
the river Oby; and from the Northern Sea, over that length of country, to
the confines of China, of India, and Persia; from the Caspian to the Red
Sea, with little exception, and from thence over the inland continent and
the western shores of Africa; we every where meet with nations on whom we
bestow the appellations of barbarous or savage. That extensive tract of the
earth, containing so great a variety of situation, climate, and soil,
should, in the manners of its inhabitants, exhibit all the diversities
which arise from the unequal influence of the sun, joined to a different
nourishment and manner of life. Every question, however, on this subject,
is premature, till we have first endeavoured to form some general
conception of our species in its rude state, and have learned to
distinguish mere ignorance from dulness, and the want of arts from the want
of capacity.

Of the nations who dwell in those, or any other of the less cultivated
parts of the earth, some entrust their subsistence chiefly to hunting,
fishing, or the natural produce of the soil. They have little attention to
property, and scarcely any beginnings of subordination or government.
Others, having possessed themselves of herbs, and depending for their
provision on pasture, know what it is to be poor and rich. They know the
relations of patron and client, of servant and master, and by the measures
of fortune determine their station. This distinction must create a material
difference of character, and may furnish two separate heads, under which to
consider the history, of mankind in their rudest state; that of the savage,
who is not yet acquainted with property; and that of the barbarian, to whom
it is, although not ascertained by laws, a principal object of care and

It must appear very evident, that property is a matter of progress. It
requires, among other particulars, which are the effects of time, some
method of defining possession. The very desire of it proceeds from
experience; and the industry by which it is gained, or improved, requires
such a habit of acting with a view to distant objects, as may overcome the
present disposition either to sloth or to enjoyment. This habit is slowly
acquired, and is in reality a principal distinction of nations in the
advanced state of mechanic and commercial arts.

In a tribe which subsists by hunting and fishing, the arms, the utensils,
and the fur, which the individual carries, are to him the only subjects of
property. The food of to-morrow is yet wild in the forest, or hid in the
lake; it cannot be appropriated before it is caught; and even then, being
the purchase of numbers, who fish or hunt in a body, it accrues to the
community, and is applied to immediate use, or becomes an accession to the
stores of the public.

Where savage nations, as in most parts of America, mix with the practice of
hunting some species of rude agriculture, they still follow, with respect
to the soil and the fruits of the earth, the analogy of their principal
object. As the men hunt, so the women labour together; and, after they have
shared the toils of the seed time, they enjoy the fruits of the harvest in
common. The field in which they have planted, like the district over which
they are accustomed to hunt, is claimed as a property by the nation, but is
not parcelled in lots to its members. They go forth in parties to prepare
the ground, to plant and to reap. The harvest is gathered into the public
granary, and from thence, at stated times, is divided into shares for the
maintenance of separate families. [Footnote: History of the Caribbees.]
Even the returns of the market, when they trade with foreigners, are
brought home to the stock of the nation. [Footnote: Charlevoix. This
account of Rude Nations, in most points of importance, so far as it relates
to the original North Americans, is not founded so much on the testimony of
this or the other writers cited, as it is on the concurring representations
of living witnesses, who, in the course of trade, of war, and of treaties,
have had ample occasion to observe the manners of that people. It is
necessary however, for the sake of those who may not have conversed with
the living witnesses, to refer to printed authorities.]

As the fur and the bow pertain to the individual, the cabin and its
utensils are appropriated to the family; and as the domestic cares are
committed to the women, so the property of the household seems likewise to
be vested in them. The children are considered as pertaining to the mother,
with little regard to descent on the father's side. The males, before they
are married, remain in the cabin in which they are born; but after they
have formed a new connection with the other sex, they change their
habitation, and become an accession to the family in which they have found
their wives. The hunter and the warrior are numbered by the matron as a
part of her treasure; they are reserved for perils and trying occasions;
and in the recess of public councils, in the intervals of hunting or war,
are maintained by the cares of the women, and loiter about in mere
amusement or sloth. [Footnote: Lafitau.]

While one sex continue to value themselves chiefly on their courage, their
talent for policy, and their warlike achievements, this species of property
which is bestowed on the other, is, in reality, a mark of subjection; not,
as some writers allege, of their having acquired an ascendant. [Footnote:
Ibid.] It is the care and trouble of a subject with which the warrior does
not choose to be embarrassed. It is a servitude, and a continual toil,
where no honours are won; and they whose province it is, are in fact the
slaves and the helots of their country. If in this destination of the
sexes, while the men continue to indulge themselves in the contempt of
sordid and mercenary arts, the cruel establishment of slavery is for some
ages deferred; if, in this tender, though unequal alliance, the affections
of the heart prevent the severities practised on slaves; we have in the
custom itself, as perhaps in many other instances, reason to prefer the
first suggestions of nature, to many of her after refinements.

If mankind, in any instance, continue the article of property on the
footing we have now represented, we may easily credit what is further
reported by travellers; that they admit of no distinctions of rank or
condition; and that they have in fact no degree of subordination different
from the distribution of function, which follows the differences of age,
talents, and dispositions. Personal qualities give an ascendant in the
midst of occasions which require their exertion; but in times of
relaxation, leave no vestige of power or prerogative. A warrior who has led
the youth of his nation to the slaughter of their enemies, or who has been
foremost in the chase, returns upon a level with the rest of his tribe; and
when the only business is to sleep, or to feed, can enjoy no pre-eminence;
for he sleeps and he feeds no better than they.

Where no profit attends dominion, one party is as much averse to the
trouble of perpetual command, as the other is to the mortification of
perpetual submission. "I love victory, I love great actions," says
Montesquieu, in the character of Sylla; "but have no relish for the languid
detail of pacific government, or the pageantry of high station." He has
touched perhaps what is a prevailing sentiment in the simplest state of
society, when the weakness of motive suggested by interest, and the
ignorance of any elevation not founded on merit, supplies the place of

The character of the mind, however, in this state, is not founded on
ignorance alone. Men are conscious of their equality, and are tenacious of
its rights. Even when they follow a leader to the field, they cannot brook
the pretensions to a formal command: they listen to no orders; and they
come under no military engagements, but those of mutual fidelity, and equal
ardour in the enterprise. [Footnote: Charlevoix.]

This description, we may believe, is unequally applicable to different
nations, who have made unequal advances in the establishment of property.
Among the Caribbees, and the other natives of the warmer climates in
America, the dignity of chieftain is hereditary, or elective, and continued
for life: the unequal distribution of property creates a visible
subordination. [Footnote: Wafer's Account of the Isthmus of Darien.] But
among the Iroquois, and other nations of the temperate zone, the titles of
_magistrate_ and _subject_, of _noble_ and _mean_, are as little known
as those of _rich_ and _poor_. The old men, without being invested with
any coercive power, employ their natural authority in advising or in
prompting the resolutions of their tribe: the military leader is pointed
out by the superiority of his manhood and valour; the statesman is
distinguished only by the attention with which his counsel is heard; the
warrior by the confidence with which the youth of his nation follow him
to the field; and if their concerts must be supposed to constitute a
species of political government, it is one to which no language of ours
can be applied. Power is more than the natural ascendancy of the mind;
the discharge of office no more than a natural exercise of the personal
character; and while the community acts with an appearance of order,
there is no sense of disparity in the breast of any of its members.
[Footnote: Colden's History of the Five Nations.]

In these happy, though informal proceedings, where age alone gives a place
in the council; where youth, ardour, and valour in the field, give a title
to the station of leader; where the whole community is assembled on any
alarming occasion, we may venture to say, that we have found the origin of
the senate, the executive power, and the assembly of the people;
institutions for which ancient legislators have been so much renowned. The
senate among the Greeks, as well as the Latins, appears, from the etymology
of its name, to have been originally composed of elderly men. The military
leader at Rome, in a manner not unlike to that of the American warrior,
proclaimed his levies, and the citizen prepared for the field, in
consequence of a voluntary engagement. The suggestions of nature, which
directed the policy of nations in the wilds of America, were followed
before on the banks of the Eurotas and the Tyber; and Lycurgus and Romulus
found the model of their institutions, where the members of every rude
nation find the earliest mode of uniting their talents, and combining their

Among the North American nations, every individual is independent; but he
is engaged by his affections and his habits in the cares of a family.
Families, like so many separate tribes, are subject to no inspection or
government from abroad; whatever passes at home, even bloodshed and murder,
are only supposed to concern themselves. They are, in the mean time, the
parts of a canton; the women assemble to plant their maize; the old men go
to council; the huntsman and the warrior joins the youth of his village in
the field. Many such cantons assemble to constitute a national council, or
to execute a national enterprise. When the Europeans made their first
settlements in America, six such nations had formed a league, had their
amphyctiones or states general, and, by the firmness of their union and the
ability of their councils, had obtained an ascendant from the mouth of St.
Lawrence to that of the Mississippi. [Footnote: Lafitau, Charlevoix,
Colden, &c.] They appeared to understand the objects of the confederacy, as
well as those of the separate nation; they studied a balance of power; the
statesman of one country watched the designs and proceedings of another;
and occasionally threw the weight of his tribe into a different scale. They
had their alliances and their treaties, which, like the nations of Europe,
they maintained, or they broke, upon reasons of state; and remained at
peace from a sense of necessity or expediency, and went to war upon any
emergence of provocation or jealousy.

Thus, without any settled form of government, or any bond of union, but
what resembled more the suggestion of instinct, than the invention of
reason, they conducted themselves with the concert and the force of
nations. Foreigners, without being able to discover who is the magistrate,
or in what manner the senate is composed, always find a council with whom
they may treat, or a band of warriors with whom they may fight. Without
police or compulsory, laws, their domestic society is conducted with order,
and the absence of vicious dispositions, is a better security than any
public establishment for the suppression of crimes.

Disorders, however, sometimes occur, especially in times of debauch, when
the immoderate use of intoxicating liquors, to which they are extremely
addicted, suspends the ordinary caution of their demeanour, and, inflaming

Online LibraryAdam FergusonAn Essay on the History of Civil Society, Eighth Edition → online text (page 8 of 26)