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their violent passions, engages them in quarrels and bloodshed. When a
person is slain, his murderer is seldom called to an immediate account; but
he has a quarrel to sustain with the family and the friends; or, if a
stranger, with the countrymen of the deceased; sometimes even with his own
nation at home, if the injury committed be of a kind to alarm the society.
The nation, the canton, or the family endeavour, by presents, to atone for
the offence of any of their members; and, by pacifying the parties
aggrieved, endeavour to prevent what alarms the community more than the
first disorder, the subsequent effects of revenge and animosity. [Footnote:
Lafitau.] The shedding of blood, however, if the guilty person remain where
he has committed the crime, seldom escapes unpunished: the friend of the
deceased knows how to disguise, though not to suppress, his resentment; and
even after many years have elapsed, is sure to repay the injury that was
done to his kindred or his house.

These considerations render them cautious and circumspect, put them on
their guard against their passions, and give to their ordinary deportment
an air of phlegm and composure superior to what is possessed among polished
nations. They are, in the mean time, affectionate in their carriage, and in
their conversations, pay a mutual attention and regard, says Charlevoix,
more tender and more engaging, than what we profess in the ceremonial of
polished societies.

This writer has observed, that the nations among whom he travelled in North
America, never mentioned acts of generosity or kindness under the notion of
duty. They acted from affection, as they acted from appetite, without
regard to its consequences. When they had done a kindness, they had
gratified a desire; the business was finished, and it passed from the
memory. When they received a favour, it might, or it might not, prove the
occasion of friendship: if it did not, the parties appeared to have no
apprehensions of gratitude, as a duty by which the one was bound to make a
return, or the other entitled to reproach the person who had failed in his
part. The spirit with which they give or receive presents, is the same
which, Tacitus observed among the ancient Germans; they delight in them,
but do not consider them as matter of obligation. [Footnote: Muneribus
gaudent, sed nec data imputant, nec acceptis obligantur.] Such gifts are of
little consequence, except when employed as the seal of a bargain or

It was their favourite maxim, that no man is naturally indebted to another;
that he is not, therefore, obliged to bear with any imposition, or unequal
treatment. [Footnote: Charlevoix] Thus, in a principle apparently sullen
and inhospitable, they have discovered the foundation of justice, and
observe its rules, with a steadiness and candour which no cultivation has
been found to improve. The freedom which they give in what relates to the
supposed duties of kindness and friendship, serves only to engage the heart
more entirely, where it is once possessed with affection. We love to choose
our object without any restraint, and we consider kindness itself as a
task, when the duties of friendship are exacted by rule. We therefore, by
our demand for attentions, rather corrupt than improve the system of
morality; and by our exactions of gratitude, and out frequent proposals to
enforce its observance, we only shew that we have mistaken its nature; we
only give symptoms of that growing sensibility to interest, from which we
measure the expediency of friendship and generosity itself; and by which we
would introduce the spirit of traffic into the commerce of affection. In
consequence of this proceeding, we are often obliged to decline a favour,
with the same spirit that we throw off a servile engagement, or reject a
bribe. To the unrefined savage every favour is welcome, and every present
received without reserve or reflection.

The love of equality, and the love of justice, were originally the same;
and although, by the constitution of different societies, unequal
privileges are bestowed on their members; and although justice itself
requires a proper regard to be paid to such privileges; yet he who has
forgotten that men were originally equal, easily degenerates into a slave;
or, in the capacity of a master, is not to be trusted with the rights of
his fellow creatures. This happy principle gives to the mind its sense of
independence, renders it indifferent to the favours which are in the power
of other men, checks it in the commission of injuries, and leaves the heart
open to the affections of generosity and kindness. It gives to the
untutored American that sentiment of candour, and of regard to the welfare
of others, which, in some degree, softens the arrogant pride of his
carriage, and in times of confidence and peace, without the assistance of
government or law, renders the approach and commerce of strangers secure.

Among this people, the foundations of honour are eminent abilities, and
great fortitude; not the distinctions of equipage and fortune: the talents
in esteem are such as their situation leads them to employ, the exact
knowledge of a country, and stratagem in war. On these qualifications, a
captain among the Caribbees underwent an examination. When a new leader was
to be chosen, a scout was sent forth to traverse the forests which led to
the enemy's country, and upon his return, the candidate was desired to find
the track in which he had travelled. A brook, or a fountain, was named to
him on the frontier, and he was desired to find the nearest path to a
particular station, and to plant a stake in the place. [Footnote: Lafitau]
They can, accordingly, trace a wild beast, or the human foot, over many
leagues of a pathless forest, and find their way across a woody and
uninhabited continent, by means of refined observations, which escape the
traveller who has been accustomed to different aids. They steer in slender
canoes, across stormy seas, with a dexterity equal to that of the most
experienced pilot. [Footnote: Charlevoix.] They carry a penetrating eye for
the thoughts and intentions of those with whom they have to deal; and when
they mean to deceive, they cover themselves with arts which the most
subtile can seldom elude. They harangue in their public councils with a
nervous and a figurative elocution; and conduct themselves in the
management of their treaties with a perfect discernment of their national

Thus being able masters in the detail of their own affairs, and well
qualified to acquit themselves on particular occasions, they study no
science, and go in pursuit of no general principles. They even seem
incapable of attending to any distant consequences, beyond those they have
experienced in hunting or war. They entrust the provision of every season
to itself; consume the fruits of the earth in summer; and, in winter, are
driven in quest of their prey, through woods, and over deserts covered with
snow. They do not form in one hour those maxims which may prevent the
errors of the next; and they fail in those apprehensions, which, in the
intervals of passion, produce ingenuous shame, compassion, remorse, or a
command of appetite. They are seldom made to repent of any violence; nor is
a person, indeed, thought accountable in his sober mood, for what he did in
the heat of a passion, or in a time of debauch.

Their superstitions are groveling and mean; and did this happen among rude
nations alone, we could not sufficiently admire the effects of politeness;
but it is a subject on which few nations are entitled to censure their
neighbours. When we have considered the superstitions of one people, we
find little variety in those of another. They are but a repetition of
similar weaknesses and absurdities, derived from a common source, a
perplexed apprehension of invisible agents, that are supposed to guide all
precarious events to which human foresight cannot extend.

In what depends on the known or the regular course of nature, the mind
trusts to itself; but in strange and uncommon situations, it is the dupe of
its own perplexity, and, instead of relying on its prudence or courage, has
recourse to divination, and a variety of observances, that, for being
irrational, are always the more revered. Superstition being founded in
doubts and anxiety, is fostered by ignorance and mystery. Its maxims, in
the mean time, are not always confounded with those of common life; nor
does its weakness or folly always prevent the watchfulness, penetration,
and courage, men are accustomed to employ in the management of common
affairs. A Roman consulting futurity by the pecking of birds, or a king of
Sparta inspecting the entrails of a beast, Mithridates consulting his women
on the interpretation of his dreams, are examples sufficient to prove, that
a childish imbecility on this subject is consistent with the greatest
military and political conduct.

Confidence in the effect of charms is not peculiar to any age or nation.
Few, even of the accomplished Greeks and Romans, were able to shake off
this weakness. In their case, it, was not removed by the highest measures
of civilization. It has yielded only to the light of true religion, or to
the study of nature, by which we are led to substitute a wise providence
operating by physical causes, in the place of phantoms that terrify or
amuse the ignorant.

The principal point of honour among the rude nations of America, as indeed
in every instance where mankind are not greatly corrupted, is fortitude.
Yet their way of maintaining this point of honour, is very different from
that of the nations of Europe. Their ordinary method of making war is by
ambuscade; and they strive, by overreaching an enemy, to commit the
greatest slaughter, or to make the greatest number of prisoners, with the
least hazard to themselves. They deem it a folly to expose their own
persons in assaulting an enemy, and do not rejoice in victories which are
stained with the blood of their own people. They do not value themselves,
as in Europe, on defying their enemy upon equal terms. They even boast,
that they approach like foxes, or that they fly like birds, not less than
they devour like lions. In Europe, to fall in battle is accounted an
honour; among the natives of America it is reckoned disgraceful. [Footnote:
Charlevoix.] They reserve their fortitude for the trials they abide when
attacked by surprise, or when fallen into their enemies' hands; and when
they are obliged to maintain their own honour, and that of their own
nation, in the midst of torments that require efforts of patience more than
of valour.

On these occasions, they are far from allowing it to be supposed that they
wish to decline the conflict. It is held infamous to avoid it, even by a
voluntary death; and the greatest affront which can be offered to a
prisoner, is to refuse him the honours of a man, in the manner of his
execution. "Withhold," says an old man, in the midst of his torture, "the
stabs of your knife; rather let me die by fire, that those dogs, your
allies, from beyond the seas, may learn to suffer like men." [Footnote:
Colden.] With terms of defiance, the victim, in those solemn trials,
commonly excites the animosities of his tormentors, as well as his own; and
whilst we suffer for human nature, under the effect of its errors, we must
admire its force.

The people with whom this practice prevailed, were commonly desirous of
repairing their own losses, by adopting prisoners of war into their
families; and even, in the last moment, the hand which was raised to
torment, frequently gave the sign of adoption, by which the prisoner became
the child or the brother of his enemy, and came to share in all the
privileges of a citizen. In their treatment of those who suffered, they did
not appear to be guided by principles of hatred or revenge; they observed
the point of honour in applying as well as in bearing their torments; and,
by a strange kind of affection and tenderness, were directed to be most
cruel where they intend the highest respect; the coward was put to
immediate death by the hands of women; the valiant was supposed to be
entitled to all the trials of fortitude that men could invent or employ.
"It gave me joy," says an old man to his captive, "that so gallant a youth
was allotted to my share; I proposed to have placed you on the couch of my
nephew, who was slain by your countrymen; to have transferred all my
tenderness to you; and to have solaced my age in your company; but, maimed
and mutilated as you now appear, death is better than life; prepare
yourself therefore to die like a man." [Footnote: Charlevoix.]

It is perhaps with a view to these exhibitions, or rather in admiration of
fortitude, the principle from which they proceed, that the Americans are so
attentive, in their earliest years, to harden their nerves. [Footnote:
_Ib_. This writer says, that he has seen a boy and a girl, having
bound their naked arms together, place a burning coal between them, to try
who could endure it longest.] The children are taught to vie with each
other in bearing the sharpest torments; the youth are admitted into the
class of manhood, after violent proofs of their patience; and leaders are
put to the test by famine, burning, and suffocation. [Footnote: Lafitau.]

It might be apprehended, that among rude nations, where the means of
subsistence are procured with so much difficulty, the mind could never
raise itself above the consideration of this subject; and that man would,
in this condition, give examples of the meanest and most mercenary spirit.
The reverse, however, is true. Directed in this particular by the desires
of nature, men, in their simplest state, attend to the objects of appetite
no further than appetite requires; and their desires of fortune extend no
further than the meal which gratifies their hunger: they apprehend no
superiority of rank in the possession of wealth, such as might inspire any
habitual principle of covetousness, vanity, or ambition: they can apply to
no task that engages no immediate passion, and take pleasure in no
occupation that affords no dangers to be braved, and no honours to be won.

It was not among the ancient Romans alone that commercial arts, or a sordid
mind, were held in contempt. A like spirit prevails in every rude and
independent society. "I am a warrior, and not a merchant," said an American
to the governor of Canada, who proposed to give him goods in exchange for
some prisoners he had taken; "your clothes and utensils do not tempt
me; but my prisoners are now in your power, and you may seize them: if you
do, I must go forth and take more prisoners, or perish in the attempt; and
if that chance should befal me, I shall die like a man; but remember, that
our nation will charge you as the cause of my death." [Footnote:
Charlevoix.] With these apprehensions, they have an elevation, and a
stateliness of carriage, which the pride of nobility, where it is most
revered by polished nations, seldom bestows.

They are attentive to their persons, and employ much time, as well as
endure great pain, in the methods they take to adorn their bodies, to give
the permanent stains with which they are coloured, or preserve the paint,
which they are perpetually repairing, in order to appear with advantage.

Their aversion to every sort of employment which they hold to be mean,
makes them pass great part of their time in idleness or sleep; and a man
who, in pursuit of a wild beast, or to surprise his enemy, will traverse a
hundred leagues on snow, will not, to procure his food, submit to any
species of ordinary labour. "Strange," says Tacitus, "that the same person
should be so much averse to repose, and so much addicted to sloth."
[Footnote: Mira diversitas naturae, ut idem homines sic ament intertiam et
oderint quietem.] Games of hazard are not the invention of polished ages;
men of curiosity have looked for their origin in vain, among the monuments
of an obscure antiquity; and it is probable that they belonged to times too
remote and too rude even for the conjectures of antiquarians to reach. The
very savage brings his furs, his utensils, and his beads, to the hazard
table: he finds here the passions and agitations which the applications of
a tedious industry could not excite; and while the throw is depending, he
tears his hair, and beats his breast, with a rage which the more
accomplished gamester has sometimes learned to repress: he often quits the
party naked and stripped of all his possessions; or where slavery is in
use, stakes his freedom to have one chance more to recover his former loss.
[Footnote: Tacitus, Lafitau, Charlevoix.]

With all these infirmities, vices, or respectable qualities, belonging to
the human species in its rudest state; the love of society, friendship, and
public affection, penetration, eloquence, and courage, appear to have been
its original properties, not the subsequent effects of device or invention.
If mankind are qualified to improve their manners, the materials to be
improved were furnished by nature; and the effect of this improvement is
not to inspire the sentiments of tenderness and generosity, nor to bestow
the principal constituents of a respectable character, but to obviate the
casual abuses of passion; and to prevent a mind, which feels the best
dispositions in their greatest force, from being at times likewise the
sport of brutal appetite, and of ungovernable violence.

Were Lycurgus employed anew to find a plan of government for the people we
have described, he would find them, in many important particulars, prepared
by nature herself to receive his institutions. His equality in matters of
property being already established, he would have no faction to apprehend
from the opposite interests of the poor and the rich; his senate, his
assembly of the people, is constituted; his discipline is in some measure
adopted, and the place of his helots is supplied by the task allotted to
one of the sexes. With all these advantages, he would still have had a very
important lesson for civil society to teach, that by which a few learn to
command, and the many are taught to obey: he would have all his precautions
to take against the future intrusion of mercenary arts, the admiration of
luxury, and the passion for interest: he would still perhaps have a more
difficult task than any of the former, in teaching his citizens the command
of appetite, and an indifference to pleasure, as well as a contempt of
pain; in teaching them to maintain in the field the formality of uniform
precautions, and as much to avoid being themselves surprised, as they
endeavour to surprise their enemy.

For want of these advantages, rude nations in general, though they are
patient of hardship and fatigue, though they are addicted to war, and are
qualified by their stratagem and valour to throw terror into the armies of
a more regular enemy; yet, in the course of a continual struggle, always
yield to the superior arts, and the discipline of more civilized nations.
Hence the Romans were able to overrun the provinces of Gaul, Germany, and
Britain; and hence the Europeans have a growing ascendancy over the nations
of Africa and America.

On the credit of a superiority which certain nations possess, they think
that they have a claim to dominion; and even Caesar appears to have
forgotten what were the passions, as well as the rights of mankind, when he
complained, that the Britons, after having sent him a submissive message to
Gaul, perhaps to prevent his invasion, still pretended to fight for their
liberties, and to oppose his descent on their island. [Footnote: Caesar
questus, quod quum ultro in continentem legatis missis pacem a se
petissent, bellum sine causa intulissent. _Lib_. 4.]

There is not, perhaps, in the whole description of mankind, a circumstance
more remarkable than that mutual contempt and aversion which nations, under
a different state of commercial arts, bestow on each other. Addicted to
their own pursuits, and considering their own condition as the standard of
human felicity, all nations pretend to the preference, and in their
practice give sufficient proof of sincerity. Even the savage, still less
than the citizen, can be made to quit that manner of life in which he is
trained: he loves that freedom of mind which will not be bound to any task,
and which owns no superior: however tempted to mix with polished nations,
and to better his fortune, the first moment of liberty brings him back to
the woods again; he droops and he pines in the streets of the populous
city; he wanders dissatisfied over the open and the cultivated field; he
seeks the frontier and the forest, where, with a constitution prepared to
undergo the hardships and the difficulties of the situation, he enjoys a
delicious freedom from care, and a seducing society, where no rules of
behaviour are prescribed, but the simple dictates of the heart.



It was a proverbial imprecation in use among the hunting nations on the
confines of Siberia, that their enemy might be obliged to live like a
Tartar, and have the folly of troubling himself with the charge of cattle.
[Footnote: Abulgaze's Genealogical History of the Tartars] Nature, it
seems, in their apprehension, by storing the woods and desert with game,
rendered the task of the herdsman unnecessary, and left to man only the
trouble of selecting and of seizing his prey.

The indolence of mankind, or rather their aversion to any application in
which they are not engaged by immediate instinct and passion, retards the
progress of industry and of impropriation. It has been found, however, even
while the means of subsistence are left in common, and the stock of the
public is yet undivided, that property is apprehended in different
subjects; that the fur and the bow belong to the individual; that the
cottage, with its furniture, are appropriated to the family.

When the parent begins to desire a better provision for his children than
is found under the promiscuous management of many co-partners, when he has
applied his labour and his skill apart, he aims at an exclusive possession,
and seeks the property of the soil, as well as the use of its fruits.

When the individual no longer finds among his associates the same
inclination to commit every subject to public use, he is seized with
concern for his personal fortune; and is alarmed by the cares which every
person entertains for himself. He is urged as much by emulation and
jealousy, as by the sense of necessity. He suffers considerations of
interest to rest on his mind, and when every present appetite is
sufficiently gratified, he can act with a view to futurity, or, rather
finds an object of vanity in having amassed what is become a subject of
competition, and a matter of universal esteem. Upon this motive, where
violence is restrained, he can apply his hand to lucrative arts, confine
himself to a tedious task, and wait with patience for the distant returns
of his labour.

Thus mankind acquire industry by many and by slow degrees. They are taught
to regard their interest; they are restrained from rapine; and they are
secured in the possession of what they fairly obtain; by these methods the
habits of the labourer, the mechanic, and the trader, are gradually formed.
A hoard, collected from the simple productions of nature, or a herd of
cattle, are, in every rude nation, the first species of wealth. The
circumstances of the soil, and the climate, determine whether the
inhabitant shall apply himself chiefly to agriculture or pasture; whether
he shall fix his residence, or be moving continually about with all his

In the west of Europe; in America, from south to north, with a few
exceptions; in the torrid zone, and every where within the warmer climates;
mankind have generally applied themselves to some species of agriculture,
and have been disposed to settlement. In the north and middle region of
Asia, they depended entirely on their herds, and were perpetually shifting
their ground in search of new pasture. The arts which pertain to settlement
have been practised, and variously cultivated, by the inhabitants of
Europe. Those which are consistent with perpetual migration, have, from the
earliest accounts of history, remained nearly the same, with the Scythian
or Tartar. The tent pitched on a moveable carriage, the horse applied to
every purpose of labour, and of war, of the dairy, and of the butcher's
stall, from the earliest to the latest accounts, have made up the riches

Online LibraryAdam FergusonAn Essay on the History of Civil Society, Eighth Edition → online text (page 9 of 26)