The State and the Ruling Class: An Anthology of Key Works of Libertarian/Classical Liberal Class Analysis

Compiled by David M. Hart
Table of Contents of the Anthology: <>

[Created: 16 August, 2016]
[Updated: 7 January, 2017 ]


Adam Ferguson, "The History of Subordination" (1767)

Editing History

  • Item added: 27 Aug. 2016
  • 1st Edit:


Adam Ferguson, An Essay on the History of Civil Society, 5th ed. (London: T. Cadell, 1782). <>

  • Part III, section II "The History of Subordination" (also known as "The History of Political Establishments") <>
  • Part VI, section V "Of Corruption as it tends to Political Slavery" <> and
  • section VI "Of the Progress and Termination of Despotism" <>

Editor's Intro

Adam Ferguson (1723-1816) was a member of the Scottish Enlightenment who succeeded David Hume in his post as Librarian of the Advocate’s Library in Edinburgh. Ferguson later became professor of natural philosophy at the University of Edinburgh and wrote important works on philosophy and history.


SECT. II.: The History of Subordination (political Establishments).

WE have hitherto observed mankind, either united together on terms of equality, or disposed to admit of a subordination founded merely on the voluntary respect and attachment which they paid to their leaders; but, in both cases, without any concerted plan of government, or system of laws.

The savage, whose fortune is comprised in his cabbin, his fur, and his arms, is satisfied with that provision, and with that degree of security, he himself can procure. He perceives, in treating with his equal, no subject of discussion that should be referred to the decision of a judge; nor does he find in any hand the badges of magistracy, or the ensigns of a perpetual command.

The barbarian, though induced by his admiration of personal qualities, the lustre of a heroic race, or a superiority of fortune, to follow the banners of a leader, and to act a subordinate part in his tribe, knows not, that what he performs from choice, is to be made a subject of obligation. He acts from affections unacquainted with forms; and when provoked, or when engaged in disputes, [204] he recurs to the sword, as the ultimate means of decision, in all questions of right.

Human affairs, in the mean time, continue their progress. What was in one generation a propensity to herd with the species, becomes in the ages which follow, a principle of natural union. What was originally an alliance for common defence, becomes a concerted plan of political force; the care of subsistence becomes an anxiety for accumulating wealth, and the foundation of commercial arts.

Mankind, in following the present sense of their minds, in striving to remove inconveniencies, or to gain apparent and contiguous advantages, arrive at ends which even their imagination could not anticipate; and pass on, like other animals, in the tract of their nature, without perceiving its end. He who first said, “I will appropriate this field; I will leave it to my heirs;” did not perceive, that he was laying the foundation of civil laws and political establishments. He who first ranged himself under a leader, did not perceive, that he was setting the example of a permanent subordination, under the pretence of which, the rapacious were to seize his possessions, and the arrogant to lay claim to his service.

Men, in general, are sufficiently disposed to occupy themselves in forming projects and schemes: [205] But he who would scheme and project for others, will find an opponent in every person who is disposed to scheme for himself. Like the winds that come we know not whence, and blow whithersoever they list, the forms of society are derived from an obscure and distant origin; they arise, long before the date of philosophy, from the instincts, not from the speculations of men. The crowd of mankind, are directed in their establishments and measures, by the circumstances in which they are placed; and seldom are turned from their way, to follow the plan of any single projector.

Every step and every movement of the multitude, even in what are termed enlightened ages, are made with equal blindness to the future; and nations stumble upon establishments, which are indeed the result of human action, but not the execution of any human design*. If Cromwell said, That a man never mounts higher, than when he knows not whither he is going; it may with more reason be affirmed of communities, that they admit of the greatest revolutions where no change is intended, and that the most refined politicians do not always know whither they are leading the state by their projects.

If we listen to the testimony of modern history, and to that of the most authentic parts of the ancient; if we attend to the practice of nations in [206] every quarter of the world, and in every condition, whether that of the barbarian or the polished, we shall find very little reason to retract this assertion. No constitution is formed by concert, no government is copied from a plan. The members of a small state contend for equality; the members of a greater, find themselves classed in a certain manner that lays a foundation for monarchy. They proceed from one form of government to another, by easy transitions, and frequently under old names adopt a new constitution. The seeds of every form are lodged in human nature; they spring up and ripen with the season. The prevalence of a particular species is often derived from an imperceptible ingredient mingled in the soil.

We are therefore to receive, with caution, the traditionary histories of ancient legislators, and founders of states. Their names have long been celebrated; their supposed plans have been admired; and what were probably the consequences of an early situation, is, in every instance, considered as an effect of design. An author and a work, like cause and effect, are perpetually coupled together. This is the simplest form under which we can consider the establishment of nations: and we ascribe to a previous design, what came to be known only by experience, what no human wisdom could foresee, and what, without the concurring humour and disposition of his age, [207] no authority could enable an individual to execute.

If men, during ages of extensive reflection, and employed in the search of improvement, are wedded to their institutions; and, labouring under many acknowledged inconveniencies, cannot break loose from the trammels of custom; what shall we suppose their humour to have been in the times of Romulus and Lycurgus? They were not surely more disposed to embrace the schemes of innovators, or to shake off the impressions of habit: They were not more pliant and ductile, when their knowledge was less; not more capable of refinement, when their minds were more circumscribed.

We imagine, perhaps, that rude nations must have so strong a sense of the defects under which they labour, and be so conscious that reformations are requisite in their manners, that they must be ready to adopt, with joy, every plan of improvement, and to receive every plausible proposal with implicit compliance. And we are thus inclined to believe, that the harp of Orpheus could effect, in one age, what the eloquence of Plato could not produce in another. We mistake, however, the characteristic of simple ages: mankind then appear to feel the fewest defects, and are then least desirous to enter on reformations.

The reality, in the mean time, of certain establishments at Rome and at Sparta, cannot be disputed: [208] but it is probable, that the government of both these states took its rise from the situation and genius of the people, not from the projects of single men; that the celebrated warrior and statesman, who are considered as the founders of those nations, only acted a superior part among numbers who were disposed to the same institutions; and that they left to posterity a renown, pointing them out as the inventors of many practices which had been already in use, and which helped to form their own manners and genius, as well as those of their countrymen.

It has been formerly observed, that, in many particulars, the customs of simple nations coincide with what is ascribed to the invention of early statesmen; that the model of republican government, the senate, and the assembly of the people; that even the equality of property, or the community of goods, were not reserved to the invention or contrivance of singular men.

If we consider Romulus as the founder of the Roman state, certainly he who killed his brother; that he might reign alone, did not desire to come under restraints from the controuling power of the senate, nor to refer the councils of his sovereignty to the decision of a collective body. Love of dominion is, by its nature, averse to restraint; and this chieftain, like every leader in a rude age, probably found a class of men ready to intrude on his councils, and without whom he could not proceed. [209] He met with occasions, on which, as at the sound of a trumpet, the body of the people assembled, and took resolutions, which any individual might in vain dispute, or attempt to controul; and Rome, which commenced on the general plan of every artless society, found lasting improvements in the pursuit of temporary expedients, and digested her political frame in adjusting the pretensions of parties which arose in the state.

Mankind, in very early ages of society, learn to covet riches, and to admire distinction: They have avarice and ambition, and are occasionally led by these passions to depredations and conquest; but in their ordinary conduct, are guided or restrained by different motives; by sloth or intemperance; by personal attachments, or personal animosities; which mislead from the attention to interest. These motives or habits render mankind, at times, remiss or outrageous: They prove the source of civil peace or of civil disorder, but disqualify those who are actuated by them, from maintaining any fixed usurpation; slavery and rapine, in the case of every community, are first threatened from abroad, and war, either offensive or defensive, is the great business of every tribe. The enemy occupy their thoughts; they have no leisure for domestic dissensions. It is the desire of every separate community, however, to secure itself; and in proportion as it gains this object, by strengthening its barrier, by weakening its enemy, [210] or by procuring allies, the individual at home bethinks him of what he may gain or lose for himself: The leader is disposed to enlarge the advantages which belong to his station; the follower becomes jealous of rights which are open to encroachment; and parties who united before, from affection and habit, or from a regard to their common preservation, disagree in supporting their several claims to precedence or profit.

When the animosities of faction are thus awakened at home, and the pretensions of freedom are opposed to those of dominion, the members of every society find a new scene upon which to exert their activity. They had quarrelled, perhaps, on points of interest; they had balanced between different leaders; but they had never united as citizens, to withstand the encroachments of sovereignty, or to maintain their common rights as a people. If the prince, in this contest, finds numbers to support, as well as to oppose his pretensions, the sword which was whetted against foreign enemies, may be pointed at the bosom of fellow-subjects, and every interval of peace from abroad, be filled with domestic war. The sacred names of Liberty, Justice, and Civil Order, are made to resound in public assemblies; and, during the absence of other alarms, give to society, within itself, an abundant subject of ferment and animosity.


If what is related of the little principalities which, in ancient times, were formed in Greece, in Italy, and over all Europe, agrees with the character we have given of mankind under the first impressions of property, of interest, and of hereditary distinctions; the seditions and domestic wars which followed in those very states, the expulsion of their kings, or the questions which arose concerning the prerogatives of the sovereign, or privilege of the subject, are agreeable to the representation which we now give of the first step toward political establishment, and the desire of a legal constitution.

What this constitution may be in its earliest form, depends on a variety of circumstances in the condition of nations: It depends on the extent of the principality in its rude state; on the degree of disparity to which mankind had submitted before they began to dispute the abuses of power: It depends likewise on what we term accidents, the personal character of an individual, or the events of a war.

Every community is originally a small one. That propensity by which mankind at first unite, is not the principle from which they afterwards act in extending the limits of empire. Small tribes, where they are not assembled by common objects of conquest or safety, are even averse to a coalition. If, like the real or fabulous confederacy of [212] the Greeks for the destruction of Troy, many nations combine in pursuit of a single object, they easily separate again, and act anew on the maxims of rival states.

There is, perhaps, a certain national extent, within which the passions of men are easily communicated from one, or a few, to the whole; and there are certain numbers of men who can be assembled, and act in a body. If, while the society is not enlarged beyond this dimension, and while its members are easily assembled, political contentions arise, the state seldom fails to proceed on republican maxims, and to establish democracy. In most rude principalities, the leader derived his prerogative from the lustre of his race, and from the voluntary attachment of his tribe: The people he commanded were his friends, his subjects, and his troops. If we suppose, upon any change in their manners, that they cease to revere his dignity, that they pretend to equality among themselves, or are seized with a jealousy of his assuming too much, the foundations of his power are already withdrawn. When the voluntary subject becomes refractory; when considerable parties, or the collective body, chuse to act for themselves; the small kingdom, like that of Athens, becomes of course a republic.

The changes of condition, and of manners, which, in the progress of mankind, raise up to [213] nations a leader and a prince, create, at the same time, a nobility, and a variety of ranks, who have, in a subordinate degree, their claim to distinction. Superstition, too, may create an order of men, who, under the title of priesthood, engage in the pursuit of a separate interest; who, by their union and firmness as a body, and by their incessant ambition, deserve to be reckoned in the list of pretenders to power. These different orders of men are the elements of whose mixture the political body is generally formed; each draws to its side some part from the mass of the people. The people themselves are a party upon occasion; and numbers of men, however classed and distinguished, become, by their jarring pretensions and separate views, mutual interruptions and checks; and have, by bringing to the national councils the maxims and apprehensions of a particular order, and by guarding a particular interest, a share in adjusting or preserving the political form of the state.

The pretensions of any particular order, if not checked by some collateral power, would terminate in tyranny; those of a prince, in despotism; those of a nobility or priesthood, in the abuses of aristocracy; of a populace in the confusions of anarchy. These terminations, as they are never the professed, so are they seldom even the disguised object of party: But the measures which any party pursues, if suffered to prevail, will lead, by degrees, to every extreme.


In their way to the ascendant they endeavour to gain, and in the midst of interruptions which opposite interests mutually give, liberty may have a permanent or a transient existence; and the constitution may bear a form and a character as various as the casual combination of such multiplied parts can effect.

To bestow on communities some degree of political freedom, it is perhaps sufficient, that their members, either singly, or as they are involved with their several orders, should insist on their rights; that under republics, the citizen should either maintain his own equality with firmness, or restrain the ambition of his fellow-citizen within moderate bounds; that under monarchy, men of every rank should maintain the honours of their private or their public stations; and sacrifice neither to the impositions of a court, nor to the claims of a populace, those dignities which are destined, in some measure independent of fortune, to give stability to the throne, and to procure a respect to the subject.

Amidst the contentions of party, the interests of the public, even the maxims of justice and candour, are sometimes forgotten; and yet those fatal consequences which such a measure of corruption seems to portend, do not unavoidably follow. The public interest is often secure, not because individuals are disposed to regard it as the end of their [215] conduct, but because each, in his place, is determined to preserve his own. Liberty is maintained by the continued differences and oppositions of numbers, not by their concurring zeal in behalf of equitable government. In free states, therefore, the wisest laws are never, perhaps, dictated by the interest and spirit of any order of men: they are moved, they are opposed, or amended, by different hands; and come at last to express that medium and composition which contending parties have forced one another to adopt.

When we consider the history of mankind in this view, we cannot be at a loss for the causes which, in small communities, threw the balance on the side of democracy; which, in states more enlarged in respect to territory and numbers of people, gave the ascendant to monarchy; and which, in a variety of conditions and of different ages, enabled mankind to blend and unite the characters of different forms; and, instead of any of the simple constitutions we have mentioned*, to exhibit a medley of all.

In emerging from a state of rudeness and simplicity, men must be expected to act from that spirit of equality, or moderate subordination, to which they have been accustomed. When crowded together in cities, or within the compass of a small territory, they act by contagious passions, [216] and every individual feels a degree of importance proportioned to his figure in the crowd, and the smallness of its numbers. The pretenders to power and dominion appear in too familiar a light to impose upon the multitude, and they have no aids at their call, by which they can bridle the refractory humours of a people who resist their pretensions. Theseus, King of Attica, we are told, assembled the inhabitants of its twelve cantons into one city. In this he took an effectual method to unite into one democracy, what were before the separate members of his monarchy, and to hasten the downfall of the regal power.

The monarch of an extensive territory has many advantages in maintaining his station. Without any grievance to his subjects, he can support the magnificence of a royal estate, and dazzle the imagination of his people, by that very wealth which themselves have bestowed. He can employ the inhabitants of one district against those of another; and while the passions that lead to mutiny and rebellion, can at any one time seize only on a part of his subjects, he feels himself strong in the possession of a general authority. Even the distance at which he resides from many of those who receive his commands, augments the mysterious awe and respect which are paid to his government.

With these different tendencies, accident and corruption, however, joined to a variety of circumstances, [217] may throw particular states from their bias, and produce exceptions to every general rule. This has actually happened in some of the latter principalities of Greece, and modern Italy, in Sweden, Poland, and the German Empire. But the united states of the Netherlands, and the Swiss cantons, are perhaps, the most extensive communities, which, maintaining the union of nations, have, for any considerable time, resisted the tendency to monarchical government; and Sweden is the only instance of a republic established in a great kingdom on the ruins of monarchy.

The sovereign of a petty district, or a single city when not supported, as in modern Europe, by the contagion of monarchical manners, holds the sceptre by a precarious tenure, and is perpetually alarmed by the spirit of mutiny in his people, is guided by jealousy, and supports himself by severity, prevention, and force.

The popular and aristocratical powers in a great nation, as in the case of Germany and Poland, may meet with equal difficulty in maintaining their pretensions; and, in order to avoid their danger on the side of kingly usurpation, are obliged to with-hold from the supreme magistrate even the necessary trust of an executive power.

The states of Europe, in the manner of their first settlement, laid the foundations of monarchy, [218] and were prepared to unite under regular and extensive governments. If the Greeks, whose progress at home terminated in the establishment of so many independent republics, had under Agamemnon effected a conquest and settlement in Asia, it is probable, that they might have furnished an example of the same kind. But the original inhabitants of any country, forming many separate cantons, came by slow degrees to that coalition and union into which conquering tribes, in effecting their conquests, or in securing their possessions, are hurried at once. Cæsar encountered some hundreds of independent nations in Gaul, whom even their common danger did not sufficiently unite. The German invaders, who settled in the lands of the Romans, made, in the same district, a number of separate establishments, but far more extensive than what the antient Gauls, by their conjunctions and treaties, or in the result of their wars, could, after many ages, have reached.

The seeds of great monarchies, and the roots of extensive dominion, were every where planted with the colonies that divided the Roman empire. We have no exact account of the numbers, who, with a seeming concert, continued, during some ages, to invade and to seize this tempting prize. Where they expected resistance, they endeavoured to muster up a proportional force; and when they proposed to settle, entire nations removed to share [219] in the spoil. Scattered over an extensive province, where they could not be secure, without maintaining their union, they continued to acknowledge the leader under whom they had fought; and, like an army sent by divisions into separate stations, were prepared to assemble whenever occasion should require their united operations or counsels.

Every separate party had its post assigned, and every subordinate chieftain his possessions, from which he was to provide his own subsistence, and that of his followers. The model of government was taken from that of a military subordination, and a fief was the temporary pay of an officer proportioned to his rank*. There was a class of the people destined to military service, another to labour, and to cultivate lands for the benefit of their masters. The officer improved his tenure by degrees, first changing a temporary grant into a tenure for his life; and this also, upon the observance of certain conditions, into a grant including his heirs.

The rank of the nobles became hereditary in every quarter, and formed a powerful and permanent order of men in every state. While they held the people in servitude, they disputed the claims of their sovereign; they withdrew their attendance upon occasion, or turned their arms against him. [220] They formed a strong and insurmountable barrier against a general despotism in the state; but they were themselves, by means of their warlike retainers, the tyrants of every little district, and prevented the establishment of order, or any regular applications of law. They took the advantage of weak reigns or minorities, to push their incroachments on the sovereign; or having made the monarchy elective, they, by successive treaties and stipulations, at every election, limited or undermined the monarchical power. The prerogatives of the prince have been, in some instances, as in that of the German empire in particular, reduced to a mere title; and the national union itself preserved in the observance only of a few insignificant formalities.

Where the contest of the sovereign, and of his vassals, under hereditary and ample prerogatives annexed to the crown, had a different issue, the seudal lordships were gradually stript of their powers, the nobles were reduced to the state of subjects, and obliged to hold their honours, and exercise their jurisdictions, in a dependence on the prince. It was his supposed interest to reduce them to a state of equal subjection with the people, and to extend his own authority, by rescuing the labourer and the dependent from the oppressions of their immediate superiors.

In this project the princes of Europe have variously succeeded. While they protected the people, [221] and thereby encouraged the practice of commercial and lucrative arts, they paved the way for despotism in the state; and with the same policy by which they relieved the subject from many oppressions, they increased the powers of the crown.

But where the people had, by the constitution, a representative in the government, and a head, under which they could avail themselves of the wealth they acquired, and of the sense of their personal importance, this policy turned against the crown; it formed a new power to restrain the prerogative, to establish the government of law, and to exhibit a spectacle new in the history of mankind; monarchy mixed with republic, and extensive territory governed, during some ages, without military force.

Such were the steps by which the nations of Europe have arrived at their present establishments: in some instances, they have come to the possession of legal constitutions; in others, to the exercise of a mitigated despotism; or they continue to struggle with the tendency which they severally have to these different extremes.

The progress of empire, in the early ages of Europe, threatened to be rapid, and to bury the independent spirit of nations in a grave like that which the Ottoman conquerors found for themselves, and for the wretched race they had vanquished. [222] The Romans had by slow degrees extended their empire; they had made every new acquisition in the result of a tedious war, and had been obliged to plant colonies, and to employ a variety of measures, to secure every new possession. But the feudal superior being animated, from the moment he gained an establishment, with a desire of extending his territory, and of enlarging the lift of his vassals, procured, by merely bestowing investiture, the annexation of new provinces, and became the master of states, before independent, without making any material innovation in the form of their policy.

Separate principalities were, like the parts of an engine, ready to be joined, and, like the wrought materials of a building, ready to be erected. They were in the result of their struggles put together, or taken asunder with facility. The independence of weak states was preserved only by the mutual jealousies of the strong, or by the general attention of all to maintain a balance of power.

The happy system of policy on which European states have proceeded in preserving this balance, the degree of moderation which is, in adjusting their treaties, become habitual even to victorious and powerful monarchies, does honour to mankind, and may give hopes of a lasting felicity, to be derived from a prepossession, never, perhaps, [223] equally strong in any former period, or among any number of nations, that the first conquering people will ruin themselves, as well as their rivals.

It is in such states, perhaps, as in a fabric of a large dimension, that we can perceive most distinctly the several parts of which a political body consists; and observe that concurrence or opposition of interests, which serve to unite or to separate different orders of men, and lead them, by maintaining their several claims, to establish a variety of political forms. The smallest republics, however, consist of parts similar to these, and of members who are actuated by a similar spirit. They furnish examples of government diversified by the casual combinations of parties, and by the different advantages with which those parties engage in the conflict.

In every society there is a casual subordination, independent of its formal establishment, and frequently adverse to its constitution. While the administration and the people speak the language of a particular form, and seem to admit no pretensions to power, without a legal nomination in one instance, or without the advantage of hereditary honours in another, this casual subordination, possibly arising from the distribution of property, or from some other circumstance that bestows unequal degrees of influence, gives the state its tone, and fixes its character.


The plebeian order at Rome having been long considered as of an inferior condition, and excluded from the higher offices of magistracy, had sufficient force, as a body, to get this invidious distinction removed; but the individual still acting under the impressions of a subordinate rank, gave in every competition his suffrage to a patrician, whose protection he had experienced, and whose personal authority he felt. By this means, the ascendency of the patrician families was, for a certain period, as regular as it could be made by the avowed maxims of aristocracy; but the higher offices of state being gradually shared by plebeians, the effects of former distinctions were prevented or weakened. The laws that were made to adjust the pretensions of different orders were easily eluded. The populace became a faction, and their alliance was the surest road to dominion. Clodius, by a pretended adoption into a plebeian family, was qualified to become tribune of the people; and Cæsar, by espousing the cause of this faction, made his way to usurpation and tyranny.

In such fleeting and transient scenes, forms of government are only modes of proceeding, in which successive ages differ from one another. Faction is ever ready to seize all occasional advantages; and mankind, when in hazard from any party, seldom find a better protection than that of its rival. Cato united with Pompey in opposition to Cæsar, and guarded against nothing [225] so much as that reconciliation of parties, which was in effect to be a combination of different leaders against the freedom of the republic. This illustrious personage stood distinguished in his age like a man among children, and was raised above his opponents, as much by the justness of his understanding, and the extent of his penetration, as he was by the manly fortitude and disinterestedness with which he strove to baffle the designs of a vain and childish ambition, that was operating to the ruin of mankind.

Although free constitutions of government seldom or never take their rise from the scheme of any single projector, yet are they often preserved by the vigilance, activity, and zeal of single men. Happy are they who understand and who chuse this object of care; and happy it is for mankind when it is not chosen too late. It has been reserved to signalize the lives of a Cato or a Brutus, on the eve of fatal revolutions; to foster in secret the indignation of Thrasea and Helvidius; and to occupy the reflections of speculative men in times of corruption. But even in such late and ineffectual examples, it was happy to know, and to value, an object which is so important to mankind. The pursuit, and the love of it, however unsuccessful, has thrown its principal lustre on human nature.

SECT. V.: Of Corruption, as it tends to Political Slavery.

LIBERTY, in one sense, appears to be the portion of polished nations alone. The savage is personally free, because he lives unrestrained, and acts with the members of his tribe on terms of equality. The barbarian is frequently independent from a continuance of the same circumstances, or because he has courage and a sword. But good policy alone can provide for the regular administration of justice, or constitute a force in the state, which is ready on every occasion to defend the rights of its members.

It has been found, that, except in a few singular cases, the commercial and political arts have advanced together. These arts have been in modern Europe so interwoven, that we cannot determine which were prior in the order of time, or derived most advantage from the mutual influences with which they act and re-act on each other. It has been observed, that in some nations the spirit of commerce, intent on securing its profits, has led the way to political wisdom. A people, possessed of wealth, and become jealous of their properties, have formed the project of emancipation, and have proceeded, under favour of an importance recently gained, still farther to enlarge their pretensions, and to dispute the prerogatives which their sovereign had been in use to [438] employ. But it is in vain that we expect in one age, from the possession of wealth, the fruit which it is said to have borne in a former. Great accessions of fortune, when recent, when accompanied with frugality, and a sense of independence, may render the owner confident in his strength, and ready to spurn at oppression. The purse which is open, not to personal expence, or to the indulgence of vanity, but to support the interests of a faction, to gratify the higher passions of party, render the wealthy citizen formidable to those who pretend to dominion; but it does not follow, that in a time of corruption, equal, or greater, measures of wealth should operate to the same effect.

On the contrary, when wealth is accumulated only in the hands of the miser, and runs to waste from those of the prodigal; when heirs of family find themselves straitened and poor in the midst of affluence; when the cravings of luxury silence even the voice of party and faction; when the hopes of meriting the rewards of compliance, or the fear of losing what is held at discretion, keep men in a state of suspence and anxiety; when fortune, in short, instead of being considered as the instrument of a vigorous spirit, becomes the idol of a covetous or a profuse, of a rapacious or a timorous mind, the foundation on which freedom was built may serve to support a tyranny; and what, in one age, raised the pretensions, and fostered the confidence of the subject, may, in another, [439] incline him to servility, and furnish the price to be paid for his prostitutions. Even those who, in a vigorous age, gave the example of wealth, in the hands of the people, becoming an occasion of freedom, may, in times of degeneracy, verify likewise the maxim of Tacitus, That the admiration of riches leads to despotical government*.

Men who have tasted of freedom, and who have felt their personal rights, are not easily taught to bear with encroachments on either, and cannot, without some preparation, come to submit to oppression. They may receive this unhappy preparation under different forms of government, from different hands, and arrive at the same end by different ways. They follow one direction in republics, another in monarchies, and in mixed governments. But wherever the state has, by means that do not preserve the virtue of the subject, effectually guarded his safety; remissness, and neglect of the public, are likely to follow; and polished nations of every description, appear to encounter a danger, on this quarter, proportioned to the degree in which they have, during any continuance, enjoyed the uninterrupted possession of peace and prosperity.

Liberty results, we say, from the government of laws; and we are apt to consider statutes, not [440] merely as the resolutions and maxims of a people determined to be free, not as the writings by which their rights are kept on record; but as a power erected to guard them, and as a barrier which the caprice of men cannot transgress.

When a basha, in Asia, pretends to decide every controversy by the rules of natural equity, we allow that he is possessed of discretionary powers. When a judge in Europe is left to decide, according to his own interpretation of written laws, is he in any sense more restrained than the former? Have the multiplied words of a statute an influence over the conscience, and the heart, more powerful than that of reason and nature? Does the party, in any judicial proceeding, enjoy a less degree of safety, when his rights are discussed, on the foundation of a rule that is open to the understandings of mankind, than when they are referred to an intricate system, which it has become the object of a separate profession to study and to explain?

If forms of proceeding, written statutes, or other constituents of law, cease to be enforced by the very spirit from which they arose; they serve only to cover, not to restrain, the iniquities of power: They are possibly respected even by the corrupt magistrate, when they favour his purpose; but they are contemned or evaded, when they stand in his way: And the influence of laws, where they have any real effect in the preservation of liberty, [441] is not any magic power descending from shelves that are loaded with books, but is, in reality, the influence of men resolved to be free; of men, who, having adjusted in writing the terms on which they are to live with the state, and with their fellow-subjects, are determined, by their vigilance and spirit, to make these terms be fulfilled.

We are taught, under every from of government, to apprehend usurpations, from the abuse, or from the extension of the executive power. In pure monarchies, this power is commonly hereditary, and made to descend in a determinate line. In elective monarchies, it is held for life. In republics, it is exercised during a limited time. Where men, or families, are called by election to the possession of temporary dignities, it is more the object of ambition to perpetuate, than to extend their powers. In hereditary monarchies, the sovereignty is already perpetual; and the aim of every ambitious prince is to enlarge his prerogative. Republics, and, in times of commotion, communities of every form, are exposed to hazard, not from those only who are formally raised to places of trust, but from every person whatsoever, who is incited by ambition, and who is supported by faction.

It is no advantage to a prince, or other magistrate, to enjoy more power than is consistent with the good of mankind; nor is it of any benefit to a man to be unjust: But these maxims are a feeble [442] security against the passions and follies of men. Those who are intrusted with power in any degree, are disposed, from a mere dislike of constraint, to remove opposition. Not only the monarch who wears a hereditary crown, but the magistrate who holds his office for a limited time, grows fond of his dignity. The very minister, who depends for his place on the momentary will of his prince, and whose personal interests are, in every respect, those of a subject, still has the weakness to take an interest in the growth of prerogative, and to reckon as gain to himself the incroachments he has made on the rights of a people, with whom he himself and his family are soon to be numbered.

Even with the best intentions towards mankind, we are inclined to think that their welfare depends, not on the selicity of their own inclinations, or the happy employment of their own talents, but on their ready compliance with what we have devised for their good. Accordingly, the greatest virtue of which any sovereign has hitherto shown an example, is not a desire of cherishing in his people the spirit of freedom and of independence; but what is in itself sufficiently rare, and highly meritorious, a steady regard to the distribution of justice in matters of property, a disposition to protect and to oblige, to redress the grievances, and to promote the interest of his subjects. It was from a reference to these objects that Titus computed the value of his time, and [443] judged of its application. But the sword, which in this beneficent hand was drawn to protect the subject, and to procure a speedy and effectual distribution of justice, was likewise sufficient, in the hands of a tyrant, to shed the blood of the innocent, and to cancel the rights of men. The temporary proceedings of humanity, though they suspended the exercise of oppression, did not break the national chains: The prince was even the better enabled to procure that species of good which he studied; because there was no freedom remaining, and because there was no where a force to dispute his decrees, or to interrupt their execution.

Was it in vain, that Antoninus became acquainted with the characters of Thracea, Helvidius, Cato, Dion, and Brutus? Was it in vain, that he learned to understand the form of a free community, raised on the basis of equality and justice; or of a monarchy, under which the liberties of the subject were held the most sacred object of administration*? Did he mistake the means of procuring to mankind what he points out as a blessing? Or did the absolute power with which he was furnished, in a mighty empire, only disable him from executing what his mind had perceived as a national good? In such a case, it were vain to flatter the monarch or his people. The first cannot bestow liberty without raising a spirit, which may, on occasion, stand in opposition to his own designs; nor the latter receive this [444] blessing, while they own that it is in the right of a master to give or to withhold it. The claim of justice is firm and peremptory. We receive favours with a sense of obligation and kindness; but we would inforce our rights, and the spirit of freedom in this exertion cannot take the tone of supplication or of thankfulness, without betraying itself. “You have intreated Octavius,” says Brutus to Cicero, “that he would spare those who stand foremost among the citizens of Rome. What if he will not? Must we perish? Yes; rather than owe our safety to him.”

Liberty is a right which every individual must be ready to vindicate for himself, and which he who pretends to bestow as a favour, has by that very act in reality denied. Even political establishments, though they appear to be independent of the will and arbitration of men, cannot be relied on for the preservation of freedom; they may nourish, but should not supersede that firm and resolute spirit, with which the liberal mind is always prepared to resist indignities, and to refer its safety to itself.

Were a nation, therefore, given to be moulded by a sovereign, as the clay is put into the hands of the potter, this project of bestowing liberty on a people who are actually servile, is, perhaps, of all others the most difficult, and requires most to be executed in silence, and with the deepest reserve. Men are qualified to receive this blessing, [445] only in proportion as they are made to apprehend their own rights; and are made to respect the just pretensions of mankind, in proportion as they are willing to sustain, in their own persons, the burden of government, and of national defence; and are willing to prefer the engagements of a liberal mind to the enjoyment of sloth, or the delusive hopes of a safety purchased by submission and fear.

I speak with respect, and, if I may be allowed the expression, even with indulgence, to those who are intrusted with high prerogatives in the political system of nations. It is, indeed, seldom their fault that states are inslaved. What should be expected from them, but that being actuated by human desires, they should be averse to disappointment, or even to delay; and in the ardour with which they pursue their object, that they should break through the barriers that would stop their career? If millions recede 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 restraint?


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 sabrick 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, [447] 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 incroachments, 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 controul; and he who, in one situation, cannot bruik 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 [448] 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 his 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 dispatch and secrecy in the execution of public councils; to maintain what they are pleased to [449] call political order*, 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 dissension and variance among his people; let him remove the interruptions [450] 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 [451] 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 incroach 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 [452] 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 trihunal [453] 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 the sword*, 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 of 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, [455] 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.

SECTION VI.: Of the Progress and Termination of Despotism.

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 uncontrouled exercise of any pwer, 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, [457] 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 enrirely 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 [458] 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*. 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 [459] government to 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 [460] 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*.

Oppression and cruelty are not always necessary to despotical government; and even when present, are but a part of its evils. It is sounded 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 asswage the passions of a few men at the expence 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, [461] 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 [462] of the sovereign himself, or those of his subjects.

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*, appears, in the absence of all affections, to be restored, or to be counterfeited amidst the ignorance and brutality which equally characterise 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 expence of a province, [463] 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 greatly 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 neighbourhood.

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 neighbours, and in order to possess the avenues through which they feared their attacks. [464] But this policy put the finishing hand to the internal corruption of the state. A few years of tranquillity were sufficient to make even the government forget its danger; and, in the cultivated province, prepared for the enemy a tempting prize and an easy victory.

When, by the conquest and annexation of every rich and cultivated province, the measure of empire is full, two parties are sufficient to comprehend mankind; that of the pacific and the wealthy, who dwell within the pale of empire; and that of the poor, the rapacious, and the fierce, who are inured to depredation and war. The last bear to the first nearly the same relation which the wolf and the lion bear to the fold; and they are naturally engaged in a state of hostility.

Were despotic empire, mean-time, to continue for ever unmolested from abroad, while it retains that corruption on which it was founded, it appears to have in itself no principle of new life, and presents no hope of restoration to freedom and political vigour. That which the despotical master has sawn, cannot quicken unless it die; it must languish and expire by the effect of its own abuse, before the human spirit can spring up anew, or bear those fruits which constitute the honour and the felicity of human nature. In times of the greatest debasement, indeed, commotions are felt; but very unlike the agitations [465] of a free people: they are either the agonies of nature, under the sufferings to which men are exposed; or mere tumults, confined to a few who stand in arms about the prince, and who, by their conspiracies, assassinations, and murders, serve only to plunge the pacific inhabitant still deeper in the horrors of fear or despair. Scattered in the provinces, unarmed, unacquainted with the sentiments of union and confederacy, restricted by habit to a wretched œconomy, and dragging a precarious life on those possessions which the extortions of government have left; the people can no where, under these circumstances, assume the spirit of a community, nor form any liberal combination for their own defence. The injured may complain; and while he cannot obtain the mercy of government, he may implore the commiseration of his fellow subject. But that fellow-subject is comforted, that the hand of oppression has not seized on himself: he studies his interest, or snatches his pleasure, under that degree of safety which obscurity and concealment bestow.

The commercial arts, which seem to require no foundation in the minds of men, but the regard to interest; no encouragement, but the hopes of gain, and the secure possession of property, must perish under the precarious tenure of slavery, and under the apprehension of danger arising from the reputation of wealth. National [466] poverty, however, and the suppression of commerce, are the means by which despotism comes to accomplish its own destruction. Where there are no longer any profits to corrupt, or fears to deter, the charm of dominion is broken, and the naked slave, as awake from a dream, is astonished to find he is free. When the fence is destroyed, the wilds are open, and the herd breaks loose. The pasture of the cultivated field is no longer preferred to that of the desert. The sufferer willingly flies where the extortions of government cannot overtake him: where even the timid and the servile may recollect they are men; where the tyrant may threaten, but where he is known to be no more than a fellow-creature; where he can take nothing but life, and even this at the hazard of his own.

Agreeably to this description, the vexations of tyranny have overcome, in many parts of the East, the desire of settlement. The inhabitants of a village quit their habitations, and infest the public ways; those of the valleys fly to the mountains, and, equipt for flight, or possessed of a strong hold, subsist by depredation, and by the war they make on their former masters.

These disorders conspire with the impositions of government to render the remaining settlements still less secure: But while devastation and ruin appear on every side, mankind are forced anew [467] upon those confederacies, acquire again that personal confidence and vigour, that social attachment, that use of arms, which, in former times, rendered a small tribe the seed of a great nation; and which may again enable the emancipated slave to begin the career of civil and commercial arts. When human nature appears in the utmost state of corruption, it has actually begun to reform.

In this manner, the scenes of human life have been frequently shifted. Security and presumption forfeit the advantages of prosperity; resolution and conduct retrieve the ills of adversity; and mankind while they have nothing on which to rely but their virtue, are prepared to gain every advantage; and while they confide most in their good fortune, are most exposed to feel its reverse. We are apt to draw these observations into rule; and when we are no longer willing to act for our country, we plead, in excuse of our own weakness or folly, a supposed fatality in human affairs.

The institutions of men, if not calculated for the preservation of virtue, are, indeed, likely to have an end as well as a beginning: But so long as they are effectual to this purpose, they have at all times an equal principle of life, which nothing but an external force can suppress; no nation ever suffered internal decay but from the vice of its members. We are sometimes willing [468] to acknowledge this vice in our countrymen; but who ever was willing to acknowledge it in himself? It may be suspected, however, that we do more than acknowledge it, when we cease to oppose its effects, and when we plead a fatality, which, at least, in the breast of every individual, is dependent on himself. Men of real fortitude, integrity, and ability, are well placed in every scene; they reap, in every condition, the principal enjoyments of their nature; they are the happy instruments of Providence employed for the good of mankind; or, if we must change this language, they show, that while they are destined to live, the states they compose are likewise doomed by the fates to survive, and to prosper.



De Retz Memoirs.


Part I. Sect. 10.


See Dr. Robertson’s History of Scotland, B. 1. Dalrymple’s Hist. of Feudal Tenures.


Est apud illos et opibus honos; eoque unus imperitat, nullis jam exceptionibus, non precario jure parendi. Nec arma ut apud ceteros Germanos in promiscuo sed clausa sub custode; et quidem servo; &c. Tacitus de Mor. Ger. c. 44.


M. Antoninus, lib. 1


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 fabrick 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.




Insurgere paulatim, munia senatus, magistratuum, legum in se trahere.


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.


Porrectisque utriusque brachii venis, postquam cruorem effudit, humum super spargens, proprius vocato Quæstore, Libernus, 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.


See Odyssey.