BMCR 2013.05.45

Adam Ferguson in the Scottish Enlightenment: The Roman Past and Europe’s Future

, Adam Ferguson in the Scottish Enlightenment: The Roman Past and Europe's Future. Cambridge, MA; London: Harvard University Press, 2013. x, 276. ISBN 9780674072961 $45.00.

Adam Ferguson (1723-1816) was an important and combative figure in the Scottish Enlightenment, who could number Robert Adam, David Hume and Adam Smith among his friends, and who had an eventful and intriguing life. Descended from nobility, he was educated in St Andrews and Edinburgh, became a military chaplain, Librarian to the Faculty of Advocates in Edinburgh, a tutor in the family of the Earl of Bute, and a professor at the University of Edinburgh. He travelled to France and Italy, met Voltaire, and was sent to negotiate with Washington during the American Revolution (the commission was completely unsuccessful). He lived through the French Revolution (which he welcomed and then found depressing), and he heard with joy the news of the battle of Waterloo read to him from the newspapers. He is buried in the grounds of the Cathedral at St Andrews, and Sir Walter Scott wrote his epitaph.1

There is ample reason to be intrigued by an individual whose two best-known works, An Essay on the History of Civil Society (1767) and The History of the Progress and Termination of the Roman Republic (1783) were in their day widely read and controversial. Hume disliked the first, for reasons we never quite discover, and the second was much reprinted. He was productive and opinionated – his friends knew him as the Scottish Cato. Internationally famous (despite his views, he was even respected as an author in America, and was particularly popular in Germany), after his death his reputation suffered more of a decline in Great Britain.

Iain McDaniel’s book is a fairly austere account of this colourful individual. There are no biographical details, and one gets little sense of how Ferguson fitted into his society and his times, but the volume is still a valuable contribution to the history of Enlightenment thought.2 Ferguson was both a significant voice in the intellectual debates of his time, and a product of his upbringing. He brought his Perthshire awareness of the fault lines between the highland clans and the new life of the polite cities to bear on the great questions of civic virtue, the compatibility of commerce and empire with good governance, and the relative merits of militias and standing armies, where he and Adam Smith were completely at odds.

McDaniel begins with Montesquieu, and perhaps no thinker held more sway over Ferguson. The enormous influence of L’Esprit des Lois (1748) was felt by many of course, but the comparative and constitutional project carried forward there, the interest in the role of the military, and the reflections specifically on England made it an important spur to Ferguson. McDaniel’s second chapter places these ideas in a slightly broader context, looking at, for instance, Adam Smith’s more positive view of Britain’s future, and his belief that economic stability, based in the division of labour and the product of self-interest, reduced reliance on a standing army, but also avoided some of the excesses of populism. Where Smith saw dangers was in the role of monopolies, and in the failure to resolve problems such as the relationship between Britain and her American problems through a recognition of common interests in commerce. Ferguson, who also saw that, despite its monarchy, Britain was remarkably Republican in its institutions and conduct, was much more concerned about the dangers of despotism which arose from an over-extended Republic with both democratic tendencies and effectively a standing army, and for him, Britain was far too close to the world of the late Roman Republic.

If Smith was an exponent of a neo-Epicurean morality, Ferguson tended to the neo-Stoic. McDaniel argues that he derives his views on the grounds of morality from a position closer to Shaftesbury’s ethic of sociability, takenfrom Mandeville, and indeed Hume. And interestingly, McDaniel also shows Ferguson as constructing his history of morality along lines drawn from Rousseau. Ferguson stressed both the positive value of strife and dissension as encouraging political and moral development, and the early emergence of inequality (in contrast to views which saw a more egalitarian beginning to society). All this of course is developed out of surmise and classic texts, including Tacitus’ Germania.3 Ferguson has a much more combative and spiky view of civil society than Smith; less tranquillity and more vigorous competition. It is not surprising therefore, as McDaniel shows in his fourth chapter, that Ferguson worried about the capacity of commerce to detract from alert national defence. The commercial democracy of Athens was a warning. Ferguson was also close to the conclusions of Mably and Raynal, the roughly contemporary French theorists, about the weakness of Europe before the danger of an aggressive state led by an ambitious individual. For Ferguson, empire dissipated energy, and, especially if governed democratically, could either slide into such a dangerous state, or be vulnerable to another.

Most of this can be derived from the Essay but McDaniel has done a good job of showing that the general themes there underlie the way in which Ferguson constructed his history of the Roman Republic. It is interesting to note that Ferguson saw the republic as a project for democratic equality – and as such a prelude to despotism. Unlike European aristocracy, the patriciate lost its reason to exist; and the advent of the standing army extinguished liberty. Gibbon’s task therefore became the need to explain why the empire lasted so long.4

For Ferguson, the answer to contemporary problems lay in a revitalised martial aristocracy, a military hierarchy based on merit and allied to the civil state. Again, Ferguson’s project united Rousseau and the ‘German’ world of the post-Roman empire. The challenge became, as McDaniel’s last chapter shows, how in the current circumstances to match up to the French revolution and most particularly the terrifying power of Napoleon, whom Ferguson in a sense had predicted. It was France not Britain, in the end, where democracy had led to despotism; as McDaniel says, it was a later generation of French and German thinkers who had to try to resolve the challenges of post-revolutionary Europe.

McDaniel demonstrates repeatedly the ways in which Ferguson’s thought reverted to ancient models. Grounded as all the Scottish Enlightenment thinkers were in the classics, Ferguson made particular use of the later Republic. McDaniel might have made even more than he does of the significance of the land reform projects in Scotland (which Adam Smith for instance was involved in) as an encouragement to reflect on Republican history. However his account is now the most interesting we have and steps beyond the relatively brief mentions by Pocock in his monumental work. As Pocock and also Hont have shown, Ferguson was partly responsible for reintroducing what Pocock saw as Machiavellian themes of growth and decay, virtue and corruption into the Scottish Enlightenment in the 1760s.5 However, a relatively unexplored theme is the parallel between Ferguson’s thought and contemporary developments in French thought; Sieyès grappled with Rousseau, Barnave would suggest a similar military aristocracy in the 1790s, and all French thinkers were challenged by the problem of public credit, social inequality and preservation of empire.6 McDaniel’s approach chases down the ideas but we still do not quite see how Ferguson interacted with other thinkers, or how they used him.

Perhaps the most intriguing presentation of why all this mattered comes in Emma Rothschild’s remarkable recent book on the Johnstone family, eleven brothers and sisters of an unprosperous lowlands family whose interactions with the world from America to India she has brilliantly uncovered. George Johnstone was a friend of Ferguson and was on the same commission to George Washington; Ferguson hoped to succeed him to the governorship of West Florida, and brought up his younger son. Ferguson, Adam Smith and Hugh Blair celebrated William Johnstone’s wife’s inheritance at the Poker Club, where David Hume was also a member and a friend. The records show borrowing of books and exchanges of letters and the tragedies of life and death, all played out against the vast historical problems which Hume, Smith and Ferguson wrote about, the rights and wrongs of the East India Company’s growing power, the American revolution, the debate over slavery. For the Johnstones, as Rothschild shows, these debates were not abstract; they were intensely significant, and life-changing. McDaniel shows Ferguson in his intellectual context, and it is one which was rooted in the classics; and Ferguson seems more interesting as a result of the book, but not necessarily more important. Rothschild reminds us that his importance lay in his position at the heart of an intellectual movement which was internationally significant, and of a society of individuals whose lives were caught up in the struggle to redefine civil society.7


1. Fania Oz-Salzberger, ‘Ferguson, Adam (1723–1816)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Oct 2009 [, accessed 13 April 2013; subscription required].

2. Compare the very different accounts by Nicholas Phillipson, David Hume: The Philosopher as Historian (London 2011) and Adam Smith: An Enlightened Life (London 2011).

3. C. Krebs, A Most Dangerous Book: Tacitus’s Germania from the Roman Empire to the Third Reich (New York, 2011)

4. See also J. Moore, I. Macgregor Morris, A. J. Bayliss (eds) Reinventing History: The Enlightenment Origins of Ancient History (London 2008).

5. J. G. A. Pocock, Barbarism and Religion (Cambridge 1999-)ii. 330-65; iii. 399-416; The Machiavellian Moment : Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition (Princeton, 1975) 499-501; I. Hont Jealousy of Trade: International Competition and the Nation-State in Historical Perspective (Harvard 2010), 296-8.

6. See M. Sonenscher Before the Deluge: Public Debt, inequality, and the Intellectual Origins of the French Revolution (Princeton 2007)

7. E. Rothschild, The Inner Life of Empires: An Eighteenth Century History (Princeton, 2011)