Navigation – Plan du site

AccueilNuméros24Special issueAdam Ferguson on Trade and Empire

Special issue

Adam Ferguson on Trade and Empire

Empire et commerce chez Adam Ferguson
Craig Smith

Résumés

Adam Ferguson (1723-1816) est un acteur de premier plan des Lumières écossaises. Il est souvent considéré comme moins enthousiaste sur le sujet de la modernité commerciale que son ami Adam Smith. L’article s’intéresse à la pensée de Ferguson sur le commerce et l’Empire, avec un accent particulier sur l’Empire britannique en Amérique du Nord. En comparant leur approche, il apparaît qu’à l’inverse de Smith qui appuie ses recommandations politiques sur son analyse économique, pour Ferguson, la politique prime sur les considérations économiques en relation avec la question des colons américains.

Haut de page

Notes de la rédaction

This paper is an invited article.

Texte intégral

Introduction

  • 1 See Pocock, J.G.A., The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republi (...)

1One of the aims of my recent book on Adam Ferguson was to make the case that Ferguson was far less sceptical of commercial society and far less enamoured with classical republicanism than has often been supposed in the secondary literature. Discussions of Ferguson’s views on commerce have suffered from an unfortunate tendency in the critical literature. This tendency is to view Ferguson as more sceptical of commercial society than his fellow Scot Adam Smith. This view is often compounded by the Marx inspired interpretation of Ferguson as the precursor of alienation theory.1

  • 2 McDaniel, Iain, Adam Ferguson in the Scottish Enlightenment: The Roman Past and Europe’s Future, (C (...)

2In this paper I want to pursue this issue beyond the argument considered in the book. In particular I want to look at the relationship between trade and empire in Ferguson’s thought. It is well known that one of the main grounds for reading Ferguson as sceptical about commercial society is the supposed lesson he draws from the fall of the Roman Republic in a mass of corruption arising from luxury, selfishness, internal division, and militarism. Iain McDaniel has done much to show how Ferguson’s analysis of the likely course of the French Revolution is grounded in a fear of Caesarism arising from the lessons of Rome.2 My focus here will be somewhat different. I want to look at what Ferguson says about another empire, the British Empire in North America, an empire that he acknowledges is grounded in commerce, and how his study of Rome impacts on his understanding of British trade and imperialism. If Ferguson were the sceptic of empire and the advocate of republican virtue that we have been led to expect, then we should perhaps expect some sympathy with the complaints of the American colonists and a worry about the impact of the Empire on Britain. I want to argue here that we see neither of these, and that, as we will see, there is a very simple reason for this.

3In order to pursue this thought I want to draw a contrast between Adam Smith’s account of commerce and Britain’s conflict with the American colonies and Adam Ferguson’s very different view. My contention is that both Smith and Ferguson are interested in the political economy of empire, but when Smith considers this it is an economic analysis that drives his political judgments, whereas for Ferguson it is a political analysis that drives his judgment of the economics of the empire.

Where they Agree

  • 3 Ferguson, Adam, An Essay on the History of Civil Society, ed. Fania Oz-Salzberger, (Cambridge, Camb (...)

4Let us begin by noting what they have in common. Smith is rightly feted as the more serious contributor to the development of political economy. In the Essay Ferguson admits to qualms about his ability to comment on commercial matters and that he is ‘still less engaged by the views with which I write.’3 He recognises that economic matters are a key part of his system, but his attention lies elsewhere. Indeed his interest in politics leads him to provide only perfunctory discussions of the operation of commerce. His views on economic matters are close to those of Adam Smith. In a letter that is often cited as evidence of Ferguson’s republicanism and scepticism about commercial society, he wrote to Smith after the publication of the Wealth of Nations and insisted that he agreed with him on everything except the militia:

  • 4 Ferguson to Adam Smith, 18th April 1776. Ferguson, Adam, The Correspondence of Adam Ferguson, 2 Vol (...)

5‘My Dear Smith, I have been for some time so busy reading you, and recommending and quoting you, to my students, that I have not had leisure to trouble you with letters. I suppose, however, that of all the opinions on which you have any curiosity, mine is among the least doubtful. You may believe, that on further acquaintance with your work my esteem is not a little increased. You are surely to reign alone on these subjects, to form opinions, and I hope to govern at least the coming generations. I see no addition your work can receive except such little matters as may occur to yourself in subsequent editions. You are not to expect the run of a novel, nor even of a true history; but you may venture to assure your booksellers of a steady and continual sale, as long as people wish for information on these subjects. You have provoked, it is true, the church, the universities, and the merchants, against all of whom I am willing to take your part; but you have likewise provoked the militia and there I must be against you.’4

  • 5 Ferguson, Adam, Principles of Moral and Political Science, 2 Vols. (New York, AMS Press, 1973 [1792 (...)

6Those who see this as evidence of a difference between Smith and Ferguson are, in my view, blinding themselves to Ferguson’s very clear claim that, apart from the militia, he agrees with Smith on all of the rest of his analysis of commercial society. Much of Ferguson’s most extended treatment of economics in the Principles is straightforwardly derivative of Smith’s account in the Wealth of Nations. For example, Ferguson’s discussion of tax is a near exact reproduction of Smith’s argument from Book V of the Wealth of Nations and his definition of wealth is in the clearly Smithian language of ‘The wealth of the citizen is measurable by the quantity of labour he can employ.’5

Where they Differ

  • 6 See Berry, Christopher J., Social Theory of the Scottish Enlightenment, (Edinburgh, Edinburgh Unive (...)

7From the foregoing we should have a clear sense that when it comes to the basic parameters of understanding commerce, Ferguson and Smith are on the same page. In this section I want to focus on the differences between the two. I want to argue that one of the most significant differences between Ferguson and Smith lies in the balance between political and economic analyses in their respective political economies. Perhaps the simplest way to grasp what I have in mind is to examine the differences between their respective stadial theories of types of society.6

8Adam Smith famously makes use of a four stage theory which divides societies according to the dominant means of economic activity: hunting, shepherding, agriculture, commerce. He uses the stage theory, not as a model of inevitable historical development, but rather as a way of showing how different economic forms impact on human political institutions. War is different in hunting and commercial societies, so is government and law. Economic circumstances shape the problems faced by such societies and so their politics can be explained by the pressing economic issues.

  • 7 Ferguson, Essay, 93.

9For Ferguson we can identify three broad types of society: savage, barbarian, and polished. Each society has its own characteristic beliefs and institutions, but the differences between them lie in the regulation of behaviour in line with law and the regulation of the arbitrary use of violence. ‘Improvement’ in manners reduces violent expressions of self-preference and curbs acts of ‘brutal appetite and ungovernable violence.’7 The management of violence is necessary for a society to cohere, and so how a society manages violence, how it does its politics, becomes vital to understanding its operation.

  • 8 Ferguson, Essay, 35.

10Ferguson, unlike Smith, does not defer to modes of subsistence to typify his distinction: the types are not determined by economics as in the four stage model. Ferguson’s interest in the legal and political structures and differences between them lead him to stress political institutions at the expense of economics. Moreover, in the Essay, Ferguson expresses scepticism about attempts to associate the forms of society with economics. As he puts it: ‘Upon a slight observation of what passes in human life, we should be apt to conclude, that the care of subsistence is the principal spring of human actions.’8 This is a mistake in Ferguson’s view because the main object of human life lies in social participation, economics is of interest to us merely as a means to facilitate this. Ferguson’s stadial theory is a political rather than an economic theory.

  • 9 Ferguson, Adam, Institutes of Moral Philosophy, (London, Routledge/Thoemmes Press, 1994 [1769]), p. (...)
  • 10 Ferguson, Principles 2, 272.
  • 11 Ferguson, Principles 2, 273.

11He notes in the Institutes: ‘political establishments are the most important articles in the external condition of men.’9 There is no government and no law in a savage society, there is some government and some law (but not stable property law) in a barbarian society and there is both government and law in a civilised society. In Ferguson’s account it is the nature of civil association that disputes between fellow citizens are referred to the magistrate. Citizens must 'refrain from any application of force on their own part.'10 Similarly the magistrate is obliged, under the terms of political association, to resolve disputes and apply the monopoly of force to defend the innocent. Such are the 'conditions implied in every political establishment, and without which society either cannot be preserved, or cannot be said to have received any political form.'11

12Politics is the dominant concern in Ferguson’s analysis. As he would have it:

  • 12 Ferguson, Principles 1, 252.

The success of commercial arts, divided into parts, requires a certain order to be preserved by those who practice them, and implies a certain security of the person and property, to which we give the name of civilisation, although this distinction, both in the nature of the thing, and derivation of the word, belongs rather to the effects of law and political establishment, on the forms of society, than to any state merely of lucrative possession and wealth.12

  • 13 Smith, Adam, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, eds. R. H. Campbell, A (...)

13This is the opposite of Adam Smith’s notion that commerce introduces good government and of the standard Marxian base/superstructure model from economic relations to political superstructure.13 It’s important to note this at this stage as one of the most obvious characteristics of Ferguson’s approach is his analysis of the dependence of the rule of law on the evolution of a very particular set of political institutions which are, in turn, necessary for economic development. This stress on the political elements of civilisation cuts against the Marxist inspired reading of Ferguson as aligned with a supposed proto-materialist theory that emerges from stadialism, but it does not sever the economic from the political as we will see. There is a base / superstructure for Ferguson: it is the political that is base and the economic that is superstructural.

14Civilised nations are those who have begun to produce a system of abstract law and an impartial judicial mechanism. This process, of political refinement, is necessary to prevent the disorder and potential civil war caused by clan feuds and the natural human partiality to sub-national groupings. The Romans, to the extent that they developed an operative legal system, can be considered as civilised. The reason for this lies in his recognition that commerce and artistic achievement are the result of civilisation rather than constitutive of it. Civilisation is regular government – the Greeks and Romans began to develop this, but did not realise it to the level apparent in modern Europe.

15Another way of understanding this distinction in approach between Ferguson and Smith is to look at their accounts of social change. Both Smith and Ferguson deploy unintended consequence, evolutionary theories to account for social change. In full flow Ferguson refers to this as:

  • 14 Ferguson, Essay, 174.

Those establishments arose from successive improvements that were made, without any sense of their general effect; and they bring human affairs to a state of complication, which the greatest reach of capacity with which human nature was ever adorned, could not have projected; nor even when the whole is carried into execution, can it be comprehended in its full extent.14

  • 15 Smith, Adam, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, eds. D. D. Raphael & A. L. Macfie, (Oxford, Oxford Uni (...)
  • 16 Smith, Moral Sentiments, 184-5 and Smith, Wealth of Nations, 418.
  • 17 Smith, Wealth of Nations, 419-22.

16While the two invisible hand passages often grab attention here, Smith’s use of the method is widespread.15 But nearly every example of it takes the same form: the key to Smith’s use of this approach lies in his analysis of shifting economic incentives. Take the account of the fall of feudalism and rise of commercial society as it appears in The Theory of Moral Sentiments and Wealth of Nations.16 In both cases large scale political changes (the end of the landlord’s political power) are accounted for by the accretion of micro-level economic changes (the desire for trinkets and the urge to turn a penny).17

  • 18 Smith, Wealth of Nations, 412.

17When Smith comes to discuss the fall of feudalism and the rise of commerce he suggests that it is commerce that gradually introduces regular government and the rule of law.18 And it is here we begin to see the different priorities in Ferguson’s analysis. Ferguson’s account of the rise of commerce is of a gradual and piecemeal development of specialisation and the gradual extension of trade. But for Ferguson’s analysis it is the political change that drives the economic change. The core precondition of commerce is a stable government and an effective property law system.

Smith on Empire

  • 19 Smith, Wealth of Nations, 448, 563.
  • 20 See Van de Haar, Edwin, 'Adam Smith on Empire and International Relations' in C.J. Berry, M.P. Paga (...)

18When it comes to international trade and the development of Empire, both Ferguson and Smith are thinking explicitly in terms of the modern European experiences of Spain, Portugal, France, Holland and Britain. Smith is deeply opposed to colonies and empire because he sees them as potentially the most dangerous of the mercantile errors. He begins his analysis by noting the modern European colonies are not the same as the ancient ones.19 In the ancient world colonies were a response to over-population at home and generally involved settling a new city in a sparsely populated area which over time became an independent community. Modern colonies have arisen from quite different motives. The earliest European empires, those of Spain and Portugal, were a result of greed and the desire for gold. The idea that a great empire is a sign of great wealth and power was beginning to develop into a competition for prestige between the European powers. The pride in holding an empire and the avidity for gold led the Europeans to think that markets could be extended through conquest and settlement.20

  • 21 Smith, Wealth of Nations, 564.
  • 22 Smith, Wealth of Nations, 610.

19Smith’s discussion is informed by the dispute with Britain’s American colonies that took place in the 1760s and 70s when he was working on the Wealth of Nations. He discusses why colonies become successful. They tend to grow more quickly than the native economy because they import knowledge of methods and political and legal institutions from their home country.21 Smith wants to suggest that it is these institutions that actually drive growth. In such colonies land is cheap, population is low, and so wages are high. These opportunities draw people to the colony and further drive forward growth. The British colonies in America were the most economically developed, but this was not because they had any natural advantage in terms of fertility of land. Instead their success came from the fact that the British enforced a stable legal system and left the people to direct their own economic activity.22

  • 23 Smith, Wealth of Nations, 587.

20Smith does appreciate the irony that slavery is pervasive in the British American and Caribbean colonies and this raises the interesting thought that the rule of law that protects property in the British colonies has the unfortunate unintended consequence of allowing slave owners greater power over their slaves.23 If the right to do what you want with your property is respected then the magistrate is less able to intervene to restrict the treatment of slaves. Though Smith had already provided us with an economic argument for the inefficiency of slavery, and while it seems clear that he disapproved of it on moral grounds, he also wanted to understand how the institution operated in the British colonial trade.

  • 24 Smith, Wealth of Nations, 582.
  • 25 Smith, Wealth of Nations, 564.

21Smith clearly had some sympathy with the complaints of the colonists.24 They were rightly unhappy with the restrictions placed on their ability to trade with other countries and the complaints about taxation and representation carried some weight. But Smith adopts a conciliatory approach, accepting some of the American complaints and rejecting others. He points out that even though the Navigation Act forced the American colonies to trade through Britain, the Act itself did not provide a monopoly to any one company and so competition between British ports and ships meant that the damage of the monopoly was reduced.25

  • 26 Smith, Wealth of Nations, 82.

22What is perhaps more interesting about the argument here is that Smith thought that the colonial trade also harmed Britain. It forced British trade into unnatural directions and prevented the British from seeking other sources for the goods that were derived from the colonies. The influence of those involved in the colonial trade had become the most powerful interest in directing colonial policy. He believes that the colonial trade distorts the British economy and that the supposed gains that come from it are in reality less than would be had from allowing free trade with all countries. Such a policy would also save Britain the expense of defending the colonies and the political bother of dealing with complaints about tax and representation.26

  • 27 Smith, Wealth of Nations, 595.
  • 28 Smith, Wealth of Nations, 616.
  • 29 Smith, Wealth of Nations, 626.

23In general the colonial trade diverts British trade in an unnatural direction. It misdirects capital and it perverts prices. The trade of Britain has been forced down a narrow colonial market rather than flowing to many smaller markets as it would if left to follow its natural course. Such is the distortion of British trade it may be that a ‘small stop’ in the ‘giant blood vessel’ of North Atlantic trade would wreck the whole economy.27 The public pride in the supposed scale of Britain’s empire was driving the government to oppose the colonial demands. Smith argued instead that Britain should devolve powers to the colonial assemblies, guarantee representation in the British Parliament and open up both home and colonial markets to free trade.28 In time and with further economic growth, he even went so far to speculate, the capital of the empire might move to the Americas.29

  • 30 Smith, Wealth of Nations, 637.
  • 31 See Muthu, Sankar, 'Adam Smith’s Critique of International Trading Companies: Theorizing “Globaliza (...)

24The mercantile arguments that were used to support imperial expansion were entirely wrongheaded in Smith’s view. Perversely the attempts to secure the colonial market are actually harmful to the home nation. If this is somewhat mitigated by the preservation of the rule of law in Britain’s colonies it was entirely lacking from the expanding influence of the East India Company. Trading companies not only had a monopoly of the trade with a particular country, they also tended to have a monopoly of the carriage as well. Moreover they had begun to expand their influence over the political systems of the countries they were involved with. Smith accuses the East India Company of blurring the role of company and government and so failing at both.30 What he means by this is that the interest of a government should be in providing the conditions for the people to secure their living and providing the revenue to fund the necessary activities of the state. A hybrid company-government is faced with the contradictory interests of the people and the company. The political system is corrupted and misdirected by the interests of the company. The company will use the law and the political institutions to advance its interests and harm those of its rivals, its interest is in its revenue rather than in the revenue of the people.31

Ferguson’s Scepticism about Empire

  • 32 Thomas Paine takes Ferguson to be the chief mover behind the manifesto and attacks him in Crisis No (...)
  • 33 Smith, Craig, Adam Ferguson and the Idea of Civil Society: moral science in the Scottish Enlightenm (...)

25Ferguson’s analysis of the British Empire is based upon his analysis of the Roman Empire. It is clear that Ferguson is sceptical about Britain’s ‘Empire’, but the question is how sceptical and for what reasons? It is worth noting that any misgivings he may have had about empire or about specific government policy, seem to be curiously absent from his attitude to America. Ferguson’s position as secretary to the Carlisle Commission in 1778 and author of the Manifesto and Proclamation that proved so incendiary as to collapse the negotiations was no aberration.32 Ferguson had connections with the American colonies. His brother held land in Rhode Island Plantation and he kept abreast of colonial matters. In 1766 he discussed the idea of becoming the Governor of West Florida.33 And he came to offer strong support to the government case in the 1770s particularly in his pamphlet attacking Richard Price’s support for the colonial cause. To understand what Ferguson thought about the British Empire we need to look to Rome.

  • 34 Ferguson, Adam, The History of the Progress and Termination of the Roman Republic, (New York, J.C. (...)
  • 35 For Ferguson’s class analysis of the Roman civil wars see Ferguson, Roman Republic, 38, 95, 112, 22 (...)

26Ferguson’s analysis of Rome dwells on the implications of rank distinctions within the citizen class: ‘The distinctions of poor and rich are as necessary in states of considerable extent, as labour and good government. The poor are destined to labour, and the rich, by the advantages of education, independence, and leisure, are qualified for superior states.’34 But what Ferguson goes on to do with this is to develop a ‘class’ analysis of the forces that drove the fall of the Roman Republic. The gradual squeezing of the middle class between the interests of the rich and the poor created a dynamic that drove the Gracchi and the eventual rise of Marius, Sylla, and Caesar. In the case of Marius, Ferguson’s analysis focuses on his admission of the poor into the legions. Later this becomes the more widespread practice of bribing the poor in order to secure political power.35 Rome’s success in the early republican period lay in its ability to maintain the belief that it decided rank by public service not wealth. As this belief retreated with the process of colonial expansion and militarisation the reality of class power differences exerted itself.

  • 36 Ferguson, Essay, 62.
  • 37 Ferguson, Essay, 148.

27The ‘ruinous progress of empire’36 gradually arose from a desire for security, but in time became a source of corruption among the people and imbalance in the Roman constitution leading inevitably to civil war – and Ferguson frequently holds this up as an example in his more general opposition to empire. Ferguson suggests that empires are the result of a ‘ruinous maxim’37 by which a nation is tempted into imperial expansion in pursuit of security, wealth, and prestige. In the case of Rome, imperial expansion gradually brought about a change in the political order.

  • 38 Ferguson, Roman Republic, 404.

28Ferguson’s interest in Rome points him to one ultimate horror: the possibility of a civil war. Such wars are often conducted in what may otherwise be considered as a civilised nation and produce more violence and bloodshed than external wars because they involve the breakdown of, or conflict over, the political institutions of the state. As Ferguson notes on the end of the Roman republic: 'more blood has been shed in an age of boasted learning and politeness, than perhaps has been known to flow in any equal period of the most barbarity.’38 As we saw above the rule of law and subordination to the magistrate are vital political bases of civilisation and necessary conditions for trade and commerce. When these break down in a civil war we face the prospect of the dissolution of the polity.

  • 39 Ferguson, Roman Republic, 22.
  • 40 Ferguson, Roman Republic, 111.
  • 41 Ferguson, Roman Republic, 122.

29On one level Ferguson’s History can be read as a stock morality tale about the corruption of a republic by the luxury wrought in imperial expansion. But it is also a careful analysis of the intersection between domestic politics and the practice of war through the medium of unintended consequences. The process of external conflict helped to mould Rome’s internal politics, but it also provided a means for national unity and the health of the nation as a whole. ‘Resentment to a common enemy’, Ferguson argues, produced ‘transient unanimity’;39 external threats ‘calmed for a little time the animosity of domestic faction’40; and the absence of external threat led to ‘public tumults.’41

30The result of the success of Rome’s spirit and institutions was that it became a powerful empire but this eventually led to a situation where the institutions that promoted growth were unable to manage the empire once it had been secured. For this reason Montesquieu, by whom Ferguson was deeply influenced, traces the start of Rome’s corruption to its first permanent campaigns outside Italy (more precisely the war with Antiochus). When imperial rule was in place the great period of expansive war was over and the experience of luxury, but more importantly the experience of peace, hastened Rome’s corruption and eventual fall.

  • 42 Ferguson, Essay, 208.
  • 43 McDaniel, Adam Ferguson. See also McDaniel, Iain, 'Ferguson, Roman History and the Threat of Milita (...)

31Indeed, this is the backbone of his analysis of the class conflict in the Roman Republic. The problem is not so much that the army eventually came to threaten the Republic, but that the army and empire were adopted as ways of dealing with a growing population of poor citizens who became dependent and prey to demagogues and that this in turn destabilised the constitutional balance. As we noted above Ferguson was concerned that imperial expansion unleashed forces that created real dangers for political societies. If ‘the tendency of enlargement [is] to loosen the bands of political union,’42 then we should be sceptical about empire. As Iain McDaniel has discussed at some length, Ferguson does take the lesson of Caesarism from his study of the fall of the republic and worry that it may indeed be Europe’s future, but that is a lesson he applies to the expansion of France following the revolution, rather than Britain in America.43

Ferguson on America

  • 44 Ferguson, Adam, A Sermon Preached in the Ersh Language to His Majesty’s First Highland Regiment of (...)
  • 45 Ferguson, Correspondence 2, Appendix H. For a discussion of Ferguson’s service with the Carlisle Co (...)

32So how does all of this affect Ferguson’s account of the British Empire in North America. My contention is that Adam Ferguson’s analysis of Britain’s conflict in America was not, as Adam Smith’s was, concerned with the economics of Atlantic trade. Rather it was undertaken through the lens of the danger of civil war. And it is this that makes it different from his account of the danger of Caesarism in the later analysis of France. Ferguson is thinking things through in terms of the lessons of Rome, but in one case he is an onlooker assessing the threat to Britain from Imperial France, while in the other he is a participant in a British civil war. The horror at the break down of order and civil war is there from his first publication, the Ersh Sermon in 1746.44 The events of the seventeenth century and the Jacobite risings of the eighteenth century were very recent history for Ferguson so it is unsurprising that he takes a particularly dim view of civil wars. Ferguson regards civil war as a disaster where factional interest overwhelms patriotism and strikes at the very source of virtuous character. His strong views on the American crisis and his advice for total war against the colonists in the case of their not backing down, suggest that Ferguson’s obsession with stability and the rule of law lies behind his view on the colonies.45

  • 46 Ferguson, Institutes, 266.
  • 47 Ferguson, Adam Remarks on a Pamphlet lately published by Dr Price…, (London, T. Cadell, 1776), p. 2 (...)
  • 48 Ferguson, Remarks, 19.

33Ferguson shares a common eighteenth century view that the model of the Republic with direct citizen participation is inappropriate to the size of modern nations, but in addition he observes that there is probably an optimum size for national sentiment, and that this is not necessarily the small size of the ancient republics. He pays some attention to the effects of living in larger scale states on the nature of the national bond and individual character, and while he admits that it may be stronger in smaller states, he is willing to grant that it has prospered in ‘states of a moderate extent.’46 His problem, as drawn from the example of Rome, is when this becomes over-extended. When Ferguson tackles this issue in his pamphlet in reply to Richard Price he does indeed argue that smaller scale political societies are better, but this is combined with an argument that Great Britain has yet to reach an extent that is problematic and, crucially, that Britain and her colonies remain a part of the same political society.47 While Ferguson is sceptical about empire, he is unpersuaded by the arguments of Price and the colonists.48 He is particularly dismissive of their attempts to re-interpret liberty as republican participation rather than security under the rule of law.

  • 49 Ferguson, Essay, 132.

34Britain, as he sees it, is a Commercial Empire: ‘Some modern nations proceed to dominion and enlargement on the maxims of commerce; and while they only intend to accumulate riches at home, continue to gain an imperial ascendant abroad.’49 Ferguson’s analysis of Britain’s relationship with its American colonies does indeed draw on his analysis of the Roman Republic, but it also acknowledges the differences between Britain and Rome. Chief among these is that the politics of Britain’s commercial Empire are different from the politics that led to the Roman Empire.

  • 50 Skjönsberg, Max, 'Adam Ferguson on Partisanship, Party Conflict, and Popular Participation' Modern (...)
  • 51 Sher, Richard B., 'From Troglodytes to Americans: Montesquieu and the Scottish Enlightenment on Lib (...)

35As we have seen Ferguson’s analysis of the development of the Roman constitution is a class analysis of the growing influence of the people and its impact on Rome’s mixed constitution. Ferguson’s frequent references to this fact together with his support for active political life and interest in conflict have led many to interpret him as an early advocate of the healthy nature of faction and party conflict. But as Max Skjönsberg has argued, this is to exaggerate Ferguson’s interest in factions.50 It is true that Ferguson worried about passivity in the population, and that devices designed to maintain social order might suppress healthy political action. But the political action that Ferguson envisages is action within the constitution. His analysis of the development of civilised society is as deeply influenced by Montesquieu’s analysis of the British constitution as it is by Montesquieu’s analysis of the fall of the Roman Republic.51 The separation of the powers and functions of government and their balancing is vital to the constitution and the movement of any faction to favour one part of the population or one branch of the government has a destabilising effect.

  • 52 Ferguson, Roman Republic, 327.
  • 53 Ferguson, Roman Republic, 196.
  • 54 Ferguson, Principles 2, 292, 478.
  • 55 Ferguson, Principles 2, 291.

36The Roman Republic gives us clear examples of what Ferguson has in mind. His account of the changes that the Roman political order experienced is constantly directed against the ‘vindictive spirit of party’52 and ‘the progress of ruinous faction affecting popular measures.’53 The argument becomes even more pronounced in the Principles where the concern is the danger of the ‘mob.’54 In his discussion of a right to rebel against tyranny Ferguson brings himself to the interesting position that the risk of granting such a principle is that it opens the door to constant instability. Formalising such a right is dangerous precisely because we cannot ‘state any speculative or abstract position that may not be abused.’55

  • 56 Ferguson, Principles 2, 457.
  • 57 Ferguson, Principles 2, 464.
  • 58 Ferguson, Principles 2, 464.

37Ferguson was particularly worried by the idea that someone who committed themselves to a political ideal that they saw as in the public interest could develop revolutionary fervour. ‘The Zealot for liberty has run into the wildest disorders, and adventures, under pretence of promoting it, and have found their way to the most violent and pernicious usurpations.’56 This is a mistaken sense of liberty for Ferguson. He understands liberty as security of rights under the rule of law, and the issue of political liberty is to be answered by considering which political order is best fitted to the circumstances of the people in question. In the case of Britain, Ferguson clearly thought, that this was the mixed constitution arrived at following the civil wars. Liberty is not equality, it is not direct participation in an assembly, and it most certainly is not democracy. The lesson of Rome was that liberty is threatened by ‘the prevalence of democratic power,’57 and the danger to liberty is ‘arbitrary power’58 wielded by whatever part of the community. The opposite of arbitrary power is civilised power.

  • 59 Ferguson, Essay, 71.
  • 60 What Fania Oz-Salzberger has called ‘Ferguson’s cautious restatement of classical republicanism.’ O (...)

38What we find is that Ferguson was indeed an admirer of the ancient notion of a republic where the citizens were sovereign, and where these citizens devoted themselves to the public. But he was also aware that modern nations were not ancient republics. Indeed a significant danger might arise if modern societies tried to organise themselves along the same line as the small, ancient republics. In the Essay Ferguson cautions against ‘the misplaced ardours of a republican spirit’59 and he was clearly preoccupied by the destabilising impact the revolutionary and democratic movements had the potential to pose.60 This was in 1767. His commitment was to a publicly engaged population, but that engagement was counterweighted by the mixed constitution, the rule of law, and a set of institutions designed to protect the existing system of rank. While Ferguson is clearly drawing on the example of Rome he is doing so within a peculiarly British context, one which had not so long ago seen first-hand what civil war and insurrection could bring. The problems he faces are those of eighteenth century Britain and the need to preserve the fragile constitutional balance that secured civilisation.

Conclusion

  • 61 Ferguson, Correspondence 1, 56. Xandra Bello makes an explicit link between this class and applying (...)

39Ferguson’s discussion of the British conflict with the American colonies takes the form of an assessment of a civil war experienced by a member of the political community. His discussion of the danger of a French Empire, on the other hand, takes the form of the thoughts of a detached observer worried about the impact of events in another country upon his own. As he put it in a letter to William Pulteney, the crucial issue to the British system was to ensure that ‘our Present Gamblers for Power are made to feel that they cannot rise upon the shoulders of the Mob.’61

  • 62 Smith, Wealth of Nations, 624.
  • 63 Smith, Wealth of Nations, 624.
  • 64 Smith, Wealth of Nations, 623.

40Washington and Jefferson were just such ‘gambler’s after power’ as Wilkes or the Young Pretender had been. This, incidentally, is a point that Smith also makes. He addresses the worry that the introduction of a colonial ‘rabble’62 into Parliament would lead to the corruption of the polity. And here too he discusses this in the context of the expansion of the Roman polity by the extension of citizenship. But Smith draws a more sanguine conclusion that such an American representation would not corrupt the British constitution, but rather it would ‘be completed by it.’63 The ‘gamblers’ would be attracted by the greater spoils of the Imperial Parliament rather than ‘piddling for the little prizes which are to be found in what may be called the paltry raffle of colony faction.’64

  • 65 Morrison, J. H., John Witherspoon and the Founding of the American Republic, (Notre Dame: Universit (...)

41For Ferguson, on the other hand, the presence among the Revolutionary leaders of John Witherspoon, his old sparring partner in the Moderate versus Popular faction debates in the Church of Scotland, merely underlined to him the dangerous radicalism of the colonial rebels. As Ferguson wrote to Alexander Carlyle the Americans were 150,000 rebels ‘with Johnny Witherspoon at their head.’65 Despite taking place in North America this was a British civil war just as 1745, 1715, 1688, and 1644. The main issue in Britain’s conflict with the colonies was not the political economy of colonial trade. On this, as we saw, he explicitly agrees with Adam Smith’s critique of the merchants. The problem was the political impact of a civil war on the British political institutions which were a necessary precondition for commerce.

42Liberty exists when security is provided without the exercise of authority tripping over into tyranny: it is a creature of the institutions that make that possible. As such it is a product of human action not human design, a fragile, accidental achievement of a particular institutional setting: and that setting is the post 1688 British mixed monarchy. That the system is unique and fragile is taken for granted and the problem that arises is how to stabilise the constitution.

43Adam Smith’s account of trade and empire focuses on the economic side of the political economy of empire. Adam Ferguson’s, on the other hand, focuses on the political side of the political economy of empire. Ferguson agrees with Smith on trade and in his criticism of mercantile interests opposed to free trade. His worry is not about the merchants, but about the impact on the fragile British constitution. It was the politics of empire and its impact on British politics that exercised him. The problem was not primarily one of luxury or commerce any more than it was one of a lack of republican participation. The problem, as he saw it, was that the rule of law had broken down within the empire and the only response to this was force or separation. When demagogues raise a mob against the necessary powers of government and the rule of law, there is a danger of national dissolution: something that Adam Ferguson was not willing to countenance.

Haut de page

Bibliographie

Bello, Xandra, Adam Ferguson’s History of the Progress and the Termination of the Roman Republic. Passions, Epistemology, and Politics in the Late Scottish Enlightenment, (Unpublished PhD Thesis, The University of Aberdeen, 2017).

Berry, Christopher J., Social Theory of the Scottish Enlightenment, (Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 1997).

Fagg, Jane B., 'Introduction' in Vincenzo Merolle ed. The Correspondence of Adam Ferguson, vol. 1, (London, William Pickering, 1995).

Ferguson, Adam, A Sermon Preached in the Ersh Language to His Majesty’s First Highland Regiment of Foot…., (London: A. Miller, 1746).

Ferguson, Adam, Remarks on a Pamphlet lately published by Dr Price…, (London, T. Cadell, 1776).

Ferguson, Adam, The History of the Progress and Termination of the Roman Republic, (New York, J.C. Derby, 1856) University of Michigan: Historical Reprint Series.

Ferguson, Adam, Principles of Moral and Political Science, 2 Vols. (New York, AMS Press, 1973 [1792]).

Ferguson, Adam, Institutes of Moral Philosophy, (London, Routledge/Thoemmes Press, 1994 [1769]).

Ferguson, Adam, An Essay on the History of Civil Society, ed. Fania Oz-Salzberger, (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1995 [1767])

Ferguson, Adam, The Correspondence of Adam Ferguson, 2 Vols. ed. Vincenzo Merolle, (London, William Pickering, 1995).

Forbes, Duncan, 'Introduction' in Adam Ferguson An Essay on the History of Civil Society 1767, ed. D. Forbes, (Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 1967).

Hamowy, Ronald, 'Adam Smith, Adam Ferguson, and the Division of Labour' Economica, XXXV, 1968, pp. 249-59.

Höpfl, H.M., 'From Savage to Scotsman: Conjectural History in the Scottish Enlightenment', Journal of British Studies (Vol. XVII, No. 2, 1978).

Kettler, David, Adam Ferguson: His Social and Political Thought, (New Brunswick & London, Transaction Press, 2005).

McDaniel, Iain, 'Ferguson, Roman History and the Threat of Military Government in Modern Europe' in Eugene Heath & Vincenzo Merolle eds. Adam Ferguson: History, Progress and Human Nature, (London, Pickering and Chatto, 2008),

McDaniel, Iain, Adam Ferguson in the Scottish Enlightenment: The Roman Past and Europe’s Future, (Cambridge Mass., Harvard University Press., 2013).

Meek, Ronald L., Social Science and the Ignoble Savage, (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1976).

Morrison, J. H., John Witherspoon and the Founding of the American Republic, (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2005).

Muthu, Sankar, 'Adam Smith’s Critique of International Trading Companies: Theorizing “Globalization” in the Age of Enlightenment' Political Theory 36, 2008 pp. 185–212.

Oz-Salzberger, Fania, 'Introduction' in An Essay on the History of Civil Society ed. F. Oz-Salzberger, (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1995).

Plassart, Anna, The Scottish Enlightenment and the French Revolution, (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2015).

Pocock, J.G.A., The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition, (Princeton NJ, Princeton University Press, 1975).

Sher, Richard B., 'From Troglodytes to Americans: Montesquieu and the Scottish Enlightenment on Liberty, Virtue, and Commerce' in D. Wooton ed. Republicanism, Liberty and Commercial Society, (Stanford CA, Stanford University Press, 1994) pp. 368-402.

Skjönsberg, Max, 'Adam Ferguson on Partisanship, Party Conflict, and Popular Participation' Modern Intellectual History 2017, doi: 10.1017/S14792244317000099

Smith, Adam, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, eds. D. D. Raphael & A. L. Macfie, (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1976 [1759]).

Smith, Adam, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, eds. R. H. Campbell, A. S. Skinner & W. B. Todd. (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1976 [1776]).

Smith, Craig, Adam Ferguson and the Idea of Civil Society: moral science in the Scottish Enlightenment, (Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 2019).

Van de Haar, Edwin, 'Adam Smith on Empire and International Relations' in C.J. Berry, M.P. Paganelli & C. Smith eds. The Oxford Handbook of Adam Smith, (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2013)

Haut de page

Notes

1 See Pocock, J.G.A., The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition, (Princeton NJ, Princeton University Press, 1975);

Forbes, Duncan, 'Introduction' in Adam Ferguson An Essay on the History of Civil Society 1767, ed. D. Forbes, (Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 1967), pp. xii-xli ;

Hamowy, Ronald, 'Adam Smith, Adam Ferguson, and the Division of Labour' Economica, XXXV, 1968, pp. 249-59 ; Höpfl, H.M., 'From Savage to Scotsman: Conjectural History in the Scottish Enlightenment,’ Journal of British Studies (Vol. XVII, No. 2, 1978), pp. 19-40 ; and Kettler, David Adam Ferguson: His Social and Political Thought, (New Brunswick & London, Transaction Press, 2005).

2 McDaniel, Iain, Adam Ferguson in the Scottish Enlightenment: The Roman Past and Europe’s Future, (Cambridge Mass., Harvard University Press., 2013).

3 Ferguson, Adam, An Essay on the History of Civil Society, ed. Fania Oz-Salzberger, (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1995 [1767]), p. 140.

4 Ferguson to Adam Smith, 18th April 1776. Ferguson, Adam, The Correspondence of Adam Ferguson, 2 Vols. ed. Vincenzo Merolle, (London, William Pickering, 1995), Volume 1 No. 89.

5 Ferguson, Adam, Principles of Moral and Political Science, 2 Vols. (New York, AMS Press, 1973 [1792]), vol. 2 p. 421. See also Ferguson, Principles 2, 435-437.

6 See Berry, Christopher J., Social Theory of the Scottish Enlightenment, (Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 1997); and Meek, Ronald L. Social Science and the Ignoble Savage, (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1976).

7 Ferguson, Essay, 93.

8 Ferguson, Essay, 35.

9 Ferguson, Adam, Institutes of Moral Philosophy, (London, Routledge/Thoemmes Press, 1994 [1769]), p. 284.

10 Ferguson, Principles 2, 272.

11 Ferguson, Principles 2, 273.

12 Ferguson, Principles 1, 252.

13 Smith, Adam, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, eds. R. H. Campbell, A. S. Skinner & W. B. Todd. (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1976), p. 412.

14 Ferguson, Essay, 174.

15 Smith, Adam, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, eds. D. D. Raphael & A. L. Macfie, (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1976 [1759]), p. 184 ; Smith, Wealth of Nations, 456.

16 Smith, Moral Sentiments, 184-5 and Smith, Wealth of Nations, 418.

17 Smith, Wealth of Nations, 419-22.

18 Smith, Wealth of Nations, 412.

19 Smith, Wealth of Nations, 448, 563.

20 See Van de Haar, Edwin, 'Adam Smith on Empire and International Relations' in C.J. Berry, M.P. Paganelli & C. Smith eds. The Oxford Handbook of Adam Smith, (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2013), pp. 417-439.

21 Smith, Wealth of Nations, 564.

22 Smith, Wealth of Nations, 610.

23 Smith, Wealth of Nations, 587.

24 Smith, Wealth of Nations, 582.

25 Smith, Wealth of Nations, 564.

26 Smith, Wealth of Nations, 82.

27 Smith, Wealth of Nations, 595.

28 Smith, Wealth of Nations, 616.

29 Smith, Wealth of Nations, 626.

30 Smith, Wealth of Nations, 637.

31 See Muthu, Sankar, 'Adam Smith’s Critique of International Trading Companies: Theorizing “Globalization” in the Age of Enlightenment.' Political Theory 36, 2008 pp. 185–212.

32 Thomas Paine takes Ferguson to be the chief mover behind the manifesto and attacks him in Crisis No. 6.

33 Smith, Craig, Adam Ferguson and the Idea of Civil Society: moral science in the Scottish Enlightenment, (Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press, 2019), p. 20. This indicates a more general attitude that Ferguson possessed about imperial service. In the early 1770s he lobbied hard to become one of the Supervisory Commissioners that the East India Company was sending to India to monitor and investigate abuses. See Fagg, Jane B. 'Introduction' in Vincenzo Merolle, ed. The Correspondence of Adam Ferguson, vol. 1, (London, William Pickering, 1995) pp. xx-cxvii., p. xlii.

34 Ferguson, Adam, The History of the Progress and Termination of the Roman Republic, (New York, J.C. Derby, 1856) University of Michigan: Historical Reprint Series, p. 93.

35 For Ferguson’s class analysis of the Roman civil wars see Ferguson, Roman Republic, 38, 95, 112, 225.

36 Ferguson, Essay, 62.

37 Ferguson, Essay, 148.

38 Ferguson, Roman Republic, 404.

39 Ferguson, Roman Republic, 22.

40 Ferguson, Roman Republic, 111.

41 Ferguson, Roman Republic, 122.

42 Ferguson, Essay, 208.

43 McDaniel, Adam Ferguson. See also McDaniel, Iain, 'Ferguson, Roman History and the Threat of Military Government in Modern Europe' in Eugene Heath & Vincenzo Merolle eds. Adam Ferguson: History, Progress and Human Nature, (London, Pickering and Chatto, 2008), pp. 115-130 ; and Plassart, Anna, The Scottish Enlightenment and the French Revolution, (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2015).

44 Ferguson, Adam, A Sermon Preached in the Ersh Language to His Majesty’s First Highland Regiment of Foot…,(London: A. Miller, 1746).

45 Ferguson, Correspondence 2, Appendix H. For a discussion of Ferguson’s service with the Carlisle Commission and his views on America see Fagg, Introduction, xlvii-lvi.

46 Ferguson, Institutes, 266.

47 Ferguson, Adam Remarks on a Pamphlet lately published by Dr Price…, (London, T. Cadell, 1776), p. 23.

48 Ferguson, Remarks, 19.

49 Ferguson, Essay, 132.

50 Skjönsberg, Max, 'Adam Ferguson on Partisanship, Party Conflict, and Popular Participation' Modern Intellectual History 2017, doi: 10.1017/S14792244317000099, p. 14.

51 Sher, Richard B., 'From Troglodytes to Americans: Montesquieu and the Scottish Enlightenment on Liberty, Virtue, and Commerce' in D. Wooton ed. Republicanism, Liberty and Commercial Society, (Stanford CA, Stanford University Press, 1994) pp. 368-402.

52 Ferguson, Roman Republic, 327.

53 Ferguson, Roman Republic, 196.

54 Ferguson, Principles 2, 292, 478.

55 Ferguson, Principles 2, 291.

56 Ferguson, Principles 2, 457.

57 Ferguson, Principles 2, 464.

58 Ferguson, Principles 2, 464.

59 Ferguson, Essay, 71.

60 What Fania Oz-Salzberger has called ‘Ferguson’s cautious restatement of classical republicanism.’ Oz-Salzberger, Fania, 'Introduction' in An Essay on the History of Civil Society ed. F. Oz-Salzberger, (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1995), p. xxiv.

61 Ferguson, Correspondence 1, 56. Xandra Bello makes an explicit link between this class and applying the lessons of moral science against demagoguery. Bello, Xandra Adam Ferguson’s History of the Progress and the Termination of the Roman Republic. Passions, Epistemology, and Politics in the Late Scottish Enlightenment, (Unpublished PhD Thesis, The University of Aberdeen, 2017), p. 60.

62 Smith, Wealth of Nations, 624.

63 Smith, Wealth of Nations, 624.

64 Smith, Wealth of Nations, 623.

65 Morrison, J. H., John Witherspoon and the Founding of the American Republic, (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2005), p. 76.

Haut de page

Pour citer cet article

Référence électronique

Craig Smith, « Adam Ferguson on Trade and Empire »Revue d’études benthamiennes [En ligne], 24 | 2023, mis en ligne le 30 août 2023, consulté le 24 juin 2024. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/etudes-benthamiennes/10850 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/etudes-benthamiennes.10850

Haut de page

Auteur

Craig Smith

University of Glasgow, UK

Haut de page

Droits d’auteur

Le texte et les autres éléments (illustrations, fichiers annexes importés), sont « Tous droits réservés », sauf mention contraire.

Haut de page
Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search