For the Sake of an Imaginary Empire Much Treasure was Wasted
Jeffrey Collins, professor of history, Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario, reviews Iain McDaniel’s, “Adam Ferguson in the Scottish Enlightenment,” Harvard, in The Wall Street Journal HERE
“A Skeptical Modern”
Eighteenth-century Britain's mixture of liberty and empire inspired philosophers. Adam Ferguson thought it spelled doom.
“By the staid standards of the Scottish Enlightenment, the philosopher Adam Ferguson enjoyed a vividly eventful life. Descended from the dukes of Argyll, he received a deluxe education at St. Andrews and Edinburgh. He served as chaplain to the storied 42nd regiment of Highlanders. It was claimed, implausibly, that he was a fighting cleric, leading infantry against the French at the battle of Fontenoy in 1745. "Damn my clerical commission," he supposedly roared. After his military career, Ferguson joined Edinburgh's Select Society, the brain trust of the Scottish Enlightenment. He composed political pamphlets and—embarrassingly—promoted the "newly discovered" epics of Ossian (supposedly a "Celtic Homer" but in fact a hoax). He included among his friends Adam Smith, David Hume and Sir Walter Scott.
Ferguson eventually eased into an academic career at the University of Edinburgh. In 1767, he published his most significant book, "An Essay on the History of Civil Society." A "speculative history" of the kind popular with the Scots, the "Essay" hypothesized an account of humankind's emergence from natural barbarity. Ferguson's other major work, his "History of the Progress and Termination of the Roman Republic," remained popular into the 19th century and earned the praise of Edward Gibbon (no easy feat).
Please read Professor Colins’s full review by following the link (it is far too long to quote without raising the ire of the Wall Street Journal and it is very interesting). I make some short comments on some sentences in the review below:
“Ferguson joined Edinburgh's Select Society, the brain trust of the Scottish Enlightenment.”
I had occasion recently to comment on the Select Society and it may put the Select Society in a more realistic light than Professor Daniels's remarks.
“Of his attendance at the many clubs in Glasgow and Edinburg, Ross reports that: “On such visits [to Edinburgh] Smith attended the clubs and societies of the literati in Edinburgh. The Philosophical Society … flourished from the 1750s”. The “Select Society” (1754) to “promote literary and Philosophical discussion “At the first meeting on 22 May …Smith in his first and last speech, so it was said, presented the guiding principles that members could suggest any topic for debate “except such as regard Revealed Religion, or Principles of Jacobitism” (Ross, 2010: 141-2).
Smith did not attend any meetings afterwards – probably he was not inclined to debate for debate’s sake, nor to travel through from Glasgow for its meetings in Edinburgh (he was also absent from Edinburgh from 1764 to 1773).
The Select Society still exists but it is still relatively secret, as well as remaining very select. It meets over dinners in Edinburgh University premises and members may be given the task for the evening of debating for or against propositions with which they may hold opposite views to those they are charged with defending for the evening’s debate. This continues its disputatious traditions from 1754. It was not likely to attract Smith’s temperament, though it probably suits those whose professional lives are spent in the Scottish Courts engaging in subtle debates on the finer points of law, which is perhaps why its members were and are mostly senior advocates, Judges, QCs and law professors.
To say that The Select Society was the “brain trust of the Scottish Enlightenment” is hyperbole. Edinburgh and Glasgow were home to numerous clubs, many with interlocking memberships. Adam Smith joined several societies and attended their meetings in Edinburgh and Glasgow, as did Adam Ferguson.
“He included among his friends Adam Smith, David Hume and Sir Walter Scott”.
I would mention that a roll call of all of the personnel in the Scottish Enlightenment who were also in regular contact with Ferguson. Ferguson mixed with them all at the height of his and their powers. True, in old age, Ferguson tended to be reclusive after most of his enlightened friends had died off. As it was, he moved residence out of Edinburgh’s Old Town and went to stay at Sciennes House, of which his friends dubbed as “Kamchatka” (Siberia), because they regarded Sciennes as too far away on the outskirts of Edinburgh from the intimacies of the Old Town, though in fact, it was only about 1,200 yards from Smith’s Panmure house, deep in the Old Town, and much less from Edinburgh University’s campus
Professor Collins writes: “What emerges is a reminder that, if Scotland and France were the pre-eminent sites of the Enlightenment, England was its abiding subject. For the philosophes, 18th-century Britain's rise to imperial pre-eminence exemplified the new political dynamics of the modern age.”
… “While the French monarchy frantically sold off assets and borrowed at ruinous rates, Britain created a perpetual, rolling national debt. Smaller than France, Britain mobilized its wealth with vastly greater efficiency. The "financial revolution" made fortunes at home and an empire abroad. Its consequences are with us still.”
… “Neither commercial wealth nor imperial power has yet undermined the British constitution (or its American cousin). For good or ill, commerce, consumption and interest are the springs that feed modern liberal society. Hume, Smith and Tocqueville understood that these currents were irreversible.”
Smith was always pragmatic, regarding whatever had happened in history and happens in current events as agenda, more the subject for which its consequences are studied, rather than lamented. Ferguson’s overall pessimism – such as he manifested in his panoramic views – were not aligned with Smith’s. His concluding advice in Wealth Of Nations in view of the likely failure of King George III to overcome the rebellions of in the British colonies in North America, he expressed thus:
“This empire, however, has hitherto existed in imagination only. It has hitherto been, not an empire, but the project of an empire; not a gold mine, but the project of a gold mine; a project which has cost, which continues to cost, and which, if pursued in the same way as it has been hitherto, is likely to cost immense expence, without being likely to bring any profit; for the effects of the monopoly of the colony trade, it has been shewn, are, to the great body of the people, mere loss instead of profit. It is surely now time that our rulers should either realize this golden dream, in which they have been indulging themselves, perhaps, as well as the people; or, that they should awake from it themselves, and endeavour to awaken the people. If the project cannot be compleated, it ought to be given up. If any of the provinces of the British empire cannot be made to contribute towards the support of the whole empire, it is surely time that Great Britain should free herself from the expence of defending those provinces in time of war, and of supporting any part of their civil or military establishments in time of peace, and endeavour to accommodate her future views and designs to the real mediocrity of her circumstances“ (WN V.iii.92: 946-7).
Smith’s pragmatic advice was ignored by successive British governments into the next century and beyond. They remained attached to their imaginary vision of an Empire and having lost the first one and the vast resources spent in pursuing their quest, they established another, even bigger Empire and spent even more scarce resources in so doing, well into the 20th century. They lost that Empire too and now spend billions in keeping the mirage of a being great naval power afloat, though it’s a pale shadow of their former’s imagined glories, destined to go the same way as the first bankrupt first Empire.
Smith’s last sentence in WN sums his pragmatism: “endeavour to accommodate her future views and designs to the real mediocrity of her circumstances“. It also sums the difference between Adam Smith and Adam Ferguson.