Ferguson, Adam (1723–1816)

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Born in Logierait, Scotland, to a parish minister, Adam Ferguson was educated first at the local parish school, then at grammar school in Perth, then at St. Andrews (MA 1742), and finally studied divinity at the University of Edinburgh (17431745). In Edinburgh he befriended many leading figures in moderate circles, including fellow divinity students Alexander Carlyle (17221805), William Robertson (17211793), and Hugh Blair (17181800) and older members of the Select Society including his close friend, David Hume. In 1745 he cut his studies short, was ordained, and became deputy chaplain (eventually chaplain) preaching in Gaelic to the Highland Black Watch Regiment. He returned to secular nonmilitary life in 1754 and became a mainstay of the Edinburgh intelligentsia, succeeding Hume as the librarian of the Faculty of Advocates (17581759), then (also with Hume's assistance) became professor of natural philosophy at the University of Edinburgh (17591764) and finally professor of pneumatics and moral philosophy (17641785).

Ferguson's international reputation was secured with the publication of his masterpiece, An Essay on the History of Civil Society in 1767. The Essay was quickly followed by the Institutes of Moral Philosophy (1769), a popular textbook used in moral philosophy curricula in America, Germany, and Russia. Now famous, Ferguson traveled extensively and engaged vigorously with the philosophical and political issues of his day, particularly the American Revolution, which he criticized in its revolutionary practice in a pamphlet against Richard Price (Observations on the Nature of Civil Liberty [1776]) and the settlement of which he sought as secretary to the Carlisle Commission (1778). Ferguson continued his publishing successes with the philosophical history History of the Progress and Termination of the Roman Republic (1783) and later, after his retirement from Edinburgh, the Principles of Moral and Political Science (1792). His intellectual engagements hardly dampened until his death, and in addition to his books he published a significant number of pamphlets.

His contemporaries were impressed by his intelligence and his distinctive temperament. Carlyle described Ferguson as having "a dignified reserve" in conversation filled with "dark allusions," and as jealous yet with a "boundless sense of humor" in private company. A nineteenth-century biographer nicknamed Ferguson the "the Scottish Cato" due to these qualities of character appropriate to the Scots advocate of republican Stoical virtue.

Like many of his contemporaries, Ferguson brought a wide range of scientific, anthropological, and historical resources to bear on moral and politics in a characteristically Scottish fusion of mid- and late Stoicism, natural law theory, history, natural science, and the natural sciences of man (including pneumatics or the physical history of mind). His Essay on Civil Society was built on a stadial theory that divided human societies according to their means of subsistence, social organization, and equality (among other variables). At the same time, Ferguson stressed that although morals should be fully informed by natural science and social history, it had a special provenance: what one ought to do in regard to good and evil and virtue and vice.

So far, nothing in Ferguson's theory was unique and he drew on many of his Scottish contemporariesnotably Hume, Adam Smith, and Thomas Reidfor his arguments. What was distinctive was how Ferguson used this framework to think about the relation between morals and politics. For Ferguson virtue was thoroughly intertwined with political virtú in the tradition of Niccolò Machiavelli and Baron de Montesquieu. Francis Hutcheson had stressed the civic and social character of morality, but Ferguson drew on Montesquieu's arguments in Spirit of the Laws (1748), that laws and social institutions create a virtuous citizenry, and on his definition of political liberty as virtuous action in and through good laws, to interweave civic morality with the new sciences of man. For Ferguson, like Montesquieu, the growth of virtue was neither isomorphic with material progress nor necessarily antithetical to it: Virtue can be found in different times and places. But unlike Montesquieu and like Smith, John Millar, and numerous other Scots, he always assumed in the background a theory of historical stages, not as linear progress but as a means to analyze nations and peoples both synchronically and diachronically, and as a species of conjectural history to be used as an analytic framework for comparing progress, wealth, equality, virtue, and other variables. On the one hand, the optimal setting for virtue and equality was a small, republican meritocracy of social and political equals actively contributing to the common good. On the other hand, Ferguson also stressed that ancient, simple military societies tended to be impoverished, violent, and "rude," lacking many of the sociable virtues admired in a commercial society. The problem was, then, given the different forces that can affect a nation morallyits size, its prosperity, its historical stage, and its lawshow to maximize virtue and minimize vice?

Ferguson's diagnosed this problem as endemic to his contemporaries thinking about morals and politics. Hume (and later Smith and Millar) argued that commerce was a fundamental civilizing force and gave rise to a liberal progressive society superior to societies that preceded it. Still, Hume recognized the virtue of small, egalitarian societies. Ferguson thought that Hume and Smith confused material prosperity with wealth and this showed in their moral recommendations. Obviously, material prosperity was desirable, and once attained it was difficult to forego, but prosperous nations are often corrupt and there was no guarantee from the progress of history that they would not become luxurious and despotic. The focus should be on a broader conception of wealth that included moral and political virtue.

So what sorts of laws and civic institutions prevent moral corruption and reinforce virtue in large, wealthy societies? Ferguson focused throughout his career in his books and pamphlets on the importance of citizens' militias, that is, defense by ordinary citizenry as opposed to professional soldiers. His service in the Black Watch during the Jacobite uprising of 17451746 made him aware firsthand of the difficulties a standing army in a commercial society had in quelling rude but fierce Highland militias. Most of the Edinburgh intelligentsiaincluding Smith and Humesupported a Scottish militia. Ferguson thought that the issue was philosophically pivotal and that Smith's lukewarm support for the militia was a symptom of the conflict in his theory between virtue and wealth. He believed that militias are paradigmatic egalitarian, socially activist institutions. Any soldier can rise in a militia through merit, and military and social virtue are rewarded and reinforced in local organizations where citizenry know one another, rely on one another, and are responsible for their actions. Complex, prosperous societies need such invigorating, egalitarian social institutions to be wealthy in a broader sense, to avoid moral corruption, and so to be vigilant against tyranny. They also are a bulwark against the deadening effect of the division of labor, which is driven forward by commerce but not morality. Active social institutions allow the moral vigor of rude society, above all the early Roman republic, to be infused in commercial societies when people cannot, or even do not want to, return to a prior state.

Ferguson's works were particularly popular in Italy, France, and Germany and influenced, among others, Gottfried Lessing, Christian Garve, and Friedrich Schiller. He also influenced Karl Marx in particular (with his criticisms of progressivism and the division of labor) and modern sociology in general, above all through the proliferation of the idea of civil society.

See also Garve, Christian; Hume, David; Hutcheson, Francis; Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim; Machiavelli, Niccolò; Marx, Karl; Montesquieu, Baron de; Natural Law; Price, Richard; Reid, Thomas; Schiller, Friedrich; Smith, Adam; Stoicism.


Oz-Salzberger, Fania. Translating the Enlightenment: Scottish Civic Discourse in Eighteenth-Century Germany. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

works by adam ferguson

The Correspondence of Adam Ferguson, edited by Vincenzo Merolle. Brookfield, VT: William Pickering, 1995a.

An Essay on the History of Civil Society (1767), edited by Fania Oz-Salzberger. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995b).

Collection of Essays, edited by Yasua Amoh. Kyōto, Japan: Rinsen Books, 1996.

works about adam ferguson

Burton, John Hill, ed. The Autobiography of Dr. Alexander Carlyle of Inveresk: 17221805. London: T. N. Foulis, 1910.

Kettler, David. The Social and Political Thought of Adam Ferguson. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1965.

Oz-Salzberger, Fania. "Adam Ferguson." In Dictionary of National Biography. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Sher, Richard B. "Adam Ferguson, Adam Smith, and the Problem of National Defense." Journal of Modern History 61 (1989): 240268.

Aaron Garrett (2005)