John Millar (1735-1801), professor of civil law at the University of Glasgow from 1761 to 1801 and author of The Origin of the Distinction of Ranks and of An Historical View of the English Government, was born in the manse of the Kirk o’ Shotts, Lanarkshire, Scotland. He was educated by an uncle and in the grammar school at Hamilton, where his father had by then been transferred. At the early age of 11 he entered Glasgow College, intended by his father for the Christian ministry. Five years later, he attended the first course of lectures given at Glasgow by Adam Smith, who soon discovered his promising qualities and later recommended him for a tutorship to the family of the distinguished jurist Lord Kames.
At the age of 25, just “passed advocate,” he was appointed, on the recommendations of Smith and Kames, to the crown chair of civil law at Glasgow—a post he filled until his death. Here he lectured regularly on civil or Roman law (following the institutes and pandects of Justinian), on what he called “public law” or “the principles of government,” and in alternate years on Scots and later also on English law.
The brilliance of his lectures soon attracted students from far and wide and gave great luster to a chair that had, at times, become almost defunct. Among his students were many who later came to hold places of the highest distinction at the bar, on the bench, in legal scholarship, in Parliament, and in the royal councils at Westminster.
His approach to the law was characterized by a comparative and historical, and in a sense sociological, orientation, by a lively attempt to reveal the relation of both law in general and the specific provisions of the law to the realities of everyday human experience, and by an unflagging effort to make law a genuine university subject rather than merely to furnish materials for the manual of the practitioner (Lehmann 1960, p. 48). This was true of his lectures on civil and municipal law as well as on public law or government.
Millar was, however, more than a teacher of law: he was first of all a teacher of youth. In line with the democratic, pragmatic, and broadly national aims of Scottish higher education in general, he always tried to make knowledge a vital thing in the lives of his students and a challenge to both their intellectual curiosity and their sense of moral responsibility in the affairs of the political community. “No individual, indeed, ever did more,” Francis Jeffrey observed in the Edinburgh Review, “to break down the old and unfortunate distinction between the wisdom of the academician and the wisdom of the man of the world” (1806, p. 87). Jeffrey considered the informality of Millar’s lectures—his “academic undress,” as it were, his afterclass and domestic hearthside discussions with the more promising of his students—to be an educational innovation of the highest order. John Rae, in the Life of Adam Smith, saw not indeed in the master but in his pupil, Millar, “the most effective and influential apostle of Liberalism in Scotland in that age” (1895, pp. 53-54).
In 1771, ten years after he began to lecture, Millar published his Observations Concerning the Distinction of Ranks in Society, entitled in the third and fourth editions The Origin of the Distinction of Ranks, with the revealing subtitle An Inquiry Into the Circumstances Which Give Rise to Influence and Authority, in the Different Members of Society. Sixteen years later (1787) he published An Historical View of the English Government. Both books brought him wide acclaim.
The former is essentially a historico-sociological analysis of social and political institutions from an evolutionary standpoint, focusing particularly on the relative position and the relations of the sexes in the various stages of civilizational development, on the rise of chieftaincy and of monarchical government, and on the “changes produced in the government of a people by their progress in arts, and in polished manners” ( 1960, p. 284).
The latter book, somewhat more mature in scholarship and more purely historical in orientation, was dedicated to Charles Fox, whom Millar greatly admired. Millar himself viewed it as a “constitutional history of England,” tracing its development from early Saxon institutions to the Norman Conquest; then, with the development of feudalism, to the end of the Tudor period; then to the Stuart period, with its struggles over the royal prerogative, and ending with the Revolution Settlement of 1688, which he considered the highest point in the development of British liberties; and, finally, to his own time. His own period he viewed as characterized by the growth of “the secret influence of the crown” and thus by a re-encroachment of the royal prerogative upon the legislative branch of the government, which was dangerous to established liberties. At the same time he saw that “rapid improvements of arts and manufactures . . . produced a degree of wealth and affluence, which diffused a feeling of independence and a high spirit of liberty, through the great body of the people” ( 1818, vol. 4, p. 100). This work was often cited by James Wilson, a principal draftsman of the American constitution, in his lectures on law in 1790–1791, at what was later to become the University of Pennsylvania; it was one of the textbooks used by the elder Mill in the rigorous education of the young John Stuart Mill, who greatly preferred it to Hallam’s Constitutional History of England.
Both of Millar’s major works are characterized by a pervasive attempt to trace causes and effects in historical phenomena and by a strong emphasis upon the influence that economic factors have in shaping social and political institutions.
Because of this stress on economic factors, some have seen in Millar’s work a marked anticipation of Marx’s historical materialism. Perhaps it would be fairer to see in it, with A. L. Macfie of Glasgow (1961), both a further development of the thought of Adam Smith, with differences in emphasis, and an important bridge between eighteenth and nineteenth century social thinking in general.
William C. Lehmann
(1771) 1960 The Origin of the Distinction of Ranks. Pages 165-322 in William C. Lehmann, John Millar of Glasgow: His Life, Thought and His Contributions to Sociological Analysis. Cambridge Univ. Press. → First published as Observations Concerning the Distinction of Ranks in Society.
(1787) 1818 An Historical View of the English Government, From the Settlement of the Saxons in Britain to the Revolution in 1688: To Which Are Subjoined Some Dissertations Connected With the History of the Government From the Revolution to the Present Time. 4 vols. 4th ed. London: Mawman.
1796 Letters of Crito, on the Causes, Objects, and Consequences, of the Present War. Edinburgh: Johnstone.
Craig, John 1806 Account of the Life and Writings of John Millar, Esq. Pages i-cxxxiv in John Millar, The Origin of the Distinction of Ranks: Or, an Inquiry Into the Circumstances Which Give Rise to Influence and Authority, in the Different Members of Society. 4th ed. Edinburgh: Blackwood.
Forbes, Duncan 1954 “Scientific” Whiggism: Adam Smith and John Millar. Cambridge Journal 7:643-670.
Jeffrey, Francis 1806 [Review of] The Origin of the Distinction of Ranks: Or, an Inquiry Into the Circumstances Which Give Rise to Influence and Authority, in the Different Members of Society, by John Millar. Edinburgh Review 9:83-92.
Lehmann, William C. 1960 John Millar of Glasgow: His Life, Thought and His Contributions to Sociological Analysis. Cambridge Univ. Press. → Includes a bibliography of Millar’s works on pages 417-418.
Macfie, A. L. 1961 John Millar: A Bridge Between Adam Smith and Nineteenth Century Social Thinkers? Scottish Journal of Political Economy 8:200-210.
Rae, John 1895 The Life of Adam Smith. London: Macmillan.
Brett (1996, 2002);
Perspective: Journal of the Royal Society of Ulster Architects, iii/1 (Sept./Oct. 1994), 55–7;
Ulster Architect, xi/9 (Sept./Oct. 1994), 4–6
J. A. Cannon
John Millar, 1735–1801, Scottish philosopher and historian. Millar studied at Glasgow, where he became the chief disciple of Adam Smith. In 1761 Millar became professor of civil law at Glasgow, and his lectures there made him a national figure. He was one of the earliest advocates of the view that later became known as economic determinism, and in his Origin of the Distinction of Ranks (1778) he advanced the view that all social relations, even relations between the sexes, are determined by the economic organization of society. His Historical View of the English Government (1787) was one of the first constitutional histories of England. Drawing upon the histories of other peoples for comparative purposes, and emphasizing the social and economic bases of political institutions and developments, it represented a marked advance in historical scholarship.
See biography by W. C. Lehmann (1960).