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Scotland and the Scots, 1707-2007

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Christian Auer

IV. Enlightenment

20. The Practice of Slavery, 1771

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1John Millar (1735-1801) studied at Glasgow, where he became one of the followers of Adam Smith. In 1761 Millar became a lawyer and accepted the Regius chair at Glasgow, which he held for the rest of his life. In his Origin of the Distinction of Ranks (1778), a pioneering work in comparative sociology, Millar contended that society developed through a series of economic stages to reach the ultimate stage, commercial civilisation. His Historical View of the English Government (1787) was one of the first constitutional histories of England. In the following passage Miller argues that slavery is a cancer in society.

2John Millar, Observations Concerning the Distinction of Ranks in Society (1771), London: J. Murray, 1773, p. 266-269.

The practice of slavery being introduced in an early age is afterwards regarded with that blind prepossession which is commonly acquired in favour of ancient usages. The inconveniencies of it are overlooked, and every innovation is considered as a dangerous measure. The possession of power is too agreeable to be easily relinquished. Few people will venture upon a new experiment; and, amidst the general prejudices of a country, fewer still are capable of making it with fairness. We find, accordingly, that this institution, however inconsistent with the right of humanity, however pernicious and contrary to the true interest of the master, has generally remained in those countries where it was once established, and has been handed down from one generation to another, during all the successive improvements of society in knowledge, arts, and manufactures.

The advancement of a nation, in these particulars, is even frequently attended with greater severity in the treatment of the slaves. The simplicity of early ages admits of little distinction between the master and his servants, in their employments or manner of living; and though he may sometimes subject them to hardships, from the impetuosity and violence of his temper, he enjoys no great superiority over them in their dress, their lodging, or ordinary entertainment. By the introduction of wealth and luxury, this equality is gradually destroyed. The various refinements which tend to multiply the comforts and conveniencies of life, whatever contributes to ease, to pleasure, to ostentation, or to amusement, is in a great measure appropriated to the rich and the free, while those who remain in a state of servitude are retained in their primitive indigence. The slaves are no longer accustomed to sit at the same table with their master. They must look upon him as a being of a superior order, whom they are seldom permitted to approach, and with whom they have hardly any thing in common; who beholds with indifference the toil and drudgery to which they are subjected, and from whom they can with difficulty procure a narrow and scanty subsistence.

What a painful and humbling companion, what mortifying reflections does this afford to those wretches who are reduced into a state of bondage! reflections which cannot fail to sour their temper, to inspire them with malevolent dispositions, and to produce an untoward and stubborn behaviour. A more severe discipline is thus rendered necessary, in order to conquer their obstinacy, and oblige them to labour in their employments. Besides, from the number of slaves which are usually maintained in a wealthy and luxurious nation, they become formidable to the state; and it is requisite that they should be strictly watched, and kept in the utmost subjection, in order to prevent those desperate attempts to which they are frequently instigated in revenge of their sufferings. This is at least the pretence for that shocking barbarity to which the negroes in our colonies are so commonly exposed, and which is so often exhibited even by persons of the weaker sex, in an age distinguished by its humanity and politeness.

© Presses universitaires de Strasbourg, 2013

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