Front Page Titles (by Subject) SKETCH V: Great and Small States compared - Sketches of the History of Man, vol. 2
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SKETCH V: Great and Small States compared - Henry Home, Lord Kames, Sketches of the History of Man, vol. 2 
Sketches of the History of Man Considerably enlarged by the last additions and corrections of the author, edited and with an Introduction by James A. Harris (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2007). 3 Vols. Vol. 2.
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Great and Small States compared
Neighbours, according to the common saying, must be sweet friends or bitter enemies: patriotism is vigorous in small states; and hatred to neighbouring states, no less so: both vanish in a great monarchy.
Like a maximum in mathematics, emulation has the finest play within certain bounds: it languisheth where its objects are too many, or too few. Hence it is, that the most heroic actions are performed in a state of moderate extent: appetite for applause, or fame, may subsist in a great monarchy; but by that appetite, without the support of emulation, heroic actions are seldom atchieved.
Small states, however corrupted, are not liable to despotism: the people being close to the seat of government, and accustomed to see their governors daily, talk familiarly of their errors, and publish them every where. On Spain, which formerly consisted of many small states, a profound writer (a) makes the following observation. “The petty monarch was but little elevated above his nobles: having little power, he could not command much respect; nor could his nobles look up to him with that reverence which is felt in approaching great monarchs.” Another thing is equally weighty against despotism in a small state: the army cannot easily be separated from the people; and, for that reason, is very little dangerous. The Roman pretorian bands were billeted in the towns near Rome; and three cohorts only were employed in guarding that city. Sejanus, prefect of these bands under Tiberius, lodged the three cohorts in a spacious barrack within the city, in order to gain more authority over them, and to wean them from familiarity with the people. Tacitus, in the 4th book of his Annals, relates the story in the following words. “Vim praefecturae, modicam antea, intendit, dispersas per urbem cohortes una in castra conducendo; ut simul imperia ac-ciperent, numeroque et robore, et visu, inter se, fiducia ipsis, in caeteros metus, crearetur.”*
What is said above, suggests the cause of a curious fact recorded in ancient history, “That of many attempts to usurp the sovereignty of different Greek republics, very few succeeded; and that no usurpation of that kind was lasting.” Every circumstance differs in an extensive state: the people, at a distance from the throne, and having profound veneration for the sovereign, consider themselves, not as members of a body-politic, but as subjects merely, bound implicitly to obey: by which impression they are prepared before-hand for despotism. Other reasons concur: the subjects of a great state are dazzled with the splendor of their monarch; and as their union is prevented by distance, the monarch can safely employ a part of his subjects against the rest, or a standing army against all.
A great state possesses one eminent advantage, viz. ability to execute magnificent works. The hanging gardens of Babylon, the pyramids of Egypt, and its lake Meris, are illustrious examples. The city of Heliopolis in Syria, named Balbek by the Turks, is a pregnant instance of the power and opulence of the Roman empire. Even in the ruins of that city, there are remains of great magnificence and exquisite taste. If the imperial palace, or the temple of the Sun, to mention no other building, were the work of any European prince existing at present, it would make a capital figure in the annals of his reign. And yet so little was the éclat of these works, even at the time of execution, that there is not a hint of them in any historian. The beneficence of some great monarchs is worthy of still greater praise. In the principal roads of Japan, hot baths are erected at proper distances, with other conveniencies, for the use of travellers. The beneficence of the Chinese government to those who suffer shipwreck, gives a more advantageous impression of that monarchy, than all that is painfully collected by Du Halde. To verify the observation, I gladly lay hold of the following incident. In the year 1728, the ship Prince George took her departure from Calcutta in Bengal for Canton in China, with a cargo l. 60,000 value. A violent storm drove her ashore at a place named Timpau, a great way west from Canton. Not above half the crew could make the shore, worn out with fatigue and hunger, and not doubting of being massacred by the natives. How amazed were they to be treated with remarkable humanity! A Mandarin appeared, who not only provided for them victuals in plenty, but also men skilled in diving to assist them in fishing the wreck. What follows is in the words of my author, Alexander Wedderburn of St. Germains, a gentleman of known worth and veracity, who bore office in the ship.
In a few days we recovered L. 5000 in bullion, and afterward L. 10,000 more. Before we set forward to Canton, the Mandarin our benefactor took an exact account of our money, with the names of the men, furnished us with an es-cort to conduct us through his district, and consigned us dead or alive to one Suqua at Canton, a Chinese merchant well known to the English there. In every one of our resting-places, victuals were brought to us by the villagers in plenty, and with great cordiality. In this manner we passed from one district to another, without having occasion to lay out a single farthing, till we reached Canton, which we did in nine days, travelling sometimes by land, and sometimes by water. Our case had been represented to the court at Pekin, from whence orders came to distribute amongst us a sum of money: which was done by the Chuntuck, Hoppo, and other officers, civil and military, assembled in great state. After a short speech, expressing regret for our calamity, with an eulogium on the humane and generous disposition of their master; to each of us was presented the Emperor’s bounty, in a yellow bag on which was inscribed the nature of the gift. The first supercargo received 450 tales in silver, the second 350, myself 250, the mate 75, and each common seaman 15; the whole amounting to about 2000 tales, or L. 800. This is an example worthy of imitation, even where Christianity is professed; though its tenets are often, on like occasions, scandalously perverted.
So far my author: and I add, that this bounty was undoubtedly established by law; for it has not the appearance of an occasional or singular act of benevolence. If so, China is the only country in the world, where charity to strangers in distress is a branch of public police.
Another advantage of a great state I mention with peculiar pleasure, because all who aspire to be eminent in literature, are interested in it. A small kingdom, like Denmark, like Sweden, like Portugal, cannot naturally be productive of good writers; because where there are few readers, there is no sufficient incitement to exert literary talents: a classical work produced at present in the Celtic tongue, would fall little short of a miracle. France is eminent above all other nations for the encouragement it affords to good writers: it is a populous country: it is the chief seat of taste, arts, and sciences; and its language has become universal in Europe, being the court-language every where: why then should not French writers carry the palm? But let not the British despond; for doth not a glorious prospect lie before them? The demand for English books in America is considerable; and is increasing daily. Population goes on vigorously: the number of British already settled upon the river Ohio approach to 10,000; and the delicious country from that river down to the mouth of the Mississippi will be filled with people whose native tongue is English. So fine a climate and so rich a soil will be productive of readers in plenty. Such a prospect ought to rouse our ambition; and our ambition will be highly laudable, if, rejecting local distinctions, we aspire to rival the French writers in real merit.
But the foregoing advantages of a great state, however illustrious, are sadly overbalanced by manifold disadvantages. The first is, the corruption of its kings, which, in a different view, is mentioned in the sketch immediately preceding. A second is, that great monarchs, being highly elevated above their subjects, are acquainted with none but their ministers. And ministers, who in a despotic government are subject to no controul but that of their master, commonly prefer their own interest, without regard to his honour. Solyman Emperor of the Turks, though accomplished above any of his predecessors, could not escape the artifices of his wife Roxalana, and of his Visir Rustan. They poisoned his ears with repeated calumnies against his eldest son Mustapha, a young prince of great hopes. They were not in hazard of detection, because no person had access to the Emperor but by their means. And the concluding scene, was an order from the Emperor to put his son to death (a) . If a great monarch lie thus open in his own palace to the artifices of his ministers, his authority, we may be certain, will be very slight over the governors of his distant provinces. Their power is precarious; and they oppress the people without intermission, in order to amass wealth: the complaints of the people are disregarded; for they never reach the throne. The Spanish governors of the Philippine islands, afford a deplorable in-stance of this observation. The heat of the climate promotes luxury; and luxury prompts avarice, which rages without controul, the distance of the capital removing all fear of detection. Arbitrary taxes are imposed on the people, and excessive duties on goods imported; which are rigorously exacted, because they are converted by the governor to his own use. An arbitrary estimate is made of what every field may produce; and the husbandman is severely punished if he fail to deliver the appointed quantity, whether his land has produced it or not. Many thousands have abandoned their native country; and the few miserable wretches who remain, have taken refuge among inaccessible mountains.
Third, The corruption of a court spreads through every member of the state. In an extensive kingdom that has no rival, the subjects, having no occasion to exert themselves in defence of their country, lose their manhood, and turn cowards. At the same time, great inequality of rank and fortune engenders luxury, selfishness, and sensuality.* The fine arts, it is true, gain ground, manufactures are perfected, and courtly manners prevail: but every manly virtue is gone; and not a soul to be found, who will venture his life to save his country. That disease is spreading in Britain; and the only circumstance that guards France from equal pusillanimity, is an established mode, that every gentleman must serve some campaigns in the army.
Fourth, An extensive monarchy is liable to internal convulsions or revolutions, occasioned commonly either by a standing army, or by the governors of distant provinces. With respect to the former, the government of a great kingdom enervated by luxury, must be military, and consequently despotic. A numerous army will soon learn to contemn a pusillanimous leader, and to break loose from every tie of subjection: the sovereign is often changed at the caprice of the army; but despotism continues to triumph. In Turky, Janissaries dethrone the Sultan, without scruple; but being superstitiously attached to the royal family, they confine themselves to it in electing a new Sultan. The pretorian bands were the Janissaries of the Roman empire, who never scrupled to dethrone the Emperor on the slightest disobligation. But as there was no royal family, they commonly carried the crown to market, and bestowed it on the highest bidder. With respect to the latter, the governors of distant provinces, accustomed to act without controul, become greedy of power, and put no bounds to ambition. Let them but gain the affection of the people they govern, and boldness will do the rest. The monarch is dethroned before he is prepared for defence; and the usurper takes his place without opposition. Success commonly attends such underta-kings; for the sovereign has no soul, and the people have no patriotism. In Hindostan formerly, some discontented favourite or souba took up arms to avenge fancied, or perhaps affected wrongs: venturing not however upon independence, he screened himself with setting up some person of the royal blood, whom he proclaimed sovereign. The voluptuousness and effeminacy of the late kings of Persia, has rendered that kingdom a prey to every bold invader. No great state ever lay so open to adventurers, as Persia has done of late years.
In the fifth place, a nation corrupted with luxury and sensuality is a ready morsel for every invader: to attempt the conquest, and to succeed, are almost the same. The potent Assyrian monarchy, having long subsisted in peace without a single enemy, sunk into sloth and effeminacy, and became an easy prey to the kings of Media and Babylon. These two nations, in like circumstances of sloth and effeminacy, were in their turn swallowed up by Cyrus King of Persia. And the great empire of Persia, running the same course, was subdued by Alexander of Ma-cedon with a small army of thirty-five thousand men.*
And this leads to a sixth disadvantage of a great empire, which is, the difficulty of guarding its frontiers. A kingdom, like an animal, becomes weak in proportion to its excess above a certain size. France and Spain would be less fitted for defence, were they enlarged beyond their present extent: Spain in particular was a very weak kingdom, while it comprehended the Netherlands and the half of Italy. In their present extent, forces are soon collected to guard the most distant frontiers. Months are required to assemble troops in an overgrown kingdom like Persia: if an army be defeated at the frontier, it must disperse, fortified places being seldom within reach. The victor, advancing with celerity, lays siege to the capital, before the provincial troops can be formed into a regular army: the capital is taken, the empire dissolved; and the conqueror at leisure disputes the provinces with their governours. The Philippine islands made formerly a part of the extensive empire of China; but, as they were too distant to be protected or well governed, it showed consummate wisdom in the Chinese government to abandon them, with several other distant provinces.
A small state, on the other hand, is easily guarded. The Greek republics thought themselves sufficiently fortified against the Great King, by their courage, their union, and their patriotism. The Spanish Christians, abandoning the open country to the Saracens, retired to the mountains of Asturia, and elected Don Pelayo to be their King. That warlike Prince walled none of his towns, nor did he fortify a single pass; knowing that, while his people were brave, they would be invincible; and that walls and strongholds serve but to abate courage. The Romans, while circumscribed within Italy, never thought of any defence against an enemy but good troops. When they had acquired a vast empire, even the Rhine appeared a barrier too weak: the numberless forts and legions that covered their frontiers could not defend them from a panic upon every motion of the barbarians.* A nation, in which the reciprocal duties of sovereign and subject are conscientiously fulfilled, and in which the people love their country and their governors, may be deemed invincible; provided due care be taken of the military branch. Every particular is reversed in a great empire: individuals grasp at money, per fas aut nefas, to lavish it upon pleasure: the governors of distant provinces tyrannize without controul; and, during the short period of their power, neglect no means, however oppressive, to amass wealth. Thus were the Roman provinces governed; and the people, who could not figure a greater tyrant than a Roman proconsul, were ready to embrace every change. The Romans accordingly were sensible, that, to force their barrier, and to dismember their empire, were in effect the same. In our times, the nations whose frontiers lie open, would make the most resolute opposition to an invader; witness the German states, and the Swiss cantons. Italy enjoys the strongest natural barrier of any country that is not an island; and yet, for centuries, has been a prey to every invader.
Three plans, at different times, have been put in execution, for securing the frontiers of an extensive empire, building walls, laying the frontiers waste, and establishing feudatory Princes. The first was the ancient practice, proper only for an idle people, without commerce. The Egyptians built a very extensive wall for protecting themselves against the wandering Arabs. The famous wall of China to protect its effeminate inhabitants against the Tartars, is known all the world over; and the walls built in the north of England against the Scots and Picts, are known to every Briton. To protect the Roman territory from German invaders, the Emperor Probus constructed a stone wall, strengthened with towers. It stretched from Ratisbon on the Danube to Wimpsen on the Necker; and terminated on the bank of the Rhine, after a winding course of two hundred miles. To a low state indeed must the Greek empire have been reduced, in the reign of the Emperor Anastasius, when, to repress the Bulgarians, it was necessary to build a wall, at no greater distance from Constantinople than ten leagues, abandoning all without to the barbarians. Such walls, though erected with stupendous labour, prove a very weak bulwark; for a wall of any extent is never so carefully guarded, as at all times to prevent surprise. And, accordingly, experience has taught that walls cannot be relied on. This, in modern times, has introduced the two other methods mentioned.1 Sha Abbas, King of Persia, in order to prevent the inroads of the Turks, laid waste part of Armenia, carrying the inhabitants to Ispahan, and treating them with great humanity. Land is not much valued by the great monarchs of Asia: it is precious in the smaller kingdoms of Europe; and the frontiers are commonly guarded by fortified towns. The other frontiers of Persia are guarded by feuda-tory princes; and the same method is practised in China, in Hindostan, and in the Turkish empire. The Princes of Little Tartary, Moldavia, and Wallachia, have been long a security to the Grand Signior against his powerful neighbours in Europe.
[(a) ]Dr. Robertson.
[* ]“He extended the power of the prefecture, by collecting into one camp those pretorian cohorts which were formerly dispersed all over the city; that thus, being united, they might be more influenced by his orders, and while their confidence in their power was increased by the constant view of their own numbers and strength, they might at the same time strike a great terror in others.”
[(a) ]See Dr. Robertson’s history of Charles V. where this incident is related with uncommon spirit.
[* ]The following passage is from a late Russian writer. “It is a truth founded on experience, that commerce polishes manners: but it is also a truth, that commerce, by exciting luxury, corrupts manners. With the increase of foreign fashions and foreign commerce in Russia, foreign luxury has increased there in proportion, universal dissipation has taken the lead, and profligacy of manners has followed. Great landlords squeeze and grind their people, to supply the incessant demands of luxury: the miserable peasant, disabled by a load of taxes, is frequently compelled to abandon his habitation, and to leave his land uncultivated. And thus agriculture and population diminish daily; than which nothing worse can befal a state.”
[* ]In Europe, neighbouring nations differ little in manners, or in fortitude. In Asia, we step instantly from the fierce Tartars, inhabiting a cold and barren country, to the effeminate people of countries warm and fertile. Hence in Asia perpetual conquests from north to south, to which even the great wall of China makes scarce any obstacle.
[* ]The use of cannon, which place the weak and strong upon a level, is the only resource of the luxurious and opulent against the poor and hardy.
[1. ]“Three plans, at . . . other methods mentioned”: added in 2nd edition. In 1st edition the paragraph begins: “Two methods have been practised for securing the frontiers of an extensive empire: one is, to lay the frontiers waste; the other is, to establish feudatory princes in the distant provinces” [1:425].