Front Page Titles (by Subject) SECTION III: Causes of the freedom acquired by the labouring people in the modern nations of Europe. - The Origin of the Distinction of Ranks
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SECTION III: Causes of the freedom acquired by the labouring people in the modern nations of Europe. - John Millar, The Origin of the Distinction of Ranks 
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, edited and with an Introduction by Aaron Garrett (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2006).
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Causes of the freedom acquired by the labouring people in the modern nations of Europe.
By what happy concurrence of events has the practice of slavery been so generally abolished in Europe? By what powerful motives were our forefathers induced to deviate from the maxims of other nations, and to abandon a custom so generally retained in other parts of the world?
The northern barbarians, who laid the foundation of the present European states, are said to have possessed a number of slaves, obtained either by captivity or by voluntary submission, and over whom the master enjoyed an unlimited authority.* <262>
When these nations invaded the Roman empire, and settled in the different provinces, they were enabled by their repeated victories to procure an immense number of captives, whom they reduced into servitude, and by whose assistance they occupied landed estates of proportionable extent. From the simple manner of living to which those barbarians had been accustomed, their domestic business was usually performed by the members of each family; and their servants, for the most part, were employed in cultivating their lands.
It appears that, upon the settlement of these invaders in the Roman empire, no immediate change was produced in their notions with respect to slavery, and that the slaves which they gradually acquired by the success of their arms were, at first, in the same condition with those which they had anciently possessed. The master exercised an unlimited power of chastising them, and might even put them to death with impunity. They were liable to be alienated, or impledged by the master at pleasure, and were incapable, either of marrying, or of entering into any other contract, without his consent. They were so much his property, that he might claim them from every possessor, by the ordinary action which was given for the recovery<263> of his goods; and in consequence of this, it was held they could have no civil rights; so that whatever was acquired by their labour belonged to the master, from whom they usually received nothing but a precarious subsistence. In a public capacity, the people of this class were viewed in a light no less humiliating; they enjoyed none of the privileges of a citizen, and were seldom permitted to give evidence against a free man in a court of justice.*
The situation, however, of these bond-men, and the nature of the employment in which they were usually engaged, had a tendency to procure them a variety of privileges from their master, by which, in a course of ages, their condition was rendered more comfortable, and they were advanced to higher degrees of consideration and rank.
As the peasants belonging to a single person could not be conveniently maintained in his house, so in order to cultivate his lands to advantage, it was necessary that they should be sent to a distance, and have a fixed residence in different parts of his estate. Separate habitations were therefore assigned them; and particular farms were committed to the care of individuals, who from their residing in the neighbourhood of one another, and forming small villages or hamlets, received the appellation of “villains.”<264>
It may easily be imagined that, in those circumstances, the proprietor of a large estate could not oversee the behaviour of his servants, living in separate families, and scattered over the wide extent of his demesnes; and it was in vain to think of compelling them to labour by endeavouring to chastise them upon account of their idleness. A very little experience would show that no efforts of that kind could be effectual; and that the only means of exciting the industry of the peasants would be to offer them a reward for the work which they performed. Thus, beside the ordinary maintenance allotted to the slaves, they frequently obtained a small gratuity, which, by custom, was gradually converted into a regular hire; and, being allowed the enjoyment and disposal of that subject, they were at length understood to be capable of having separate property.
After the master came to reside at a distance from the bulk of his servants, and had embraced the salutary policy of bribing them, instead of using compulsion, in order to render them active in their employment, he was less apt to be provoked by their negligence; and as he had seldom occasion to treat them with severity, the ancient dominion which he exercised over their lives was at length entirely lost by disuse.
When a slave had been for a long time engaged in a particular farm, and had become acquainted with that particular culture which it required, he<265> was so much the better qualified to continue in the management of it for the future; and it was contrary to the interest of the master that he should be removed to another place, or employed in labour of a different kind. By degrees, therefore, the peasants were regarded as belonging to the stock upon the ground, and came to be uniformly disposed of as a part of the estate which they had been accustomed to cultivate.
As these changes were gradual, it is difficult to ascertain the precise period at which they were completed. The continual disorders which prevailed in the western part of Europe, for ages after it was first over-run by the German nations, prevented for a long time the progress of arts among the new inhabitants. It was about the twelfth century that a spirit of improvement, in several European countries, became somewhat conspicuous; and it may be considered as a mark of that improvement, with respect to agriculture, that about this time, the villains had obtained considerable privileges; that the master’s power over their life was then understood to be extinguished; that the chastisement to which they had been formerly subjected was become more moderate; and that they were generally permitted to acquire separate property.* <266>
The effect of the foregoing circumstances is even observable in the history of the Greeks and Romans, among whom the peasants were raised to a better condition than the rest of their slaves. They were indeed bound to serve the proprietor during life, and might have been sold along with the ground upon which they were employed; but their persons were not subject to the absolute jurisdiction of their master; they had the privilege of marrying without his consent; they received wages in return for their labour, and were understood to have a full right of property in whatever goods their industry had enabled them to accumulate.†
It should seem, however, that the limited territory possessed by these ancient nations prevented the farther extension of the privileges bestowed upon their peasants: seven acres were originally the utmost extent of landed property which a Roman citizen was permitted to enjoy; a portion which he was able to cultivate with his own hands, or with no other assistance but that of his own<267> family; and there is reason to believe that, for several centuries, no individual acquired such an estate as gave occasion to his retaining many servants for the management of it, or could render the inspection and government of those whom he employed a matter of great trouble or difficulty.*
But after the wide and populous countries under the Roman dominion were subdued and laid waste by the small tribes of the Germans, very extensive landed estates, together with an adequate number of slaves, were immediately acquired by particular persons. As the people retained their primitive simplicity of manners, and were in a great measure strangers to commerce, these large possessions remained for ages without being dismembered. And thus, during all the successive improvements of agriculture, the proprietor of an estate, embarrassed with the multitude of his villains, was obliged to repose a confidence in them, and came by degrees to discover more clearly the utility of exciting them to industry by the prospect of their own private advantage.
The same motives, by which the master was induced to reward his slaves for their labour, determined him afterwards to increase his bounty in proportion to the work which they performed. Having no opportunity of looking narrowly into their management, he was commonly led to esti-<268>mate their diligence according to their success; and therefore, when they brought him a good crop, he made an addition to their wages, at the same time that he allowed them to expect a suitable compensation for their future labour and economy. This at length gave rise to an express stipulation, that their profits should depend upon the fertility of their different farms, and that, in all cases, they should be permitted to retain a certain share of the produce, in consideration of their labour.
An expedient so obvious and well calculated for promoting the industry of the peasants, could hardly fail to be generally embraced in all the countries of Europe, as soon as the inhabitants became attentive to the improvement of their estates. The remains of this practice are still to be found in Scotland, where, in some cases, the landlord is accustomed to stock the farm, and the tenant pays him a rent in kind, consisting of a certain proportion of the fruits.*
By this alteration, the villains entered into a sort of copartnership with their master; and having always a prospect of gain, according to the vigour or talents which they exerted, they were enabled to earn a more comfortable subsistence, and were even gradually raised to affluence. The acqui-<269>sition of wealth paved the way to a farther extension of their privileges. Those who had obtained something considerable found themselves in a condition to stock their own farms, and to offer a fixed rent to the master, upon condition of their being allowed to retain the surplus for their own emolument. An agreement of this kind, so advantageous to both parties, was concluded without any difficulty. As the tenant secured to himself the whole profit arising from his industry, the landlord was freed from the hazard of accidental losses, and obtained not only a certain, but frequently an additional revenue from his lands.4
Thus, by degrees, the ancient villanage came to be entirely abolished. The peasants, who cultivated their farms at their own charges, and at their own hazard, were of course emancipated from the authority of their master, and could no longer be regarded as in the condition of servants. Their personal subjection was at an end. It was of no consequence to the landlord how they conducted themselves; and, provided they punctually paid his rent, nothing farther could be required of them. There was no reason to insist that they should remain in the farm longer than they pleased; for the profits it afforded made them, commonly, not more willing to leave it than the proprietor was to put them away. When agriculture became so beneficial a trade, when the state of those who followed that profession had been rendered so comfortable, no<270> person had any difficulty to procure a sufficient number of tenants to labour his estate. It was, on the contrary, sometimes difficult for the farmer to obtain land sufficient for the exercise of his employment; and, after he had been at pains to improve the soil, he was in danger of being dispossessed by the proprietor, before he was indemnified for the trouble and expence which he had sustained. This made it necessary to stipulate that he should be allowed to remain for a certain time in the possession, and gave rise to leases, for a term of years, and even sometimes for life, or for a longer period, according to the circumstances or inclination of the parties.
The modern nations of Europe continued for a long time to be almost entirely unacquainted with manufactures; and, as they had no other slaves but those which were employed in agriculture, the privileges acquired by the villains had therefore a tendency to produce a total extinction of servitude. By degrees, however, as the people began to improve their circumstances, and to multiply the comforts and conveniencies of life, their attention was more and more diverted to other employments. At the same time that the villains were engaged in cultivating the ground, they were also bound to perform any other services which the master thought proper to require, and were often called to assist him in practice of those few mechanical arts which were then understood. Particular persons acquiring a singular dexterity in these occupa-<271>tions, were distinguished upon that account, and came to be more frequently employed than their neighbours. In proportion to the liberty which they enjoyed as peasants, they were enabled with more advantage to prosecute this collateral business; and while they received a reward for the crop which they produced upon their farms, they were not restrained from working, for hire, in that peculiar trade or profession which they were qualified to exercise. As the progress of luxury and refinement multiplied these occupations, and rendered the profits which they afforded superior in many cases to those which were derived from agriculture, individuals were gradually led to quit the latter employment, and to attach themselves entirely to the former. In that state of the country, the children of farmers were frequently bred to manufactures; and a number of tradesmen and artificers, having arisen in different villages, were advanced to consideration and esteem, in proportion as their assistance became more essentially necessary in supplying the wants of mankind. According to the wealth which this new order of men had accumulated, they purchased immunities from their master; and, by permitting him to levy tolls and duties upon their commerce, they were enabled to secure his patronage and protection. Thus the privileges acquired by the peasants appear to have given rise to domestic freedom, which was communicated to the trading part of the inhabitants; while the em-<272>ployment of the latter became, on the other hand, the source of great opulence and contributed, as has been formerly observed, to raise the people of inferior rank to political independence.
Other circumstances may be mentioned, which, in a subordinate manner, have, perhaps, contributed something to this remarkable change of European manners.
The establishment of Christianity has been supposed by many to be the principal circumstance which rooted out the practice of slavery, so universally permitted and encouraged among all the heathen nations. There is no doubt that the spirit of this religion, which considers all mankind as children of the same Father, and as all equally the objects of his paternal care and affection, should inspire them with compassion for the miseries of each other, and should teach the opulent and the proud to consider those who are depressed with labour and penury as creatures of the same species, to treat them with mildness and humanity, and to soften the rigours to which their severe and unequal fortune has unavoidably subjected them. But it does not seem to have been the intention of Christianity to alter the civil rights of mankind, or to abolish those distinctions of rank which were already established. There is no precept of the gospel by which the authority of the master is in any respect restrained or limited; but, on the contrary, there are several passages from which it<273> may be inferred that slaves, even after they had embraced the Christian religion, were not absolved from any part of the duties formerly incumbent upon them.*
We accordingly find that slavery remained all over Europe for several centuries after Christianity became the established religion: not to mention that this institution is still retained in Russia, in Poland, in Hungary, and in several parts of Germany; and that it is at present admitted without limitation, in the colonies which belong to the European nations, whether in Asia, Africa, or America. The Quakers of Pennsylvania, are the first body of men in those countries, who have discovered any scruples upon that account, and who seem to have thought that the abolition of this practice is a duty they owe to religion and humanity.*
It has likewise been imagined that the state of the clergy, their great influence and ambition, to-<274>gether with that opposition between the civil and ecclesiastical powers, which subsisted for a long time in most of the nations of Europe, were favourable to the lower ranks of men, and contributed to limit and destroy the ancient practice of villanage. The learning, the ideas of policy, and, above all, the peaceable manners of ecclesiastics, naturally produced an aversion to the disorders incident to the feudal governments, and disposed them to shelter the weak and defenceless from the tyranny of their superiors.
In those dark and superstitious ages, the church was, at the same time, most successful in establishing her authority over the lowest and most ignorant of the people, and was therefore led, in a particular manner, to exert her power and abilities in protecting that order of men by which she was most firmly supported. As dying persons were frequently inclined to make considerable donations for pious uses, it was more immediately for the interest of churchmen, that people of inferior condition should be rendered capable of acquiring property, and should have the free disposal of what they had acquired.
The progress of ecclesiastical rapacity seems at length to have produced a custom that villains, who obtained their liberty by the influence of the clergy, should reward their benefactors; and that the manumission should, for this reason, be confirmed by the church. In these circumstances,<275> the ministers of religion did not fail to recommend the manumission of slaves, as an action highly proper to atone for the offences of a sinner; and ecclesiastical censures were, in some cases, inflicted upon the master, when he refused to allow his villains the liberty of alienating their goods by a testament. So much does this appear to have been an object of attention, that a bull was published by Pope Alexander III exhorting the Christian world to a general emancipation of the villains.*
It was not, however, to be expected that, from such interested views, the clergy would be disposed to strike at the root of servitude, or to employ their casuistry in overthrowing an institution upon which so great a part of their own property depended. Like physicians, they were far from thinking it necessary to swallow that medicine which they had prescribed to the people; and while they appeared so extremely liberal with regard to the estates of the laity, they held a very different conduct with relation to the villains in their own possession. These being appropriated to pious uses, and being only held in usufruct, were not to be alienated by the present incumbent. Thus we meet with many ecclesiastical regulations, both in France and Germany, by which it is provided that no bishop, or priest, shall manumit a slave in the patrimony of<276> the church, without purchasing two others of equal value to be put in his place.*
The state of the civil government, in most of the countries of Europe, may be regarded as another circumstance which had some influence in abolishing domestic slavery. From the aristocratical constitution established in these kingdoms, the sovereign was engaged in long and violent<277> struggles with his barons; and being often incapable of carrying his measures by direct force, he was obliged to employ every artifice that his situation would admit, in order to humble his rivals, and reduce them under subjection. For this purpose he frequently exerted his authority in protecting the villains from the tyranny of the master; and thus endeavoured to undermine the power of the nobles, by withdrawing the submission of their immediate dependents.
While the monarch was, upon this account, endeavouring to protect the villains possessed by his barons, and to raise them to such a condition as might render them less dependent upon their masters, he found means of deriving some revenue from the people of that class, upon pretence of confirming, by royal authority, the privileges that were bestowed upon them. Other reasons, in the mean time, induced the sovereign to give particular encouragement to the bond-men upon his own demesnes; as these, under the shelter of the crown, had been enabled to acquire a degree of opulence, not only by their advances in agriculture, but also by their application to trade and manufactures, and consequently were in a condition to purchase freedom and immunities by pecuniary compositions, or by submitting to regular duties for the support of government. From such political considerations, we find that repeated efforts were made, and many regulations were introduced by different<278> princes of Europe, for extending and securing the liberties and rights of the lower and more industrious part of their subjects.*
In this manner domestic slavery, having gradually declined for ages, has at last been exploded from the greater part of Europe. In several European kingdoms, this has happened, from the natural progress of manners, and without any express interposition of the legislature. Thus in England, the peasants having, in consequence of their situation, acquired successive privileges, many of them were promoted to the rank of vassals or free-holders, while the rest, advancing more slowly, have remained in the condition of those who are called copy-holders at present. So late as the reign of Queen Elizabeth it appears that real bond-men were still to be found in many parts of the kingdom.†
In Scotland the slavery of the villains, which was probably of a similar nature to what obtained in the other countries of Europe, appears in like manner to have gone into disuse without any aid of statute; but the period when this change was effected has not been ascertained by lawyers or historians.* <279>
The remains of bondage which are still to be found in the case of colliers and salters in Scotland, and of those who work in the mines in some other parts of Europe, are sufficient to point out the chief circumstance, from which, in all other cases, the ancient institution has been so generally abolished. In a coal-work, as the different workmen are collected in one place, instead of being scattered, like the ordinary peasants, over an extensive territory, they were capable of being put under the care of an overseer, who might compel them to labour; and the master did not so immediately feel the necessity of resigning that authority over them with which he was invested.†
After domestic liberty had been thus, in a great measure, established in those European nations which had made the greatest improvement in agriculture, America was discovered; the first settlers in which, from their distance, and from the little attention that was paid to them by the government of their mother countries, were under no necessity of conforming to the laws and customs of Europe. The acquisition of gold and silver was the great object by which the Spaniards were directed in their settlements upon that continent; and the native inhabitants, whom they had conquered, were reduced into slavery and put to work in the mines.<280> But, these being either exhausted by the severity with which they were treated, or not being thought sufficiently robust for that kind of labour, negro-slaves were afterwards purchased for this purpose from the Portuguese settlements on the coast of Africa. When sugar-plantations were erected, the same people were employed in these, and in most other kinds of work which came to be performed in that part of the world. Thus the practice of slavery was no sooner extinguished by the inhabitants in one quarter of the globe, than it was revived by the very same people in another, where it has remained ever since, without being much regarded by the public, or exciting any effectual regulations in order to suppress it.*
It merits particular attention, that the chief circumstance which contributed to procure freedom to the slaves in Europe, had no place in our American plantations. From the manner of working the mines, a number of slaves are usually collected together, and may therefore be placed under the command of a single person, who has it in his power to superintend their behaviour, and to punish their negligence. The same observation is applicable to the planting of sugar, and to the other occupations in our colonies, in which the negroes perform the same sort of work which in Europe is<281> commonly performed by cattle, and in which, of consequence, many servants are kept upon the same plantation. As the slaves are continually under the lash of their master, he has not been forced to use the disagreeable expedient of rewarding their labour, and of improving their condition by those means which were found so necessary, and which were employed with so much emolument, to encourage the industry of the peasants in Europe.<282>
[* ]The following account is given by Tacitus, concerning the state of the slaves among the ancient Germans, “Aleam,” says he, speaking of that people, “sobrii inter seria exercent, tanta lucrandi perdendique temeritate ut cum omnia defecerunt, extremo ac novissimo jactu, de libertate, et de corpore contendant. Victus voluntariam servitutem adit. Quamvis junior, quamvis robustior, alligare se ac venire patitur; ea est in re prava pervicacia: ipsi fidem vocant: servos conditionis hujus per commercia tradunt, ut se quoque pudore victoriae exsolvant. [[“Surprisingly, gambling for them is a serious matter, in which they engage when sober; so recklessly do they win and lose that when all is gone they stake their bodily freedom on the last and final throw. The loser willingly becomes a slave; although perhaps the younger and stronger, he suffers himself to be bound and sold. Such is their persistence in a thoroughly bad business: they themselves call it honour. Slaves of this sort they exchange in trade, to free themselves from the shame of victory” (XXIV.2, Rives, trans.).
[* ]Potgiesserus de statu servorum, lib. 2. cap. 1, 3, 4, 5, 9. Ibid. cap. 10. § 3, 7, 8. Ibid. lib. 3. § 1, 3.
[* ]Potgiesserus de statu serv. lib. 2. cap. 1. § 24. A singular proof of the moderation of the masters in correcting their slaves, about this period, is mentioned by the same author, as follows:
[† ]Vide Hein. antiq. Rom. lib. 1. tit. 3. § 8.—1. un cod. de colon. Thrac. 1. 21. [[Codex XI.52 “De colonis Thracensibus.” cod. de agric. et censit. novell. 162. cap. 3. Codex XI.48 “De agricolis censitis vel colonis.”]]
[* ]See Dr. Wallace, on the numbers of mankind. [[Wallace for the most part seems to have argued against the position Millar is advocating; for example, “almost every page of antient history demonstrates the great multitude of slaves; which give occasion to a melancholy reflection, that when the world was best peopled, it was not a world of free men, but of slaves” (92). Wallace generally stressed household slavery (90), and this may be why Millar invokes him here. Hume’s “Of the Populousness of Ancient Nations,” which Millar cited in the first and second editions of Ranks and whom Wallace argued amiably against, seems a much better support for his claim. Cf. Hume, Essays, 387–88 (II.ix.13).]]
[* ]The stock which is delivered by the master to his tenant goes under the name of “steel-bow goods” in the law of Scotland. At the end of the lease the tenant is bound to restore the same in quantity and quality to the master. [[See Stair, Institutions of the Laws of Scotland, I.11.4. Smith discussed “steel-bow” tenants in LJ (A) iii.123–26, LJ (B) 292–93, and Wealth of Nations, III.ii.13–14.]]
[4. ]See Smith, LJ (A) 128–33, LJ (B) 141, and Wealth of Nations, III.ii.12.
[* ]Thus Onesimus, notwithstanding his conversion to Christianity, is understood by the apostle Paul to continue still the slave of Philemon [[Onesimus was a runaway slave whom Paul met in prison and converted to Christianity; and it is not supposed that the master, who was also a Christian, was under an obligation to relinquish any part of his authority, far less to give liberty to his servant. See St. Paul’s epistle to Philemon. See also, to the same purpose, Rom. chap. xiii ver. 1, &c.—Ephes. chap. vi. ver. 5.—Coloss. chap. iii. ver. 22.—1 Tim. chap. vi. ver. 1, 2.—Tit. chap. ii. ver. 9, 10.—1 Pet. chap. ii. ver. 18.—1 Cor. chap. vii. ver. 21, 22. See Smith’s similar discussion of the role of Christianity in the abolition of slavery at LJ (A) iii.127–28 and LJ (B) 142.]]
[* ]See the publications on this subject by Anthony Benezet. [[A Philadelphia Quaker of French extraction, Anthony Benezet (1713–84) was the most important activist and pamphleteer of the early antislavery movement. See particularly: Observation on the inslaving, importing and purchasing of Negroes; A short account of that part of Africa, inhabited by the negroes; A caution and warning to Great Britain and her colonies, in a short representation of the calamitous state of the enslaved Negroes in the British dominions; Some historical account of Guinea, its situation, produce and the general disposition of its inhabitants.]]
[* ]See Boulainvil. sur les Parl. de France. let. 4. Potgiesserus de stat. serv. lib. 2. cap. 10. § 12.—Ibid. cap. 11. § 2. [[Millar is referring to Alexander III’s order in 1167 to the Muslim ruler of Valencia not to enslave Christian subjects. See Wealth of Nations, III.ii.12.]]
[* ]See the different decrees of councils referred to by Potgiesserus de stat. serv. lib. 4. cap. 2. § 4, 5.
[* ]See Boulanvil. lettres sur les Parl. des France. let. 4, 5.
[† ]See observations on the statutes, chiefly the more ancient: 1 Rich. II. 1377. Smith’s Commonwealth of Eng. B. 3 chap. 10.
[* ]With regard to the state of the villains, while they existed in Scotland, see Regiam Majestatem. lib. 2. cap. 11, 12, 13, 14. Quoniam Attachiamenta. cap. 56. [[Regiam Majestatem was a compilation of the old Scots law, and Quoniam Attachiamenta a manual of court procedure. Although both are fourteenth-century works, they draw together much older Scots law.]]
[† ]The right of the master, with regard to the labour of colliers and salters, is secured by statute, parl. 1606. c. 11. [[The notorious Colliers Act essentially made colliers and salters—coal miners and charcoal producers—serfs, insofar as they were bound to their masters, transferable when the mines they worked were sold, and punishable as slaves for running away (those who aided them were punished as well). The bondage of the colliers was not a vestige of old feudal practice but rather had been instituted to keep skilled laborers from leaving the mines. The act was limited in 1775 and repealed only in 1799. In other words, there was still slavery of a sort in Scotland when the last lifetime edition of the Ranks appeared. Recent research, however, has shown that the practice was not as brutal as Millar made out and that the status of colliers did not change much after 1799. See Christopher A. Whatley, “The Dark Side of the Enlightenment? Sorting out Serfdom” in Eighteenth-Century Scotland: New Perspectives, ed. T. M. Devine and J. R. Young (East Lothian, Scotland: Tuckwell Press, 1999), 259–74. (Thanks to Richard Sher for the reference.)]]
[* ]See Anderson’s history of commerce, vol. 1. p. 336—The first importation of negro-slaves into Hispaniola was in the year 1508. Ibid.