Online Library of Liberty

A collection of scholarly works about individual liberty and free markets. A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.

Advanced Search

Adam Ferguson notes that “implicit submission to any leader, or the uncontrouled exercise of any power” leads to a form of military government and ultimately despotism (1767)

In SECTION VI. "Of the Progress and Termination of Despotism" of his pioneering work of "philosophical history," Adam Ferguson reflects on how free and prosperous nations might step-by-step degenerate into despotism:

We have already observed, that where men are remiss or corrupted, the virtue of their leaders, or the good intention of their magistrates, will not always secure them in the possession of political freedom. Implicit submission to any leader, or the uncontrouled exercise of any power, even when it is intended to operate for the good of mankind, may frequently end in the subversion of legal establishments. This fatal revolution, by whatever means it is accomplished, terminates in military government; and this, though the simplest of all governments, is rendered complete by degrees.

SECTION VI. Of the Progress and Termination of Despotism.

MANKIND, when they degenerate, and tend to their ruin, as well as when they improve, and gain real advantages, frequently proceed by slow, and almost insensible steps. If, during ages of activity and vigour, they fill up the measure of national greatness to a height which no human wisdom could at a distance foresee; they actually incur, in ages of relaxation and weakness, many evils which their fears did not suggest, and which, perhaps, they had thought far removed by the tide of success and prosperity.

We have already observed, that where men are remiss or corrupted, the virtue of their leaders, or the good intention of their magistrates, will not always secure them in the possession of political freedom. Implicit submission to any leader, or the uncontrouled exercise of any power, even when it is intended to operate for the good of mankind, may frequently end in the subversion of legal establishments. This fatal revolution, by whatever means it is accomplished, terminates in military government; and this, though the simplest of all governments, is rendered complete by degrees. In the first period of its exercise over men who have acted as members of a free community, it can have only laid the foundation, not completed the fabric, of a despotical policy. The usurper who has possessed, with an army, the centre of a great empire, sees around him, perhaps, the shattered remains of a former constitution ; he may hear the murmurs of a reluctant and unwilling submission ; he may even see danger in the aspect of many, from whose hands he may have wrested the sword, but whose minds he has not subdued, nor reconciled to his power.

About this Quotation:

A common theme in many 18th century authors wax that of decline, corruption, and the descent into despotism. This can be clearly seen in Edward Gibbon’s (1776) and here in Adam Ferguson’s book. The image Ferguson uses, of decline and loss of liberty by “slow, and almost imperceptible steps” reminds one of the story of the frog in the pot of boiling water. It does not know when to jump out of the pot until it is too late.

More Quotations