John Millar on liberty as an unintended consequence of a struggle between tyrants (1787)

John Millar

The Scottish historian John Millar (1735-1801) noted that although it was not the intention of the nobles to promote the liberties of ordinary Englishman when they challenged King John in 1215, by defending their own liberties they created both a precedent and a vocabulary for arguing for liberty against the crown:

Whoever enquires into the circumstances in which these great charters were procured, and into the general state of the country at that time, will easily see that the parties concerned in them were not actuated by the most liberal principles; and that it was not so much their intention to secure the liberties of the people at large, as to establish the privileges of a few individuals. A great tyrant on the one side, and a set of petty tyrants on the other, seem to have divided the kingdom; and the great body of the people, disregarded and oppressed on all hands, were beholden for any privileges bestowed upon them, to the jealousy of their masters; who, by limiting the authority of each other over their dependants, produced a reciprocal diminution of their power. But though the freedom of the common people was not intended in those charters, it was eventually secured to them; for when the peasantry, and other persons of low rank, were afterwards enabled, by their industry, and by the progress of arts, to emerge from their inferior and servile condition, and to acquire opulence, they were gradually admitted to the exercise of the same privileges which had been claimed by men of independent fortunes; and found themselves entitled, of course, to the benefit of that free government which was already established.

The Scottish philosopher Adam Ferguson (1723-1816), a contemporary of John Millar, coined the phrase much admired by Friedrich Hayek that social structures of all kinds were “the result of human action, but not the execution of any human design” (1782). This idea encapsulated two related ideas, namely that complex institutions evolved gradually or “spontaneously” over time, and that much of this development was “unintended” or unplanned by any one individual. Millar applies these ideas here to the emergence of the Great Charter (Magna Carta), the embodiment of the “traditional rights of Englishmen.” He notes that it was not the intention of the “petty tyrants” (the nobles) who challenged the authority of the “great tyrant” (King John) in 1215 to create a document which would apply to all adult males whatever their social or economic class. Theirs was an act of self-interest in a power struggle between the aristocracy and the monarchy. The unintended consequence of their action however was to create a powerful precedent which others would follow later. Once a clear statement of rights against arbitrary power had been written down it could serve as a model for future generations such as the struggle between Parliament and the Crown in the 17th century, or the struggle of the North American colonists against the British Empire in the 18th. It is something to keep in mind as we approach the 800th anniversary of the signing of the Great Charter.