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Article abstract: Ferguson was a leading figure of the eighteenth century Scottish Enlightenment. He was not simply the contemporary of David Hume and Adam Smith but also esteemed as their peer. Widely regarded as the founder of modern sociology, he was the forerunner of, and a significant influence upon, such later thinkers as Auguste Comte, Herbert Spencer, and even Karl Marx.

Early Life

Adam Ferguson was born on June 20, 1723, at the village of Logierait, Perthshire, in the foothills of the Scottish Highlands. His father, also named Adam, was the local Presbyterian (Church of Scotland) minister; his mother, the former Mary Gordon, was a farmer’s daughter. After attending the local parish school and a grammar school in Perth, Ferguson won in 1738 a competitive examination for a bursary at Saint Andrews University. He received the master of arts degree in 1842, and at his father’s behest went on to study divinity first at Saint Andrews and then at the University of Edinburgh. His father owed his post to the patronage of the Duke of Athole, and that link was responsible for Ferguson’s appointment in 1745 to a chaplaincy with the newly formed “Black Watch” regiment and for his obtaining a special dispensation from the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland allowing his ordination as a minister, despite his having completed only the first two of the regular four-year divinity course. In 1754, when the regiment was transferred to America, Ferguson resigned his commission, left the ministry, and moved to Edinburgh to try his fortunes there as a man of letters.

For the next five years, Ferguson eked out a living through a series of makeshift jobs. In 1759, thanks to the support of influential friends led by the philosopher David Hume, he was elected professor of natural philosophy at the University of Edinburgh. Although he had no prior qualifications for teaching the natural sciences, he proved a successful and popular lecturer. In 1764, he won election to the chair of moral philosophy—his primary interest. His lectures attracted not simply a large student audience but also leading figures from Edinburgh and even London society. Yet his status as “court philosopher” to the establishment resulted primarily from his growing list of publications. His first book, An Essay on the History of Civil Society (1767), was a pioneering exercise in comparative history that traced the process of social evolution through the three stages of savagery, barbarism, and civilization. During the next fifty years, the volume would go through nine English editions and reprintings and be translated into French and German. Two years later, he published an expanded version of his lectures under the title Institutes of Moral Philosophy (1769), a work that further added to his reputation. In 1783, he brought out the massive History of the Progress and Termination of the Roman Republic, covering the period from the beginning of the First Punic War through the end of the reign of Augustus. His best-known though least popularly successful work, Principles of Moral and Political Science, appeared in 1792.

Life’s Work

Ferguson was not a systematically consistent thinker. Not simply did his views undergo change over time, but also there were tensions and contradictions in individual works. There was, however, a reasonably well-defined general tendency in his opinions. In accord with the dominant spirit of his time, he was optimistic about the potential for human improvement. He was sufficiently influenced by the Calvinist tradition in which he had been reared to acknowledge the baneful influence of man’s “evil passions.” He averred that “perfection is no where to be found short of the infinite mind” of God, nor did he look ahead to any millennium when mankind would live in blissful harmony. Conflict among individuals and among nations was natural, even beneficent. Competition between individuals stimulated ambition and enterprise; war between nations fostered social cohesion. Yet Ferguson affirmed that “progression is the gift of God to all his intelligent creatures and is within the competence of the lowest of mankind.” Such progress was not inevitable. Adverse geographical and climatic conditions could result in stagnation. Similarly, nations could and did decay when unwise policies were followed “that crush [man’s] spirit; that debase his sentiments, and disqualify his mind for affairs.” The thrust of human nature, however, was progressive, with men “perpetually busied in reformations.” “Not only the individual advances from infancy to manhood,” Ferguson summed up, “but the species itself from rudeness to civilization.”

Linked with this optimism about human potentialities was the Newtonian vision of a law-governed universe. Although reaffirming that “every circumstance or event in the order of nature” served “to manifest, and to extol the supreme wisdom and goodness of God,” Ferguson emphasized that this “wise providence” operated by the “fixed and determinate laws” of nature. Just as Sir Isaac Newton had revealed the laws governing the physical world, Ferguson aspired to discover the laws governing the social world. His aim, in short, was to rest moral philosophy upon a similarly empirical basis. As he wrote, “Before we can ascertain the rules of morality for mankind, the history of man’s nature, his dispositions, his specific enjoyments and sufferings, his conditions and future prospects, should be known.” The most important fact that Ferguson discovered about man is that he was a social animal. “It appears from the history of mankind that men have always acted in troops and companies. . . . [W]hile they practice arts, each for his own preservation, they institute political forms and unite their forces for common safety.” Thus, he denied the existence of any hypothetical state of nature in which men lived without social bonds.

From society are derived not only the force, but the very existence of man’s happiest emotions; not only the better part, but almost the whole of his rational character. Send him to the desert alone, he is a plant torn from its roots; the form indeed may remain, but every faculty droops and withers; the human personage and the human character cease to exist.

The corollary was that “most of the opinions, habits, and pursuits of men, result from the state of their society.” The proper study of mankind, therefore, was the study of groups rather than individuals. More important, Ferguson concluded that the structure of any given society was an “adventitious” historical product rather than a planned creation. “The crowd of mankind are directed in their establishments and measures, by the circumstances in which they are placed . . . and nations stumble upon establishments which are indeed the result of human action, but not the execution of any human design.” He accordingly had no patience with those who would reconstruct the social order upon a priori ideals. While paying lip service to the principle that government must rest upon the consent of the governed, he came close to holding that the successful exercise of authority was self-legitimating.

The consent, upon which the right to command is founded may not be prior to the establishment of government; but may be obtained under the reasonable exercise of an actual power, to which every person within the community, by accepting of a customary protection, becomes bound to pay the customary allegiance and submission. Here is a compact ratified by the least ambiguous of all signs, the whole practice, and continued observance of an ordinary life.

There is no question that Ferguson’s defense of the status quo was influenced by the milieu in which he lived. The wealth produced by the growth of commerce and industry in Scotland during the second half of the eighteenth century supplied the material basis for the remarkable outburst of intellectual activity of which Ferguson was part. Yet the accompanying strains and tensions roused grave anxieties about the stability of the social fabric. Indeed, Ferguson—like his fellow intellectuals of the Scottish Enlightenment—was dependent upon the patronage of the well born and powerful. The practical import of his teachings was thus the necessity of upholding the existing sociopolitical order. “It has pleased Providence for wise purposes,” he preached, “to place men in different stations, and to bestow upon them different degrees of wealth. Without this circumstance there could be no subordination, no government, no industry. Every person does good, and promotes the happiness of society, by living agreeable to the rank in which providence has placed him.” Any reform should come gradually through orderly legal processes; the alternative was a descent into chaos followed by despotism. “The present government may have its defects, as the walls or roof of the building in which we lodge may be insufficient or threaten to fall on our heads. Then set about the necessary repair. . . . But . . . it is a wise maxim: Beware you take not away so much of your support at once as that the roof may fall in.”

A major theme recurring through Ferguson’s writings was his warnings against any attempt at equalizing wealth. He recognized that the commercial spirit, the accompanying pursuit of individual gain, and the resulting inequalities of wealth threatened social cohesion, but he thought that the benefits outweighed the disadvantages. Freeing the poor from the exigencies of labor “would be to frustrate the purpose of nature in rendering toil and the exercises of ingenuity necessary to man; it would be to cut off the sources of wealth, and, under pretence of relieving the distressed, it would be to reject the condition upon which nature has provided that the wants of the species in general shall be relieved.” Ferguson, however, rested the sanctity of private property upon a higher justification than simply this prudential calculus. Inequality in the distribution of property reflected “the unequal dispositions of men to frugality and industry.” Man was born with an inherent right “to use of his faculties and powers.”

Whilst we admit, therefore, that all men have an equal right to defend themselves, we must not mistake this for an assumption that all men have equal things to defend, or that liberty should consist in stripping the industrious and skillful, who have acquired much, to enrich the lazy and profligate. . . . It is impossible to restrain the influence of superior ability, of property, of education, or the habits of station. It is impossible to prevent these from becoming to some degree hereditary; and of consequence, it is impossible, without violating the principles of human nature, to prevent some permanent distinction of ranks.

Ferguson’s reputation as a founding father of sociology rests primarily upon his analysis of the process of social evolution. Since human nature was everywhere the same and had always been the same, progress everywhere followed the same path. He postulated three major stages through which society passed: the savage, the barbarian, and the “polished.” The most important determinative force responsible for the transformation from one stage to the next was changes in the “means of subsistence.” Savage societies depend for their livelihood upon hunting, gathering, and fishing; thus such possessions as exist are communally owned. The shift from a food-gathering to a pastoral economy results in the institution of private property. Barbarian societies “having possessed themselves of herds and depending for their provision on pasture, know what it is to be poor or rich. They know the relations of patron and client, of servant or master, and suffer themselves to be classed according to the measure of wealth.” Once individual possession of herds is accepted, its extension over land follows. Men abandon their migrations and societies and become settled and agricultural. The growth of commerce and manufacturing leads to the next stage. Its hallmark was a vast expansion in the division of labor whereby there is “committed to different persons, the several tasks, which require a peculiar skill and attention.” As a result, “the sources of wealth are laid open; every species of material is wrought up to the greatest perfection, and every commodity is produced in the greatest abundance.”

Along with this identification of the division of labor as the crucial distinguishing feature of the modern commercial/manufacturing economy, Ferguson’s other major contribution lay in his analysis of the causal link between a society’s economic base and its governmental forms. In savage societies, the absence of property meant loosley defined patterns of subordination with leaders chosen ad hoc to meet temporary exigencies. The accumulation of property in private hands accustomed men to the “distinction of rank” and thus paved the way for the more formalized relationship between ruler and ruled represented by the rise of hereditary monarchy. Ferguson pictured as the appropriate government for the commercial/manufacturing society the “mixed” British constitution of his own day; he believed that the exercise of unrestrained power trampling upon established rights stifled enterprise. There was, however, no threat to a commercial economy when the power of the monarch was checked by the nobility represented in the House of Lords and the propertied classes represented in the House of Commons.

Ferguson married Katherine Burnet in 1766. That same year he was awarded an honorary LL.D. by the University of Edinburgh; in 1793 he was elected an honorary member of the Berlin Academy of Science. A pamphlet that he wrote upholding the British side against the rebellious American colonies was published at government expense in 1776. Two years later, he was appointed secretary to the Carlisle Commission sent to America in an abortive bid at negotiations. Although suffering a near-fatal paralytic stroke in 1780, he recovered sufficiently to return to his work. In 1785, he was appointed to the chair of mathematics at the University of Edinburgh—in reality a sinecure that allowed him to give up teaching. The death of his wife in 1795 was followed by his own departure from Edinburgh for retirement in the countryside. On February 22, 1816, four months before his ninety-third birthday, he died in St. Andrews, where he had moved eight years before to live under the care of friends because of his failing eyesight. His last words were, reportedly, “There is another world.”


Adam Ferguson’s most important short-run contribution—like that of his fellow luminaries of the Scottish Enlightenment such as Adam Smith—lay in formulating the ideological underpinnings for the emerging capitalist order. He would also, however, have a longer-range intellectual impact transcending the immediate circumstances shaping his thinking. Ferguson’s ideas greatly influenced many writers’ efforts to discover the laws of social development. Claude Henri de Saint-Simon appears to have derived from Ferguson his thesis regarding the evolution from military to industrial societies. Auguste Comte paid homage to him as a pioneer in the search for a positivist science of society. Herbert Spencer was another nineteenth century giant who drew heavily upon Ferguson. Karl Marx rightly acknowledged his debt to Ferguson on the crucial importance of the division of labor in the rise of capitalism. Ludwig Gumplowicz hailed him as the founder of the “group struggle” theory of social development. In addition, most twentieth century historians of sociology agree that he was a—if not the—father of the discipline in its modern shape.


Bryson, Gladys. Man and Society: The Scottish Inquiry of the Eighteenth Century. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1945. A landmark study of the role played by the writers of the Scottish Enlightenment in establishing an empirical basis for the study of man and his society. Includes an extended treatment of Ferguson as “representative” of the group.

Camic, Charles. Experience and Enlightenment: Socialization for Cultural Change in Eighteenth-Century Scotland. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983. A penetrating analysis of the broader social forces and individual life experiences responsible for shaping the leaders of the Scottish Enlightenment.

Kettler, David. The Social and Political Thought of Adam Ferguson. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1965. The most detailed analysis of Ferguson’s thought, but the author’s long-windedness and abstruse style make for difficult reading.

Lehmann, W. C. Adam Ferguson and the Beginnings of Modern Sociology: An Analysis of the Sociological Elements in His Writings with Some Suggestions as to His Place in the History of Social Theory. New York: Columbia University Press, 1930. The subtitle accurately describes the work’s scope.

Snell, John. The Political Thought of Adam Ferguson. Wichita, Kans.: Municipal University of Wichita, 1950. A handy brief introduction with a survey of Ferguson’s later reputation.