Home  »  Volume X: English THE AGE OF JOHNSON  »  § 16. Adam Ferguson’s History of Civil Society; Delolme’s Constitution of England

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.

XII. Historians

§ 16. Adam Ferguson’s History of Civil Society; Delolme’s Constitution of England

Much interest was excited by the speculations of the French philosophes, in some measure the literary offspring of Locke and enthusiastic admirers of the British constitution. Influenced by Montesquieu’s famous Esprit des Lois (1748), Adam Ferguson, Hume’s successor as advocates’ librarian (1757) and then a professor of philosophy at Edinburgh, published his Essay on the History of Civil Society (1767). Hume advised that it should not be published, but it was much praised, was largely sold and was translated into German and French. Nevertheless, Hume’s judgment was sound; the book is plausible and superficial. It is written in the polished and balanced style of which Hume was the master. The admiration expressed on the continent for the British constitution led Jean Louis Delolme, a citizen of Geneva, who came to England about 1769, to write an account of it in French which was published at Amsterdam in 1771. An English translation, probably not by the author, with three additional chapters, was published in London in 1775, with the title The Constitution of England; it had a large sale both here and in French and German translations abroad, and was held in high repute for many years. Delolme was a careful observer of our political institutions and, as a foreigner, marked some points in them likely to escape the notice of those familiar with them from childhood. The fundamental error of his book is that it regards the constitution as a nicely adjusted machine in which the action of each part is controlled by another, instead of recognising that any one of the “powers.” within it was capable of development at the expense of the others; though, even as he wrote, within hearing of mobs shouting for “Wilkes and Liberty,” one of them, the “power of the people,” was entering on a period of development. To him, the outward form of the constitution was everything: he praised its stability and the system of counterpoises which, he believed, assured its permanence, so long as the Commons did not refuse supplies; he failed to see that it was built up by living forces any one of which might acquire new power or lose something of what it already had, and so disturb the balance which he represented as its special characteristic and safeguard.