Private Property and Adam Ferguson’s Civic Masculinity

On the 18 December 1745, at the height of the Second Jacobite Rebellion, the First Highland Regiment, under the command of Lord John Murray, were treated to a sermon by their chaplain. Addressing them in their native Scots Gaelic, their reverend urged them to live up to strong Christian ideals, to protect the Hanoverian state, and to strive to embody a militarised vision of civic British masculinity.

Adam FergusonAdam Ferguson (1723-1816)

The chaplain was a young Adam Ferguson, a leading savant of the Scottish Enlightenment, but one whose work has not remained as well known as contemporaries like Adam Smith or David Hume. His sermon was published as a pamphlet the following year with the unwieldy title of A Sermon Preached in the Ersh Language to His Majesty’s First Highland Regiment of Foot, Commanded by Lord John Murray, at their Cantonment at Camberwell, on the 18th Day of December, 1745. Being appointed as a Solemn Fast. By the Reverend Mr. Adam Ferguson, Chaplain to the said Regiment; And Translated by him into English, for the Use of a Lady of Quality in Scotland, at whose Desire it is now published.[1]

A Sermon Preached in the Ersh Language

In the printed English-language version of the sermon, Ferguson’s social reformist admonishments are built around a recurring Biblical quote: “Be of good Courage, and let us play the Men for our People, and for the Cities of God.” (II Samuel, 10:12). It is not entirely clear, though, what exact terminology Ferguson used in the original Gaelic [or Ersh]. Ferguson was a fluent Scots Gaelic speaker, but had no literacy in the language (when the fraudulent James MacPherson began to show his supposedly ancient Gaelic manuscripts around Edinburgh in the early 1760s, Ferguson was intrigued but later admitted his inability to read them).[2] Even then, there were no proper Scots Gaelic translations of the Bible until as late as 1801. Prior to this, vernacular evangelisers had recourse to a Classical Irish translation, where II Samuel 10:12 reads as follows: Bíodh meisneach mhaith agad, agus foillsighearn sinn féin ar bhfearuibh ar son ar bpobail, agus ar son chairthreach ar Ndé [“Let there be a good courage on you, and we ourselves will exhibit as men for the cause of our community and for the cause of the cities of our God”].[3] The gendered performativity in which Ferguson engaged is less explicit in the original Hebrew of Samuel: chezek u-nitchezek b’ad amanu u-b’ad ari eliahnu [“Be strong and let us both be strong, for the sake of our people and for the sake of the cities of our God”].

In any case, the quote used in the printed translation, taken from the King James Bible, carries a suggestion of consciously adopted and performative masculinity (“let us play the Men”) and resonates throughout the pamphlet. And an overtly expressed notion of a performative civic masculinity was certainly foregrounded in Ferguson’s political theology, whether his original sermon drew on the King James Vesion or on an impromptu Gaelic translation. For Ferguson, it is “the Duty of every Man to defend his country when in Danger”. The present circumstances, of the 1745 uprising, provided an important moment for inculcating this masculine ideal. Not only did the threat to the Hanoverian order require men “to be active in its Defence”, but the crisis was a useful opportunity for social reform: “It is from this Consideration that at particular Times, but more especially in Times of general Distress, the National Authority is interposed to admonish every Congregation and Society of Men to humble themselves before God in a solemn and open manner, that he may avert his deserved Judgements from us, and bless our Resolutions towards a better Conduct for the future.” The British military, with its discipline and engaged masculinity, was a model for the wider social order favoured by Ferguson.

In the early sections of the pamphlet, the antithesis of this social order, the Jacobites, remain faceless and nameless. Talking of how proper male behaviour will “draw down the Blessing of God upon your Country, and contribute to its Peace and good Order’” he also mentions how such ordered behaviour will protect society from “the Assaults of its [unnamed] Enemies”. Ferguson’s recurring Biblical trope also does important work here, placing the Jacobites on the wrong side of a divinely ordained history. Where the British state is a reborn Israel, the Jacobites become ungodly Moabites or Ammonites; their political objectives thus do not need to be discussed, since they stem from inherent evil and a willful desire for disorder.

As he progresses, however, Ferguson becomes less circumspect about the Jacobites and this allows him to more fully sketch out his own idealised social order. Describing civic society as natural and ordained by God – “Society, under the Regulation of Laws and Government, is the State for which Providence has calculated our natures” – Ferguson presents patriotism as “the most manly virtue” and thus civic society is a natural fraternal order. And it is here that private property enters the argument. Though men have a natural tendency towards living in a society, it is nonetheless the case that “Laws are necessary to secure of Persons and Properties, to protect the Weak and restrain the Violent.” Since the State protects property, it also behoves all citizens/property-owners to fund the cost of the State: “we can no longer hesitate in drawing our Conclusion, that each Member is bound, both on account of his own and the publick Welfare, to maintain that League from which he derives so many blessings” and harmony is a necessary component of this social order.

Having established what the proper social order should be, Ferguson proceeds to identify the contemporary state which best exemplifies this ideal. Unsurprisingly it is the British state fighting the forces of Bonnie Prince Charlie in the Highlands. As well as being a place where “Every man may openly profess his Sentiments”, Britain is also a society built on economic liberty and with the proper defence of private property. It is precisely this divinely ordained early capitalist society that the Pretender and his Catholic followers seek to destroy: “What can we expect in our civil or religious Concerns from a Popish King, but the Subversion of our Liberty, and the intire [sic] Corruption of our Religion… Ignorance and Superstition again resume their Tyranny in these Lands, and we and our Posterity bend to the unnatural Dominion of Priests and Churchmen.” Digging further, Ferguson identifies the ways in which a Catholic king would threaten British men’s masculinity. British men now live “under the best Government”, one that protects the property-ownership that makes them free men. Conversely, under Charlie, they would have a king “who has a Right to command Us, our Persons, and Estates.” Their status as free men, with sovereignty, private land ownership and political subjectivity, would be undermined: “Are we then, by Birth, the Property of a Man? and may we be bought and sold like the Beasts of the Field.” Jacobite rule would move them from being men to the status of degraded slaves.

An Essay on the History of Civil Society

The short pamphlet contains, in embryo, many of the themes and ideas Ferguson would later develop in his more famous work, An Essay on the History of Civil Society (1767); militarism, a fear of social disorder, a desire for careful social reform. That the Scottish Enlightenment was heavily invested in social reform has long been recognised. What Adam Ferguson’s obscure 1745 sermon shows is how strong a role masculinity and private property could play in this social transformation.

[1] (London: A. Millar, 1746).

[2] Hugh Trevor-Roper. The Invention of Scotland: Myth and History (New Haven CT: Yale University Press, 2008) 247fn59.

[3] An Biobla Naomhtha (London: The British and Foreign Bible Society, 1817). This edition is a reprint of an earlier translation.