Ferguson, Adam (1723-1816) (DNB00)
|←Fergushill, John||Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 18
Ferguson, Adam (1723-1816)
|Ferguson, Adam (1771-1855)→|
FERGUSON, ADAM (1723–1816), professor of philosophy at Edinburgh, was born on 20 June 1723 at Logierait, Perthshire, the youngest of the numerous family of the exemplary minister of that parish, author of a rather curious fragment of autobiography (see account of him and it in Edinburgh Review for January 1867, article ‘Adam Ferguson’). Ferguson received his earlier education partly at home, partly at the parish school of Logierait, and afterwards at the grammar school of Perth, where he became a fair Latin scholar and distinguished in complete position. In his sixteenth year he was sent to the university of St. Andrews, where, it is said, his Latin procured him a bursary. He took his M.A. degree 4 July 1742, with a reputation for proficiency in classics, mathematics, and metaphysics. Intended by his father for the church, he entered in the same year the Divinity Hall at St. Andrews, but not long afterwards he removed to Edinburgh to pursue his divinity studies there, and became intimate with John Home and Robertson among other young men afterwards distinguished. According to his son, Sir Adam (Chambers's Journal for 24 Feb. 1855, article ‘A School Friend of Sir Walter Scott’), he acted in 1742 as private secretary to Lord Milton, who managed Scotch affairs for Lord Islay, afterwards third duke of Argyll. In 1745 he was appointed deputy-chaplain to the Black Watch, then the 43rd regiment, afterwards (Stewart, i. 274) the famous 42nd, at the instance (Carlyle, p. 282) of the Dowager Duchess of Atholl, whose husband had presented his father to Logierait, and who wished Ferguson to exercise control over his son, Lord John Murray, its colonel. His chief ostensible qualification for the post was a knowledge of Gaelic, which would have shortened by two the six years of the Divinity Hall required before ordination. The general assembly forgave him two years more in consideration of his character and testimonials. Soon afterwards he became chaplain of the regiment, with which he was present at the battle of Fontenoy (11 May 1745). According to Sir Walter Scott (Quarterly Review for June 1827, art. ‘John Home;’ Miscellaneous Works, xix. 331), who probably heard the story from his friend Adam, Ferguson's son, the commanding officer was astonished to see the chaplain at the head of the column with a drawn broadsword in his hand, and remarked that his commission did not entitle him to assume such an attitude. ‘D—n my commission!’ was Ferguson's reply, throwing it towards the colonel. But by General Stewart (ii. appendix, p. liii) he is represented as meeting the remonstrance with the reply that he was there, not to fight, but to succour the wounded and to pray with the dying. According to the same authority Ferguson acquired an ‘unbounded ascendency’ over the soldiers of his regiment. He returned to England in 1745, and in 1746 there was published in London ‘A Sermon preached in the Erse Language to his Majesty's First Highland Regiment of Foot, commanded by Lord John Murray, on the 18th day of December 1745, being appointed as a Solemn Fast. By the Rev. Adam Ferguson, chaplain to the said regiment, and translated by him into English for the use of a lady of quality now in Scotland, at whose desire it is now published.’ The ‘lady’ was the Dowager Duchess of Atholl, and the sermon was a vigorous denunciation of the Pretender, of popery, and of France. Ferguson chiefly remained as chaplain with his regiment at home and abroad until about 1754, when, partly out of disgust at the seventh Duke of Atholl's refusal to present him to a Perthshire living, he abandoned the clerical profession.
In January 1757 Ferguson succeeded his friend David Hume in the librarianship of the Advocates' Library, of which the annual salary was 40l., and which he did not hold for a year, having after settling in Edinburgh undertaken the education of Lord Bute's sons. In the probably apocryphal account of the rehearsal of John Home's ‘Douglas’ by notable Edinburgh amateurs, Ferguson is represented as performing the part of Lady Randolph. To the Douglas controversy of 1757 he contributed a pamphlet on ‘The Morality of Stage Plays,’ which he defended as indirectly sanctioned in scripture and directly by fathers of the church. In the summer of 1758 David Hume entered into a curious and unsuccessful negotiation to effect the resignation of a professor in Edinburgh University, one of the results of which would have been to make Ferguson succeed Adam Smith in the chair of moral philosophy at Glasgow (Small, pp. 8–9; Burton, ii. 45). On the death of the professor of natural philosophy in Edinburgh University Ferguson was appointed to that chair, 4 July 1759. The class was to meet in October, and in the brief interval Ferguson acquired a sufficient knowledge of physics to discharge his duties satisfactorily, a feat which led David Hume to pay him a somewhat ironical compliment on his extraordinary genius. He published a pamphlet on the Scottish militia, followed by another on the injustice of the refusal of parliament to sanction the establishment of such a force. It was written in imitation of Arbuthnot, and appearing in 1761 with the title, ‘The History of the Proceedings in the case of Margaret, commonly called Peg, only sister to John Bull, Esq.,’ excited a good deal of attention. In 1762 Ferguson was one of the founders of a club, at first without a name, formed to keep astir the movement for the establishment of a Scotch militia, and which became famous as the Poker Club, a name suggested by Ferguson as having for its members an obvious meaning, while to others enigmatic (Colonel Ferguson, p. 137 and note). In 1763 he was entrusted with the education of two sons of the Earl of Warwick. In 1764, in a series of professorial changes (see account of them in Grant, ii. 315, 339, 350), Ferguson was appointed to the chair in Edinburgh which he had long coveted, that of ‘pneumatics and moral philosophy,’ pneumatics being used in its now obsolete sense of mental philosophy. His earnestness and eloquence made him a very popular professor, and his lectures were attended by many non-academic hearers belonging to the upper ranks. In time he thus derived from the chair an annual income of 300l., though the salary attached to it was only 100l. a year (Letter to Adam Smith in Small, p. 17). In 1766 he married Miss Katherine Burnett, an Aberdonian lady, and niece of Joseph Black the chemist, who was a relative of Ferguson on the mother's side.
Ferguson had completed in 1759 an essay on refinement, which, it has been surmised, he incorporated in his ‘Essay on Civil Society,’ published in 1766. The essay on refinement David Hume praised highly, but recommended the suppression of the ‘Essay on Civil Society.’ Nevertheless he reported faithfully from London the very favourable verdict pronounced on it by Lords Shelburne, Mansfield, Chesterfield, Lyttelton, and Bute, and by Charles Townshend, who had ‘read it five times over’ (Principal Lee in Supplement to Encyclopædia Britannica; Burton, ii. 385–6). The poet Gray (see Works, ed. Gosse, iii. 279–80 and note) found in it ‘an uncommon strain of eloquence’ among other merits, and Baron d'Holbach lauded it in a letter to Ferguson. In the year of its publication the university of Edinburgh conferred on its author the degree of LL.D., and Lord Shelburne thought of offering to Ferguson the governorship of West Florida. It reached a seventh edition in 1814. A French translation of it by Bergier and Meusnier appeared in Paris in 1783; a German, by C. F. Jünger, at Leipzig in 1768. Ferguson professed himself in it a modest follower of Montesquieu, and, like his master, he viewed the development of society from an historical standpoint, discarding Hobbes's and Rousseau's theories of primitive man, whose analogue Ferguson found in the ‘Arab clan’ and North American Indian of the eighteenth century. The essay is desultory and inconclusive.
In 1761 Ferguson had issued a syllabus of his lectures, entitled ‘Analysis of Pneumatics and Moral Philosophy for the use of Students in the College of Edinburgh.’ The notes from which he delivered his lectures were more amply reproduced in his ‘Institutes of Moral Philosophy,’ a volume issued in 1772, of which a second edition appeared in 1773, a third edition ‘enlarged’ in 1785, a ‘new’ edition at Basel in 1800, a German translation by C. Garve at Leipzig in 1772, with an appendix of comments by the translator, which Schiller knew by heart (Allgemeine Deutsche Biographie, art. ‘Christian Garve’). A Russian translation of it is said to have been a text-book in Russian universities. In 1773, with a somewhat diminishing income, Ferguson accepted an offer, made at the recommendation of Adam Smith, to travel on the continent with Charles, third earl of Chesterfield, receiving an allowance of 400l. a year during the tour, and after it an annuity of 200l. for life. The Edinburgh town council refused his request to be allowed to appoint a substitute during his temporary absence from his chair, and when, after the winter session of 1774, he joined his charge on the continent, they cancelled his appointment and elected another professor. After instituting legal proceedings and being reinstalled, Ferguson returned to Edinburgh in 1776. In a letter to Dr. Carlyle he gave an entertaining and rather satirical account of a visit to Voltaire at Ferney, who, he says, ‘saluted me with a compliment on a gentleman of my family who had civilised the Russians.’ Voltaire no doubt had in view the career of another and earlier Scotch Ferguson, or Fergusson, whom in his history of Russia under Peter the Great (Œuvres, ed. 1877–85, xvi. 460, 481) he describes as helping Peter to calculate eclipses, and as establishing at Moscow schools of geometry, astronomy, and navigation. In 1776 appeared anonymously, and printed at the expense of the government, Ferguson's ‘Remarks on a Pamphlet lately published by Dr. Price, entitled “Observations on the Nature of Civil Liberty,”’ &c. Ferguson proposed conciliatory measures though demanding concessions from the colonists. In 1778 he accompanied to Philadelphia the new British commissioners sent to negotiate a settlement, and soon after their arrival he was appointed their secretary. Washington refused him a passport with which to proceed to congress. The negotiations coming to nothing, he returned home with the commissioners at the end of 1778, and resumed the duties of his chair, which during his absence had been discharged by his former pupil, Dugald Stewart. The company of Ferguson, as ‘a man of the world and a highbred gentleman,’ was much sought for, according to Dr. Carlyle, who adds that he ‘conversed fluently but with dignified reserve,’ and that he ‘possessed a boundless vein of humour.’ Conviviality had not injured his health until about his fiftieth year, when paralytic symptoms appearing he, under Joseph Black's guidance, recovered and retained perfect health by becoming virtually a vegetarian and a total abstainer. After his attack he rarely dined out except with Black, and Ferguson's son Adam was wont to say that it was delightful to see the two philosophers ‘rioting over a turnip’ (Cockburn, p. 50). An increased sensibility to cold followed his convalescence. He regulated the temperature of his room by Fahrenheit, and went abroad so warmly clad that he ‘looked like a philosopher from Lapland.’ The details of his malady, cure, and regimen are given in a paper by Black, which is interesting as the only memorial of his medical practice (see vii. 230, &c., of the Medico-Chirurgical Transactions, published by the Medical and Chirurgical Society of London, 1818).
As a highlander and otherwise Ferguson was disposed to believe in the genuineness of Macpherson's ‘Ossian,’ and corresponded with Macpherson on his proposal to use the Greek alphabet in printing Gaelic (Small, pp. 65–6). In 1781 he had an unpleasant controversy with Dean (afterwards Bishop) Percy, who represented him as having, when Percy visited him in Edinburgh in 1765, produced a student who recited in Gaelic, and, as current in the highlands, fragments which Ferguson told him were evidently the originals of passages in Macpherson's ‘Ossian.’ To this statement Ferguson gave an unqualified contradiction (see Gent. Mag. for December–January 1781–2, and Nichols, Illustr. of Lit. vi. 567–9). In 1782 he supported Principal Robertson's successful proposal for the establishment of a royal society of Scotland, of which he became a member. In the same year he published, with a dedication ‘to the King,’ his ‘History of the Progress and Termination of the Roman Republic, illustrated with Maps,’ comprising a sketch of the history of the empire to the accession of Caligula. His military experience gives some value to parts of his narrative. Thomas Carlyle in his rectorial address to the Edinburgh students spoke of Ferguson as ‘particularly well worth reading on Roman history.’ Ferguson's work soon effaced Hooke's compilation. A second edition of it ‘revised,’ in 5 vols. 8vo, appeared in 1799, to which Ferguson prefixed an ‘advertisement’ containing a list and some account of his authorities and aids, ancient and modern. Another edition, also in 5 vols. 8vo, was published in 1813, of which the so-called ‘new’ edition of 1825, in 5 vols., is simply a reissue with a new title-page. In 1825, too, appeared a convenient edition in 1 vol., belonging to Jones's series of ‘University Editions of British Classic Authors.’ A German translation by C. D. B[leek] appeared at Leipzig in 1784–6, and at Paris two French translations, one by Demeunier and Gibelin, 7 vols., in 1784–1791, the other by J. B. Breton, 10 vols., in 1803–10.
Ferguson resigned in 1785 his professorship of moral philosophy, and was succeeded by Dugald Stewart, who often refers respectfully to his opinions. That he might continue to receive a salary the Edinburgh town council appointed him to the chair of mathematics, vacated by Dugald Stewart, with Playfair as junior and acting professor. In 1786 a former and grateful student who had assisted him in the tuition of private pupils and had risen to be governor-general of India, Sir John Macpherson, sent him a remittance towards discharging the ‘embarrassing’ feu-duty on a farm near Currie, which, soon after marrying, Ferguson had begun to cultivate, turning a barren heath into beauty and fertility (Principal Lee). In the winter of 1786–7 the young Walter Scott for the first and last time met the poet Burns (Lockhart, p. 37) in Ferguson's house, The Sciennes, on the north side of the Meadows, between Principal Robertson's house and that of Lord Cockburn's father, and then so remote that his friends called it ‘Kamtschatka.’ In 1792 appeared, in 2 vols. 4to, his ‘Principles of Moral and Political Science, being chiefly a Retrospect of Lectures delivered in the College of Edinburgh.’ Ferguson's political philosophy is that of a whig of the old school. Sir William Hamilton speaks of his ethical teaching as an inculcation ‘in great measure of the need of the warrior-spirit in the moral life’ (Memoir of Dugald Stewart prefixed to his edition of Stewart's Works, x. 16–17). An appreciative and exhaustive account of Ferguson's ethical and political philosophy is given in Cousin's ‘Cours d'Histoire de la Philosophie Morale au dix-huitième Siècle’ (1839–40), pt. ii. École Écossaise. A French translation of the ‘Principles’ appeared in Paris in 1821.
In 1793, with a view to a second edition of his Roman history, Ferguson visited Germany and Italy, residing for a short time at Rome, and was elected an honorary member of the Berlin Academy of Sciences. In 1795 he lost his wife, and meditating seclusion for his remaining years, he received permission from the fourth Duke of Queensberry to take up his abode in Neidpath Castle, then being dismantled and falling into decay. A winter at Neidpath disenchanted him, and he removed to Hallyards, in the neighbourhood, which he farmed for fourteen years. In August 1801 he read before the Royal Society of Edinburgh an interesting paper, ‘Minutes of the Life and Character of Joseph Black,’ afterwards published in their ‘Transactions’ for 1805 (vol. v. pt. ii. p. 101, &c.). At this time he was in easy circumstances. In addition to the Chesterfield life annuity, his professorial salary, and the profits of his books, he is represented as enjoying a government pension of 400l. (cf. Public Characters of 1779–1800, p. 434, and Annual Biography and Obituary for 1817, p. 251). Scott and Lord Cockburn have given graphic descriptions of Ferguson in old age, with silver locks, blue eyes, ruddy cheeks, and firm gait, and wearing a costume much resembling that of the Flemish peasant of his time. According to Lord Cockburn he was ‘domestically kind,’ but ‘fiery as gunpowder;’ and Principal Lee hints that the inflexibility of his disposition stood in the way of advancement proposed for him in England. In his latest years his vitality was supported by the deep interest which he took in the great war; and Scott says that ‘the news of Waterloo acted on the aged patriot as a Nunc Dimittis.’ He was in full possession of his faculties when he died at St. Andrews on 22 Feb. 1816. His last words addressed from his deathbed to his daughters were, ‘There is another world’ (Edinburgh Review). He was buried in the grounds of the old cathedral of St. Andrews, and the elaborate inscription on the monument over his remains was written by Sir Walter Scott. In 1817 was published his ‘Biographical Sketch or Memoir of Lieutenant-colonel Patrick Ferguson [q. v.], originally intended for the “British Encyclopædia,”’ i.e. the ‘Encyclopædia Britannica,’ from which its length excluded it.[Biographical Sketch by John Small, librarian to the university of Edinburgh, 1864; Principal Lee's Memoir, in supplement to the 4th, 5th, and 6th editions of the Encyclopædia Britannica; General Stewart of Garth's Sketches of the Characters, Manners, &c., of the Highlands of Scotland, 1822; Autobiography of Dr. Alexander Carlyle, 1860; Lord Cockburn's Memorials of his Time, 1860; Sir Walter Scott's Miscellaneous Works, vol. xix.; Lockhart's Life of Scott, ed. 1845; J. H. Burton's Life and Correspondence of David Hume, 1846; Colonel A. Ferguson's The Hon. Henry Erskine, Lord Advocate for Scotland, 1882; Sir A. Grant's Story of the University of Edinburgh, 1884; Ersch and Grüber's Encyclopädie, and Quérard's France Littéraire, sub nomine; authorities cited.]