John Millar

G. G. Cunningham, in Memoirs of Illustrious Englishmen (1834-37) 6:294-97.

JOHN MILLAR, professor of law in the university of Glasgow, and one of the ablest political and historical writers of the last century, was the son of a clergyman in the neighbourhood of Edinburgh. He was sent to college at Glasgow in his eleventh year, where, notwithstanding his extreme youth, he made a highly respectable appearance in the literary classes. He was originally intended for the ministerial profession, but was permitted to gratify his own preference for the bar.

After having completed his full literary curriculum, he attended the lectures of Dr. Adam Smith; after which he entered as tutor into the family of Lord Kames. "It seldom happens," says one who had been a pupil of Mr. Millar, "that we can trace the genealogy of a literary progeny so correctly as the two circumstances, which have now been mentioned, enable us to do that of Mr. Millar's future studies. It is perfectly evident to all who are acquainted with their writings, that his speculations are all formed upon the model of those of Lord Kames and Dr. Smith, and that his merit consists almost entirely in the accuracy with which he surveyed, and the sagacity with which he pursued the path which they had the merit of discovering. It was one great object of both those original authors, to trace back the history of society to its most simple and universal elements, — to resolve almost all that has been ascribed to positive institution into the spontaneous and irresistible development of certain obvious principles, — and to show with how little contrivance or political wisdom the most complicated and apparently artificial schemes of policy might have been erected. This is very nearly the precise definition of what Mr. Millar aimed at accomplishing in his lectures and publications, and when we find that he attended the lectures of Dr. Smith, and lived in the family of Lord Kames, we cannot hesitate to ascribe the bent of his genius, and the peculiar tenor of his speculations, to the impressions he must have received from those early concurrences."

In 1760 Mr. Millar was called to the bar; but having married early in life, he was soon after induced to relinquish the very flattering prospects which it presented for the more certain emoluments of professor of law in the university of Glasgow, to which chair, by the interest of Lord Kames and Dr. Smith, he was immediately appointed. He filled this situation for nearly forty years in a manner highly beneficial to the university and most honourable to himself.

He taught two classes of civil law; in the first, prelecting on the Institutions, — in the second, on the Pandects of Justinian. Besides teaching the civil law — which was more peculiarly the duty of his office — he gave each session a course of lectures on government; he also taught, every second year, a class of Scotch law, and for a few years before his death he delivered a course of lectures on the law of England. His nephew and biographer, Mr. Craig, says he "never wrote his lectures; but was accustomed to speak from notes, containing his arrangement, his chief topics, and some of his principal facts and illustrations. For the transitions from one part of his subject to another, the occasional allusions, the smaller embellishments, and the whole of the expression, he trusted to that extemporaneous eloquence which seldom fails a speaker deeply interested in his subject. In some branches of science, where the utmost precision of language is requisite to avoid obscurity or error, such a mode of lecturing may be attended with much difficulty, and several disadvantages; but in morals, in jurisprudence, in law, and in politics, if the professor make himself completely master of the different topics he is to illustrate, if he possess ideas clear and defined, with tolerable facility in expressing them, the little inelegancies into which he may occasionally be betrayed, the slight hesitation which he may not always escape, will be much more than compensated by the fullness of his illustrations, the energy of his manner, and that interest which is excited, both in the hearer and speaker, by extemporaneous eloquence." "Not satisfied," continues Mr. Craig, "with explaining his opinions in the most perspicuous manner in his lecture, Mr. Millar encouraged such of the students as had not fully comprehended his doctrines, or conceived that there was some error in his reasonings, to state to him their difficulties and objections. With this view, at the conclusion of the lecture, a little circle of his most attentive pupils was formed around him, when the doctrines which had been delivered were canvassed with the most perfect freedom. Before a professor can admit of such a practice, he must be completely master of his subject, and have acquired some confidence in his own quickness at refuting objections, and detecting sophistry. A few instances of defeat might be injurious to his reputation, and to the discipline of the class. But should he possess a clear comprehension of all the bearings of his system, joined to quickness of understanding, and tolerable ease of expression, he will derive the most important advantages from the unrestrained communications of his pupils. He will learn where be has failed to convey his ideas with accuracy, where he has been too concise, or where imperfect analogies have led him into slight mistakes; and he will easily find a future opportunity to introduce new illustrations, to explain what has been misapprehended, or correct what was really an error. To the student such a practice insures accurate knowledge; it teaches the important lesson of considering opinions before adopting them; and gives an additional incitement to strict and vigilant attention. Accordingly, to be able to state difficulties with propriety, was justly looked upon, by the more ingenious and attentive students, as no slight proof of proficiency; and to be an active and intelligent member of the fireside committee, never failed to give a young man some consideration among his companions."

In 1771 he published a work entitled, The Origin of the Distinction of Ranks: or an Inquiry into the circumstances which give rise to Influence and Authority in the different Members of Society. In this work he has embodied the principal portion of his lectures in civil law under the head "Rights of Persons," and also a brief view of the first part of his lectures on government. It was received in a very flattering manner by the public, and has gone through several editions.

In 1787 he published the first volume of his Historical View of the English Government. It was Mr. Millar's design in this publication to exhibit an historical view of the English government from the earliest periods of its independent existence down to the present times, under the three great general heads of its existence as a feudal aristocracy, then as a feudal monarchy, and lastly as, what he has called, a commercial government. The first form of government prevailed from the establishment of the Saxon down to the Norman conquest. The second, according to Mr. Millar's views, extends from the Conquest to the accession of the House of Stuart. The third form was established by the Revolution in 1688. The manuscript of this portion of the work, however, was left in an unfinished state on the death of the author. That portion which had the benefit of his revision and preparation for the press, forms, in the London edition of 1803, four vols. 8vo. The first part of this performance contains some admirable dissertations on the origin of the feudal system, and the philosophy of government in general. In the second part his chief object seems to be to correct the erroneous representations of Hume, and to prove that the government of England was never, at any period, an absolute government. He does not scruple to say that Charles I. was justly beheaded, although he is inclined to think that it was an inexpedient measure to put him to death. He argues that a republic is the most suitable form of government either for a very small or a very extensive country; but he is very unmerciful towards the protector of England's commonwealth. He eulogizes the prince of Orange, and seems to regret that James II. was not made to share the fate of Charles. The fourth volume contains some very interesting essays on the history of law, the progress of the fine arts, and the philosophy or economy of commerce and manufactures.

Mr. Millar died in 1801. His private character was highly amiable. "His uncommon vivacity, good humour, and ingenuity, made his conversation delightful to persons but little addicted to literary pursuits; while the extent and variety of his information, the closeness and accuracy of his reasoning, and the readiness and originality of his illustrations, enabled him to make a distinguished figure in more select and cultivated societies. "On the subject of politics," Mr. Craig states with great candour, "he argued always with zeal; and, towards the end of his life, with a considerable degree of keenness. He, who had refused the offer of a lucrative place, which might have introduced him to higher honours, because he feared that his acceptance might be construed into an engagement to support an administration whose measures he condemned, had little allowance to make for those who sacrificed their principles to their interest. Ever steady and consistent himself, he was apt to suspect the purity of the motives from which all violent and sudden changes in political opinion arose, without perhaps making a due degree of allowance for that alarm, which, however hurtful in its consequences, was the natural result of the blind fanaticism of several popular societies. On a subject too, which he had studied with the utmost care, he naturally might be rather impatient of ignorant and presumptuous contradiction, nor could his mind brook the imputations which, at a season of political intolerance, were so liberally passed on all the opposers of ministerial power. Arguing frequently under considerable irritation of mind, perhaps unavoidable in his particular circumstances, it is not impossible that expressions may have escaped him which might afford room for mistake or misrepresentation."

In his politics, it is scarcely necessary to say he was a decided whig, and would not perhaps have refused the appellation of republican. In domestic politics, he usually adhered to the measures of the marquess of Rockingham and Fox; he was a warm friend to the extension of the elective franchise, and sympathized deeply with the French people in their great movement on behalf of the natural rights and liberties of mankind.