1812 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

John Millar

Alexander Chalmers, in General Biographical Dictionary (1812-17) 22:159-61.



JOHN MILLAR, professor of law in the university of Glasgow, was born in 1735, in the parish of Shotts, in Lanarkshire. He received his grammar-education at the school of Hamilton, whence he was removed, a the age of eleven, to the university of Glasgow. He was designed for the church, but having early conceived a dislike to that profession, and turned his attention to the study of the law, he was invited by lord Kames to reside in his family, and to superintend, in the quality of preceptor, the education of his son, Mr. George Drummond Home. Lord Kames found in young Millar a congenial ardour of intellect, a mind turned to philosophical speculation, a considerable fund of reading, and what above all things he delighted in, a talent for supporting a metaphysical argument in conversation, with much ingenuity and vivacity. The tutor of the son, therefore, became the companion of the father: and the two years before Millar was called to the bar, were spent, with great improvement on his part, in acquiring those enlarged views of the union of law with philosophy, which he afterwards displayed with uncommon ability in his academical lectures on jurisprudence. At this period he contracted an acquaintance with David Hume, to whose metaphysical opinions he became a convert, though he materially differed from him upon political topics. In 1760 Mr. Millar began to practise at the bar, and was regarded as a rising young lawyer, when he thought proper to become a candidate for the vacant professorship of law at Glasgow, and supported by the recommendation of lord Kames and Dr. Adam Smith, he was appointed in 1761, and immediately began to execute its duties. The reputation of the university, as a school of jurisprudence, rose from that acquisition, and although, says lord Woodhouselee, the republican prejudices of Mr. Millar gave his lectures on politics and government a character justly considered as repugnant to the well-attempered frame and equal balance of our improved constitution; there were few who attended those lectures without at least an increase of knowledge. He lectured in English, and spoke fluently with the assistance of mere notes only. By this method his lectures were rendered full of variety and animation, and at the conclusion of each he was accustomed to explain the difficulties and objections that had presented themselves to his pupils, in a free and familiar conversation. In 1771, he published a treatise on "The Origin of the Distinction of Ranks," in which be shews himself a disciple of the school of Montesquieu, and deals much in that sort of speculation which Mr. Dugald Stewart, in his Life of Smith, called theoretical or conjectural history. This work however was well received by the public, and has gone through several editions. His inquiries into the English government, which made an important part of his lectures, together with a zealous attachment to, what he thought the genuine principles of liberty, produced in 1787 the first volume of an "Historical View of the English Government," in which he traces the progressive changes in the property, the state of the people, and the government of England, from the settlement of the Saxons to the accession of the house of Stuart. In this work we observe the same spirit of system, and the same partiality to hypothetical reasoning, as in the former: though resting, as may be supposed, on a more solid foundation of facts: and the less dangerous in its tendency, as being every where capable of scrutiny from actual history. It is impossible, however, to peruse this, or his other works, without meeting with much valuable information, and facts placed in those new lights which excite inquiry, and ultimately promote truth. Mr. Millar's researches were by no means confined to politics, law, or metaphysics. His acquaintance with the works of imagination, both ancient and modern, was also very extensive, and his criticisms were at once ingenious and solid, resulting from an acute understanding and a correct taste. He died May 30, 1801, at the age of sixty-nine, leaving behind him several manuscripts, from which, in 1803, were printed, in two volumes, his posthumous works, consisting of an historical view of the English government from the accession of the house of Stuart, and some separate dissertations connected with the subject.