"The Origin of the Distinction of Ranks" is one of the major products of the Scottish Enlightenment and a masterpiece of jurisprudence and social theory. Building on David Hume, Adam Smith, and their respective natural histories of man, John Millar developed a progressive account of the nature of authority in society by analyzing changes in subsistence, agriculture, arts, and manufacture. The Origin of the Distinction of Ranks is perhaps the most precise and compact development of the abiding themes of the liberal wing of the Scottish Enlightenment.
Drawing on Smith’s four-stages theory of history and the natural law’s traditional division of domestic duties into those toward servants, children, and women, Millar provides a rich historical analysis of the ways in which progressive economic change transforms the nature of authority. In particular, he argues that, with the progress of arts and manufacture, authority tends to become less violent and concentrated, and ranks tend to diversify. Millar’s analysis of this historical progress is nuanced and sophisticated; for example, his discussion of servants is perhaps the best developed of the “economic” arguments against slavery.
"Causes of the freedom acquired by the labouring people in the modern nations of Europe.
By what happy concurrence of events has the practice of slavery been so generally abolished in Europe? By what powerful motives were our forefathers induced to deviate from the maxims of other nations, and to abandon a custom so generally retained in other parts of the world?
The northern barbarians, who laid the foundation of the present European states, are said to have possessed a number of slaves, obtained either by captivity or by voluntary submission, and over whom the master enjoyed an unlimited authority.
When these nations invaded the Roman empire, and settled in the different provinces, they were enabled by their repeated victories to procure an immense number of captives, whom they reduced into servitude, and by whose assistance they occupied landed estates of proportionable extent. From the simple manner of living to which those barbarians had been accustomed, their domestic business was usually performed by the members of each family; and their servants, for the most part, were employed in cultivating their lands.
John Millar (1735-1801) was a Scottish philosopher, historian and Regius Professor of Civil Law at the University of Glasgow from 1761 to 1800.
In 1761, with the support of Adam Smith and Lord Kames, Millar was elected to the Chair of Civil Law at Glasgow. His regular teaching duties included a course on Civil (Roman) Law and another on Public Law, or the Principles of Government. Millar was very popular in the classroom on account of the manner of his teaching, as well as for his enthusiasm for his subject and his personal support for his students. He was also extremely active in faculty matters during his forty years at the university.
Millar’s activities in Glasgow extended beyond the university campus. In addition to teaching law, he practiced it, trying cases personally, as well as serving as both Counsel and arbitrator. He was a member of the Literary Society, a club founded by Smith in 1752 that included among its members the philosopher Thomas Reid, the inventor James Watt, and the chemist William Cullen. Millar, always a defender of personal liberty, was also active in the anti-slavery movement of his day.
Millar’s most well-known work is The Origin of the Distinction of Ranks (1771). It went through four editions, the final of which appeared in 1801 and contained an ‘Account of the Life and Writings of John Millar’ written by Millar’s nephew John Craig. The book adopts a stadial model of human social history to examine a series of authority relations. The most well-known of these analyses is the first chapter, which looks at the ways in which women’s social status increases or decreases as the dominant mode of production in a society changes.
Other works include a constitutional history of Britain entitled An Historical View of the English Government (1787) and a collection of political papers critical of the British government’s decision to go to war with France published as Letters of Crito (1796).