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Significant Scots
John Millar

MILLAR, JOHN, professor of law in the university of Glasgow, and author of the Historical View of the English Government, was born on the 22nd of June, 1735, in the parish of Shotts, of which his father, the Rev. Mr James Millar, was minister. Two years after his birth, his father was translated to Hamilton, and he was himself placed under the charge of his uncle, Mr John Millar of Milhaugh, in the neighbouring parish of Blantyre, where he spent almost all his early years. Having been taught to read by his uncle, he was placed in 1742, at the school of Hamilton, in order to be instructed in Latin and Greek. In 1746, being designed for the church, he went to Glasgow college, where he distinguished himself as an attentive and intelligent student. He had the advantage of the society of Dr Cullen, (then professor of chemistry at Glasgow,) to whose wife he was related, and of the acquaintance of other persons distinguished by their intelligence. He was particularly fortunate in obtaining the friendship of Dr Adam Smith, whose lectures and conversation first directed his attention to the particular line of research in which he afterwards became so eminent. As his mind expanded, he found that the clerical profession was not agreeable to his tastes or faculties, and he accordingly adopted the resolution of studying for the Scottish bar. About the time when his college studies were finished, he became preceptor to the eldest son of lord Kames, in whose society he spent two years, during which he formed an intimacy with David Hume and other eminent persons. "It seldom happens," says the Edinburgh Review, "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 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, to 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 that Mr Millar aimed at accomplishing in his lectures and his 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 occurrences."

Mr Millar was called to the bar in 1760, and was soon looked upon as one of the individuals likely to rise to eminence in his profession; but having married at this early stage of his career, and finding it improbable that his labours at the bar would for some years be adequate to his support, he was tempted by an opportune vacancy in the chair of civil law in Glasgow college, to apply for that comparatively obscure situation. Having been successful in his object, (1761,) he applied himself with all the ardour of an uncommonly active and sanguine temperament, to the improvement of the class. Heretofore the professorship of civil law at Glasgow had been in a great measure useless to the community. The students were seldom more than four in number, and sometimes even less. The late professor, however, had broken through the established usage of lecturing in Latin, and Mr Millar not only persevered in the same popular course, but adopted other means calculated to attract a larger audience. Instead of writing his lectures—a practice which generally induces the professor to adhere to one train of ideas, and resist the introduction of all progressive improvements, he delivered them extempore, and thus not only took a prompt advantage of every new view that arose in the progress of his science, but enabled himself to introduce familiar and lively illustrations, which were calculated to excite and keep alive the attention of his students to an uncommon degree. Discarding the old academical pomp, he reduced himself to a level with his hearers; he talked to them, and carefully observed that they understood all that he said, and acceded to all his propositions. "His manner," says the Edinburgh Review, "was familiar and animated, approaching more nearly to gaiety than enthusiasm; and the facts which he had to state, or the elementary positions he had to lay down, were given in the simple, clear, and unembarrassed diction in which a well-bred man would tell a story or deliver an opinion in society. All objections that occurred, were stated in a forcible, clear, and lively manner; and the answers, which were often thrown into a kind of dramatic form, were delivered with all the simplicity, vivacity, and easy phraseology of good conversation. His illustrations were always familiar, and often amusing; and while nothing could be more forcible or conclusive than the reasonings which he employed, the tone and style in which they were delivered gave them an easy and attractive air, and imparted, to a profound and learned discussion, the charms of an animated and interesting conversation. No individual, indeed, ever did more to break down the old and unfortunate distinction between the wisdom of the academician and the wisdom of the man of the world: and as most of the topics which fell under his discussion were of a kind that did not lose their interest beyond the walls of a college, so the views which he took of them, and the language in which they were conveyed, were completely adapted to the actual condition of society; and prepared those to whom they had been made familiar, to maintain and express them with precision, without running the least risk of an imputation of pedantry or ignorance.

"It will be admitted to have required no ordinary share of intrepidity and confidence in the substantial merits of his instructions, to have enabled a professor thus to lay aside the shield of academical stateliness, and not only expose his thoughts in the undress of extemporaneous expression, but to exhibit them, without any of the advantages of imposing or authoritative pretences, on the fair level of equal discussion, and with no other recommendations but those of superior expediency or reason." He carried his system, however, even to a more hazardous extreme: at the conclusion of every lecture, he invited his students to gather around him, and in easy conversation to discuss the principles he had been expounding. It has been justly remarked, that no teacher who did not possess an unusually minute and extensive knowledge of his subject could have ventured upon such a practice; which, however, in his case, was attended with the best effects upon his pupils. Such, altogether, was the success which attended his prelections, that the class was speedily increased to about forty, and the professor in the Edinburgh college, after seeing his students proportionally diminished, was obliged to abandon the practice of lecturing in Latin, in which he had persevered till Mr Millar’s reputation as an effective lecturer was completely established.

During the whole time of his connexion with Glasgow college, Mr Millar was a zealous and active member of the Literary Society, a club chiefly formed of the professors, and whose practice it was to meet weekly, and, after hearing an essay read by some member in rotation, to discuss the views which it advanced. The tenor of Mr Millar’s life was little marked by events. He spent his time between the college and a small farm called Whitemoss (near Kilbride,) which he took great pleasure in improving. Excepting, indeed, two visits to the metropolis in 1774 and 1792, and the publication of his two books, there is hardly any incident to which we find our notice particularly called.

Amongst his lectures on jurisprudence, those which referred to the subject of government were remarked to possess an unusual interest. In these he delivered a theoretical history of the progress of society, through the various stages of savage, pastoral, agricultural, and commercial life; with a view of the institutions and changes which would naturally be suggested in their political and domestic habits by their successive transformation; illustrating his remarks by an historical review of all the ancient governments, and more particularly by that of Great Britain. The interest which he found they excited, induced him, in 1771, to publish a short treatise on the subject, which was favourably received. Even to cursory readers, it was calculated to afford amusement, by the various views of human nature which it exhibited, and by the singularity of many of the traits of manners, as well as of national characters and institutions, which it traced to their sources. Some years afterwards, Mr Millar was induced, by the prevalence of what he conceived to be erroneous ideas respecting the origin of the English government, to expand his views on that subject, with a view to publication. After a careful preparation, he published, in 1787, his Historical View of the English Government, from the Settlement of the Saxons in Britain, to the Accession of the House of Stewart. By subsequent labour Mr Millar intended to bring down the history to his own time, but he only completed it to the Revolution, and a new and posthumous edition in 1803, in four volumes 8vo, comprised that period. As a writer, Mr Millar retained little of that vivacity and fertility of illustration, which gave such a charm to his extemporaneous lectures. The style of his compositions is nevertheless forcible and distinct. His Historical View, containing much inquiry into the remote periods of our government, and many which it requires some effort of attention fully to understand, could not be of a very popular nature; but it has been justly appreciated by those who were fitted by their habits and previous studies to take an interest in such researches; and, considering the nature of the subjects of which it treats, its having gone through three editions is no slight proof of public approbation.

"The distinguishing feature of Mr Millar’s intellect," says the Edinburgh Review, "was, the great clearness and accuracy of his apprehension, and the singular sagacity with which he seized upon the true statement of a question, and disentangled the point in dispute from the mass of sophisticated argument in which it was frequently involved. His great delight was to simplify an intricate question, and to reduce a perplexed and elaborate system of argument to a few plain problems of common sense. * * To form a sound judgment upon all points of substantial importance, appeared to him to require little more than the free and independent use of that vulgar sense on which no man is entitled to value himself; and he was apt to look with sufficient contempt upon the elaborate and ingenious errors into which philosophers are so apt to reason themselves. To bring down the dignity of such false science, and to expose the emptiness of ostentatious and pedantic reasoners, was therefore one of his favourite employments. He had, indeed, no prejudices of veneration in his nature; his respect was reserved for those who had either made discoveries of practical ability, or combined into a system the scattered truths of speculation." For the remainder of a very elaborate estimate of the genius of professor Millar, we must refer those who take an unusual interest in the subject, to the Review itself. We may only mention, what every one will have anticipated from the preceding extract, that Mr Millar was of whig politics, bordering on republicanism, and that his sentiments had considerable influence with his pupils, some of whom, as lord Jeffrey, lord chief commissioner Adam, of the Jury court, and the earl of Lauderdale, were distinguished on that side of the great political question which so long divided public opinion in this country.

In his private character, Mr Millar was extremely amiable. His conversation was cheerful, unaffected, and uncommonly agreeable. His countenance was very animated and expressive; his stature about the middle size; his person strong, active, and athletic, rather than elegant. Though devoted chiefly to metaphysical inquiries, he was extensively acquainted with the natural sciences, with history, with the belles lettres, and, indeed, almost all branches of human learning. He retained good health till the end of the year 1790, when he was seized with a very dangerous inflammatory complaint, from which he recovered to a certain extent; but a year and a half after, having exposed himself to cold, he was seized with pleurisy, by which he was carried off, May 30, 1801. Professor Millar left four sons and six daughters. A full memoir of his life was written by his nephew, Mr John Craig, and prefixed to a fourth edition of his Origin of the Distinction of Ranks, published in 1808.

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