America today is increasingly torn by conflict between traditionalists and cosmopolitans, the somewheres and the anywheres, the rooted and the rootless. Such conflict is as old as civilization, but the forces that drive it have accelerated in recent decades as the globe has continued to shrink.
The cosmopolitan, by virtue of his global perspective, claims to have a fuller and broader grasp of the human condition, of the problems that face the human species, and of the forms of expertise needed to solve these problems. To him, it is high time to abandon the petty perspectives and parochial prejudices of even the nation-state, and certainly of the benighted backwater communities across America that still serve as nurseries of nationalism.
To the traditionalist, the cosmopolitan is as arrogant as he is ignorant, failing to understand the bonds of loyalty and tradition that make life worth living. Anchored in a particular place at a particular time, heir to and guardian of a particular tradition and way of life, the traditionalist can claim to know something about human nature that eludes the grasp of the cosmopolitan as he gazes about from his lofty perch.
Both sides have a point. The cosmopolitan really can profit from an exposure to new insights and forms of expertise, gleaning experience from diverse interactions across the globe that he can apply constructively to the problems of his own society. And the traditionalist really is liable to defend absurdities — or worse, deeply entrenched injustices — on the basis that "this is the way we do things here." But the cosmopolitan has his blind spots as well. Rootless and detached, he often fails to recognize the true springs of human action the way the traditionalist does. Confident that he has discovered the best solutions to human problems, the cosmopolitan does not understand that for the traditionalist, what matters most is not whether something is best, but whether it is ours.
A healthy society must be able to speak confidently in the first-person plural, as the traditionalist insists. Yet it cannot be closed to the new insights that the cosmopolitan can offer. The fusion of these perspectives, rare though it may be, makes possible a robust and creative empiricism, a genuine openness to learning from the diversity of human experience while affirming that the lessons learned will not bear fruit unless they first take root within each people's, and each culture's, way of life.
One such fusion occurred three centuries ago in the grey northern hinterlands of Britain, with consequences that continue to shape the world today. It was called the "Scottish Enlightenment," and its very name betrays its oddity. After all, most proponents of the Enlightenment aspired to join a movement of savants without borders, a transnational European republic of letters. Thus there is something a bit subversive in speaking of a specific and distinctively national Enlightenment. Yet the Scottish Enlightenment was undeniably national, albeit refracted through the larger national identity of Great Britain, which Scotland had just joined. As such, it was stubbornly empirical, rejecting the airy abstractions of the philosophes of Amsterdam, Geneva, and Königsberg in favor of real human experience.
The unique character of the Scottish Enlightenment was the product of the jarring collision between cosmopolitanism and traditionalism that took place as an essentially pre-modern Scotland was dragged kicking and screaming into the modern world following its shotgun marriage to England in the hated 1707 Act of Union. The great men of the Scottish Enlightenment spoke English, French, and German, had been fêted in Paris salons, and corresponded with illuminati all over Europe. Yet they had also experienced firsthand the last gasp of traditionalist Scotland, when the unwashed Highland clans with their claymores and rosaries swarmed the streets of Edinburgh during Bonnie Prince Charlie's 1745 rebellion. Highland Scotland was not simply out of step with the avant-garde of European society at the time; it was positively backward, still trapped in a largely medieval mold of feudal hierarchies, grinding poverty, and clan violence. Life in the Highlands was poor, nasty, brutish, and short. But, pace Thomas Hobbes, it was not solitary.
The literati who assembled at the universities of Glasgow, Edinburgh, and Aberdeen in the decades following 1745 knew the darkness of this traditionalist world as well as the benefits of modern cosmopolitan civilization. But they also knew better than to wholly deny the importance of the rootedness that had given meaning to the Highland way of life. In developing a philosophy of the modern world, the Scots sought to build a bridge between the immense horizons that their commercial age was opening up to them and the settled traditions that form the backbone of any stable civilization. In the process, they wrestled with the conditions and virtues that make political society possible, and the fractures that can emerge when a nation's reach exceeds its grasp.
The young American nation, a republic of republics, took shape in the shadow of these debates, and can still find within them the diagnosis of — if not the cure for — its present ailments.
THE "SPRINGS OF HUMAN ACTION"
The watchwords of the European Enlightenment may have been "nature" and "reason," but the Scots were skeptical of both. The best way to understand human nature, they reasoned, was to study the tale of human history. Deeply impressed by the achievements of Isaac Newton in the physical sciences, the Scots dedicated themselves to a similar empiricism in the social sciences. History, David Hume wrote in his 1748 Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding,
[furnishes] us with materials from which we may form our observations and become acquainted with the regular springs of human action and behaviour. These records of wars, intrigues, factions, and revolutions, are so many collections of experiments, by which the politician or moral philosopher fixes the principles of his science.
One of the first principles they revealed was that reason played far less a role in human affairs than we might like to imagine. Human beings, they concluded, are creatures of passion.
But just which passions predominated? Although the ever-cynical eye of Hume could see little but self-interest when he plumbed those "springs of human action," most of his compatriots argued that in making this claim, he was being untrue to his own empiricist principles. An honest observation of human nature throughout history, they believed, refuted both the dark egoism of a Hobbes and the naïve altruism of a Jean-Jacques Rousseau. While many Enlightenment figures had sought to reduce all of morality to either self-interest or rational duty, most of the Scots pushed back, insisting that human moral experience was generated by the dynamic tension between selfishness and selflessness.
In fact, argued Hume's distant cousin Lord Kames in his 1760 work, Principles of Equity, where would we be if it were otherwise? Pure selfishness would leave us in a Hobbesian nightmare; that was clear enough. But pure selflessness would be just as bad — for, if each of us were always trying to serve the interests of others, how would we know whom to prioritize? Kames envisioned a reductio ad absurdum of a world trapped in a paralysis of generosity, like two men before an open door perpetually insisting "no, after you!" Instead, Kames argued, our very selfishness is to some extent evidence of God's wise construction of the moral order, since it enables us to reduce our altruism to manageable proportions, establishing defined circles of moral responsibility rather than leaving us trapped in idealistic and sterile benevolence to all mankind.
Kames's friend Adam Smith went further, arguing that the very duality of self-interest and altruism was misconceived. It was the essence of moral experience, Smith insisted, to bridge this divide, for we do not experience ourselves as individuals. Instead, we live vicariously through one another, laughing contagiously when others around us do, smiling subconsciously when we see someone else merry, and feeling our blood boil when we witness an injustice. This was the essence of Smith's Theory of Moral Sentiments, his 1759 work that earned him much more acclaim than did The Wealth of Nations within his lifetime. As he summarizes in the first chapter:
Our joy for the deliverance of those heroes of tragedy or romance who interest us, is as sincere as our grief for their distress, and our fellow-feeling with their misery is not more real than that with their happiness. We enter into their gratitude towards those faithful friends who did not desert them in their difficulties; and we heartily go along with their resentment against those perfidious traitors who injured, abandoned, or deceived them.
Human beings, in short, are absolutely and irreducibly social — and not simply in the sense that we depend upon one another for survival and thus agree to work and live together to achieve our shared ends. For Smith, it is much more fundamental than that. We depend upon one another to exist as human beings, to experience ourselves as agents within the world, to construe the world in terms of good and evil. We live in community because if we did not, we would go mad. The family or kinship network, then, not the individual, is the basic building block of society. And where kinship ties are strained or disrupted, we instinctively seek to re-create them in some new community of belonging — not because we need others for the advantages they can provide us, but because we experience others as extensions of ourselves.
Indeed, the Scottish Enlightenment was itself a working representation of this theory, for it was above all a friendship network — a community of constant conversation. Most of its leading thinkers corresponded with one another, debated philosophy together, and reviewed drafts of each other's works; they helped secure employment for each other, drank claret at Edinburgh clubs together, and even stayed at one another's homes. They did all this despite sometimes harboring grave disagreements with one another over their various convictions and conclusions.
Valuable as such networks might be, they are unlike the most fundamental forms of human sociality in that they are (at least somewhat) chosen rather than given. The basic condition of human life, the Scots recognized, is not one in which individuals freely consent to enter into relationships of obligation with one another. On the contrary, we simply find ourselves in such relationships from birth. The Scots did not hesitate to speak of "rights" in their legal and political philosophy, but for most of them, rights were only intelligible as the converse of duties. And duties were only intelligible in the context of the offices and roles we occupy in human society — many of them completely unchosen.
DEBUNKING THE SOCIAL CONTRACT
This recognition had profound consequences for the Scots' approach to political philosophy, through which they employed the tools of empiricism to devastating effect against that father of empiricism, John Locke.
Locke's political philosophy, unlike his natural philosophy, was built on a highly abstract hypothetical account of what the foundations of political society theoretically should be, with little regard to what they actually were in historical practice. Even worse were the speculative writings of Rousseau, which Smith's friend Adam Ferguson was to dismiss with contempt in his celebrated 1767 "Essay on the History of Civil Society." "[H]e substitutes hypothesis instead of reality," wrote Ferguson of Rousseau, "and confounds the provinces of imagination and reason, of poetry and science." Ferguson found the method of such inquiries shockingly unempirical and unhistorical: "[I]n framing our account of what man was in some imaginary state of nature, we overlook what he has always appeared within the reach of our own observation, and in the records of history."
If we do confine ourselves to our own observation and the records of history, what do we find? According to Ferguson, we see that human beings are always, and always have been, united in societies of some kind or other:
If both the earliest and the latest accounts collected from every quarter of the earth represent mankind as assembled in troops and companies; and the individual always joined by affection to [one] party, while he is possibly opposed to another...these facts must be admitted as the foundation of all our reasoning relative to man.
For Ferguson, a man so unfortunate as to grow up alone, apart from all society, would be as poor a specimen of human nature as "the anatomy of the eye which had never received the impressions of light, or that of an ear which had never felt the impulse of sounds." Any methodological individualism is out of the question, since for man, "the society appears to be as old as the individual, and the use of the tongue as universal as that of the hand or the foot."
Some contract theorists might retort by distinguishing between society, which they concede to be primordial, and political society, which requires a conscious contract or covenant whereby individuals pledge themselves to cooperation and subordination. But the Scots could not see this from their studies of history or contemporary primitive societies, either. Rather, they found that political institutions developed through a gradual process, from the war chiefs of the hunter-gatherer bands, to the patriarchs and village assemblies of nomadic peoples, to the property rights and judicial institutions of agricultural communities, and finally to the formal rule of law and representative institutions of commercial societies. Smith had laid out such a narrative in his 1763 Lectures on Jurisprudence, adapting the theories of Kames. But even this four-stage theory, in Ferguson's eyes, was too schematic for the messiness of real history, and liable to lull us into the complacency of thinking ourselves further removed from primitive society than we really are. Humans, he wrote, "proceed from one form of government to another, by easy transitions, and frequently under old names adopt a new constitution. The seeds of every form are lodged in human nature; they spring up and ripen with the season."
If social-contract theory was of little use in explaining the origins of human society, for the Scots, it was even worse in its professed goal of explaining the contemporary basis of political authority. In "Of the Original Contract," a seminal essay published in 1748, Hume laid out the main lines of critique that would be taken up and repeated by most of the leading lights of the Scottish Enlightenment in the following decades. According to Hume, while we might imagine scenarios in which, during the earliest foundations of society, men born free and independent from one another associated together into bands and tribes, it was obvious that every member of modern society was born into relations of obligation and dependence. More significant was the fact that most members of modern society seemed to consider this obvious as well:
[W]e find, every where, princes, who claim their subjects as their property, and assert their independent right of sovereignty, from conquest or succession. We find also, every where, subjects, who acknowledge this right in their prince, and suppose themselves born under obligations of obedience to a certain sovereign, as much as under the ties of reverence and duty to certain parents. These connexions are always conceived to be equally independent of our consent, in Persia and China; in France and Spain; and even in Holland and England, wherever the doctrines above-mentioned have not been carefully inculcated.
In short, unless they'd been lucky enough to read Locke, most of mankind seemed to believe they owed allegiance to authorities because the authorities had a right to demand it. This simple empirical observation, Hume reasoned, posed a serious problem for Locke's theory: "Consent" implies some conscious act of will, but the vast bulk of mankind is quite clearly conscious of no such thing. To tell these individuals that they had in fact freely consented to such authorities was to make a mockery of the word. Some thinkers took refuge in a notion of "tacit consent," suggesting that every member of a society who chooses not to emigrate thereby consents to give it his allegiance. But, as Hume retorts:
Can we seriously say, that a poor peasant or artizan has a free choice to leave his country, when he knows no foreign language or manners, and lives from day to day, by the small wages which he acquires? We may as well assert, that a man, by remaining in a vessel, freely consents to the dominion of the master; though he was carried on board while asleep, and must leap into the ocean, and perish, the moment he leaves her.
To be sure, the majority of citizens did in fact consent to the authority of their rulers, but in precisely the opposite order of that which Locke asserted: "They imagine not, that their consent gives their prince a title: But they willingly consent, because they think, that, from long possession, he has acquired a title, independent of their choice or inclination."
Even in modern democratic societies, where Locke's theories have been "carefully inculcated" far and wide, Hume's observations remain strikingly apt. The average American consents to be governed by the Constitution because he is brought up to believe that it is the authoritative basis of law, order, and freedom in his country. Whatever consent he might occasionally refuse to particular representatives or particular laws, it is almost always on the basis of his prior allegiance to this longstanding, overriding authority.
THE TIES THAT BIND
Even if political authority rarely originates in consent, it can collapse when such consent is withdrawn, or when the imaginative sense of allegiance evaporates. The important question for the Scots, then, was not what formed political society, but what sustained it. All agreed that the answer was not coercive force. When a government resorted to force, as the British were soon to do against the American colonists, this was usually an admission that its authority had already crumbled.
For Hume, government is sustained simply by opinion — either opinion of interest or opinion of right. In every society, he observed, there are some who obey the established laws because they reason that it is in their best interest to do so; even if the laws are imperfect, they wager that any step into anarchy is liable to do them significantly more harm than good. The stronger and more pervasive basis of authority, however, is opinion of right. Where citizens are convinced that those in power have a right to rule, they will often cheerfully accept even immense inequalities, or at least grudgingly submit to them as part of the way things are. And how is it that people come to be convinced of such a right? Custom and habit. The longer a regime or constitution has been in place, the more liable people are to acknowledge its authority simply because it is there. On this basis, Hume was a staunch conservative: Stability begets a conviction of authority, and authority begets more stability. The more frequently men tinker with the laws, then, the less weight they will have with those they govern.
Smith echoed Hume's arguments in his Lectures on Jurisprudence. After offering a clinical dissection of the contradictions of social-contract theory, he concluded that our sense of allegiance is in fact founded on either "general utility" (Hume's "opinion of interest") or "authority" (Hume's "opinion of right"). Just what is authority? It may be "very difficult to define," he admitted, "but every one has an idea of it in his mind." It arises, Smith thought, from at least four different factors:
1st, superiority of age and of wisdom which is generally its concomitant. 2dly, superior strength of body...3d, superior fortune also gives a certain authority...[all things being equal]; and 4thly, the effect is the same of superior antiquity when everything else is alike.
This last, he reasons, is perhaps the strongest factor of all, especially as it tends to intensify the opinion of interest. The longer a dynasty, administration, or set of laws has been in place, the more evident it appears capable of defending itself, and the more foolish and self-defeating resistance is thought to become. This is not to say that Smith or Hume denied a right of resistance when government transforms into tyranny; such a right they considered absolutely undeniable. But they also considered it absolutely undefinable. At some level of injustice, a society will instinctively sense that authority is at an end, but for Smith and Hume, this will be less the breach of some precisely defined legal threshold than the sudden breaking of the bonds of affection.
Such bonds were at the center of Ferguson's theory of political society. Although he did not deny the vertical bonds that united governors and the governed, Ferguson was most interested in what he considered the more fundamental horizontal bonds of mutual loyalty that sustained a sense of belonging in a community or nation. Indeed, he wondered whether, in the strongest political communities, opinion of interest played any role at all:
Men are so far from valuing society on account of its mere external conveniencies, that they are commonly most attached where those conveniencies are least frequent; and are there most faithful, where the tribute of their allegiance is paid in blood. Affection operates with the greatest force, where it meets with the greatest difficulties: In the breast of the parent, it is most solicitous amidst the dangers and distresses of the child: In the breast of a man, its flame redoubles where the wrongs or sufferings of his friend, or his country, require his aid. It is, in short, from this principle alone that we can account for the obstinate attachment of a savage to his unsettled and defenceless tribe, when temptations on the side of ease and of safety might induce him to fly from famine and danger.
In Ferguson's mind, the experience of shared adversity, and shared triumph over adversity, is the strongest of all political bonds. And if hardship and struggle forge patriotism, it follows that a certain distrust of foreigners is the unavoidable flip side of love of one's own:
The titles of fellow-citizen and countryman, unopposed to those of alien and foreigner, to which they refer, would fall into disuse, and lose their meaning. We love individuals on account of personal qualities; but we love our country, as it is a party in the divisions of mankind; and our zeal for its interest, is a predilection in behalf of the side we maintain.
While we are often apt to blame wars on the conniving of self-interested merchants and politicians, in reality they are more likely to be stirred up by the visceral animosities of the common people, in defiance of all rational interest. The humanitarian pacifist who would try to extinguish these international rivalries is liable to find that he has at the same time dissolved the bonds of national amity:
Without the rivalship of nations, and the practice of war, civil society itself could scarcely have found an object, or a form...we may hope to instil into the breasts of private men sentiments of candour towards their fellow-creatures, and a disposition to humanity and justice. But it is vain to expect that we can give to the multitude of a people a sense of union among themselves, without admitting hostility to those who oppose them. Could we at once, in the case of any nation, extinguish the emulation which is excited from abroad, we should probably break or weaken the bands of society at home, and close the busiest scenes of national occupations and virtues.
Despite their own subsumption into the larger British nation in 1707, the Scots were deeply skeptical of the cosmopolitan internationalism that dominated much Enlightenment thinking. As we saw above, Kames had argued that the limited horizons of human benevolence were actually a blessing, rather than a curse, for humanity. Love is only useful when it has a determinate object, and love of all humanity is a mere slogan, not a moral program. "[T]o make universal benevolence our duty," Kames observed, "without distinction of persons or circumstances, would in effect subject us to the absurd and impracticable duty, of serving at the same instant an endless number and variety of persons; which, instead of promoting the general good, would evidently be detrimental, by unqualifying us to perform any part."
Smith echoed these thoughts in his Theory of Moral Sentiments, rolling his eyes at "those whining and melancholy moralists who are perpetually reproaching us with our happiness, while so many of our brethren are in misery." Such men, according to Smith, seem to think that
[c]ommiseration for those miseries which we never saw, which we never heard of, but which we may be assured are at all times infesting such numbers of our fellow-creatures, ought...to damp the pleasures of the fortunate, and to render a certain melancholy dejection habitual to all men.
This seems to be the effect of modern media, which, by constantly parading before our weary gaze all the trouble in the world, renders us by turns agitated and demoralized, but rarely of much use in carrying out our actual moral duties. These duties are owed to those to whom we find ourselves — perhaps by choice, but more often by birth — bound in ties of mutual obligation and affection.
By our instincts of moral imagination, Smith observed, we find ourselves living vicariously through those with whom we are habitually connected, and this imagination can be extended to a unit as large as that of the nation, but not to all mankind. Thus we find that "[w]e do not love our country merely as a part of the great society of mankind — we love it for its own sake, and independently of any such consideration." Smith thanked the divine architect of our moral order for ensuring that "the interest of the great society of mankind would be best promoted by directing the principal attention of each individual to that particular portion of it which was most within the sphere both of his abilities and of his understanding."
Indeed, it was precisely the mutual hostility of nations like France and England, refined into a kind of half-friendly rivalry of commercial competition, that had done more than anything else to better the lives of both Frenchmen and Englishmen, fostering the continual improvement of laws and institutions, commerce and invention. As Ferguson keenly observed:
The emulation of nations proceeds from their division....Athens was necessary to Sparta in the exercise of her virtue, as steel is to flint in the production of fire; and if the cities of Greece had been united under one head, we should never have heard of Epaminondas or Thrasybulus, of Lycurgus or Solon.
THE SHADOW OF EMPIRE
There was, however, an uncomfortable corollary to this analysis in the context of late 18th-century Britain. As a small backwater nation of clans and kirks had been swept up into the worldwide British commercial empire, the Scottish literati mused on what these vastly enlarged horizons might mean for the health and stability of their society. Most had been willing to undergo the painful expansion of their moral imaginations necessary to begin thinking of themselves as "North Britons" rather than mere Scotsmen. But something as fragile as political loyalty could not be endlessly elastic.
Writing in 1752, Hume had been sanguine about the prospects for an expanded political society. Whereas many writers had argued that it was impossible to sustain a participatory republican government across a large country, he daringly proposed that the opposite might be the case. "Though it is more difficult to form a republican government in an extensive country than in a city," he admitted, "there is more facility, when once it is formed, of preserving it steady and uniform, without tumult and faction." Democracies were turbulent, and within a small republic it was easy for warring tribes, guided by the rapidly changing tides of public opinion, to tear the government asunder. "In a large government," however,
which is modelled with masterly skill, there is compass and room enough to refine the democracy, from the lower people, who may be admitted into the first elections or first concoction of the commonwealth, to the higher magistrates, who direct all the movements. At the same time, the parts are so distant and remote, that it is very difficult, either by intrigue, prejudice, or passion, to hurry them into any measures against the public interest.
But there was a darker side to this enlargement, which became increasingly apparent as the British nation sprawled into a global British Empire after the Seven Years' War from 1756 to 1763. Writing in 1767, Ferguson warned that though it might be true that violent political passions tended to cool with greater distance, so too did the warm bonds of amity and loyalty that helped sustain political order. "[T]he greatest blessing the public can bestow on its members, is to keep them attached to itself," he wrote, and this attachment is liable to weaken the more a society tries to extend its dominions. Empire is often pursued with the promise of securing greater peace and prosperity to all within its bounds, but in Ferguson's telling, these material blessings generally come at a grave moral cost: "[A]lthough we may lament the abuses which sometimes arise from independence, and opposition of interest; yet, whilst any degrees of virtue remain with mankind, we cannot wish to crowd, under one establishment, numbers of men who may serve to constitute several."
Ferguson saw in the experience of the Roman Empire a salutary warning. For a long while, it was able to expand the boundaries of its republic without undermining the bonds of mutual loyalty among its people. But at a certain point, the expansion passed a threshold "ruinous to the virtue and the happiness of mankind." At that point, the ordinary Roman citizen realized the new possessions meant nothing to him, aside from the steady diminution of his own political relevance; they were of value only to the wealthy and powerful, who could monopolize the spoils of conquest or the profits of trade. As ordinary citizens lost their sense of loyalty to a common project, they could no longer be governed freely, only despotically: "Hence the ruinous progress of empire; and hence free nations, under the shew of acquiring dominion, suffer themselves, in the end, to be yoked with the slaves they had conquered."
Fusing the insights of the great Montesquieu on the separation of powers within nations and the balance of powers between nations, Ferguson concluded his essay with this extraordinary warning:
In every state, the freedom of its members depends on the balance and adjustment of its interior parts; and the existence of any such freedom among mankind, depends on the balance of nations. In the progress of conquest, those who are subdued are said to have lost their liberties; but from the history of mankind, to conquer, or to be conquered, has appeared, in effect, the same.
A NATION OF SHOPKEEPERS AND THE NEW REPUBLIC
Ferguson's warning was to be put to the test sooner than he wished. Even as he wrote, the ties of loyalty that bound together the sprawling British Empire were fraying.
In the aftermath of the Seven Years' War and the expulsion of the French from America, the American colonies found themselves no longer linked to the mother country by the bonds of amity forged by the threat of a common and ever-present enemy. At the same time, their British masters, newly awakened to the possibilities of an empire they had acquired almost by accident, ended the century-long policy of benign neglect that had allowed the precise terms of their union with the colonies to remain veiled in studied ambiguity.
Although Smith did not support the right of the colonies to rebel in an abstract sense, he, like his friend Edmund Burke, cared about realities, not abstractions. And the reality was that the Americans had finally come to recognize the fact that they were being milked for commercial benefit by a cabal of merchants. "To found a great empire for the sole purpose of raising up a people of customers," he fulminated in The Wealth of Nations, "may at first sight appear a project fit only for a nation of shopkeepers. It is, however, a project altogether unfit for a nation of shopkeepers; but extremely fit for a nation whose government is influenced by shopkeepers." Once this became clear, neither opinion of interest nor opinion of right was likely to reconcile the colonists to the authority of Parliament. And if opinion would not sustain the union, force was certainly not likely to do so either.
Smith reasoned that under the circumstances, it would be best for all parties if Britain were to voluntarily give up her authority over the colonies and establish a league of friendship and trade between two independent nations. War, in any case, would mean senseless shedding of the blood of "those whom we wish to have for our fellow-citizens" — and for no real material advantage. Smith was quite confident that Britain's own interest would be better served by abandoning as much as possible her costly imperial pretensions. As he acidly remarked in the closing sentence of The Wealth of Nations, Britain should "endeavour to accommodate her future views and designs to the real mediocrity of her circumstances."
Once Britain finally did so and the colonies were left to go their own way, it was the latter's turn to debate the benefits of small republics and great nations. Struck by his reading of Hume in 1787 and by the crippling factions of the fledgling American confederation, James Madison would champion Hume's theory of the blessings of an extended republic in the debates of the Constitutional Convention, arguing that in a larger territory, "a common interest or passion is less apt to be felt and the requisite combinations less easy to be formed by a great than by a small number." He would famously elaborate on this argument in Federalist 10.
Anti-Federalist opponents of the Constitution found this to be of little comfort, knowing that where "a common interest or passion" cannot be felt in a political body, it is apt to lurch into despotism to secure obedience by force. High Federalists like Alexander Hamilton and George Washington, too, understood that the new national government could only succeed as a limited one if it managed to not only secure the interests, but also capture the affections of the people.
Ferguson would not have been surprised to find that the nucleus of nationalist sentiment in America took shape among military men who had served together in the Continental Army. After all, as he had once written, "[a]ffection operates with the greatest force, where it meets with the greatest difficulties," hence men "are there most faithful, where the tribute of their allegiance is paid in blood." For many decades, Americans failed to reconcile the tension between the virtues of a small republic and an extended one; it was only after the tribute of their allegiance was paid many times over, in the blood of the Civil War, that it was in some measure resolved. Yet with the further extension of the nation into something of an empire in the 20th century, the newly forged bonds of nationhood were strained anew.
Today, America finds herself undecided on whether she is a nation, an empire, or a loose confederation of warring tribes. Like their ancestors more than two centuries ago, many in middle America have awakened to the realization that, for decades, they have been exploited for commercial benefit by a nation whose government has been influenced by shopkeepers of unprecedented size and influence. No longer united by an opinion of interest, and with opinion of right dwindling, we are apt to wonder whether Hume's and Madison's speculations about the rosy prospects of an extended republic were misguided.
Yet a return to the small traditionalist communities of the past is no more possible or desirable for us than a return to the Highland clans was for Smith or Ferguson. To find our way forward again, we must draw inspiration anew from our Scottish ancestors, making the most of the enlarged perspective that the broader horizons of our global role have opened to us while recognizing that they will be of little use if they cannot be grafted onto the communities and ways of life that sustain our shared loyalties.