The Solution To Slavery Is … More Slavery?

by John Holbo on May 27, 2018

I’m reading about the Scottish Enlightenment. Among other things, How the Scots Invented the Modern World: The True Story of How Western Europe’s Poorest Nation Created Our World and Everything in It [amazon] by Arthur Herman. It’s pop history by a right-winger with a perch at the Hudson Institute. It has an (ahem) boosterish quality, per the title. (As one might say: Schopenhauer’s The World As Will and Representation is rather big on will.) But shameless marketing in the title department seems not to have infected the insides to a hopeless degree. I feel I can factor out the neoliberalism in the frame to extract facts. (Anyone say this book is hopeless bullshit? If so, how so?)

After this, James Buchan, then probably back into good ol’ Jonathan Israel.

Right. I’m amused by this joker, Andrew Fletcher. Christ.

Andrew Fletcher cared passionately about freedom, but it was a peculiar kind of freedom. In 1697 he had called for a compulsory universal militia, creating four camps, one in Scotland and three in England, where every young man, on beginning his twenty-second birthday, would receive military training of the most rigorous kind. “No woman should be suffered to come within the camp, and the crimes of abusing their own bodies any manner of way, punished with death.” The next year he proposed solving Scotland’s economic depression by in effect turning the Scottish peasantry into slaves, dividing up the indigent poor among the local landlords (such as himself), and giving the latter the power of life and death over their human herds.

By instinct and temperment, Fletcher was an authoritarian anarchist.

Fletcher is bitterly opposed to union with England, which he argues will turn Scots into slaves, which would be terrible.

Almost his last words were, “Lord have mercy on my poor Country that is so barbarously oppressed.” Ironically enough, he died in the oppressor’s capital, in London — on his way home from Europe, where he spent most of the years after the Union treaty. Someone had asked him when he left Scotland, “Will you forsake your country?” He answered, “It is only fit for the slaves who sold it.” How strange that the laird of Saltoun, who had once been prepared to turn a large portion of his fellow countrymen into slaves, should use that word to describe the Scots who had repudiated his retrograde vision for the kingdom. How strange, too, that a man who claimed to despise trade and traders should choose to spend so much of his life in large, cosmopolitan cities — London, Paris, Amsterdam — that were built by mercantile wealth. It was precisely that wealth which he had hoped to deny Scotland, for the sake of an abstract and austere ideal of liberty. It was that wealth which Scotland’s urban centers now enjoyed by being part of Britain, and which promised to create a new and very different Scotland.

I get it that maybe Arthur Herman has an axe to grind on Fletcher, about whom I knew not a thing before reading this. And now I know just this, plus Wikipedia.

But I do like a good, explicit ‘in order to free them, we must enslave them’ argument. Anyone want to come out of the woodwork and defend Andrew Fletcher as not the utter tool Herman makes him out to be. Quoting Wikipedia, Thomas Jefferson said: “The political principles of that patriot [Fletcher] were worthy of the purest periods of the British constitution. They are those which were in vigour at the epoch of the American emigration. Our ancestors brought them here, and they needed little strengthening to make us what we are.”

Alisdair Macintyre evidently said: “Almost alone among his contemporaries Fletcher understood the dilemma confronting Scotland as involving more radical alternatives than they were prepared to entertain.”

Oh, plain people of the internet, what should I think of Andrew Fletcher? (And Arthur Herman’s Scotland book.)



J-D 05.27.18 at 8:51 am

The only thing I can tell you about Andrew Fletcher of Saltoun is that he is the subject of The Patriot, by Nigel Tranter, prolific Scottish historical novelist.


soru 05.27.18 at 10:56 am

When he was proposing slavery for the Scottish peasantry, I don’t get the impression he was trying to make the argument that that would be good for them. It was sufficient that that would be good for him, as their owner.


BenK 05.27.18 at 11:37 am

It is possible to have a great spirit and a great insight and be almost completely wrongheaded and crushed. That seems to be the spirit of Fletcher. When everyone else was selling out against their fellow men, he called it out, named it, and opposed it. He voiced radical approaches to a problem that was going unaddressed. He pointed out the rats on the ship. When the ship went down, he mourned it, was crushed, and never realized the extent to which it would be redeemed.


Matt 05.27.18 at 12:11 pm

I don’t know much about him either, but then, Alisdair MaCintyre liked him, so we can that, at the least, he wasn’t all good.


Raven Onthill 05.27.18 at 12:16 pm

Oh, my. Yes, I know of Fletcher. He was a smart, dangerous crank (but they all were, really – modern ideas of validation of sociological ideas had not been invented yet.) Scottish historian John Robertson called him something like “the alarming Andrew Fletcher.” There is not enough about him to provide material for a good modern biography, but he looks like a grand subject for historical fiction. That mass conscription he wrote about? He called it (yes!) a “well-regulated militia” – regulated as in regular military –, as distinguished from an “ordinary and ill-regulated” militia. The early United States attempted to implement part of his model of the militia with the Second Amendment and the 1792 Militia Acts. It didn’t work.

(If you want to read a little more about Fletcher and the militia, and how the Scots influenced the militia ideal that led into the Second Amendment I self-published a short paper on this. The part that talks about Fletcher is here. An extended discussion of Fletcher’s militia ideals may be found in John Robertson’s 1985 The Scottish Enlightenment and the Militia Issue, Ch 2, available at fine research libraries around the world.)


Raven Onthill 05.27.18 at 12:23 pm

And I didn’t know that there was a novel about him! I’ll have to see if I can find it.


David Morrice 05.27.18 at 1:09 pm

There is a good biography of Fletcher: W.C. Mackenzie, Andrew Fletcher of Saltoun, although it is not that modern (1935).


Glen Tomkins 05.27.18 at 1:59 pm

First off, an appeal to the plain people of the internet is not going to get you results that are at all free of the depravity that results from society not following Fletcher’s plan of universal military training at age 22. Probably a lot of people out there who abuse their own bodies. Can’t trust what that lot thinks about the fate of nations.


Glen Tomkins 05.27.18 at 2:58 pm

Fletcher sounds to a student of US political history pretty much like a standard-issue Anti-Federalist. Since I only know US anti-federalism, and not Fletcher, I’ll just point out the similarities mentioned here.

Of course Jefferson cites him approvingly. They share a distrust and hostility towards the depravity of the city, and a faith in the sagacity and purity of at least freehold farmers. They both seem to have been cosmopolitan in their personal tastes, but that’s because they were from the better, more elevated, class of freehold farmer. Jefferson disapproved of slavery, at least in principle, but he and Fletcher were clearly not comfortable with the city at least partly because it tended to blur those class distinctions that the better sort of farmer could enjoy out in the country. So your position rests on your place at the top of a pretty steep and rigid rural hierarchy, but for any sort of companionship of anybody at all fit to associate with, you have to spend most of your time in the city with other exiles from the social desert of the countryside.

Fletcher wanted a very strong militia indeed. Universal conscription, in 1697 ,was pretty visionary. Perhaps he was led to such a stand largely as position to hold against the alternative, a strong professional military, a popular response to the “threat” posed by France’s modernization of its military. A professional military makes the City important, while the strength of a militia rests on those honest (and non-self-abusing!) yeoman farmers.

But the strongest connection between Jefferson and Fletcher is their opposition to the Act of Union. The obvious model for the United States as it sought a more perfect union, would have been an actual union, such as the United Kingdom achieved with the Act of Union. The Scottish and English parliaments voted themselves out of existence in favor of a British parliament. The 13 state legislatures might have been expected to do the same in 1789, in favor of a national legislature, but they didn’t, choosing instead to have a national legislature, but to leave the states important chunks of a divided sovereignty, including their own militias, as it added a national legislature on top of the surviving state legislatures.

Of course conservatives like this jury-rigged compromise the Anti-Federalists were able to foist on the US. They get all the modern advantages of material power provided by a large, urban, industrialized nation, but they get to attribute its success on the solid rural virtues that the heartland is able to foist on the rest of us because the system was rigged to allow their rural states a clog and veto on the national govt. We need some sort of constellation of Calhoun’s “concurrent majorities” to get anything progressive done, so of course even the most needful things don’t get done.

Jefferson and Fletcher feared that, while they were pretty big fish in the small ponds of Virginia and Scotland, they and their class would count for little in a United Kingdom or a truly united United States. They were right. Jefferson and his class, forewarned by the fate of Fletcher and his, were able to rig the system so that the US wasn’t actually a union, but left them and theirs in the driver’s seat of a nation big and cosmopolitan enough to push other nations around.


JBW 05.27.18 at 3:01 pm

I don’t know much about Fletcher, but I did read his Discourse Concerning Militias some time ago in a class taught by J.G.A. Pocock. Unsurprisingly, Pocock treated him as part of the classical republican tradition, one of the links in a chain (or series of chains) that led from Machiavelli, through people like Harrington and Neville, to Fletcher, to Jefferson (among others). This seemed convincing to me at the time. 17th century classical republicanism is highly elitist and militaristic, very much focused on cultivating virtue in young men through martial discipline, and usually implicitly or explicitly imperialist. There’s nothing inconsistent, according to that philosophical stance, in advocating mass enslavement and national independence.


Glen Tomkins 05.27.18 at 3:22 pm

As far as the “we must enslave them in order to free them” question, it really is not at all paradoxical if you understand that “them” refers to two completely different (to Fletcher) sets of people. It makes perfect sense to Fletcher to argue that those so utterly below any place in society that they live in farm country, but are starving, of course need some sort of lord and master to take them in hand. This taking in hand is of course a needful step to making Scotland strong, so that it can resist the evil blandishments of Union with England. Reduce the landless to honest servitude so that Scotland, including these serfs in their new-found proper place in society, can be free.


Lord 05.27.18 at 4:44 pm

Along the lines of Scotland for the Scots, better slaves to their own than servants to a foreign master. No surprise he would want to climb the ranks where the power resides either, as the only truly free are sovereign, freedom being ranked in distance from that.


Henry 05.27.18 at 5:07 pm

Andrew Fletcher, as filtered through the sensibilities of Edinburgh junkies.

I’ve not read the Buchan book, but I am an enormous fan of his “Frozen Desire,” which is a just wonderful book about money. His book on the Iranian revolution is also excellent.


David White 05.27.18 at 5:41 pm

I recently came up with a grand “A Ha” insight that Ayn Rand’s fantasies only make sense if one assumes employees are serfs. This post fills in details of my view with the real Andrew Fletcher who “cared passionately about freedom, but it was a peculiar kind of freedom.” Ayn Rand fans don’t care about freedom for serfs or employees, only about freedom for feudal like lords and their vassals. Rand fans don’t acknowledge that feudal economies were based on subsistence agriculture that required manual (slave?) labor of serfs, so they don’t explain how the high productivity of today’s well educated workers in prosperous regions correlates with their feudalismo world view. Their real problem is there is no correlation with their feudalismo world view.

Rand fans just go off on John Galt and guns. Perhaps John Galt could be your Andrew Fletcher defender who is not a tool. (???)


Dr. Hilarius 05.27.18 at 6:33 pm

A man for all seasons. I’m sure he’d do well in US electoral politics. Might need to tone down the death for self abuse policy however.


Raven Onthill 05.27.18 at 8:22 pm

There was also Omond’s, back in 1897. Problem with both of the Fletcher bios is that most of his papers are missing from the Saltoun Hall archive (which is now at the University of Kansas for some reason), so there’s a big gap in the record.

It is perhaps also worth knowing that he was an influence on famous figures of the Scottish Enlightenment.


LFC 05.28.18 at 1:41 am

JBW @10
Interesting. I’ve read some of Pocock’s The Machiavellian Moment. Hadn’t heard of Fletcher, as best as I can recall, before this post.

Rather characteristically, btw, J Holbo doesn’t bother to mention why he’s reading about the Scottish Enlightenment, just opens the post by declaring that he is.


LFC 05.28.18 at 2:06 am

Tried to leave a short comment in response to JBW @10 but it didn’t seem to go through into moderation. Anyway, just to say I found that comment interesting (having read a bit of Pocock).


John Holbo 05.28.18 at 4:42 am

“Rather characteristically, btw, J Holbo doesn’t bother to mention why he’s reading about the Scottish Enlightenment, just opens the post by declaring that he is.”

It’s obviously in my Scottish blood. I don’t know how to explain it any better.


John Holbo 05.28.18 at 4:43 am

Thanks for the Pocock (and sorry about slowness of comment turn-on.) I am appreciating all this wise Fletcherblogging. My Fletcherbleg is a wild success.


Whirrlaway 05.28.18 at 5:20 pm

Reduce the landless to honest servitude

Such a reduction is easily seen as an elevation, esp. if you substitute in the more neutral term “employment”. They were wrong about the need for hierarchy in alleviating poverty, but then more and better reduction to employment is still a political virtue.


Anarcho 05.28.18 at 5:35 pm

“By instinct and temperment, Fletcher was an authoritarian anarchist.”

Where do these people come from? Surely you should find out what anarchism is, before writing about it? But, then again, this has never stopped the right — or the left, for that matter — before…

Still, propertarianism does have members within it who defend voluntary slavery — like Locke. Actually, if you read Locke’s Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina you can see what Fletcher actually is — a classical liberal.


LFC 05.28.18 at 7:58 pm

Pocock discusses Fletcher’s A Discourse of Government with Relation to Militias in The Machiavellian Moment, pp. 427-32, but the discussion may not be all that intelligible without looking at some of what precedes it. (And then too, not everyone agrees with Pocock’s general perspective.)


John Quiggin 05.28.18 at 8:16 pm

@22 Agreed. And not just voluntary. Locke’s “leetmen” scheme was a hereditary form of serfdom and he was active in the African slave trade. The use of “slavery” as a term of opprobrium when referring to impositions on white property owners, while advocating and profiting from actual slavery was a common practice in classical liberalism


Raven Onthill 05.28.18 at 10:23 pm

JBW@10: you were one of Pocock’s students? I’m impressed.

And, yes, I agree that Fletcher was part of the history of classical republicanism (or civic humanism or whatever the various schools of history call it) – the evidence in the published works of the people involved in the project is strong. Fletcher’s martial idealism had another source in the cultural context of Scotland. Martial prowess was an important virtue to the Scots, living in their harsh land, and its loss was felt keenly. The seeds of republican militia idealism flourished in this ground. Fletcher, though an advocate of the martial virtues, could also be scathing about Scots martial idealism when it came into conflict with other civic virtues, and wrote, “Nor indeed can there be a thorough reformation in this affair, so long as the one half of our country, in extent of ground, is possessed by a people who are all gentlemen only because they will not work; and who in everything are more contemptible than the vilest slaves, except that they always carry arms, because for the most part they live upon robbery.”


Raven Onthill 05.28.18 at 10:26 pm

LFC@23: one doesn’t have to agree with Pocock (and I am not sure that I do) to recognize that A Discourse had a profound influence, both on Scots politics and, ultimately, the new government of the United States.


David Duffy 05.29.18 at 10:57 am

Through the magic of Google,
ties together Scotch patriotism, “Gothic liberty”, “the warlike heroic spirit of independence”, and militias, first as per Fraser, later to “gain acceptance as Britons “, to Walter Scott (who had Fletcher in his library at Abbotsford).

And maybe MacIntyre had read Banks [1898]

Of all the Scotsmen of the stormy period immediately preceding the union of the Parliaments, none appreciated more justly the significance of the new time that was then dawning than did Andrew Fletcher of Saltoun…

Posterity has associated his memory with the oft and inaccurately quoted epigram that “if a man were permitted to make all the ballads, he need not care should make the laws a nation”; if his popular fame extends beyond the reputation he has earned as the author of this saying, it is as an advocate of predial slavery and the benefactor who introduced a new ingredient for the broth-pot of the Scottish housewife in the shape of “Saltoun barley.”


Hidari 05.29.18 at 1:30 pm

As an American, I thought that the arguments:

1: We must never be slaves of the English! Slavery is awful!

2: Also, slavery is great!

Would not be wholly and completely unfamiliar to you. (CF the admiration of Thomas Jefferson


matt regan 05.29.18 at 7:29 pm

@24 As Dr. Johnson notable noted.


self 05.29.18 at 8:10 pm

The good reverend at wingsoverscotland,com might have an amusing and authentic scottish take on Fletcher.


John Quiggin 05.31.18 at 1:11 am

@28 For Locke, Jefferson and many subsequent propertarians, slavery is awful in the same sense that losing a war is awful. The point is not to abolish slavery or war, but to be always among the winners.

Comments on this entry are closed.