Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/McLennan, John Ferguson
McLENNAN, JOHN FERGUSON (1827–1881), sociologist, born at Inverness on 14 Oct. 1827, was son of John McLennan, insurance agent, of Inverness, and Jessie Ross, his wife. Educated at Inverness and at King's College, Aberdeen, where he graduated M.A. in 1849, he subsequently entered Trinity College, Cambridge, where in 1853 he obtained a wrangler s place in the mathematical tripos. Leaving Cambridge University without a degree, he spent two years in London writing for the 'Leader,' then edited by George Henry Lewes [q. v], and other periodicals. On returning to Edinburgh he was called to the bar in January 1857. He became secretary to the Scottish Law Amendment Society, and took an active part in the agitation which led to the Court of Session Act of 1868, and in 1871 he accepted the Eost of parliamentary draughtsman for Scotland. The onerous duties of the latter office he discharged for some years ably and conscientiously.
In 1857 appeared his first considerable literary effort, the article on 'Law' in the 'Encyclopædia Britannica' (8th edition). In the course of the researches into ancient institutions which it involved, McLennan was led to speculate on the origin of the curious custom of marriage by collusive abduction, which obtained in historic times, both at Sparta and at Rome, and conjectured that it was a relic of an archaic custom of marriage by actual abduction, or 'capture.' Further research led him to the conclusion that primitive society consisted of miscellaneous hordes, recognising no ties of kinship, practising promiscuous sexual intercourse and female infanticide, and thus compelled to prey upon one another for women. Hence was established within each horde a custom of having sexual intercourse with none but alien women (exogamy), which acquired a religious or quasi-religious sanction, and survived into historic times. In course of time uterine—but at first only uterine—kinship came to be recognised, and with its recognition abduction gave place to the more genial practice of the reception of paramours by women under the maternal roof, which, from its prevalence among the Nairs, McLennan terms Nair polyandry. This among the more progressive races was succeeded by polyandry of the type found in Tibet, where several brothers have a wife in common who accordingly passes into their family, and this again by patriarchal monandry, polygamous or monogamous according to circumstances.
In support of this very bold hypothesis McLennan marshalled a considerable mass of evidence in an ingenious but somewhat confused and fragmentary essay, entitled 'An Inquiry into the Origin of the Form of Capture in Marriage Ceremonies,' Edinburgh, 1865, 8vo. Though anticipated to some slight extent by the Swiss jurist Bachofen (see Das Mutterrecht. Eine Untersuchung über die Gynaikokratie der alten Welt nach über religiosen und rechtlichen Natur, Stuttgart, 1861, 4to), McLennan's work was the result of altogether independent thought and research, and of the importance of the facts which for the first time it brought together there has never been any question. On the other hand, the theory of the evolution of marriage which he sought to base upon them has met with little favour, and may be said to be now generally rejected by sociologists. It gave, however, an immense impetus to research, and has recently received some support from Professor Robertson Smith's investigations into primitive Arabian institutions (see Kinship and Marriage in Early Arabia, Cambridge, 1885, 8vo).
Want of leisure combined with ill-health to frustrate McLennan's long-cherished intention of rewriting 'Primitive Marriage.' He continued, however, his investigations into the subject until shortly before his death. In 1866 he discussed the Homeric evidence in two articles on 'Kinship in Ancient Greece' in the 'Fortnightly Review' (April and May), and contributed a slighter paper on 'Bride Catching' to the 'Argosy' (June). He broke entirely new ground in a brief article on 'Totemism' in the supplement to 'Chambers's Encyclopaedia' (1868}, followed by a series on the same subject, entitled 'The Worship of Animals and Plants,' in the 'Fortnightly Review' for October and November 1869 and February 1870. Under the title 'Studies in Ancient History' he issued in 1876 a reprint of 'Primitive Marriage,' and the essays on 'Kinship in Ancient Greece,' with some new matter, viz. an examination of the American ethnologist Morgan's theory of 'The Classificatory System of Relationships;' a brief paper on Bachofen's ' Mutterrecht,' another on Sir John Lubbock's hypothesis of 'Communal Marriage,' and an elaborate essay on the 'Divisions of the Ancient Irish Family.' To the 'Fortnightly Review' he contributed in May 1877 an article on 'The Levirate and Polyandry,' an attempt to deduce the former institution from the latter, which provoked a reply from Mr. Herbert Spencer, and another on 'Exogamy and Endogamy ' in the following June.
To clear the way for a comprehensive work which he projected on the evolution of the idea of kinship, McLennan began in 1880, but did not live to complete, a critical examination of Sir Henry Maine's patriarchal theory, with the view of proving it to be an historical anachronism. His health, however, was already thoroughly undermined by consumption, and while wintering in Algeria he suffered from repeated attacks of malarial fever. He returned to England in the spring of 1881, and died, after some months of complete prostration, at his house, Hawthorndene, Hayes Common, Kent, on 16 June.
McLennan received from the university of Aberdeen the degree of LL.D. in 1874. He married twice: (1) on 23 Dec. 1862, Mary Bell, daughter of John Ramsay McCulloch [q. v.], by whom he had one child, a daughter, still living; (2) on 20 Jan. 1875, Eleonora Anne, daughter of Mr. Francis Holles Brandram, J.P. for the counties of Kent and Sussex, who survives him.
The fragment on the patriarchal theory, edited and completed by McLennan's brother Donald, who had helped in its composition, was published in 1885, under the title 'The Patriarchal Theory, based on the Papers of the late John Ferguson McLennan,' London, 8vo. Maine's death in 1888 relieved him from the obligation of answering its very acute and trenchant criticism. For the projected work on kinship McLennan left considerable materials, the arrangement of which, begun by Donald McLennan, but interrupted by his death in 1891, has since been continued by Professor Robertson Smith, and carried far towards completion. A reprint of 'Studies in Ancient History,' with notes by David McLennan, appeared in 1886, London, 8vo.
Besides his extremely original and suggestive work in sociology, McLennan published in 1867 an excellent 'Memoir of Thomas Drummond, R.E., F.R.A.S., Under-Secretary to the Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland, 1836 to 1840,' Edinburgh, 8vo [see Drummond, Thomas, 1797–1840].
[Scotsman, 20 June 1881; Athenæum, 25 June 1881, 30 May 1885; Academy, xx. 10; Cambr. Univ. Cal. 1853; The Patriarchal Theory, Pref.;. Encycl. Brit. 9th edit. 'McLennan; ' private information. For criticisms of McLennan's sociological theories see Maine's Dissertations on Early Law and Custom, pp. 221 et seq.; Lubbock's Origin of Civilisation, 5th edit pp. 102 et seq.; L. H. Morgan's Ancient Society, pp. 500 et seq.; Herbert Spencer's Principles of Sociology, pp. 641 et seq.; Letourneau's L'Évolution du Mariage et de la Famille, ch. vi.; Westermarck's Origin of Human Marriage, ch. vi. vii.; Starcke's Primitive Family (International Scientific Series).]