Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Millar, John (1735-1801)

MILLAR, JOHN (1735–1801), professor of law, was born 22 June 1735 in the parish of Shotts, Lanarkshire, of which his father, James Millar, was minister. His mother was a daughter of Archibald Hamilton of Westburn, Lanarkshire. The elder Millar became minister of Hamilton in 1737; and the son was sent to live with his uncle, John Millar, who lived on the small family estate of Millheugh, Blantyre, near Glasgow. The boy was taught to read by his uncle, and in 1742 was sent to the grammar school of Hamilton. In 1746 he went to Glasgow, where he became a friend of William Morehead, afterwards of Herbertshire, the uncle of Francis Jeffrey. When a little older he lived in college chambers, and dined with his mother's first cousin, William Cullen [q. v.] He became intimate with the famous James Watt (1736–1819) [q. v.], and attended Adam Smith's lectures upon moral philosophy. Millar's description of these lectures is given in Dugald Stewart's ‘Life of Smith.’ Smith long afterwards showed his esteem for his hearer by sending his cousin, David Douglas, to study under Millar at Glasgow (Stewart, Works, x. 11–13, 80).

Millar had been intended for the ministry, but he had some scruples as to the necessary profession of faith; and his uncle John, who had been a writer to the signet, encouraged him to take to the law. After completing his course at Glasgow he was for two years in the family of Henry Home, lord Kames [q. v.], to whose son he was tutor. He there made the acquaintance of David Hume. Millar became a firm believer in Hume's metaphysical doctrines, and though they were politically opposed, Hume placed his nephew, David Hume (1757–1838) [q. v.], under Millar's charge in 1775 (Burton, Hume, ii. 479–81). Millar became an advocate in 1760, and made a promising start in his profession, but he sacrificed any prospects which he might have had by accepting next year the professorship of law at Glasgow, to which he was appointed, ‘through the interest of the guardians of the Duke of Hamilton and at the recommendation of Lord Kames and Adam Smith.’ The pay was small, but he had just married Miss Margaret Craig, and preferred a small certainty to the chances of professional success. His duties did not at first preclude him from attending circuits, and he had a reputation for his influence with juries in defending criminals. He was also frequently employed in arbitrations in commercial cases (Life, pp. lxxxvii–lxxxix). He devoted himself, however, to his professorial duties and rapidly increased the attendance of students, upon whose fees the salary chiefly depended. He had soon forty students of civil law in place of four or five, and a greater number attended his lectures on government. His predecessor, Hercules Lindsay, had lectured in English, in spite of a protest from the Faculty of Advocates, and Millar attracted students by adhering to this precedent. Unlike many Scottish professors, he never wrote his lectures, but spoke from notes, and continued to modify his lectures materially until his death. He gave half the session to lectures upon civil law, and half to lectures upon jurisprudence generally. He gave additional courses upon government, upon Scottish law, and for some years before his death upon English law. His books (see below) gave the substance of some of his lectures. A general account of the whole course is given by his biographer. He appears to have been a very animated lecturer, commanding the interest of his hearers, and uncompromising in asserting his principles. He took pupils in his house; and on becoming professor was elected a member of the ‘Literary Society’ of Glasgow, founded in 1752. He practised speaking there regularly, and became one of the leading orators; especially maintaining Hume's theories in opposition to Reid, who held the professorship of moral philosophy at Glasgow from 1763 to 1796. Their controversies did not disturb their friendship.

Millar's whiggism made him conspicuous at a time when Scotland was chiefly in the hands of the tories. He did not scruple to express his hopes that the American struggle might end in the independence, rather than in the conquest of the colonies. He was in favour of parliamentary reform, though he opposed universal suffrage as leading to corruption. He held by the Rockingham whigs and afterwards by Fox. He taught that the power of the crown had made alarming advances, and held that the triumph of Pitt and George III in 1784 had dealt ‘a fatal blow to the British Constitution.’ His ‘Historical View,’ published in 1787, was dedicated to Fox, and intended in part to meet the toryism of Hume's history. He was an ardent supporter of the agitation against the slave-trade. He sympathised with the French revolution at its start, and, though he lamented the catastrophes which followed, continued to oppose the war and the ‘crusade’ advocated by Burke. He was a zealous member of the ‘Society of the Friends of the People,’ and incurred much odium in consequence. He is said to have refused a ‘lucrative place’ in order that his independence of an administration whose measures he condemned might not be doubtful (ib. p. xcviii). Jeffrey when at Glasgow was forbidden by his father to attend Millar's lectures on account of their whig tendency.

Millar spent much of his time at the small farm of Whitemoss, near Kilbride, about seven miles from Glasgow, which was given to him by his uncle, John Millar. He was there a neighbour of James Baillie, the professor of divinity, with whose children Joanna [q. v.] and Matthew [q. v.], his own children became intimate. Upon the death of his father and his uncle in 1785 he became proprietor of Millheugh, and here, as at Whitemoss, amused himself by planting and cultivating. He visited England twice: in 1774, when he was at London, Oxford, and Cambridge; and in 1792, when he stayed in London, heard debates, and made the acquaintance of Fox.

Millar was an athletic and temperate man, and appeared to retain his health and spirits, but was weakened by an illness in 1799, and after recovering incautiously exposed himself, and died of pleurisy at Millheugh 30 May 1801.

Millar lost a daughter by consumption in 1791, and his wife in 1795. His eldest son, John, a promising young man, went to the bar, and married the daughter of Dr. Cullen. He published a book upon the ‘Law relating to Insurances’ in 1787. Ill-health and the unpopularity of the whiggism which he inherited from his father induced him to emigrate in the spring of 1795 to America, where he died soon afterwards from a sunstroke.

Three sons and six daughters survived their father. Of these James became professor of mathematics at Glasgow; the second, William [q. v.], is separately noticed; the third was a writer to the signet. One daughter was married to James Mylne, professor of moral philosophy at Glasgow, and another to Dr. John Thomson, by whom she was mother of Allan Thomson, professor of surgery at Edinburgh. He left his manuscripts to his eldest son, to Professor Mylne, and to John Craig, his nephew, by whom some were published in 1803.

Millar was a man of strong sense and singularly sanguine temperament; vivacious and fond of argument, consistent in his opinions, and a severe judge of the consistency of others. He was well read in English literature, had strong social and domestic sympathies, was playful and fond of children, and was eminently capable of attracting the affection of friends and pupils, though a little formal in his manners and reserved in expressions of feeling. Among his intimate friends was John Moore [q. v.], the author of ‘Zeluco,’ and his pupil, the Earl of Lauderdale, upon whose economical speculations he had considerable influence, and to whom he paid an annual visit. There is a medallion portrait of Millar by James Tassie in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh.

Millar's works are:

  1. ‘The Origin of the Distinction of Ranks, or an Enquiry into the circumstances which gave rise to influence and authority in the different Members of Society,’ London, 4to, 1771. A fourth edition was published at Edinburgh in 1806, with a ‘Life’ by John Craig. This interesting book shows the influence of Montesquieu, and especially of Hume, whose essay upon ‘The Populousness of Ancient Nations’ is similar in design. J. F. Maclennan says of it (Studies in Ancient History, 1871, p. 420 n.): ‘The reader will find an admirable review of the facts connected with this matter and with gynaikocracy in Professor Millar's “Origin of Ranks,” a work in which Bachofen [author of ‘Das Mutterrecht’] has almost been anticipated, and that by a treatment of the facts in every sense strictly scientific.’ It was translated into German at Leipzig in 1772, and into French by Dominique Joseph Garat, minister of justice, in 1792.
  2. ‘Historical View of the English Government from the Settlement of the Saxons in Britain to the Accession of the House of Stewart,’ 1787; 2nd edit. 1790. A third edition, with additions from his manuscripts, was published in 1803, in 4 vols. 8vo, with the addition to the previous title, ‘To which are subjoined some Dissertations connected with the History of the Government from the Revolution to the Present Time.’ The first two volumes are the original work. A fourth edition appeared in 1818. The book had a high reputation, and was praised by Jeffrey in the ‘Edinburgh Review,’ iii. 154–81.

Both books were greatly admired by James Mill (Bain, Mill, p. 56), and John Stuart Mill acknowledged that there was great similarity between some of Millar's historical speculations and Guizot's (Macvey Napier, Correspondence, p. 510). Hallam, in the preface to his ‘Middle Ages,’ says that the history is pleasing from its ‘liberal spirit,’ but that Millar is too fond of ‘theorising upon an imperfect induction, and very often upon a total misapprehension of particular facts.’ It was, however, almost the only book upon the subject when Hallam wrote.

[Life, by John Craig, prefixed to Origin of Ranks, 1806; Scots Mag. 1801, pp. 527–8; A. Carlyle's Autobiog. 1860, p. 492; Life of Lord Minto, 1879, ii. 26; Edinburgh Review, iii. 154–81, iv. 83–92 (articles by Jeffrey upon the ‘History’ and the ‘Life’).]

L. S.

Dictionary of National Biography, Errata (1904), p.198
N.B.— f.e. stands for from end and l.l. for last line

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403 i 18 Millar, John (1735-1801) for Allan Thomson read Dr. John Thomson, by whom she was mother of Allan Thomson