Adam Ferguson lived in Scotland from 1723 to 1816, but he was concerned with those principles which affected all nations at all times. Although he was in some ways opposed to the American Revolution of 1776, his observations of social behavior were influential among the Founding Fathers inasmuch as he formulated the principles of a republic with freely-elected representatives.
Ferguson noted that social patterns arise organically, over long periods of time, and are not readily changed by those who would artificially redesign society. People in general are not inclined to accept social patterns imposed, suddenly, by those who have calculated them for whichever purpose.
Knowingly or not, Ferguson may have isolated one of the variables which attempts to explain the mystery of why the American Revolution succeeded and the French Revolution failed. The American Revolution was an attempt to change government, not society; the French Revolution attempted to change society, and to change it at a deep and fundamental level. He wrote:
Men, in general, are sufficiently disposed to occupy themselves in forming projects and schemes: But he who would scheme and project for others, will find an opponent in every person who is disposed to scheme for himself. Like the winds that come we know not whence, and blow whithersoever they list, the forms of society are derived from an obscure and distant origin; they arise, long before the date of philosophy, from the instincts, not from the speculations of men. The crowd of mankind, are directed in their establishments and measures, by the circumstances in which they are placed; and seldom are turned from their way, to follow the plan of any single projector.
The great social edifices which sustain civilizations and constitute some of humanity’s greatest achievements arise, not by means of calculation and design, but rather through organic growth, through trial-and-error, and through humanity’s blindness and history’s foresight.
When Ferguson notes that societies allow great revolutions without intending change, it may be that he is alluding to events like the end of the Roman Republic and the end of the Weimar Republic.
In the former case, Augustus-Octavian destroyed the republican political structure with the claim of reestablishing the traditional Roman social values; in the latter case, Hitler’s National Socialists ravaged the governmental structure while claiming to preserve or reinstate an ancient nationalistic ethnic heritage.
Every step and every movement of the multitude, even in what are termed enlightened ages, are made with equal blindness to the future; and nations stumble upon establishments, which are indeed the result of human action, but not the execution of any human design. If Cromwell said, That a man never mounts higher, than when he knows not whither he is going; it may with more reason be affirmed of communities, that they admit of the greatest revolutions where no change is intended, and that the most refined politicians do not always know whither they are leading the state by their projects.
Great turning-points in history have often been made unwittingly. Leaders who’ve made decisions are often unable to see the effects of those decisions. “The law of unintended consequences” has become a standard refrain in the canon of common wisdom. Leo Tolstoy famously wrote that:
A king is history’s slave. History, that is, the unconscious, general, hive life of mankind, uses every moment of the life of kings as a tool for its own purposes.
The Weimar Republic enacted a “hate speech” law against anti-Semitic utterances; little did the leaders of the Weimar Republic, from 1920 to 1933, foresee that Hitler’s National Socialists would use the precedent established by those laws - that the government can define and regulate speech - to begin its foul plan to eventually murder millions of Jews.
Woodrow Wilson, whose career from 1902 to 1921 was defined by his thorough racism, would be surprised to learn that the principles of his “progressivism” would be used a century later to not only give “equal opportunities” and a “fair chance” to African-Americans, but even in some circumstances to favor them over other races.
Kings, prime ministers, presidents, premiers, and even dictators often feel their hands forced by circumstances in some decisions. In other decisions they may feel free to decide, but in some cases that feeling might a be a delusion, and they are still being swept along in the current of history, as much as their subjects.