The history of the Johnstones is an eventful story, full of lawsuits and loss and distraction. The Johnstones were unusually enterprising, and there were unusually many of them. But they lived in interesting times, and their history can provide a vista—the view of a particular extended family—of large and important historical changes. They were surrounded by the institution of slavery and by individual slaves; their successes were the outcome of economic information, which was also information about private relationships; their empire was a family enterprise, of which the consequences or multiplier effects extended far into the interior of Scotland; and it was an empire of intimate exchanges. Their history is a view of future possibilities that were lost, in the founding epoch of modern empires, and in particular of the unlikely possibility of an empire of individual (or family) enterprise: of laissezfaire when it was new.
The Johnstones and their slaves and servants lived in the origins and end of empires, and in the ruins of other possible outcomes. To be observers of the beginning of new times was to observe the old times that were coming to an end, and the other futures, likely or unlikely, that were anticipated in hope or fear. It is difficult, now, to forget the asymmetry of historical knowledge with respect to time: that historians know, as the individuals in the past into whose lives they seek to enter, did not know, how events turned out, or how the story ended. It