Intellectual historians commonly group Voltaire, Edward Gibbon, William Robertson, and David Hume as the four greatest 18th-century historians. If limited to only one of these authors, we would do well to begin with Hume. For one thing, Hume is the only thinker in history who has achieved world-class status as a philosopher and as an historian. We are inclined to think of him today as a philosopher, but in his own time he was famous as an historian. He is still listed in the British Museum as “David Hume, Historian.” Hume’s History of England became a classic in his lifetime; it went through over 160 posthumous editions—some in printings of 100,000 copies.
The History of England is a six-volume work that begins with Roman Britain and ends with the Glorious Revolution of 1688. But Hume wrote it backward, beginning with the period that most interested him, that of the Stuart kings: James I, Charles I, Charles II, and James II. The Stuarts were a Scottish family, and Hume was a Scotsman. Like the rest of his countrymen, he had to come to terms with how the Scottish kings had been received in England. Mary Stuart was executed by Queen Elizabeth; a rebellion occurred against Charles I, who was executed for treason; and another revolution occurred in 1688 in which James II was driven from the throne and Catholics were forever forbidden to hold the crown. Even in Hume’s day the legitimacy of the Protestant regime was still a question for many. Hume’s main purpose in writing about this period was to provide a more comprehensive account—one that would do justice to both sides, explain the constitutional crisis that had run for some 40 years, and reconcile his countrymen to the constitution of liberty that had emerged from the conflict.
As he continued the history back to Roman Britain his focus expanded, revealing two larger stories: the rise of constitutional liberty in Britain and the gradual rise of civilization in Britain after the collapse of Rome. Both stories contain critiques of Whig self-conceptions dominant in the England of Hume’s time. English Whigs viewed themselves as unique in having a constitution of liberty, and much of the world agreed. Voltaire and other French intellectuals greatly admired the British constitution. Whigs offered two reasons for this achievement. The first was the theory of the ancient constitution, in which liberty is a feature of the English national character going back to the Saxon forests. The history of England has been the story of how unpatriotic factions—the Normans, the Tudors, and lately the Stuart monarchs—have tried to subvert it. Every conspiracy, however, was blocked by patriotic heroes who have preserved the ancient constitution down to the present, where new factions now threaten it.
Hume sought to go beyond this destructive historiography of conspiracy by calling attention to what Hayek would later call the principle of “spontaneous order”: the idea that social and political orders emerge as the result of individual human actions but are not intended by anyone or by any faction. This principle had been sketched out earlier by Spinoza and Mandeville, but it was refined and given wider application by Hume and Adam Smith. The market price of apples is an objective fact, but it was not intended by anyone or by any faction. Although Hume applied the principle of spontaneous order to the whole of human life, including morals, aesthetics, language, constitutional law, and civilization, he was not dogmatic about it. He never denied the reality of heroic individuals to effect dramatic changes within the traditions they had inherited. He presents Alfred the Great as an instance of just such a hero: “[F]ortune alone threw him into that barbarous age.”
Applying the idea of spontaneous order to constitutional history, Hume tried to show that the historiography of the “ancient constitution” is false. Four distinct constitutions are discernible in English history, and the connection between them is not descent from an original, but a complex story of gradual change, violence, circumstances, and the unintended results of human action. Order emerges, but it is not the result of defeating a conspiracy to usurp an ancient constitution. So Hume’s story of the English constitution is one of discontinuity, not continuity. This meant that the Stuart kings were not the conspirators that English Whig historians made them out to be. Though flawed in certain respects, they were defending the constitution they had inherited and had a duty to defend. Social and other changes were occurring, which neither the king nor the Puritan fanatics recognized.
Hume, however, did not see the Civil War as a Manichaean struggle between fanatical Puritans and a virtuous monarch. Though unsparing in his criticism of Puritan fanaticism, he acknowledges that, without it, certain features of the 18th-century constitution of liberty would not have arisen. This does not morally justify Puritan fanaticism or the execution of Charles I. Rather, it is an instance of insights running throughout the History: that history is not merely the story of a struggle between good and evil; that goods are often inseparable from evils; and that the tragedy of history is not that evil drives out good, but that good often drives out good.
This complex moral-historical judgment was well expressed by Hume in a letter responding to the question of whether he was a Whig or Tory. He replied that his view of “things” was Whig, but that his view of “persons” was Tory. By “things” he meant the objective constitution of liberty. This he accepted along with the recognition that Puritan fanaticism helped bring it about. But as far as moral character goes, the king and the best of the Royalists were better subjects for emulation. The upshot of this was to teach the British people that the constitution of liberty is not a durable substance that has withstood conspiracies for over a thousand years. It is not old; it is new, unintended, and fragile.
Hume, following Cicero (whom Hume said was in his eye in all his writings), held that custom and tradition are the great guides of life. But Hume also held that custom must be “methodized and corrected” by reflection. And that is what he meant by reason: the critical reflections of a loyal and skillful participant in an inherited tradition, with all its tensions and conflicts. Hume’s famous “attack on reason” is not an attack on reason as such, but on an abstract conception of reason emancipated from all custom and tradition. It is an attack on modern rationalism. Alasdair MacIntyre was closer to the truth when he said that Hume was the last Aristotelian—although it would be better to say that he was a latter-day Ciceronian humanist.
The second reason given by Whigs for Britain’s success as a regime of liberty is the famous contract theory of John Locke. For Locke the constitution is not an ancient substance preserved by heroic patriots, but a timeless order available to all men: a rational contract freely entered into by the people to create a regime of limited government. The English constitution is not ancient; it is made by rational agents. The English are remarkable for having the character and courage actually to make such a regime, and this is what Voltaire admired. In the essay “Of the Original Contract,” Hume refuted the contract theory of government as decisively as any philosophical theory can be refuted. In the History he refuted the contract theory of the British constitution not philosophically but with a convincing narrative that reveals how the constitution evolved over time as, in large part, the unintended result of human action. And so Hume could speak mischievously of “the wisdom of the constitution, or rather the concurrence of accidents.”
The story of the rise of constitutional liberty in Britain is part of a larger story: the rise of civilization in Britain after the fall of Rome. Hume teaches that the rule of law is essential to the progress of civilization. From the rule of law comes security; from security comes curiosity; from curiosity comes the development of the arts and sciences, and these, he thinks, make possible higher moral refinements in law and character. At intervals in the History Hume sums up the progress each age has made in science, the arts, philosophy, law, and economic well-being. But Hume did not believe in a doctrine of inevitable progress, as did his friend Turgot and as do “progressive” thinkers down to our time, who still talk of being on the “right” or “wrong” side of history.
If anything, Hume thought civilization might contain the seeds of its own destruction. As people become more civilized, they become more reflective. First a barbarous people speak a language correctly and innocently without any self-reflective knowledge of its grammar or syntax. As they become civilized, they learn to abstract the structure of the language and hold it up to contemplation. The same thing occurs in other practices. Over time, these abstract objects of contemplation come to be seen as more real than the practices from which they are abstractions. As people become more reflective, they become more philosophic. Philosophy is the ultimate form of reflection, because through it, the philosopher can conceive of himself as autonomous and entirely emancipated from the authority of all traditional practices. As such the philosopher is capable of imposing maxims and laws a priori out of his own radical freedom, undisciplined by the prejudices of common life.
If it cuts itself off from the practical wisdom of a loyal and skillful participant in a practice, the philosopher’s critique is bound to be arbitrary and, hence, destructive. Moreover, the destruction will not be seen as a failure of the critique but as an evidence that the practice is failing to measure up to the ideal. So as civilization becomes more reflective, it becomes more philosophic, and every practice becomes susceptible to deconstruction by the hubris of the philosophic act. Hume described his own age sardonically as “this philosophic age”—the first age in which the philosophic act would be the dominant form of culture. This was quite different from the Greek and Roman worlds, in which the founding hero was the character of the age, or from Christendom, in which the saint was the character of the age. Hume saw that ideologues, or what he called “false philosophers,” would be the characters of the modern age, and he presented Rousseau as an exemplar. In The Treatise of Human Nature (1739) and in Essays, Moral, Political, and Literary (1741-52), Hume worked out the first systematic critique of modern ideologies, a critique that is unsurpassed and from which we still have much to learn.
It is this recognition of a corrupt philosophical consciousness at the heart of modern culture that makes Hume’s history of the Puritan revolution unique. Hume was unusual in viewing the religious conflicts of the 16th and 17th centuries as the result of corrupt philosophical theorizing about sacred tradition. Indeed, he went so far as to say that Puritanism resembled more a philosophical system than a religion. Why? Because in abandoning sacred tradition, the Puritan was left to determine for himself whether he had received a direct illumination from the divine. The hubris of philosophical autonomy (that the philosopher is the sole judge of the correctness of his thought about the real) is isomorphic with Puritan self-certification of divine illumination.
Hume also predicted that the more radical forms of Protestantism would eventually become secular and purely philosophic. Contemporary writers tend to view modern ideologies such as Marxism as “religions,” as if only religion could be the source of such absurdity. Hume carefully distinguished between religion as sacred tradition and religion as shaped by philosophical theorizing. Modern religion, he said, “is nothing but a species of philosophy.” So modern “religious wars” have their source not in religious tradition as such but in corrupt forms of the philosophical act mingled with religion. And ideological movements such as Marxism, communism, and liberalism are not “religions” but corrupt forms of the philosophic act structuring mass passions.
This insightful understanding of modern ideological conflicts enabled Hume to see the Puritan revolution not as a moral struggle—an understandable resistance to royal tyranny—but as a world-inverting spiritual and intellectual pathology. When the French Revolution occurred, 13 years after Hume’s death, many in Britain viewed it as a laudable moral act on behalf of liberty. Burke estimated that two thirds of the Anglican clergy were favorably disposed. But having read Hume’s account of the Puritan revolution, Burke was able to view the French Revolution not as a limited moral resistance to tyranny but as a world-inverting ideology that had nothing to do with reform. And he perceived this at the very beginning, before the Revolution had clearly exhibited those characteristics.
Burke was able to see what Hume’s history of the Puritan revolution had prepared him to see. So did the French in 1789. Hume’s History had been available in France for over 30 years and was popular. There were more editions in France than in England. Before, during, and after the Revolution, both the French right and the French left used Hume’s history of the Puritan revolution to understand the events they were living through. The parallels frequently appeared in political speeches, pamphlets, and sermons: The Jacobins were Puritan ideologues; Louis XVI was Charles I; Robespierre or Napoleon was Cromwell. The Catholic right called Hume the “Scottish Bousset.” French reviews of the History frequently praise its philosophic impartiality, and this reputation allowed valuable lessons to be drawn. A French reviewer said that it was “one of the finest pieces of history and philosophy that exists in any language, and perhaps the most impartial and most reasonable work that has come from the hand of man.”
Louis XVI, who had met Hume when a boy and was a long-time student of the History, became obsessed with the parallels. Some have argued that, in trying to avoid repeating the errors of Charles, who forcibly resisted encroachments, King Louis exhibited a weakness that invited aggression and his own downfall. His secretary records that upon receiving the death sentence, he asked for the portion of Hume’s History pertaining to Charles I, to read during his final days. And it appears that he modeled his defense and his comportment at the guillotine on Charles I’s conduct as framed by Hume. So powerfully did Hume’s account of the Puritan revolution illuminate the turmoil in France that Joseph de Maistre could title the last chapter of his book Considérations sur la France (1796) “Extract From a History of the French Revolution by David Hume.”
The English Whig Catherine Macaulay had written a republican history of England (1763-83) to counter Hume’s. Madame Roland was instrumental in promoting it in France as a check on Hume’s counterrevolutionary influence. This was the same Madame Roland—the great champion of liberty–who, in rising to the scaffold to be executed in the name of the ideology of human rights, could lament, “O Liberty, what crimes are committed in thy name!”
Hume’s History helped to shape events in the French Revolution. Thomas Jefferson so feared its “Tory” influence in America that he banned it from the University of Virginia and replaced it with a hatchet job by John Baxter, who had abridged Hume’s History and, as Jefferson said, “changed the text to what it should be, so that we may properly call it Hume’s history republicanized.” But Jefferson (who at times suffered from inhaling the fumes of ideology) had utterly misread his man, for Hume (to the dismay of his contemporaries) supported secession of the colonies as early as 1768—before the idea had even occurred to Jefferson. The History remained popular with Americans nonetheless. A reviewer of a new edition in the 1840’s could exclaim that to say Hume’s History is “not entitled to our favorable regard is like saying that Niagara is not a great spectacle or George Washington not a great patriot.”
From its appearance in 1754 down to the 1890’s, Hume’s History was continuously in print. Young Winston Churchill learned English history from an abridged edition of it known as “The Student’s Hume.” It went out of print just as the aggressive, “progressive” ideological style of politics that Hume was the first to criticize systematically became the fashion. Today, the History is again being read, having been republished in 1983 by Liberty Fund.
I have stressed the philosophic side of the History—its story of the rise of civilization and the rule of law in Britain—but Hume does not neglect the moral evaluation of character. “The advantages found in history seem to be of three kinds,” he wrote, “as it amuses the fancy, as it improves the understanding, and as it strengthens virtue.” The latter, he thought, is the most important. Poets paint virtue in charming colors, but “they often become advocates for vice” as well. Philosophers, through world-inverting theorizing, easily end up denying “the reality of all moral distinctions.” Historians “have been, almost without exception, the true friends of virtue, and have always represented it in its proper colours, however they may have erred in their particular judgments of particular persons.” As an instance he takes Machiavelli who, when writing as a philosopher, treats “poisoning, assassination and perjury, as lawful arts of power,” but, when writing as an historian, shows a keen “indignation against vice,” and “a warm approbation of virtue.” For this reason, among others, Hume thought that history, rather than philosophy, poetry, or fiction, should be at the core of an educated person’s library.