David Hume’s History of England was one of the most successful literary productions of the 18th century. It became a classic in his lifetime and was published continuously down to 1894, passing through at least 167 posthumous editions. The young Winston Churchill learned English history from an abridged edition known as “The Student’s Hume.” Yet in the early 19th century, Thomas Jefferson made efforts to ban it from the University of Virginia and to replace it with John Baxter’s expurgated version of the work—what Jefferson called “Hume’s history republicanized.” “This single book,” he told John Adams in 1816, “has done more to sap the free principles of the English Constitution than the largest standing army.” What Jefferson found intolerable was Hume’s subversion of the theory that English liberty is the preservation of an ancient constitution and his argument that the doctrine of natural rights is a philosophical fiction that distorts and subverts political order.
What Jefferson did not and could not have known (because he did not have the letters Hume wrote from 1765 until his death on August 25, 1776) is that Hume was an ardent supporter of American independence. He took this radical position as early as 1768, before the idea of a complete break had occurred to most Americans, including Jefferson. And he came to this conclusion without invoking the philosophical superstition of natural rights or the self-congratulatory whiggish narrative of ancient constitutionalism.
Hume’s radical position on American independence shocked his friends. The Edinburgh literati were solidly pro-government. Even the “friends of America,” Burke, Wilkes, Barre, Shelburne, Fox, Dartmouth, and Pitt, though sympathetic toward American claims, sought to keep the Americans within the British state. On the issue of American independence Hume stood quite alone among the major British thinkers. In agony, Hume refused his old friend Baron Mure’s request to write a letter on behalf of the county of Renfrewshire advising the King to take strong measures against the Americans. “Besides,” Hume informed him in October 1775, “I am an American in my principles, and wish we would let them alone to govern or misgovern themselves as they think proper.” Don Livingston is a professor of philosophy at Emory University.
What is surprising about Hume’s position is that it seems inconsistent with his strong opposition to the republican “Wilkes and Liberty” movement that racked England off and on from 1763 to 1772. John Wilkes, an engaging libertine and protege of William Pitt, was convicted of seditious libel in 1763 for satirizing the King’s too early conclusion of Pitt’s Seven Years’ War with France. He fled the country and was declared an outlaw. Returning in 1768, he boldly stood for Parliament from the county of Middlesex in the environs of London, and turned himself in. He won the election, but it was not recognized by Parliament. Though in prison, Wilkes was elected three more times and expelled three times. He played to the mob, and it seemed to Hume and others that the government, already weak, was in danger of collapsing.
Behind the farce of elections, riots, and demagoguery were two issues of civil liberty that gave the cry of “Wilkes and Liberty” some plausibility: the government’s right to issue “general warrants” (warrants against unnamed persons) and the rights of electors to send their own representatives to Parliament. These were issues of “English liberties” with which the colonists were readily sympathetic. “The Sons of Liberty” at the Whig Tavern in Boston, which included John Adams, sent gifts to Wilkes, and one of their members, William Palfrey, wrote in 1769 that “the fate of Wilkes and America must stand or fall together.” Counties and towns in the colonies were named after Wilkes. Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, was named after him and Isaac Barre (another “friend of America” and, incidentally, a friend of Hume). The colony of South Carolina voted £1,200 to help with Wilkes’ legal expenses.
The apparent inconsistency in both supporting American independence and rejecting “Wilkes and Liberty” was well conveyed by Hume’s biographer J.Y.T. Greig: “How could the same man, and at the same time, be both Edmund Burke and George III? How could he defend the Colonists in North America for their resistance to the arbitrary power of King, ministers, and venal House of Commons, and yet attack the Old Whigs, the Patriots, the Wilkites, and democratic radicals of every sort for trying to resist the same agencies at home?” Hume’s position, however, was not inconsistent but was the result of a coherent philosophical and historical account, gained over a lifetime, of the emerging ideal of liberty in European civilization and especially in Britain.
Hume was a lifelong republican, and in the essay “Idea of a Perfect Commonwealth,” he even sketched out an ideal republic which had a considerable influence on the federalism of Madison and Hamilton. But Hume did not think that monarchy was an illegitimate form of government. The civilizing forces of modernity had improved the character of monarchies and republics so that property and the rule of law were about as secure, he thought, in the “absolute” monarchy of France as in republics. Whether a modern state should be monarchical or republican was, for Hume, an open question. In the ease of Britain, however, he was convinced that constitutional monarchy would, for some time, be the best arrangement. And it was, in part, for this reason that he opposed the Wilkes movement, which contained subversive republican themes. Indeed, the British constitution already contained a strong republican element, and Hume thought that, should monarchy collapse in Britain, the republic that would emerge would resemble more the oppressive republic of Cromwell than a regime of ordered liberty. “Such Fools are they,” he wrote his nephew in 1775, “who perpetually cry out Liberty: and think to augment it, by shaking off the Monarchy.”
Just what kind of republic Britain might become was intimated in the phenomenon of William Pitt, who had framed a vision of a great mercantile empire based on an invincible British naval force. Neither the young George III nor the indolent Whig magnates shared this vision, but it had enormous appeal to the commercial classes centered in London. Pitt, by tying it to eloquent speeches about British “Liberty” and French “Slavery,” was able to touch nationalistic sentiments and endow the vision with a certain moral grandeur. The empire began to take shape with the Seven Years’ War, largely conceived and engineered by Pitt himself. We may think of this as the first world war, insofar as it was a scene of coordinated engagements fought all over the globe. French sea power received a blow from which it never recovered, and when the smoke cleared, Britain possessed Canada and had increased its empire east and west. But George III ended the war before Pitt’s plan was complete. This threw Pitt into bitter opposition, and he turned to his power base: the commercial interests centered in London. It was to this popular audience outside Parliament that Pitt’s speeches in Parliament were directed, prompting Samuel Johnson’s quip that whereas Walpole was a minister given by the King to the people, Pitt was a minister given by the people to the King.
John Wilkes was a protege of Pitt and had joined him in opposition. It was his satirical treatment of the King’s pacifist policy toward France and of the Scottish Lord Bute’s corrupting influence on the young King that drew the charge of seditious libel. Wilkes’ arrest and conviction led to protests among the London commercial interests who had supported Pitt’s war policies. It was this audience to which Wilkes appealed upon his return as an outlaw, and it was this audience that four times sent him to Parliament and was outraged each time he was expelled. During the nearly decade-long “Wilkes and Liberty” riots, there was dark talk of overthrowing the monarchy. The King and his ministers were openly insulted not only by the populace but by the mayor of London and other leading officials. On one occasion, 500 constables were needed to escort the King to Parliament.
London was clearly radical and republican in its sentiments and, in Hume’s view, had become a kind of republic within the realm which threatened to topple the monarchy and dominate the whole. Hume was opposed to this for a number of reasons. The republic that would emerge would be a vast mercantile republican empire centered in London and founded on Pitt’s policy of commerce by war. Hume was opposed to this for a number of reasons.
First, he had argued in his philosophical and historical writings against governments comprehending a vast territory, or what were called in the 18th century “empires.” “Extended governments,” he said, “soon become absolute” and a “large government is accustomed by degrees to tyranny.” Further, he thought that republican empires were more oppressive than monarchical. The reason is that the King has an interest in treating his subjects as equals. Republics, however, require homogeneity and majority rule. The “people” are sovereign in a republic. When a republic takes on the form of empire, a distinction must be made between the true “people” and the provinces. Such a government “will be sure to contrive matters, by restrictions on trade, and by taxes, so as to draw some private, as well as public, advantage” from the provinces.
Hume compares the oppressive treatment of Corsica, when it was under the republic of Genoa, with the milder treatment it received after being conquered by the French monarchy. Closer to home is the oppression of Ireland by Britain. Strictly speaking, Britain is not a republic, but the republican element has so hedged in the monarchy as to make it virtually one. The oppression of Ireland, Hume thinks, is especially remarkable because “being in good measure, peopled from England,” one would expect it to receive “better treatment than that of a conquered province.” He thought the same was true of the American colonies.
A republican mercantile empire tends toward centralization and consolidation of all independent political life. All powers gravitate to the capital with the inevitable tendency to absolutism. “Enormous cities,” he wrote, are “destructive to society, beget vice and disorder of all kinds, starve the remoter provinces, and even starve themselves, by the prices to which they raise all provisions.” This natural tendency of mercantile empires is made worse by the late 17th-century discovery of public credit, a practice Hume adamantly opposed and about which he wrote a brilliant “public choice” type criticism in the essay “Of Public Credit.” One effect of public credit is that it enriches the power and privileges of the city at the expense of the provinces. And in the case of republics or limited monarchies, the “immense greatness” of cities “under a government which admits not of discretionary power, renders the people factious, mutinous, seditious, and even perhaps rebellious.” This observation was published in 1752, four years before the outbreak of Pitt’s Seven Years’ War. The nation was left with an unprecedented public debt and a vast mercantile empire to protect from a humiliated France, which meant further wars and more debt. It was to pay for this debt that Parliament turned to the colonies as a permanent source of revenue. The expanding empire and the cost of financing it had increased the power and independence of London beyond what Hume could have imagined in 1752, when he had already judged that “the head is undoubtedly too large for the body.”
Far from being inconsistent, then, Hume’s support for American independence and his rejection of “Wilkes and Liberty” are two aspects of the same criticism of the British polity. Hume defended the integrity of provincial life as the cradle of moral character. He opposed the ever-increasing centralization and consolidation demanded by the modern state. The commercial interests centered in London, which was the base of support for Pitt and Wilkes, were the hub of a vast mercantile empire conducted by war and financed by public debt. Hume opposed big cities, big government, empire, mercantile wars, and public credit. His solution was to reduce the size of all these enormities by dismantling the empire east and west and by following a policy of free trade. In July 1768, when “Wilkes and Liberty” was in full swing, Hume entertained a fantasy that ties together the themes just mentioned: “These are fine doings in America. O! how I long to sec America and the East Indies revolted totally & finally, the Revenue reduc’d to half, public Credit fully discredited by Bankruptcy, the third of London in Ruins, and the rascally Mob subdu’d.” Over a year later, the same fantasy appears in a letter to Strahan: “Notwithstanding my Age, I hope to sec a public Bankruptcy, the total Revolt of America, the Expulsion of the English from the East Indies, the Diminution of London to less than a half, and the Restoration of the Government to the King, Nobility, and Gentry of this Realm.” Hume’s strong opposition to empire was shared by Francis Hutcheson and Adam Smith, the other founders of the Scottish Moral Sentiment school of ethics, but that is another story.
He did not think that American independence would much affect British manufactures. “A forced and every day more precarious Monopoly of about 6 or 700,000 Pounds a year of Manufactures, was not worth contending for,” and Britain could “preserve the greater part of this Trade even if the Ports of America were open to all Nations.” Not only was war unprofitable, Hume did not believe that it could be won; or if it could, that the Americans could be held by anything but a scorched-earth policy and a reign of terror which a liberty-loving regime such as Britain could neither justify morally nor afford. It is worth quoting in full Hume’s sketch of the barbarous path that Britain would have to follow in subduing the colonists: “Arbitrary Power can extend its oppressive Arm to the Antipodes; but a limited Government can never be upheld at a distance, even where no Disgusts have interven’d: Much less, where such violent Animosities have taken place. We must, therefore, annul all the Charters; abolish every democratical Power in every Colony; repeal the Habeas Corpus Act with regard to them; invest every Governor with full discretionary or arbitrary Powers; confiscate the Estates of all the chief Planters; and hang three-fourths of their Clergy. To execute such Acts of destructive Violence twenty thousand Men will not be sufficient; nor thirty thousand to maintain them, in so wide and disjointed a Territory.”
This was the path a more ruthless Lincoln would follow, with better success, two generations later in coercing the Southern states (whose economics depended on free trade) back into the high-tariff, protectionist, New York-Chicago industrial axis known as the “American System,” i.e., Henry Clay’s union of big government with big business. From an economic point of view, the Southern case was stronger than that of the colonies. The new British taxes were not heavy, and there was widespread support for keeping them reasonable. Indeed, the famous tea tax was so contrived that, even with it, the colonist paid less for tea than the English. The colonies seceded not because of exploitation but because of the prospect of it. The South seceded because of both. Most American exports came from the South, which exported about three-fourths of what it produced. According to antebellum Northern economists, the South accounted, at times, for three-fourths of federal revenue, which contained a surplus most of which a Northern majority appropriated in order to improve its industrial infrastructure. The North could absorb only a small part of what the South produced. The result was a steady flow of wealth from the South to the North. Even worse. Southern trading partners whose manufactured goods were effectively shut out were compelled to look for staples elsewhere, thereby depressing Southern wages.
A form of consolidated mercantilism more severe than anything generated by the London of Pitt and Wilkes triumphed when the army of Northern Virginia was finally brought to bay at Appomattox. The South was not only pinned to the Union with bayonets, its social and political order was totally destroyed in a manner similar to what Hume predicted would happen to the colonies in any successful attempt by a “free state” to coerce them back into the British Union. In addition to 12 years of military occupation, plundering, and ideological “Reconstruction,” the tariff was kept at around 40 percent for all but two years until Woodrow Wilson was elected President; and Southern industrial development was discouraged by discriminatory commercial regulations such as the pricing of steel and freight charges that discriminated against Southern manufactures. The South had a flourishing economy in 1860. The Confederate States had the third largest economy of any nation on the European or American continent. It led every nation in the world in per capita railroad mileage except the North. Under discriminatory trade and taxing policies, the South became a colony of a Northern industrial republican empire. As the North industrialized, the number of farms during the period up to 1930 steadily decreased. In the South, the number actually increased. But these were tenant farms, offering little more than a form of serfdom. In 1860, some 80 percent of farms in the Deep South were operated by owners; by 1930 only 37 percent were owned, and most of these were heavily mortgaged. Many of the unjust regulations leading to these conditions were finally declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in the 1940’s.
These were just the sort of discriminations that Hume said a republican empire would contrive “by restrictions on trade, and by taxes, so as to draw some private, as well as public, advantage from their conquests.” Indeed there is a way in which Hume’s political philosophy predicts the collapse into civil war of the sort of regime the United States had become by 1860.
In his essay “Idea of a Perfect Commonwealth,” Hume argues against the traditional doctrine that republics can exist only in a small territory such as a city-state. On the contrary, he believes that the best republic would be an extended one, and he sketches out a national regime composed of “county republics” similar to the “ward republics” of Jefferson’s ideal regime. Hume’s extended republic is not inconsistent with what he said against large government over a vast territory. Government of this sort he calls “empire,” and the extended republic falls considerably short of that. He limits it to the size of England or France. However, the confederation of American states in 1787 was an empire. And everything he wrote on politics points to an argument against consolidating a vast political order of that sort into a single nationalist regime. Insofar as inferences can be drawn from political principles, it is reasonable to think that Hume would have supported the Articles of Confederation as a solution to the problems of macro political order and that he would have been an Antifederalist in 1787.
Every worthwhile theory of the ideal state contains a story about how it will collapse. Hume fixes on two distempers in modern politics which, if not checked, will subvert the liberty of the extended republic. One is ideological fanaticism, and the other is the tendency of modern states to unite war and commerce into a project of imperial expansion. To counter this latter tendency, Hume wrote into the constitution of the extended republic “a fundamental law against conquests.” He warned that “extensive conquests, when pursued, must be the ruin of every free government; and of the more perfect government sooner than of the imperfect; because of the very advantages which the former possess above the latter.” As the extended republic expands, two contrary tendencies are generated: one toward secession and the other toward an oppressive consolidation by one section over the others. By 1850, in less than 50 years, the United States had swollen to some 12 times its original size. It was time either to renegotiate the union of so vast a territory with such different and conflicting interests or for one ambitious and powerful section to conquer and consolidate the rest into its own image, thereby generating what Hume had theorized as the worst form of modern government: a republican empire.
When the “free state” of Britain faced this tension between secession and consolation in its far-flung territories after 1763, it chose consolidation, and the Americans seceded. Lincoln, in his refusal to receive Confederate Commissioners, and consequently in his refusal to negotiate a trade treaty and payment for federal property so that commerce would receive little disruption, also chose consolidation and coercion. Hume, however, favored secession. As he put it to his astonished friend William Strahan in October 1775: “Let us, therefore, lay aside all Anger; shake hands, and part Friends. Or if we retain any anger, let it only be against ourselves for our past Folly; and against that wicked Madman, Pitt; who has reduced us to our present Condition.” But the greatness of mind revealed in this judgment was beyond the venal House of Commons in 1775 and the equally venal Northern Republican Congress in 1860, neither of which could tolerate a policy of free trade and self-government, even though the economic prosperity of neither would have been seriously affected. But as Hume dryly observed, “republics have ambition as well as individuals.”
It is ironic that Jefferson had a hand in both of the two sources of destruction that Hume had found to be immanent in the modern extended republic: hubristic expansion and ideological enthusiasm. It was Jefferson who first expanded the republic, and he did so not by the method of concurrent majority that had been used so successfully under the Articles of Confederation to solve conflicts over the Western territories, but by a simple majority of Congress. The New England Federalists were right to insist that the Louisiana Purchase Territory and the admission of Louisiana as a state required at least a constitutional amendment, and they were right also to consider secession as a remedy. To Jefferson’s credit, it must be said that, though he was an expansionist, he was no consolidationist; from the first he was willing to consider secession as a remedy to the problem of size. Concerning the New England secession movements of 1805,1807-1809, and 1812-14, he wrote: “If any state in the Union will declare that it prefers separation . . . to a continuance in union . . . I have no hesitation in saying, ‘let us separate.'” But separation did not occur. And expansion continued, following Jefferson’s precedent of annexing territories and states by simple majority of Congress, thereby creating new constitutional majorities and minorities. To appreciate just how constitutionally dislocating this could be, imagine what would happen if the United States undertook to incorporate the provinces and states of Canada and Mexico. Would this not lead to either secession movements or greater and more oppressive consolidation? And if it is said that the hypothetical is absurd because such a regime would be too large, the Humean reply must be that the regime was too large in 1850. Hume’s extended republic is about the size of a large American state such as Virginia or New York; that 50 and more of these should be consolidated into one “indivisible” republic would have been, for Hume, a new and ingenious form of barbarism.
The second source of collapse is ideology. Jefferson had a rationalist strain that occasionally corrupted his moral and political instincts. He was fond of the philosophic superstition that there are natural rights independent of inherited social condition, a doctrine exploded by Hume in an essay entitled “Of the Original Contract.” Jefferson proudly wrote these into the Declaration of Independence. But rationalist doctrines such as natural rights arc blank checks on which can be written anything that power, circumstance, audacity, and lack of shame can establish. Lincoln took Jefferson’s doctrine that all men are created equal and “incorporated” it into the Constitution as its telos, transubstantiating it, by an act of philosophical alchemy, from a fundamental law marking out the division of authority between independent moral and political communities and a central government, created by them for limited purposes, into a consolidated nationalist regime modeled on the French Revolution. In this regime, deracinated individuals, now emancipated from their state and local authorities, could be viewed as a standing reserve of “human resources” for the millenarian project of pursuing an ever-illusive antinomic “proposition” about equality. It never occurred to Jefferson that public speech about ahistorical natural rights could be used to destroy the independent moral and political communities of the states in favor of a consolidated nationalist imperium. How to account for this philosophical innocence?
Rationalism is philosophy in its adolescence. The adolescent seeks self-determination and certainty above all else. And what rationalism yields is certainty (we hold these truths to be self-evident); but certainty attaches only to abstractions which are mere aspects of experience and not the whole. Nothing intellectually deep is self-evident. A political philosophy founded on truths self-evident to every adolescent is a politics fit only for adolescents. Unhappily, postbellum American political culture is heavily infected with rationalism in the form of an increasingly left-directed liberalism. This has reduced American political speech to a state of permanent adolescence: natural rights independent of inherited social and traditional obligations; endless “new births of freedom”; the belief that America is not a culture but an “idea,” a “proposition country”; that America is an “experiment,” or a place where government can be “reinvented”; or a country that can regularly “reinvent” itself. This strange form of self-imposed innocence is difficult for wisdom from the adult philosophical world to penetrate, wrapped, as it conceives itself to be, in the mantle of “reason.” Rather than suppress Hume’s History as an ideological threat to the young Confederation, Jefferson would have done well to study more carefully the subtle and profound criticism of rationalism contained therein.