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David Hume
Chapter VI Hume in the Government Service


When Hume had reached the age of fifty-two he had achieved fame, and was in possession of resources which made him comparatively independent. He was settled in Edinburgh in his house in James Court, overlooking the ' Nor' Loch,' and having a wide sweep of view, stretching over the fields and across the Firth of Forth to the shores of Fife. His mind was full of the prospect of learned leisure, of quiet days, and of jovial evenings among a circle of choice friends. This was the reward of these long years of literary labour through which he had toiled unceasingly ; now he meant to enjoy well-earned rest— possibly spending his days in 'idleness and sauntering, and society'—a vision which had often floated attractively before his eyes.

But suddenly a new prospect opened in manner and form unexpected. In 1763, the Earl of Hertford was appointed Ambassador to the French Court; the secretary nominated to the Embassy was unacceptable to him, but, being highly connected, he could not be removed until a favourable opening offered. In these circumstances the Earl looked around for a secretary who should be his own nominee. To the surprise of Hume, he received from the Earl of Hertford a proposal that he should act in the capacity of secretary. Hume's picture of his future had been so different from this that after his first sense of surprise, and satisfaction with the honour done him, had passed away, he felt reluctant to move. He has thus described the situation. ' I was become not only independent but opulent, I retired to my native country of Scotland, determined never more to set my foot out of it. As I was now turned of fifty, I thought of passing all the rest of my life in this philosophical manner, when I received an invitation from the Earl of Hertford, with whom I was not in the least acquainted, to attend him on his embassy to Paris with a near prospect of being appointed secretary to the embassy; and, in the meanwhile, of performing the functions of that office' {My Own Life).

This offer of an official position is in itself matter of much interest, as shewing the impression Hume had made on the Parliamentary and official circle in the United Kingdom. To his recognised distinction as a philosophic historian, the invitation from the Ambassador was due. The Earl of Hertford had no direct knowledge of Hume; he was a nobleman of ' decorum and piety'; so that his selection of the philosophic historian, who was traditionally the philosophical sceptic, shews how high was the confidence he had, not only in his political sagacity, but also in his moral character. Hume felt the stimulating force of the selection, and with sense of the humour of the situation, he quotes with naive satisfaction the words of his friend Elliot, that 'were he to be proposed for the see of Lambeth no objection could henceforth be made to him'

Hume declined the offer when first submitted. The reasons given in My Own Life are these,—'because I was reluctant to begin connections with the great, and because I was afraid that the civilities and gay company of Paris would prove disagreeable to a man of my age and humour.' The latter clause is sufficiently comical when Hume's fondness for gaiety and gallantry are considered ; but it is the expression of feeling quite natural to him, because of his preference for a few chosen friends, with whom he could meet in unrestricted freedom.

The Earl of Hertford was generous enough to repeat his invitation, and to urge its acceptance. On this renewal of the request, Hume consented, feeling the advantage there might be in being thus roused 'from a state of indolence and sloth': and also the many attractions of residence in the French capital. Only afterwards, when occupied with preliminary arrangements, did Hume get to know why the proposal did not come in the form of immediate appointment to the position of Secretary to the Embassy; and only then did he ascertain that the Earl, in selecting him, had regard not only to his intellectual and acquired fitness for the post, but also to the possibility of his supplying important aid to his son, Lord Beauchamp, when preparing for public service.

Hume was specially fortunate in this entrance on official life. There was no capital in Europe where his writings were so well known, and his philosophical and political positions so fully appreciated as in Paris. His History had been applauded by writers so distinguished as Voltaire and Rousseau; and the sceptical bias of his philosophy found favour with the French of the period. Besides, the custom and fashion of the French capital assigned a prominent place in society to literary celebrities. Hume had, in his literary fame, his introduction to the best society; and when, besides, he appeared as the official secretary of the British Ambassador, his distinction was magnified in a manner additionally attractive. The philosopher, who felt small attraction to the society and the official circles of London, —who in the freedom and spontaneous exaggeration of his private correspondence wrote of 'the factious barbarians of London' (Letter to Robertson,—Burton, II., 178),—became ready to burst out in loud terms of admiration of the French, 'observing on what a different footing learning and the learned are here, from what they are among the factious barbarians above-mentioned.1 This tendency to playful exaggeration, appearing in familiar conversation and correspondence, tended to increase the force of feeling which marked a weakness in our philosopher.

His entrance into French society was a novel experience for Hume. It was the triumph of an illustrious author and thinker, who, notwithstanding a certain awkwardness of manner, was found to be a genial spirit and a ready wit, sensitive to the applause which French society lavishes on its favourites. The ' Great David' became one of the lions of the noted drawing-rooms of Paris. His first days in the capital, and those afterwards spent at Fontainbleau, pleased him greatly, introducing him not only to the splendours of court life, but to the lavish applause in which the refined courtiers and ladies of France indulge.

Shortly after his arrival,—-26th October 1763, he writes to Adam Smith,—' I have been three days at Paris and two at Fontainbleau, and have everywhere met with the most extraordinary honours, which the most exorbitant vanity could wish or desire.' Compliments came from the dukes and mareschals of France, and flattery of the most unrestrained form from the conspicuous ladies of Parisian society. He is at first disturbed by the little speeches which greeted him, and then he settled into the pleased feeling of one who has found entrance into a choice circle, and is welcomed on every appearance. He saw much of the grace and vivacity of the French salon; and he saw besides not a little of the vice in the midst of that refinement,—saw without approving,—and without being dragged into the vortex. There was in Hume a boyish exuberance of feeling when placed in circumstances novel and attractive. This lent piquancy to the accession of the Scotchman to the brilliant drawing-room gatherings. In the round of gaiety and display of intellectual wealth, he found intense pleasure. The more staid feeling of his reflective hours finds expression in the letter to Adam Smith from which a quotation has already been given. ' During the two last days, in particular, that I have been at Fontainbleau, I have suffered (the expression is not improper) as much flattery as almost any man has ever done in the same time.' But he adds,— 'I assure you, I reap more internal satisfaction from the very amiable manners and character of the family in which I live (I mean Lord and Lady Hertford and Lord Beauchamp) than from all these external vanities; and it is that domestic enjoyment which must be considered as the agreeable circumstance in my situation' (Burton, II., 171).

Hume discharged the duties of Secretary to the British Embassy with a concentration of mind, precision in detail, and sense of responsibility, which fully sustained the expectations of Earl Hertford. So much did he himself feel interest in the round of work, that he writes, after nearly six months' experience, ' Though I have entered late into this scene of life, I am almost as much at my ease, as if I had been educated in it from infancy' (Burton, II., 196). At the close of his work, the Earl spoke with admiration of his 'abilities and ease in business' (lb., 289).

The round of fashionable entertainments which it was desirable to accept in the interests of the Embassy considerably restricted Hume's opportunity of entering into intimate relations with the learned circles in Paris. As opportunity offered, however, he found occasion and a special satisfaction in the literary gatherings. The more outstanding names amongst those whose friendship he enjoyed are D'Alembut, Turgot, Diderot, Helbach, Hel-vertius, Buffon and Henault. (For an account of French literary circles at this time see Edinburgh Review, xv., 459, and xvii., 290.)

Not till July 13th, 1765, did Hume receive his commission under the Great Seal as Secretary to the Embassy. For more than a year and a half he fulfilled all the duties of the office, while acting only as the nominee of the Ambassador. More than a month before the date of the commission, when the tidings reached him that he had been nominated to the office, he had written to his friend Elliot, expressing his delight that he was now ' possessed of an office of credit and of £1200 a year.' But the honour was not long continued. Shortly after Hume had received his credentials, Lord Hertford was recalled, on account of a change of Government. The Earl had been appointed to the Embassy by Bute, and continued by Grenville (Walpole's Memoirs of Geo. III., i., 391); but in July 1765, when the Rockingham administration came in, Hertford was nominated Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland, while Conway, his brother, became Secretary of State, and leader of the House of Commons. Hume had just gained his official position when he learned that he must forthwith surrender it. The change did not affect his distinction in the eyes of the French Court and of the leaders of fashion in Paris, but for him the brilliance vanished within less than a month. The trouble of this was abated greatly by the prospect of promotion to the rank of secretary at Dublin, for Hertford indicated not only his desire for this, but his determination to secure it.

In the sudden withdrawal of the Ambassador, Hume had an accession of influence in Paris, along with seriously increased responsibilities. He was left Chargd d'Affaires, being entrusted with the duties of British representative until the Duke of Richmond, the new Ambassador, arrived. From July till October, Hume held this position; and he set himself to a careful dealing with the important questions which demanded attention. Lord Brougham had occasion afterwards to make the procedure of the Embassy, during these months, matter of close investigation. We have his judgment of it on record:—' By Lord Aberdeen's kindness, I have been allowed to examine the correspondence of the Embassy with Marshal Conway during these four months; and it is highly creditable to the philosopher's business-like talents and his capacity for affairs. The negotiations of which he had the sole conduct related to the important and interesting discussions of Canada; matters arising out of the cession, by the Peace of Paris; and to the demolition of the works at Dunkirk, also stipulated by that treaty' (Lives of Men of Letters, p. 225— quoted by Burton, ii., 283).

During this busy season, Hume's private interests concentrated on the prospect of his being nominated to the office of Secretary to the Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland. The prospect of such distinction had caused quite a flutter of excitement at Ninewells; and was eagerly watched by literary friends in Edinburgh. The Earl of Hertford was eager for Hume's transference along with him to Dublin, and used his influence with the King and the Government, in face of the powerful prejudices against 'the free-thinker.' But official traditions were against him, and ' the official ring' prevailed. Hertford had to yield before a force which he could not resist, and he was appeased by having his own son, Lord Beauchamp, appointed, of whom Hume had expressed high admiration. For Hume the disappointment was great; but after turmoil of feeling endured for a season, and much reluctance to part from Paris, he resolved on return to Edinburgh, and to the quiet of a literary life, in which he found his satisfaction.

The prospect of a high official position in the home country, with ^2000 a year, and growing influence in official circles, vanished like a dream, and with it well-nigh vanished Hume's thoughts of Government service. The end was not yet, but it was not far off. He had felt from the first that he had started on the diplomatic service too late in life; and now he was not averse to return to his familiar occupations. He had passed through a new experience ; he had tasted a new joy; and he felt that his life had been enlarged. He had smarted often, and acutely too, under the prejudice against him in his native land; but now he had basked in the sunshine of popular favour in France. The pleasing experience had been valued as an offset against the antagonism which met him at home. Now, he could return with his laurels, and, even more, with the assurance that his literary labours in Philosophy and in History had made an impression, not only deeper, but much wider in range than he had previously known. He could not, indeed, foresee how much larger his influence was yet to be, his life would not last long enough to make this clear. But he was happy to go back to his native city—the capital of his native land—there to carry forward the work he had planned, before the attractions of the Embassy in Paris had been presented to him. Mr Mure narrates his return about the same time as Sir James Stewart, when the attention of the passers was arrested with the French cut of the laced coats and bags, and especially with the philosopher's ' ponderous, uncouth person equipped in a bright yellow coat spotted with black.' services to the nation, which had met with singularly scant return, he received in the following year, 1767, from Mr Conway 'an invitation to be Under-Secretary.' This communication was followed up by a letter from Lady Hertford urging acceptance. ' This invitation,' Hume says, 'both the character of the person and my connexions with Lord Hertford, prevented me from declining.' He had just been in Edinburgh for a short time, busy writing about his quarrel with Rousseau, and about the difficulties emerging with his publishers as to the issue of his pamphlet in reply to the irate Frenchman, when he had to make ready for removal to London, where in the end of February 1767, he was installed in office, under the direction of the Leader of the House of Commons, Mr Conway, brother of Lord Hertford. Hume never took kindly to London, and could not at first escape the feeling of 'a banished man.' But he was soon again at ease in the midst of official work. Writing to Blair, he says, 'I pass all the forenoon in the Secretary's house from ten till three, where there arrive from time to time messengers that bring me all the secrets of the kingdom, and indeed of Europe, Asia, Africa, and America.' To this he adds, General Conway 'is the most reasonable, equal tempered, and gentlemanlike man imaginable.' ' Only I shall not regret when my duty is over, because to me the situation can lead to nothing, at least in all probability' (Burton, II., 384). Hume continued in office until General Conway resigned, which occurred on 20th July 1768. Then he went forth, feeling a free man; but with a circle of influential friends with whom he continued in intimate relations. He did not leave London at once; but we find him back to his own house in Edinburgh—the familiar house in James's Court—in August 1769. He has disappeared from the circle of official servants of the Crown, to resume his pondering of the deeper problems of human life. In a letter to Sir Gilbert Elliot, written October 16th, 1769, he says:—'I am here body and soul, without casting the least thought of regret to London or even to Paris.'


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