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Significant Scots
David Hume


HUME, DAVID, of Godscroft. The scantiness of the materials for lives of literary Scotsmen has, with us, often been a subject of remark and regret; and we are sure that every one who has had occasion to make investigations into this department of our national history will at once acquiesce in its truth. Our statesmen have been applauded or condemned—at all events they have been immortalized—by contemporary writers; the deeds of our soldiers have been celebrated in works relative to our martial achievements; and our divines have always, and more especially in the darker ages, preserved a knowledge of themselves and their transactions,—but literary men are nearly forgotten, and for what is known of them we are principally indebted to the labours of continental biographers. It would be difficult to point out a more striking illustration of this than the well known individual whose name appears at the head of this article. His name is familiar to every one who is in the least degree conversant with Scottish history or poetry; -- he was descended from an honourable family—he acted a prominent part in some of the earlier transactions of his own time, and still almost nothing is known of his history. The indefatigable Wodrow has preserved many scattered hints regarding him in his Biographical Collections in the library of Glasgow college, and except this we are not aware of any attempt at a lengthened biographical sketch of him. In drawing up the following, we shall take many of our facts from that biography, referring also to the excellent works of Dr M’Crie, and occasionally supplying deficiencies from the few incidental notices of himself in Hume’s works.

David Hume, it is probable, was born about, or a few years prior to, the period of the Reformation. His father was Sir David Hume, or Home, of Wedderburn, the representative of an old and distinguished family in the south of Scotland. His mother was Mary Johnston, a daughter of Johnston of Elphinstone. This lady died early, and her husband, after having married a second wife, who seems to have treated his family in a harsh and ungenerous manner, died of consumption while the subject of this memoir was a very young man. The family thus left consisted of four sons -- George, David, James, and John; and four daughters—Isabell, Margaret, Julian, and Joan.

Of the early education of David Hume, we have not been able to learn almost any thing. His elder brother and he were sent to the public school of Dunbar, then conducted by Mr Andrew Simson, and there is abundant evidence that he made very considerable progress in the acquisition of classical knowledge. He has left a poem, entitled Daphn-Amaryllis, written at the age of fourteen, and he incidentally mentions the expectations George Buchanan formed of his future eminence from his early productions. After receiving, it may be conjectured, the best education that a Scottish university then afforded, Hume set out for France, accompanied by his relation, John Haldane of Gleneagles. His intention was to have also made the tour of Italy, and for that purpose he had gone to Geneva, when his brother’s health became so bad as to make his return desirable. On receiving the letters containing this information, he returned to Scotland without delay, "and arrived," to use his own words in his History of the Family of Wedderburn, "much about the time that Esme, lord Aubigny, (who was afterwards made duke of Lennox,) was brought into Scotland—and that Morton began to decline in his credit, he being soon after first imprisoned, and then put to death;" that is about the beginning of 1581.

Sir George Home seems to have recovered his health soon afterwards, and David was generally left at his castle to manage his affairs, while he was engaged in transactions of a more difficult or hazardous nature. This probably did not continue long, for the earliest public transaction in which we have found him engaged took place in 1583. When king James VI. withdrew from the party commonly known by the name of the Ruthven lords, and re-admitted the earl of Arran to his councils, Archibald, "the good earl" of Angus, a relation of Hume’s family, was ordered to confine himself to the north of Scotland, and accordingly resided for some time at the castle of Brechin, the property of his brother-in-law the earl of Mar. At this period Hume seems to have lived in Angus’s house, in the capacity of a "familiar servitour," or confidential secretary.

When the Ruthven party were driven into England, Hume accompanied his master and relation; and while the lords remained inactive at Newcastle, requested leave to go to London, where he intended pursuing his studies. To this Angus consented, with the ultimate intention of employing him as his agent at the English court. During the whole period of his residence at the English capital, he maintained a regular correspondence with the earl, but only two of his letters (which he has printed in the History of the Houses of Douglas and Angus) have come down to us.

The Ruthven lords returned to Scotland in 1585, but soon offended the clergy by their want of zeal in providing for the security of the church. Their wrath was still farther kindled, by a sermon preached at this time before the king at Linlithgow, by John Craig, in which the offensive doctrine of obedience to princes was enforced. A letter was accordingly prepared, insisting upon the claims of the church, and transmitted to Mr Hume, to be presented to Angus. A very long conference took place betwixt the earl and Hume, which he has set down at great length in the above-mentioned work. He begins his own discourse by refuting the arguments of Craig, and shows, that although it is said in his text, "I said ye are gods," it is also said, "Nevertheless ye shall die;" "which two," Hume continues, "being put together, the one shows princes their duty -- Do justice as God doth; the other threateneth punishment—Ye shall die if you do it not." He then proceeds to show, that the opinions of Bodinus in his work De Republica, and of his own countryman Blackwood and having established the doctrine that tyrants may be resisted, he applies it to the case of the Ruthven lords, and justifies the conduct of Angus as one of that party. He then concludes in the following strain of remonstrance:—"Your declaration which ye published speaks much of the public cause and common weal, but you may perceive what men think your actions since they do not answer thereto by this letter, for they are begun to think that howsoever you pretend to the public, yet your intention was fixed only on your own particular, because you have done nothing for the church or country, and have settled your own particular. And it is observed, that of all the parliaments that were ever held in this country, this last, held since you came home, is it in which alone there is no mention of the church, either in the beginning thereof, (as in all others there is,) or elsewhere throughout. This neglect of the state of the church and country, as it is a blemish of your fact obscuring the lustre of it, so is it accounted an error in policy by so doing, to separate your particular from the common cause of the church and country, which, as it hath been the mean of your particular restitution, so is it the only mean to maintain you in this estate, and to make it sure and firm."

During the subsequent short period of this earl’s life, Hume seems to have retained his confidence, and to have acted the part of a faithful and judicious adviser. After Angus’s death, which took place in 1588, it is probable that he lived in retirement. Accordingly, we do not find any further notice of him till he appeared as an author in 1605.

One of king James’s most favourite projects was the union of the kingdoms of England and Scotland, and soon after his accession to the English throne, commissioners were appointed to consider the grounds upon which this object could be safely and advantageously attained. It would altogether exceed our limits were we to give even a faint outline of the proceedings of these commissioners, and it is the less necessary as their deliberations did not lead to the desired result. The subject, however, met with the attention of the most learned of our countrymen. The first work written on this subject was from the pen of Robert Pont, one of the most respectable clergymen of his day, and a senator of the college of justice, while ecclesiastics were permitted to hold that office. His work, which was published in 1604, is in the form of a dialogue between three imaginary personages -- Irenaeus, Polyhistor, and Hospes, and is now chiefly interesting as containing some striking remarks on the state of the country, and the obstacles to the administration of justice. Pont was followed by David Hume, our author, who published next year his treatise, De Unione Insulae Britanniae, of which bishop Nicholson only says that "it is written in a clear Latin style, such as the author was eminent for, and is dedicated to the king: it shows how great an advantage such a union would bring to the island in general, and in particular to the several nations and people of England and Scotland, and answers the objections against the change of the two names into that of Britain—the alteration of the regal style in writs and processes of law—the removal of the parliament and other courts into England," &c. The first part only of this work of Hume’s was published. Bishop Nicholson mentions that a MS. of the second part was in Sir Robert Sibbald’s collection, and Wodrow also possessed what he considered a very valuable copy of it. It would be improper to pass from this part of our subject, without referring to Sir Thomas Craig’s work on the same subject, which still remains unprinted; although in the opinion of his accomplished biographer, Mr Tytler, "in point of matter and style, in the importance of the subject to which it relates, the variety of historical illustrations, the sagacity of the political remarks, and the insight into the mutual interests of the two countries which it exhibits, it deserves to rank the highest of all his works."

In the year 1608, Hume commenced a correspondence on the subject of episcopacy and presbytery with James Law, then bishop of Orkney, and afterwards promoted to the archiepiscopal see of Glasgow. This epistolary warfare took its rise in a private conversation between Mr Hume and the bishop, when he came to visit the presbytery of Jedburgh in that year. The subject presented by much too large a field to be exhausted at a private meeting, and accordingly supplied materials for their communications for about three years. But here again we are left to lament that so little of it has been preserved. Calderwood has collected a few of the letters, but the gaps are so frequent, and consequently so little connexion is kept up, that they would be entirely uninteresting to a general reader. In 1613, Hume began a correspondence of the same nature with bishop Cowper on his accepting the diocese of Galloway. The bishop set forth an apology for himself, and to this Hume wrote a reply, which, however, was not printed, as it was unfavourable to the views of the court. Cowper answered his statements in his Dicaiology, but printed only such parts of Hume’s argument as could be most easily refuted. To this Hume once more replied at great length.

Shortly before this period he undertook the "History of the House of Wedderburn, (written) by a son of the family, in the year 1611,"—a work which has hitherto remained in manuscript. "It has sometimes grieved me," he remarks, in a dedication to the earl of Home, and to his own brother, "when I have been glancing over the histories of our country, to have mention made so seldom of our ancestors, -- scarce above once or twice,—and that too very shortly and superficially; whereas they were always remarkable for bravery, magnanimity, clemency, liberality, munificence, hospitality, fidelity, piety in religion, and obedience to their prince; and, indeed, there never was a family who had a greater love and regard for their country, or more earnestly devoted themselves to, or more frequently risked their lives for, its service. It ought, in a more particular to grieve you that they have been so long buried in oblivion, and do you take care that they be so no more I give you, as it were, the prelude, or lay the ground-work of the history; perhaps a pen more equal to the task, or at least, who can do it with more decency, will give it the finishing stroke." He does not enter into a minute inquiry into the origin of the family, a species of antiquarianism of which it must be confessed our Scottish historians are sufficiently fond:—"My intention," he says, "does not extend farther than to write those things that are peculiar to the House of Wedderburn." The work begins with "David, first laird of Wedderburn," who appears to have lived about the end of the fourteenth century, and concludes with an account of the earlier part of his brother’s life.

During the latter period of his life, Hume appears to have devoted himself almost entirely to literary pursuits. He had appeared before the world as a poet in his "Lusus Poetici," published in 1605, and afterwards incorporated into the excellent collection entitled "Deliciae Poetarum Scotorum," edited by Dr Arthur Johnston. He seems to have added to his poetical works when years and habits of study might be supposed to have cooled his imaginative powers. When prince Henry died, he gave vent to his grief in a poem entitled "Henrici Principis Justa," which, Wodrow conjectures, was probably sent to Sir James Semple of Beltrees, then a favourite at court, and by whom it is not improbable that it was shown to his majesty. A few years afterwards (1617) he wrote his "Regi Suo Graticulatio,"—a congratulatory poem on the king’s revisiting his native country. In the same year he prepared (but did not publish) a prose work "In a very short preface to his readers," says Wodrow, "Mr Hume observes that nothing more useful to this island was ever proposed, than the union of the two islands, and scarce ever any proposal was more opposed; witness the insults in the House of commons, and Paget’s fury, rather than speech, against it, for which he was very justly fined. After some other things to the same purpose, he adds, that Mr Cambden hath now in his Britannia appeared on the same side, and is at no small labour to extol to the skies England and his Britons, and to depress and expose Scotland,—how unjustly he does so is Mr Hume’s design in this work." Cambden’s assertions were also noticed by William Drummond in his Nuntius Scoto-Britannus, and in another of his works more professedly levelled against him, entitled "A Pair of Spectacles for Cambden."

The last work in which we are aware of Hume’s having been engaged, is his largest, and that by which he is best known. The History of the House and Race of Douglas and Angus, seems to have been first printed at Edinburgh, by Evan Tyler, in 1644, but this edition has several discrepancies in the title-page. Some copies bear the date 1648, "to be sold by T. W. in London," and others have a title altogether different, " A Generall History of Scotland, together with a particular history of the houses of Douglas and Angus," but are without date. After mentioning in the preface that, in writing such a work it is impossible to please all parties,—that some may say that it is an unnecessary work—others, that it is merely a party statement,—and a third complain of "the style, the phrase, the periods, the diction, and the language," Hume goes on to say, "in all these particulars, to satisfy all men is more than we can hope for; yet thus much shortly of each of them to such as will give ear to reason: that I write, and of this subject, I am constrained to do it, not by any violence or compulsion, but by the force of duty, as I take it; for being desired to do it by those I would not refuse, I thought myself bound to honour that name, and in it and by it, our king and countrey.... Touching partiality, I deny it not, but am Content to acknowledge my interest. Neither do I think that ever any man did set pen to paper without some particular relation of kindred, countrey, or such like. The Romans in writing the Romane, the Grecians in writing their Greek histories; friends writing to, of, or for friends, may be thought partiall, as countrymen and friends. The vertuous may be deemed to be partiall towards the vertuous, and the godly towards the godly and religious: all writers have some such respect, which is a kind of partiality. I do not refuse to be thought to have some, or all of these respects, and I hope none wil think I do amisse in having them. Pleasing of men, I am so farre from shunning of it, that it is my chief end and scope: but let it please them to be pleased with vertue, otherwise they shal find nothing here to please them. If thou findest any thing here besides, blame me boldly; and why should any be displeased that wil be pleased with it? would to God I could so please the world, I should never displease any. But if either of these (partiality or desire to please) carry me besides the truth, then shal I confesse my self guilty, and esteem these as great faults, as it is faultie and blame-worthy to forsake the truth. But, otherwise, so the truth be stuck unto, there is no hurt in partiality and labouring to please. And as for truth, clip not, nor champ not my words (as some have done elsewhere), and I beleeve the worst affected will not charge mee with lying. I have ever sought the truth in all things carefully, and even here also, and that painfully in every point: where I find it assured, I have set it down confidently; where I thought there was some reason to doubt, I tell my authour: so that if I deceive, it is my self I deceive, and not thee; for I hide nothing from thee that I myself know, and as 1 know it, leaving place to thee, if thou knowest more or better, which, if thou doest, impart and communicate it; for so thou shouldest do, and so is truth brought to light, which else would lye hid and buried. My paines and travel in it have been greater than every one would think, in correcting my errours; thine will not I bee so much, and both of us may furnish matter for a third man to finde out the truth more exactly, than either of us hath yet done. Help, therefore, but carp not. . . For the language, it is my mother-tongue, that is, Scottish: and why not, to Scottish men? why should I contemne it? I never thought the difference so great, as that by seeking to speak English, I would hazard the imputation of affectation. Every tongue hath its own vertue and grace. Some are more substantiall, others more ornate and succinct. They have also their own defects and faultinesses, some are harsh, some are effeminate, some are rude, some affectate and swelling. The Romanes spake from their heart, the Grecians with their lips only, and their ordinary speech was complements; especially the Asiatick Greeks did use a loose and blown kind of phrase. And who is there that keeps that golden mean? For my own part, I like our own, and he that writes well in it, writes well enough to me. Yet I have yeelded somewhat to the tyrannie of custome and the times, not seeking curiously for words, but taking them as they come to hand. I acknowledge also my fault (if it be a fault), that I ever accounted it a mean study, and of no great commendation to learn to write, or to speak English, and have loved better to bestow my pains and time on forreign languages, esteeming it but a dialect of our own, and that, (perhaps) more corrupt." The work commences with a preface concerning the Douglases in general, that is, their antiquity, to which is joined their original, nobility and descent, greatness and valour of the family of the name of Douglas." The history begins with Sholto Douglas, the first that bore the name, and the vanquisher of Donald Bane, in the reign of king Salvathius, -- and concludes with the death of Archibald, ninth earl of Angus, who has been already noticed in the course of this memoir. With this work closes every trace of David Hume. It is supposed to have been written about 1625, or between that period and 1630, and it is not probable that he survived that period long. Supposing him to have been born about 1560, he must then have attained to the age of three score years and ten.

Respecting Hume’s merits as a poet, different opinions exist. While in the opinion of Dr Irving he never rises above mediocrity, Dr M’Crie places him in a somewhat higher rank: "The easy structure of his verse reminds us continually of the ancient models on which it has been formed; and if deficient in vigour his fancy has a liveliness and buoyancy which prevents the reader from wearying of his longest descriptions." These opinions are, after all, not irreconcilable; the poetry of Hume possesses little originality, but the reader is charmed with the readiness and the frequency of his imitations of the Roman poets.

As an historian, Hume can never become popular. He is by much too prolix,—nor will this be wondered at when we consider the age at which he wrote his principal historical work. To the reader, however, who is disposed to follow him through his windings, he will be a most valuable, and in many cases, a most amusing author. As the kinsman of the earls of Angus, he had access to many important family papers, from which he has compiled the history prior to his own time. But when he writes of transactions within his own recollection, and more especially those in which he was personally engaged, there is so much judicious remark and honesty of intention, that it cannot fail to interest even a careless reader.

Besides the works which we have mentioned, Hume wrote "Apologia Basilica, Seu Machiavelli Ingenium Examinatum, in libro quem inscripsit Princeps, 4to, Paris, 1626." "De Episcopatu, May 1, 1609, Patricio Simsono." "A treatise on things indifferent." "Of obedience to superiors." In the Biographie Universelle there is a memoir of him, in which it is mentioned that "Jaques I. l’employé a concilier les differends qui s’estaient elevé entre Dumoulin et Tilenus au sujet de la justification," and he is also there mentioned as having written "Le Contr’ Assassin, ou Reponse a l’Apologie des Jesuites," Geneva, 1612, 8vo, and "L’Assassinat du Roi, ou Maximes Pratiquées en la personne du defaut Henrie le Grand," 1617, 8vo.


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