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David Hume
Chapter V Hume as Historian

The disappointment felt by Hume on account of the reception of the two first volumes of his Treatise of Human Nature did not daunt him or abate his literary activity. He prepared his third volume, Of Morals, which was published in 1740. Thereafter, he carried through the preparation of the Essays, presenting his theory in more popular form, and including literary and political essays along with philosophical. These he published in 1742.

He sought, however, some wider range of effort, on which he might concentrate ; and he found it in History, to which he forthwith devoted himself with the greatest ardour. In this department of research, he shewed his breadth of interest, his profound reflection on social and political problems, and his acuteness on economic questions—the last being so marked that Macaulay has said of him that he was ' undoubtedly one of the most profound political economists of his time.' *

Hume's merits as a philosopher were, indeed, to some extent a disadvantage to him as a historian. Philosophic interests were not allowed to abate carefulness in research, but these induced him to enter into general problems more than was always advantageous to the narrative, or demanded by the historic spirit. He seems to have been conscious of this danger, for he remarks upon it, as one of the things clear to him, that the sceptical form of his philosophic inquiries must not be allowed to influence his historical writing. When full of delight over the completion of the first volume of his History (1754), he writes to a friend who ' had entertained apprehensions of his discretion,' explaining that he had written for the people, and he is at pains to say that he had ' thought that scepticism was not in its place in an historical production' (Burton's Life, I., 397). If the admission is not altogether favourable to his philosophy, it does honour to the historian. Even with his best endeavour, however, he did not escape from a tendency to undervalue the earnest convictions of religious men, and, at times, to disparage the rights of the people—a tendency resulting partly from sceptical, partly from political bias. It must, at the same time, be admitted that his advantages were considerable from being a philosopher first and a historian afterwards. Without losing sight of the demand for clearness, brightness, and vivacity of style, he never failed to consider deliberately the political and social problems which were being worked out in history. His treatment of these has such value that, even when granting that the large mass of historical material brought within reach since his day requires large modification of his views, his glowing, and often eloquent, pages may be read with advantage, as supplying a practical embodiment of political philosophy. So well recognised was this that Hume won distinction as ' the philosophic historian.'

In another sense, these volumes of history shew that he was, at times, far from being philosophic. When dealing with the principles involved in a great national movement, his writing is always suggestive; but, when passing judgment on men and measures, he appears often as the partisan. He felt keenly and wrote strongly, and was not infrequently disposed to give way to the bias which swayed him as a politician. This appears chiefly in his relation to political parties, often indicated in the History, as it is avowed in his private correspondence. The facts are now placed in stronger light by the Letters to William Strahan, for publication of which we are indebted to Lord Rosebery and to Dr Birkbeck Hill, an editor at once competent and unwearied. This volume of Letters is now an essential supplement to Burton's Life, and is specially important as bearing on the History. Hume cherished a strong antagonism to the Whigs, and found occasion for expressing his enmity with a modicum of reserve. That his party bias influenced him in his History admits of no question. He is himself conscious of it. Burton admits the consequent inconsistencies (I., 405); and though Macaulay goes too far in his condemnation of alleged ' sophistry,' he has ample warrant for his charge of partisanship (Edinburgh Review, xlvii., p. 359). What the philosopher's attitude should be, Hume clearly indicated in his Political Discourse on The Protestant Succession, when he said,—' It belongs to a philosopher alone, who is of neither party, to put all the circumstances in the scale, and assign to each of them its proper poise and influence' (Political Discourses [1752], p. 270). It is not easy to be quite philosophic and also resolute in political action. His own representation of his attitude is this,— ' With regard to politics and the character of princes and great men, I think I am very moderate. My views of things are more conformable to Whig principles; my representations oi persons to Tory prejudices. Nothing can so much prove that men commonly regard more persons than things, as to find that I am commonly numbered among the Tories' (Burton, II., n). When the keenness of Hume's antagonism to the leaders of the Commons in the time of Charles I. is considered, this admission must be remembered, that they were ' a set of men of the most uncommon capacity and the largest views' (History, vol. vi., p. 184, ed. 1813). In writing to his publisher, he says, ' I think I have kept clear of party in my History' (Letters to Strahan, p. 32). There is, however, reason to sympathise with Macaulay's criticism of the History {Edinburgh Review, vol. Ixvii.),—'Though a great work, drawn by a master hand, it has all the lights Tory, and all the shades Whig.'

Granting that serious deductions are to be made from its claim to authority, his History is ' a great work,' possessing high value for present-day readers, equally on account of its vivid descriptions of grand events and of its philosophic insight. His devotion to historical research is beyond all praise. He searches unweariedly through books, parliamentary reports, and other sources of information. He corresponds with specialists on questions of perplexity, as, for example, when seeking to ascertain the value of 'subsidies' at different periods in our Parliamentary history. And he persists, with surprising constancy and care, in the revision of successive editions of his writings; so that it is not without solid foundation that he keeps repeating his claims to confidence and honour. 'I certainly deserve the approbation of the public from my care and disinterestedness, however deficient in other particulars' (Letters to Strahan, p. 1). His election to the office of Librarian in the Advocates' Library, Edinburgh, had this special attraction for him, that it gave him unrestricted 'command of a large library,' — a storehouse of materials for the historian. At the same time, this election had a transitory interest which he keenly relished; he was brimful of delight because he had triumphed over the social forces in the city, opposed to him avowedly on account of his sceptical philosophy.

His ideal of history was lofty, and was kept well in view, even though occasionally beclouded by political bias. ' History, the great mistress of wisdom, furnishes examples of all kinds; and every prudential, as well as moral precept, may be authorised by those events, which her enlarged mirror is able to present to us' (History, chap, lix., vol. vii., p. 138, ed. 1813). The philosopher and historian are at one in such an utterance. Along with it may be quoted a passage from the introduction to his Treatise,—' However other nations may rival us in poetry, and excel us in some other agreeable arts, the improvements in reason and philosophy can only be owing to a land of toleration and of liberty.' He felt proud in being one of a group of Scotchmen who had devoted themselves to history,—' I believe this is the historical age, and this the historical nation' (Letters to Strahan, p. 155).

For his first effort, Hume selected the Stuart Period, including in his first volume the reigns of James and Charles I. His attraction to the period was found in its comparative nearness to his own time, and in the wealth of material which lay ready to hand. Subsidiary was the pride in Scotland's honour in giving a monarch to England, and the vital concern which Scotland felt in the progress of the United Kingdom. The selection nevertheless involved the historian in special difficulties, special to the times as involving the perplexing occurrences which led up to the Revolution, special to the writer on account of religious questions being so deeply involved in the conflict between the Commons and the Crown. Hume faced his difficulties with philosophic deliberation, if also with admixture of keen personal feeling. When the first volume appeared in 1754, it raised a storm of criticism, which the philosopher braved with some sense of irritation. When the second volume appeared in 1756, including the period from the death of Charles I. to the Revolution, it was received with much more favour. These two volumes gave him celebrity, far beyond anything achieved by his philosophic works ; from their appearance he ranked as a great public man, who did honour to his country, and who had written with a power and vividness of description which went to the heart of the people, and made references to his writings familiar in the arena of Parliament, and in the private correspondence of the leading politicians of the day. That Hume was a man of strong political bias made the references the more numerous and telling; and if he was rendered famous in his day, he suffered a penalty attending on fame; he had to wince under an attack from Chatham, delivered with force of eloquence in the House of Lords.

After the storm of criticism had ceased, it appeared that the second volume had been the more popular. Hume's own judgment was at variance with the award of his critics. ' I must own that in my private judgment the first volume of my History is by far the best; the subject was more noble, and admitted both of greater ornaments of eloquence and nicer distinctions of reasoning. However, if the public is so capricious as to prefer the second, I am very well pleased, and hope the prepossession in my favour will operate backwards and remove even the prejudices formerly contracted' (Letters to Strahan, p. 4). The adverse judgment pronounced on the first volume concentrated mainly on the defence of Charles against the demands of the people. His defence of the kingly prerogative was the more resented that it was manifestly at variance with many of his avowed political maxims. Even after all has been said as to his reasonings, his moral sentiment, and his eloquence, it must be granted that his sympathy with Charles as a brave man, sorely driven and tried, carried him to an altitude of antagonism to popular rights at variance with his deeper and life-long convictions. Burton, who shews the utmost favour for Hume, admits that his published opinions were strangely at variance with much of the writing in the first volume of the History. ' In his philosophical examination of the principles of government, written in times of hot party feeling, he had discarded the theories of arbitrary prerogative and divine right with bold and calm disdain.' (Life of Hume, I., 402). The current of his thought went strongly against regal domination; his sympathy was avowedly with ' the sentiments of liberty, honour, equity, and valour' (History, I., 178, ed. 1821). He granted as to the leaders of the Commons, that ' these generous patriots,' ' animated with a warm regard to liberty,' aimed only at ' reducing the prerogative within more reasonable compass' (History, VI., p. 184, ed. 1863). In view of these declarations, we cannot wonder at Jeffrey's criticism —' that he should have sided with the Tudors and the Stuarts against the people seems quite inconsistent with the great traits of his character' (Edinburgh Review, xii., 276).

The explanation is not found in any change of opinion, or in any conclusion slowly reached after deliberate criticism, or in finer appreciation of the difficulties belonging to the period of political development in our rational history, or in blindness to the merits of the popular leaders, or to the demerits of the kings. The key seems to be found in certain outstanding characteristics of the philosophic historian; first, the excess of philosophic indifference, or ' capdid indifference,' which he specially commends and reckons as rare (see History, vol. vi., p. 12); second, in his enmity against ' zealots,' political and religious; and, further (perhaps most of all), in his dread of outbursts of excited feeling among the populace,—' the enthusiastic fire which afterwards set the whole nation in combustion ' {History, vol. vi.,71269, e(3. 1813). These seem to me the causes, the force of which can be allowed without approval of their influence on the History. The result was a singular blending of antipathy and sympathy towards the Puritans. It was occasion of intense annoyance to Hume to find that ' the enquiries and debates concerning tonnage and poundage went hand in hand with theological or metaphysical controversies,' touching ' subjects where it is not allowable for human nature to expect any positive truth or certainty.' It is easy to imagine the intense wrath of Hume against 'the puritanical sectaries.' There must have been much show of spirit when he was dealing with such subjects, inducing temporary forgetfulness of lofty prerogative, and of the forces of the Court of High Commission and the Star Chamber. His antipathy flashes out with fury against Cromwell, from his first appearance in the House of Commons. Oliver Cromwell, 'complaining of one who, he was told, preached flat popery,' receives from Hume this slighting remark — 'It is amusing to observe the first words of this fanatical hypocrite correspond so exactly to his character' (History, VI., 248). The age which has gained possession of Oliver Cromwell's Letters and Speeches is incapable of accepting the word ' hypocrite' as applicable to the hero of the great struggle of the Puritans; and this 'young man of no account in the nation' afterwards wins from Hume the acknowledgment of a 'rough but dexterous hand,' and of 'the unparalleled greatness which he afterwards attained' (History, VII., 97)— a leader in an age 'with awful, august, heroic thoughts in its heart, and at last with steel sword in its hand,' (Carlyle's Cromwell, intro., vol. i., p. 68).

The first volume of the History called forth an anonymous volume—Letters on Mr Hume's History of Great Britain—published in Edinburgh in 1756, and generally attributed to Daniel Macqueen, D.D. The volume is devoted to a criticism of Hume's treatment of religion. These letters arose out of a discussion of the merits of the History at a social gathering. Their criticism is directed mainly against two passages, in which Hume dwells on ' two species of religion — the superstitious and the fanatical.' The former is illustrated in the Romish Church, the latter in the Reformed. The author proposes ' candid and calm debate,' and proceeds to set forth his complaint against 'the author's indecent excursions on the subject of religion, the genius of the Protestant faith, and the characters of the first reformers' (p. 4). He vindicates 'the right of private judgment in all matters of religion,' with the rejection of ' splendour and glittering pomp of worship,' and claims for the reformed faith deliverance of men from the 'delusion of an over-heated imagination.' This formal criticism was in harmony with a very wide expression of dissatisfaction. Its prevalence affected the mind of Hume, and in course of his corrections, and the adjustment of the volume to its place in a more extended plan, his references to religion are modified, and the more offensive passages concerning the reformers and their beliefs disappear. In a letter to Dr Clephane he says— ' I am convinced that whatever I have said of religion should have received more softenings. There is no passage in the History which strikes in the least at Revelation. But as I run over all the sects successively, and speak of each with some disregard, the reader, putting the whole together, concludes that I am of no sect, which to him will appear the same thing as the being of no religion ' (Burton's Life, II., p. 10). Burton, remarking on his 'consciousness that some apology was called for,' gives the ' draft of a preface' to his second volume, the substance of which was ultimately inserted as a note towards the end of that volume. In this he says—' It ought to be no matter of offence that in this volume, as well as in the foregoing, the mischief which arose from the abuses of religion are so often mentioned, while so little in comparison is said of the salutary consequences which result from true and genuine piety.' In a few carefully chosen paragraphs he explains and vindicates 'the free and impartial manner in which he has treated religious controversy' (Burton, II., p. n).

When Hume escapes from direct contact with those whom he regarded as ' enraged and fanatical reformers,' and contemplates the progress of civil and religious liberty, his judgment and better feeling come out in a different phase. Then he acknowledges that 'the precious spark of liberty had been kindled, and was preserved by the Puritans alone.' ' It is to them that the English owe the whole freedom of their constitution.' These utterances must be kept before us when we form our judgment of his account of the reign of Charles I. Throughout both volumes on the Stuart dynasty there runs a strong bias in favour of the monarchs with whom the people were at variance. While he allows that ' the views of the popular leaders were more judicious and profound ' than those of the Court favourites, he seems willing to defer to the lofty admonition of a king who claims to be superior 'by nature,' and takes such a view of popular rights as to be disposed to write in terms such as these—' To be sacrificed to the interest, policy, and ambition of the great is so much the common lot of the people that they may appear unreasonable who would pretend to complain of it' (History, chap, li., vol. vi., 215-217, ed. 1813, referring to the discontent which prevailed at the assembling of Charles' third Parliament). When the complications thicken, and Charles, after the rupture with the Parliament, is encountering evil days, and at length is a captive, and the army is dominant over Parliament, Hume's horror is such that he finds it a hard task ' to put all the circumstances in the scale, and assign to each of them its proper poise and influence.' The wrong-doings of Charles are forgotten, and his woes make powerful appeal to the feelings of the historian—with the terrible scenes vividly present to his imagination, and his feelings roused to passionate sympathy, he is by many subtle influences drawn to the position of a partisan without being able to maintain the critical spirit for which he was distinguished. He was not abandoning the popular cause and assuming the responsibility of the vindicator of kingly oppression ; but he was ready to argue that ' it is seldom that the people gain anything by revolutions in Government' (chap, lix., vol. vii., 107, ed. 1813); and to maintain that ' Government is instituted in order to restrain the fury and injustice of the people; and being always founded on opinion, not on force, it is dangerous to weaken, by these speculations, the reverence which the multitude owe to authority, and to instruct them beforehand that the case can ever happen, when they may be freed from their duty of allegiance ' (vii., 136). When these springs of feeling have been traced and noted, we have the secret of Hume's treatment of the Stuart dynasty. Allowing for the immense difference which separates dethronement from execution; and granting that Hume has reason for his strong condemnation of the latter, we are still surprised to find what we should hardly have expected from ' the philosophic historian,' a fear of open discussion, and apprehension of the results if the people are allowed to pass from leading strings. After considering the sad issue of the conflict between the royal prerogative and the liberty of the people, and specially of Parliament, he is prepared to admit that one is ' at a loss to determine what conduct in the king's circumstances could have maintained the authority of the crown, and preserved the peace of the nation ' (vii., p. 135).

But, apart from his opinions on the subjects named, the historic spirit and power of the author are fitted to awaken high admiration. His appreciation of Charles' fidelity to his friends and of his acuteness in carrying out negotiations with the Parliamentary leaders; his description of the king's interview with his family, and of his noble and courageous bearing in meeting a violent death, are outstanding examples of high excellence in historic writing.

His scheme advanced to more extended proportions as his interest developed. He passed back to include the Tudors, publishing in 1759, two volumes on The History of England under the House of Tudor. Thereafter he contemplated a complete history, the earliest period coming last in the order of treatment. The result was The History of England from the invasion of Julius Ccesar to the accession of Henry VII., in two volumes, published in 1761. These separate works were subsequently revised and combined, presenting Hume's History of England as we are now familiar with it in the eight volume editions.

The work of composition, revision, and reconstruction was carried out with the utmost care and with unceasing interest. The conditions of work are full of interest now. He was constantly negotiating for ' franks' under which he could convey manuscript without charge ; and when he had a new volume or a large mass of revised material, he announces by post to his publisher in London that ' it will be put into the stage coach in two white iron boxes,' or will be put into ' the fly' on a given date, and may be looked for ' about three weeks hence.' On the first negotiation for appearance of the History, Hamilton, the Edinburgh publisher, writes to Strahan, the London publisher, ' we have been at due pains to inform ourselves of the merit of the work, and are well satisfied on that head that it is the pettiest thing that ever was attempted in the English History ' (Letters to Strahan, p. 3). After its value had been tested by the sale of successive editions, Strahan urges the extension of the History. Writing in r77r, Strahan says—' If you write another volume, which the best judges of writing are daily enquiring after, you may demand what you please. It shall be granted' (Letters to Strahan, p. r98). Again in 1772 Strahan writes suggesting motives for the continuation of the History, 'in which if you will make some progress, however trifling, I will venture to say you will find your immediate account in it '(16., p. 243). And once more, in August 1766,

Strahan writes—' Your History sells better of late years than before; for the late edition will be gone some time before this can be finished. In short, I see clearly your reputation is gradually rising in the public esteem' (P, 340).

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