David Hume: The History of England (Liberty Fund 1983. Based on the edition of 1778) Perhaps it is significant that Hume chose to write about government in the form of a history rather than a philosophical essay. This might be in keeping with a belief, certainly consistent with his general principles, that political policy should be guided by what we learn from specific observable events and not by abstract theories. In this case the most appropriate way to discuss the English system of government is in terms of how it arose and developed during the course of the history of the English nation. Before assessing a constitution one needs to understand how the conventions of that constitution were created. His views on what good government would be emerge as aphorisms strewn through the text; Hume never conclusively enunciates a program and always remains tightly bound to real events. This would also explain why he seems to swing wildly from one view to another depending on the stage of his narrative. If we were to try to attribute to Hume a single political view based on his isolated comments it would be that the government of England in his time, namely constitutional or mixed monarchy as opposed to absolutism or republicanism, was just fine.
The most specific theme of the last two volumes is to balance the Whig history of the 17th century by painting more nuanced portraits of the Stuart monarchs and by showing how the forces of the republic, despite their writings and speeches to the contrary, were not unblemished champions of freedom from oppression. Indeed he shows that the superficially admirable writings of Locke mask the political agenda of the Earl of Shaftesbury and the not to be ignored threat of ongoing religious persecution. This theme is expanded to the earlier volumes where Hume focuses on those aspects of English history that manifest the tension between the power of the monarchy, which originated in conquest, vs. the emerging institutions representing the rights of the populace and mediated by the power of the barons.
Earlier volumes bespeak Hume’s desire to treat of the characters of Richard III and Cardinal Wolsey in a more balanced way. One would imagine that the onus of Tudor propagandists had diminished somewhat by Hume’s day, but, by his own account, intellectual disapproval of his history of the Tudors was not wanting.
Voltaire’s Siècle de Louis XIV covers roughly the same period as the last volume of The History of England. Both books are inward looking but they are in noteworthy harmony when dealing with common subjects. Both Hume and Voltaire identify the reign of Louis XIV as the high tide of French glory and both identify the seeds of decline in some of Louis’ misguided policies. Hume takes up Voltaire’s theme in identifying the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes as a catastrophic mistake. Voltaire does not appear to have a general thesis; he is mostly concerned with writing accurate history although he works on the assumption that in the French 17th century at least history is moved by great men and not by democratic motions on the part of the populace. Voltaire’s narrative is weighted toward military action and Hume’s to parliamentary initiatives. Hume manifests a Thucydides-like majesty in summarizing the sides of complex debates. Voltaire’s catalog of significant cultural figures from his country during Louis XIV’s reign should have served as a model for Hume, and, although Voltaire’s personal opinions of these figures was quite often off the mark, Hume perpetrated a grave error in the few pages he devotes to Restoration literature. The Restoration was in fact the second and last great age of English literature after the Elizabethan and one might observe that the Glorious Revolution witnessed the beginning of a sensible decline in English literary ability and imagination. The anarchic spirit and sexual freedom of Restoration poets was the proximate cause of the quality of that literature next to which French writers of the time, however high the aesthetic qualities of their productions may have been, exhibit many earmarks of subsisting under an absolute monarch. Furthermore, I would venture to say that there was probably as much religious writing and sermonizing in England as there was in France at the time. Nevertheless, the palpably higher intellectual level of French religious thought may not have been to her unqualified merit. Only the lowest and most vulgar people in England felt any interest in chewing over their theological vomit and sectarian hair-splitting. They produced cant. The best minds of the English Restoration understood theology for the rubbish it was and so ignored it. Hume did not see this presumably because, unlike Voltaire, he lacked a background in the arts. Thus his evaluation of the Restoration is based almost solely on the morals of the poets and playwrights. Even that disapproval was mixed with grudging respect for their genuine merits; Hume never pushed as far as the bowdlerizing ninnies of the Victorian era. That England should have suppressed such a tumultuously superior literature, especially when she never had much to offer the world in the way of music or the visual arts, redounds to her everlasting disgrace.
The publishers would have done well to provide a bibliography of the works cited in Hume’s extensive footnotes. The train of last names and abbreviations is pretty much useless.
Hume himself does not number non-English monarchs making his text needlessly obscure particularly during the period when France seemed to be ruled by one “Lewis” after another.