Hume and the political philosopher 1

There is a famous dispute, among the intellectual historians of the early American Republic, about the extent to which Madison borrowed from Hume. The dispute may, on the surface, be about ‘borrowing’ ideas, but underneath it is about the mechanisms by which nations are formed, and the place of ‘ideas’ in history, one of the great arguments in the White Mythology.

It was Douglass Adair who gave the dispute its modern form by emphasizing, against the economicist views of Charles Beard, the effect of intellectual history on the shaping of the Constitution. Adair pointed to the borrowings from Hume in the Federalist 10. Adair pictured Madison with a book of Hume’s essays, opened to “Idea of a Perfect Commonwealth”, in which Hume wrote:

“Though it is more difficult to form a republican government in an extensive country than in a city; there is more facility, when once it is formed, of preserving it steady and uniform, without tumult and faction.”

Hume goes on to suggest a two fold process, in which the people, including the lowest, vote, followed by the work of the highest magistrates, presumably the representatives of the people, who then do something like forming a government – which is exactly how the American Senate was first instituted.

Edward Morgan, coming after Adair, admitted the intertext, but debated the inference: to him, Hume’s passage was about a community without faction, whereas Madison, reaching back to his Montesquieu, advocated a community in which party would block party. This, Morgan claimed, was a trope of a different color. [I take this general history from Mark Spencer’s “Madison and Hume on Faction (2002)]

I’m going to leave behind the argument about Hume’s influence on Madison and focus on Hume’s very negative image of the political intellectual. This type seems to function in two incompatible ways in Hume’s thinking – on the one hand, we cannot credit the political theorist with forming the commonwealth – all Platonic Republics are born and die in the heads of their creators – because the commonwealth is the result of the struggles of the interest and passions of different parts of the population. But if the philospher cannot positively shape the commonwealth according to his ideas, he can, on the other hand, introduce factional strife into the commonwealth.

This sums up a sense of the intellectual that is very much part of the Anglo culture.

James Buchan, in Crowded with Genius, summed up Hume’s dissent from Whig historiography as follows:

“In essays such as ‘Of the Liberty of the Press’, he portrayed Britain as a precarious equilibrium of often disreputable forces – Court patronage, parliamentary corruption, a free press,commercial competition – that were the residue of the violent political conflicts of the seventeenth century. For all his Scottish origins and friendships, he had no time for Whig or indeed any ideology: there was rarely, he later wrote, any ‘philosophical origin to government’.3 The British constitution was for Hume the
product of violence, and its form was both unintended and precarious.It was also, as might have been expected, civilian: a creation, as he also later wrote, of ‘that middling rank of men, who are the best and firmest basis of public liberty’.(86)

Hume anticipates Burke’s acidic view of the ‘theory men’ who, in his view, were dissolving the organic order of France in order to institute a structure unfounded in custom or piety – one that could only legitimate itself by the appeal to raw economic self-interest. But Hume moves in a different direction than Burke later did, and his eyes were on a story that Burke would have preferred be shrouded in reverent obscurity: that of the rise of Christianity and the fall of Rome.