Hume as 'Tory Historian': Political Uses and Misuses of His History of England
9 Pages Posted: 3 Mar 2011
Date Written: March 1, 2011
When the volumes of Hume’s History of England from the Invasion of Julius Caesar to the Revolution in 1688 appeared in print between 1754 and 1762, they were often read and appraised through the lens of contemporary political divisions. While this was true to some extent about all historical works written in the period, it was especially true for Hume, who chose to write his history backwards, beginning with the most recent era, that of the Stuart dynasty, which was full of highly contentious issues around which controversy still raged. His sympathetic treatment of Charles I, criticism of parliamentary leaders during the Civil War, disparaging of “fanatical” Puritans, and evenhanded treatment of issues like the “Popish Plot,” brought down the wrath of ardent Whigs upon his head. Conversely, Tories were pleased, though it did not escape their notice that Hume was far from endorsing doctrines like the divine right of kings. Similarly, in France, philosophes were appalled at his presumed endorsement of monarchical authority and the established church, while royalistes sang his praises. Such a conservative champion did le bon David seem through the rest of the ancien régime and revolutionary era that one modern scholar has dubbed him “prophet of the counter-Enlightenment.” In colonial America, recent scholarship has shown significant levels of interest in Hume’s History, contrary to earlier views that it was little read and slightly regarded. Initial American responses were somewhat more nuanced than those in France and Britain, though by the early Federal period, his history tended to be anathema to the followers of Jefferson, who famously denounced it as “poison.” A close examination of Hume’s History reveals a much more balanced, skeptical treatment than these polarized views suggest, with an overarching intent by the author to demythologize Britain’s past. In spite of his own Whiggish views, he took special pains to puncture the myths of the Whig party (like that of a supposedly free, representative constitution in Anglo-Saxon times), considering it unworthy of his fellow Whigs to ground their beliefs in anything other than a well informed, skeptical approach to history. Unbiased readers at the time in all three societies were aware of this, but by the closing years of the eighteenth century, the process of drastically Bowdlerizing Hume’s History was gaining ground, which only served to lock into place the author’s undeserved reputation as a Tory historian.
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