Hume's Political Discourses

With an In­tro­duc­tion by Wil­liam Bell Rob­ert­son, Auth­or of “Foun­da­tions of Pol­i­ti­cal Econ­o­my,” “Slav­ery of La­bour,”

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Regretting the meagre records of the life of Adam Smith, the Right Hon. R. B. Haldane, M.P., remarks:—“We think of him, in the main, and we think of him rightly, as the bosom friend of David Hume” (b. 1711, d. 1777). Naturally, incidents in the life of a philosopher are neither numerous nor stirring. It is unreasonable to expect them, and such stories as are handed down regarding great thinkers are best not to be accepted unreservedly. I leave Hume, therefore, to present his own picture as drawn in My own Life—the picture he wished posterity to have—which consequently follows this introduction, and is itself followed by Adam Smith’s celebrated letter to Mr. Strahan, Hume’s publisher, giving an account of Hume’s death.

It is chiefly as a political economist that Hume concerns us here, as it is in the Political Discourses, first published in 1752, his economic principles are set forth. What the reader may expect to find in these Discourses I prefer to let writers of renown tell. Thus Lord Brougham—

“Of the Political Discourses it would be difficult to speak in terms of too great commendation. They combine almost every 


excellence which can belong to such a performance. The reasoning is clear, and un­en­cum­bered with more words or more illus­tra­tions than are necessary for bringing out the doctrines. The learning is extensive, accurate, and profound, not only as to systems of philosophy, but as to history, whether modern or ancient. . . . The great merit, however, of these Discourses is their originality, and the new system of politics and political economy which they unfold. Mr. Hume is, beyond all doubt, the author of the modern doctrines which now rule the world of science, which are to a great extent the guide of practical statesmen, and are only prevented from being applied in their fullest extent to the affairs of nations by the clash­ing interests and the ignorant prejudices of certain powerful classes.”

Thus, again, J. Hill Burton, [2] Hume’s biographer—

“These Discourses are in truth the cradle of political economy; and much as that science has been investigated and expounded in later times, these earliest, shortest, and simplest developments of its principles are still read with delight even by those who are masters of all the literature of this great subject. But they possess a quality which more elaborate economists have striven after in vain, in being a pleasing object of study not only to the initiated, but to the ordinary popular reader, and of being admitted as just and true by many who cannot or will not understand the views of later writers on political economy. They have thus the rarely conjoined merit that, as they were the first to direct the way to the true sources of this department of knowledge, those who have gone farther, instead of superseding them, have in the general case confirmed their accuracy.”

The Discourses, in Hume’s own words, was “the only work of mine that was successful on the first publication,” and its success was great. Translated into French immediately, “they conferred,” says Professor Huxley, “a European reputation upon their 


author; and, what was more to the purpose, influenced the later school of economists of the eighteenth century.” On the same head Burton says—“As no Frenchman had previously approached the subject of political economy with a philosophical pen, this little book was a main instrument, either by causing assent or provoking controversy, in producing the host of French works published between the time of its translation and the publication of Smith’s Wealth of Nations in 1776. The work of the elder Mirabeau in particular—L’ami des Hommes—was in a great measure a controversial examination of Hume’s opinions on population.”

Professor Knight of St. Andrews, again, echoes similar sentiments.

“The merit of the Discourses,” he remarks, “is not only great, but they are unrivalled to this day; and it is not too much to affirm that they prepared the way for all the subsequent economic literature of England, including the Wealth of Nations, in which Smith laid down the broad and durable foundations of the science. . . . The effect produced by theseDiscourses was great. Immediately translated into French, they passed through five editions in fourteen years. They were a distinctive addition to English literature, and were strictly scientific, though not technical. They at once floated Hume into fame, bringing him to the front, both as a thinker and as a man of letters; and posterity has ratified this judgment of the hour. . . . They contain many original germs of economic truth. The effect they had on practical statesmen, such as Pitt, must not be overlooked. It was perhaps an advantage that the economic doctrines, both of Hume and Smith, were published at that particular time, as they led naturally and easily to several reforms, without being developed to extremes, as was subsequently the case in France.”

All this testimony as to the merits of the 


Discourses—testimony from men of widely divergent views—is sufficient justification for offering them in popular form to the public at a time like the present, when the foundations of political economy are, one might say, being re-laid. [3]

We have already hinted at the friendship that existed between Hume and Adam Smith. Hume was Smith’s senior by twelve years, and seems to have had the latter brought under his notice by Hutcheson, Professor of Moral Philosophy at Glasgow University. In a letter to Hutcheson, dated March 4th, 1740, he says—“My bookseller has sent to Mr. Smith a copy of my book, [4]which I hope he has received as well as your letter.” “The Smith here mentioned,” Burton says, “we may fairly conclude, notwithstanding the universality of the name, to be Adam Smith, who was then a student in the University of Glasgow, and not quite seventeen years old. It may be inferred that Hutcheson had mentioned Smith as a person on whom it would serve some good purpose to bestow a copy of the Treatise; and we have here evidently the first introduction to each other’s notice of two friends, of whom it can be said there was no third person writing the English language during the same period who has had so much influence upon the opinions of mankind as either of these two men.”


Hume’s influence upon Adam Smith was great. Even in the ring of the phraseology of the Wealth of Nations I sometimes fancy I can hear Hume. Anyway, the book referred to in the above letter as sent to Smith, Mr. Haldane considers as “in all probability” the determining factor in making Smith abandon his original intention of entering the Church. “Whether Hume could have been but for Smith we cannot now say; but we know that, but for Hume, Smith could never have been.” [5] While agreeing that “but for Hume Smith could never have been,” I see no reason to question that Hume could have been without Smith. Hume had within him what may here be called the divine light, and it had to come out. That is why, “in poverty and riches, in health and sickness, in laborious obscurity and amidst the blaze of fame,” his ruling passion—a passion for literature—never abated. No man can strike out for himself an original line and stick to it like this, “through thick and thin,” unless he have assurance of the truth of that that is in him. Hume had this assurance. True, he sought fame—and he achieved fame; not for its own sake—that is inconceivable in so great a thinker, a thinker with such a true notion of the relation of things—but for the sake of the truths he had to promulgate; for the higher his eminence the wider and more attentive would be his audience. Of course, he sought fame, and he found gratification in it. It was not the gratification of vanity, however, that writers on Hume usually interpret it as; it was the gratification arising from the knowledge that one has hit the mark—that one has not laboured in vain. The petty vanity ascribed to Hume would not have 


suffered him as “the parent of the first elucidations of political economy to see his own offspring eclipsed, and to see it with pride”—his attitude, according to Burton, on the successful reception of The Wealth of Nations. Vanity, again, would have prevented between these two men that unalloyed friendship so charming to contemplate.

In 1776, the year before Hume’s death, The Wealth of Nations appeared, and here is how Hume writes to the author:—

February 8, 1776.

“DEAR SMITH,—I am as lazy a correspondent as you, yet my anxiety about you makes me write. By all accounts your book has been printed long ago; yet it has never been so much as advertized. What is the reason? If you wait till the fate of America be decided, you may wait long.

“By all accounts you intend to settle with us this spring; yet we hear no more of it. What is the reason? Your chamber in my house is always unoccupied. I am always at home. I expect you to land here.

“I have been, am, and shall be probably in an indifferent state of health. I weighed myself t’other day, and find I have fallen five complete stones. If you delay much longer I shall probably disappear altogether.

“The Duke of Buccleuch tells me that you are very zealous in American affairs. My notion is that the matter is not so important as is commonly imagined. If I be mistaken, I shall probably correct my error when I see you or read you. Our navigation and general commerce may suffer more than our manufactures. Should London fall as much in its size as I have done, it will be the better. It is nothing but a hulk of bad and unclean humours.”

At last the book appears, and Hume writes his friend, April 1st, 1776:—


“I am much pleased with your performance; and the perusal of it has taken me from a state of great anxiety. It was a work of so much ex­pec­ta­tion by your­self, by your friends, and by the pub­lic, that I trem­bled for its first ap­pearance, but am now much relieved. Not but that the reading of it neces­sarily requires so much attention, and the public is dis­posed to give so little, that I shall still doubt for some time of its being at first very popular. But it has depth and solidity and acuteness, and is so much illustrated by curious facts that it must at last take the public at­ten­tion. It is probably much improved by your last abode in London. If you were here at my fire­side, I should dispute some of your prin­ci­ples. I cannot think that the rent of farms makes any part of the price of pro­duce, [6] but that the price is determined altogether by the quantity and the demand. . . . But these and a hundred other points are fit only to be discussed in con­ver­sa­tion.”

Hume, though he “took a particular pleasure in the company of modest women, and had no reason to be displeased with the reception he met with from them,” died unmarried. Adam Smith also died unmarried, “though he was for several years,” according to Dugald Stewart, “attached to a young lady of great beauty and accomplishment.” Hume, in the Essay “Of the Study of History,” speaks of being desired once by “a young beauty for whom I had some passionto send her some novels and romances for her amusement.” David was a “canny” man though. In these circumstances the following playful sally in a letter from Hume to Mrs. Dysart, of Eccles, a relative, may have interest:—“What arithmetic will serve to fix the proportion between good and bad wives, and rate the different classes of each? Sir Isaac Newton himself, 


who could measure the course of the planets and weigh the earth as in a pair of scales—even he had not algebra enough to reduce that amiable part of our species to a just equation; and they are the only heavenly bodies whose orbits are as yet uncertain.”

The foregoing are mere glimpses of this truly great man, and are offered with a view to awakening and stimulating amongst general readers a desire for first-hand knowledge of David Hume.

W. B. R.

May 1906.

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