The Social Affairs Unit

Print Version • Website Home • Weblog Home

Use the buttons below to change the style and font size of our site.
Screen version     Print version:   
May 24, 2005

History with a Happy Ending? - David Hume's The History of England Vol. VI

Posted by Lincoln Allison

The History of England, Vol VI.
by David Hume
Vol. VI was originally written in 1754-5
Hume's final corrected edition of The History of England was published in 1778.

References are to the Liberty Fund Classic edition published in 1983, but based on the 1778 edition.

Perhaps the most famous statement in the whole of David Hume's History of England occurs on page 531 of the sixth and final volume. The establishment of William of Orange as king, says Hume:

. . gave such an ascendant to popular principles, as has put the nature of the English constitution beyond all controversy. And it may justly be affirmed, without any danger of exaggeration, that we, in this island, have ever since enjoyed, if not the best system of government, at least the most entire system of liberty, that ever was known amongst mankind.

It is in several respects similar to the speech with which Shakespeare concludes not only Richard III but the whole saga of eight contiguous plays about pre-Tudor England. Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond, says:

England hath long been mad, and scarr'd herself;
The brother blindly shed the brother's blood,
The father rashly slaughter'd his own son,
The son, compell'd, been butcher to the sire;

In his magnanimous vision of the union of Lancaster and York, Henry says:

And let their heirs (God, if thy will be so)
Enrich the time to come with smooth-fac'd peace
With smiling plenty, and fair prosperous days.

The most important similarity between the two passages lies in the character of the two beneficent monarchs. Shakespeare shows a marked lack of interest in Henry Tudor to whom he might have given a much greater and more interesting role. True, caution was needed because he was the grandfather of Shakespeare's own sovereign. But Shakespeare also shows an interesting lack of interest in the character of Octavius, also one of history's great success stories, in both Julius Caesar and Anthony and Cleopatra.

Hume, writing history rather than historical drama, is very specific about William of Orange. He is a boring man of no great virtue and no clear principles, but he is effective and a pragmatist and Hume claims that there is nobody in the whole of human history whose decisions have had a better effect on the welfare of mankind. This is the Not-Great Man theory of history. (King Juan Carlos might be a candidate in our own era.)

Hume wrote his History from 1754 to 1762 which took him from his early forties to his early fifties. Volume I became the most notorious because of its less than enthusiastic account of the coming of Christianity, but Hume wrote the last two volumes, covering the Stuart period, first and there is no doubt that he considered them to be the most philosophically and politically important.

Volume VI covers the forty years from 1649 to 1689, from the execution of Charles I to the "Glorious Revolution". It is barely a period of actual civil war: Worcester in 1651 and Sedgemoor in 1685 are the greatest confrontations on English soil in this period and they are not on the same scale as the battles of Volume V. But it is a period of incipient civil war, of military rule, insurrection, vendetta, plot, panic, execution, show trial and appalling cruelty. Not to mention fire and plague. The Popish Plot of 1678 is probably the worst example of mass hysteria in our history and the battle of Sedgemoor in 1685 and its aftermath the cruellest and most unpalatable slaughter. In this latter context Hume offers the story (pp. 482-3) of a certain Colonel Kirke, a man of oriental experiences and tastes who relishes the task of executing the rebels. He offers one girl the life of her brother in return for sex only to show her his hanged body swinging in the wind once he has had his evil way - whereupon she goes mad.

This is a dense narrative often containing an almost suspicious degree of detail. We are told of the innkeeper who nearly captures Charles II after Worcester because the manufacture of his horseshoes does not tally with his story and of the ferns which Monmouth pulls over himself in the ditch in which he hides after his rebellion has failed. Hume is not a research historian in the modern way, but – to use his own word – a "sofa" historian who reconstructs the existing accounts. His most obvious virtue is an eloquent and intelligent writing style, but his most important virtue is a philosophical overview which is often well hidden under the dense narrative.

Hume's account is balanced in its treatment of both character and principle. Typically, he says of Cromwell (p. 80):

. . no human mind ever contained so strange a mixture of sagacity and absurdity as this extraordinary personage.
Both Cromwell and the extreme republican Admiral Blake are seen as excellent protectors of the national interest. James II is described as a good man and even a good monarch in many respects, but whose fatal flaw of inflexibility dooms him. Hume is always capable of placing political history into its economic and cultural context. His statement about Newton may be a little overblown (p. 534):
In Newton this island may boast of having produced the greatest and rarest genius that ever arose for the ornament and instruction of the species.
Nonetheless it has more or less stood the test of time.

It is central to Hume's account of history that nobody won the great contests of seventeenth century theology and political theory. The famous "happy ending" statement may sound as if it is drawn from a Whig theory of history, but Hume very explicitly dismisses any idea that the Stuarts were deposed because they broke any kind of contract or failed to observe fundamental rights vested in the people. But he is also as dismissive of Tory ideas of divine right and passive obedience. The mistake of the seventeenth century was to think that government could be founded on fundamental principles. The solution to the hell-on-earth which that produced lies not in resolving the arguments, but in abandoning them.

Nobody is better than Hume at analysing the logical conundrums which arise from seventeenth century fundamentalism. The people's representatives in 1688 cannot say that James II has abdicated because he has not, so they try to say he has deserted his throne. But ancient doctrine says that the throne is never vacant which would make the infant James III – whose birth has precipitated the crisis – king and William of Orange merely regent, pending the return of James II. Or III?

Hume is, of course, a Scot though a very North British one. Just as he is keen that we put the fundamentalism of the previous century behind us, so he is more than willing to jettison any distinctive Scottish political culture. Nothing could be further from Braveheart than these statements (on p. 223):

The Scottish nation, though they had never been subject to the arbitrary power of their prince, had but very imperfect notions of law and liberty; and scarcely in any age had they ever enjoyed an administration, which had confined itself within the proper boundaries. By their final union alone with England, their once hated adversary, they have happily attained the experience of a government perfectly regular, and exempt from all violence and injustice.

Hume's happy ending proved a good deal more durable than Shakespeare's. When one compares the forty years covered by this volume and the forty years to 1485 with the forty years to 2005 during which my generation have lived their adult lives one must conclude that not only have we lived in almost unimaginably good times, but that these are part of a continuity stretching back to 1688 during which nothing like the events of the seventeenth century have occurred. Of course, there are always psychopaths and fanatics, the equivalents of the Colonel Kirkes and of the millenarians, seventh day adventists, levellers etc. whom Hume describes, but the lunatics have never got as close to taking over the asylum as they did in 1652. The mob is properly to be feared as Hume was aware (and Shakespeare, too, especially in Henry VI, Part II), but probably less now than before.

But one should not be complacent: threats to moderation, liberty and mixed government may not exist on the seventeenth century scale, but they are certainly there in the form of extreme versions of human rights, of equality and of democracy. For these reasons if no other The History of England Volume VI remains a book it is important to read and to reflect on.

Lincoln Allison has recently retired as Reader in Politics, University of Warwick.

Comments Notice
This comments facility is the property of the Social Affairs Unit.
We reserve the right to edit, amend or remove comments for legal reasons, policy reasons or any other reasons we judge fit.

By posting comments here you accept and acknowledge the Social Affairs Unit's absolute and unfettered right to edit your comments as set out above.


· The answer to this and many more questions relating to Scotland’s greatest philosopher, can be found at St Mark’s Church, Castle Terrace (venue 125) for five days during the festival fringe in august.

· The world premier of the play “David Hume - Citizen of the World”, presented in a dramatic play reading form, will take place on Monday 8 August at 12.00 (noon), and lasts just under 90 minutes.

· The four other performances are on Tuesday 9 August at 7.30 pm, Wednesday 10 at 12.00 (noon), Thursday 11 at 12.00 (noon) and Sunday 14 at 5.00 pm.

· This existential, authentic and relevant play on the life and teaching of David Hume consists of an interview with his older sister Katherine, interspersed with contributions from many of his friends and admirers, as well as his main critics.

· Prominently featured are Adam Smith, (who considered Hume to be his closest friend), Benjamin Franklin, (who was assisted by Hume in Paris and Edinburgh), the Comtesse de Bouffler (one of Hume’s companions in France) and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, (who as a ten year old performed in many of the salons in Europe as well as for the Comtesse and David Hume).

· Also contributing are Hume’s physician, Dr William Cullen and his secretary and biographer J H Burton. Jean Jacques Rousseau displays his supposed grievances and the Rev. Prof. Thomas Reid profoundly disagrees with many of Hume’s ideas and statements.

· Included are tributes from a sceptic, a moralist, an historian, a political economist and a communicator, as well as Immanuel Kant and Jeremy Bentham..

· Throughout the presentation a commentator provides a link and highlights Hume’s relevance to the modern world while proposing his approach is needed even more now than during his lifetime.

· The play has been written by Wally Shaw and friends and is produced and directed by Graeme Ballantine. Richard Nasmyth plays David Hume and Josée Mobbs is Katherine Hume. The young Mozart will be performed by 10 year old Christopher Boerger from Indiana US. At the final performance Richard Nasmyth, who is keen to expand his acting experience, will take another part and Graeme Ballantine, the play’s Director, will play David Hume.David Hume: Citizen of the World

Dramatised play reading on the life and works of the Scottish Philosopher David Hume
And his friends, Adam Smith, Benjamin Franklin,And Wolfgang Mozart

Venue 125: St Mark’s Unitarian Church, Castle Terrace

Monday 8 August 12.00hrs – 13.30hrs
Tuesday 9 August 19.30hrs – 21.00hrs
Wednesday 10 August 12.00hrs – 13.30hrs
Thursday 11August 12.00hrs – 13.30hrs
Sunday 14 August 17.00hrs – 18.30hrs

Tickets £6.00 Concessions £4.00 Groups £2.00

Tickets available through:

Posted by: G at July 29, 2005 12:55 PM
Post a comment

Anti-spambot Turing code

Creative Commons License
Except where otherwise noted, this site is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

The Social Affairs Unit's weblog Privacy Statement