Hume’s Partial Solution to Political Factions

“As Knud Haakonssen has underscored, Hume was fearful of the rise and persistence of factionalism in Britain, and the political instability this engendered. A considerable swath of Hume’s analysis of political governance and obligation can be understood as pivoting around these fears. The primary divide circa 1750 was not religious but economic, the factions of court and country, Whig and Tory, merchant and aristocrat. Hume believed the burgeoning public debt unleashed by Robert Walpole would only exacerbate the situation. How to remedy these tendencies? Hume upheld the system of mixed monarchy for Britain but also aspired to transform the dispositions and characters of the principal agents themselves. The interests of merchants were not so divergent from the interests of the landed class, Hume maintained, and with time, could become more convergent. The task at hand was to take the rough clay of the nouveau riche and mould them more firmly into an honourable group of people without succumbing to a system of aristocratic title.

As I have argued in a recent article (“Hume’s Honourable Merchant” EJHET, 2014), one can read Hume’s Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (1751) as, among other things, a vade mecum to forging good character, particularly for readers of the merchant class. Hume hoped that if the merchant could strive for honour in the private sphere, this virtue would spill over into the public sphere and bring mercantile interests more in line with the status quo. It might also lay a more solid foundation for sustaining the commercial order for future generations, since Hume was sceptical that the current institutions could safeguard the accumulated civility that came with modern commerce. My talk will sketch this interpretation, drawing on a number of Hume’s texts, and thus advance all the more the economic underpinnings of his political thought.”