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Modern Jewish Writers of France. Napoleonic Press. My chief concern has not been with what really happened in England between and nor even primarily with what Hume really said about the Great Rebellion although, with regard to this last point, I have provided in the second part of my introduction a brief survey of his general views concerning the activities of that period. That the French misinterpreted the Scottish historian in many instances is, of course, entirely possible, but I have not insisted on this point.
Influence thrives on illusion as easily as on truth. It is the image—whether faithful or distorted—that transmits influence. When, in his History of the Stuarts, Hume came to consider the scholarly merits of his predecessor Clarendon, he gave expression to a sentiment Edition: current; Page: [ xv ] which he might easily have allowed, I think, to be quite properly applied to himself.
In the seventeen-fifties when Hume composed his History of the Stuarts it was clearly neither fashionable nor profitable to apologize for King Charles. The Whig party, Hume tells us, had, for a course of nearly seventy years, enjoyed the whole authority of government. In some particulars the state had not suffered as a result. But history, certainly, had suffered and truth had suffered.
The biased writings of such apologists as Rapin-Thoyras, Locke, and Sidney were praised and propagated as if they equalled the most celebrated compositions of antiquity. Hume also observes that extremes of all kinds in these matters are to be avoided; truth and certainty are most likely to be met with on middle ground. There is little doubt that Hume hoped his own history would be seen as brilliantly impartial.
As he set about his attack on the fortress of Whig dogma, Hume made persistent and unwavering use of one favourite weapon: his contrary—and, many thought, perverse—view of what the English constitution was like before the accession of the Stuart kings.
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However different it may have been in other particulars, the government of England under Elizabeth bore, with respect to the question of liberty, a distinct resemblance to that of the eighteenth-century Turks VI. Under Elizabeth the legislative power of Parliament was a mere illusion, the liberty of the subject nonexistent. The popular party, on the other hand, exclaimed constantly against the arbitrary principles of Charles I. We are not to believe, however, that Hume looked back with fond regret to the days of the Tudors or Stuarts. This would be missing the entire point he attempted to make.
But the eighteenth-century English did have one obligation at least as they looked back on their own political history: this was the duty to approach past events with a proper sense of perspective. Hume clearly felt that he had achieved this just sense of perspective and the result is that he made every effort while dealing with the civil-war period to understand and forgive the policies of James I and Charles I. Whether he also understood and forgave with equal sympathy and justice the policies of their opponents has remained, however, a matter of much heated debate ever since the first volume of his Stuarts appeared in For Hume the moral issues of the case are not simplified, moreover, by the fact that what were traditionally described as the major vices of these early Stuarts could equally well be viewed as ill-timed but honest virtues.
These were not the grander virtues, to be sure, but the every-day virtues of sincerity, integrity, and conviction. Perhaps James erred occasionally in forgetting to ask himself the question What is best? This is because he believed in all piety that the question What is established? Hume has no doubts about what was established when James came to the English throne.
Everyone accepted in those times the doctrine of blind and unlimited passive obedience to the prince. Under no pretence had it ever been seen as lawful for subjects to depart from or infringe that doctrine. So completely had these principles prevailed that, during the reigns of Elizabeth and her predecessors, opposition to them was regarded as the most flagrant sedition not only by the monarch but by the people as well.
James I had thus inherited an absolute throne. Was it not natural for him to take the government as he found it and to pursue the long-applauded measures of the popular Elizabeth?
Perhaps, Hume adds, but it is something of an afterthought, James should have realized that his character and his circumstances could not support so extensive an authority. In fact his major difficulties arose chiefly from these circumstances which had suffered during his reign a radical transformation. Ordinary human prudence, the usual trust in cause and effect is baffled by it and the operation of every motive which normally influences human society fails VII.
Now this spirit of religion or rather of enthusiasm, uncontrolled, obstinate, and dangerous, violently inclined the Puritans to adopt republican principles and to form a strong attachment to civil liberty. Laud and his associates by reviving a few primitive institutions of this nature had corrected the error of the first reformers. The net result of his action was to inflame that religious fury which he meant to repress.
Was not Parliament after all the aggressor during this unhappy period of civil discord? The Stuart kings had fought only a defensive campaign forced on them by the fact that Parliament had unilaterally seen fit to change the rules of the game and had innovated violently in constitutional matters. The motivation of these patriots is suspect.
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Hume notes, for example, that the untimely end of Hampden leaves doubtful and uncertain whether his conduct was founded in a love of power or a zeal for liberty. With Cromwell, of course, there is no such doubt and uncertainty. The opponents of Charles did not fight for liberty; they fought for ignorant and fanatical trivialities. Their fathers had been entirely satisfied with the government of Elizabeth: why should they have been thrown into such extreme rage against Charles, who, from the beginning of his reign, wished only to maintain Edition: current; Page: [ xx ] such a government?
And why not, at least, compound matters with him, when by all his laws, it appeared that he had agreed to depart from it? Perhaps the revolution, up to a certain point and despite its trivial origins, did achieve some positive good. Hume even confesses a willingness at one point to admit that a few old eggs had to be broken to make the new omelette. They forgot that authority as well as liberty is requisite to government and is even requisite to the support of liberty itself, by maintaining the laws which can alone regulate and protect it VII. Such schemes when held by men in power are dangerous.