The Death of David Hume

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England's King George III is noted to have penned a single line of text into his diary on July 4, 1776: "Nothing important happened today." Of course, in the technical sense, he was right, though this is the date we Americans incorrectly identify as the anniversery of our independence from England. (Though, presumably, the King, sitting at his desk across the Atlantic Ocean, could have had no idea of the savage indictment against him that was in process of ratification at that very time.) Something interesting, and of obscure historical importance, did occur on this exact date, that no one in the American colonies was aware of: A dinner party was hosted in Edinburgh, Scotland, by one of their greatest champions in the Kingdom; in fact, it was the final appearance of this man who was the founder of the British Rennaissance, the Scottish Radical Enlightenment, and the agnostic school of philosophy, who would die within two months of this date.

David Home (he adopted the name of Hume, presumably as an adult), was born in Edinburgh on April 26, 1711. His father, along with a sister and older brother, had died when he was young, and he was brought up by his mother. A a student at the University of Edinburgh, he started out in the law, but ended up spending most of his time developing a passion for literature and writing that never left him. Hume moved Bristol in 1734 to work for a merchant there, but he quickly tired of the business world and left England for France, where over the following three years in Rheims, and La Flechee, he gradually nurtured his literary talents and wrote his first treatise, the two-volume "Treatise on Human Nature," which he published the year after returning to England in 1737 (but he was apparently disappointed with this work, claiming it was "dead born" from the moment it was published). In 1744, he published his "Essays, Moral and Political," in two volumes, applying also for the position of moral philosophy chair at the University of Edinburgh; but he was rejected because the town council viewed him as an immoral atheist.

Whether Hume was an atheist is debatable (though when asked, he said he didn't have enough faith to believe in the non-existence of God), but the important point to consider here is his philosophical viewpoint and its relation to the major political event taking place in his country during the last decade of his life. His whole philosophy is beyond our present scope; he is best known for the development of empircism, which has come to be seen as meaning that human knowledge is limited to what is experienced, as opposed to beliefs and ideas which can extend beyond experience; these last are based on the powers of reason and imagination, by which Hume linked them to the principles (as they existed in the 18th Century) of science. Hume's philosophy, supported by that of his contemporary John Locke, thus provided a basis for the "self-evident truths" doctrine advanced by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence.

The "Essays, Moral and Political," which was republished the year after his death, also provided several prinicipals of government which were later used by the framers of the Constitution Some of the most important essays include:

  • "On the Liberty of the Press"--Outlined the role of newspapers in checking government power.
  • "That Politics May be Reduced to a Science"--Advocated that the form a government takes (for instance, a republic versus a monarchy) is more important than the quality or character of the persons administering it.
  • "Of the First Principles of Gevernment"--Outlined the characteristics of "good" government.
  • "Of the Independency of Parliament"--Advocated seperation of powers.
  • "Whether the British Government Inclines More to Absolute Monarchy, or to a Republic"--Advocated a balance of powers.
  • "Idea of a Perfect Commonwealth"--Outlined a constitution for a federal republic which became a model and inspiration for the U.S. Constitution.

Hume also wrote essays on the birth and nature of political factions within governmental systems which might have provided a model for the rise of political parties in the U.S. Hume was influential with major European philosophers such as Voltaire, Kant, and Thomas Huxley, as well as with the leaders of the formation of the U.S. government such as James Madison, who used his ideas in the Federalist Papers supporting adoption of the Constitution.

Naturally, Humes's ideas did not make him popular with officials in his own government and leading citizens, and they might have led to some of his troubles getting accepted in the academic world. He went further than many Englishmen, no doubt, however, by his open support of the colonies in the struggles with the crown that ultimately led to the Revolution. As war clouds loomed, Hume, apparently along with close friend Adam Smith, tried to persuade Parliament to act to grant the colonies independence through legislation, but this effort failed.

During the last two years of his life, Hume's health went into decline as he suffered from the effects of what was probably intestinal cancer, and he began associating more with literary friends like Dr. Smith and John Home. On July 4, 1776, unaware of the significant political events taking place across the Atlantic which he had partly inspired, the dying philosopher hosted a dinner party for these friends. The gathering, important at the time only as a way for him to say goodbye to the people closest to him (no one, of course, knows the nature of the discussions that took place during this event), does not merit even a passing mention among contemporary historians, but it is interesting for its irony--that one of the leading advocates of American independence within the Kingdom of Britain, David Hume, in the last weeks of his life, became the first person to celebrate its independence, albeit unknowingly.

David Hume lingered for almost two months, probably in intense pain, before finally dying on August 26, 1776, aged 65 years. Considering the slowness of trans-oceanic communication at the time, it is unlikely that he ever learned of the passage of the Declaration of Independence, but he probably would have been satisfied at the news.


Suggested Redading:

"David Hume" in Wikipedia

"David Hume in Ideological Origins of the American Revolution," in http://www.shmoop.com/ideological-origins-of-american-revolution/david-hume.html

Hume and Montesquieu: Thinking About the American Revolution, " in http://www.boerner.net/jboerner/?p=366

Selected Essays, David Hume, in http://www.constitution.org/dh/hume.htm

Shaw, Wallace Allen. (2007). Jeremy Bentham, "The Pursuit of Happiness." From www.livingphilosophy.org.uk/Philosophy.../David-Hume-Play.doc

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davenmidtown 4 years ago from Sacramento, California

I started to read this and then I got lost. You write well and I would encourage you to continue to write. It would help readers if the text was broken up into text capsules. Those can be added using the edit hub feature and then copy and pasting paragraphs into them. There is also a link to the learning center on the drop down menu under your name at the top of this page.

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