Home  »  Volume X: English THE AGE OF JOHNSON  »  § 5. Hume’s History of England: its character and literary style; its Toryism

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.

XII. Historians

§ 5. Hume’s History of England: its character and literary style; its Toryism

Some insight into the conduct of the great affairs of nations he gained as secretary to general St. Clair during his ineffectual expedition against Lorient in 1746, when Hume acted as judge advocate, and while attached to St. Clair’s embassy to Vienna and Turin in 1748. By 1747, he had “historical projects.” His appointment as librarian to the faculty of advocates at Edinburgh, in 1752, gave him command of a large library well stocked with historical works, and he forthwith set about his History of England. Intending to trace the steps by which, as he believed, the nation had attained its existing system of government, he had at first thought of beginning his work with the accession of Henry VII; for he imagined that the first signs of revolt against the arbitrary power of the crown were to be discerned during the Tudor period, and of carrying it down to the accession of George I. Finally, however, he began with the accession of James I, alleging, as his reason, that the change which took place in public affairs under the Tudor dynasty was “very insensible,” and that it was “under James that the House of Commons first began to rear its head, and then the quarrel betwixt privilege and prerogative commenced.” The first volume of his History of Great Britain, containing the reigns of James I and Charles I, appeared in 1754. He was sanguine in his expectations of the success of the work; but, though for a few weeks it sold well in Edinburgh, it met with almost universal disapprobation and seemed likely to sink into premature oblivion. Its unfavourable reception was mainly due, as we shall see later, to political reasons. Hume was bitterly disappointed, and even thought of retiring to France and living there under an assumed name. His second volume, which ended with the revolution of 1688, and appeared in 1756, was less irritating to whig sensibilities: it sold well and helped the sale of the first. Then he worked backwards, and published two volumes on the Tudor reigns in 1759, ending, in 1761, with two on the history from the time of Julius Caesar to the accession of Henry VII. He did not carry out his original idea of bringing his work down to 1714. By that time, the sale of his History had become large, and had made him, he said, “not merely independent but opulent”; and it kept its place in popular estimation as the best comprehensive work on English history for at least sixty years. The first two published volumes were translated into French in 1760; and in Paris, where Hume resided from 1763 to 1766, during part of the time as secretary of legation, he received, both as historian and as philosopher, an amount of adulation which excited the spleen of Horace Walpole.

Hume gave so little time to preparation for his task that it is evident that he had no idea of writing a scientific history. With all due allowance for the infinitely greater facilities which now exist for arriving at the truth, it cannot be contended that he took full advantage of such authorities as were then accessible: he seems to have been content with those under his hand in the advocates’ library; he was not critical as to their comparative value; and he was careless in his use of them. His History, consequently, contains many misstatements which he might have avoided—some of small importance, others of a serious kind, as they affect his conclusions. Of these, a typical instance, noticed by Hallam, is, that he misstates the complaint of the Commons in 1396 that sheriffs were continued in office beyond a year, as a petition that they might be so continued, and uses this mistake in defence of the misgovernment of Richard II.

His later published volumes, on the history before the Tudor dynasty, become more and more superficial as he advances further into times which were obscure to him, in which he took no interest, regarding them as ages of barbarism, and on which he would scarcely have written save for the sake of completeness. What he set out to do was to write a history which would be generally attractive—for he appealed “ad populum as well as ad clerum”—and would be distinguished from other histories alike by its style and by its freedom from political bias, a matter on which he was insistent in his correspondence. He approached his work, then, in a spirit of philosophic impartiality, or, at least, believed that he did so—a belief commonly dangerous to a historian—and, throughout its course, adorned it with judgments and reflections admirable in themselves though not always appropriate to facts as they really were. Here, his philosophical treatment ends: he shows no appreciation of the forces which underlay great political or religious movements. As a sceptic, he did not recognise the motives which led men to work for a common end, or the influences which guided them. Such movements were, to him, mere occurrences, or the results of personal temperament, of the ambition, obstinacy, or fanaticism of individuals. The advance of historical study is indebted to him; for his praiseworthy attempts at various divisions of his narrative to expound social and economic conditions were an innovation on the earlier conception of a historian’s duty as limited to a record of political events.

Hume’s History occupies a high place among the few masterpieces of historical composition. His expression is lucid, conveying his meaning in direct and competent terms. It is eminently dignified, and is instinct with the calm atmosphere of a philosophic mind which surveys and criticises men and affairs as from an eminence. Its general tone is ironical, the tone of a man conscious of intellectual superiority to those whose faults and follies he relates. His sentences are highly polished; they are well balanced and their cadence is musical. They are never jerky, and they flow on in a seemingly inevitable sequence. Their polish does not suggest elaboration; their beauties, so easy is Hume’s style, appear careless and natural. In fact, however, he made many corrections in his manuscript; he was anxious to avoid Scotticisms and, in a careful revision of the first edition of his earlier volumes, removed all he detected. Johnson, with his usual prejudice against Scotsmen, declared, he “does not write English, the structure of his sentences is French.” Though this was a conversational exaggeration, it was more deliberately echoed by Lord Mansfield, and it is so far true that Hume’s easy style indicates French influence, and, as Horace Walpole observed, the influence of Voltaire. The same may be said of the style of other contemporary Scottish writers, of Robertson, Adam Smith and Ferguson. While he never falls below dignity, he never rises to eloquence. The prose of his age was generally colourless, and his abhorrence of enthusiasm of every kind rendered this greyness of tone especially appropriate as a vehicle of his thoughts. Yet, though elegance rather than vigour is to be looked for in his writing, its irony gives it a force which, at the least, is as powerful as any which could be obtained by a more robust style. His excellences are not without their defects. Charmed, at first, by the polish of his sentences, the reader may, perhaps, soon find them cold, hard and monotonous; and since historical narrative will not excite sustained interest unless it appeals to the imagination and emotions as well as to the judgment, Hume’s attitude of philosophic observer and dispassionate critic may become wearisome to him and, as he discovers that the philosopher is not free from prejudice, even irritating. In the composition of his History, Hume shows in a remarkable degree a skill which may be described as dramatic: when working up to some critical event, he selects and arranges his facts, so that each leads us a step further towards the climax that he has in view; he tells us nothing that is extraneous to his immediate purpose; there is no anticipation and no divagation in his narrative.

In spite of his belief in his own impartiality, Hume was justly accused of tory prejudice, and this caused the ill-success of his first published volume. He did not, of course, regard the royal authority as founded on divine appointment any more than on contract. As a utilitarian, he held that the end of government was the promotion of the public good, and that monarchy was based on the necessity of escape from lawless violence. While he admitted that resistance to sovereignty might be justifiable, he considered this doctrine so dangerous to society, as opening the door to popular excesses, that it should be concealed from the people unless the sovereign drove his subjects from their allegiance. This theory affected his view of the Stewart period. Ignorant of common law, as a Scotsman might well be, and of earlier English history, and inclined to scepticism, he failed to recognise the fundamental liberties of the nation. To him, they were “privileges,” more or less dependent on the will and strength of the monarch; they had no common foundation in the spirit of the people, there was no general “scheme of liberty.” He held that, at the accession of James I, the monarchy was regarded as absolute, and that, though Charles pushed the exercise of the prerogative too far, it was practically almost unlimited. The parliament made encroachments upon it: Charles defended his lawful position. Hume did not undervalue the liberties for which the parliamentary party contended, but he blamed them for the steps by which they asserted and secured them. His opinions were probably affected by his dislike of the puritans as much as by his erroneous theory of constitutional history: “my views of things,” he wrote, “are more conformable to Whig principles, my representations of persons to Tory prejudices.” His scepticism led him to sneer at a profession of religious motives. To the church of England in Charles’s reign, he accorded his approval as a bulwark of order, and, possibly, because in his own day it afforded many examples of religious indifference; and, including all the sects under the common appellation of puritans, he condemned them as “infected with a wretched fanaticism” and as enemies to free thought and polite letters. The extent to which his prejudices coloured his treatment of the reign of Charles I may be illustrated by his remarks on the penalties inflicted by the Star chamber and by his sneer at the reverence paid to the memory of Sir John Eliot, “who happened to die while in custody.”

His second volume was not so offensive to the whigs, for he held that limitations to the prerogative had been determined by the rebellion, and that Charles II and James II tried to override them. In his treatment of the reign of Elizabeth, his misconception of the constitution again came to the front and again caused offence; for he regarded the queen’s arbitrary words and actions as proofs that it was an established rule that the prerogative should not be questioned in parliament, and that it was generally allowed that the monarchy was absolute. The same theory influenced his treatment of some earlier reigns, especially those of Henry III, Edward II and Richard II. His contempt for the Middle Ages as a rude and turbulent period, which he derived from, or shared with, Voltaire encouraged his error. Quarrels between kings and their subjects might result in diminutions of monarchical powers, but, in such barbarous times, no system of liberty could have been established. No one now reads Hume’s History, though our more conscientious and more enlightened historians might learn much from it as regards the form in which the results of their labours should be presented: its defects in matter, therefore, are of little consequence, while its dignity, its masterly composition and its excellence of expression render it a literary achievement of the highest order.