Ken Burns's new documentary on Benjamin Franklin is neither memorable nor inspiring.
David Hume at the Constitutional Convention
“I am an American in my Principles and wish we would let them alone to govern or misgovern themselves as they think proper.”
With these politically incorrect words, written in a letter to Baron William Mure of Caldwell during the turmoil of 1775, the Scotsman David Hume (1711-1776) forever became an honorary American citizen. And by his influence, he became an uninvited but welcomed delegate to the American Constitutional Convention.
Hume’s good friend and executor of his literary estate, Adam Smith wrote about political leadership in a time of “turbulence and “disorder.” It is a brief passage and one quite applicable to Americans in the early twenty-first century. Smith tells us in the mid-eighteenth century there are two types of political leaders in any society: one is a person of the “system” while the other is a person of the “public spirit.” The man of the “system”:
holds out some plausible plan of [social] reformation which, [he] pretends, will not only remove the inconveniences and relieve the distresses immediately complained of, but will prevent, in all time coming, any return of the like inconveniences and distresses. . . . The system man is intoxicated with the imaginary beauty of this ideal system, of which they have no experience, but which has been represented to them in all the most dazzling colors in which the eloquence of their leaders could paint it.
Contrarily, the man of the “public spirit”:
will accommodate, as well as he can, his public arrangements to the confirmed habits and prejudices of his people; and will remedy as well as he can, the inconveniences which may flow from the want of those regulations which the people are averse to submit to.
These descriptions are not just the chronologically bound musings of an eighteenth-century Scottish philosopher but observations that can be applicable to twenty-first–century American political society. Smith describes American “intoxicated idealistic” activists who want to “immediately” eradicate, eviscerate, and expunge anything that offends their sensibilities. We live in an age “drunk” with political power.
David Hume was a “public spirit” man through and through, and wrote reflectively, systematically, and widely to this end. He left a body of substantial work that effectively combats the age of dictatorial rationalism from a secular vantage point. Hume’s writings provided political guidance, social security, and economic direction for America’s Founding Fathers as they created a constitution (with all its flaws) for a new and more just Republic. Hume’s ideas, which were so influential to the colonials can still provide guardrails for contemporary American political discourse. David Hume’s influence in the shaping of American political society from its very beginning codification will be shown and his benefit for contemporary American society to preserve our union will become evident.
In eighteenth-century America, Hume’s seminal works were read by college students and young leaders throughout the colonies. The colonials wrote in Humean phraseology, presumably to those who also understood Hume’s thought. Hume’s notions of experience and skepticism, the uniformity of human nature, commerce, culture, factions, interests, customs, social institutions, and most importantly, the “science of politics,” were avidly studied, absorbed, and promulgated by the leading colonial minds. As Jeffry Morrison put it, “the ideas and language of Hume were in the colonial air.”
Hume’s political writings fit the pragmatic temper of the new Americans. From every state at the Constitutional Convention his ideas found purchase in the delegates’ debates, letters, and essays. What the Founding Fathers found attractive in Hume was his Scottish common sense, and his freedom from political and religious mysticism and convictions. Hume’s powerful practical intellect grounded in experience resulted in political compromise, the art of the experience. It is no paradox that Americans have always continued to have faith in their religion but skepticism in their politics. That is, we Americans expect our religion to be metaphysical, but we expect our politicians to be very physical. Thus, there is a sense in which Hume’s religious “mitigated skepticism” has its political application in the American civil experience.
Due to Hume’s influence, it is the American custom to believe that there are no easy answers to social problems, there are no honest politicians, and there is no place in America for political ideologues. Until now. Americans love their religion and despise their politicians. David Hume’s foundational influence in original American political thought and action is still operative in constitutional America. He is still a key to unlock the dangers of contemporary political “imagination” run amuck.
Boston attorney and Founding Father James Otis wrote in support of Humean experience as guiding one’s thinking, “what happened yesterday will come to pass again, and the same causes will produce like effects in all ages” since the laws of nature are “uniform and invariable.” Bernard Bailyn asserts that experience was the “basic presupposition of the eighteenth-century history and political theory.” Hume was just the pied piper of custom being the guide to understanding. For Hume and the early Americans, experience was not just a personal guide; it was a dependable political guide as well. Custom is king!
Hume’s emphasis on the value of convention and custom, expressed in “great orders and societies,” is important because it is only through felicitous social arrangements that the individual’s rights can be preserved against governmental arrangements. He also insists on an innate moral human nature from somewhere rather than a morality from a supreme Being, and therefore warrants continued attention on the great skeptic’s importance in our secular age. As regards metaphysics, Hume had a hesitant appreciation for Calvinism and the need for a transcendental perspective in human social life which, if handled properly, can provide social stability and prosperity.
When conservatives stress Lockean individual and autonomous rights, they play into the statists’ hand by eviscerating the protection that these agreeable Humean conventions provide for the individual in the face of an all-powerful, aggrandizing social, and political institution—the modern, rational Leviathan, the ultra-Hobbesian state. It is only through customs and habits and voluntarily and habitually bond communities and institutions that the individual’s rights will be protected.
It is not profitable for the intellectual conservative movement in the United States to neglect David Hume’s contribution to an articulated philosophic and political conservatism that opposes the rationalized state. Multiple scholars have noted Hume’s conservative credentials, but all from a secular, skeptical vantage point. As a conservative evangelical Presbyterian, I argue that Hume should be seen as a secular fountain head from the very beginning of American political thought, even for those who disagree with his religious ideas, as plenty of Convention delegates did.
Hume’s conservatism might well be called “empirical” conservatism. For him, it was a pre-Darwinian matter of one social “faction” or “party” versus another in the give and take of politics, believing that the more useful “orders and societies” will survive. For political and social conservatives, the need for strong social “factions” (e.g., families, churches, synagogues, schools, unions, trade associations, clubs) is great, because they are the only things that can withstand against a strong, centralized, rationalized, and armed jealous government. Social associations and institutions are important and effective because they have a history of habituation, familiarity, and respect. Any change in the institution will properly encounter resistance unless, and until, the proposed innovation has accumulated a similar body of habit and sentiment to enable the “adjustment.” It is, in short, custom, tradition, membership in a society, and not abstract reason, which gives a moral quality to human life.
Hume’s insistence that personal identity is formed in the crucible of personal history, that we know ourselves as we experience the world around us and our reaction to that world, can be a non-supernatural basis for the conservative view that we are what history makes us. The humanness of our condition can only be understood and appreciated in the environment of the “common life” of the individual person. Hume shows great sympathy for the “common” problems and relationships in the everyday life of the citizen, realizing that a structuring of society must consider the gradual historical development of its citizenry to be legitimate. Politicians must be historians.
Conservatives are right to criticize abstract political rationalists for subverting social habits, traditions, and institutions. To sustain civilization, we must be able not only to distinguish between good and bad, but cultivate a disposition to do good rather than bad. While many conservatives like me look to Christian teaching for that guidance and disposition, we ought, in an increasingly secular age, to leave open the option of looking at the skeptic Hume. David Hume becomes relevant at this point because he stresses human historical experience as it has accrued through Judeo-Christianized custom, habit, and convention. He gives us a coherent philosophy of the traditional “common life”—one which might help us fashion a stable, free, and just society in which to flourish as a people, even in our changing and increasingly unjust world. As the Founding Father John Dickinson (1732-1808) wrote, “Experience must be our only guide. Reason may mislead us.”
Every generation of Americans needs to be reminded of the wisdom and perception of David Hume’s political ideas. It does not do us well to forget what the Founding Fathers knew. The stakes are huge. Forrest McDonald, in his “Foreword” to M.E. Bradford’s Original Intentions, quotes Daniel Webster as warning, “Hold on to your Constitution, for if the American Constitution shall fail there will be anarchy throughout the world.”