In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Hume’s Political Thought

  • Introduction
  • Biography/Intellectual Biography
  • Locating Hume in the History of Political Thought
  • Toleration
  • Social Contracts
  • Jurisprudence
  • Sympathy and the Passions
  • Factionalism and Parties
  • Hume’s Influence on Early American Political Thought
  • Hume and Conservatism
  • Liberty
  • Society and the People

Political Science Hume’s Political Thought
Marc Hanvelt
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 August 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 August 2022
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0135


David Hume (b. 1711–d. 1776) was one of the central figures of what we now commonly call the Scottish Enlightenment. He lived and wrote during a time when questions about Scotland’s political future and its place both in Britain and in the world figured prominently. Only four years before Hume’s birth, Scotland united with England to form Great Britain. In the process, the Scots gave up their status as a separate kingdom with its own parliament. The political context of Hume’s world was also shaped by the legacy of the 17th-century political conflicts that had led to the English Civil War, resulting in the execution of one king (Charles I) and the overthrow of another (James II). The Jacobite uprisings of 1715 and 1745—the latter briefly saw Jacobite forces capture Edinburgh—made clear that those conflicts had not yet been settled. The place of religion and religious extremism in politics was still of great concern. It was only in 1696 that Thomas Aikenhead, a twenty-year-old student in Edinburgh, became the last Scot hanged for blasphemy. In Hume’s time, factions within the Kirk (Church of Scotland) competed for control of that institution and the social and political power it wielded. In the British Parliament, and in British society more widely, the often-virulent party politics of the day raised questions about the causes and effects of factionalism. To his contemporaries, Hume was known internationally as a man of letters and as a historian (Even today his entry in the catalogue of the British Library lists him simply as “the historian”). Hume was also a philosopher and an essayist. Political questions informed much that he wrote. He gave sustained attention to factionalism, religious and political extremism (what Hume termed “enthusiasm”), religious toleration, the origins and foundations of government, political authority, liberty, commerce, justice, and many other questions that are of central concern to political theorists. Generally speaking, Hume’s answers to these questions emphasized an empirically grounded account of human nature for understanding politics; the significance of historical and political contexts; the roles of opinion, habits, and conventions in political life; political moderation; and the limits of reason and the role of the passions in morals and politics. Hume developed his political thought most explicitly in political essays of the 1740s and 1750s, and in his multivolume History of England (1754–1762). Discussions of justice and allegiance to government, however, appeared first in Book 3 of A Treatise of Human Nature, and then again in revised form in An Enquiry concerning the Principles of Morals. Those interested in Hume’s political thought may also want to consult his works on religion (The Natural History of Religion and Dialogues concerning Natural Religion), and An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding. Hume’s letters should not be overlooked either; he was an engaging correspondent. Though some of his letters did not survive or have yet to be rediscovered, the published collections of Hume’s correspondence contain significant discussions of political topics that will be of great interest to students of his political thought.

Editions of Hume’s Writings

Until the late 1990s, the standard editions of A Treatise of Human Nature, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, and An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals were Hume 1978 (cited under A Treatise of Human Nature) and Hume 1975 (cited under An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding and An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals), commonly referred to as the Selbe-Bigge and Nidditch editions. Between 1998 and 2000, Oxford University Press released new student editions of the Treatise and the Enquiries. Hume 2000 (cited under A Treatise of Human Nature), Hume 1998, and Hume 1999 (both cited under An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding and An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals) did not entirely displace the Selby-Bigge and Nidditch editions but took their place alongside them as standard editions of these texts. In the secondary literature, you will regularly see both sets of editions cited. More recently, Oxford University Press has released the Clarendon Editions of the Works of David Hume. These editions offer the most extensive critical and interpretive content of any of the editions. In addition to the Treatise and the Enquiries, Oxford also released a Clarendon edition of the Dissertation on the Passions and The Natural History of Religion and, most recently, the Essays, Moral, Political, and Literary (Hume 2022). The standard edition of Hume’s essays has long been Hume 1987 (cited under Essays Moral, Political, and Literary): the Liberty Classics edition of Essays, Moral, Political, and Literary. The only currently available print edition of Hume’s History of England is also published by Liberty Classics. Both editions are very affordable. Finally, two collections of Hume’s correspondence have recently been reprinted by Oxford University Press as Hume 2011a and Hume 2011b; a third collection, Hume 2014, supplements these two (all cited under Hume’s Correspondence).

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