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A Revolutionary Reading List:
The Intellectual Tradition that Influenced the U.S. Founding Fathers

(Released April 2010)

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  by Carolyn Scearce  


Key Citations




David Hume


The philosophy of the Scottish Enlightenment holds a particularly influential place in the history of American thought, due in large part to the development of the College of New Jersey, later to be known as Princeton University. In the decade before the American Revolution, the Scottish Enlightenment had captured the interest of a number of teachers at the school. During this time, more than twenty students who were later to become important statesmen for the new country attended the College of New Jersey. Among these was James Madison, later to become the fourth President of the United States.

David Hume
David Hume
One of the most influential writers of the Scottish Enlightenment was the18th century philosopher and historian David Hume. His writings include a multivolume work on British History and numerous essays covering topics such as human nature, politics, and religion. His most politically relevant text, Political Discourses, published in 1752, consists of 12 chapters encompassing economics, trade, customs, ancient history, Britain's succession and Protestant government, and the ideal commonwealth.

The first 8 discourses cover mostly economic issues: commerce, luxury, money, interest, the balance of trade, the balance of power, taxes, and public credit. In these chapters Hume emphasizes a number of his beliefs about how economies work. In the first chapter, "On Commerce," he traces the economic changes that occur as a society moves from a hunter/gatherer culture to an agricultural and finally to an industrial society. Local commerce first develops in an agricultural society as excess of one form of produce is traded for excess of another agricultural commodity. As long as a society remains primarily agrarian, trade is limited both in scope and distance. People can only use as much food as can be consumed, while goods remain perishable. When agriculture improves to the point where only a portion of the society is required to produce all necessary food stuffs, the door to the production of more durable trade is open. By these means the product of labor can be transferred and preserved, and wealth can be accumulated.

Hume argues that money is merely a representation of the value of goods and labor within a given state. As such, the amount of money that exists in the economy was not very important to the economic health of a state, as the value of money rises and falls in proportion to the value that exists in the state. The increase of money may serve as a very temporary stimulus to industry, but ultimately will only lead to an increase in prices for goods and labor as the currency equalizes to the amount of value within the state. Hume advocated trade among countries, and believed that closing a state to the goods of a rival state ended up hurting both parties. When countries trade freely with each other, everyone benefits from the expanded exchange.

In the last of the discourses that focuses on economics Hume discusses public credit. He addresses the perception advocated by some, that public debt is advantageous to the state. Hume expresses considerable skepticism about this opinion, and states five of the disadvantages he believes are associated with British public debt: 1) That public debt confers disproportionate privileges to London: 2) That the paper stocks issued to finance public debt free more gold and silver for circulation and lead to raised prices: 3) That taxes are required to pay the interest on public debt: 4) That when foreigners buy up public debt it makes Britain tributary to them: 5) That debt encourages idleness. He also expresses concern that public debt would lead to a national breach of faith.

The tenth discourse, "Of the populousness of Ancient Nations," takes up over a third of the book. In it Hume discusses the evidence for and against the assumption that the population in ancient times exceeded the population at the time the book was written. He is inclined to support the idea that the world's population was equal to or less than the then current population. He criticizes the tendency to glorify the past, suggesting that human nature and society changes little over time.

In the eleventh discourse, "Of the Protestant Succession," Hume considers the pros and cons of replacing the Stuart line of succession of the English monarchy with that of the Hanovers. The Stuart line was still associated with Catholicism, while the Hanover line was Protestant. Hume believed that public liberty and peace had been associated by initiating a Protestant monarchy, though he still harbored concerns about the possibility of violent rebellion associated with partisanship with the older royal line. He holds up Britain as a model of personal liberty for all of Europe. He farther states, "For my part, I esteem liberty so invaluable a blessing in society, that whatever favors its progress and security, can scarce be too fondly cherish'd by every one, who is a lover of human kind." In the final discourse, "Idea of a perfect Commonwealth," Hume discusses his vision of the ideal society, focusing on the organization of the government.

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