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Making excuses for Hume: slavery, racism and a reassessment of David Hume’s
thoughts on personal liberty.

The literati of the Scottish Enlightenment have long been associated with the abolition

of slavery due to the writings of Francis Hutcheson and, famously, Adam Smith. Antislavery

activist Thomas Clarkson wrote in his own history of the abolition of the slave trade, ‘it is a

great honour to the University of Glasgow, that it should have produced, before any public

agitation of this question, three professors, all of whom bore their public testimony against

the continuance of the cruel trade.’1 That these three professors, Hutcheson, Smith and John

Millar, could be so lauded despite having written virtually nothing about the slave trade itself

demonstrates the close association the Scottish philosophers have had with antislavery since

the very beginning of the movement in Britain. The perception of the Enlightenment as force

in antislavery has been given a modern push by historians such as Roy Porter and Gertrude

Himmelfarb,2 however others, such as Dorinda Outram have quite reasonably argued that the

relationship between Enlightenment and Abolition is ambiguous at best.3 There is little

wonder at this confusion as many scholars, discussing the Enlightenment and slavery have

grouped philosophers from Scotland, France, Germany and North America into one uniform

movement, linking together such diverse thinkers as the French antislavery writer the

Marquis de Condorcet and the slave owner Thomas Jefferson. It is clear, when discussing

slavery that the various national Enlightenments need to be examined independently.

Francis Hutcheson, the Irish born professor of Moral Philosophy at Glasgow

University, first challenged the ancient dictum of Aristotle that some men, due to their

physical strength and intellectual inferiority, were born to be slaves, while others were born

to be masters. In stating that all people, regardless of physical characteristics shared the
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capacity for feeling pain and humiliation, it was irrational to presume than anyone was born

to endure a life that brought them such suffering.4

If we were to consider Hutcheson as the first generation of the Scottish

Enlightenment, the key figure for what is generally referred to as the second generation is the

sceptical philosopher David Hume. In her 2003 article entitled ‘The Contribution of the

Scottish Enlightenment to the Abandonment of the Institution of Slavery’ Alison Webster has

this to say about Hume:

In common with the beliefs of many of his contemporaries he considered that black people

were inferior to white. He perhaps intended to emphasize the fact that as slaves, black people

were incapable of innovation and dexterity, partly because of their circumstances, a view

undoubtedly shared by Smith, Millar et al. All the same, Hume does seem to suggest an innate

inferiority in slaves, echoing Aristotle’s ‘natural state,’ and close to regarding them as ‘tools.’

However, it should be remembered that Aristotle believed that slaves were capable of ‘fleshly

pleasures,’ and Hutcheson believed that while slaves might not be intellectually superior, they

were more subtly endowed with ‘sense and feeling,’ and entitled to basic human rights. On

the evidence of his writing and the testimony to his humanity by his friends, perhaps we

should give Hume the benefit of the doubt and believe that he would have agreed with

Hutcheson.5

There has been much written regarding Hume and racism, particularly by Richard

Popkin6 and John Immerwahr7, and this paper will only skirt these much worn paths. What is

more significant for this study is the way in which this racism has been excused on the

strength of his other writings, particularly those presumed to attack the contemporary

institution of slavery. This paper will examine the particular essays that relate both to

Hume’s alleged criticism of the slave system and his comments regarding the inferiority of
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non-whites, addressing the issue of Hume’s true contribution to the ending of British

involvement in slavery.

In discussing the contribution of David Hume to the general abolition zeitgeist of the

1790s there has always been a fractured understanding of his ideology toward the institution

of slavery. Hume, in the midst of his copious works, wrote very little on the subject of black

slavery, and when he did express his ideas, they were not without a sense of ambiguity.

Apologists for Hume’s political innovation and reforming ideology have been quick to point

out that his apparent ambivalence is no proof that this gentle humanist approved of the

practice. John B. Stewart makes a similar plea for Hume’s antislavery credentials when he

dismisses his understanding of property described in A Treatise of Human Nature as ‘the

fruits of our garden, the offspring of our cattle, and the work of our slaves’ as perhaps a

‘thoughtless carryover from his studies in Roman law’ and ‘is not to be taken as evidence that

he found slavery acceptable’.8 Stewart seems just as eager as Webster to attribute

thoughtlessness to Hume rather than acknowledge a perhaps less than desired position on the

issue of African chattel slavery.

The writings most often cited to affirm Hume’s antislavery stance are contained

within his essay ‘Of the Populousness of Ancient Nations’. Primarily discussing the

institution of slavery within the classical Greek and Roman cultures, the essay’s referrals to

the contemporary practice are often asides, expressing a wry opinion or his own personal

disgust at the practice:

The remains which are found of domestic slavery, in the AMERICAN colonies, and among

some EUROPEAN nations, would never surely create a desire of rendering it more universal.

The little humanity, commonly observed in persons, accustomed, from their infancy, to

exercise so great authority over their fellow creatures, and to trample upon human nature,

were sufficient alone to disgust us with that unbounded dominion.9


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Throughout the essay Hume’s contemptuous regard for the cruelty of the ancients in their

practice of domestic slavery has given many a modern reader the strong impression that the

enemy of prejudice and superstitious intolerance similarly recognized the evil of plantation

slavery practiced by his fellow Europeans.

However these apparently positive ideas are counterbalanced by his 1753 footnote in

a revised edition of his essay ‘Of National Characters’, which stated notoriously:

I am apt to suspect the negroes and in general all other species of men (for there are four or

five different kinds) to be naturally inferior to the whites. There never was a civilized nation

of any other complexion than white, nor even any individual eminent either in action or

speculation. No ingenious manufactures amongst them, no arts, no sciences…. [T]here are

NEGROE slaves dispersed all over EUROPE, of which none ever discovered any symptoms

of ingenuity; tho' low people, without education, will start up amongst us, and distinguish

themselves in every profession. In JAMAICA, indeed, they talk of one negroe as a man of

parts and learning; but 'tis likely he is admired for very slender accomplishments, like a

parrot, who speaks a few words plainly.10

Webster is not the only scholar to find these comments incongruous with an enemy of

African slavery. Eugene F. Millar, in an editorial comment regarding this footnote, is quick to

point out Hume’s opposition to slavery as a counterbalance to this obviously bigoted opinion,

citing ‘Of the populousness of ancient nations’.11 Others, seeing the potential for these

remarks as a springboard to questioning the integrity of Hume’s empirical analysis in the

field of social science have argued that these remarks are, at worst, accidental expressions of

shared contemporary prejudices.12 John Immerwahr, in his 1992 article ‘Hume’s Revised

Racism’ attacks the suggestion that this footnote was an ‘off hand remark’ or an aberration
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from his normal ideas. The fact that Hume himself edited the footnote in a final revision of

his works in 1777, altering some of his factual errors and references to polygenesis yet still

maintaining his notion of Negro inferiority, suggests that this position was well considered.13

Hume’s contemporary readers might have recognized the ‘man of parts and learning’ as

Francis Williams, a free black inhabitant of Jamaica who had garnered wide acclaim for his

scholastic achievements. Williams was educated at Cambridge University and later taught at

a school at Spanish Town, Jamaica. His Latin poetry was begrudgingly admired by Edward

Long, the historian and apologist for race-based slavery, through whom the only copies of

William’s works have been preserved. 14 Hume was well aware that there were contradictions

to his racist claims of universal black inferiority. Critics of his footnote drew attention to

some who were living proof against Hume’s claims, blacks famous for their cultural and

literary achievements. Williams himself attempted to get Hume to notice him and what he

did,15 however it is clear that the Scottish philosopher chose to ignore this evidence and keep

his footnote intact. It appears that whatever his sentiments of slavery, Hume’s ideas on race

were not open to ambiguity.

Apologists for Hume, in citing ‘On the populousness of ancient nations’, have often

taken his criticisms of slavery at face value, without due consideration of the context of his

discussion, namely population estimates for the classical world. His dominant thesis

throughout the essay is to argue for the superior populousness of the modern world to the

ancient, being an indicator of more favourable conditions for societal development. To those

who looked back to classical Greece and Rome as a golden age of social and political

freedom, Hume sought to demonstrate that ‘human nature, in general , really enjoys more

liberty at present, in the most arbitrary government of EUROPE, than it ever did during the

most flourishing period of ancient times.’16 In introducing slavery into his argument for the

superiority of the modern world over the ancient, he distanced contemporary European
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society from the ancient world, stating that domestic slavery ‘has been abolished for some

centuries throughout the greater part of Europe.’17 While Hume also made the point of

referring to the modern exponents of slavery, it is evident that he separated the slavery

condoned by Europe from that practiced in ancient Greece and Rome. Clearly the writer

carried a distaste for contemporary slavery and would not have wished to see it spread further

than its existing bounds, but discussions of black slavery in the American colonies and

‘some’ European nations fell beyond the scope of his thesis. His reference served an

illustrative purpose, connecting his current readers, who were familiar with modern slavery,

to the ancient world in which such an institution was widespread and ubiquitous. It was

ancient slavery that Hume wished to draw the readers’ attention to and his comments on the

contemporary practice were oblique and minimalist at best. While both Britain and ancient

Rome practiced slavery, it was only the ancients whose manners were rendered barbarous by

their becoming petty tyrants.18

Hume made another distinction between the ancient practice of slavery and its modern

counterpart. In a particular critique of the ancient slaveholding practices, he compared ancient

slavery to contemporary master/servant relationships, completely avoiding the issue of chattel

slavery on European plantations.

According to ancient practice, all checks were on the inferior, to restrain him to the

duty of submission; none on the superior, to engage him in the reciprocal duties of

gentleness and humanity. In modern times, a bad servant finds not easily a good

master, nor a bad master a good servant; and the checks are mutual, suitably to the

inviolable and eternal laws of reason and equity. 19


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This argument should not diminish the reader’s view of Hume’s disdain of slavery;

however it does call into question his willingness to attribute the same level of debasement to

European slave owners as he does to those in the ancient world. In every step of this

potentially treacherous path of reasoning, Hume delicately avoids declaring that modern

slavery is as morally debasing to British society as he believes it was to the inhabitants of the

classical world. In critiquing the ideas of those who looked back to the past as a model,

Hume uses the issue of domestic slavery as one of the dividing walls between the past and the

present. While it is unclear as to why such an obvious connecting institution should be so

used, the arguments that describe the shocking state of ancient slavery are not directly aimed

at the plight of the African slaves in Europe or the Colonies. For Hume, the ancient world

was inferior because they had domestic slavery – contemporary Europe did not therefore it

was superior.

It could be argued that Hume was distinguishing domestic slavery from colonial

slavery, implying that, as British households themselves did not generally keep slaves (the

total slave population in Scotland around this time was around seventy 20), this was the

shaping factor in modern superiority. In this regard, Hume’s commentary on ancient slavery

could stand unchallenged and his obvious disgust for the contemporary practice could reveal

his opinion without making any unintended political remarks. If this is indeed a correct

reading of ‘On the Populousness of Ancient Nations’ it is then incorrect to use this essay as a

milestone in the Scottish Enlightenment’s arguments against black slavery. It is nothing

more than an opinion of distaste at the institution, a sentiment shared by many, but not an

idea promoting abolition in the slightest.

In the absence of any further comments by Hume on slavery, except for the 1777

revision of his footnote in ‘Of National Characters’, seeking out an opinion on whether he

would have been in favour of eradicating the contemporary practice is impossible. However
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further reading of his works reveals an interesting window on his views regarding individual

liberty in the face of legitimized oppression. In an essay entitled ‘Of Some Remarkable

Customs’ Hume considers the issue of Royal Navy press gangs whose actions, while not

given official sanction under the law, were tacitly approved of by the crown. The author uses

the institution as an example of an exception to the maxim ‘that power, however great, when

granted by law to an eminent magistrate, is not so dangerous to liberty, as an authority,

however inconsiderable, which he acquires from violence and usurpation.’21 Hume agrees

that in allowing the pressing of seamen outside of the law, parliament has acknowledged that

the practice is better served in its unregulated form than if it were given legal authority. The

limited scope of the press gang’s actions was for Hume a rationale for their continuance

unopposed:

While this power is exercised to no other end than to man the navy, men willingly

submit to it, from a sense of its use and necessity; and the sailors, who are alone

affected by it, find no body to support them, in claiming the rights and privileges,

which the law grants, without distinction, to all ENGLISH subjects.22

He allows that if the practice were to be used as an ‘instrument of faction or

ministerial tyranny’ many would ‘support the injured party’23 and bring the institution to an

end. However to bring the press gangs under the law would result in one of two possible

harms; the gangs would be so limited in their actions by legal restraint that they would be

rendered ineffective in procuring seamen for the navy, or they would be given such power as

to be free to commit great abuses. In this light Hume believed ‘the very irregularity of the

practice, at present, prevents its abuses, by affording so easy a remedy against them’.24 He

was not against the idea of finding a method of manning the navy without harming the liberty
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of the seamen, but he observed that no such method had yet been proposed. It is here that a

political pragmatism comes to the fore. He was not an idealist in the sense that he could

agree with Locke’s idea of the Original Contract, but instead argued that all power, even if

long inherited, had its origins in usurpation and violence.25 Press gangs, however distasteful,

were to be accepted because they provided a necessary function for the defence of Britain,

regardless of their harm to citizen liberty. One scholar, Steven J Wulf, has argued that this

example is not exceptional, but is representative of the entire sceptical system of Hume’s

political thought. In approaching politics with a mitigated scepticism, Hume may present

political maxims as mentioned above, however caution dictates that one must allow for an

exemption. Wulf goes on to argue that, ‘what Hume is recommending here is not political

mendacity, but rather occasional discreet silences’.26 Perhaps for Hume, colonial slavery was

less a positive good than an occasion for discreet silence, as its necessity as a tool for the

economic growth of the nation was perhaps a reason to overlook its objectionable nature.

For scholars of the origins of Abolition thought, there is much weight given to the

words of the Scottish literati, no matter how obliquely they wrote on the subject of slavery.

Many writers such as John Millar and Adam Smith wrote detailed critiques of contemporary

slavery, using the ancient institution to reference their arguments against the contemporary

practice. Hume’s thoughts on slavery are nothing more than intellectual speculation on a

philosophical argument that had little to do with building a case against the capturing and

enslavement of Africans. If there is any discussion of the morality of black slavery, the essay

appeared to argue that the modern practice was an improvement on the ancient, and part of

the case proving the superiority of modern Europe over classical Greece and Rome. Webster

may speculatively grant Hume ‘the benefit of the doubt’ and place him alongside the

pantheon of antislavery thinkers of the eighteenth century, but to do this one must ignore the
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overtly racist footnote in one essay and disregard the context of the arguments in another.

That Hume’s racist remarks were widely used to support colonial slavery even during his

lifetime casts doubt upon any abolitionist stance readers may choose to impart to him.

Stewart may choose to call Hume’s rendering of slave labour as legitimate property a mistake

due to an assumption that Hume is making an attack on slavery in another work, but to find

that later reading to be in fact a denial that such slavery even occurs in the modern world

leaves such arguments without real merit. David Hume was not a proto Abolitionist but was,

at best, a thinker whose ideas were similar to many of the day; slavery was an unfortunate

institution, however its continuance was a necessary cog in the economic machine that

enabled the advancement of modern Europe’s superior culture.

Endnotes.

1
Thomas Clarkson, The History of the rise, progress, and accomplishment of the abolition of

the slave trade (London: John W. Parker, 1839), 76.


2
Roy Porter, Enlightenment: Britain and the Creation of the Modern World (London: Allen

Lane The Penguin Press, 2000), 361; Gertrude Himmelfarb, The Roads to Modernity: The

British, French and American Enlightenments (New York: Vintage, 2005), 284.
3
Dorina Outram, The Enlightenment, Second Edition (Cambridge: Cambridge University

press, 2005), 165.


4
Francis Hutcheson, A System of Moral Philosophy, in Three Books, Vol. I (Glasgow and

London: R.and A. Foulis, and A. Millar, and by T. Longman, 1755), 300.


5
Alison Webster, "The Contribution of the Scottish Enlightenment to the Abandonment of

the Institution of Slavery." The European Legacy 8, no. 4 (2003), 486.


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6
Richard H. Popkin, "Hume's Racism," in The High Road to Pyrrhonism, eds. Richard A.

Watson and James E. Force (San Diego: Austin Hill Press, 1980), 251-266, and ‘Hume’s

Racism Reconsidered’ in Richard H. Popkin, The Third Force in Seventeenth-Century

Thought (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1992), 380.


7
John Immerwahr, "Hume's Revised Racism," Journal of the History of Ideas 53, no. 3

(1992), 481-48.
8
John B. Stewart, Opinion and Reform in Hume's Political Philosophy (Princeton, New

Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1992), 186-187.Ibid., p 186-187. Stewart is quoting from

Hume’s ‘Treatise of Human Nature’ originally published in 1740.


9
David Hume, "Of the Populousness of Ancient Nations," in Essays Moral Political and

Literary (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1985), 383-384.


10
David Hume, "Of National Characters," in Essays and Treatises on several Subjects

(London: A. Miller, 1758), 119-129.125.


11
David Hume, Essays Moral, Political and Literary, ed. Eugene F. Miller, Revised Edition

ed. (Indianaoplis: Liberty Fund, 1985), 208.


12
Popkin, The Third Force in Seventeenth-Century Thought, 64.
13
John Immerwahr, "Hume's Revised Racism," Journal of the History of Ideas 53, no. 3

(1992), 481-48.
14
Vincent Carretta, "Who was Francis Williams," Early American Literature 38, no. 2

(2003), 213-237.
15
Popkin, The Third Force in Seventeenth-Century Thought, 72-74.
16
Hume, Of the Populousness of Ancient Nations, 383.
17
Ibid., 383
18
Ibid., 384
19
Ibid., 384
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20
Iain Whyte, Scotland and the Abolition of Black Slavery 1756-1838 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh

University Press, 2006), 11.


21
David Hume, "Of some Remarkable Customs," in Essays Moral, Political and Literary, ed.

Eugene F. Miller (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1985), 374.


22
Ibid., 375
23
Ibid., 375
24
Ibid., 375
25
David Hume, "Of the Original Contract," in Essays Moral, Political and Literary, ed.

Eugene F. Miller (Indianapolis: Liberty fund, 1985), 482.


26
Steven J. Wulf, "The Skeptical Life in Hume's Political Thought," Polity Vol. 33, no. No. 1

(Autumn 2000), 88.