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David Hume and American Liberty

David Hume's History of England was one of the most successful literary productions of the 18th century. It became a classic in his lifetime and was published continuously down to 1894, passing through at least 167 posthumous editions. The young Winston Churchill learned English history from an abridged edition known as "The Student's Hume." Yet in the early 19th century, Thomas Jefferson made efforts to ban it from the University of Virginia and to replace it with John Baxter's expurgated version of the work—what Jefferson called "Hume's history republicanized." "This single book," he told John Adams in 1816, "has done more to sap the free principles of the English Constitution than the largest standing army." What Jefferson found intolerable was Hume's subversion of the theory that English liberty is the preservation of an ancient constitution and his argument that the doctrine of natural rights is a philosophical fiction that distorts and subverts political order.

What Jefferson did not and could not have known (because he did not have the letters Hume wrote from 1765 until his death on August 25, 1776) is that Hume was an ardent supporter of American independence. He took this radical position as early as 1768, before the idea of a complete break had occurred to most Americans, including Jefferson. And he came to this conclusion without invoking the philosophical...

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