David Hume: Historian

The Core of the Bookshelf

Intellectual historians commonly group Voltaire, Edward Gibbon, William Robertson, and David Hume as the four greatest 18th-century historians.  If limited to only one of these authors, we would do well to begin with Hume.  For one thing, Hume is the only thinker in history who has achieved world-class status as a philosopher and as an historian.  We are inclined to think of him today as a philosopher, but in his own time he was famous as an historian.  He is still listed in the British Museum as “David Hume, Historian.”  Hume’s History of England became a classic in his lifetime; it went through over 160 posthumous editions—some in printings of 100,000 copies.

The History of England is a six-volume work that begins with Roman Britain and ends with the Glorious Revolution of 1688.  But Hume wrote it backward, beginning with the period that most interested him, that of the Stuart kings: James I, Charles I, Charles II, and James II.  The Stuarts were a Scottish family, and Hume was a Scotsman.  Like the rest of his countrymen, he had to come to terms with how the Scottish kings had been received in England.  Mary Stuart was executed by Queen Elizabeth; a rebellion occurred against Charles I, who was executed for treason; and another revolution occurred in 1688 in which James II was driven from the throne and Catholics were forever forbidden to hold...

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