Published by EH.Net (October 2017)

Jia Wei, Commerce and Politics in Hume’s History of England. Woodbridge, UK: Boydell and Brewer, 2017. xi + 209 pp. $99 (hardback), ISBN: 978-1-78327-187-0.

Reviewed for EH.Net by John Berdell, Department of Economics, DePaul University.

Janet Wei brings David Hume’s accomplishments as a historian out of the shadows in this important investigation of Hume’s History of England. It is often remarked that Hume appeared in library card catalogue as “David Hume, the historian.” Also that he considered himself to be living in a time and place uniquely interested in history. (Hence, his purported aspiration to fill the vacant “post of honor” reserved for history in the English Parnassus.) According to Wei, Hume’s unique contribution to eighteenth century historiography lies in the interplay between his Scottish background and his cosmopolitan understanding of the emergence of commercial society across Europe. Wei finds it telling that unlike so many Scots historians of the time, Hume was not drawn to adumbrate a stages account of history, but rather to develop narratives that maintained a lively understanding of the role of chance and unforeseen events in human affairs. She underlines the fact that Hume’s history is so often paradoxical and ironic. This is part of Hume’s contribution to eighteenth century historiography, but Wei places great weight on the “innovative fabric of causation” that binds together Hume’s intertwined narratives of the rise of English liberty and commerce. Hume’s distinctive political economy informs his historical narrative of England’s emergence as a trading nation and it becomes intertwined with a narrative of the shifting balance between authority and liberty that originates in his political science.

Wei divides her book into two unequal parts. The first considers Hume’s historical account of England’s national character, or what Montesquieu called its “spirit.” The analysis centers on the interactions between the rise of English commerce and English liberty — and more particularly the proposition that for Hume the English state was largely the result of “a particular approach to colonial trade.” The second part focuses on public finance and the preservation of English liberty. Wei’s conclusion finds Hume increasingly pessimistic about that preservation because, rightly understood, England’s liberty rested upon a delicate balance between liberty and authority, which was increasingly destabilized by the fiscal demands of Britain’s empire.

Readers of Hume’s Essays will be familiar with his proposition that foreign commerce stimulated the economic development of England, indeed all of early modern Europe. Adam Smith popularized Hume’s thesis when he asserted that “For a pair of diamond buckles perhaps, or for something as frivolous and useless, they exchanged the maintenance, or what is the same thing, the price of the maintenance of a thousand men for a year, and with it the whole weight and authority which it could give them.” Wei shows us that what this gained in rhetorical flourish it lost in historical detail. While the growth of foreign commerce was essential to the erosion of noble power, the deliberate policy and legislation of Henry VII, amplified by the depredations of the War of the Roses, are central to Hume’s account of the formation of a centralized system of justice. Hume is shown to reject Harrington’s view that Henry was mistaken in his efforts to deliberately weaken noble power. Wei also emphasizes the fact that for Hume the growth of foreign trade was the product of considerably more deliberation and policy than the simple influx of luxuries found in his Essays. Hume approved of Henry VII’s and Elizabeth’s imposition of duties on foreign merchants and successfully encouraging English merchants and navigation to take their place. Although the contrast to Smith is not emphasized, Hume’s account of how foreign trade contributed to English liberty importantly includes the growth of its navy, and hence its ability to defend itself against its continental rivals. This was drawn from the strength of its colonial trade. These are not observations that sit easily with stale portrayals of Hume as the first great anti-mercantilist. There are innumerable interesting subthemes running through the first part of this book, but the central thesis must surely be Hume’s relentless attempt to undermine the Whig ideology that England’s freedoms had an ancient Saxon origin, while simultaneously undermining the Tory view that kings ruled by divine right. Contrary to the Tory view, it was commerce that slowly transformed feudal anarchy, and the jurisdiction of nobles, into a powerful Tudor monarchal absolutism. Contrary to the Whig view Parliament actively contributed to Tudor power since Tudor monarchs were the only feeble source of civil liberties in that dark age. All this would change under the Stuarts as the continued growth of commerce emboldened Parliament to rein in monarchal power, and to provide civil liberties an independent and more secure footing in an independent legal establishment.

The second part of the book focuses on the role of public finance in determining the balance between Parliament and monarch — between Hume’s great principles of liberty and authority. The balance hung upon control over tax revenues and the need to fund the navy. Here Wei makes good use of a burgeoning literature (from D.P. O’Brien among others) that puts Britain’s public finances, and imperial aspirations into European context. Istvan Hont, who tragically could only supervise the early phases of this thesis, has emphasized the fact that Hume was acutely aware of the instability lurking in England’s delicate political balance. Wei provides considerable new detail to Hont’s thesis by following the twists and turns of Hume’s account of English political “opinion,” and the increasingly uncompromising republican and monarchical “spirits.” Along the way she makes a short but powerful case that Hume should be seen as a supporter of unlimited religious toleration — rather than as an advocate for an established church as is usually taught. Her concluding thoughts on Hume’s increasing conservativism regarding the prospects for England’s public liberty should be contrasted with other accounts, such as those of Andrew Sabl and David Wootton, as Hume’s politics are notoriously difficult to situate on a anything resembling a liberal-conservative spectrum. When Hume was unable to simultaneously undermine both of the prominent party ideologies of his day, he would alternately adopt their positions: all in an effort to force his readers to think things through for themselves. Wei’s careful identification of Hume’s contributions to historiography certainly contributes a great deal to our understanding of how and why he did so.


Sabl, A. (2012). Hume’s Politics: Coordination and Crisis in the History of England. Princeton,
Princeton University Press.

Wootton, D. (1993). David Hume, “The Historian.” The Cambridge Companion to Hume. Edited by D. Norton. Cambridge: 281-312.


John Berdell is the author of International Trade and Economic Growth in Open Economies: The Classical Dynamics of Hume, Smith, Ricardo and Malthus (Edward Elgar, 2002) and articles on Cantillon, Hume, Smith and most recently John Law: “The Structure and Stability of John Law’s early Land Bank Proposals,” forthcoming, Oeconomia.

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