The History of England, Volume V by David Hume
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
As the title suggests, this is volume five of Hume’s six-volume The History of England. This edition is based on the 1778 edition and incorporates the author’s last corrections before his death in August 1776. Best I can tell, it was originally written around 1758.
I was an English major in college, not a history major. I enjoy learning about history, but I have a short attention span for nonfiction in general, so it was necessary for me to cast about a bit before I found the right strategy for reading this work of historical (and at times philosophical) nonfiction. I didn’t read volumes one through four, and I’m not sure if I’ll read six. I did enjoy Hume’s style, especially once I figured out how to read him, but while I’m tempted to pick up the other five volumes to learn more about England from Hume’s perspective, I think I need a nice long break before I do that.
I started out reading this book word-by-word, underlining and taking notes on practically every page. I do not recommend this strategy to the casual reader, or even the modestly invested reader. It was educational but made for very, very slow reading. When I found myself ready to quit, I shifted gears to focus on more of an overview, having faith that, even without the copious note-taking, I would get a general idea of this era of English history.
I think it pretty much worked. Taking this approach, I was able to enjoy Hume’s voice more than I had, and I did gain many insights about the founding of the United States, the evolution of religious and civil liberty, and the advent and nature of civil war in general.
One thing that had never been clear to me was how the Puritans could be seeking religious freedom and civil liberty and then come to North America and show little in the way of tolerance for other religions. Hume asserts that the Puritans (in England around the time of the Mayflower’s voyage to Massachusetts) weren’t looking for liberty to practice their religion alongside other sects. They held the prevailing view of the time that religious uniformity was necessary for the health of a country. They wanted puritanism to be the religion of England, not a religion in England. It wasn’t until the 18th century that the idea began to take hold that there could be a political state without a state established religion. I think it’s fair to assume that the Puritans who founded their colony on the site of Patuxet (which lay abandoned with crops still growing in the fields after the natives who lived there had been eradicated by European diseases) had similar ideas for the New World. With this in mind, it seems like an even greater miracle that the British colonies were ever able to get together to form the United States (and it also puts into perspective the arguments about church and state that continue today).
Which leads me to the only mention Hume makes of the colonies in North America, which I found amusing, given that this edition was updated in 1778 (although Hume died in August 1776, so he wouldn’t have made notes for this edition past that date):
Speculative reasoners, during that age…foretold, that, after draining their mother-country of inhabitants, they would soon shake off her yoke, and erect an independent government in America: But time has shewn, that the views, entertained by those who encouraged such generous undertakings [as founding remote colonies], were more just and solid. A mild government and great naval force have preserved, and may still preserve during some time, the dominion of England over her colonies.
I picture this wigged scholar with a velvety tenor reassuring his listeners with an amused look on his face that, while there may seem to be a little trouble now, it will all amount to nothing. Reading predictions from the past and knowing how they actually turned out was one of the unexpected treats I found in reading a two-hundred-year-old history book.
I felt a little guilty for a while that I was reading from such a United States-ian perspective. Everything that happened I related back to the U.S., both past and present. But as someone who has only been out of the country three times in her life (and then only to Canada, which is, as Homer Simpson tells us, “America, Jr.”), I can try all I want to think from another perspective, but my chances of success are limited by time and experience. There’s no such thing as objective human observation anyway.
Another element that I found fascinating in this book was how the foundations for the civil war were established during the reign of James I and commenced during the reign of Charles I. The way Hume set it up, the parliament had an idea of how it wanted things to go—decrease the power of the monarchy and increase civil liberty—and they allied themselves with religious factions that also held this goal (umm…sound familiar?). Together they pushed and wheedled and hammered away, taking more and more extreme positions with every concession made by the crown. Then when the parliament finally succeeded in essentially dethroning the king, they found that the army, under the direction of Oliver Cromwell, had other ideas. (Just as parliament had been doing, Cromwell passed off his own political ambitions as mandated by God; Cromwell beat parliament at their own game.) Even the independents, an even more fanatical faction within the parliament, was vying for power. As Hume notes, there was a lot of fighting for power and control within the government and the army, but the people saw very little in the way of the liberty that parliament had promised them.
Often, history (or at least history as taught in the U.S. public schools I attended) is told in a way that suggests a smooth procession of events, one to the next. It was interesting—and a little terrifying—to get a sense for the chaos that it actually is. Once the established order was thrown off, all bets were off. Any sense of order or narrative must be applied in retrospect.
Hume’s perspective was an interesting one. He seemed to sympathize with the desire for liberty but to fiercely dislike the Puritans. He made fun of the Puritans calling Sunday “the Sabbath”, a day he said they “sanctified by the most melancholy indolence,” a phrase I’m filing away to use in conversation. He criticized the king (both James and Charles), but he maintained that the monarchy was necessary. Hume went to great lengths to praise the king as a man even as he disagreed with his actions as a monarch.
Hume’s evaluation of Charles I at the end of the volume, was very poignant. He includes a conversation Charles had with his youngest son in the three days leading up to Charles’s execution (oops, spoiler alert) that almost moved me to tears. I don’t know how accurate the quotation is or what sort of recorder was present at the conversation, but Hume reports that Charles told the seven-year-old Duke of Glocester, “Mark! child, what I say: They will cut off my head! and perhaps make thee a king: But mark what I say: Thou must not be a king, as long as thy brothers, Charles and James, are alive. They will cut off thy brothers’ heads, when they catch them! And thy head too they will cut off at last! Therefore I charge thee, do not be made a king by them!”
And his son replied, “I will be torn in pieces first!”
The idea of a father having such a conversation with his son is just heart-wrenching, and the boy’s reply is just so cute and sweet in its sincerity. It’s almost too much. I find it difficult to believe that this—and so much of history—isn’t fiction. I can’t comprehend how humans can do the things that they clearly have done and continue to do.
Hume concludes that while Charles wasn’t a great king, he was a good king, and he would have done fine in a stable government during stable times. But as it was, he was born into a time misaligned with his strengths and that accentuated his weaknesses; he really didn’t have a chance.
While I found the book a slog in some parts, I really did enjoy it. It’s such a tragic story and such an interesting perspective that Hume brings to it. Hume seems like an interesting fellow in his own right, and I find myself interested in reading both the other volumes in The History of England and Hume’s more blatantly philosophical works.
3 Replies to “The History of England, Volume V by David Hume”
Love the phrase “melancholy indolence…” do people write like that any more? I don’t think they do… Hume is no light read! Thanks for the review
Sounds really interesting!! I love primary documents from history. 🙂