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  • Online publication date: December 2014

1 - Demythologizing the Nation's Past: David Hume's History of England

Summary

When the volumes of David Hume's The History of England from the Invasion of Julius Caesar to the Revolution in 1688 appeared in print between 1754 and 1762, they were oft en read and appraised through the lens of contemporary political and religious divisions. While this was true to some extent about all historical works written in the period, it was especially true for Hume, who chose to write his history backwards, beginning with the most recent era, that of the Stuart dynasty. When the first volume was published in 1754, it bore the title The History of Great Britain. Only with the appearance of later volumes dealing with earlier historical periods was the title of the collected volumes changed to The History of England. Hume decided to start in 1603 rather than 1485 because, as he explained to Adam Smith:

Twas under James that the House of Commons began first to raise their Head, and then the Quarrel betwixt Privilege and Prerogative commenca'd … and the Factions, which then arose, having an influence on our present Affairs, form the most curious, interesting, and instructive Part of our History.

His sympathetic treatment of Charles I, criticism of rebel leaders during the Civil War, and disparaging of ‘fanatical’ Puritans, brought down the wrath of radical Whigs upon his head. Conversely, Tories were pleased, though it did not escape their notice that Hume was far from endorsing their most cherished doctrines.