David Hume was a brilliant philosopher but also a racist involved in slavery – Dr Felix Waldmann

David Hume advised his patron, Lord Hertford to buy a slave plantation, facilitated the deal and lent £400 to one of the principal investors. And when criticised for racism in 1770, he was unmoved, writes Dr Felix Waldmann
A sign hangs from the statue of the 18th-century philosopher David Hume on Edinburgh's Royal Mile with a racist quote from his essay Of National Characters (Picture: Jane Barlow/PA)A sign hangs from the statue of the 18th-century philosopher David Hume on Edinburgh's Royal Mile with a racist quote from his essay Of National Characters (Picture: Jane Barlow/PA)
A sign hangs from the statue of the 18th-century philosopher David Hume on Edinburgh's Royal Mile with a racist quote from his essay Of National Characters (Picture: Jane Barlow/PA)

A petition by a student of the University of Edinburgh has called for the re-naming of its David Hume Tower, drawing attention to the philosopher’s 1753 essay, Of National Characters, in which he voiced his suspicion that “negroes” are “naturally inferior to the whites”. These “racist epithets”, the petition notes, justify the removal of Hume’s name from the building. It has gathered 1,750 signatures.

As a historian who specialises in Hume’s life and works, I was not surprised to find Hume’s views discussed in the weeks after the toppling of Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol. Hume’s own statue on the Royal Mile was recently targeted by a protestor, who fixed a placard to it bearing Hume’s notorious statement from Of National Characters.

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As debate over Henry Dundas’s statue has grown in recent weeks, it was inevitable that the commemoration of Hume in Edinburgh would fall under suspicion.

There is no question that Hume was a brilliant philosopher, whose writings have shaped modern philosophy and Scottish culture. His Treatise of Human Nature (1739-40) may be the most significant work of philosophy published in English before the 20th century. His puckish scepticism about the existence of religious miracles played a significant part in defining the critical outlook which underpins the practice of modern science.

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But his views served to reinforce the institution of racialised slavery in the later 18th century. More importantly, the fact that he was involved in the slave trade is now a matter of record, thanks to a discovery in Princeton University Library. It was there that I recently found an unknown letter of March 1766 by Hume, in which he encouraged his patron Lord Hertford to purchase a slave plantation in Grenada.

This is the only surviving evidence of Hume’s involvement in the slave trade, and it was completely unknown to scholars until I published it in my 2014 book Further Letters of David Hume.

Through additional archival research, I discovered that Hume had not only contacted Hertford; he had facilitated the purchase of the plantation by writing to the French Governor of Martinique, the Marquis d’Ennery, in June 1766. Indeed, he lent £400 to one of the principal investors earlier in the same year.

Hume denounced slavery – in ancient Rome

It did not surprise me that this information was omitted from the student’s petition, since it is known only to the specialist audience which read Further Letters of David Hume.

But it was a discovery which I expected would one day force scholars to re-evaluate their judgement of Hume, who was not otherwise known to have participated in the slave trade and who devoted a considerable part of an essay in 1748 denouncing the practice of slavery in ancient Rome.

Some may attribute Hume’s conduct in this affair to the social conventions of his time. Eighteenth-century Scotland was a racist society.

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Many of its most prominent figures were direct beneficiaries of the slave trade. Scotland in general reaped the advantages of slavery in Britain’s colonies. It could be argued that holding Hume to the standard of a later age would be unfair. We should acknowledge, instead, that Hume could not criticise racism and slavery without upsetting social conventions.

But this argument is absurd. Hume was a genius by the standards of the 18th century. He was not deferential to convention. In fact, he was the antonym of convention. He was sufficiently wealthy in 1766 not to assist in this scheme. And he was aware of the widespread denunciation of slavery by his contemporaries, including in books by his friends and correspondents.

One of world’s most important philosophers

Anyone with Hume’s intelligence would recognise the enormity of slavery. But Hume sought to benefit from it. In Of National Characters, he justified it. When James Beattie of Aberdeen criticised Hume’s racist comments in 1770, Hume was unmoved. The last authorised edition of the essay, published in 1777, repeats the same sentiments, almost verbatim.

Where does this leave Hume’s reputation? The irony in his matter is that Hume was always an unlikely candidate for celebration by the University of Edinburgh. Although he studied at the University between about 1722 and 1725, the institution refused to employ him as a professor of moral philosophy in 1745 because of his religious scepticism, and it was this – in part – which prompted his departure from Edinburgh for four years.

It was only in the 20th century that Hume’s status as one of the university’s most eminent alumni was commemorated. This is because Hume was then, rightly, regarded as one of the most important philosophers ever to have lived. His works found an eager audience in an increasingly secularised society.

The posthumous celebration of Adam Smith’s legacy is similar. As Smith became an apostle of free-market capitalism, interest in his works grew. His face now appears on the £20 note in England and his statue accompanies Hume’s on the Royal Mile.

Wagner, a vicious anti-semite and brilliant composer

It is important, however, to distinguish between studying an individual and venerating him. As an observant Jew and fan of classical music, it pains me to admit that Richard Wagner – a vicious anti-semite – is one of the most important composers ever to have lived. His genius and influence are impossible to deny.

The question is whether this importance needs to be celebrated by the use of statues or the emblazoning of names on buildings. If I had to work in a building named after Wagner, or if I had to walk past a statue of the man, I would find it preposterous. But if you asked me to stop listening to his music, I would object. Listening to his music is a personal choice, which I would not impose upon others.

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There are many questions to consider when removing a statue or expunging name from a building. As we have found with the debate over the Melville Monument, these questions are aesthetic, moral, and historical. In Hume’s case, the history and morality of the matter is clear: Hume was an unashamed racist, who was directly involved in the slave trade.

Dr Felix Waldmann is a Fellow of Christ’s College, Cambridge. He was the David Hume Fellow at the University of Edinburgh in 2016.

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