Edinburgh University has decided to remove philosopher David Hume’s name from its tower block at 40 George Square. The university claimed Hume’s views, while characteristic of his time, were abhorrent now and were causing some students distress. Were Hume’s racist beliefs commonplace? No doubt. But across late 18th-century western Europe, including Scotland, abolitionist movements were garnering popular support and informing political decision-making.
The most well-known contemporary critic of Hume’s racism was James Beattie, a moral philosophy professor at Marischal College Aberdeen from 1760 until 1797. Beattie was Hume’s bête noire. He shot to fame in 1770 with An Essay on Truth, a pugilistic takedown of Hume’s philosophical writings, which Beattie claimed denied the existence of all truth. The essay was one of the bestsellers of the Scottish Enlightenment.
One widely disseminated passage was Beattie’s assault on Hume’s infamous footnote in which he claimed all non-white civilizations were intellectually inferior, and black Africans especially so. Beattie slung a barrage of arguments Hume’s way, accusing him of Eurocentric arrogance, ignorance of other civilisations, and failing to reflect critically on his own society’s problems. Beattie’s central challenge, however, was that Hume was blaming the victim. If African slaves did not demonstrate “ingenuity” or “genius”, this could hardly be said to be their fault.
Hume’s footnote was greedily deployed by pro-slavery campaigners. They used his fame – the footnote itself hardly counted as sustained argument – as evidence of the correctness of their cause. But Beattie’s refutation and celebrity were likewise used by abolitionists. The leading anti-slavery advocate of the 1770s, Granville Sharp, used Beattie’s attack in an influential campaign, fascinatingly described by modern historian David Olusoga. And throughout his anti-slavery activism, Beattie researched what he was talking about, whereas Hume hardly seemed to care.
Beattie was an activist professor of sorts. He ended his attack on Hume’s racism with a call to Britons to live up to their self-images as lovers of liberty and to fight to stop slavery.
Prompted by disgust at Hume’s opinions, Beattie lectured his students at Marischal College on slavery’s horrors and their need to act in humane and Christian ways to their fellow human. He organised petitions sent from Aberdeen during the height of abolitionist campaigning in 1788.
Beattie compiled a book arguing against the slave trade and substantiating the claim, as he wrote to a friend in 1788, that slavery must cease “to clear the British character of a stain which is indeed of the blackest dye”. It was never published, but the crux of Beattie’s position appeared in a sustained attack on slavery in his student textbook Elements of Moral Science (1793). Here an impassioned Beattie described slavery as “utterly repugnant to every principle of reason, religion, humanity, and conscience”.
The opposition of Hume and Beattie reflected the divisions within Scottish society over slavery. One event in Aberdeen epitomises this. In 1792 professors at Beattie’s employer Marischal College drew up another abolitionist petition to the British Government. The rival King’s College, by contrast, was studiously silent. Beattie noted with pleasure to William Wilberforce that Aberdeen’s town council had voted to send a petition to London.
Like many abolitionists, Beattie believed the campaign needed to be realistic about slavery’s end. Sudden cessation was a political impossibility given the slavery lobby’s clout. Likewise, one-off abolition would leave the wretched trade’s dehumanised victims without the means to survive. Nor was Beattie pushing for the abandonment of Britain’s colonies.
Beattie’s proposals will seem piecemeal, even immoral by our standards. Slavery, he thought, would wither away without major intervention if wage incentives and education were introduced. Education would bring slaves back up the level of dignified rational humans, which their oppression had denied to them. Granting freedom to the most productive slaves would encourage self-sufficiency and independence. It would demonstrate to plantation owners that it was more profitable to abandon the practice.
Beattie was part of an ongoing conversation within the Scottish abolition movement. He discussed slavery repeatedly with his old friend from student days in Aberdeen, James Ramsay. Ramsay was a naval surgeon turned Anglican priest who worked in St Kitts. Upon his return in the mid-1780s Ramsay campaigned fearlessly, despite vicious attacks, against the slavery he had witnessed first-hand. Beattie was not alone.
What does all of this tell us? Sure, Hume’s position was reprehensible to many contemporaries, like it is to our sensibilities. On racial issues at least, Beattie is a more amenable figure. Even then, many of his opinions will strike us as debatable, if not deplorable.
The study of the past, however, is not therapy. Viewing history as a storehouse of laudables and deplorables infantilises us. If we go to the past looking for ammunition for contemporary battles, we will fail to understand what has gone before. We apply our standards and get the answers we already wanted. We remain steadfast in our mindset and we do not learn anything.
While a tiny part of the story, thinking about Beattie’s and Hume’s attitudes helps us understand how slavery endured and how it ended. It is the sort of thing that universities should be encouraging, rather than seeking symbolic erasure of the uncomfortable past. This could be an opportunity for debate, nuance, and understanding. But if we approach the past as victims, we might get protection, but we will not get insight.
Dr Robin Mills is a Leverhulme early career fellow at Queen Mary University of London