Elizabethan and Jacobean Studies

By Frank Percy Wilson | Go to book overview

Hume's History of the Reign of James I

GODFREY DAVIES

THE genesis of David Hume History of England can be briefly traced in the autobiographical note he wrote in order that it should be prefixed to any edition of his works. His appointment in 1752 as head of the Advocates' Library in Edinburgh created the opportunity because it gave him command of a large collection of books. He determined to begin in 1603 with the accession of the house of Stuart to the English throne when, he thought, the 'misrepresentations of faction began chiefly to take place'. The need for impartiality was evident and he was confident that he could supply it. 'I was the only historian, that had at once neglected present power, interest, and authority, and the cry of popular prejudices.'1 Elsewhere he enlarges upon the need of a history of England. When he has finished the reign of James I he tells a friend: 'You know that there is no post of honour in the English Parnassus more vacant than that of history.'2

Harsh criticism of the existing histories of England was general in the first half of the eighteenth century. In the year of Hume's birth the Spectator printed a letter which purported to be from a man with a 'strong passion toward falshood'. He proposed to form a society of men of like propensities: 'We might be called the historians, for liar is become a very harsh word.' Addison is less unkind than Steele, but severe. 'It is a fault very justly found in histories composed by politicians, that they leave nothing to chance or humour, but are still for deriving every action from some plot and contrivance, from drawing up a perpetual scheme of causes and events, and preserving a constant correspondence between the camp and the council-table.' He described how historians could 'please the imagination', though he confessed that this required more art than veracity. He complained that most wrote as if they knew all the secrets of Providence, and that several English ones seemed to have received 'many revelations of this kind'.3

____________________
1
I have used the text reprinted in E. C. Mossner The Forgotten Hume, New York 1943, p. 6. Here and elsewhere I have changed the capitalization.
2
The Letters of David Hume, ed. J. Y. T. Greig, 1932, i.170, 179.
3
Spectator, no. 136, 6 Aug. 1711; no. 170, 14 Sept. 1711; no. 420, 2 July 1712; no. 483, 13 Sept. 1712.

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