Context: The Scottish philosopher David Hume, described as having a face broad and fat with an expression of imbecility, with wide mouth and eyes vacant and spiritless, and who was further handicapped by a body "to communicate the idea of a turtle-eating alderman," stirred his era by essays whose determined skepticism was practically unanswerable on empirical grounds. Most of Hume's devastating essays were completed before he was forty, his Essays Moral and Philosophical, in 1741, and his Philosophical Essays, in 1748. He also wrote an exhaustive History of England (1754-1761) whose errors in fact, especially in flattering the Stuarts, were compensated for by its style; its readability kept it a standard text for years. Surprisingly, not until 1817 did an edition of his Essays appear in the United States, and then Dr. Thomas Ewell of Virginia edited Hume's Essays in two volumes, dedicated to President Monroe. Dr. Ewell enters a defense of the supposed atheism of Hume. Perhaps the author's stand on miracles is objectionable, but the physician maintains that the essays should be read by every clergyman as training in thought and reflection that will increase the ability to preach convincingly. On many points, the apologist insists, Hume showed himself benevolent, with a universal love of mankind. Hume's "Essay of Civil Liberty" includes most of the qualities that made him admired and feared. He laments that the world is too young to have determined general truths in politics. Not only is the art of reasoning still imperfect, but sufficient facts are lacking. Machiavelli's reasoning produced many maxims about the Prince that can be completely refuted, especially in regard to absolute government. Trade, too, is just beginning to be esteemed as an affair of state. Only the modern maritime nations see the importance of an extensive commerce, which was neglected by the ancients. So, too, in comparing civil liberty and absolute government, Hume fears that what he writes may be refuted by further experience and rejected by posterity. However, he sees that Greece, the home of culture, lost that culture when it lost its liberty and when learning was transported to Rome, the only free nation at the time in the world. However, the idea that arts and sciences flourish only in a free government can be refuted by a look at France, which scarcely ever enjoyed any established liberty. Commerce, however, does fix its seat in free government.
. . . there is something hurtful to commerce inherent in the very nature of absolute government, and inseparable from it, though the reason I should assign for this opinion is somewhat different from that which is commonly insisted on. Private property seems to me almost as secure in a civilized European monarchy as in a republic; nor is danger much apprehended in such a government, from the violence of the sovereign; more than we commonly dread harm from thunder or earthquakes, or any accident the most unusual and extraordinary. Avarice, the spur of industry, is so obstinate a passion, and works its way through so many real dangers and difficulties, that it is not likely to be scared by an imaginary danger. . . . Commerce, therefore, in my opinion, is apt to decay in absolute governments, not because it is there less secure, but because it is less honorable. . . .