Thomas Jefferson’s Fear of Monarchism (and Hume)

Thomas Jefferson was deeply distrustful of the potential abuses of monarchy.

By Dr. M. Andrew Holowchak

To Benjamin Hawkins (4 Aug. 1787), Jefferson derides monarchy by relating Aesop’s tale of frogs who wished for a king. Zeus sent them a large block of wood that floated in their pond. At first placated, they grew angry and demanded a real king. Zeus then sent to them a large water-snake that ate as many of the frogs as it could eat. “If that does not put [us] to rights,” says Jefferson, “send them to Europe to see something of the trappings of monarchy, and I will undertake that every man shall go back thoroughly cured.”

As early as 1774 and till the end of his life, Thomas Jefferson was deeply distrustful of the potential abuses of monarchy. The great emissary of monarchism and the Toryism behind it, it is often conceded, was David Hume, whose History of England was the “manual of every student,” he tells Col. William Duane (12 Aug. 1810), because of its “judicious matter and charms of style.” When young, Jefferson devoured with zest the book. Yet only after much time and sizeable reflection could he “eradicate the poison.” Hume, he adds, “took up the history of the Stuarts, became their apologist, and advocated all their enormities.” Portraying unfairly the Saxons and Tudors, his history has a Tory slant, yet “he still continues to be put into the hands of all our young people and to infect them with the poison of his own principles of government. It is this book which has undermined the free principles of the English government, has persuaded readers of all classes that there were usurpations on the legitimate and salutary rights of the crown, and has spread universal toryism over the land.”

To John Adams (25 Nov. 1816), Jefferson compares Humean history to portraits by the American artist, Joseph Wright. Wright’s eye, “so unhappy as to seize all the ugly features of his subject, and to present them faithfully,” is “entirely insensible to every lineament of beauty.” It is the same with Hume, who “has concentrated, in his fascinating style, all the arbitrary proceedings of the English Kings, as true evidences of the constitution, and glided over its Whig principles as the unfounded pretensions of factious demagogues.” Jefferson adds, “He even boasts, in his life written by himself, that of the numerous alterations suggested by the readers of his work, he had never adopted one proposed by a Whig.”

Jefferson’s detestation of Humean Toryism, evident in many other letters (e.g., TJ to John Cartwright, 5 June 1824, and TJ to George Lewis, 25 Oct. 1825) is well-known and has been the subject of much critical scholarly attention, almost all negative, and rightly so. Yet this essay is not a critique of Jefferson’s somewhat paranoid views of Hume’s History. My aim is other.

What is seldom recognized in the secondary literature is that Jefferson’s objections to Hume’s Toryism relate only to his History, not to his political essays, of which Jefferson was very familiar.

In “The Rise of the Arts and Sciences” and “The Parties of Great Britain,” Hume says there are two viable forms of governing men—monarchy and republicanism—each being an “improvement” over ancient republics, obsolete. In a pure republic, the authority is distributed among several assemblies or senates, the checks and controls are in regular operation, because the members are almost always “equal in capacity and virtue.” Yet equality is fool’s gold, for numbers, riches, and authority are deciding factors in political decisions.

In a republic, political offices are filled by persons looking down—to the people. Utility is critical. Those governing must prove their usefulness to the citizenry. Thus, genius and the sciences are desirable. In a monarchy, political offices are filled by persons looking upward—to the monarch. Morigeration is critical: Those governing must prove themselves to be “agreeable” to the monarch. Thus, refinement and the polite arts are desirable, though over-refinement tends toward instability. Security and happiness, desirable in both forms of governing, are late to arrive in both.

In any form of government, continues Hume in “The Rise of the Arts and Sciences,” law is axial, for there can be neither science nor liberty without laws established. “A republic without laws can never have any duration.” From law, there comes security; from security, curiosity; from curiosity, knowledge. Hume states, “The first growth, therefore, of the arts and sciences can never be expected in despotic governments.” He adds, “That it is impossible for the arts and science to arise, at first, among any people unless that people enjoy the blessing of a free government. ”Thus, liberty is the indispensable condition of a new nation’s growth and advance in the arts and sciences.

A young republic with some degree of liberty can mature and nurture the sciences or it can morph into a “civilized monarchy” like England. “That though the only proper Nursery of these noble plants be a free state: yet may they be transplanted into any government; and that a republic is most favourable to the growth of the sciences, a civilized monarchy, to that of the polite arts.” Thus, the perfection of a monarchy is axialy due to its early-in-life embrace of liberty, as a pure monarchy cannot refine itself without having first tasted liberty. “It must borrow its laws, and methods and institutions, and consequently its stability and order, from free governments.” Extensive despotism disallows such maturation.

The two forms of governing, Hume writes in “The Parties of Great Britain,” seem to answer to two cardinal dispositions in men. From such extremes of disposition in men and since the revolution, there have been formed two parties in Britain: Tories and Whigs. He adds in “Of the Coalition of Parties,” “A Tory … may be defined … to be a lover of monarch, though without abandoning liberty; and a partisan of the family of Stuart. As a Whig may be defined to be a lover of liberty though without renouncing monarchy; and a friend to the settlement in the Protestant line.” Yet it is crucial to note, for Hume, that those definitions display political leanings, not fundamental differences between persons based on embrace of mutually exclusive political axioms. A Tory, loving authority, will not abandon liberty; a Whig, loving liberty, will not renounce authority. For Jefferson (TJ to Joel Barlow, 3 May 1802), the distinction is “founded in the nature of man” (see also, TJ to Henry Lee, 10 Aug. 1824, and TJ to William Short, 8 Jan. 1825).

Hume then turns to the psychology of political partisanship in “Of the Coalition of Parties.”

Tories, political conservatives, follow use and practice. They prefer authority and precedent to reason, and authority and precedent result in stability. “Dissolve these ties [of authority and precedent], you break all the bonds of civil society, and leave every man at liberty to consult his private interest, by those expedients, which his appetite, disguised under the appearance of reason, shall dictate to him.” Innovation, a selling point of republicanism, cloaks insidiousness for Tories.

For Whigs, in contrast, “liberty is a blessing so estimable, that, wherever there appears any probability of recovering it, a nation may willingly run many hazards, and ought not ever to repine at the greatest effusion of blood or dissipation of treasure.” Thus, republicanism in its extreme is a harbinger of anarchy. Yet what Whigs really aim at is power. Their rhetoric strives to “cover their encroachments on the crown.” The sentiment is in gist Plato’s.

Whigs, the party of the people, found their political platform on opposition to the crown. With political authority mostly or exclusively in one person, they worry about absolute despotism. “Though obliged to acknowledge, that precedents in favour of prerogative had uniformly taken place during many reigns before Charles the First, they thought, that there was no reason for submitting any longer to so dangerous an authority.” For Whigs, the lessons of history show that the crown is not to be trusted. Therefore, they strive for “recovery of the just rights of the people”—a return to the golden age of Saxonism, where the people were sovereign and the laws, mild and few, did not need codification. Hume, unwittingly, paints a picture of Jefferson.

Hume, overall, does not sanction monarchy in preference to republicanism, as Jefferson states in his critique of Humean history. He acknowledges that there are benefits and drawbacks to both systems of governing. “The deep question is not whether republican government is superior to monarchical,” says Humean scholar Donald Livingston in Philosophical Melancholy and Delirium, “but whether a government, whatever its form, embodies to a high degree the qualities of civilization.” High degree of civilization is not the consequence of philosophical reflection; philosophical reflection is a consequence of a high degree of civilization. In that regard, Hume is no ideologue as is Jefferson.

Conceding that every government must at some point degenerate, Hume asks in “The British Government” whether it is desirable for England to end as a popular government or as monarchy. He begins with a concession to the intuitions of Whigs. “A popular government,” he notes, “may be imagined more perfect than absolute monarchy” or even the present British government, “but what reason have we to expect that any such government will ever be established in Great Britain, upon the dissolution of our monarchy?” The inconveniences of instantiating a popular government, he acknowledges, greatly outweigh any realistically perceivable advantages. “If we have reason to be more jealous of monarchy, because the danger is more imminent from that quarter; we have also reason to be more jealous of popular government, because the danger is more terrible.” Imminence, obviously a more pressing concern, is less of an overall concern than terribleness. He sums, “This may teach us a lesson of moderation.” The scale is tipped to monarchy mostly or only because England happens to be monarchical, and any shift to a government by the people hazards great dangers, because the shift is large, even if its conceivable rewards are outstanding. One has only to consider the French Revolution.

Whereas Hume offers a conservative argument for civilized monarchy—it is better for England to stay the course of monarchy with its imminent dangers than risk the shift to a republic with its prospect of terrible dangers—Jefferson argues persistently and always that monarchy, incapable of addressing and advancing the needs of the citizenry, is ever insidious—ever to be eschewed. As Minister to France, he writes, for illustration, in a letter to George Washington (2 May 1788), “I was much an enemy to monarchy before I came to Europe. I am ten thousand times more so since I have seen what they are.”

Jefferson’s fear of monarchy is expressed in letters in 1787 to Edward Carrington (Jan. 16) and James Madison (Jan. 30). He writes of three societies: one without laws, one with a nimiety of laws, and one with laws representative of the will of the people. The first society, without laws, is exemplified by the American Indians, for whom opinion through honor and shame takes the place of law. Lawless society, though “inconsistent with any great degree of population,” allows for perfect liberty, and the general citizenry enjoys “an infinitely greater degree of happiness than those who live under the European governments.” The second sort of society, with nimiety of law, is exemplified by most European monarchies and republics. Here government by a monarch or by a few legislates in a manner indifferent to the will of the people. Thus, there is the “general prey of the rich on the poor.” The third society, a mean sort of society, in one “wherein the will of every one has a just influence” and is exemplified best by the United States. “The mass of mankind under that enjoys a precious degree of liberty & happiness.” Yet it is not without its maculae, for the masses, he concedes as does Hume, are subject at times to a great degree of turbulence. Nonetheless, in keeping with Hume’s notion that lovers of liberty will use nearly any means to procure it, Jefferson states that turbulent liberty is preferable to quiet servitude.

This brief account of the differences between Hume and Jefferson on types and corruptions of government is sufficient to show that Hume’s grasp of those issues is much more nuanced, refined, and even liberal, so long as we grasp “liberal” as open-minded. Jefferson, as is often his wont, is prone to dichotomize and polarize.

Such differences noted, Jefferson’s continued patronage throughout his life of Hume’s Essays—which were politically weighted and which he recommended to various correspondents (e.g., TJ to Robert Skip with, 3 Aug. 1771; to William G. Munford, 5 Dec. 1798; to Joseph Cabell, Sept. 1800; and to John Wayles Baker, 1821)—shows plainly that it is not Hume’s political thinking to which he objected, but the manner of its exposition. In Hume’s Essays, Hume’s political views are displayed openly; in Hume’s History, they are (perceived by Jefferson to be) artfully and disingenuously sheathed beneath an account of British history, written with legerity and elegance.

Originally published by History News Network, 12.30.2018, reprinted with permission for educational, non-commercial purposes.