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LETTER XLV.: The Ohio Scheme: Threat of War with Spain. - David Hume, Letters of David Hume to William Strahan 
Letters of David Hume to William Strahan, ed. G. Birkbeck Hill (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1888).
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The Ohio Scheme: Threat of War with Spain.
I am very glad to have heard from you, and have sent you my Letter to Lord Hertford1. under a flying Seal2. . I wish you good Success in your Project; tho’ I cannot easily imagine how an Estate on the Ohio can ever turn to great Account. The Navigation down the Mississipi is indeed expeditious and safe, except at the Mouth; but the return is commonly so slow, by the violence of the Current, that the Communication of that Country with the rest of the World, will always be under great Obstructions, and be carry’d on under considerable Disadvantages. But these Matters you have undoubtedly weighd and calculated, from better Information than I have had access to3. .
There was an Error in the page in the Errata I sent you, which I have corrected and I return you the Copy. I own, that this quick Sale of my philosophical Writings is as unexpected as the slow Sale of my historical, which are so much better calculated for common Readers4. . But this proves only, that factious prejudices are more prevalent in England than religious ones. I shall read over several times this new Edition; and send you a corrected Copy by some safe hand. With regard to the History, I only desire to hear from you three or four Months before you put it to the Press.
Dr. Henry's History is undoubtedly liable to the Objection you mention. It will be of enormous Size; and he himself, tho’ a laborious Man, never expects to finish it. I think also the Price he demanded exorbitant5. . It is however writ with Perspicuity and Propriety of Style, as I told you; but neither sprightly nor elegant6. ; and it is judicious, but not curious: There is danger of its appearing prolix to ordinary Readers: The Subject of his next Volume will be still more uninteresting than that of his first7. .
I am totally detachd from all concern about public Affairs; and care not though all the Ministry were at the Devil8. . This Spanish War9. is so enormously absurd, unjust, and unreasonable that I think it never had its parralel. If we be savd from it, it will not be owing to our own prudence, but to the determind Resolution of the King of France10. , who acts a very laudable part: But his Brother of Spain is as freakish and as obstinate as a Mule11. ; and our Ministry are more afraid of the despicable London Mob than of all Europe12. : Had they punishd that insolent Rascal, Beckford13. , as he deserved; we shoud have been in no danger of a Spanish War14. ; or rather of a general War: For Hostilities never continue limited between two Nations; but soon draw in all their Neighbours: In which case, France begins with declaring a public Bankruptcy15. and we make it16. the third Year of the War. An Event which is indeed inevitable17. ; but might have been delay’d, had it not been for this Quarrel about Falkland Island. You think we shall have peace: I am glad to hear it; but cannot allow myself to think, that any Chance will save Men so infatuated as our Ministry18. . It is a pleasure however that the Wilkites19. and the Bill of Rights-men20. are fallen into total and deservd Contempt21. . Their Noise is more troublesome and odious than all the Cannon that will be fird on the Atlantic.
I am here employ’d in building a small House22. : I mean a large House for an Author: For it is nearly as large as Mr. Millar's in Pall-mall23. . It is situated in our new Square24. ; where I hope to receive you, on your first Excursion to this Country. I beg my Compliments to Sir John Pringle25. : I think you are not likely to send us any thing worth reading this Winter.
I am Dear Strahan Yours sincerely
21 of Jan., 1771.
[1.]Note 1. The Earl of Hertford at this time was Lord Chamberlain.
[2.]Note 2. Hume, in one of his French letters, says:—’Je vous adresse cette lettre à cachet volant, sous l’enveloppe de M. de Montigny.’ Hume's Private Corres. p. 223. Littré defines cachet volant as cachet qui n’adhère qu’au pli supérieur d’une lettre sans la fermer.’ Hume's enclosed letter had his seal fixed on the upper side. After Strahan had read the letter he would close it by dropping some wax on the lower side, and bringing the two sides together with the seal uppermost. Envelopes were not generally used in England till the introduction of Penny Postage in 1840.
[3.]Note 3. Strahan replied on March 1:—’I was favoured with yours, inclosing your very genteel letter to Lord Hertford, which I delivered to his Lordship. He received me very politely; and I found no difficulty in impressing him with a just notion of the importance of the subject I wanted to talk to him about. He was as fond of it, or rather more so, than I was, and for his own sake will do what lies in his power to forward it. The project is no less than the forming a new government upon the Ohio. The country is by much the best and mildest in all our portion of America, and being situated at no great distance from any of our Colonies, will, when once settled, fill very fast from the overflowings of them all. The land carriage is by no means so great an obstacle as you seem to imagine, it being already, by means of other rivers in different parts of the country, so much shortened as to be considerably lower already than it is in the internal provinces of England.—The policy, however, of such a settlement respecting the Mother Country, is not yet decided; and the affair is still under consideration. I expect it will soon be determined one way or other, and I have some reason to think it will end as we wish it to do, as every objection that hath yet been offered to the scheme can be most satisfactorily answered. Meanwhile, it is not proper to say anything about it; but if it succeeds, I shall give you a very particular detail of the whole matter, and how I came to have any concern in it.—Lord Hertford is very fond of the idea of having a large tract of country in America, and is otherwise very attentive to the improvement of his fortune, having, I am well assured, profited greatly by the late increase of the price of stocks.’ M. S. R. S. E.
[4.]Note 4. Hume, no doubt, compared the sale of his History with that of Robertson's Scotland, which went through six editions in twelve years. His constant discontent is contemptible when we call to mind his boast, when speaking of his History, that the copy-money given him by the booksellers much exceeded anything formerly known in England (ante, Autobiography). They of course would not have paid him so well, had not his works had a great sale. For the two volumes of his History from Julius Caesar to Henry VII he was to receive £1400. For the Lives of the Poets Johnson by his contract was paid £200, though another hundred was added by the book-sellers.
[5.]Note 5. Strahan wrote to Hume on March 1 of this year:—’The price Dr. Henry expected for his History was in my estimation so much beyond its value that I carefully avoided making him any offer at all.’ M. S. R. S. E.
[6.]Note 6. Boswell says of it:—’The language will not, as far as I think, be so flowing and elegant as that of some writers to whom our taste is habituated; but it seems to be distinct, and sufficiently expressive.’ Letters of Boswell, p. 166.
[7.]Note 7. The first volume of Dr. Henry's History begins with the invasion of Britain by Julius Caesar and ends with the arrival of the Saxons; the second volume ends with the landing of William the Conqueror. Hume more than once shows his disgust at having to write the wars of the Saxons. ‘What instruction or entertainment can it give the reader,’ he asks, ‘to hear a long beadroll of barbarous names, Egric, Annas, Ethelbert, Ethelwald, Aldulf, Elfwold, Beorne, Ethelred, Ethelbert, who successively murdered, expelled, or inherited from each other, and obscurely filled the throne of that kingdom [East Anglia]?’ History of England, ed. 1802, i. 47. Nevertheless he said that ‘the Life of Harold was the portion of his History which he thought the best; and on the style of which he had bestowed most pains.’ Caldwell Papers, i. 39.
[8.]Note 8. ‘The Ministry is dissolved. I prayed with Francis and gave thanks.’ Such is Johnson's pious entry in his Journal, when nearly twelve years later Lord North's Ministry came to an end. Boswell's Johnson, iv. 139. It lasted from Feb. 10, 1770 to March 20, 1782.
[9.]Note 9. There was only a threat of war. In 1765 Commodore Byron had taken formal possession of Falkland's Islands in the name of his Britannic Majesty. A settlement was made at Port Egmont in West Falkland in Jan. 1766. The French in Feb. 1764 had established themselves on East Falkland. Two years later they ceded their settlement to the Spanish. In Nov. 1769 Captain Hunt of the Tamar frigate warned off the coast a Spanish schooner which was taking a survey of the islands. The Governor of the Spanish settlement gave a like warning to the English captain. In Feb. 1770 two Spanish frigates with troops on board arrived, and warnings were again interchanged by the commanders. Captain Hunt at once sailed with the news for England, where he arrived on June 3. Only a few days later, five Spanish frigates, carrying a train of artillery, appeared before Port Egmont. The English had only a sloop of 16 guns. A few shots were fired, but resistance was seen to be impossible: a flag of truce was hung out, and articles of capitulation signed. The English were to depart with drums beating and colours flying, and to carry off all their stores; but their departure by the terms of the capitulation was delayed a few weeks. ‘The most degrading of all the circumstances attending this transaction, and particularly a new, and to all appearance, wanton insult to the British flag was, that for the better security of this limitation the sloop was deprived of her rudder.’ The news of this reached London on Sept. 24. Ann. Reg. 1771, i. 4–12; Gent. Mag. 1770, p. 439; Johnson's Works, vi. 185–192.
[10.]Note 10. ‘Dec. 29, 1770. It is now said that on the very morning of the Duke's disgrace the King reproached him, and said, “Monsieur, je vous avais dit que je ne voulais pas la guerre.” Horace Walpole to Mann. Letters, v. 275.
[11.]Note 11. ‘King Carlos,’ writes Horace Walpole on Nov. 18, 1771, ‘hates us ever since Naples.’ Letters, v. 349. When he was King of the two Sicilies, an English fleet, in the year 1742, had threatened Naples with bombardment, unless within an hour the King signed a treaty of neutrality in the War of the Succession to the House of Austria. Œuvres de Voltaire, xix. 80. In the summer of 1770 a satire was published on him in London, so ‘ludicrous and ironic’ that some Spaniards resolved to murder the printer, and were with difficulty prevented by their Ambassador, who told them they would infallibly be hanged. They said they could not die in a better cause. The Ambassador was inexpressibly hurt, and told our Ministers he did not know how to write the account to his Court; but wished the insult might not cause a war.’ Walpole's Memoirs of George III, iv. 169. The King is described in this satire as an idiot, who, when the weather stopped his hunting, was amused by winding up three or four dozen watches, till his mental faculties were fatigued by the operation. He then took to lashing a horse that was worked on the tapestry of the room till he fell on the ground worn out with the effort. Ib. p. 372.
[12.]Note 12. Burke wrote to the Marquis of Rockingham on Sept. 8, 1770:—’They [the Court party] are well acquainted with the difference between the Bill of Rights (post, p. 171, n. 20) and your Lordship's friends, and they are very insolently rejoiced at it. They respect and fear that wretched knot beyond anything you can readily imagine, and far more than any part, or than all the other parts of the Opposition. The reason is plain; there is a vast resemblance of character between them. They feel that if they had equal spirit and industry they would in the same situation act the very same part. It is their idea of a perfect Opposition.’ Burke's Corres. i. 237. Johnson a few months later wrote:—’To fancy that our government can be subverted by the rabble whom its lenity has pampered into impudence is to fear that a city may be drowned by the overflowings of its kennels.’ Works, vi. 213. Later on he more than once accused Lord North's Ministry of cowardice. In March, 1776, when talking to Boswell about the bill for a Scotch militia, ‘he said:—“I am glad that Parliament has had the spirit to throw it out. You wanted to take advantage of the timidity of our scoundrels” (meaning, I suppose, the Ministry).’ Boswell's Johnson, iii. 1. At another time he described them as ‘a bunch of imbecility.’ Ib. iv. 139. See also ib. iv. 200.
[13.]Note 13. See ante, p. 139, n. 1, for the Remonstrance of the City of London presented by Lord Mayor Beckford and Sheriffs on March 14, 1770, and p. 147, n. 7, for the unwillingness of Parliament to support Government in any personal punishment of the Remonstrants. On May 23 (ante, ib.) the City had presented a second Address to the King. The answer which they received was a repetition of the King's dissatisfaction with the former Address. Whereupon Beckford, ‘to the amazement of the Court, and with a boldness and freedom perhaps peculiar to himself, made an immediate and spirited reply, which he concluded in the following words:—“Whoever has already dared, or shall hereafter endeavour by false insinuations and suggestions, to alienate your Majesty's affections from your loyal subjects in general, and from the City of London in particular, and to withdraw your confidence to, and regard for, your people, is an enemy to your Majesty's person and family, a violator of the public peace, and a betrayer of our happy constitution as it was established at the glorious and necessary Revolution.”’ Ann. Reg. 1770, i. 203; 1771, i. 15. In a note on Boswell's Johnson, iii. 201, I have examined the statement by Horne Tooke that ‘Beckford got so confused that he scarcely knew what he had said,’ and that Tooke thereupon wrote and sent to the newspapers the speech which was published. I had not noticed the following passage in the Ann. Reg. for 1771, i. 15, which, written as it no doubt was by Burke, no friendly witness, conclusively proves that Tooke lied. ‘This answer was variously judged. Those who paid a high regard to the decorums of the Court declared it indecent and unprecedented to reply to any answer of the King. But in the City his spirit was infinitely applauded. Both parties concurred in admiring the manner in which he delivered himself.’ Lord Chatham wrote to Beckford on May 25:—’In the fulness of the heart the mouth speaks; and the overflowing of mine gives motion to a weak hand, to tell you how truly I respect and love the spirit which your Lordship displayed on Wednesday. The spirit of Old England spoke that never-to-be-forgotten day. . . . Adieu then for the present (to call you by the most honourable of titles) true Lord Mayor of London; that is, first magistrate of the first city of the world! I mean to tell you only a plain truth, when I say, your Lordship's mayoralty will be revered till the constitution is destroyed and forgotten.’ Chatham Corres. iii. 462. Beckford died a month later—on June 21. Ann. Reg. 1770, i. 119. Horace Walpole wrote on July 26:—’Instead of Wilkes having been so, it looks as if Beckford had been the firebrand of politics, for the flame has gone out entirely since his death,
[14.]Note 14. ‘There was perhaps never much danger of war or of refusal, but what danger there was, proceeded from the faction. Foreign nations, unacquainted with the insolence of common councils, and unaccustomed to the howl of plebeian patriotism, when they heard of rabbles and riots, of petitions and remonstrances, of discontent in Surrey, Derbyshire, and Yorkshire, when they saw the chain of subordination broken, and the legislature threatened and defied, naturally imagined that such a government had little leisure for Falkland's Islands; they supposed that the English when they returned ejected from Port Egmont, would find Wilkes invested with the protectorate; or see the mayor of London, what the French have formerly seen their mayors of the palace, the commander of the army and tutor of the king; that they would be called to tell their tale before the common council; and that the world was to expect war or peace from a vote of the subscribers to the Bill of Rights.’ Falkland's Island. Johnson's Works, vi. 213. Horace Walpole wrote on March 23, 1771:—’France luckily has little leisure to join with King Carlos or King Brass Crosby [the Lord Mayor]—their confusions and King Lewis's weakness seem to increase every day.’ Letters, v. 287.
[15.]Note 15. Wilkes had written to Earl Temple from Paris so early as Aug. 29, 1763:—’The distress in the provinces is risen to a great height. Paris is as gay as usual. The five last years the Government have been at the expense of several public shows in the city, &c. for the people. The most sensible men here think that this country is on the eve of a great revolution.’ Grenville Papers, ii. 100. Strahan wrote to Hume on March 1, 1771:—’Luckily for this nation, the situation of France is such, that we may reasonably hope to be able to avoid a war for some time to come. Indeed, if we are not much misinformed, the popular discontents there are becoming very serious. Perhaps they may come exaggerated to us; but this I am certain of, that their finances are in such disorder that it requires not only the utmost sagacity and ability, but some very bold political stroke, to put them upon a tolerable footing.’ M. S. R. S. E.
[16.]Note 16. Hume, I think, has in his mind the French idiom faire banqueroute.
[17.]Note 17. Hume in October 1769 had hoped to live to see a public bankruptcy in England. He should have become more cheerful as it seemed so close at hand, but he is as discontented as ever. Burke describes the causes which the year before ‘concurred, notwithstanding the vast weight of our debts and taxes, to make a war in general not wholly unacceptable.’ Ann. Reg. 1771, i. 14. The Three per Cent. Consols, which at the beginning of 1770 had been at 86, by the end of the year had fallen to 78. Gent. Mag. 1770, pp. 48, 592. On Jan. 28, 1771, they had risen to 84 (ib. 1771, p. 48), and on March 1 to nearly 89 (ib. p. 144, where Feb. 1 is evidently a misprint for March 1).
[18.]Note 18. Strahan replying to Hume on March 1, said:—’You seem much out of humour with the Ministry. Upon my word, as far as I am able to judge, they have acted pretty well of late; though I must own their timidity regarding our domestic incendiaries is altogether inexcusable. However, bating this great fault (and great I allow it is), Lord North in particular has acted his part very well; he speaks with courage and firmness in the House, and with temper too. In short, I think he gains ground in the public opinion every day. I firmly believe he means well. And I wish the present Ministry to stand their ground, purely because they are the present Ministry; for, as I told your friend Lord Hertford when I had the honour to wait upon him, the King has changed his Ministers so very often since his Accession, that another change would be almost equal to a dethronement.’ M. S. R. S. E.
[19.]Note 19. George III told Lord Eldon that at a Levee ‘he asked Wilkes after his friend Serjeant Glynne. “My friend, Sir!” says Wilkes to the King; “he is no friend of mine.” “Why,” said the King, “he was your friend and your counsel in all your trials.” “Sir,” rejoined Wilkes, “he was my counsel—one must have a counsel; but he was no friend; he loves sedition and licentiousness which I never delighted in. In fact, Sir, he was a Wilkite, which I never was.” The King said the confidence and humour of the man made him forget at the moment his impudence.’ Twiss's Life of Lord Eldon, ed. 1844, ii. 356.
[20.]Note 20. The Society of the Supporters of the Bill of Rights met for the first time at the London Tavern on Feb. 20, 1769. Its objects were ‘to raise an effectual barrier against such oppression [as Mr. Wilkes had suffered], to rescue him from his present incumbrances, and to render him easy and independent.’ By the end of the following year ‘the accounts of the Society stood thus:—
When this result was obtained ‘a considerable party in the Society thought the object of its institution was accomplished. Mr. Wilkes and his friends thought otherwise. The Society had not, they said, made him easy and independent, according to the original engagement. . . . Many seceded, and at length the Society dissolved.’ Almon's Memoirs of Wilkes, iv. 7–14. Burke wrote on Aug. 15, 1770:—’I am glad that you find some entertainment in the Thoughts [on the Cause of the Present Discontents]. They have had in general (I flatter myself) the approbation of the most thinking part of the people. . . . The party which is most displeased is a rotten subdivision of a faction amongst ourselves, who have done us infinite mischief by the violence, rashness, and often wickedness of their measures. I mean the Bill of Rights people.’ Burke's Corres. i. 229.
[21.]Note 21. ‘Jan. 15, 1771. Wilkes and Parson Horne [afterwards Horne Tooke] write against each other; Alderman Sawbridge is dying [this is a mistake, as he was Lord Mayor in 1775–6]; and in short Lord Chatham, like Widdrington in Chevy Chace, is left almost alone to fight it out upon his stumps.’ Walpole's Letters, v. 278. ‘Feb. 22. Both Lord Chatham and Wilkes are at the end of their reckoning, and the Opposition can do nothing without fresh fuel. . . . For eight months to come, I should think we shall have little to talk of, you and I, but distant wars and distant majesties. For my part, I reckon the volume quite shut in which I took any interest. The succeeding world is young, new, and half unknown to me.’ Ib. pp. 282, 4.
[22.]Note 22. On Oct. 2, 1770, Hume had written:—’I am engaged in the building a house, which is the second great operation of human life; for the taking a wife is the first, which I hope will come in time.’ Burton's Hume, ii. 436.
[23.]Note 23. Hume wrote to Millar on Oct. 21, 1766:—’I hope to be often merry with you and Mrs. Millar in your House in Pall Mall.’ M. S. R. S. E.
[24.]Note 24. St. Andrew's Square.
[25.]Note 25. When Boswell was taking Johnson to his father's house, ‘I was very anxious,’ he writes, ‘that all should be well; and begged of my friend to avoid three topics, as to which they differed very widely; Whiggism, Presbyterianism, and—Sir John Pringle. He said courteously, “I shall certainly not talk on subjects which I am told are disagreeable to a gentleman under whose roof I am; especially I shall not do so to your father.”’ Boswell's Johnson, v. 376. A quarrel nevertheless took place. ‘In the course of their altercation Whiggism and Presbyterianism, Toryism and Episcopacy were terribly buffeted. My worthy hereditary friend Sir John Pringle never having been mentioned happily escaped without a bruise.’ Ib. p. 384. See also ib. iii. 65, and post, Letter of May 2, 1776.