Liberty Matters

Some More Mere-Liberty Moments in Hume’s History, Part 1


In my post "Hume Really Did Make Mere-Liberty Central," I touched on three significant mere-liberty passages in Hume's History (Vol. III: 77-79, 135; V: 114, 560). I am new to the History. In an autumn 2017 reading group, we covered—I won't say "read"—volumes III, IV, V, and VI, skipping volumes I and II. But a smattering is better than nothing (and, besides, these posts are supposed to be limited to 800 words). Surely there are other passages more significant than some of those that follow. I take care not to include passages where Hume channels parties in his narrative, except when noted otherwise. I boldface bits that seem to speak of, or imply, an idea of mere-liberty, not merely parliamentary rights, established rules, etc. There are of course oodles of "personal liberty," "civil liberty," "political liberty," "system/plan of liberty," "English liberty," "liberty" and "freedom" simpliciter, etc. that could be seen either way (or both). With a couple of exceptions I do not use those, focusing rather on passages where an idea of mere-liberty is most salient.
Mere-liberty is clearly connoted in the following expressions:
liberty of thought/conscience/religion: III: 136, 189, 266, 433; IV: 263; V: 125; 6: 71, 88, 482.liberty of press/speech: IV: 285; V: 91, 92, 130.captives recovering their liberty/being restored to liberty/etc.: III: 164, 166, 167, 229; IV: 7, 50, 180; VI: 88, 540.
Volume I:
Hume says that some of the articles of the Great Charter "provide for the equal distribution of justice, and free enjoyment of property; the great objects for which political society was at first founded by men, which the people have a perpetual and unalienable right to recal, and which no time, nor precedent, nor statute, nor positive institution, ought to deter them from keeping ever uppermost in their thoughts and attention" (445).
Volume II:
The only part that I have read is the valediction (518-25) at the end of the volume (the last to be written). Liberty Fund has extracted it as "The Progress of English Liberty."
The gradual progress of improvement raised the Europeans somewhat above this uncultivated state; and affairs, in this island particularly, took early a turn, which was more favourable to justice and to liberty. Civil employments and occupations soon became honourable among the English…. [522][T]he distinction of villain and freeman was totally, though insensibly abolished, and that no person remained in the state, to whom the former laws could be applied.Thus personal freedom became almost general in Europe; an advantage which paved the way for the encrease of political or civil liberty, and which, even where it was not attended with this salutary effect, served to give the members of the community some of the most considerable advantages of it. [524]
In the last (also quoted by Nick), I confess I don't know which corresponds best to mere-liberty, but it seems like one of them must do so pretty well.
Volume III:
Here I leave off the important 77-79 and 135, which were treated previously.
What proves either a stupid or a wilful blindness in the parliament is, that they pretended, even after this statute, to maintain some limitations in the government; and they enacted, that no proclamation should deprive any person of his lawful possessions, liberties, inheritances, privileges, franchises; not yet infringe any common law or laudable custom of the realm. They did not consider, that no penalty could be inflicted on the disobeying of proclamations, without invading some liberty or property of the subject; and that the power of enacting new laws, joined to the dispensing power, then exercised by the crown, amounted to a full legislative authority. [267]
If I understand the immediately foregoing, Hume is saying that the enforcement of such proclamations inherently invades the liberty of the subject.
At 330-31 there are more free-market comments (like those at 77-79), and I would argue that such words as "fixing," "permitting," "confining," "excluding," and "prohibited" all imply a mere-liberty notion.
Volume IV:
Hume speaks of Elizabeth "allowing a free exportation of corn" (48).
Hume treats Peter Wentworth's "premeditated harangue" and says in his own voice: "it seems to contain a rude sketch of those principles of liberty, which happily gained afterwards the ascendant in England" (178). Hume's summary of the harangue shows both mere-liberty and established-rule/parliamentary ideas. Hume also says that "Wentworth better understood the principles of liberty" (180). We return to Wentworth in part 2.
Speaking of Elizabeth's use of purveyance (that is, forced hospitality), Hume notes that payment "was often distant and uncertain" and continues: "so that purveyance, besides the slavery of it, was always regarded as a great burthen, and being arbitrary and casual, was liable to great abuses" (272). Most significant here is the word besides: Besides the uncertainty and arbitrariness, there is the sheer slavery of it.
 At 344-46 Hume again decries market interventions under Elizabeth, particularly monopolies. The words "restraints," "extorted," "free themselves," and "restrained" all imply mere-liberty. Hume then says such restrictions embarrass certain prepossessions about the degree of "liberty possessed under the administration of Elizabeth" (346). Hume then notes:
It was asserted, that the queen inherited both an enlarging and a restraining power; by her prerogative she might set at liberty what was restrained by statute or otherwise, and by her prerogative she might restrain what was otherwise at liberty…. [346]
Hume here clearly draws a contrast between liberty and established statute. (See also Note [HH], 411f.)
At 367 Hume speaks of "branches of prerogative, which are now abolished, and which were, every one of them, totally incompatible with the liberty of the subject." Sounds to me like individual liberty (mere-liberty).
By the way, at 380, it is quite interesting that Hume baldly reports in a paragraph consisting solely of  one very short sentence: "In the fifth of this reign was enacted the first law for the relief of the poor." No comment—just as Smith never weighed in on the poor law (apart from the related settlement restrictions) in his otherwise quite comprehensive review of public policy.
In the next post I continue with volume V and VI.