The Reading Room

Hume’s History of England: From the Liberty Fund Rare Book Room

Some of the most remarkable books in the Liberty Fund rare book room come from the collection of the American historian Joseph Hamburger. Acquired in the late 90s, the selections from Hamburger's collection that we own are some of the oldest and most unusual books in our rare book room, like this first edition of Hume's History of England.
Hume's History was, famously, written and published backwards.  The two volumes that Hume wrote first (numbered volumes 5 and 6 in modern editions) are probably more properly known as The History of Britain, Volumes 1 & 2. The age of these volumes makes it hard to read the beautifully stamped spines, but you can pick out this title and the volume numbers if you look carefully. Volume One contains the reigns of James I and Charles I.

Volume Two covers the period of the Commonwealth  to the Glorious Revolution of 1688.

Hume often wrote to Adam Smith about the project of writing these volumes. One early letter explains why Hume started with the later histories rather than, as we might expect, with the earliest. He writes:
I confess, I was once of the same Opinion with you, and thought that the best Period to begin an English History was about Henry the 7th. But you will please to observe, that the Change, which then happen'd in public Affairs, was very insensible, and did not display its Influence until many Years afterwards. "Twas under James that the House of Commons began first to raise their head...and the Factions which then arose, having an Influence on our present Affairs, form the most curious, interesting and instructive Part of our History. (Letter to Adam Smith, 24 Sept., 1752
With the beginning decided--James I's reign--Hume found himself, a few years later, facing a different  problem. 
I am somewhat idle at present; and somewhat undetermin'd as to my next Undertaking. Shall I go backwards or forwards in my History? I think you us'd to tell me that you approvd more of my going backwards. The other oud be the more popular Subject; but I am afraid, that I shall not find Materials sufficient to ascertain the Truth. (Letter to Adam Smith, Mar, 1757)
Clearly, he became resolved on writing his way backwards through history. And so, readers of Hume are left with a 6 volume work, the earliest of which contain the latest material and which can be numbered Volumes 1 and 2, or Volumes 5 and 6, depending on when they were printed.

Its a fine reminder that history isn't as straightforward as we might like to think. But whichever way one elects to read Hume's History, and no matter where one decides to start, one finds Hume's glorious prose and incisive judgements. His description of Charles I is, I think, a particularly fine example, and one that, I hope, might encourage new readers to take a closer look at the work.