David Hume argued that Individual Liberty emerged slowly out of the “violent system of government” which had earlier prevailed in Europe (1778)
In one of the last sections he wrote in the multi-volume History of England, Hume steps back to survey the entire sweep of English constitutional development. One of the key factors in leading to the creation of English liberty was the ending of serfdom:
One chief advantage, which resulted from the introduction and progress of the arts, was the introduction and progress of freedom; and this consequence affected men both in their personal and civil capacities. If we consider the ancient state of Europe, we shall find, that the far greater part of the society were every where bereaved of their personal liberty, and lived entirely at the will of their masters. Every one, that was not noble, was a slave: The peasants were sold along with the land: The few inhabitants of cities were not in a better condition… The first incident, which broke in upon this violent system of government, was the practice, begun in Italy, and imitated in France, of erecting communities and corporations, endowed with privileges and a separate municipal government, which gave them protection against the tyranny of the barons, and which the prince himself deemed it prudent to respect. The relaxation of the feudal tenures, and an execution somewhat stricter, of the public law, bestowed an independance of vassals, which was unknown to their forefathers. And even the peasants themselves, though later than other orders of the state, made their escape from those bonds of villenage or slavery, in which they had formerly been retained… After this manner, villenage went gradually into disuse throughout the more civilized parts of Europe… 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.
This section of Hume’s History of England is not titled “The Progress of English Liberty” in the book. The importance of this essay was brought to our attention by the Hume scholar Eugene Miller who believes that it was written at a late stage in the writing of the book in order to summarize Hume’s views on the rise of liberty in England over the centuries. It does appear to be a stand alone piece and we published it online as one of our “Fogotten Gems” </index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=463&Itemid=262>.