David Hume on the origin of government in warfare, and the “perpetual struggle” between Liberty and Power (1777)

David Hume

Found in Essays Moral, Political, Literary (LF ed.)

David Hume has two important insights into the origin of government; that it is often born out of warfare, and that once established there is a “perpetual struggle” within it between Liberty and Power (1777):

It is probable, that the first ascendant of one man over multitudes begun during a state of war; where the superiority of courage and of genius discovers itself most visibly, where unanimity and concert are most requisite, and where the pernicious effects of disorder are most sensibly felt. The long continuance of that state, an incident common among savage tribes, enured the people to submission; and if the chieftain possessed as much equity as prudence and valour, he became, even during peace, the arbiter of all differences, and could gradually, by a mixture of force and consent, establish his authority….

In all governments, there is a perpetual intestine struggle, open or secret, between Authority and Liberty; and neither of them can ever absolutely prevail in the contest. A great sacrifice of liberty must necessarily be made in every government; yet even the authority, which confines liberty, can never, and perhaps ought never, in any constitution, to become quite entire and uncontroulable. (Essays Moral, Political, and Literary, “On the Origin of Government”)

Although the later Hume has a reputation for supporting the British monarchy (this was Jefferson’s view) in some of his early essays we see a more radical view of the nature of government emerge. In a previously cited quotation Hume tells us that a combination of force and public opinion is required to keep a regime in power. In this essay Hume adds two more crucial insights into the origin and operation of governments: the first is that the earliest governments probably came about as a result of war with the victorious strongman seizing power and gradually making it permanent; secondly, that once governments were established there began a “perpetual intestine struggle, open or secret, between Authority and Liberty.” Perhaps this passage should be the foundational text for the present collection of quotations entitled Reflections on Liberty and Power.