“The abdicated family”: Hume’s Partisan Grammar in “Of the Protestant Succession”
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“The abdicated family”:
Hume’s Partisan Grammar in “Of the Protestant Succession”

We declarre the late King … hath Abdicated, actually Renounced the Government. … [T]he said late king James 2, having abdicated the Government, … the Throne [is] thereby vacant.1

The disadvantages of recalling the abdicated family consist chiefly in their religion, which is more prejudicial to society than that established amongst us, is contrary to it, and affords no toleration, or peace, or security to any other communion.2

“The abdicated family.” When David Hume called on that arresting phrase to characterize the exiled Stuarts, he was writing in the immediate context of the 1745 rebellion, a time of special partisan vitriol even in the context of the nastily partisan early eighteenth century.3 At that moment, the most powerful Jacobite uprising to have emerged in decades seemed to many to be forcing on the nation its long-deferred reckoning with the Stuarts. Tensions over Charles Edward Stuart’s claims were suddenly back in mainstream discourse; even civil war seemed possible. Though he had originally planned to publish “Of the Partisan Succession” in 1748, Hume delayed publication until 1752 out of concern over the possible results of the essay’s appearance at such an incendiary moment.4

This essay examines what we might call the backstory of Hume’s odd little phrase, “the abdicated family,” a formulation that courts, and counters, reductive partisan responses at what seems to have been a strikingly inopportune moment. As we shall see, “the abdicated family” is at once a characteristically Humean phrase (a strangely non-revelatory reveal, an anti-definitive definition) and an historically alert intervention. Hume knowingly enlists the phrase’s long, now often unseen tail, a trail of suggestion that reached back many decades before “Of the Protestant Succession.” As the quietly the pivotal, duplicitous [End Page 61] phrase at the center of Hume’s explanation for why the Stuarts must not return, “the abdicated family” can help us to understand why it is that interpreters have had such difficulty defining Hume’s partisanship, a vexed and slippery question from the eighteenth century until the present. More important, Hume’s phrase can help us to understand the imaginative limitations of partisanship per se after 1689, limitations never entirely separate from Hume’s own thinking but nevertheless subject there to oblique and still instructive critique.

By paying attention to these three words, I do not set out in any reductive sense to “solve” the long-standing “problem” of Hume’s partisan commitments. On the contrary, I want to demonstrate that such attention reveals the poverty of any approach that starts by assuming that a writer’s partisanship is a problem to be solved – assigned, categorized, fixed, limited, bracketed off – as if partisanship could be assumed a priori to be a coherent, stable, and exclusive business. I set out instead to make two related arguments: 1) that Hume’s “the abdicated family” functions as a miniaturized, super-concentrated gloss on the shifting history of a crucial problem – the problem of assigning agency and responsibility for the events of the “Glorious Revolution”; and 2) that Hume uses the phrase not merely to make retrospective sense of a finished past but to produce a new kind of understanding of the past’s ongoing place in his own “now.”5 “The abdicated family” encapsulates and epitomizes a fundamental goal of “Of the Protestant Succession”: to recognize the continued, active presence of events that many, by the 1740s, believed safely past. The phrase suggests that 1688-89 was not, in fact, over in 1752; that comforting, seamless progress had not been inaugurated in 1688; that dissonance and dissent remained, along with the possibility of radical destabilizations. The fact that Hume would make such suggestions during the fraught late 1740s, and that he would do so in a minimalistic, apparently offhand three-word phrase, is entirely characteristic. In “the abdicated family,” Hume enacts the sly acceptance of irrationality and self-contradiction that in his work is always necessary to rational thought and sensible action.6

Hume’s purposes required that he neither subscribe exclusively to one of the partisan interpretations current in his day, nor attempt...