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Hume Studies Volume XXI, Number 2, November 1995, pp. 315-332 Robertson, Hume, and the Balance of Power FREDERICK G. WHELAN William Robertson, like his Scottish Enlightenment colleague David Hume, practiced a kind of philosophic history which, although it appears to consist mainly of narratives of political and military events, is also designed to teach moral and political lessons of general significance and utility. The principal theme of Hume's History of England, for example, is the growth of legal and constitutional government in connection with the emergence of modern society; Hume's narrative implicitly justifies both such a government and the moderate politics on which it depends. A theme of comparable importance in Robertson's History of Charles V (1769) is the emergence of a balance of power and thence a relatively stable international system among European states in the early sixteenth century, when the policy of balance first clearly appeared. As he declares in his Preface: The political principles and maxims then established still continue to operate. The ideas concerning the balance of power, then introduced or rendered general, still influence the councils of nations. (R 307)1 Robertson both describes the relevant policy decisions (especially the alliance between the traditional enemies, England and France, to counter the threat posed by Charles Vs unprecedentedly large empire) and justifies such policies as reasonable and beneficial.2 Frederick G. Whelan is at the Political Science Department, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh PA 15260 USA. 316 Frederick G. Whelan In treating this theme, Robertson was taking up a topic that was of interest to Hume as well. Hume refers on a number of occasions to the sixteenth century balance of power in his History chapters on the reign of Henry VIII (1759),3 especially in the portion extending through the 1520s, and he treats the topic more systematically in his earlier essay "Of the Balance of Power" (1752).4 Hume like Robertson defends balance of power policies in general, and Hume certainly (Robertson probably) had a more particular reason for doing so: to justify contemporary British (Whig) foreign policy (and several wars), which since the reign of Louis XIV had aimed at maintaining a European counterbalance to France.5 Hume's and Robertson's favorable descriptions of the sixteenth century anti-Habsburg policy provide a useful background for defending the eighteenth century anti-Bourbon policy.6 Indeed, both Hume and Robertson probably exaggerated the prevalence of the balance of power, at least as a conscious policy, in the early sixteenth century; although they were no doubt correct in noting that something like the modern state system first began to take shape at that time, they seem to have projected the eighteenth century emphasis on balance backwards in time as a way of legitimizing it.7 Robertson sums up the fifty year period he covers by observing that the similar stage of development of the states of Europe at that time, together with the policy of balance, permitted the preservation of a fairly stable system of independent states that has lasted until the present: But the advantages possessed by one state were counterbalanced by circumstances favourable to others; and thus prevented any from attaining such superiority as might have been fatal to all. The nations of Europe in that age, as in the present, were like one great family.... There was not among them that wide diversity of character and of genius which, in almost every period of history, hath exalted the Europeans above the inhabitants of the other quarters of the globe, and seems to have destined the one to rule and the others to obey. (R 704) Hume's concern with contemporary policy, and with France, is more conspicuous: Europe has now, for above a century, remained on the defensive against the greatest force that ever, perhaps, was formed by the civil or political combination of mankind. And such is the influence of the maxim here treated of, that tho' that ambitious nation, in the five last general wars, have been victorious in four, and unsuccessful only in one, they have not much enlarged their dominions, nor acquired a total ascendant over EUROPE.... In the last three of these general Hume...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1947-9921
Print ISSN
0319-7336
Pages
pp. 315-332
Launched on MUSE
2011-01-26
Open Access
No
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