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Hume Studies Volume XXV, Numbers 1 and 2, April/November 1999, pp. 171-192 Hume, Skepticism, and Early American Deism PETER S. FOSL "Madam, I am no Deist. I do no style myself so, neither do I desire to be known by that Appellation." —Hume to Mrs. Mallet The precise extent to which David Hume influenced early American thought is exceedingly difficult to determine, and among the most difficult regions of his likely influence is that of American deism. In this essay, I will undertake to refine our understanding of Hume's relationship with early American thought in general and to that of the American deists in particular. My principal concerns are, first, to articulate the general nature and extent of Hume's reception among the literate of the British colonies that would become the United States as well as in the newly founded republic; and second to argue that, in comparison , Hume provides stronger arguments against belief in miracles than do deistic criticisms. At the outset, one may note that similarities can be discerned between the general features of Hume's thought and that of many early Americans, deistic and otherwise. Prominent people in the North American colonies and the new United States, for example, frequently appealed to the importance of "experience " in assessing intellectual matters, while experience—especially common, ordinary experience—figures centrally in the vision Hume develops in his philosophical treatises, A Treatise of Human Nature (1739 and 1740), An Enquiry into the Human Understanding (1748), An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Peter S. Fosl is Bingham Associate Professor of Philosophy at the Department of Philosophy, 209 Humanities Building, Transylvania University, Lexington, KY 40508-1797, USA. e-mail: pfosl@transy.edu 172 PeterS. Fosl Morals (1751), and Dissertation on the Passions (1757).1 But, of course, such a similarity probably means very little, since "experience" also figures centrally in the visions of many other thinkers of the time. Moreover, systematic philosophical inquiry of the sort Hume engaged was little known in the colonies outside of a few private collections and important centers of learning such as Harvard College and the College of New Jersey (now Princeton University), where the Scottish John Witherspoon was president and where Hume's thought probably would have been addressed.2 While Hume may have contributed to it, therefore, the empirical thrust of much early American thought is almost certainly more accurately attributed to the general intellectual spirit of the times. It is in Hume's History and Essays that we are more likely to find sources of his influence.3 Hume's Essays were well read, and copies of The History of England were common in North America, though even this enormously popular text had a difficult time of it on the American scene.4 A number of Hume's essays were also published in the periodical literature. The History had acquired a reputation for being pro-Tory and was therefore widely condemned, often by prominent figures such as Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) and Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826). Writing to John Adams (1735-1826) in 1816, Jefferson remarked that the History "has done more to sap the free principles of the English Constitution than the largest standing army."5 The severity of early American disapprobation for Hume's text was in 1771 so severe that the colonial reprinter Robert Bell was unable to interest booksellers in an American edition of the History.6 Among the most interesting aspects of Hume and his life to the authors of early American periodical literature in the British colonies and the United States were (a) Hume's infamous argument against miracles, (b) his deathbed refusal of Christianity, and (c) his supposed general skepticism, atheism, and immorality.7 Attention to all three topics was considerable. An article possibly written by Benjamin Rush, entitled, "Contrast between the Death of a Deist and a Christian, David Hume and Samuel Finley," published in The United States Magazine (February 1779), was quite influential in promoting a negative image of Hume.8 Periodicals also occasionally culled from Hume support for the revolutionary cause, publishing various among his essays—as The South Carolina Gazette Qanuary 1765) did with Hume's "On the Liberty...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1947-9921
Print ISSN
0319-7336
Pages
pp. 171-192
Launched on MUSE
2011-01-26
Open Access
No
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