Resistance, Immunity, and Polite Silence: The Legacy of 1688 in David Hume’s Political Thought
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Resistance, Immunity, and Polite Silence:
The Legacy of 1688 in David Hume’s Political Thought

In his History of England, David Hume declares himself to be a post-1688 political thinker, writing that the “revolution forms a new epoch in our constitution; and was probably attended with consequences more advantageous to the people, than barely freeing them from an exceptionable administration” (History 6: 531). Hume is clear, then, that the revolution is not merely a change in government but an event that stands as a definitive interpretation of the constitution. He writes that by “deciding many important questions in favour of liberty, and still more, by that great precedent of deposing one king, and establishing a new family, it gave such an ascendant to popular principles, as has put the nature of the constitution beyond all controversy” (History 6: 531). The idea that controversy about the constitution is at an end, while perhaps an intentional form of wishful thinking, indicates that, for Hume, to do political philosophy, or even to discuss politics, after 1688 is fundamentally different than it was before this signal event. Both the mode of discussion, which will (or should) no longer be that of controversy or heated, factional debate; and the content of that discussion, which will (or should) no longer concern the nature of the constitution, will change; and this change both signals and produces a new kind of political stability. Indeed, by declaring that after 1688 controversial discussions about the constitution are no longer valid, Hume secures the constitution from debate, shrouds it in silence, while the discussions of polite society, no longer controversial or fractious, address other, less volatile, topics.

The post-1688 character of Hume’s thought manifests itself, then, in this general claim that the constitution is now beyond controversy. In a much more specific way, Hume develops a theory concerning the right of resistance to sovereign power that makes [End Page 137] sense only if we take his specific interpretation of 1688 into account. Importantly, this very specific and idiosyncratic theory of resistance, in which resistance can never become an explicit legal right, is intimately bound up with Hume’s claim that the constitution is beyond controversy. The two major paradigms of thought concerning resistance that precede 1688, as Hume presents them in his History, argue either for an unlimited passive obedience, in which subjects could never have a right to resist their sovereign, or a fundamental right to resist sovereign power if it infringes on the legal, constitutional rights of the people.1 Hume’s story of the fractious political atmosphere of the Restoration is one in which the stark opposition between these two positions (which he broadly associates with the nascent Tory and Whig parties) leads to an increasingly explicit, and thus dangerous, discussion of delicate constitutional principles. Hume’s own theory about resistance involves a silence about these questions, even to the point that one should avoid all discussion of the right to resistance at all. Importantly, it is only Hume’s interpretation of the events of 1688 that makes this silence concerning resistance possible without risking the descent into tyranny feared by so many Restoration-era Whigs. This essay will explore the link between the silence Hume mandates concerning the right to resistance and the kind of polite political conversation that replaces, after 1688, the controversial debates concerning the nature of the revolution. It will argue that in both cases this silence embodies the kind of sovereign immunity more often associated with theorists of sovereign power like Hobbes than with supposedly liberal thinkers such as Hume.

The Immunity of the Constitution

Hume’s political theory is routinely approached as a somewhat flexible conservatism.2 Hume’s scepticism of the pseudo-mysticism of political theories based upon an “original contract,” unwritten and lost in the movement of history, and his distrust of speculative political systems that would remodel systems of government and authority mean that he is very cautious in thinking about how and when a subject might be justified in resisting an established authority.3 Neil Macarthur, indeed, has called Hume a “precautionary conservative” (134). This means that he is conservative in the sense...