David Hume and America by Tom Velk & Jade Xiao [Full Text]

Tom Velk and Jade Xiao, "David Hume and America, Then and Now," Great Thinkers, October, 2017.

Click here to read an essay on David Hume and his influence on the American founders (notably Alexander Hamilton) by Tom Velk and Jade Xiao.


The lessons laid out in Hume’s Essays and the History were carefully read at the time of their composition by many of America’s Founders. Young Thomas Jefferson was furious at Alexander Hamilton’s remarks, inspired by Hume, in 1791 to John Adams about the possible salutary effects of corruption as a balancing force in government. Hamilton read and learned from Hume his entire life, quoting from Hume’s essays in a newspaper article already in 1775. He secured the philosopher’s works from Timothy Pickering in 1781. In parallel with Hume, Hamilton rejected the classical republican idea of disinterested virtue in all those who would presume to govern. Both agreed that all men, governed and governing, are most moved by emotion, interest (personal and national), tradition, habit, limited beneficence, and public opinion. Both thought that reason is the slave of the passions. In The Farmer Refuted (1775), Hamilton quotes Hume: “… that every man ought to be supposed a knave in contriving a government, according to a celebrated author (Hume).” Like Hume, Hamilton did not suppose our governors operated out of disinterested concern for the common good, but rather the passions, “ambition and interest,” are the universal springs of action in mankind. It was ever “the duty of a wise  government to avail itself of those passions in order to make them subservient to the public good—for these ever induce us to action.”