The Rhetoric of Rebellion in Hume’s Constitutional Thought

Merrill, Thomas, "The Rhetoric of Rebellion in Hume's Constitutional Thought," The Review of Politics, Vol. 67, No. 2 (Spring, 2005), pp. 257-282

In his History of England, David Hume suggests that the doctrine of resistance should be concealed from the populace. But this suggestion in the very public location of the History has the effect of revealing this doctrine as much as concealing it. How should we understand this perplexing rhetorical strategy? Hume’s paradoxical rhetoric is a symptom of the problem that the right of rebellion poses for every political society. On the one hand, the right of rebellion undeniably exists; on the other, no regime can recognize that right fully. The problem of rebellion thus reveals the simultaneous necessity and limitations of law. Hume’s playful, transparent rhetoric is intended to compel us to reflect upon the deeper tension between liberty and authority in every political society and to furnish us with an example of how that tension might be prudently and honestly handled.