David Hume Is Born

On this day in 1711 (by the old style Julian calendar, or May 7, by the new style Gregorian calendar), David Hume is born in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Although Hume died on August 25, 1776, when the American Revolution was barely underway, his essay “Idea of a Perfect Commonwealth” greatly affected the ideas of the drafters of the federal Constitution in 1787. Most famously, James Madison contemplated Hume’s proposals for an ideal government and, more precisely, Hume’s thoughts regarding the prevention of faction as he constructed his argument in favor of the Constitution in “Federalist X.”

In establishing a government for the new nation, Madison was particularly concerned with avoiding a tyranny of the majority, defined as the largest faction in a republic pursuing its interests while ignoring or suppressing the interests and voices of all opposition. Hume, and most political theorists of the 18th century, believed that the only way to control faction, or what today would be called special interests, was to created small republics, where the common interest of all would be self-evident. Therefore, no majority block could take control at the expense of a significant minority.

Madison respectfully rejected the “Humean” logic he had so carefully studied, and argued that the best way to prevent one faction from driving out all opposing interest was to create such large republics that no one special interest could motivate a majority to tyrannize their opposition. Even in a small republic, he argued, one or two individuals might be tyrannized by what the majority deemed to be the common interest. In a large republic, so many factions and interests would exist that they would have to find a means of peaceful coexistence. Madison successfully took a term that struck fear in Hume’s heart—”faction”—and presented it as a great benefit of the new American system of federalism. In his eyes, faction would be a positive force in the new, and diverse, United States.

Posted in American Revolution.

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