Richard Nisley


Ordering up a New World
History - World Released - Mar 18, 2018
They were 18th-century Scottish philosophers, and what they did was order up a new world that became the United States. Fittingly, they’re the subject of a recent book, “The Infidel and the Professor,” by Dennis C. Rasmussen. The “infidel” is David Hume and “the professor” is Adam Smith. The author is Dennis C. Rasmussen, associate professor of political science at Tufts University.

Hume was born in Edinburgh and spoke with a decided Scottish burr, while Smith, who was born a few miles to the north, in Kirkcaldy, Fife, did not. Both were highly gifted students. Hume attended Edinburgh University, but did not graduate. Smith attended Glasgow University, and did. Both suffered temporary breakdowns as a result of overstudy. Hume did not teach, and spent most of his adult life writing, which came easily to him. Smith taught at Glasgow U, and struggled with the pen. Neither married (few great philosophers do), although Hume did fall madly in love with a lady of Parisian society but ended the relationship fearing it would draw him away from his true passion, study and writing.

Hume wrote about human behavior, ethics, religion, political theory, economic theory, and authored a stellar six-volume history of England. Smith wrote two books, one concerning political theory, and one concerning economic theory.

Unlike a number of Enlightenment writers, neither Hume nor Smith were radicals. They did not advocate grand schemes for radically restructuring society. They embraced the benefits of the rule of law, limited government, religious tolerance, freedom of expression, private property, and commerce, while insisting that necessary societal changes should be implemented in a gradual, measured way. Unlike other revolutions to come, this was exactly the result of the the American Revolution–gradual rather than sweeping change.

“The Infidel and the Professor” is almost as much about Hume’s and Smith’s friendship as it is about their books. The author devotes approximately two chapters to Hume’s writings and two chapters to Smith’s: one to “The Theory of Moral Sentiments” and one to “The Wealth of Nations.” Of the two, “The Theory of Moral Sentiments” was more popular in Smith’s day. Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, Hume’s and Smith’s books were widely studied in America by the Founding Fathers, particularly Alexander Hamilton and James Madison. Thanks to the scholarship of historian Douglass Adair, we know that Madison was greatly influenced by the political theories of David Hume. Writes Adair: “It was David Hume’s speculations on the ‘Idea of a Perfect Commonwealth’ . . . that most stimulated James Madison’s thought on factions.” He goes so far as to say Madison had a copy of Hume’s book at his side while writing Federalist No. 10. For his economic ideas, Madison drew upon Smith’s “The Wealth of Nations.”

According to historian Forrest McDonald, it was the opposite with Hamilton. For his economic theories, Hamilton drew more on Hume’s economic theories, and for his political theories drew more on Smith’s “Theory of Moral Sentiments.” Unfortunately, Rasmussen does not discuss in any depth the actual influence Hume and Smith had on America's founding. That said, I enjoyed his book, and recommend it to anyone desiring to know more about two of the greatest and most influential writers of the 18th century Enlightenment. To learn more about their impact on America’s founding, I suggest “Novus Ordo Seclorum: The Intellectual Origins of the Constitution” by Forest McDonald; “Explaining America: The Federalist” by Garry Wills; and “Fame and the Founding Fathers” by Douglass Adair.

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