Ordering Up A New World

Book Review: The Infidel and the Professor, by Dennis C. Rasmussen

The “infidel” is David Hume and “the professor” is Adam Smith, two Scottish philosophers whose influence in shaping the early American republic cannot be overestimated. The fact that Hume and Smith were good friends makes for a fascinating story and is a good reason to read this book. The author, Dennis C. Rasmussen, an associate professor of political science at Tufts University, has done a bang-up job in researching and writing it. My qualm is he doesn’t go far enough in explaining their influence on America’s Founding Fathers, particularly it’s two most far-reaching thinkers—Alexander Hamilton and James Madison. What Hume and Smith did was order up a new world, which took form as the United States. More about that in a moment.

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 a stellar six-volume history of England. Smith wrote two books, one concerning political theory, and one concerning economic theory.

At various times, Hume and Smith called London home, and spent considerable time in Paris, where Hume and later Smith were the toast of the town. Hume was born in 1711 and died in 1776, age 65. Smith was born 1723 and died in 1790, age 67. Hume did not believe in God (thus the sobriquet, “infidel”) while Smith presumably did. They maintained a lively correspondence over the years, of which about half of their letters survive (most of Smith’s letter were burned on his instruction after his death). Compared with other Enlightenment writers, particularly Parisian “philosophes”, 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 revolutions to come, this was exactly what the American Revolution ushered in--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, which brings us back to Hamilton and 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 upon Hume’s economic theories, and for his political theories drew more upon 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 Forrest McDonald; “Explaining America: The Federalist” by Garry Wills; and “Fame and the Founding Fathers” by Douglass Adair.

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