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Between Memory and Hope

Andreas Hess

The Infidel and the Professor: David Hume, Adam Smith, and the Friendship that Shaped Modern Thought, by Dennis C Rasmussen, Princeton University Press, 316 pp, $29.95, ISBN: 978-0691177014

Friends Divided: John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, by Gordon S Wood, Penguin Press, 512 pp, $35, ISBN: 978-0735224711

The Scottish Enlightenment thinkers David Hume and Adam Smith and the second and third presidents of the United States, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, have each been the subjects of high-quality biographies, and all four have also been subjected to group portraits. As to individual treatments, I am thinking here particularly of Nicholas Phillipson’s and Ian Simpson Ross’s biographies of Smith and Ernest Campbell Mossner’s and James Harris’s respective treatments of Hume. In the case of Adams and Jefferson we have for the former David McCullough’s and Joseph Ellis’s portraits, and for Jefferson at least another half-dozen biographies. In terms of group portraits, there are Arthur Herman and Alexander Broudie on the Scottish Enlightenment, and for the American founders we have again at least a dozen titles, most prominently perhaps Gordon Wood’s Revolutionary Characters and Joseph Ellis’s Founding Brothers. In the light of the wealth of available material what else could justify taking a closer look at the friendships between Scottish Enlightenment thinkers Hume and Smith and the two American presidents Adams and Jefferson? Is there anything in these two studies that has not already been said in the aforementioned attempts? Are there perhaps other aspects we should be looking out for, perhaps tropes and overarching themes that are not explicitly addressed in either of the two double portraits?

Let us start with the friendship between Hume and Smith. The title of Rasmussen’s study hints at some significant differences in the popular perception of each. There is, most obviously, Hume’s international fame. It is no exaggeration to say that the philosopher was the most prominent and influential Enlightenment thinker to emerge from the Athens of the north. Hume (1711-1776) was the author of three ground-breaking treatises, which in turn triggered a response and prepared the scene not only for Kantian philosophy but also for enlightened thinking in France and, perhaps even more profoundly, for the more practically and politically oriented enlightenment in North America. For others it was Hume’s multi-volume History of England that mattered most – a real bestseller back then, which, together with his essays, sold many more copies than all of the author’s philosophy titles put together. Despite such success Hume never became a salaried professor (he managed to make a living first by tutoring and then earned enough to support himself from the sales of his History of England).

However, the philosopher achieved greatest notoriety for sticking to what could reasonably be said in the here-and-now about religion and the afterlife. Hume had been critical of religion all his life but reserved his most provocative lines of agnosticism for his last critical treatise, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. The tract was published posthumously because Hume anticipated the scandal it would cause. And he was right. Its publication led to condemnation from quite a few of his contemporaries, such as Samuel Johnson, James Boswell and a significant part of the Scottish Kirk. Rasmussen’s label of “infidel” alludes to Hume’s lack of repentance and the perception of him that this created among the public, which reached the level of public scandal, partly triggered by Adam Smith’s report of his late friend not turning to God even when death was imminent.

Adam Smith (1723-1790), the younger of the two thinkers, would become known as “the professor”, since he held a chair at Glasgow and participated in a number of learned societies both in Glasgow and Edinburgh. His later fame as a founding father of modern political economy emerged, as Rasmussen shows, somewhat at a remove from his main specialisation, for he was known to most of his contemporaries as the professor who taught moral philosophy – not economics, which then did not exist as a separate discipline. It was also during his time in Glasgow that he wrote The Theory of Moral Sentiments, a profound text about ethics in which he argued not in favour of selfish economic interest but for sympathy for others and for moral introspection. The perceived contradiction between The Theory of Moral Sentiments and Wealth of Nations would later become more manifest and express itself in speculation about the so-called Adam Smith conundrum – the Adam Smith Rätsel as some German commentators put it. As pointed out, in the long run it led to the popular yet one-sided perception of Smith as an economist, which has overshadowed a more rounded view of him as an advocate of the development of the market, commerce and industry within the limits of mutual sympathy and moral introspection, a view he had argued for in his earlier book. (Nothing is perhaps more telling in this context than the fact that the British twenty-pound note features a quote from Wealth of Nations, not from Moral Sentiments).

In Rasmussen’s account of the evolution of the friendship between Hume and Smith, he points to some shared experiences due to their common Scottish inheritance and socialisation. Both were brought up in a nation whose culture and social life was marked by the influential Presbyterian Kirk; Scotland also followed a different legal tradition and had opted for a different educational system from the rest of the new union. Yet, despite such important influences Hume remained a lifelong sceptic as regards the Kirk, or any organised religion for that matter, and grounded his philosophy mainly in empirical observation, custom and tacit consent. The younger Smith, in contrast, never went so far as to challenge the Kirk. Having said that, Smith’s “private” belief, though occasionally shining through in The Theory of Moral Sentiments, never became a quintessential part of his philosophy either.

Both thinkers were proud of their Scottish inheritance yet both favoured the union with England. They saw commerce and industry as essential components that had transformed England and that Scotland needed to emulate if it wanted to develop and leave rural poverty and semi-feudal family structures behind. As part of the suggested catch-up, Hume and Smith (and others) also argued for further reform of Scotland’s educational system, particularly its university system. Teaching should be more oriented towards the empirical sciences and should be in line with modern discoveries and practical aspects of the Enlightenment, something that would set the Scottish institutions of higher learning apart from the rather bookish and still largely Anglican-inspired teaching of Oxford and Cambridge.

It is an interesting feature of their formation that the two Scottish thinkers spent a long time in France. Le bon David was feted in Paris; Smith seems to have been more shy and less entertaining than his older friend, at least in terms of public performance and consequently how he was perceived in the salon. But contact and conversations with France’s enlightened circles and politicians had a profound influence on both men’s outlook and later output. Hume would not have had the opportunity to try out his philosophical arguments if it hadn’t been for the rich debates in the Parisian salons and his meetings with Rousseau, Holbach and other luminaries of the French Enlightenment. The same applies to Smith. He used his contacts – not a few of them suggested by Hume ‒ to discuss French commerce and trade, its features and limitations, with the leading French financiers and politicians of the time. Having benefited from enlightened conversation, on their return to Britain both Hume and Smith would continue to contribute to public life and public debate in various clubs and academies, particularly in Glasgow and Edinburgh but on occasion also in London.

As to the intellectual connection between Hume and Smith, it is obvious that Smith’s argumentation relied very much on the ground-breaking empirical idiom of Hume’s philosophy. Yet, as Rasmussen also points out, Smith must be regarded as an independent and important thinker in his own right. Particularly in terms of political economy he made inroads which clearly surpassed the earlier reflections of Hume on the same subject. But then this is to be expected, not least because of the age difference between the two, which in turn proved to be crucial for observing the further advances in trade, commerce and industry, not just in Scotland but in a number of other European nations. 

Rasmussen’s treatment is particularly valuable in pointing out that it would be a serious error and a case of ahistorical treatment to ascribe ideas to individuals who could not possibly have held them at the time. As an intellectual historian he does an excellent job in clarifying the myth of Smith as the great economist who promoted free markets and competition. He shows that Smith was far from being a neoliberal before his time or somebody who promoted an unfettered market economy. It is, as Rasmussen points out, much more convincing to see him as a philosopher whose ethical concerns and whose moral thinking prepared the ground for his later political economy instead of the other way around – an interpretation that has become widely accepted only in recent years.

Rasmussen also shows that both Hume and Smith acted upon, and sometimes even surprisingly stubbornly stuck to, their convictions and principles when it mattered. This was most obvious in relation to existential dimensions such as death and life. Rasmussen excels particularly in his last few chapters, where he points to the difficulties that Smith was confronted with as executor of Hume’s literary estate. Smith had made public his detailed description of Hume’s last days, including the confirmation that he had not turned to religion or God on his deathbed, but he found it much harder to see Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion through to publication. He felt that Hume had demanded too much of him. Feeling uncomfortable with this role because it meant too much public exposure, he discussed the matter with Hume’s publisher and decided that the Dialogues would best be published under the auspices of Hume’s nephew. Smith’s decision should not be taken to mean that the two friends had fallen out, or worse, that Smith somehow disrespected the wishes of his dying friend. It just meant that Montaigne, a source both would have been familiar with, was right: mutual respect of differences is an essential part of friendship. As the Frenchman famously said, real friendship is possible “because it was him and because it was me”.

Compared to the friendship between Hume and Smith the relationship between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson was much more tumultuous. It had many ups and downs before the two finally reconciled and their relationship found expression in what must be one of most distinguished and entertaining exchanges of the “republic of letters”. As Wood recounts, it had started well, with a kind of division of labour during the revolutionary years.

Jefferson (1743-1826) came from Virginia, the oldest settlement on America’s east coast. He was part of the slave-holding planter elite of the colony. His appearance was that of a well-educated man who was self-assured; he had grace and calm, and everything he did seemed effortless. John Adams (1735-1826), a few years older than Jefferson, came from a dissenter family of the “middling sort”. Unlike Jefferson there was nothing aristocratic about his upbringing; instead his career was the result of hard effort, which explains his lifelong insistence on education and merit. Through his Harvard education and having practised law at the bar in Boston, Adams managed to become part of the political elite who would come to represent Massachusetts in the Continental Congress.

It was during the meetings and deliberations of the Congress in Philadelphia and especially during the time of war and the Declaration of Independence that Adams and Jefferson got to know each other better – so much that they struck a friendship. Both had stressed the importance of breaking with the mother country and striving for independence. In the end it had been Jefferson’s elegant editorial pen that had given the Declaration of Independence its attractive and memorable phrases and tone, which explain its great resonance among Americans even today. In the years which followed, Jefferson and Adams’s paths would cross time and time again, most significantly during a crucial period in Paris where both were on diplomatic duty. This is also the time when the friendship would expand to include Abigail, John Adams’s wife. Earlier, Jefferson had lost his wife and Abigail and John Adams provided him with a kind of comfortable “home from home” environment.

However, this friendly constellation was not to last. On his return from Europe, Adams became Washington’s vice-president. As Wood points out, the job didn’t really suit his character. He became increasingly sidelined by the decision-making powers and felt politically isolated and deserted, even by his own Federalist friends. After Washington announced that he would not run for a third term a bitter political campaign ensued, part of which had to do with the emergence of political platforms and groups (the modern American party system developed only much later). In terms of home and diplomatic affairs, one’s relationship to and opinions concerning France and England mattered a great deal and were important symbolic markers regarding where one stood politically. Wood points out that Adams lacked Federalist support and was regarded as “English”, or denounced as “aristocratic” because he had argued in favour of more decorum for the presidency and for a mixed constitution consisting of checks and balances, which in turn stabilised the right mix between the one, the few and the many. The other, more revolutionary side was represented by Jefferson, Paine and others who had shown explicit sympathy for the radical demands of the French Revolution, which was understood by all sides as a sign and symbol of support of the more radical tendencies of the American Revolution.

Following Washington’s two terms in office Adams became the second president – but only for one term. During the election campaign and his time in the White House, his relationship with his vice president, Jefferson, soured considerably. In particular his Alien and Sedition Act caused dissension since it set strict limits to what could be said (never mind acted upon) in public. Instead of ending the propaganda war between the two opposed factions, now somewhat inaccurately labelled Federalists and Jeffersonian Republicans (those labels did not do justice to the full range of opinion voiced), it spurred on partisanship, partly by forcing the oppositional voices to express themselves in more subtle ways or use more anonymous or disguised forms of expression. Some of the infighting was done through proxies; Hamilton and Madison and their mutual supporters and friends especially had to take some responsibility in that respect. The conflict came to an end with Jefferson winning the elections, although only by a narrow margin. Adams stayed away from the inauguration, so estranged had he become from his former friend and one-time ally.

Jefferson was more successful in the next presidential elections, partly due to a successful first term in office and the disintegration, if not demise, of the Federalists. In office Jefferson realised that ideology didn’t make for good politics. Thus his two-term presidency turned out to be less revolutionary and much more pragmatic than some – among them most prominently Adams – had predicted. In the meantime Adams had become “farmer John”, as he ironically described himself after his withdrawal from official politics. He returned to his farmstead in Quincy, just outside Boston, where he dedicated his life to educating his children (his son John Quincy Adams would soon follow in his footsteps and later became president himself), spending more time with Abigail, trying to sort out his papers and attempting to write his autobiography.

After having completed two terms in office, Jefferson also retired and returned to Monticello, his stately Virginian home. As it turned out, he wasn’t very good at housekeeping and budgeting and struggled to keep his large estate afloat (including by selling some of his slaves). He dedicated his time to leisurely study, continued his correspondence and conversations with such luminaries as Say, Humboldt and Buffon among others, and dedicated himself to the founding of the University of Virginia, a pet project whose aim was to produce the new enlightened democratic elite he thought the US so badly needed.

The final part of Wood’s book guides us through the reconciliation process between Adams and Jefferson and the exchange of extraordinary letters that would ensue after both men retired. It was in the first instance Benjamin Rush, a mutual friend, who served as a go-between. However, the reconciliation would never have occurred had it not been for the softening of both Adams’s and Jefferson’s opinions and tone; and, perhaps even more important, the generational change which had led to a transformation of both the institutions and the rhetoric of American politics  ̶  to such an extent that the former founding fathers had trouble understanding it. There was certainly some sense of alienation when contemporary conditions were compared with the original motivations that had driven the revolutionary generation.

The correspondence touches on almost everything that can preoccupy the enlightened mind, from a discussion of botanical labelling and naming (Jefferson) to the virtues exhibited in republican Rome (Adams). More difficult questions and issues, such as slavery and abolition, would only remain a subtext to their conversation, perhaps due to the fact that Jefferson could eventually see slavery disappearing (just not while he was alive) and that Adams had no truck with slavery but was at the same time not a radical abolitionist. As for the rest of these instances of the republic of letters, it is the most wonderful display of intelligence, wit and rhetoric, which serves as a timely reminder that the American republic was founded by educated and enlightened statesmen and by intellectual design – of course within certain historical confines and limited possibilities. It was exclusively male and white, it has to be said, which from today’s perspective this is of course a serious limitation. However, Adams and Jefferson also represented a group of people for whom religion was not a prime motive for politics and policies, and who tried to argue for a republic in which liberty and equality would be forever entwined.

It is deeply symbolic that Jefferson and Adams died on the same day  ̶  July 4th, 1826 ‑ just as a new generation of compatriots were to embark on the celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the Republic’s existence. It was a date that marked less the end of one epoch than the beginning of a new one. Indeed, Jacksonian democracy turned out to be a very different kettle of fish from the politics of the founding period. American society began to discover the many possible notions of democracy, meanings which the founding fathers would have found rather alien.

Is there, we might finally ask, anything that looks like an overarching theme or concern in these two studies of two remarkable friendships? What is to be learned here?

Using an allegory from Ralph Waldo Emerson, the political theorist Judith Shklar once referred to the founding generation, and in particular Adams and Jefferson, as representing respectively the “party of memory” and the “party of hope”. She intended to hint at the fact that the American revolutionary tradition was marked by a considerable continuum of ideological positions, reaching from learning from the past and past suffering, such as Europe’s legacy of civil and religious war, and avoiding its excessive forms of violence and cruelty (Adams’ “party of memory”), to having great hopes for the future in which the dead and past generations had no right to intervene, as evidenced in the argument that it was good to have a cleansing revolution every fifteen years or so to begin the world anew (Jefferson’s “party of hope”).

It is helpful to extend some of those insights about memory and hope also to Hume and Smith. It just has to be done with a little twist. Neither Hume nor Smith were revolutionaries; rather, they were thinkers who argued in favour of careful reforms as long as these took customs, habits of thought and the consent of the people into account. The Scotsmen never suggested violent conflict never mind political revolutions; and yet both advocated a revolution of the mind in terms of the way we think about the empirical world and its changes, and the way modern commerce, markets and industry were linked to and partly demanded a rethinking of traditional customs, behaviour and interests. In short, such a changed environment needed to sever the ties with traditional societal ways and obligations so that humans could reorient and reposition themselves in relation to this newly emerging world.

As we know, the Scottish Enlightenment played a major role in the intellectual formation of the American founding fathers. What the two double portraits do when taken together is provide an insight into the laboratory of how both mind and politics worked in tandem to bring forth social, political, cultural and economic change. We should not hold the proponents of such change responsible for the fact that their attempts were not perfect. As Marx famously said, human society can only ask and solve questions that actually arise on its horizon. So what we have before us are two studies that allow us an insight into thinking during a crucial axial time, a time in which traditional society and ways of doing things hadn’t ended as yet and in which the new hadn’t fully emerged either. Thus, to treat the American founding fathers and the Scottish philosophers as mere stooges who were so clever as to introduce democracy for later capitalist purposes or vice versa misses the point entirely. What the two studies show is rather that there is no automatic progress. They show how far we have diverged in terms of articulating and politically representing collective interests. Looking into the laboratory and mindset of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries is proof that there really is no straightforward and direct line, neither from “We the people” (the American Constitution) to “I, the people” (Trump), nor from the complications that arise between the memory of “sovereignty of the parliament”, born out of fear of the direct force of the demos, and the unfulfilled promise of the “sovereignty of the people”.


Andreas Hess is professor of sociology at University College Dublin. His latest publication, Tocqueville and Beaumont: Aristocratic Liberalism in Democratic Times, has just been published in the Palgrave Pivot series (January 2018).