Essays, Moral, Political, and Literary

David Hume
Hume, David
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Eugene F. Miller, ed.
First Pub. Date
Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, Inc.
Liberty Fund, Inc.
Pub. Date
Includes Political Discourses (1752), "My Own Life," by David Hume, and a letter by Adam Smith.
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Part III, Essay VIII



There never was a man, whose actions and character have been more earnestly and openly canvassed, than those of the present minister, who, having governed a learned and free nation for so long a time, amidst such mighty opposition, may make a large library of what has been wrote for and against him, and is the subject of above half the paper that has been blotted in the nation within these twenty years. I wish for the honour of our country, that any one character of him had been drawn with such judgment and impartiality, as to have some credit with posterity, and to shew, that our liberty has, once at least, been employed to good purpose. I am only afraid, of failing in the former quality of judgment: But if it should be so, 'tis but one page more thrown away, after an hundred thousand, upon the same subject, that have perished, and become useless. In the mean time, I shall flatter myself with the pleasing imagination, that the following character will be adopted by future historians.


Sir ROBERT WALPOLE, prime minister of GREAT BRITAIN, is a man of ability, not a genius; good-natured, not virtuous; constant, not magnanimous; moderate, not equitable;*42 His virtues, in some instances, are free from the allay of those vices, which usually accompany such virtues: He is a generous friend, without being a bitter enemy. His vices, in other instances, are not compensated by those virtues which are nearly allyed to them; His want of enterprise is not attended with frugality. The private character of the man is better than the public: His virtues more than his vices: His fortune greater than his fame. With many good qualities he has incurred the public hatred: With good capacity he has not escaped ridicule. He would have been esteemed more worthy of his high station had he never possessed it; and is better qualified for the second than for the first place in any government. His ministry has been more advantageous to his family than to the public, better for this age than for posterity, and more pernicious by bad precedents than by real grievances. During his time trade has flourished, liberty declined, and learning gone to ruin. As I am a man, I love him; as I am a scholar, I hate him; as I am a BRITON, I calmly wish his fall. And were I a member of either house, I would give my vote for removing him from ST. JAMES'S; but should be glad to see him retire to HOUGHTON-HALL,*43 to pass the remainder of his days in ease and pleasure.

Notes for this chapter

[This essay first appeared in January 1742, in Essays, Moral and Political, vol. 2. By that time, Walpole's position as the king's first minister was perilous, for his party had won only a small majority in the general election of 1741, and the ministry was under heavy attack for its conduct of foreign affairs. His resignation was forced in early February 1742, after which he retired to the House of Lords as Earl of Orford. In the Advertisement to this volume of Essays, Moral and Political, Hume writes: "The Character of Sir ROBERT WALPOLE was drawn some Months ago, when that Great MAN was in the Zenith of his Power. I must confess, that, at present, when he seems to be upon the Decline, I am inclin'd to think more favourably of him, and to suspect, that the Antipathy, which every true born Briton naturally bears to Ministers of State, inspir'd me with some Prejudice against him. The impartial READER, if any such there be; or Posterity, if such a Trifle can reach them, will best be able to correct my Mistakes in this Particular." In the editions of Hume's Essays appearing from 1748 to 1768, the essay on Walpole, who had died in 1745, was printed in a footnote at the end of "That Politics may be reduced to a Science." It was dropped in 1770. Hume began the footnote as follows: "What our author's opinion was of the famous minister here pointed at, may be learned from that essay, printed in the former editions, under the title of A character of Sir ROBERT WALPOLE: It was as follows." At the end of the footnote, Hume added: "The author is pleased to find, that after animosities are subsided, and calumny has ceased, the whole nation almost have returned to the same moderate sentiments with regard to this great man, if they are not rather become more favourable to him, by a very natural transition, from one extreme to another. The author would not oppose those humane sentiments towards the dead; though he cannot forbear observing, that the not paying more of our public debts was, as hinted in this character, a great, and the only great, error in that long administration."]
Moderate in the exercise of power, not equitable in engrossing it.
[Walpole's mansion in Norfolk.]

Part III, Essay IX

End of Notes

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