Two imposing statues, in close proximity on the historic Royal Mile in Edinburgh, remind us of a remarkable friendship which spanned more than 25 years and whose ideas formed the intellectual engine that powered the Enlightenment. Adam Smith, whose tercentenary we celebrate this year, is the ‘father of economics’ and David Hume is widely regarded as one of the greatest thinkers in the history of Western philosophy. Over the years, Smith’s reputation as a social philosopher of genius has remained largely intact, but Hume’s legacy has fared less well.

In June 2020, student activists at the University of Edinburgh organised an online petition calling for the removal of Hume’s name from The David Hume Tower – the campus building named after him in 1963. The petition alleged that Hume was guilty of making racist remarks and that he ‘championed white supremacy’.

One month later, an article appeared by Dr Felix Waldmann claiming that "Hume was an unashamed racist, who was directly involved in the slave trade". These two events were followed by the controversial decision on the part of the University to rename the Hume Tower, 40 George Square.

It is astonishing that the university leadership took this decision without appearing to question the basis of the allegations made against Hume; his guilt was taken as self-evident. It took less than three months from the launch of the online petition to the decision to remove Hume’s name. Many would regard this as precipitate; after all, in a court of law, the evaluation of the evidence usually precedes the verdict.

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That evidence is now available. In our recently published article, David Hume – an Apologia, in Scottish Affairs, we review the available documentary evidence used to support current attacks on Hume’s moral character and, specifically, the twin charges that he supported slavery and was a racist.

On the question of slavery, we show that Hume was an implacable and vocal opponent. In his collected works, Hume uses the word ‘slavery’ in 89 separate places and, whenever he makes a judgement about it, it is invariably critical. For him slavery was unjustifiable on any account, and he would have strongly opposed any attempt to use racial differences in order to justify it. To argue otherwise, is simply perverse.

In his article, Dr Waldmann’s claims that in a letter from Hume to Lord Hertford in 1766, Hume actively ‘encourages’ Hertford to purchase a slave plantation.

In fact, a careful reading of the letter shows that Hume does no such thing. The context here is that Hume had been asked to write on behalf of Sir George Colebrook to tell Hertford of an opportunity to invest in a plantation. Hume’s only involvement was as an intermediary, communicating the interest of one party to another. At no point does he express an opinion as to whether Hertford should invest which, in the event, he did not. If as Waldmann himself says, this letter really is the ‘only surviving evidence of Hume’s involvement in the slave trade’, it amounts to no evidence at all.

The charge of racism stems from the footnote – a single paragraph – which Hume added to his essay Of National Characters, in 1753, which opens with "I am apt to suspect the negroes… to be naturally inferior to the whites".

The Herald: The Hume TowerThe Hume Tower (Image: free)

This is not only shocking but deeply puzzling, because it is completely at odds with what he has to say elsewhere in his published works. Indeed, in the first paragraph of his essay Of the Populousness of Ancient Nations, Hume definitively writes: ‘As far, therefore, as observation reaches, there is no universal difference discernible in the human species’.

How can we account for this apparent anomaly?

Hume’s essay, to which the footnote is attached, was addressing culturally diverse and geographically separated human societies and their progress from early man to fully developed civilisations. His use of the word ‘inferior’ in this context, was not intended to differentiate between individuals in terms of their human value and rights (which he had already confirmed were equal in his view), but the development of their civilisation in terms of European values – especially with regard to written historical records. Some may see this as prejudice on Hume’s part but, if so, it is only in this limited sense and it does not amount to racism. Why not?

Modern definitions of racism have at their core, a justification for a disparity in power – the domination of one individual or group over another. But it is precisely this disparity in power to which Hume was implacably opposed. For this reason, Hume’s comments in the footnote, whilst seemingly prejudiced through 21st century eyes, cannot, by definition, be racist.

The verdict is clear: Hume is not guilty on either charge. He did not support slavery and he cannot be regarded as a ‘racist’ in any modern sense of that word.

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Indeed, in his liberal attitudes towards women’s rights and the justice system, he was a man ahead of his time.

It follows that the decision to remove Hume’s name from the tower was unjust. It appears to have been made without due process and has caused enormous damage to the university’s global reputation. The truth is that for 250 years the University of Edinburgh has been happy to bask in the glory of Hume’s reputation, but the first time it was asked to defend him it ran away.

Hume’s achievements on behalf of humanity – defending ideals of tolerance, humanity, justice, culture, and liberty – have been of incalculable influence. When he died in Edinburgh in 1776, Adam Smith wrote that Hume had approached “as nearly to the idea of a perfectly wise and virtuous man, as perhaps the nature of human frailty will permit”.

Hume deserves a better legacy. The University of Edinburgh and the people of Scotland owe it to him.

Dr David Ashton and Professor Peter Hutton are former medical practitioners, with a longstanding interest in the philosophy of David Hume