Histories of Liberty in Scottish Thought, 1747-1787

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Pye, Tom 

In the decades following the Jacobite rebellion of 1745, a group of Scottish jurists, historians, and philosophers turned to history in order to understand the parliamentary monarchy to which Scotland had attached itself in the Anglo-Scottish Union of 1707. In doing so, they stumbled upon the fraught and contested historiography of England’s ‘ancient constitution’—the idiom that gave birth to the ‘whig interpretation’ of English history. Historians agree that this encounter forms a significant episode in the history of eighteenth-century historical and political thought. The prevailing interpretation holds that the Scots brought the philosophical idiom of ‘society’ to bear on English historiography, and weeded out its far-fetched elements; but that they left its conceptual foundations intact. The English had become modern and free, the Scots agreed, because they had republicanised their monarchy in the seventeenth century, destroying their feudal institutions as they did so—a viable history that Scotland had to imitate if the commercial and political opportunities offered by Union were to be taken.

This thesis reassesses this Scottish encounter with English historiography. It does so by reconstructing a sceptical alternative to the foundation narrative of English history that originated in Montesquieu’s history of feudal government in Europe. In his 1748 book, 'The Spirit of Laws', he had questioned whether republicanising monarchies would really render them free; the best way of sustaining both liberty and commerce in a monarchy, he argued instead, was through feudal property and feudal courts. This story was picked up in Scotland by John Dalrymple, David Hume, and Adam Smith—each of whom used it to re-think English history. At the same time, their contemporaries attempted to shut them down. Two ways of thinking about English history therefore emerge from the debate: one sceptical, with its origins in Montesquieu’s feudal history; one whiggish, derived from the materials provided by English history itself. Understanding this fracture, the thesis concludes, helps to explain the political stakes of eighteenth-century historical thought, as well as suggesting new routes into the nineteenth century.

John Robertson, Professor John Robertson
historiography, scotland, eighteenth century
Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
Awarding Institution
University of Cambridge