History of Political Thought 39 (1):107-134 (2018)

Eighteenth-century Enlightenment thought has recently been reclaimed as a robust, albeit short-lived, cosmopolitan critique of European imperialism. This essay complicates this interpretation through a study of David Hume’s reflections on commerce, empire, and slavery. I argue that while Hume condemned the colonial system of monopoly, war, and conquest, his strictures against empire did not extend to colonial slavery in the Atlantic. This was because colonial slavery represented a manifestly uncivil institution when judged by enlightened metropolitan sensibilities, yet also a decisively commercial institution pivotal to the eighteenth-century global economy. Confronted by the paradoxical “commercial incivility” of modern slavery, Hume opted for disavowing the link between slavery and commerce, and confined his criticism of slavery to its ancient, feudal, and Asiatic incarnations. I contend that Hume’s disavowal of the commercial barbarism of the Atlantic economy is part of a broader ideological effort to separate the idea of commerce from its imperial origins and posit it as the liberal antithesis of empire. The implications of analysis, I conclude, go beyond the eighteenth-century debates over commerce and empire, and more generally pertain to the contradictory entwinement of liberalism and capitalism.
Keywords liberalism  empire  capitalism  colonialism  slavery  commerce  Enlightenment  David Hume  Adam Smith
Categories (categorize this paper)
Edit this record
Mark as duplicate
Export citation
Find it on Scholar
Request removal from index
Revision history

Download options

PhilArchive copy

Upload a copy of this paper     Check publisher's policy     Papers currently archived: 62,496
External links

Setup an account with your affiliations in order to access resources via your University's proxy server
Configure custom proxy (use this if your affiliation does not provide a proxy)
Through your library

References found in this work BETA

No references found.

Add more references

Citations of this work BETA

Add more citations

Similar books and articles

Adam Smith on Feudalism, Commerce and Slavery.J. Salter - 1992 - History of Political Thought 13 (2):219.
David Hume and Eighteenth-Century America.Mark G. Spencer - 2005 - University of Rochester Press.
Inhuman Commerce: Anti-Slavery and the Ownership of Freedom.Laura Brace - 2013 - European Journal of Political Theory 12 (4):466-482.
Well Temper'd Eloquence.David Hume - 1996 - The David Hume Institute.
Adam Smith: Theorist of Corruption.Spiros Tegos - 2013 - In Christopher J. Berry, Maria Pia Paganelli & Craig Smith (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Adam Smith. Oxford University Press. pp. 353.


Added to PP index

Total views
48 ( #220,990 of 2,446,312 )

Recent downloads (6 months)
14 ( #48,681 of 2,446,312 )

How can I increase my downloads?


My notes