Robert Zaretsky, a professor of history at the University of Houston, and John Scott, professor of political theory at the University of California at Davis, are the authors of “The Philosophers’ Quarrel: Rousseau, Hume and the Limits of Understanding.”
Buckingham Palace dates from the 18th century, but the land on which it stands was purchased more than two centuries earlier. It happens that a portrait of the purchaser, Henry VIII, hangs in the the palace’s Queen’s Gallery. Posing with his third wife, Jane Seymour, and his three children, the corpulent Tudor king, with a complacent gaze, man-spreads in the center of the canvas.
This week another ruler, accompanied by his third wife and several children from various marriages, visited Buckingham. If the visitor glanced at this painting, he might have caught a resemblance to himself. Indeed, ever since he became president, Donald Trump has spurred comparisons to Henry VIII. The reasons seemed obvious: the president’s serial marriages and staggering self-esteem, his priapic personality and protruding paunch, his interest in pomp and disinterest in others, all recalled Henry’s outsize character. Even those closest to Trump saw the resemblance. “I am Thomas Cromwell in the court of the Tudors,” gloated Stephen K. Bannon. Evidently the then-chief strategist had not read to the end of the story.
If two years of his presidency have only reinforced the comparison of The Donald to the mercurial monarch, the relevance of the Tudor court for understanding the Trump administration is more disturbing and certainly less amusingly ironic, intentional or otherwise, than initially thought.
To cast light on these parallels, we can turn to David Hume’s “History of England.” At first glance, this seems an odd choice. Not only was the work published 250 years ago, but Hume is today considered first and foremost a philosopher. Yet in his own day, Hume owed his fame to his six-volume history.
For Hume, history-writing was philosophizing by other means. When his great philosophical opus, the “Treatise of Human Nature,” initially failed, Hume turned to the past. Not only was there money to make — the work quickly became a bestseller — but also there were ideas at stake. One of his most provocative ideas, especially in the Age of Reason, is that our passions command and our reason complies. As he notoriously claimed in the “Treatise,” reason is the slave to the passions. What better stage than the past to portray the truth of this claim? And what better episode from the past — at least England’s past — than the Tudors?
Hume’s account of the reigns of the Tudor and then Stuart kings and queens targeted the reigning understanding of English history as reasonable and rational. According to the Whig interpretation, the Glorious Revolution of 1688 reestablished the hallowed “ancient constitution” of limited government and established liberties stretching back to the Magna Carta and beyond, making the expulsion of the tyrannical Stuarts less a revolution than a bloodless restoration. Nonsense, Hume responded. His reasoning was simple: There were no such ancient constitution or established liberties to restore.
In fact, as he bluntly stated, the Tudors were tyrants. Exhibit A: Henry VIII.
While many of Henry’s qualities find little resonance in the White House — for example, the king’s "frankness," “sincerity" and “generosity" — there are others some that make for a deafening echo. When not dwelling on Henry’s ”violence” and “cruelty,” Hume marvels over the king’s “impetuosity.” In fact, Hume finds Henry’s capriciousness to be his most unsettling quality. The king, Hume writes, “was so much governed by passion that nothing could have retarded his animosity and opposition … but some other passion which raised him new objects of animosity.”
These passions were often on public display. At Westminster, Henry even staged a theological town hall where, with prelates and parliamentarians arrayed behind him, he challenged a schoolteacher who had dared question his spiritual authority. The poor man, unable to be heard over the deafening ovations for Henry’s ”reasoning" and “erudition” was then, quite literally, fired: Henry had him “committed to the flames.”
Although Hume never loses sight of Henry’s self-centeredness and impulsiveness, his other target was his enablers. First there were his courtiers. The efforts made by the ever-changing parade of favorites to anticipate and applaud Henry’s impulsive decisions only aggravated their predicament. Even when Henry “stood alone in his opinion,” Hume observes, the court’s flattery merely fed “his tyrannical arrogance.” The few individuals who refused to silence their conscience, most notably Thomas More, were eventually led not to plum positions at Fox News but instead to the gallows.
Second, there was Parliament. Far from checking royal prerogative in the name of constitutional government and established liberties, as the Whig historians claimed, Parliament under the Tudors mostly permitted rather than protested royal whims. Like Henry’s courtiers, members of Parliament rationalized their complicity. Because they “dreaded to lose [Henry] by the smallest opposition, [they] flattered themselves that a blind compliance with his will would throw him, cordially and fully, into their interests.” It was, in Hume’s burn, the “prostitute spirit of the Parliament” that cemented Henry’s power and led to “a total subversion of the English constitution.”
Ultimately, Hume’s account of Henry unsettles because of the people and institutions surrounding the king. If England under the Tudors had no proper constitution to uphold, as Hume claimed, we do. We are all taught as schoolchildren that the genius of our Constitution lies in its separation of powers, checks and balances, Bill of Rights, and rule of law.
Yet today, the behavior of Trump’s courtiers and his party’s leaders reminds us that offices and institutions are inhabited by human, all-too-human, beings. We should recall what Hume’s good friend Benjamin Franklin said when asked what sort of government the Constitutional Convention had created: “A republic, if you can keep it.”