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Journal Article

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Eighteenth-century Enlightenment thought has recently been reclaimed as arobust, albeit short-lived, cosmopolitan critique of European imperialism. Thisessay complicates this interpretation through a study of David Hume’s reflectionson commerce, empire, and slavery. I argue that while Hume condemned thecolonial system of monopoly, war, and conquest, his strictures against empiredid not extend to colonial slavery in the Atlantic. This was because colonialslavery represented a manifestly uncivilinstitution when judged by enlightened metropolitan sensibilities, yet also adecisively commercial institutionpivotal to the eighteenth-century global economy. Confronted by the paradoxical“commercial incivility” of modern slavery, Hume opted for disavowing the linkbetween slavery and commerce, and confined his criticism of slavery to itsancient, feudal, and Asiatic incarnations. I contend that Hume’s disavowal ofthe commercial barbarism of the Atlantic economy is part of a broaderideological effort to separate the idea of commerce from its imperial originsand 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 andcapitalism.


Liberalism, empire, capitalism, colonialism, slavery, commerce, Enlightenment, David Hume, Adam Smith


Political Economy | Political Science

Research Areas

Political Science


History of Political Thought




Imprint Academic

Creative Commons License

Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 4.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 4.0 License.