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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.
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Keywords: Adam Smith; David Hume; Enlightenment; capitalism; colonialism; commerce; empire; liberalism; slavery

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: January 1, 2018

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