Francis Hutcheson on Empire

Alongside the mercantilist and metrocentic strain in civil philosophy in the 1730s, there was also an anti-imperial and philocolonial strand. This was represented most notably by the Hiberno-Scot Francis Hutcheson’s A System of Moral Philosophy, which he composed between 1734 and 1737, in the period before the anti-Spanish agitations but in the aftermath of the Excise Crisis and the darkest days of Walpole’s premiership. Hutcheson questioned the very foundations in rights of dominium upon which the British Empire rested, and argued that ‘[n]o person or society…can by mere occupation acquire such a right in a vast tract of land quite beyond their power to cultivate’. This denial of the juridical basis on which the British Empire in America was claimed was in its own way as Lockean as that of the author of the Essay on Civil Government, but took seriously Locke’s sufficiency condition for legitimate possession. Hutcheson went even further, and proposed colonial independence should the mother-country impose ‘severe and absolute’ power over its provinces. ‘The insisting on old claims and tacit conventions’, he concluded, ‘to extend civil power over distant nations, and form grand unwieldy empires, without regard to the obvious maxims of humanity, has been one great source of human misery’.

David Armitage (2000) The Ideological Origins of the British Empire, Cambridge University Press, p. 188.

The 1730s saw the concept of the British Empire develop. It was conceived as a “political community incorporating Britain, Ireland and the plantations”, and as “Protestant, commercial, maritime and free”, and was most effectively expressed by those in opposition to Walpole’s government1.

The Essay on Civil Government (1743) by an anonymous writer argued that occupation of a territory without interference from the former possessor gave a right of possession. Hutcheson writing in the 1730s anticipated this argument (based on Locke) and rejected it. Locke had argued in his Second Treatise (Chapter 5) that ownership was based on labour: “as much Land as a Man Tills, Plants, Improves, Cultivates, and can use the Product of, so much is his Property” as long as he leaves sufficient for others (“he that leaves as much as another can make use of, does as good as take nothing at all”). Clearly, simply declaring the one possesses land is not the same as actually cultivating it.

In his System of Moral Philosophy2, Hutcheson explores how property is acquired in Chapter 7, including how long should a group of people have to cultivate a piece of land (and thereby claim it), the validity of restricting land purchases for the common good and what should remain in common (air, water, the seas).  The lines in the quote above starting “[n]o person or society” is on p. 326 of Book II. In Chapter 8 he explores how civil power is acquired, including the position of colonies. The  lines in the quote above starting “‘The insisting on old claims and tacit conventions” is on p. 309 of Book III. The line before it outlines expressly the proposition that colonies do not exist solely for the good of their mother-country.

Hutcheson’s work formed the basis for David Hume’s critique of the concept of the British Empire, and of the ideology underlying it. Hume was the most important critic both of concepts of empire and of identity at this time3. Hutcheson’s System was also read in the American colonies: his chapter on the rights and limits of governors was viewed by New Englanders as relevant enough to their issues with their governor Thomas Hutchison to bear reprinting almost in full in the 50th number of the Massachusetts Spy (13 February, 17724.


  1. Armitage (2002), pp. 172-173
  2. Francis Hutcheson (1755) A System of Moral Philosophy, Volume 1, Glasgow: Foulis. (Google Books)
  3. Armitage (2002), pp. 180-1, 188
  4. Caroline Robbins (1954) “When It Is That Colonies May Turn Independent:” An Analysis of the Environment and Politics of Francis Hutcheson (1694-1746)” The William and Mary Quarterly, Vol. 11, No. 2, Scotland and America , pp. 214-251, see p. 246.
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