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Chesterfield: "There is a History lately come out, "written by one Robertson, a Scotchman, which for "clearness, purity and dignity of style, I will not scruple "to compare with the best historians extant, not ex"cepting Davila, Guicciardini, and perhaps Livy. A "second edition is already published and bought up." *
The literary fame of Robertson obtained for him several marks of the Royal favour; and in 1762 he was chosen Principal of the University of Edinburgh. Thenceforth his life, almost destitute of incident, pursued the even tenor of its way. His History of the reign of the Emperor Charles the Fifth, in the form of three quarto volumes, appeared in 1769. Two volumes on the History of America followed in 1777. The latter work had been designed as a mere appendage of the former; to contain only the discoveries or the conquests of the Spaniards at the time of Charles the Fifth. By degrees the plan of Robertson was extended to the whole of the New World. But he was led to contract it again in some degree by the outbreak of the war between Great Britain and her colonies, a period which justly seemed to him ill-adapted for the calm investigation of their rise and progress.
A South-Sea Director was the grandfather, and a country gentleman the father, of Edward Gibbon. He was born at Putney in the year 1737. An early impulse led him to the Church of Rome, which on more mature reflection he abandoned. Like Hume, he has left behind him some interesting Memoirs of his own career, and in these we may trace, how (also in conformity with Hume's example) he settled at last in utter disbelief of every form of Christianity. We find him quote with approbation the sardonic remark of Bayle: "lam most truly a Pro"testant, for I protest indifferently against all systems "and all sects." f From Magdalen College, which was closed against the Romanist convert, he was sent by his father to Lausanne, where he passed some studious and not unhappy years. He returned to England in the spring of 1758, and six years afterwards travelled through Italy, but amidst all change of scene retained his taste
Letter to his son, April 16. 1759. f Memoirs, p. 70. ed. 1814. VOL. VI. X
for reading. After several lesser attempts in literature, and more than one abortive scheme, he applied himself in earnest to his great work, the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. But his studies at his house in Bentinck Street (and here again he stands in parallel with Hume) were broken through by a call to public life. "Yester"day morning," thus in 1774 he writes to Mr. Holroyd, "about half an hour after seven, as I was destroying an "army of Barbarians, I heard a double rap at the door, "and my friend Mr. Eliot was soon introduced. After "some idle conversation he told me, that if I was desirous "of being in Parliament, he had an independent Seat "very much at my service." * The Seat to which Gibbon here refers with the ironical epithet of " inde"pendent," was for Liskeard, a borough at that time wholly under the influence of the House of Eliot. The historian having expressed his acquiescence, and concluded his arrangement, was accordingly elected that same year. He became a steady supporter of Lord North through all the American contest, and in 1779, by the friendship of Wedderburn, then Attorney-General, he was appointed one of the Lords of Trade. But in spite of his own hopes and wishes, he never spoke, nor even attempted to speak, in Parliament. "I am still a mute," says he: "it is more tremendous than I imagined. The "great speakers fill me with despair, and the bad ones "with terror." f After three years of salary and silence, the abolition of the Board of Trade of course drew down Gibbon in its fall. The negotiations for peace opened to him a new prospect, and he expressed to Lord Chancellor Thurlow his desire to be employed in one of their subordinate posts. The office to which he more especially aspired was the same that Hume had filled, the Secretaryship to the Embassy at Paris. But the influence of Mr. Fox in the Coalition Ministry prevailed in favour of another candidate. Even previous to the decision, Gibbon was intent upon a different scheme, and was casting a wistful look towards the shores of the Leman Lake, his early and beloved abode. His official disappointment
* Letter, September 10. 1774.
f Letter to Holroyd, February 25. 1775.
fixed his wavering thoughts, and he relinquished London and Parliamentary attendance for Lausanne and the prosecution of his History. Of that great work three volumes were already published: the first in 1775, the second and third together in 1781. The public had done him ready justice. They admired the extent and accuracy of his reading, the stately march of his sentences, the lucid order of his narrative. With equal reason they resented his insidious attacks, and, worse still, his bitter sneers, on the faith which they professed.
As Gibbon's first three volumes were written in London, so were his three last at Lausanne. He has in his own Memoirs faithfully recorded the times, both of the earliest germ and of the final completion, of his immortal work. It was, he says, at Rome, on the 15th of October, 1764, as he sat musing amidst the ruins of the Capitol, and while the barefooted friars were singing Vespers in the Temple of Jupiter, that the idea of writing the decline and fall of the city first started to his mind. It was on the night of the 27th of June, 1787, that he wrote the last lines of the last page in the summer house of his garden at Lausanne.
With all its faults, and chief among them its malevolence (for it deserves no milder name) to Christianity, the Decline and Fall is probably the greatest historical performance in the English language. It has been translated into every other principal European tongue; and even such men as M. Guizot have not disdained to be among its commentators. In no age or country perhaps has any historian drawn from so great a number and variety of sources, or combined in a more eminent degree erudition with genius. Next in order of merit among ours may be placed Hume's History of England. So delightful is the style, so graceful and easy the narrative, so large the amount of information condensed in a brief space, that it ever has maintained—and we may venture to predict ever will maintain — its ground. In vain have later critics and gainsayers pointed out, not unsuccessfully, the manifold errors it contains; errors in part arising from haste or inaccurate knowledge, but in part, not without suspicion of wilful purpose and design. As an instance of the former may be mentioned that Hume personifies the Papal authority in the twelfth century by the Triple Crown, and speaks of the Pontiff at that period as launching his thunders from the Vatican; the fact being, that at the time in question the Papal Crown was not yet Triple, nor the Vatican the Papal abode.* The latter is of course a far graver charge. One strong example of it may be found in the enumeration of the works produced by King Alfred, or under his direction; from which list Hume has omitted everyone of the numerous translations, and other works which bear in any degree upon Revealed Religion. Such errors, but especially those of the former class, have caused some over-zealous antiquaries to deny altogether the great merit of Hume and his compeers. When, in 1836, the House of Commons appointed a Committee of inquiry into the Record Commission, one Member, Mr. Pusey, asked one witness, Sir Harris Nicolas: "Are you "of opinion that we have at present no accurate and "complete history of this country?" To which Sir Harris answered: "I am of opinion that we have no "History of England deserving of the name." f Yet with all respect to the memory of that learned and laborious explorer of antiquity, we may affirm, that did his principles prevail, were our early annals written mainly by the aid of Rolls and Deeds, or rather of that portion of them, which with great difficulty not long since was rescued from the rats J; the result would scarce, to any eyes, seem satisfactory. We may fear that this publication would ill reward the zeal and diligence which prompted it; and, like all the former publications of the Record Commissioners, remain unread, a burden seldom lessening
* See the Quarterly Review, No. cxlvi. pp. 560. and 579. The able article from which I am quoting bears the title, " Hume and his "Influence upon History," and is commonly ascribed to Sir Francis Palgrave.
f Minutes of Evidence, Q. 3966. j In the same Minutes of Evidence (Q. 4590.) see the statement of Mr. Henry Cole as to the condition at that time of one of the Record depositories : —" Six or seven perfect skeletons of rats were "found embedded (in the Rolls); bones of these vermin were gene"rally distributed throughout the mass, and a dog was employed in "hunting the live ones!"
Et divina Opici rodebant carmina mures!
on the shelves of the weary publisher. The pages ill employed on such materials would bear no more resemblance to the pages of a Livy or Sismondi, than does a quarry to a palace, or a skeleton to a man. With such a "publication," the public in reality would have no concern. The public would still prefer, and be right in preferring, the form and spirit of History to its dry bones.
It is true indeed that there are other deficiencies in Hume besides that of parchment deeds. Books of high historical importance did not come forth until after his narrative was written. They came forth, it may be said, partly on account of his narrative, — on account of that increasing zeal for historical inquiry which followed in its train. Thus Domesday Book, the great landmark of the Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Norman times, is now familiar to every student of that period. In the Days of Hume it was, if not unknown, yet for every practical purpose inaccessible. It was kept in the Chapter House at Westminster, under the guard of lock and key, and the edifice itself was seldom to be entered. Should any obstinate inquirer nevertheless persist in his desire to consult the treasure, he was liable to a penalty (for so it may be termed) of 13s. Ad. for each inspection. To give another instance from a period six centuries later, there is certainly no memorial that throws more light on the Court and government of Charles the Second than Pepys's Diary. But when Hume wrote, that Diary was still a sealed book; secured, it might seem, even more strongly than by bolts and bars, through its own especial and as yet undiscovered cypher.
Deficiencies of this kind, though of course no blame to the historian, are no doubt a blemish to the history. In that respect, the writers since the days of Hume enjoy a great advantage over him. Why then, in spite of that great advantage on their side, does Hume still maintain the foremost place? In part, but in part only, from the excellences of his style. Those excellences are the more remarkable since that style was formed upon a principle or maxim open to much question. For in one passage of his history, Hume has incidentally observed: "That "mixture of French which is at present to be found in "the English tongue, composes the greatest and best part