1902 Encyclopedia > William Robertson

William Robertson
Scottish historian
(1712-93)




WILLIAM ROBERTSON (1721-1793), an eminent Scottish historian, born at Borthwick, Midlothian, on the 19th September 1721, was the eldest son of the Rev. William Robertson and of Eleanor Pitcairn. He received lis early education at the school of Dalkeith,—at that time one of the best in Scotland; but at the age of twelve he was removed to the university of Edinburgh, where he soon manifested that sustained ardour in the pursuit of knowledge which he preserved throughout his long life. On his commonplace books, written when he was a mere youth, he always inscribed the motto : Vita sine Uteris mors est. He was from the first intended for the ministry; when twenty-two years old he was presented to the living of Gladsmuir in East Lothian, and almost immediately afterwards he lost both his father and his mother, who died within a few hours of each other. The support and _education of a younger brother and six sisters then devolved upon him, and, though his income was only £100 a year, he sheltered them all in his house and "continued to educate his sisters under his own roof till they were _settled respectably in the world " (Stewart). Robertson's inclination for study was never allowed to interfere with his duties as a parish minister, which he rather increased than diminished : "it was his custom during the summer months to convene on Sunday morning the youth of the parish of Gladsmuir half an hour before the commence-ment of the regular service of the church, and to employ that time in explaining to them the doctrines of the Catechism." His attention to his pastoral duties and his power and distinction as a preacher had made him a local ocelebrity while still a young man.

His energy and decision of character were brought out vividly by the rebellion of 1745. When Edinburgh seemed in danger of falling into the hands of the rebels he laid aside the pacific habits of his profession and joined the volunteers in the capital. When the city was surrendered he was one of the small band who repaired to Haddington and offered their services to the com-mander of the royal forces. Such a man could not remain in obscurity, and in the year 1751, when not quite thirty years of age, we find him already taking a prominent part in the business of the General Assembly. On the first occasion when he spoke (in seconding a motion by John Home for the suspension of certain presbyters who had refused to take part in an unpopular settlement) he was listened to with great attention, but his words had so little immediate effect on the assembly that on a division he was left in a minority of eleven against two hundred. A young man might well have been daunted by such a defeat, but his energy and self-reliance refused to yield. His great oratorical power, at once lucid, cogent, and per-suasive, had made an impression on men's minds, and within so short a period as one year, when he again advocated his principles in connexion with what is known as the Inverkeithing case, he carried the house completely with him, and with the deposition of Thomas Gillespie secured a triumph for the policy he had adopted. From that moment his influence in the councils of the Scottish Church as leader of the " moderate party " was for many years nearly supreme (compare PRESBYTERIANISM, vol. xix. p. 685). The production of Home's tragedy of Douglas on the Edinburgh stage (1757) afforded Robertson another occasion for displaying that union of courage and caution which formed a marked feature of his character. Al-though the influence of moderatism was now visibly in the ascendant, there was still enough of the older spirit of Scottish Puritanism left to take alarm and raise an outcry against a stage play written by a minister and witnessed by many clergymen who were the author's friends. One of these, the famous Dr Alexander Carlyle, was prosecuted before the synod for having gone to the theatre, and he tells us in his Autobiography that he purposely contrived to exclude Robertson from the post of moderator because " his speaking would be of more consequence if not in the chair." This testimony is the more noteworthy as Carlyle shows throughout his memoirs a grudging and unfriendly tone when speaking of Robertson. The latter, indeed, was able to render his incriminated colleague great service on this occasion, not only by his talent as a speaker, but by reason of the detached and unassailable position which his customary prudence had led him to take up. He never went to the play himself, he said, but that was not because he thought it wrong but because he had given a solemn promise to his father never to do so. He could not there-fore join in censuring other clergymen who were held by no such vow as he had made : "it was sacred to him, but not obligatory on them." Carlyle was acquitted and Robertson had the credit—which he perhaps somewhat too constantly aimed at and generally secured—of standing well with all parties, of advocating the claims of culture and liberal sentiment without giving ground to their opponents for attacking his personal conduct and character.

But during all this period of prominent activity in the public life of Edinburgh Robertson was busy with those historical labours which have given him a permanent place in British literature. He had conceived the plan of his History of Scotland as early as the year 1753; in July 1757 he had proceeded as far as the Gowrie conspiracy, and in November of the following year David Hume, then residing in London, was receiving the proof-sheets from Strahan and making friendly but searching criticisms on the work in letters to the author. Till he had finished his book Robertson had never left his native country; but the publication of his history necessitated a journey to London, and he passed the early months of the year 1758 partly in the capital and partly in leisurely rambles in the counties of England. He returned on horseback in company with Alexander Carlyle and other Scotsmen, riding all the way from London to Edinburgh in about eighteen days.





The success of the History of Scotland was immediate and splendid, and within a month a second edition was called for. Before the end of the author's life the book had reached its fourteenth edition; and in the opinion of some it remains Robertson's greatest work. It soon brought him other rewards than literary fame. In 1759 he was appointed chaplain of Stirling Castle, in 1761 one of His Majesty's chaplains in ordinary, and in 1762 he was chosen principal of the university of Edinburgh. Two years later the office of king's historiographer was revived in his favour with a salary of ¿£200 a year. His income greatly surpassed the revenue of any Presbyterian minister before him and at least equalled that of some of the bishops when Episcopacy was established in Scotland. It is the more surprising therefore that this moment of exceptional prosperity should have been chosen by some of his most valued friends to advise him to forsake the Scottish for the English Church and try for preferment south of the Tweed; and the surprise becomes wonder when we learn that those friends were Sir Gilbert Elliot and David Hume. The imprudence, to say nothing of the questionable morality, of such a step would seem too glaring to allow of its recommendation by any honourable well-wishers. Perhaps no man was more fitted than Robertson to measure and reject such injudicious advice, and he probably never gave the matter a second thought. He remained at home among his own people.

The rest of Robertson's life was uneventful to a degree even surpassing the proverbial uneventfulness of the lives of scholars. He was casting about for another historical subject in the very year in which his first work appeared, and he was wont to consult his friends on the choice of a period with a naivete which shows how little the arduous-ness of historical research was then understood. Hume advised him to write a history of Greece or else lives in the manner of Plutarch. Dr John Blair urged him to write a complete history of England, while Horace Wal-pole suggested a history of learning. It must be recorded to Robertson's credit that he showed a preference from the first for the subject which he ultimately selected, The History of the Reign of the Emperor Charles the Fifth. He took uncommon pains with the work and devoted to it ten consecutive years of labour. It appeared in three volumes quarto in 1769. In 1777 he published his History of America and in 1791 his Disquisition concerning the Knowledge ivhich the Ancients had of India, which concluded his historical labours and appeared only two years before his death, which occurred near Edinburgh on the 11th June 1793. His fame had long been European, and he left no rival in the field of historical composition save Gibbon alone.

Eor an adequate appreciation of Robertson's position in British literature, and more especially of his rank as an historian, we have to consider the country and the age in which he was born and his own personal qualities and limits.

Considering the small size and poverty of the country, Scotland had made a more than creditable figure in litera-ture in the great age of the Reformation and the Renais-sance. Its scholars, civilians, and professors of logic and philosophy were welcomed wherever learning flourished, except, perhaps, in England. All Europe could not show a more brilliant writer and publicist than Buchanan, and " the best romance that ever was written " (the words are Cowper's) was produced by a Scottish contemporary of Shakespeare, viz., the once famous Argenis of John Barclay. But the early triumphs of Scottish genius were all won in a foreign if familiar idiom, the common language of the learned; and when Latin retreated before the growing importance of modern tongues the Scots had no literary vernacular on which to fall back. For a century and a half (1600-1750) a Scottish writer to be read was forced to use a foreign language,—Latin, English, and even occasion- ally French. As Burton has well remarked, this alone- was sufficient to account in a large measure for the literary barrenness of the country. There was unquestionably another cause at work,—the fervent religious zeal with which the principles of the Beformation had been em- braced : neither science, literature, nor art could obtain, much attention from men who regarded them all as " de- ceitful vanities," leading the mind away from the one thing needful. In a small and sparsely peopled country, with- out wealth, commerce, or even politics in the larger sense,, theology became a too absorbing and unique mental stimu- lus. This was, we may say, proved by the fact that as- soon as the union with England opened a wider scope for Scottish energy and enterprise the theological temperature immediately fell,—a change witnessed with natural alarm by the more zealous clergy. " The rise of our too great fondness for trade," writes the Rev. Robert Wodrow in 1709, "to the neglect of our more valuable interests, I humbly think, will be written on our judgment" (Buckle, vol. ii. p. 301). The growth of wealth stimulated the- growth of the other great factor of civilization, that of knowledge, and by the middle of the 18th century, just at the time when Robertson was planning his History of Scotland, a wide spirit of inquiry was abroad. Scottish intellect had risen from the tomb in which it had lain entranced for more than a hundred years. The Scottish contribution to British literature in the last half of the century is distinctly superior to that produced in the southem portion of the island. In philosophy and political and economic science the balance is immensely in favour of Scotland. Robertson was therefore no inexplicable prodigy—an "obscure Scotch parson" writing "like a. minister of state," as it pleased Walpole and the London fops to regard him. He lived in a society far more pro- pitious to high literary work than could be found in London or the English universities. "»

Of the three great British historians of the 18th century two were Scotsmen. The exact place of Robertson with, regard to his two friends Hume and Gibbon, and to such historians as the rest of Europe had to offer, presents a question of some nicety, because it is complicated by extraneous considerations, so to speak, which should not weigh in an abstract estimate, but cannot be excluded in a concrete and practical one. If we regard only Robert-son's potential historic power, the question is not so much whether he was equal to either of his two friends as-whether he was not superior to both. The man who. wrote the review of the state of Europe prefixed to the History of Charles V., or even the first book of the History of Scotland, showed that he had a wider and more synthetic conception of history than either the author of the Decline and Fall or the author of the History of England. These two portions of Eobertson's work, with all their short-comings in the eye of modern criticism, have a distinctive value which time cannot take away. He was one of the first to see the importance of general ideas in history. He saw that the immediate narrative of events with which he was occupied needed a background of broad and con-nected generalizations, referring to the social state of which the detailed history formed a part. But he did more than this. In the appendix to the view of Europe called " Proofs and Illustrations " he enters into the difficult and obscure question of land tenure in Frankish times, and of the origin of the feudal system, with a sagacity and knowledge which distinctly advanced the comprehension of this period beyond the point at which it had been left by Du Bos, Montesquieu, and Mably. He was fully acquainted with the original documents,—many of them, we may conjecture, not easy to procure in Scotland. It must have been a genuine aptitude for historical research of a scientific kind which led Robertson to undertake the labour of these austere disquisitions of which there were not many in his day who saw the importance. Gibbon, so superior to him for wide reading and scholarship, has pointedly avoided them. It need hardly be said that many, perhaps the majority, of Eobertson's views on this thorny topic are out of date now. But he deserves the honour of a pioneer in one of the most obscure if also important lines of inquiry connected with European history. On the other hand, it must be admitted that he showed himself only too tame a follower of Voltaire in his general appreciation of the Middle Ages, which he regarded with the mingled ignorance and prejudice common in the 18th century. In this particular he was not at all in advance of his age.

The neglect and gradual oblivion which are now overtaking the greater part of Robertson's historical work are owing to no fault of his. He had not and could not have the requisite materials: they were not published or access- ible. Justice requires that we should estimate his per- formance in view of the means at his command, and few critics would hesitate to subscribe to the verdict of Buckle, " that what he effected with his materials was wonderful." His style, whether of narrative or disquisition, is singularly clear, harmonious, and persuasive. The most serious re- proach made against it is that it is correct to a fault and lacks idiomatic vigour, and the charge is not without foundation. But there can be no doubt that, if Eobertson's writings are less read than they formerly were, the fact is to be attributed to no defects of style but to the growth of knowledge and to the immense extension of historical research which has inevitably superseded his initiatory and meritorious labours. (J. C. MO.)






The above article was written by: J. Cotter Morrision, M.A.



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