Page images

standing, when exercised on such subjects, as darkened by the narrow prejudices of high-church bigotry. Robertson became also well acquainted with Edmund Burke ; who, as the friend of liberty, without licentiousness; of order, without arbitrary power; of religion, without bigotry; was in sentiments more congenial. to Robertson himself.

The success of his first great literary effort encouraged him to farther exertion. Delineation of man was his favourite employment. He had already traced him as modified by the effects of the northern irruptions into the Roman Empire by the feudal institutions which the conquests of the northern invaders produced, by the manners resalting from those institutions, and from religion. But his disquisitions had been chiefly confined to man in one country. In the natural progress of a great mind, expanding its views as it advanced in acquirement, he took a much wider survey of the phenomena of human nature, and of the causes by which these were affected. He projected a work which SHOULD CONNECT ANCIENT TO MODERN MAN; should shew how the human character had degenerated in Europe froin the time of the Romans; and following it to the lowest abyss of darkness, ignorance, and barbarism, mark its beginning efforts to rise; attend it in its progress; describe its exertions until it reached a period of light, knowledge, and civilization. He chose as his subject the Reign of the Emperor Charles V. It was,' as he observes in his preface, during his administration that the powers of Europe were formed into one great political system, in which each took a station, wherein it has since remained, with less variation than could have been expected after the shocks occasioned by so many internal revolutions, and so many foreign wars. The great events which happened then have not hitherto spent their force. The political principles and maxiins then established still continue to operate. The ideas concerning the balance of power, then introduced or rendered general, still influence the councils of nations. The first volume contains a view of the progress of society in Europe, from the subversion of the Roman Empire to the beginning of the sixteenth century.

A critical investigation of so celebrated a work as the History of Charles V. would be superfluous. Amidst a great variety of subordinate excellence, its leading characteristics are, the combination of every material either of fact or reflection, which can exhibit the actual state of society at the time described, and extend our knowledge of man as a social, civil, and political being; with that lucid arrangement which results from a mind of the most penetrating disa cernment and enlarged comprehension ; viewing every part and relation of its subjects, and the whole together; informing us concerning man's actual state at different periods, and instructing us in the means of meliorating his character and condition. The clearness and force of the language was an adequate, and its elegance and harmony a pleasing vehicle of wisdom.

The History of Charles V. was sold for 4,500l. and published in 1769. The publication of this performance extended over Europe a literary reputation that had before been chiefly confined to Britain.

This history made only part of the great plan according to which Robertson had projected to delineate man.

He had there traced European society as influenced by causes belonging to Europe itself; another object discovered at the conclusion of the period of his retrospect was pregnant with events and consequences most important to the European states; and thus a subject of political investigation: while it presented man under a different aspect from any of those we had formerly beheld; and thus afforded matter for the most momentous, philosophical, and moral enquiries. An historian of less skill and genius miglit have probably considered the discovery of America in its mere relation to the power or opulence of the Spanish Empire during that period. The genius of Robertson was not for viewing a subject in so detached lights. • Every (he says, in his preface to Charles V.) intelligent reader will observe one omission in my work, the reason of which it is necessary to explain. I have given no account of the conquests of Mexico and Peru, or of the establishnient of the Spanish colonies in the continent and islands of America. The history of these events I originally intended to have related at considerable length. But upon a nearer and more attentive consideration of this part of my plan, I found that the discovery of the New World; the state of society among its ancient inhabitants; their character, nianners, and arts; the genius of the European settlements in its various provinces, together with the influence of these upon the systems of policy or commerce in Europe, were subjects so spie..did and important, that a superficial view of them conld afford little satisfaction; and, on the other hand, to treat of them as exten. sively as they merited, most produce an episode disproportionate to the principal. I have, therefore, reserved these for a separate history; which, if the performance now offered to the public shall receive its approbation, I purpose to undertake.'

Views * and sketches of the New World had been given by able

See Encyclopædia Britannica, vol. xvi. p. 309.


writers: and splendid portions of the American story had been adorned with all the beauties of eloquence. But prior to the appearance of Dr. Robertson's history, no author had bestowed the mature and profound investigation which such a subject required, or had finished, upon a regular plan, that complete narration and perfect whole which it is the province of the historian to transmit to posterity. The history of the New World * gives us the spectacle of savage life in a more perfect form than it is elsewhere to be found. In other records we see men in a low degree of civilization, and maik the progress and improvement of our species; here only we remount to the first footsteps of the human race; we trace the nations from the nursery and the cradle, and behold man in his original state, new from the hand of nature.

Dr. Robertson gives therefore a striking proof of his judgment in bestowing so much learned research, and devoting so large a part of his bouk to illustrate the early state of the American nations. In the fourth book of his first volume, he displays so much patient in. Pestigation and sound philosophy; abounds in such beautiful and interesting description; and exhibits such variety and copiousness of elegant writing; that future times will probably refer to it as that part of his works which gives the best idea of his genius, and is the most firrished of all his productions. In his enquiries into the bodily constitution of the Americans, the qualities of their minds; their domestic, civil, and political state and institutions; their arts, their religion, their manners, and their customs; he, instead of imputing their character and condition to physical nature, with vigorous and strong sense, and sound philosopliy, ascribes them to moral and political causes. The history is a very important addition to British stores of historical information, philosophical instruction, and elegant literature. By his History of America he not only supported, but increased his fame.

Engaged as Robertson was in laborious research and profound investigation, he still continued to be the leading clergyman in the General Assembly. The chief point of debate, among the representatives of the Scottish church, was concerning the giit of livings. The moderate party approved of the disposition established by the law of patronage ; their opponents were anxious for popilar elections; and not without policy, as, if the populace were to be the electors, an ignorant, superficial, declamatory, puritanical demagogue

See Monthly Review, vol. Ivii. p. 47.

VOL. 1.


might have procured the popular voice in preference to a Leechman, a Campbell, or a Robertson.

In 1778, a motion having been made by one of the leaders of the popular party (in which there were not wanting men of considerable ability) for petitioning the legislature not to extend to Scotland a late act for relieving the Catholics in England, Dr. Campbell replied in a speech of great acuteness, chiefly irony. Mr. Dundas, the chief Lay member of the assembly, perceiving that a considerable part of the mover's arguments proceeded on very ignorant assumption concerning its origin, with his usual clearness, and accuracy of historical knowledge, stated to the house the precise and special circumstances that had led the legislature, at a particular juncture in the reign of King William, to enact the law in question; and with his accustomed strength demonstrated the absurdity and injustice of suffering a law affecting a numerous body of people to remain värepealed, when the special reasons for it had ceased. Dr. Robertson argued on the same side as his friend Mr. Dundas; and proved the Catholic character, in civilized countries, to have lost great part of its noxious nature, and consequently to be no longer deservedly subjected to restrictions formerly expedient, and even necessary. The moderate leaders became extremely unpopular. Puritanical incendiaries represented Dr. Robertson as favourable to the establishment of the Catholic faith. Associations were formed by mechanics and many: facturers, to oppose popery, and express their reprobation of those clergy who had, they said, betrayed the cause of the presbytery, and were engaged in an unlawful commerce with the lady of Babylon; the weavers of Glasgow, Renfrew and Paisley displaying a peculiar zeal against the doctrines of Anti-christ. The puritanical papaphobia was again becoming violent. The populace wus inflamed, and rose to tumult and riot in various places At Edinburgh, a party of those enlightened theologians, the Leith sailors, took the lead in stirring up vengeance against the enemies of that religion, for the knowledge and practice of which they were themselves so eminently distinguished. Assisted by many other divines, they set fire to chapels and houses of the papists. They threatened to destroy the house of Dr. Robertson; buf a guard of soldiers secured, every avenue to the college ;, and before these precautions were taken, even his person might not have escaped from fanatical fury, had he not taken refuge in the Casile of Edinburgh.

- In the following Assembly, in May 1779, on a question relative to the Catholic laws, Dr. Robertson made a speech, in which both sides

of the house allowed that he had equalled if not surpassed the best former efforts of his own eloquence; and proved to the satisfaction even of his opponents, that his conduct had been such, in the whole of the business, as to merit their approbation. For some years after this little business occurred before the Assembly that could call forward the talents of a Robertson, he retired from that cheatre on which he had so long eminently distinguished himself.

In 1787 appeared a translation of the Abbe Clavigero's History of Mexico; in which work the author threw out various reflections, tending in several points to impeach the credit of Dr. Robertson's History of America. This attack induced our learned historian to sevise his work, and to enquire into the truth of the charges brought against it by the historian of New Spain; and this he appears to have done with a becoming attention to the importance of the facts that are controverted, and to the common interests of truth. The result he published in 1788, under the title of · Additions and Corrections to the former Editions of Dr. Robertson's History of America. In many of the disputed passages, he fully answered the Abbe Clavi. gero, and vindicated himself: in others, he candidly submitted to correction, and thus gave additional value to his own work. *

In 1791 he published an. Historical Disquisition concerning the Knowledge which the Ancients had of India, and the Progress of Trade with that Country prior to the Discovery of the Passage to it by the Cape of Good Hope; with an - Appendix, containing Obser: vations on the Civil Polity, the Laws, and Judicial Proceedings, the Arts, the Sciences, and Religious Institutions of the Indians.' The perusal of Major Rennell's Memoir, for illustrating his map of Indostar, suggested to Dr. Robertson the design of examining more fully than he had done, in his History of America, into the knowledge which the ancients had of India, and of considering what is certain, what is obscure, and what is fabulous, in their accounts of that remote country. This was not the only subject which employed his literary exertions after his retirement from public life. The last year gave to the world a very valuable posthumous work, of which we have given an account in our History of Literature,

Dr. Robertson had long enjoyed a very vigorous constitution ; but about the year 1789 his health began to decline. He was seized with a lingering illness, which he bore with a fortitude worthy of his philosophical mind, and the resignation of a Christian Minister.

See Encyclopædia Britannica, vol. xvi. p. 309.

« PreviousContinue »