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it is spoken of in many books as the cause and parent of all contemporary bubbles—the great South-Sea Company—the design of which was to reduce the interest on the national debt, which, oddly enough, it in fact effected, and to trade exclusively to the South Sea or Spanish America, where, of course, it never did trade. Mr. Gibbon became a director, sold and bought, traded and prospered; and was considered, no doubt with truth, to have obtained much money. The bubble was essentially a fashion
Public intelligence and the quickness of communication did not then as now at once spread pecuniary information and misinformation to secluded districts; but fine ladies, men of fashion—the London world—ever anxious to make as much of its money as it can, and then wholly unwise and not now very wise in discovering how the most was to be made of it—"went in” and speculated largely. Of course, all was favourable so long as the shares were rising; the price was at one time high, and the agitation very general; it was, in a word, the railway mania in the South Sea. All at once the shares“ hesitated," declined, and fell; and there was an outcry against every body concerned in the matter, very like the outcry against the oi trepi Hudson in our own time. The results, however, were very different. Whatever may be said, and, judging from late experience, a good deal is likely to be said, as to the advantages of civilisation and education, it seems certain that they tend to diminish a simple-minded energy. The Parliament of 1720 did not, like the Parliament of 1817, allow itself to be bored and incommoded by legal minutiæ, neither did they forego the use of plain words. A committee reported the discovery of "a
a train of the deepest villany and fraud hell ever contrived to ruin a nation ;” the directors of the company were arrested, and Mr. Gibbon among the rest; he was compelled to give in a list of his effects: the general wish was that a retrospective act should be immediately passed, which would impose on him penalties something like, or even more severe than those now enforced on Paul and Strahan. In the end, however, Mr. Gibbon escaped with a parliamentary conversation upon his affairs. His estate amounted to 140,0001.; and as this was a great sum, there was an obvious suspicion that he was a great criminal. The whole scene must have been very curious. “ Allowances of twenty pounds or one shilling were facetiously voted. A vague report that a director had formerly been concerned in another project by which some unknown persons had lost their money, was admitted as a proof of his actual guilt. One man was ruined because he had dropped a foolish speech that his horses should feed upon gold; another because he was grown so proud, that one day, at the Treasury, he had refused a civil answer to per
sons far above him.” The vanity of his descendant is evidently a little tried by the peculiar severity with which his grandfather was treated. Out of his hundred and forty thousand pounds it was only proposed that he should retain fifteen ; and on an amendment even this was reduced to ten thousand. Yet there is some ground for believing that the acute energy and practised pecuniary power which had been successful in obtaining so large a fortune, were likewise applied with science to the inferior task of retaining some of it.
The historian indeed says, “On these ruins,” the 10,0001. aforesaid, “with skill and credit of which parliament had not been able to deprive him, my grandfather erected the edifice of a new fortune: the labours of sixteen years were amply rewarded ; and I have reason to believe that the second structure was not much inferior to the first." But this only shows how far a family feeling may bias a sceptical judgment. The credit of a man in Mr. Gibbon's position could not be very lucrative; and his skill must have been enormous to have obtained so much at the end of life, in such circumstances, in so few years. Had he been an early Christian, the narrative of his descendant would have contained an insidious hint, that "pecuniary property may be so secreted as to defy the awkward approaches of political investigation." It was on this property, in whatever way acquired or retained, that the social position of the Gibbons was established ; and the remnants of it preserved from death the immortal author of the Decline and Fall.
The son of this great speculator, the historian's father, was a man to spend a fortune quietly. He is not related to have indulged in any particular expense, and nothing is more difficult to follow than the pecuniary fortunes of deceased families; but one thing is certain, that the property which descended to the historian — putting out of the question all minor and subsidiary modes of diminution, such as daughters, settlements, legacies, and so forth — was enormously less than 140,0001.; and if the statistics above quoted are correct, the second generation of the family must have made itself very happy out of the savings of the past generation, and without caring for the poverty of the next. Nothing that is related, indeed, of the historian's father indicates a strong judgment or an acute discrimination ; and there are some scarcely dubious signs of a rather weak character.
Edward Gibbon, the historian, was born on the 27th of April 1737. Of his mother we hear scarcely any thing; and what we do hear is not remarkably favourable. It seems that she was a faint inoffensive woman, of ordinary capacity, who left a very slight trace of her influence on the character of her son; who did little, and died early. The real mother, as he is careful to explain, of his understanding and education was her sister, and his aunt, Mrs. Catherine Posten, according to the speech of that age, a maiden lady of much vigour and capacity, and for whom her pupil really seems to have felt as much affection as was consistent with a rather easy and cool nature. There is a panegyric on her in the Memoirs; and in a long letter upon the occasion of her death, he deposes : “ To her care I am indebted in earliest infancy for the preservation of my life and health. ... To her instructions I owe the first rudiments of knowledge, the first exercise of reason, and a taste for books, which is still the pleasure and glory of my life; and though she taught me neither language nor science, she was certainly the most useful preceptress I ever had. As I grew up, an intercourse of thirty years endeared her to me as the faithful friend and the agreeable companion. You have observed with what freedom and confidence we lived,” &c. &c. To a less sentimental mind, which takes a more tranquil view of aunts and relatives, it is perhaps satisfactory to find that he could not write to her. “I wish,” he continues, “I had as much to applaud and as little to reproach in my conduct to Mrs. Posten since I left England; and when I reflect that my letter would have soothed and comforted her decline, I feel” what an ardent nephew would naturally feel at so unprecedented an event. Leaving his maturer years out of the question—a possible rhapsody of affectionate eloquence
-she really seems to have been of the greatest use to him in infancy. His health was very imperfect. We hear much of rheumatism, and lameness, and weakness; and he was clearly in general unable to join in work and play with ordinary boys. On this account he was moved from one school to another, never staying any where very long, and owing what knowledge he obtained rather to a strong retentive understanding than to any external stimulants or instruction. At one place he gained an acquaintance with the Latin elements at the price of “ many tears and some blood.” At last he was consigned to the instruction of an elegant clergyman, the Rev. Philip Francis, who had obtained notoriety by a metrical translation of Horace, the laxity of which is even yet complained of by construing schoolboys, and who, having a truly Horatian taste for combining the pleasures of a town with those of a country life, went to London as often as he could, and translated invisa negotia as “boys to beat."
In school-work, therefore, Gibbon had uncommon difficulties and unusual deficiencies; but these were much more than counterbalanced by a habit which often accompanies a sickly childhood, and is very often the commencement of a studious life,—the habit of desultory reading. The instructiveness of this is often
not properly comprehended. S. T. Coleridge used to say that he felt a great superiority over those who had not read—and fondly read-fairy tales in their childhood; he thought they wanted a sense which he possessed, the perception, or apperception—we do not know which he used to say it was—of the unity and wholeness of the universe. As to fairy tales, this is a hard saying; but as to desultory reading it is certainly true. Some people have known a time in life when there was no book they could not read. The fact of its being a book went immensely in its favour. In early life there is an opinion that the obvious thing to do with a horse is to ride it; of a cake, to eat it; of sixpence, to spend it: a few boys carry this further, and think the obviously natural thing to do with a book is to read it. There is an argument from design in the subject: if the book was not meant for that purpose, for what purpose was it meant? Of course, of any understanding of the
, works so perused there is no question or idea. There is a legend of Bentham, when still in long-clothes, climbing to the height of a huge stool and sitting there evening after evening with two candles engaged in the perusal of Rapin's history. It might just as well have been any other book. The doctrine of utility had not then dawned on its immortal teacher; cui bono was an idea unknown to him. He would have been ready to read about Egypt, about Spain, about the coals in Borneo, the teak-wood in India, the current in the river Mississippi, on natural history or human history, on theology or morals, on the state of the dark ages or the state of the light ages, on Augustulus or Lord Chatham, on the first century or the seventeenth, on the moon, the millennium, or the whole duty of man. Just then, in fact, reading is an end in itself. At that time of life you no more think of a future consequence, of the remote, the very remote possibility of deriving knowledge from the perusal of a book, than you expect so great a result from spinning a peg-top. You spin the top, and you read the book; and then that scene of life is exhausted. In such studies, of all prose perhaps the best is history. One page is so like another; battle No. 1 is so much on a par
with battle No. 2. Truth may be, as they say, stranger than fiction, abstractedly and in itself; but in actual books, novels are certainly odder and more astounding than correct history. It will be said, what is the use of this? Why not leave the reading of great books till a great age? Why plague and perplex childhood with complex facts remote from its experience and inapprehensible by its imagination? The reply is, that though in all great and combined facts there is much which childhood cannot thoroughly imagine or comprehend, there is also in very many a great deal which can only be truly apprehended for the first time at that
age. Catch an American of thirty ;-tell him about the
battle of Marathon; what will he be able to comprehend of all that you mean by it; of all that halo which early impression and years of remembrance have cast around it? He may
up the killed and wounded, estimate the missing, and take the dimensions of Greece and Athens; but he will not seem to care much. He may say, "Well, sir, perhaps it was a smart thing in that small country; but it is a long time ago, and in my country James K. Burnup” did that which he will at length explain to you. Or try an experiment on yourself. Read the account of a Circassian victory, equal in numbers, in daring, in romance, to the old battle. Will you be able to feel about it at all in the same way? It is impossible. You cannot form a new set of associations ; your mind is involved in pressing facts, your memory choked by a thousand details; the liveliness of fancy is gone with the childhood by which it was enlivened. Schamyl will never seem as great as Leonidas or Miltiades ; Cnokemof, or whoever the Russian is, cannot be so imposing as Xerxes; the unpronounceable place cannot strike on your heart like Marathon or Platæa. Moreover, there is the further advantage which Coleridge shadowed forth in the remark we cited. Youth has a principle of consolidation. We begin with the whole. Small sciences are the labours of our manhood; but the round universe is the plaything of the boy. His fresh mind shoots out vaguely and crudely into the infinite and eternal. Nothing is hid from the depth of it: there are no boundaries to its vague and wandering vision. Early science, it has been said, begins in utter nonsense; it would be truer to say that it starts with boyish fancies. How absurd seem the notions of the first Greeks! Who could believe now that air or water was the principle, the pervading substance, the eternal material of all things ? Such affairs will never explain a thick rock; they scarcely account for pea-soup; and what a white original for a green and sky-blue world ! Yet people disputed in those ages not whether it was either of those substances, but which of them it was. And doubtless there was a great deal, at least in point of quantity, to be said on both sides. Boys are improved; but some in our own day have asked, “Mamma, I say, what did God make the world of?” and several, who did not venture on speech, have had an idea of some one gray primitive thing, have felt a difficulty as to how the red came, and wondered how marble could ever have been the same as moonshine. This is in truth the picture of life. We begin with the infinite and eternal, which we shall never apprehend; and these form a framework, a schedule, a set of co-ordinates to which we refer all which we learn later. At first, like the old Greek, "we look up to the whole sky, and are lost in the one and the all ;" in the end we classify and enumerate, learn each star, calculate