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"Historiam multi scripsêre, sed nemo dubitat, duos longe cæteris præferendos, quorum diversa virtus laudem pene est parem consecuta. Densus et brevis et semper instans sibi Thucydides. Dulcis et candidus et fusus Herodotus. Ille concitatis, hic remissis affectibus melior. Ille vi, hic voluptate."
Progress of Dr. Robertson's literary Plans and Undertakings.History of the Reign of the Emperor Charles the Fifth.
DURING the time that the History of Scotland was in the press, Dr. Robertson removed with his family from Gladsmuir to Edinburgh, in consequence of a presentation to one of the churches of that city. His preferments now multiplied rapidly. In 1759, he was appointed chaplain of Stirling Castle; in 1761, one of his majesty's chaplains in ordinary for Scotland; and in 1762, he was chosen principal of this university. Two years afterwards, the office of king's historiographer for Scotland (with a salary of two hundred pounds a year) was revived in his favor.
The revenue arising from these different appointments, though far exceeding what had ever been enjoyed before by any Presbyterian clergyman in Scotland, did not satisfy the zeal of some of Dr. Robertson's admirers, who, mortified at the narrow field which this part of the island afforded to his ambition, wished to open to it the career of the English church. References to such a project occur in letters addressed to him about this time by Sir Gilbert Elliot, Mr. Hume, and Dr. John Blair. What answer he returned to them, I have not been able to learn; but, as the subject is mentioned once only by each of these gentlemen, it is presumable that his disapprobation was expressed in those decided terms which became the consistency and dignity of his character.
Dr. Robertson's own ambition was, in the mean time, directed to a different object. Soon after the publication of his Scottish History, we find him consulting his friends about the choice of another historical subject; anxious to add new laurels to those he had already acquired. Dr. John Blair urged him strongly on this occasion to write a complete History of England; and mentioned to him, as an inducement, a conversation between Lord Chesterfield and Colonel Irwin, in which the former said, that he would not scruple, if Dr. Robertson would undertake such a work, to move, in the house of peers, that he should have public encouragement to enable him to carry it into execution. But this proposal he was prevented from listening to, by his unwillingness to interfere with Mr. Hume; although it coincided with a favorite plan which he himself had formed at a very early period of his life. The two subjects which appear to have chiefly divided his choice were, the history of Greece, and that of the Emperor Charles the Fifth. Between these he hesitated long, balancing their comparative advantages and disadvantages, and availing himself of all the lights that his correspondents could impart to him. Mr. Walpole and Mr. Hume took a more peculiar interest in his deliberations, and discussed the subject with him in length in various letters. I shall extract a few passages from these. The opinions of such writers upon such a question cannot fail to be generally interesting; and some of the hints they suggest may perhaps be useful to those who, conscious of their own powers, are disposed to regret that the field of historical composition is exhausted.
The following passages are copied from a letter of Mr. Walpole, dated 4th March, 1759.
"If I can throw in any additional temptation to your diposition for writing, it is worth my while, even at the hazard of my judgment and my knowledge, both of which however are small enough to make me tender of them. Before I read your history, I should probably have been glad to dictate to you, and (I will venture to say it-it satirizes nobody but myself) should have thought I did honor to an obscure Scots clergyman, by
directing his studies with my superior lights and abilities. How you have saved me, sir, from making a ridiculous. figure, by making so great an one yourself! but could I suspect, that a man I believe much younger, and whose dialect I scarce understood, and who came to me with all the diffidence and modesty of a very middling author, and who I was told had passed his life in a small living near Edinburgh; could I suspect that he had not only written what all the world now allows the best modern history, but that he had written it in the purest English, and with as much seeming knowledge of men and courts as if he had passed all his life in important embassies? In short, sir, I have not power to make you, what you ought to be, a minister of state; but I will do all I can, I will stimulate you to continue writing, and I shall do it without presumption.
"I should like either of the subjects you mention, and I can figure one or two others that would shine in your hands. In one light the history of Greece seems preferable. You know all the materials for it that can possibly be had. It is concluded; it is clear of all objections; for perhaps nobody but I should run wildly into passionate fondness for liberty, if I was writing about Greece. It even might, I think, be made agreeably new, and that by comparing the extreme difference of their manners and ours, particularly in the article of finances, a system almost new in the world.
"With regard to the history of Charles V., it is a magnificent subject, and worthy of you. It is more: it is fit for you; for you have shown that you can write on ticklish subjects with the utmost discretion, and on subjects of religious party with temper and impartiality. Besides, by what little I have skimmed of history myself, I have seen how many mistakes, how many prejudices, may easily be detected: and though much has been written on that age, probably truth still remains to be written of it. Yet I have an objection to this subject. Though Charles V. was in a manner the emperor of Europe, yet he was a German or a Spaniard. Consider, sir, by what you must have found in writing
the History of Scotland, how difficult it would be for the most penetrating genius of another country to give an adequate idea of Scottish story. So much of all transactions must take their rise from, and depend on, national laws, customs, and ideas, that I am persuaded a native would always discover great mistakes in a foreign writer. Greece, indeed, is a foreign country; but no Greek is alive to disprove one.
"There are two other subjects which I have sometimes had a mind to treat myself; though my naming one of them will tell you why I did not. It was the History of Learning. Perhaps, indeed, it is a work which could not be executed unless intended by a young man from his first looking on a book with reflection. The other is, the history of what I may in one light call the most remarkable period of the world, by containing a succession of five good princes: I need not say, they were Nerva, Trajan, Adrian, and the two Antonines. Not to mention, that no part almost of the Roman history has been well written from the death of Domitian, this period would be the fairest pattern for use, if history can ever effect what she so much pretends to, doing good. I should be tempted to call it the History of Humanity; for though Trajan and Adrian had private vices that disgraced them as men, as princes they approached to perfection. Marcus Aurelius arrived still nearer, perhaps with a little ostentation; yet vanity is an amiable machine, if it operates to benevolence. Antoninus Pius seems to have been as good as human nature royalized can be. Adrian's persecution of the Christians would be objected, but then it is much controverted. I am no admirer of elective monarchies; and yet it is remarkable, that when Aurelius's diadem descended to his natural heir, not to the heir of his virtues, the line of beneficence was extinguished; for I am sorry to say, that hereditary and bad are almost synonymous. But I am sénsible, sir, that I am a bad adviser for you; the chastity, the purity, the good sense and regularity of your manner, that unity you mention, and of which you are the greatest master, should not be led astray by the licentious frankness, and, I hope,
honest indignation of my way of thinking. I may be a fitter companion than a guide; and it is with most sincere zeal, that I offer myself to contribute any assistance in my power towards polishing your future work, whatever it shall be. You want little help; I can give little; and indeed I, who am taxed with incorrectnesses, should not assume airs of a corrector. My Catalogue I intended should have been exact enough in style : it has not been thought so by some: I tell you, that you may not trust me too much. Mr. Gray, a very perfect judge has sometimes censured me for parliamentary phrases, familiar to me as your Scotch law is to you. I might plead for my inaccuracies, that the greatest part of my book was written with people talking in the room ; but that is no excuse to myself, who intended it for correct. However, it is easier to remark inaccuracies in the work of another than in one's own; and, since you command me, I will go again over your second volume, with an eye to the slips, a light in which I certainly did not intend my second examination of it."
In transcribing some of these paragraphs, as well as in the other extracts I have borrowed from Mr. Walpole's letters, I must acknowledge, that I have been less influenced by my own private judgment, than by my deference for the partiality which the public has long entertained for this popular and fashionable writer. Of the literary talents of an author on whom so much flattery has been lavished, it does not become me to speak disrespectfully; nor would I be understood to detract from his merits in his own peculiar and very limited walk of historical disquisition: but I should be wanting to myself, if I were not to avow, that in the foregoing quotation, my object was rather to gratify the curiosity of others, than to record a testimony which I consider as of any importance to Dr. Robertson's fame. The value of praise, besides, whatever be the abilities of him who bestows it, depends on the opinion we entertain of his candor and sincerity; qualities which it will be difficult to allow to Mr. Walpole, after comparing the various passages quoted in this memoir, with the sentiments he expresses on the same subject in his posthumous publication.