Blackwell, Thomas

, an ingenious and very learned writer of the last century, was born August 4, 1701, in the city of Aberdeen. His father, the rev. Mr. Thomas Blackwell, was minister of Paisley in Renfrewshire, from whence he was removed in 1700 to be one of the ministers of Aberdeen. He was afterwards elected professor of divinity in the Marischal college of that city, and in 1717 was presented by his majesty to be principal of the college, in both which offices he continued until his death in 1728. His mother’s name was Johnston, of a good family near Glasgow, and sister to Dr. Johnston, who was many years professor of medicine in the university of Glasgow. Our author received his grammatical education at the grammarschool of Aberdeen, studied Greek and philosophy in the Marischal college there, and took the degree of master of arts in 1718; which, as he was at that time only seventeen years of age, must be regarded as a considerable testimony of his early proficiency in literature. A farther proof of it was his being presented, on the 28th of November 1723, by his majesty king George the First, to the professorship of Greek, in the college in which he had been educated. He was admitted into this office on the 13th of December in the same year; and after that continued to teach the Greek language with great applause. His knowledge of that language was accurate and extensive, and his manner of communicating it perspicuous and engaging. He had a dignity of address which commanded the attention of the students, a steadiness in exacting the prescribed exercises which enforced application, and an enthusiasm for the beauties of the ancients, and utility of classical learning, which excited an ardour of study, and | contributed much to diffuse a spirit for Grecian erudition far superior to what had taken place before he was called to the professorship. Together with his lessons in the Greek tongue, he gave, likewise, lessons on some of the Latin classics, chiefly with a view to infuse a relish for their beauties. To his zeal and diligence in discharging the duties of his station, it is probable that the world was, in part, indebted for such men as Campbell, Gerard, Reid, Beattie, Duncan, and the Fordyces, who have appeared with so much eminence in the republic of letters. When the celebrated Dr. Berkeley was engaged in the scheme of establishing an American university in the Summer Islands, Mr. Blackwell was in treaty with him for going out as one of his young professors; but the negociation did not take effect. In 1735 was published at London, in octavo, without the name of the bookseller, and without his own name, our author’s “Enquiry into the Life and Writings of Homer” a work, the great ingenuity and learning of which will be acknowledged by all who have perused it. It was embellished with plates, designed by Gravelot, and executed by different engravers. This we apprehend to be the most esteemed, and it is, in our opinion, the most valuable, of Mr. Blackwell’s performances. The second edition appeared in 1736; and, not long after, he published “Proofs of the Enquiry into Homer’s Life and Writings, translated into English being a key to the Enquiry with a curious frontispiece.” This was a translation of the numerous Greek, Latin, Spanish, Italian and French notes which had been subjoined to the original work. In 1748, came out, in London, “Letters concerning Mythology,” in a large octavo, but without the bookseller (Andrew Millar’s) name. On the 7th of October, in the same year, our author was appointed by his late majesty, George II. to be principal of the Marischal college in Aberdeen, and was admitted to the office on the 9th of November following. He continued, also, professor of Greek till his death. He is the only layman ever appointed principal of that college, since the patronage came to the crown, by the forfeiture of the Marischal family in 1716 all the other principals having been ministers of the established church of Scotland. When Robert and Andrew Foulis, printers at Glasgow, intended to publish an edition of Plato, Mr. Blackwell proposed to furnish them with several critical notes for it, | together with an account of Plato’s Life and Philosophy but the printers not acceding to the terms which he demanded for this assistance, he promised, by a Latin advertisement in 1751, himself to give an edition of Plato. His design, however, was not carried into execution nor did it appear, from any thing found among his papers after his death, that he had made any considerable progress in the undertaking. On the 3d of March, 1752, he took the degree of doctor of Laws. In the following year, appeared the first volume of his “Memoirs of the Court of Augustus,” in 4to. The second volume came out in 1755 and the third, which was posthumous, and left incomplete by the author, was prepared for the press by John Mills, esq. and published in 1764. At the same time, was published the third edition of the two former volumes. This is a proof of the good reception the work met with from the public, though it must be acknowledged that the parade with which it was written, and the peculiarity of the language, exposed it to some severity of censure, particularly to a most acute, and in some respects humourous, criticism by Dr. Johnson, written for the Literary Magazine, and now inserted in Johnson’s works. It cannot be denied that there is a considerable degree of affectation in Dr. Blackwell’s style and manner of composition and, unhappily, this affectation increased in him as he advanced in years. His “Enquiry into the Life of Homer” was not free from it it was still more discernible in his “Letters concerning Mythology” and was most of all apparent in his “Memoirs of the Court of Augustus.” We perceive in his various productions a mixture of pedantry but it is not the sober dull pedantry of the merely recluse scholar. In Dr. Blackwell it assumes a higher form. Together with the display of his erudition, he is ambitious of talking like a man who is not a little acquainted with the world. He is often speaking of life and action, of men and manners; and aims at writing with the freedom and politeness of one who has been much conversant with the public. But; in this he is unsuccessful: for though he was not destitute of genius or fancy, and had a high relish for the beauties of the ancient authors, he never attained that simplicity of taste, which leads to true ease and elegance in composition. It is probable, also, that, like many others at that time, he might be seduced by an injudicious imitation | of lord Shaftesbury; a writer, whose faults have been found more easily attainable than his excellences.

Soon after Dr. Blackwell became principal of his college he married Barbara Black, the daughter of a merchant of Aberdeen, by whom he had no children, and who survived him so late as 1793. Several years before his death, his health began to decline so that he was obliged to employ an assistant for teaching his Greek class. His disorder was of the consumptive kind, and it was thought to be increased by the excess of abstemiousness which he imposed on himself and, in which, notwithstanding all the remonstrances of his physicians, he obstinately persisted, from an opinion of his own knowledge of his constitution, and of what he found by experience to suit it best. His disease increasing, he was advised to travel; and accordingly, in February 1757, he set out from Aberdeen, but was able to go no farther than Edinburgh, in which city he died, on the 8th of March following, in the fifty-sixth year of his age. Dr. Blackwell enjoyed an equable flow of temper, in which his intimate friends scarcely ever observed any variation. This he maintained during his whole illness. The day before he set out from Aberdeen, he desired to meet with all the professors of the college, and spent two hours with them with his usual vivacity. In Edinburgh he was visited, at his own desire, by Dr. Wallace, one of the ministers of that city, whose ingenuity and learning are well known. Dr. Blackwell, on the very day in which he died, wrote letters to several of his friends, and took leave of them with the greatest chee. fulness. In the April following our author’s decease, it being Dr. Gerard’s business, as (at that time) professor of moral philosophy and logic in the Marischal college, to preside at conferring the degree of master of arts on those whose standing entitled them to it, the doctor took that occasion to pronounce publicly, on the late principal, such an encomium as his literature deserved. It was a fault in Dr. Blackwell, that he too much assumed the appearance of universal knowledge; the consequence of which was that he sometimes laid himself open, by entering on subjects of philosophy and mathematics, without a sufficient acquaintance with them. With all the ancient, and with most of the modern languages, he was really acquainted and his reading, in the departments of history and the belles lettres, was very extensive. He had | a ready and lively manner of introducing his knowledge of this kind, which made his conversation both instructive and entertaining and it was rendered still more so by being accompanied with great good humour, and an entire command of his passions, even when he was provoked. Though he had something of the stiffness of the recluse, he joined with it much of the confidence and good breeding that are found in men who converse much in the world. His life was private and studious: he did not wholly decline mixed companies, though it was but seldom that he came into them and at home he chose only the conversation of the learned, or that of persons of superior rank or fortune. At London he was known to several men of eminence. The late duke of Newcastle, and Mr. Henry Pelham, were his patrons, and procured for him the office of principal of the Marischal college. It is confidently said that they had intended him an establishment at Cambridge, and that the professorship of modern history was fixed upon for him, if he had not died a short time before it became vacant. A man of Dr. Blackwell’s abilities and reputation could not fail of having some valuable literary connexions and correspondents; among whom he had the honour of numbering the late celebrated Dr. Mead, and the no less celebrated Dr. Warburton, bishop of Gloucester. It is said that Mr. Blackwell, soon after the publication of his Enquiry, being at Cambridge, paid a visit to Dr. Bentley, and the discourse turning upon the book, the doctor, being asked his opinion of it, answered, “That when he had gone through half of it, he had forgotten the beginning; and that, when he had finished the reading of it, he had forgotten the whole.” Whatever truth is in this story, it is certain, at least, that a similar objection had been started by others, if not by Dr. Bentley.

In the first volume of the Archaeologia is a letter, written in 1748, by Dr. Blackwell, to Mr. Ames, containing an explanation of a Greek inscription, on a white marble, found in the isle of Tasso, near the coast of Romania, by captain Joseph Hales, in 1728. As Dr. Blackwell was singular in his style and sentiments, he likewise imbibed some religious opinions, little known at that time in the bosom of the Calvinistic church of Scotland. He was so much a Socinian, that he never read ttie first chapter of St. John in his class, but always began with the second. This on one occasion gave rise to a foolish report respecting his | knowledge of Greek, which we shall have occasion to notice in the life of Dv. Gregory Sharpe. His widow, who, as alreadynoticed, died in 1793, bequeathed her estates partly to found a chemical professorship in the college over which her husband had so long presided, and partly for a premium for an English essay, and for the augmentation of the professors’ salaries. 1

1 Biog. Brit, from materials communicated by the late Dr. Gerard. -See r his propoials for Plato, —Gent. Mag. vol. XXI. p. 383,