Robertson, William

, D.D. one of the most illustrious names in modern literature, and one of the most | eminent of modern historians, was born in 1721, at Borthwick, in the county of Mid-Lothian, where his father was then minister; and received the first rudiments of his education at the school of Daikeith. In 1733, when his father removed to Edinburgh, on being appointed minister of the old Gray-friars’ church, tie placed his son at the university, where his industry and application appear to have been of that extraordinary and spontaneous kind, which bespeaks a thirst for knowledge, and is a pledge of future eminence. From a very early period of life he employed every means to overcome the peculiarities of a provincial idiom, and accustom his pen to the graces of the best English style. For this purpose he frequently exercised himself in the practice of translation, and was about to have prepared for the press a version of Marcus Antoninus, when he was anticipated by an anonymous publication at Glasgow. Nor did he bestow less pains on acquiring a fluent and correct eloquence, associating for that purpose with some fellowstudents and others, who assembled periodically for extempore discussion and debate. Thus in all his early pursuits he deviated knowingly, or was insensibly directed into those paths which led to the high fame he afterwards enjoyed.

His studies at the university being finished, he was licensed to preach in 1741, and in 1743 was presented to the living of Gladsmuir, in East Lothian, by John, second earl of Hopeton. This preferment, although the whole emoluments did not exceed 100l. a year, was singularly opportune, as his father and mother died about this time, leaving a family of six daughters and a younger son unprovided for, whom our author removed to Gladsmuir, and maintained with decency and frugality, until they were settled in the world. During the rebellion in 1745, when the capital of Scotland was in danger of falling into the hands of the rebels, the state of public affairs appeared so critical that he thought himself justified in laying aside for a time the pacific habits of his profession, and in quitting his parochial residence at Gladsmuir, to join the volunteers of Edinburgh; and, when at last it was determined that the city should be surrendered, he was one of the small band who repaired to Haddington, and offered their services to the commander-in-chief of his majesty’s forces. He returned, however, as soon as peace was restored, to Gladsmuir, and in 1751 married his cousin, miss Mary Nesbit, daughter of the Rev. Mr. Nesbit, o e of the mU nisters of Edinburgh, | He now applied himself to his pastoral duties, which he discharged with a punctuality that procured him the veneration and attachment of his parishioners, and as his eloquence in the pulpit began to attract the notice of the neighbouring clergy, this circumstance, no doubt, prepared the way for that influence in the church which he afterwards attained. In 1755 he published “A Sermon preached before the Society for promoting Christian knowledge,” which has been deservedly admired, and encouraged by a sale of five editions, besides a translation into German. He had some time before this made his appearance in the General Assembly of the church of Scotland, and had taken an active part in their proceedings. In 1757, he distinguished himself in the defence of Mr. John Home, minister of Athelstoneford, who had written the tragedy of “Douglas.” This was considered as so bold a departure from the austerity expected in a presbyterian divine, that the author, and some of his brethren, who had witnessed the play in the theatre, were prosecuted in the ecclesiastical court. On this occasion Dr. Robertson contributed much, by his eloquence, to the mildness of the sentence in which the prosecution terminated; and his conduct was no inconsiderable proof of his general candour, as he had never himself entered within the walls of a play-house, avoiding such an indulgence as inconsistent with the scruis circumspection which he maintained in his private character.

In the mean time, his leisure hours had been so well employed that, in 1758, he went to London to concert measures for the publication of his first celebrated work, “The History of Scotland during the reigns of queen Mary and king James VI. till his accession to the crown of England; with a review of the Scottish history previous to that period; and an Appendix, containing original papers,” 2 vols. 4to. The plan of this work is said to have been formed soon after his settlement at Gladsinuir. It was accordingly published on the 1st of February, 1759, and so eager and extensive was the sale, that before the end of that month, he was desired by his bookseller to prepare for a, second edition. “It was regarded,” says his biographer, “as an attempt towards a species of composition that had been cultivated with very little success in this island; and accordingly it entitles the author, not merely to the praise which would now be due to an historian of equal eminence, | but to a high rank among those original and leading minds that form and guide the taste of a nation.” Contemporary puhlications abounded in its praises, but it would be superfluous to coiiect options in favour of a work familiarized to the public by so ^any editions. Among the most judicious of the literati of that period who were the first to perceive and predict the reputation our author was about to establish, were, hon. Horace Walpole*, bishop Warburton, lord Royston, the late sir Gilbert Elliot, Dr. Birch, Dr. Douglas, late bishop of Salisbury, Dr. John Biair, late prebendary of Westminster, and Mr. Hume. It may suffice to add, that fourteen editions of this work were published in the author’s life-time.

While the “History of Scotland” was in the press, Dr. Robertson removed, with his family, from Gladsmuir to Edinburgh, in consequence of a presentation which he had received 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 the university of Edinburgh. Two years afterward, the office of king’s historiographer for Scotland (with a salary of 200l. a year) was revived in his favour. About this time, likewise, it appears that he was solicited to become a member of the church of England, by friends who considered that establishment as more likely to reward his merit than the highest emoluments his own church could afford. He resisted this temptation, however, with a decision which prevented its being farther urged, although it appears at the same time, from his correspondence, that he would not have been sorry to accept any situation which might have relieved him from the duties of his pastoral office, and afford him the power of applying himself wholly to his studies. His refusal, therefore, as his biographer justly observes, “became the consistency and dignity of his character,” and it is greatly to his honour, that whatever offices or wealth he acquired throughout life, were the fair reward of his own exertions.


On this name, we may remark, in the language of Dr. Robertson’s biographer, that “The value of praise, whatever be the abilities of him who bestows it, depends on thn opinion we entertain of his candour and sincerity; qualities which it will be difficult to allow Mr. Walpole, after comparing the various passages in this memoir, with the sentiments he expreses on the same subject in his posthumous publication.” Walpole, indeed, was perhaps the most insincere man of his age, as will be farther noticed in our account of him.

| He was, however, about this time, desirous of profiting by the indulgence the public had shewn him, and consulted his friends relative to the choice of another historical subject. A history of England was strongly recommended, and encouragement promised from the most exalted source of honour. His majesty was pleased to express a wish to see a history of England from his pen, and the earl of Bute promised him every assistance that could be derived from the records in possession of government, and held out the most flattering views of encouragement in other respects. At first Dr. Robertson was averse to this scheme, as interfering with the plan of Hume, with whom, notwithstanding the contrariety of their sentiments, both in religion and politics, he lived in the greatest friendship; but afterwards, wben the royal patronage was so liberally tendered, appears to have inclined to the undertaking. This perhaps cannot be better expressed than in his own words. “The case, I now think, is entirely changed. His (Hume’s) history will have been published several years before any work of mine on the same subject can appear: its first run will not be marred by any jostling with me, and it will have taken that station in the literary system which belongs to it. This objection, therefore, which I thought, and still think, so weighty at that time, makes no impression on me at present, and I can now justify my undertaking the English history, to myself, to the world, and to him. Besides, our manner of viewing the same subject is so different or peculiar, that (as was the case in our last books) both may maintain their own rank, have their own partizans, and possess their own merit, without hurting each other.

What “station in the literary system” Hume’s history might have occupied, if Dr. Robertson had executed his intention, it is impossible to conjecture. It is certain, however, that after a lapse of nearly half a century no work has appeared which can be at all compared to Hume’s, in jrespect to popularity, or rather that commanding influence which a work of established reputation attains, notwithstanding any defects which criticism or superior opportunities of knowledge may point out. The contest between two such writers would have been a noble object of curiosity; and to have been so near it, as the world once was, may yet be felt as a severe disappointment.

After more deliberation, however, Dr. Robertson determined to relinquish this scheme, and to undertake the | History of Charles V.” which, indeed, he had begun before the other plan was so strongly recommended. His character as a historian now stood so high that this new production was expected with the utmost impatience, nor was that expectation disappointed. The preliminary dissertation, under the unassuming title of an “Introduction to the History of Charles V.” is particularly valuable as an introduction to the history of modern Europe, and suggests in every page matter of speculation to the politician and the philosopher. The whole appeared under the title of “The History of the reign of the Emperor Charles V. with a View of the Progress of Society in Europe, from the subversion of the Roman Empire to the beginning of the sixteenth century,1769, 3 vols. 4-to.

After an interval of eight years, Dr. Robertson produced his “History of America,1777, 2 vols. 4to, in undertaking which his original intention was only to complete his account of the great events connected with the reign of Charles V.; but perceiving, as he advanced, that a history of America, confined solely to the operations and concerns of the Spaniards, would not be likely to excite a very general interest, he resolved to include in his plan the transactions of all the European nations in the New World. The origin and progress of the British empire there, however, he destined for the subject of one entire volume, but afterwards abandoned, or rather suspended the execution of this part of his design, as he was of opinion that during a civil war between Great Britain and her colonies, inquiries and speculations concerning ancient forms of policy and laws, which no longer existed, could not be interesting. It would be superfluous to say how much this work enlarged his fame, unless, indeed, which is no hyperbole, we consider the fame arising from his former works as incapable of enlargement. He treated a subject here, which demanded all his abilities, and afforded a full scope for his genius, and he proved how eminently he could excel in splendid, romantic, and poetical delineations, with the originals of which he could not be supposed to have much interest. This work, however, laid him more open to censure than any of his former. The world had become more critical, and from having enjoyed the excellence of his histories of Scotland and of Charles V. more fastidious; and perhaps the dread of his acknowledged name had in some degree been abated by time. Besides, it was impossible by any | force of argument to vindicate the disposition he shews to palliate or to veil the enormities of the Spaniards in their American conquests. This was the more unaccountable in an author whose writings in general are most friendly to the interests of humanity, and who in his previous researches and inquiries after information, lay under no extraordinary obligaiions to the Spanish court. This blemish in his history was soon followed by a compliment which shews too evidently the light in which it was viewed in Spain. He Was elected a member of the Royal Academy of History at Madrid, “in testimony of their approbation of the industry and care wiih which he has applied to the study of Spanish history, and as a recompense for his. merit in baling contributed so much to illustrate and spread the knowledge of it in foreign countries.” The academy at the same time appointed one of its members to translate the History of America into Spanish, but the government put a stop to the undertaking. It may here be introduced, that as these volumes did not complete Dr. Robertson’s original design, he announced in his preface his intention to resume the subject at a future period. A fragment of this intended work, entitled “Two additional chapters of the History of America,” 4to, was published after his death.

In consequence of the interruption of Dr. Robertson’s plans, which was produced by the American revolution, he was led to think of some other subject which might, in the mean time, give employment to his studious leisure. Many of his friends suggested the history of Great Britain from the Revolution to the accession of the house of Hanover; and he appears to have entertained some thoughts of acceding to their wishes. Mr. Gibbon, with whom he was in the habit of intimate correspondence, recommended to him to write a history of the Protestants in France. What answer he returned to this is not known; nor have we learned what the circumstances were which induced him to lay aside his plan with respect to the history of England. For some time, however, he seems to have relinquished all thoughts of writing any more for the publick. His circumstances were now independent, he was approaching to the age of sixty, with a constitution considerably impaired by a sedentary life. He retired from the business of the General Assembly about the year 1780; and, for seven or eight years, divided the hours which he could spare from his professional duties between the luxury of reading and the conversation of his friends. | To this literary leisure the public is indebted for a valuable performance, of which the materials seem almost insensibly to have swelled to a volume, long after his most intimate friends imagined that he had renounced all tt ughts of the press. The “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 Cape of Good Hope,1791, 4to, took its rise, as he himself informs us, from the perusal of major Rennet’s excellent memoir for illustrating his map of Hindostan. This suggested to his mind the idea 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. It is divided into four sections. He published this work in his sixty-eighth year; and it appears to have been written in about twelve months. Although less amusing to common readers than his former works, and become less interesting wpon the whole, in consequence of the discoveries since brought to light in Asia, it is not inferior in diligence of research, soundness of judgment, or perspicuity of method.

With this publication his historical labours closed labours which, for extent and variety, have not been equalled by any writer in our times. All the essential merits of a historian were his; fidelity, the skill of narrative, the combination of philosophy with detail, so seldom attempted, and generally so unsuccessfully executed, and the power of giving an uncommon interest to his personages and events in the mind of the reader. His style has been iSo justly characterized by his biographer, that we may, without hesitation, recommend it as a decision from which it will not be easy to appeal. “The general strain of his composition,” says professor Stewart, “is flowing, equal, and majestic; harmonious beyond that of most English writers, yet seldom deviating, in quest of harmony, into inversion, redundancy, or affectation. If, in some passages, it may be thought that the effect might have been heightened by somewhat more of variety in the structure and cadence of his periods, it must be recollected, that this criticism involves an encomium on the beauty of his style; for it is only when the ear is habitually gratified, that the rhythm of composition becomes an object of the | reader’s attention. The same judicious critic has re* marked, that,” perhaps, on the whole, it will be found that of all his performances Charles V. is that which unites the various requisites of good writing in the greatest degree. The style is more natural and flowing than that of the History of Scotland: while, at the same time, idiomatical phrases are introduced with so sparing and timid a hand, that it is easy to perceive the author’s attention to correctness was not sensibly diminished. In the History of America, although it contains many passages equal, if not superior, to anything else in his writings, the composition does not seem to me to be so uniformly polished as that of his former works; nor does it always possess, in the same degree, the recommendations of conciseness and simplicity."

In his own country, Dr. Robertson’s reputation was considerably enhanced by his conduct as a leading member of the General Assembly of the church of Scotland, the proceedings of which he regulated, in difficult times and trying emergencies, with great political skill, address, and elo* quence, for nearly thirty years. In his pastoral office he was also very assiduous, preaching once every Sunday until a short time before his death. Of his sermons, one only has been printed; but their general merit may be understood from the character given by his colleague, the late Dr. Erskine: “They were so plain,” says this candid and venerable man, “that the most illiterate might easily understand them, and yet so correct and elegant that they could not incur their censure whose taste was more refined. For several years before his death, he seldom wrote his sermons fully, or exactly committed his older sermons to memory though, ha>l I not learned this from hi;p.self, I should not have suspected it; such was the variety and fitness of his illustrations, the accuracy > of his method, and the propriety of his style.” To his other merits may likewise be added, the diligence, address, and ability, with which he studied and promoted the interests of the university, as Principal, which will be long remembered to his honGtir. In all his public characters he had the happy talent of gaining influence without the appearance of effort, and of conciliating differences without departing from consistency, or endangering friendship, Ah his pursuits were those of a great, a steady, and a persevering mind. His private and social virtues, which are also highly spoken | of, no doubt contribute to the commanding celebrity of his public character.

In 1791, his health began apparently to decline, and on this he retired to, and for some time was enabled to enjoy, the placid comforts of a country residence, where, however, his disorder terminated in his death on the llth of June, 1793, in the seventy -first year of his age. He left a widow, three sons (the eldest an eminent lawyer at the Scotch bar, and the two younger embraced a military life), and two daughters, one married to Mr. Brydone, the traveller, and the other is the widow of John Russell, esq. clerk to the signet.

It yet remains to be mentioned, as a part of Dr. Robertson’s literary history, that in 1776, he reviewed, and made considerable alterations, in his “History of Scotland.” He took the same pains, in 1778, with his “History of America;” and these “additions and corrections” were sold separately. His “History of Scotland,” and that of "Charles V.*' were translated into French. The honour conferred upon him by the Royal Academy of History at Madrid has already been noticed. In 1781, he was elected one of the foreign members of the Academy of Sciences at Padua; and in 1783 one of the foreign members of the Imperial Academy of Sciences at St. Petersburgh. The late empress Catherine, a warm admirer of his works, sent him a present of a very handsome gold enamelled snuff-box, richly set with diamonds. These honours, however, can scarcely be put in competition with, because they were only the natural consequence of, a higher degree of fame over all Europe, than almost any modern writer has enjoyed, and of fame which no rivalship has been enabled to impair. 1


Account of the Life, &c, of Dr. William Robertson, by Professor Dugald Stewart, 1801, 8vo.