Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. IV. Eighteenth Century
Critical Introduction by William Wallace
William Robertson (17211793)
[William Robertson, historian of Scotland, America, and Charles V., was born on 19th September 1721 at his fathers manse, Borthwick, Midlothian. He studied at the University of Edinburgh, and at the age of twenty-two was ordained minister of the Parish of Gladsmuir, East Lothian. He was from the first an earnest student; and, while a faithful pastor, threw himself into the ecclesiastical politics of the day. By his thirtieth year he had made his mark in the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, and soon became one of the recognised leaders of the Moderate, as opposed to the Evangelical and Anti-Patronage Party. The publication of his first work, The History of Scotland, brought him at once fame and preferment. He was appointed in rapid succession joint-minister of Greyfriars Church, Edinburgh, Royal Chaplain, Principal of Edinburgh University, and Kings Historiographer. His History of the Reign of the Emperor Charles V. appeared in 1769, and his History of America in 1777. In Edinburgh he enjoyed the society of a remarkable circle of men of letters, which included Hume, Blair, Adam Smith, and Jupiter Carlyle, and took his full share of the social pleasures of the time, His later life was uneventful. From the publication of his History of America till his death in 1793 he wrote nothing of moment, except An Historical Disquisition concerning the Knowledge which the Ancients had of India, which appeared in 1791.]
BY the middle of the eighteenth century, when Robertson was beginning to write, Scotland had begun to feel the beneficent effect of the Union with England, both in the expansion of trade and in the liberation of thought. Comparative wealth had created a fit medium for intellectual production. The only check upon the growth of a literature at once Scottish and cosmopolitan was the want of a literary vernacular. Scotland had not indeed been lacking in great writers who had gained the ear of the world. But all had been obliged to make use of a foreign language to reach readers beyond the seas or across the border. The time was now ripe for Scotland to enter into literary partnership with England. It is the distinctive merit of Robertson and his contemporaries that they entered the partnership on equal terms; if they had to borrow their language from England, they paid the debt with interest by virtue of the importance and originality of their first contributions to the joint stock. In at least the three departments of political science, political economy, and history, Scotlands output in the latter half of the last century was both larger and intrinsically richer than Englands. Robertson, a studious country clergyman, living within an easy distance of the capital, enjoyed the intimate friendship of David Hume, Adam Smith, John Home, Adam Ferguson, and the others who formed its select intellectual and convivial society. He does not appear to have hesitated over his choice of a métier in letters. Temperament impelled him to action rather than reflection. So much may be gathered from his escapade in the 45, as well as from his career as an ecclesiastical leader. At all events, it seems natural that history, not philosophy, should have been selected as his field for achieving literary distinction by the young minister who left his country manse to volunteer for the defence of Edinburgh against Prince Charles Edward, and offered his services to the commander of the Kings troops at Haddington before the rout of Prestonpans. He was a keen student from the first. His early commonplace books have the motto vita sine literis mors est. The labour of his preparations for writing was prodigious as compared with Humes in the same line. It is universally acknowledged that he made the best use of the materials available in his day, and he took what his age considered exceptional pains to discover all sources of information. He had, in the first instance, moreover, to form a style, and for this purpose he studied the best models. It is probable that Swift and Defoe furnished him with the English woof for his purely classical warp, and he doubtless owed his facility of expression quite as much to the meetings of the Poker Club, which he attended, as to the debates in the Church courts in which he took a leading part. Association with Hume, too, must have been of inestimable advantage to Robertson. It has been said of him, with truth, that he was one of the first to discover the importance of general ideas in history. And, while it would be unfair to say that he borrowed the habit of taking large views from the philosophers of his circle, he must have been greatly influenced by theirand particularly by Humesmanner of considering everything from the root upwards. So much may be said without disparagement of his originality; the fact that he does not appear to have appreciated the far-reaching effect of Humes conclusions almost compels the inference that, as a thinker, he was an imitator rather than a pioneer.
It would be to little purpose to look further outside the closet for factors of influence on either the form or the contents of Robertsons work. We fail to discover in his later writings any symptoms of the change in his manner of living which followed on his translation to Edinburgh and his elevation to the headship of the University and leadership in the Church, with the concomitant large increase of income and entanglement in ecclesiastical intrigue. It was the spirit of the young volunteer of 45 that prompted Robertsons defence of John Home, author of Douglas, and of Alexander Carlyle, who boldly went to the theatre to see the play performed, against the High-flyers with their hostility to such deceitful vanities as the drama. If Robertson latterly developed faults such as garrulity, over-fondness for generalisation on insufficient grounds, and the trick of skimming his friends talk and giving it back to them in polished paraphrase, these failings, which are by no means extenuated by his admirer Carlyle, did not affect his writing.
Robertsons work has been superseded, but those who have come after him in his chosen fields have not been ableeven if they can be said to have triedto magnify their own labours by disparaging his. His case is fully covered by Mark Pattisons generalisation:Ideas change, the whole mode and manner of looking at things alter with every age; and so every generation requires facts to be recast in its own mould, demands the history of its forefathers be written from its own point of view. The Scottish historian whose historical learning satisfied Gibbon, and whose philosophy of history commanded the eloquent admiration of Burke, keeps his place in literature as a master of his special art. Subsequent discoveries have, indeed, taken from the authority of his works. As books of reference they are out of date. Thus the Spanish writers on whom he had mainly to depend for his History of America proved untrustworthy guides, and Prescott has pointed out that the industry of scholars of the same nation has, since Robertsons day, collected important materials which, had they been accessible, would have modified his views to a considerable extent. Similarly the history of Scotland has had to be rewritten, though Robertsons work, which ran through fourteen editions in his lifetime, still finds readers; and his Charles the Fifth has not stood the test of time, though the view of The Progress of Society in Europe which is prefixed to it, keeps its position as a masterly sketch, distinguished by both rapidity and breadth. As an authoritative historian, Robertson may be summed up in Buckles words, what he effected with his materials was wonderful.
Robertsons style is essentially a made one. Dugald Stewart, who was near enough to the rise of a purely English literature in Scotland to appreciate the difficulties associated with it, gives the most reasonable explanation of Robertsons characteristic manner when he says that the historian was, by his distance from the acknowledged standard of elegance, naturally led to evade the hazardous use of idiomatical phrases by the employment of such as accord with the general analogy of language. In other words Robertson, writing in a strange tongue, had no living standard of correctness by which to regulate his use of words and phrases. The pitch of elegance as a writer which he actually attained is proof at once of his talent and of the utility of the method which he employed. Taken at his best, in narrative, Robertson is admirable. His prose flows easily, carrying the reader along by the studied but concealed art by which one sentence is made to seem the necessary sequel to its predecessor. The general style is, indeed, too smooth for modern taste. As Robertson never allowed himself to pass a certain limit of fervency in his sermons, through fear of being dubbed Highflyer, so he always wrote, so to speak, with the drag on. His facts are skilfully marshalled in their proper sequence; his tone is kept exceptionally low. In passages which have been held up to admiration, such as the story of Rizzios death, one misses a life-giving dramatic touch; the style is stately but lacks vivacity; the writer, instead of presenting a vivid picture with the help of the natural phraseology of passion, falls back upon the analogy of language. The best quality of Robertsons style is its easy motion. He constantly strives after grace and dignity. The balanced phrase, the period, the tautological adjective are perpetually employed. Such a style has undoubtedly a charm of its own; and it is not very surprising that Brougham should have declared when we repair to the works of Robertson for the purpose of finding facts, we art instantly carried away by the stream of his narrative, and forget the purpose of our errand to the fountain. The balanced style has, however, its inevitable defects. A phrase of ear-filling rotundity will sometimes not bear close analysis; it is too manifestly a phrase manufactured to make equipoise with another, which in reality does not require its ponderous help. If never brilliant, Robertson is never dull. Broughams chief criticism of him, that he does not sufficiently express his detestation of the crimes he portrays, does not appeal to moderns. Had he moralised more, he might have given us a gallery of fearful examples. We are content with what Robertson has left usa moving panorama of three interesting historical epochs.