"Whilst I have the honour to command an English man-of-war, I never shall allow myself to be subservient to the will of any governor, nor co-operate with him in doing illegal acts. Presidents of council I feel myself superior to. They shall make proper application to me for whatever they may want to come by water.
"If I rightly understand your order of the 29th of December, it is founded upon an opinion of the king's attorney-general, viz. 'That it is legal for governors or their representatives to admit foreigners into the ports of their governments, if they think fit.' How the king's attorney-general conceives he has a right to give an illegal opinion, which I assert the above is, he must answer for. I know the navigation laws. I am, Sir, &c.
But the troubles of the unfortunate Horatio were not over; for just at this time arose another vexed and vexatious question, as to whether a senior officer on half-pay—though holding a commissionership of the navy—could be empowered by the admiral on the station to hoist a broad pendant; and after a spirited correspondence, the point was decided, though apparently in a very shilly-shally shabby way, in Nelson's favour—for it is accompanied with a reprimand—the Admiralty informing him, that he ought to have submitted his doubts to the commander-in-chief on the station, instead of having taken on himself "to control the exercise of the functions of his appointment"—whatever that may mean.
Too much activity, even in a good cause, is apt to excite the enmity of the idle drones who have got on without any activity at all, and for some years the zeal of Nelson got him into disfavour with his superiors in the service. And yet his whole conduct was regulated by the strictest sense of duty, and his letters—even those in which he shows most independence—never give the slightest occasion to suspect that his actions arose from self-will and disobedience. On this point he is very explicit.
He writes to the admiral—"This, sir, I hope you will transmit to my lords commissioners, that they nor any other of my superior officers may have the smallest idea that I shall ever dispute the orders of my superiors."
And to the Admiralty, on the same occasion—"I must beg their lordships' indulgence to hear reasons for my conduct, that it may never go abroad into the world I ever had an idea to dispute the orders of my superior officer, neither admiral, commodore, or captain."
The plot in the mean time thickens, and his anger increases against the audacious swindling of the Yankees, aided by the islanders; and in his own defence he goes, according to his custom, to the fountain-head, and lays his complaint before the secretary of state. "My name," he says, "most probably is unknown to your lordship," (Lord Sydney,) "but my character as a man, I trust, will bear the strictest investigation; therefore I take the liberty of sending enclosed a letter, though written some few years ago, which I hope will impress your lordship with a favourable opinion of me. I stand for myself, no great connexion to support me if inclined to fall; therefore my good name, as a man, an officer, and an Englishman, I must be very careful of. My greatest pride is to discharge my duty faithfully; my greatest ambition to receive approbation for my conduct."
The chicaneries of the law were brought to bear on the captain of the Boreas, and by means of a writ for his arrest, (on the trumped-up plea of detention and imprisonment of some fraudulent Americans—true ancestors of the repudiators of the present day,) he was forced to remain on board ship for several months, but was at last released from durance by the tardy undertaking given by government to be answerable for his defence.
The lukewarmness of his superiors, and the villanies of law, were not enough to fill up his time, and, in the very midst of these agitating matters, he adds a third: he met Mrs Nisbet, and fell in love. His letters, however, are not entirely composed of sighs and lightning; and it gives a high idea of the lady's sense to perceive the calm, yet real, affection she inspired. We shall only quote one of his letters to his lady-love, to show the style of them all, and also to show his feelings towards Prince William Henry, (King William IV.,) who was at this time under his command as captain of the Pegasus.
"Off Antigua, December 12, 1786.
"Our young prince is a gallant man; he is indeed volatile, but always with great good-nature. There were two balls during his stay, and some of the old ladies were mortified that H. R. H. would not dance with them; but he says he is determined to enjoy the privilege of all other men, that of asking any lady he pleases.
"Wednesday.—We arrived here this morning at daylight. His Royal Highness dined with me, and, of course, the governor. I can tell you a piece of news, which is, that the prince is fully determined, and has made me promise him, that he shall be at our wedding; and he says he will give you to me. His Royal Highness has not yet been in a private house to visit, and is determined never to do it except in this instance. You know I will ever strive to bear such a character as may render it no discredit to any man to take notice of me. There is no action in my whole life but what is honourable; and I am the more happy at this time on that account; for I would, if possible, or in my power, have no man near the prince who can have the smallest impeachment as to character; for as an individual, I love him, as a prince, I honour and revere him. My telling you this history is as to myself; my thoughts on all subjects are open to you. We shall certainly go to Barbadoes from this island, and when I shall see you is not possible for me to guess, so much for marrying a sailor. We are often separated, but I trust our affections are not by any means on that account diminished. Our country has the first demand for our services; and private convenience or happiness must ever give way to the public good. Give my love to Josiah. Heaven bless and return you safe to your most affectionate
The attachment here professed for the prince seems to have been caused not less by the loyalty of Nelson's nature than by the real good qualities of the sailor king. It is probable he tried to form himself (professionally) on the model of his young commodore, and a better original it was impossible for him to study. A certain young lieutenant, of the name of Schomberg, conceiving that he was injuriously treated in an order of the day, issued by his Royal Highness on board the Pegasus, applied to Nelson for a court-martial to enquire into the charge alleged against him. Nelson granted the court-martial, and placed the complainant in arrest till a sufficient number could be collected for his trial, and expressed his opinion of such frivolous applications in the following general order:—
"By Horatio Nelson, Esquire, Captain of his Majesty's ship Boreas.
"For the better maintaining discipline and good government in the king's squadron under my command.
"I think it necessary to inform the officers, that if any one of them shall presume to write to the commander of the squadron (unless there shall be ships enough present to bring them to immediate trial) for a court-martial to investigate their conduct, on a frivolous pretence, thereby depriving his majesty of their services by obliging the commander of the squadron to confine them, that I shall and do consider such conduct as a direct breach of the 14th and part of the 19th articles of war, and shall order them to be tried for the same.
"Given under my hand, &c. "Horatio Nelson."
This probably had the desired effect, and the business was afterwards adjusted without having recourse to a court-martial, though not without bringing upon Nelson a rap over the knuckles on his return to England. In order to obtain the proper court, he had directed the prince to take his ship to the Jamaica station on his way to Halifax in Nova Scotia, and the following paragraph contains their lordships' decision:—
"My lords are not satisfied with the reasons you have given for altering the destination of the Pegasus, and for sending the Rattler sloop to Jamaica; and that, for having taken upon you to send the latter away from the station to which their lordships had appointed her, you will be answerable for the consequence, if the crown should be put to any needless expense upon that account."
We must close this account of the frivolous court-martial with an admirable letter from Nelson to the prince.
"Portsmouth 27th July, 1787.
"If to be truly great is to be truly good, (as we are taught to believe,) it never was stronger verified than in your Royal Highness in the instance of Mr Schomberg. You have supported your character, yet, at the same time, by an amiable condescension, have saved an officer from appearing before a court-martial, which ever must hurt him. Resentment, I know, your Royal highness never had, or, I am sure, ever will bear any one. It is a passion incompatible with the character of a man of honour. Schomberg was too hasty, certainly, in writing his letter, but now you are parted, pardon me, my prince, when I presume to recommend that Schomberg may stand in your royal favour as if he had never sailed with you; and that, at some future day, you will serve him. There only wants this to place your character in the highest point of view. None of us are without failings. Schomberg's was being rather too hasty; but that, put in competition with his being a good officer, will not, I am bold to say, be taken in the scale against him."
There is one characteristic circumstance in this collection, namely, the number of letters written by Nelson in recommendation of all who have behaved well under his command. He was desirous of acting to others as, he boasts in one of his letters with pride and exultation, he had been treated by Lord Howe. "You ask, by what interest did I get a ship? I answer, having served with credit, was my recommendation to Lord Howe, first lord of the admiralty."
The following is an application on behalf of a certain boatswain called Joseph King, which we quote on account of the extraordinary politeness,—owing, perhaps, to his study at St Omer—with which Nelson designates his protege.
To Philip Stephens, Esq., Admiralty.
"Boreas, 21st Sept. 1787.
"On the 20th, Charles Green, late acting boatswain, was entered as boatswain of his majesty's ship under my command, agreeable to a warrant dated at the Navy Pay-office, the 13th instant. I am, therefore, requested by Joseph King, to write to their lordships, to request they will be pleased to appoint him to some other ship, as he hopes he has done nothing deserving of being superseded; and I beg leave to recommend him as a most excellent gentleman.—I am, &c.
Whether this application was successful or not, even the industry of the editor has not discovered, but we fear that, at this point of his history, Nelson's recommendation was of no great weight with the Admiralty. His biographers, indeed, Clarke and M'Arthur, say, that at this time the treatment he received disgusted him with his profession, and that he had even determined never to set his foot again on board a king's ship, but resign his commission at once. But Sir Harris Nicolas very justly is sceptical as to the truth of this anecdote, from the fact, that there is no allusion to any intention of the kind in his correspondence. And from what we see of his disposition in all his letters, we feel assured that a thought of leaving the navy never entered his mind, and that he would have considered the withdrawal of his services as little short of treason. But there occurred now a long interval of idleness, or at least of life ashore. The Boreas was paid off in December 1787, and he was only appointed to the Agamemnon in January 1793.
The four years of peace passed happily away, principally at Burnham with his father; and there is little to quote till we find him on his own element again. He writes to Hercules Ross, a West India merchant, with whom he had formed a steady friendship while on that station; and we adduce the passage as a further corroboration of Sir Harris Nicolas's doubts about the authenticity of Clarke and M'Arthur's anecdote.
"You have given up all the toils and anxieties of business, whilst I must still buffet the waves—in search of what? That thing called honour, is now, alas, thought of no more. My integrity cannot be mended, I hope; but my fortune, God knows, has grown worse for the service. So much for serving my country. But the devil, ever willing to tempt the virtuous, (pardon this flattery of myself,) has made me offer, if any ships should be sent to destroy his majesty of Morocco's ports, to be there; and I have some reason to think that, should any more come of it, my humble services will be accepted. I have invariably laid down, and followed close, a plan of what ought to be uppermost in the breast of an officer; that it is much better to serve an ungrateful country, than to give up his own fame. Posterity will do him justice; a uniform conduct of honour and integrity seldom fails of bringing a man to the goal of fame at last."
But in spite of the coolness of the jacks-in-office, and the cold shoulder they turned to the little troublesome captain in the time of peace, no sooner were we likely to come to loggerheads with the French, than they turned their eyes to the quiet Norfolk parsonage, and made the amende to the iracundus Achilles.
War with France was declared on the 11th of February 1793, and on the 7th of January, Nelson writes as follows:—
To Mrs Nelson.
"Post nubila Phoebus. After clouds comes sunshine. The Admiralty so smile on me, that really I am as much surprised as when they frowned. Lord Chatham yesterday made many apologies for not having given me a ship before this time, and said, that if I chose to take a sixty-four to begin with, I should be appointed to one as soon as she was ready, and whenever it was in his power, I should be removed into a seventy-four. Every thing indicated war. One of our ships looking into Brest, has been fired into; the shot is now at the Admiralty. You will send my father this news, which I am sure will please him.—Love to Josiah, and believe me, your most affectionate
The appointment of Nelson to the Agamemnon, a name which he did nearly as much to immortalize as Homer, is the great epoch of his professional life. But though his letters, which now rise to the rank of despatches, become more interesting to those who watch his progress as an officer, there are comparatively fewer which let us into the character of the man. Besides this, the incidents of his career after this time are so well known, that little new can be expected. What novelty, however, there was to be obtained has not escaped the research of the editor, from whom (till we meet him in another volume, when Nelson will again become interesting in his individual capacity, as his secret and confidential letters in the Carraccioli and Lady Hamilton's period, come to be laid before us) we part with feelings of gratitude and respect.
Machiavel was the first historian who seems to have formed a conception of the philosophy of history. Before his time, the narrative of human events was little more than a series of biographies, imperfectly connected together by a few slight sketches of the empires on which the actions of their heroes were exerted. In this style of history, the ancient writers were, and to the end of time probably will continue to be, altogether inimitable. Their skill in narrating a story, in developing the events of a life, in tracing the fortunes of a city or a state, as they were raised by a succession of illustrious patriots, or sunk by a series of oppressive tyrants, has never been approached in modern times. The histories of Xenophon and Thucydides, of Livy and Sallust, of Caesar and Tacitus, are all more or less formed on this model; and the more extended view of history, as embracing an account of the countries the transactions of which were narrated, originally formed, and to a great part executed, by the father of history, Herodotus, appears to have been, in an unaccountable manner, lost by his successors.
In these immortal works, however, human transactions are uniformly regarded as they have been affected by, or called forth the agency of, individual men. We are never presented with the view of society in a mass; as influenced by a series of causes and effects independent of the agency of individual man—or, to speak more correctly, in the development of which the agency is an unconscious, and often almost a passive, instrument. Constantly regarding history as an extensive species of biography, they not only did not withdraw the eye to the distance necessary to obtain such a general view of the progress of things, but they did the reverse. Their great object was to bring the eye so close as to see the whole virtues or vices of the principal figures, which they exhibited on their moving panorama; and in so doing they rendered it incapable of perceiving, at the same time, the movement of the whole social body of which they formed a part. Even Livy, in his pictured narrative of Roman victories, is essentially biographical. His inimitable work owes its enduring celebrity to the charming episodes of individuals, or graphic pictures of particular events with which it abounds; scarce any general views on the progress of society, or the causes to which its astonishing progress in the Roman state was owing, are to be found. In the introduction to the life of Catiline, Sallust has given, with unequalled power, a sketch of the causes which corrupted the republic; and if his work had been pursued in the same style, it would indeed have been a philosophical history. But neither the Catiline nor the Jugurthine war are histories; they are chapters of history, containing two interesting biographies. Scattered through the writings of Tacitus, are to be found numerous caustic and profound observations on human nature, and the increasing vices and selfishness of a corrupted age: but, like the maxims of Rochefoucault, it is to individual, not general, humanity that they refer; and they strike us as so admirably just because they do not describe general causes operating upon society as a body—which often make little impression save on a few reflecting minds—but strike direct to the human heart in a way which comes home to the breast of every individual who reads them.
Never was a juster observation than that the human mind is never quiescent; it may not give the external symptoms of action, but it does not cease to have the internal action: it sleeps, but even then it dreams. Writers innumerable have declaimed on the night of the Middle Ages—on the deluge of barbarism which, under the Goths, flooded the world—on the torpor of the human mind, under the combined pressure of savage violence and priestly superstition; yet this was precisely the period when the minds of men, deprived of external vent, turned inwards on themselves; and that the learned and thoughtful, shut out from any active part in society by the general prevalence of military violence, sought, in the solitude of the cloister, employment in reflecting on the mind itself, and the general causes which, under its guidance, operated upon society. The influence of this great change in the direction of thought at once appeared when knowledge, liberated from the cloister and the university, again took its place among the affairs of men. Machiavel in Italy, and Bacon in England, for the first time in the annals of knowledge, reasoned upon human affairs as a science. They spoke of the minds of men as permanently governed by certain causes, and of known principles, always leading to the same results; they treated of politics as a science in which certain known laws existed, and could be discovered, as in mechanics and hydraulics. This was a great step in advance, and demonstrated that the superior age of the world, and the wide sphere to which political observation had now been applied, had permitted the accumulation of such an increased store of facts, as permitted deductions, founded on experience, to be formed in regard to the affairs of nations. Still more, it showed that the attention of writers had been drawn to the general causes of human affairs; that they reasoned on the actions of men as a subject of abstract thought; regarded effects formerly produced as likely to recur from a similar combination of circumstances; and formed conclusions for the regulation of future conduct, from the results of past experience. This tendency is, in an especial manner, conspicuous in the Discorsi of Machiavel, where certain general propositions are stated, deduced, indeed, from the events of Roman story, but announced as lasting truths, applicable to every future generation and circumstances of men. In depth of view and justness of observation, these views of the Florentine statesman never were surpassed. Bacon's essays relate, for the most part, to subjects of morals, or domestic and private life; but not unfrequently he touches on the general concerns of nations, and with the same profound observation of the past, and philosophic anticipation of the future.
Voltaire professed to elevate history in France from the jejune and trifling details of genealogy, courts, wars, and negotiations, in which it had hitherto, in his country, been involved, to the more general contemplation of arts and philosophy, and the progress of human affairs; and, in some respects, he certainly effected a great reformation on the ponderous annalists who had preceded him. But the foundation of his history was still biography; he regarded human events only as they were grouped round two or three great men, or as they were influenced by the speculations of men of letters and science. The history of France he stigmatized as savage and worthless till the reign of Louis XIV.; the Russians he looked upon as bitter barbarians till the time of Peter the Great. He thought the philosophers alone all in all; till they arose, and a sovereign appeared, who collected them round his throne, and shed on them the rays of royal favour, human events were not worth narrating; they were merely the contests of one set of savages plundering another. Religion, in his eyes, was a mere priestly delusion to enslave and benighten mankind; from its oppression the greatest miseries of modern times had flowed; the first step in the emancipation of the human mind was to chase for ever from the earth those sacerdotal tyrants. The most free-thinking historian will now admit, that these views are essentially erroneous; he will allow that, viewing Christianity merely as a human institution, its effect in restraining the violence of feudal anarchy was incalculable; long anterior to the date of the philosophers, he will look for the broad foundation on which national character and institutions, for good or for evil, have been formed. Voltaire was of great service to history, by turning it from courts and camps to the progress of literature, science, and the arts—to the delineation of manners, and the preparation of anecdotes descriptive of character; but, notwithstanding all his talent, he never got a glimpse of the general causes which influence society. He gave us the history of philosophy, but not the philosophy of history.
The ardent genius and pictorial eye of Gibbon rendered him an incomparable delineator of events; and his powerful mind made him seize the general and characteristic features of society and manners, as they appear in different parts of the world, as well as the traits of individual greatness. His descriptions of the Roman empire in the zenith of its power, as it existed in the time of Augustus—of its decline and long-protracted old age, under Constantine and his successors on the Byzantine throne—of the manners of the pastoral nations, who, under different names, and for a succession of ages, pressed upon and at last overturned the empire—of the Saracens, who, issuing from the lands of Arabia, with the Koran in one hand and the cimeter in the other, urged on their resistless course, till they were arrested by the Atlantic on the one side, and the Indian ocean on the other—of the stern crusaders, who, nursed amid the cloistered shades and castellated realms of Europe, struggled with that devastating horde "when 'twas strongest, and ruled it when 'twas wildest"—of the long agony, silent decay, and ultimate resurrection of the Eternal City—are so many immortal pictures, which, to the end of the world, will fascinate every ardent and imaginative mind. But, not withstanding this incomparable talent for general and characteristic description, he had not the mind necessary for a philosophical analysis of the series of causes which influence human events. He viewed religion with a jaundiced and prejudiced eye—the fatal bequest of his age and French education, unworthy alike of his native candour and inherent strength of understanding. He had profound philosophic ideas, and occasionally let them out with admirable effect; but the turn of his mind was essentially descriptive, and his powers were such, in that brilliant department, that they wiled him from the less inviting contemplation of general causes. We turn over his fascinating pages without ever wearying; but without ever discovering the general progress or apparent tendency of human affairs. We look in vain for the profound reflections of Machiavel on the permanent results of certain political combinations or experiments. He has led us through a "mighty maze;" but he has made no attempt to show it "not without a plan."
Hume is commonly called a philosophical historian, and so he is; but he has even less than Gibbon the power of unfolding the general causes which influence the progress of human events. He was not, properly speaking, a philosophic historian, but a philosopher writing history—and these are very different things. The practical statesman will often make a better delineator of the progress of human affairs than the philosophic recluse; for he is more practically acquainted with their secret Springs: it was not in the schools, but the forum or the palace, that Sallust, Tacitus, and Burke acquired their deep insight into the human heart. Hume was gifted with admirable sagacity in political economy; and it is the good sense and depth of his views on that important subject, then for the first time brought to bear on the annals of man, that has chiefly gained for him, and with justice, the character of a philosophic historian. To this may be added the admirable clearness and rhetorical powers with which he has stated the principal arguments for and against the great changes in the English institutions which it fell to his lot to recount—arguments far abler than were either used by, or occurred to, the actors by whom they were brought about; for it is seldom that a Hume is found in the councils of men. With equal ability, too, he has given periodical sketches of manners, customs, and habits, mingled with valuable details on finance, commerce, and prices—all elements, and most important ones, in the formation of philosophical history. We owe a deep debt of gratitude to the man who has rescued these important facts from the ponderous folios where they were slumbering in forgotten obscurity, and brought them into the broad light of philosophic observation and popular narrative. But, notwithstanding all this, Hume is far from being gifted with the philosophy of history. He has collected or prepared many of the facts necessary for the science, but he has made little progress in it himself. He was essentially a sceptic. He aimed rather at spreading doubts than shedding light. Like Voltaire and Gibbon, he was scandalously prejudiced and unjust on the subject of religion; and to write modern history without correct views on that subject, is like playing Hamlet without the character of the Prince of Denmark. He was too indolent to acquire the vast store of facts indispensable for correct generalization on the varied theatre of human affairs, and often drew hasty and incorrect conclusions from the events which particularly came under his observation. Thus the repeated indecisive battles between the fleets of Charles II. and the Dutch, drew from him the observation, apparently justified by their results, that sea-fights are seldom so important or decisive as those at land. The fact is just the reverse. Witness the battle of Salamis, which repelled from Europe the tide of Persian invasion; that of Actium, which gave a master to the Roman world; that of Sluys, which exposed France to the dreadful English invasions, begun under Edward III.; that of Lepanto, which rolled back from Christendom the wave of Mahometan conquest; the defeat of the Armada, which permanently established the Reformation in Northern Europe; that of La Hogue, which broke the maritime strength of Louis XIV.; that of Trafalgar, which for ever took "ships, colonies, and commerce" from Napoleon, and spread them with the British colonial empire over half the globe.
Montesquieu owes his colossal reputation chiefly to his Esprit des Loix; but the Grandeur et Decadence des Romains is by much the greater work. It has never attained nearly the reputation in this country which it deserves, either in consequence of the English mind being less partial than the French to the philosophy of human affairs, or, as is more probable, from the system of education at our universities being so exclusively devoted to the study of words, that our scholars never arrive at the knowledge of things. It is impossible to imagine a work in which the philosophy of history is more ably condensed, or where there is exhibited, in a short space, a more profound view of the general causes to which the long-continued greatness and ultimate decline of that celebrated people were owing. It is to be regretted only that he did not come to modern times and other ages with the same masterly survey; the information collected in the Esprit des Loix would have furnished him with ample materials for such a work. In that noble treatise, the same philosophic and generalizing spirit is conspicuous; but there is too great a love of system, an obvious partiality for fanciful analogies, and, not unfrequently, conclusions hastily deduced from insufficient data. These errors, the natural result of a philosophic and profound mind wandering without a guide in the mighty maze of human transactions, are entirely avoided in the Grandeur et Decadence des Romains, where he was retained by authentic history to a known train of events, and where his imaginative spirit and marked turn for generalization found sufficient scope, and no more, to produce the most perfect commentary on the annals of a single people of which the human mind can boast.
Bossuet, in his Universal History, aimed at a higher object; he professed to give nothing less than a development of the plan of Providence in the government of human affairs, during the whole of antiquity, and down to the reign of Charlemagne. The idea was magnificent, and the mental powers, as well as eloquence, of the Bishop of Meaux promised the greatest results from such an undertaking. But the execution has by no means corresponded to the conception. Voltaire has said, that he professed to give a view of universal history, and he has only given the history of the Jews; and there is too much truth in the observation. He never got out of the fetters of his ecclesiastical education; the Jews were the centre round which he supposed all other nations revolved. His mind was polemical, not philosophic; a great theologian, he was but an indifferent historian. In one particular, indeed, his observations are admirable, and, at times, in the highest degree impressive. He never loses sight of the divine superintendence of human affairs; he sees in all the revolutions of empires the progress of a mighty plan for the ultimate redemption of mankind; and he traces the workings of this superintending power in all the transactions of man. But it may be doubted whether he took the correct view of this sublime but mysterious subject. He supposes the divine agency to influence directly the affairs of men—not through the medium of general laws, or the adaptation of our active propensities to the varying circumstances of our condition. Hence his views strike at the freedom of human actions; he makes men and nations little more than the puppets by which the Deity works out the great drama of human affairs. Without disputing the reality of such immediate agency in some particular cases, it may safely be affirmed, that by far the greater part of the affairs of men are left entirely to their own guidance, and that their actions are overruled, not directed, by Almighty power to work out the purposes of Divine beneficence.
That which Bossuet left undone, Robertson did. The first volume of his Charles V. may justly be regarded as the greatest step which the human mind had yet made in the philosophy of history. Extending his views beyond the admirable survey which Montesquieu had given of the rise and decline of the Roman empire, he aimed at giving a view of the progress of society in modern times. This matter, of the progress of society, was a favourite subject at that period with political philosophers; and by combining the speculations of these ingenious men with the solid basis of facts which his erudition and industry had worked out, Robertson succeeded in producing the most luminous, and at the same time just, view of the progress of nations that had yet been exhibited among mankind. The philosophy of history here appeared in its full lustre. Men and nations were exhibited in their just proportions. Society was viewed, not only in its details, but its masses; the general causes which influence its progress, running into or mutually affecting each other, and yet all conspiring with more or less efficacy to bring about a general result, were exhibited in the most lucid and masterly manner. The great causes which have contributed to form the elements of modern society—the decaying civilization of Rome—the irruption of the northern nations—the prostration and degradation of the conquered people—the revival of the military spirit with the private wars of the nobles—the feudal system and institution of chivalry—the crusades, and revival of letters following the capture of Constantinople by the Turks—the invention of printing, and consequent extension of knowledge to the great body of the people—the discovery of the compass, and, with it, of America, by Columbus, and doubling of the Cape of Good Hope by Vasco de Gama—the discovery of gunpowder, and prodigious change thereby effected in the implements of human destruction—are all there treated in the most luminous manner, and, in general, with the justest discrimination. The vast agency of general causes upon the progress of mankind now became apparent: unseen powers, like the deities of Homer in the war of Troy, were seen to mingle at every stop with the tide of sublunary affairs; and so powerful and irresistible does their agency, when once revealed, appear, that we are perhaps now likely to fall into the opposite extreme, and to ascribe too little to individual effort or character. Men and nations seem to be alike borne forward on the surface of a mighty stream, which they are equally incapable of arresting or directing; and, after surveying the vain and impotent attempts of individuals to extricate themselves from the current, we are apt to exclaim with the philosopher, "He has dashed with his oar to hasten the cataract; he has waved with his fan to give speed to the winds."
A nearer examination, however, will convince every candid enquirer, that individual character exercises, if not a paramount, yet a very powerful influence on human affairs. Whoever investigates minutely any period of history will find, on the one hand, that general causes affecting the whole of society are in constant operation; and on the other, that these general causes themselves are often set in motion, or directed in their effects, by particular men. Thus, of what efficacy were the constancy of Pitt, the foresight of Burke, the arm of Nelson, the wisdom of Wellington, the genius of Wellesley, in bringing to maturity the British empire, and spreading the Anglo-Saxon race, in pursuance of its appointed mission, over half the globe! What marvellous effect had the heroism and skill of Robert Bruce upon the subsequent history of Scotland, and, through it, on the fortunes of the British race! Thus biography, or the deeds or thoughts of illustrious men, still forms a most important, and certainly the most interesting, part even of general history; and the perfection of that noble art consists, not in the exclusive delineation of individual achievement, or the concentration of attention on general causes, but in the union of the two in due proportions, as they really exist in nature, and determine, by their combined operation, the direction of human affairs. The talent now required in the historian partakes, accordingly, of this two-fold character. He is expected to write philosophy and biography: skill in drawing individual character, the power of describing individual achievements, with a clear perception of general causes, and the generalizing faculty of enlarged philosophy. He must combine in his mind the powers of the microscope and the telescope; be ready, like the steam-engine, at one time to twist a fibre, at another to propel an hundred-gun ship. Hence the rarity of eminence in this branch of knowledge; and if we could conceive a writer who, to the ardent genius and descriptive powers of Gibbon, should unite the lucid glance and just discrimination of Robertson, and the calm sense and reasoning powers of Hume, he would form a more perfect historian than ever has, or probably ever will appear upon earth.
With all his generalizing powers, however, Robertson fell into one defect—or rather, he was unable, in one respect, to extricate himself from the prejudices of his age and profession. He was not a freethinker—on the contrary, he was a sincere and pious divine; but he lived in an age of freethinkers—they had the chief influence in the formation of a writer's fame; and he was too desirous of literary reputation to incur the hazard of ridicule or contempt, by assigning too prominent a place to the obnoxious topic. Thence he has ascribed far too little influence to Christianity, in restraining the ferocity of savage manners, preserving alive the remains of ancient knowledge, and laying in general freedom the broad and deep foundations of European society. He has not overlooked these topics, but he has not given them their due place, nor assigned them their proper weight. He lived and died in comparative retirement; and he was never able to shake himself free from the prejudices of his country and education, on the subject of Romish religion. Not that he exaggerated the abuses and enormities of the Roman Catholic superstition which brought about the Reformation, nor the vast benefits which Luther conferred upon mankind by bringing them to light; both were so great, that they hardly admitted of exaggeration. His error—and, in the delineation of the progress of society in modern Europe, it was a very great one—consisted in overlooking the beneficial effect of that very superstition, then so pernicious, in a prior age of the world, when violence was universal, crime prevalent alike in high and low places, and government impotent to check either the tyranny of the great or the madness of the people. Then it was that superstition was the greatest blessing which Providence, in mercy, could bestow on mankind; for it effected what the wisdom of the learned or the efforts of the active were alike unable to effect; it restrained the violence by imaginary, which was inaccessible to the force of real, terrors; and spread that protection under the shadow of the Cross, which could never have been obtained by the power of the sword. Robertson was wholly insensible to these early and inestimable blessings of the Christian faith; he has admirably delineated the beneficial influence of the Crusades upon subsequent society, but on this all-important topic he is silent. Yet, whoever has studied the condition of European society in the ninth, tenth, and eleventh centuries, as it has since been developed in the admirable works of Sismondi, Thierry, Michelet, and Guizot, must be aware that the services, not merely of Christianity, but of the superstitions which had usurped its place, were, during that long period, incalculable; and that, but for them, European society would infallibly have sunk, as Asiatic in every age has done, beneath the desolating sword of barbarian power.
Sismondi—if the magnitude, and in many respects the merit, of his works be considered—must be regarded as one of the greatest historians of modern times. His "History of the Italian Republics" in sixteen, of the "Monarchy of France" in thirty volumes, attest the variety and extent of his antiquarian researches, as well as the indefatigable industry of his pen: his "Literature of the South of Europe" in four, and "Miscellaneous Essays" in three volumes, show how happily he has blended these weighty investigations with the lighter topics of literature and poetry, and the political philosophy which, in recent times, has come to occupy so large a place in the study of all who have turned their mind to the progress of human affairs. Nor is the least part of his merit to be found in the admirable skill with which he has condensed, each in two volumes, his great histories, for the benefit of that numerous class of readers who, unable or unwilling to face the formidable undertaking of going through his great histories, are desirous of obtaining such a brief summary of their leading events as may suffice for persons of ordinary perseverance or education. His mind was essentially philosophical; and it is the philosophy of modern history, accordingly, which he has exerted himself so strenuously to unfold. He views society at a distance, and exhibits its great changes in their just proportions, and, in general, with their true effects. His success in this arduous undertaking has been great indeed. He has completed the picture of which Robertson had only formed the sketch—and completed it with such a prodigious collection of materials, and so lucid an arrangement of them in their appropriate places, as to have left future ages little to do but draw the just conclusions from the results of his labours.
With all these merits, and they are great, and with this rare combination of antiquarian industry with philosophic generalization, Sismondi is far from being a perfect historian. He did well to abridge his great works; for he will find few readers who will have perseverance enough to go through them. An abridgement was tried of Gibbon; but it had little success, and has never since been attempted. You might as well publish an abridgement of Waverley or Ivanhoe. Every reader of the Decline and Fall must feel that condensation is impossible, without an omission of interest or a curtailment of beauty. Sismondi, with all his admirable qualities as a general and philosophic historian, wants the one thing needful in exciting interest—descriptive and dramatic power. He was a man of great vigour of thought and clearness of observation, but little genius—at least of that kind of genius which is necessary to move the feelings or warm the imagination. That was his principal defect; and it will prevent his great works from ever commanding the attention of a numerous body of general readers, however much they may be esteemed by the learned and studious. Conscious of this deficiency, he makes scarce any attempt to make his narrative interesting; but, reserving his whole strength for general views on the progress of society, or philosophic observations on its most important changes, he fills up the intermediate space with long quotations from chronicles, memoirs, and state papers—a sure way, if the selection is not made with great judgment, of rendering the whole insupportably tedious. Every narrative, to be interesting, should be given in the writer's own words, unless on those occasions, by no means frequent, when some striking or remarkable expressions of a speaker, or contemporary writer, are to be preserved. Unity of style and expression is as indispensable in a history which is to move the heart, or fascinate the imagination, as in a tragedy, a painting, or an epic poem.
But, in addition to this, Sismondi's general views, though ordinarily just, and always expressed with clearness and precision, are not always to be taken without examination. Like Robertson, he was never able to extricate himself entirely from the early prejudices of his country and education; hardly any of the Geneva school of philosophers have been able to do so. Brought up in that learned and able, but narrow, and in some respects bigoted community, he was early engaged in the vast undertaking of the History of the Italian Republics. Thus, before he was well aware of it, and at a time of life, when the opinions are flexible, and easily moulded by external impressions, he became irrevocably enamoured of such little communities as he had lived in, or was describing, and imbibed all the prejudices against the Church of Rome, which have naturally, from close proximity, and the endurance of unutterable evils at its hands, been ever prevalent among the Calvinists of Geneva. These causes have tinged his otherwise impartial views with two signal prejudices, which appear in all his writings where these subjects are even remotely alluded to. His partiality for municipal institutions, and the social system depending on them, is as extravagant, as his aversion to the Church of Rome is conspicuous and intemperate. His idea of a perfect society would be a confederacy of little republics, governed by popularly elected magistrates, holding the scarlet old lady of Rome in utter abomination, and governed in matters of religion by the Presbyterian forms, and the tenets of Calvin. It is not to be wondered at, that the annalist of the countries of Tasso and Dante, of Titian and Machiavel, of Petrarch and Leonardo da Vinci, of Galileo and Michael Angelo, should conceive, that in no other state of society is such scope afforded for mental cultivation and the development of the highest efforts of genius. Still less is it surprising, that the historian of the crusade against the Albigenses, of the unheard-of atrocities of Simon de Montfort, of the wholesale massacres, burnings, and torturings, which have brought such indelible disgrace on the Roman priesthood, should feel deeply interested in a faith which has extricated his own country from the abominable persecution. But still, this indulgence of these natural, and in some respects praiseworthy, feelings, has blinded Sismondi to the insurmountable evils of a confederacy of small republics at this time, amidst surrounding, powerful, and monarchical states; and to the inappreciable blessings of the Christian faith, and even of the Romish superstition, before the period when these infamous cruelties began, when their warfare was only with the oppressor, their struggles with the destroyers of the human race.
But truth is great, and will prevail. Those just views of modern society, which neither the luminous eye of Robertson, nor the learned research and philosophic mind of Sismondi could reach, have been brought forward by a writer of surpassing ability, whose fame as an historian and a philosopher is for the time overshadowed by the more fleeting celebrity of the statesman and the politician. We will not speak of M. GUIZOT in the latter character, much as we are tempted to do so, by the high and honourable part which he has long borne in European diplomacy, and the signal ability with which, in the midst of a short-sighted and rebellious generation, clamouring, as the Romans of old, for the multis utile bellum, he has sustained his sovereign's wise and magnanimous resolution to maintain peace. We are too near the time to appreciate the magnitude of these blessings; men would not now believe through what a crisis the British empire, unconscious of its danger, passed, when M. Thiers was dismissed, three years and a half ago, by Louis Philippe, and M. Guizot called to the helm. But when the time arrives, as arrive it will, that the diplomatic secrets of that period are brought to light; when the instructions of the revolutionary minister to the admiral of the Toulon fleet are made known, and the marvellous chance which prevented their being acted upon by him, has become matter of history; it will be admitted, that the civilized world have good cause to thank M. Guizot for saving it from a contest as vehement, as perilous, and probably as disastrous to all concerned, as that which followed the French Revolution.
Our present business is with M. Guizot as a historian and philosopher; a character in which he will be remembered, long after his services to humanity as a statesman and a minister have ceased to attract the attention of men. In those respects, we place him in the very highest rank among the writers of modern Europe. It must be understood, however, in what his greatness consists, lest the readers, expecting what they will not find, experience disappointment, when they begin the study of his works. He is neither imaginative nor pictorial; he seldom aims at the pathetic, and has little eloquence. He is not a Livy nor a Gibbon. Nature has not given him either dramatic or descriptive powers. He is a man of the highest genius; but it consists not in narrating particular events, or describing individual achievement. It is in the discovery of general causes; in tracing the operation of changes in society, which escape ordinary observation: in seeing whence man has come, and whether he is going, that his greatness consists: and in that loftiest of the regions of history, he is unrivaled. We know of no author who has traced the changes of society, and the general causes which determine the fate of nations, with such just views and so much sagacious discrimination. He is not properly speaking, an historian; his vocation and object were different. He is a great discourser on history. If ever the philosophy of history was embodied in a human being, it is in M. Guizot.
The style of this great author is, in every respect, suited to his subject. He does not aim at the highest flights of fancy; makes no attempt to warm the soul or melt the feelings; is seldom imaginative, and never descriptive. But he is uniformly lucid, sagacious, and discriminating; deduces his conclusions with admirable clearness from his premises, and occasionally warms from the innate grandeur of his subject into a glow of fervent eloquence. He seems to treat of human affairs, as if he viewed them from a loftier sphere than other men; as if he were elevated above the usual struggles and contests of humanity; and a superior power had withdrawn the veil which shrouds their secret causes and course from the gaze of sublunary beings. He cares not to dive into the secrets of cabinets; attaches little, perhaps too little, importance to individual character; but fixes his steady gaze on the great and lasting causes which, in a durable manner, influence human affairs. He views them not from year to year but from century to century; and, when considered in that view, it is astonishing how much the importance of individual agency disappears. Important in their generation—sometimes almost omnipotent for good or for evil while they live—particular men, how great soever, rarely leave any very important consequences behind them; or at least rarely do what other men might not have done as effectually as them, and which was not already determined by the tendency of the human mind, and the tide, either of flow or ebb, by which human affairs were at the time wafted to and fro. The desperate struggles of war or of ambition in which they were engaged, and in which so much genius and capacity were exerted, are swept over by the flood of time, and seldom leave any lasting trace behind. It is the men who determine the direction of this tide, who imprint their character on general thought, who are the real directors of human affairs; it is the giants of thought who, in the end, govern the world—kings and ministers, princes and generals, warriors and legislators, are but the ministers of their blessings or their curses to mankind. But their dominion seldom begins till themselves are mouldering in their graves.
Guizot's largest work, in point of size, is his translation of Gibbon's Rome; and the just and philosophic spirit in which he viewed he course of human affairs, was admirably calculated to provide an antidote to the sceptical sneers which, in a writer of such genius and strength of understanding, are at once the marvel and the disgrace of that immortal work. He has begun also a history of the English Revolution, to which he was led by having been the editor of a valuable collection of Memoirs relating to the great Rebellion, translated into French, in twenty-five volumes. But this work only got the length of two volumes, and came no further down than the death of Charles I., an epoch no further on in the English than the execution of Louis in the French revolution. This history is clear, lucid, and valuable; but it is written with little eloquence, and has met with no great success: the author's powers were not of the dramatic or pictorial kind necessary to paint that dreadful story. These were editorial or industrial labours unworthy of Guizot's mind; it was when he delivered lectures from the chair of history in Paris, that his genius shone forth in its proper sphere and its true lustre.
His Civilisation en France, in five volumes, Civilisation Europeenne, and Essais sur l'Histoire de France, each in one volume, are the fruits of these professional labours. The same profound thought, sagacious discrimination, and lucid view, are conspicuous in them all; but they possess different degrees of interest to the English reader. The Civilisation en France is the groundwork of the whole, and it enters at large into the whole details, historical, legal, and antiquarian, essential for its illustration, and the proof of the various propositions which it contains. In the Civilisation Europeenne, and Essays on the History of France, however, the general results are given with equal clearness and greater brevity. We do not hesitate to say, that they appear to us to throw more light on the history of society in modern Europe, and the general progress of mankind, from the exertions of its inhabitants, than any other works in existence; and it is of them, especially the first, that we propose to give our readers some account.
The most important event which ever occurred in the history of mankind, is the one concerning which contemporary writers have given us the least satisfactory accounts. Beyond all doubt the overthrow of Rome by the Goths was the most momentous catastrophe which has occurred on the earth since the deluge; yet, if we examine either the historians of antiquity or the earliest of modern times, we find it wholly impossible to understand to what cause so great a catastrophe had been owing. What gave, in the third and fourth centuries, so prodigious an impulse to the northern nations, and enabled them, after being so long repelled by the arms of Rome, finally to prevail over it? What, still more, so completely paralysed the strength of the empire during that period, and produced that astonishing weakness in the ancient conquerors of the world, which rendered them the easy prey of those whom they had so often subdued? The ancient writers content themselves with saying, that the people became corrupted; that they lost their military courage; that the recruiting of the legions, in the free inhabitants of the empire, became impossible; and that the semi-barbarous tribes on the frontier could not be relied on to uphold its fortunes. But a very little reflection must be sufficient to show that there must have been much more in it than this, before a race of conquerors was converted into one of slaves; before the legions fled before the barbarians, and the strength of the civilized was overthrown by the energy of the savage world. For what prevented a revenue from being raised in the third or fourth, as well as the first or second centuries? Corruption in its worst form had doubtless pervaded the higher ranks in Rome from the Emperor downward; but these vices are the faults of the exalted and the affluent only; they never have, and never will, extend generally to the great body of the community; for this plain reason, that they are not rich enough to purchase them. But the remarkable thing is, that in the decline of the empire, it was in the lower ranks that the greatest and most fatal weakness first appeared. Long before the race of the Patricians had become extinct, the free cultivators had disappeared from the fields. Leaders and generals of the most consummate abilities, of the greatest daring, frequently arose; but their efforts proved in the end ineffectual, from the impossibility of finding a sturdy race of followers to fill their ranks. The legionary Italian soldier was awanting—his place was imperfectly supplied by the rude Dacian, the hardy German, the faithless Goth. So completely were the inhabitants of the provinces within the Rhine and the Danube paralysed, that they ceased to make any resistance to the hordes of invaders; and the fortunes of the empire were, for several generations, sustained solely by the heroic efforts of individual leaders—Belisarius, Narces, Julian, Aurelian, Constantine, and many others—whose renown, though it could not rouse the pacific inhabitants to warlike efforts, yet attracted military adventurers from all parts of the world to their standard. Now, what weakened and destroyed the rural population? It could not be luxury; on the contrary, they were suffering under excess of poverty, and bent down beneath a load of taxes, which in Gaul, in the time of Constantine, amounted, as Gibbon tells us, to nine pounds sterling on every freeman? What was it, then, which occasioned the depopulation and weakness? This is what it behoves us to know—this it is which ancient history has left unknown.
It is here that the vast step in the philosophy of history made from ancient to modern times is apparent. From a few detached hints and insulated facts, left by the ancient annalists, apparently ignorant of their value, and careless of their preservation, modern industry, guided by the light of philosophy, has reared up the true solution of the difficulty, and revealed the real causes, hidden from the ordinary gaze, which, even in the midst of its greatest prosperity, gradually, but certainly, undermined the strength of the empire. Michelet, in his Gaule sous les Romains, a most able and interesting work—Thierry, in his Domination Romaine en Gaule, and his Histoire des Rois Merovingians—Sismondi, in the three first volumes of his Histoire des Francais—and Guizot, in his Civilisation Europeenne, and the first volumes of his Essais sur l'Histoire de France—have applied their great powers to this most interesting subject. It may safely be affirmed, that they have got to the bottom of the subject, and lifted up the veil from one of the darkest, and yet most momentous, changes in the history of mankind. Guizot gives the following account of the principal causes which silently undermined the strength of the empire, flowing from the peculiar organization of ancient society:—
"When Rome extended, what did it do? Follow its history, and you will find that it was everlastingly engaged in conquering or founding cities. It was with cities that it fought—with cities that it contracted—into cities that it sent colonies. The history of the conquest of the world by Rome, is nothing but the history of the conquest and foundation of a great number of cities. In the East, the expansion of the Roman power assumed, from the very outset, a somewhat dissimilar character; the population was differently distributed from the West, and much less concentrated in cities; but in the European world, the foundation or conquest of towns was the uniform result of Roman conquest. In Gaul and Spain, in Italy, it was constantly towns which opposed the barrier to Roman domination, and towns which were founded or garrisoned by the legions, or strengthened by colonies, to retain them when vanquished in a state of subjection. Great roads stretched from one town to another; the multitude of cross roads which now intersect each other in every direction, was unknown. They had nothing in common with that multitude of little monuments, villages, churches, castles, villas, and cottages, which now cover our provinces. Rome has bequeathed to us nothing, either in its capital or its provinces, but the municipal character, which produced immense monuments on certain points, destined for the use of the vast population which was there assembled together.
"From this peculiar conformation of society in Europe, under the Roman dominion, consisting of a vast conglomeration of cities, with each a dependent territory, all independent of each other, arose the absolute necessity for a central and absolute government. One municipality in Rome might conquer the world: but to retain it in subjection, and provide for the government of all its multifarious parts, was a very different matter. This was one of the chief causes of the general adoption of a strong concentrated government under the empire. Such centralized despotism not only succeeded in restraining and regulating all the incoherent members of the vast dominion, but the idea of a central irresistible authority insinuated itself into men's minds every where, at the same time, with wonderful facility. At first sight, one is astonished to see, in that prodigious and ill-united aggregate of little republics, in that accumulation of separate municipalities, spring up so suddenly an unbounded respect for the sacred authority of the empire. But the truth is, it had become a matter of absolute necessity, that the bond which held together the different parts of this heterogeneous dominion should be very powerful; and this it was which gave it so ready a reception in the minds of men.
"But when the vigour of the central power declined during a course of ages, from the pressure of external warfare, and the weakness of internal corruption, this necessity was no longer felt. The capital ceased to be able to provide for the provinces, it rather sought protection from them. During four centuries, the central power of the emperors incessantly struggled against this increasing debility; but the moment at length arrived, when all the practised skill of despotism, over the long insouciance of servitude, could no longer keep together the huge and unwieldy body. In the fourth century, we see it at once break up and disunite; the barbarians entered on all sides from without, the provinces ceased to oppose any resistance from within; the cities to evince any regard for the general welfare; and, as in the disaster of a shipwreck, every one looked out for his individual safety. Thus, on the dissolution of the empire, the same general state of society presented itself as in its cradle. The imperial authority sunk into the dust, and municipal institutions alone survived the disaster. This, then, was the chief legacy which the ancient bequeathed to the modern world—for it alone survived the storm by which the former had been destroyed—cities and a municipal organization every where established. But it was not the only legacy. Beside it, there was the recollection at least of the awful majesty of the emperor—of a distant, unseen, but sacred and irresistible power. These are the two ideas which antiquity bequeathed to modern times. On the one hand, the municipal regime, its rules, customs, and principles of liberty: on the other a common, general, civil legislation; and the idea of absolute power, of a sacred majesty, the principle of order and servitude."—(Civilization Europeenne, 20, 23.)
The causes which produced the extraordinary, and at first sight unaccountable, depopulation of the country districts, not only in Italy, but in Gaul, Spain, and all the European provinces of the Roman empire, are explained by Guizot in his Essays on the History of France, and have been fully demonstrated by Sismondi, Thierry, and Michelet. They were a natural consequence of the municipal system, then universally established as the very basis of civilization in the whole Roman empire, and may be seen urging, from a similar cause, the Turkish empire to dissolution at this day. This was the imposition of a certain fixed duty, as a burden on each municipality, to be raised, indeed, by its own members, but admitting of no diminution, save under the most special circumstances, and on an express exemption by the emperor. Had the great bulk of the people been free, and the empire prosperous, this fixity of impost would have been the greatest of all blessings. It is the precise boon so frequently and earnestly implored by our ryots in India, and indeed by the cultivators all over the East. But when the empire was beset on all sides with enemies—only the more rapacious and pressing, that the might of the legions had so long confined them within the comparatively narrow limits of their own sterile territories—and disasters, frequent and serious, were laying waste the frontier provinces, it became the most dreadful of all scourges; because, as the assessment on each district was fixed, and scarcely ever suffered any abatement, every disaster experienced increased the burden on the survivors who had escaped it; until they became bent down under such a weight of taxation, as, coupled with the small number of freemen on whom it exclusively fell, crushed every attempt at productive industry. It was the same thing as if all the farmers on each estate were to be bound to make up, annually, the same amount of rent to their landlord, no matter how many of them had become insolvent. We know how long the agriculture of Britain, in a period of declining prices and frequent disaster, would exist under such a system.
Add to this the necessary effect which the free circulation of grain throughout the whole Roman world had in depressing the agriculture of Italy, Gaul, and Greece. They were unable to withstand the competition of Egypt, Lybia, and Sicily—the storehouses of the world; where the benignity of the climate, and the riches of the soil, rewarded seventy or an hundred fold the labours of the husbandman. Gaul, where the increase was only seven-fold—Italy, where it seldom exceeded twelve—Spain, where it was never so high, were crushed in the struggle. The mistress of the world, as Tacitus bewails, had come to depend for her subsistence on the floods of the Nile. Unable to compete with the cheap grain raised in the more favoured regions of the south, the cultivators of Italy and Gaul gradually retired from the contest. They devoted their extensive estates to pasturage, because live cattle or dairy produce could not bear the expense of being shipped from Africa; and the race of agriculturists, the strength of the legions, disappeared in the fields, and was lost in the needy and indolent crowd of urban citizens, in part maintained by tributes in corn brought from Egypt and Lybia. This augmented the burdens upon those who remained in the rural districts; for, as the taxes of each municipality remained the same, every one that withdrew into the towns left an additional burden on the shoulders of his brethren who remained behind. So powerful was the operation of these two causes—the fixity in the state burdens payable by each municipality, and the constantly declining prices, owing to the vast import from agricultural regions more favoured by nature—that it fully equaled the effect of the ravages of the barbarians in the frontier provinces exposed to their incursions; and the depopulation of the rural districts was as complete in Italy and Gaul, before a barbarian had passed the Alps or set his foot across the Rhine, as in the plains between the Alps or the Adriatic and the Danube, which had for long been ravaged by their arms.
Domestic slavery conspired with these evils to prevent the healing power of nature from closing these yawning wounds. Gibbon estimates the number of slaves throughout the empire, in its latter days, at a number equal to that of the freemen; in other words, one half of the whole inhabitants were in a state of servitude; and as there were 120,000,000 souls under the Roman sway, sixty millions were in that degraded condition. There is reason to believe that the number of the slaves was still greater than this estimate, and at least double that of the freemen; for it is known by an authentic enumeration, that, in the time of the Emperor Claudius, the number of citizens in the empire was only 6,945,000 men, who, with their families, might amount to twenty millions of souls; and the total number of freemen was about double that of the citizens. In one family alone, in the time of Pliny, there were 4116 slaves. But take the number of slaves, according to Gibbon's computation, at only half the entire population, what a prodigious abstraction must this multitude of slaves have made from the physical and moral strength of the empire! Half the people requiring food, needing restraint, incapable of trust, and yet adding nothing to the muster-roll of the legions, or the persons by whom the fixed and immovable annual taxes were to be made good! In what state would the British empire now be, if we were subjected to the action of similar causes of ruin? A vast and unwieldy dominion, exposed on every side to the incursions of barbarous and hostile nations, daily increasing in numbers, and augmenting in military skill; a fixed taxation, for which the whole free inhabitants of every municipality were jointly and severally responsible, to meet the increasing military establishment required by these perils; a declining, and at length extinct, agriculture in the central provinces of the empire, owing to the deluge of cheap grain from its fertile extremities, wafted over the waters of the Mediterranean; multitudes of turbulent freemen in cities, kept quiet by daily distribution of provisions at the public expense, from the imperial granaries; and a half, or two-thirds, of the whole population in a state of slavery—neither bearing any share of the public burdens, nor adding to the strength of the military array of the empire. Such are the discoveries of modern philosophy, as to the causes of the decline and ultimate fall of the Roman empire, gleaned from a few facts, accidentally preserved by the ancient writers, apparently unconscious of their value! It is a noble science which, in so short a time, has presented such a gift to mankind.
Guizot has announced, and ably illustrated, a great truth, which, when traced to its legitimate consequences, will be found to go far towards dispelling many of the pernicious innovating dogmas which have so long been afloat in the world. It is this, that whenever an institution, though apparently pernicious in our eyes, has long existed, and under a great variety of circumstances, we may rest assured that it in reality has been attended with some advantages which counterbalance its evils, and that upon the whole it is beneficial in its tendency. This important principle is thus stated:—
"Independent of the efforts of man, there is established by a law of providence, which it is impossible to mistake, and which is analagous to what we witness in the natural world, a certain measure of order, reason, and justice, without which society cannot exist. From the single fact of its endurance we may conclude, with certainty, that a society is not completely absurd, insensate, or iniquitous; that it is not destitute of the elements of reason, truth, and justice—which alone can give life to society. If the more that society developes itself, the stronger does this principle become—if it is daily accepted by a greater number of men, it is a certain proof that in the lapse of time there has been progressively introduced into it more reason, more justice, more right. It is thus that the idea of political legitimacy has arisen.
"This principle has for its foundation, in the first instance, at least in a certain degree, the great principles of moral legitimacy—justice, reason, truth. Then came the sanction of time, which always begets the presumption of reason having directed arrangements which have long endured. In the early periods of society, we too often find force and falsehood ruling the cradles of royalty, aristocracy, democracy, and even the church; but every where you will see this force and falsehood yielding to the reforming hand of time, and right and truth taking their place in the rulers of civilization. It is this progressive infusion of right and truth which has by degrees developed the idea of political legitimacy; it is thus that it has become established in modern civilization. At different times, indeed, attempts have been made to substitute for this idea the banner of despotic power; but, in doing so, they have turned it aside from its true origin. It is so little the banner of despotic power, that it is in the name of right and justice that it has overspread the world. As little is it exclusive: it belongs neither to persons, classes, nor sects; it arises wherever the idea of right has developed itself. We shall meet with this principle in systems the most opposite: in the feudal system, in the municipalities of Flanders and Germany, in the republics of Italy, as well as in simple monarchies. It is a character diffused through the various elements of modern civilization, and the perception of which is indispensable to the right understanding of its history."—(Lecture iii. 9, 11; Civilization Europeenne.)
No principle ever was announced of more practical importance in legislating for mankind, than is contained in this passage. The doctrine is somewhat obscurely stated, and not with the precision which in general distinguishes the French writers; but the import of it seems to be this—That no system of government can long exist among men, unless it is substantially, and in the majority of cases, founded in reason and justice, and sanctioned by experienced utility for the people among whom it exists; and therefore, that we may predicate with perfect certainty of any institution which has been generally extended and long established, that it has been upon the whole beneficial, and should be modified or altered with a very cautious hand. That this proposition is true, will probably be disputed by none who have thought much and dispassionately on human affairs; for all human institutions are formed and supported by men, and unless men had some reason for supporting them, they would speedily sink to the ground. It is in vain to say a privileged class have got possession of the power, and they make use of it to perpetuate these abuses. Doubtless, they are always sufficiently inclined to do so; but a privileged class, or a despot, is always a mere handful against the great body of the people; and unless their power is supported by the force of general opinion, founded on experienced utility upon the whole, it could not maintain its ground a single week. And this explains a fact observed by an able and ingenious writer of the present day, that if almost all the great convulsions recorded in history are attentively considered, it will be found, that after a brief period of strenuous, and often almost superhuman effort, on the part of the people, they have terminated in the establishment of a government and institutions differing scarcely, except in name, from that which had preceded the struggle. It is hardly necessary to remark how striking a confirmation the English revolution of 1688, and the French of 1830, afford of this truth.
And this explains what is the true meaning of, and solid foundation for, that reverence for antiquity which is so strongly implanted in human nature, and is never forgotten for any considerable time without inducing the most dreadful disasters upon society. It means that those institutions which have descended to us in actual practice from our ancestors, come sanctioned by the experience of ages; and that they could not have stood so long a test unless they had been recommended, in some degree at least, by their utility. It is not that our ancestors were wiser than we are; they were certainly less informed, and probably were, on that account, in the general case, less judicious. But time has swept away their follies, which were doubtless great enough, as it has done the worthless ephemeral literature with which they, as we, were overwhelmed; and nothing has stood the test of ages, and come down to us through a series of generations, of their ideas or institutions, but what had some utility in human feelings and necessities, and was on the whole expedient at the time when it arose. Its utility may have ceased by the change of manners or of the circumstances of society—that may be a good reason for cautiously modifying or altering it—but rely upon it, it was once useful, if it has existed long; and the presumption of present and continuing utility requires to be strongly outweighed by forcible considerations before it is abandoned. Lord Bacon has told us, in words which can never become trite, so profound is their wisdom, that our changes, to be beneficial, should resemble those of time, which, though the greatest of all innovators, works out its alterations so gradually that they are never perceived. Guizot makes, in the same spirit, the following fine observation on the slow march of Supreme wisdom in the government of the world:—
"If we turn our eyes to history, we shall find that all the great developments of the human mind have turned to the advantage of society—all the great struggles of humanity to the good of mankind. It is not, indeed, immediately that these efforts take place; ages often elapse, a thousand obstacles intervene, before they are fully developed; but when we survey a long course of ages, we see that all has been accomplished. The march of Providence is not subjected to narrow limits; it cares not to develope to-day the consequences of a principle which it has established yesterday; it will bring them forth in ages, when the appointed hour has arrived; and its course is not the less sure that it is slow. The throne of the Almighty rests on time—it marches through its boundless expanse as the gods of Homer through space—it makes a step, and ages have passed away. How many ages elapsed, how many changes ensued, before the regeneration of the inner man, by means of Christianity, exercised on the social state its great and salutary influence! Nevertheless, it has at length succeeded. No one can mistake its effects at this time."—(Lecture i. 24.)
In surveying the progress of civilization in modern, as compared with ancient times, two features stand prominent as distinguishing the one from the other. These are the church and the feudal system. They were precisely the circumstances which gave the most umbrage to the philosophers of the eighteenth century, and which awakened the greatest transports of indignation among the ardent multitudes who, at its close, brought about the French Revolution. Very different is the light in which the eye of true philosophy, enlightened by the experience of their abolition, views these great distinctive features of modern society.
"Immense," says Guizot, "was the influence which the Christian church exercised over the civilization of modern Europe. In the outset, it was an incalculable advantage to have a moral power, a power destitute of physical force, which reposed only on mental convictions and moral feelings, established amidst that deluge of physical force and selfish violence which overwhelmed society at that period. Had the Christian church not existed, the world would have been delivered over to the influence of physical strength, in its coarsest and most revolting form. It alone exercised a moral power. It did more; it spread abroad the idea of a rule of obedience, a heavenly power, to which all human beings, how great soever, were subjected, and which was above all human laws. That of itself was a safeguard against the greatest evils of society; for it affected the minds of those by whom they were brought about; it professed that belief—the foundation of the salvation of humanity—that there is above all existing institutions, superior to all human laws, a permanent and divine law, sometimes called Reason, sometimes Divine Command, but which, under whatever name it goes, is for ever the same.
"Then the church commenced a great work—the separation of the spiritual and temporal power. That separation is the origin of liberty of conscience; it rests on no other principle than that which lies at the bottom of the widest and most extended toleration. The separation of the spiritual and temporal power rests on the principle, that physical force is neither entitled to act, nor can ever have any lasting influence, on thoughts, conviction, truth; it flows from the eternal distinction between the world of thought and the world of action, the world of interior conviction and that of external facts. In truth, that principle of the liberty of conscience, for which Europe has combated and suffered so much, which has so slowly triumphed, and often against the utmost efforts of the clergy themselves, was first founded by the doctrine of the separation of the temporal and spiritual power, in the cradle of European civilization. It is the Christian church which, by the necessities of its situation to defend itself against the assaults of barbarism, introduced and maintained it. The presence of a moral influence, the maintenance of a Divine law, the separation of the temporal and spiritual power, are the three great blessings which the Christian church has diffused in the dark ages over European society.
"The influence of the Christian church was great and beneficent for another reason. The bishop and clergy erelong became the principal municipal magistrates: they were the chancellors and ministers of kings—the rulers, except in the camp and the field, of mankind. When the Roman empire crumbled into dust, when the central power of the emperors and the legions disappeared, there remained, we have seen, no other authority in the state but the municipal functionaries. But they themselves had fallen into a state of apathy and despair; the heavy burdens of despotism, the oppressive taxes of the municipalities, the incursions of the fierce barbarians, had reduced them to despair. No protection to society, no revival of industry, no shielding of innocence, could be expected from their exertions. The clergy, again, formed a society within itself; fresh, young, vigorous, sheltered by the prevailing faith, which speedily drew to itself all the learning and intellectual strength that remained in the state. The bishops and priests, full of life and of zeal, naturally were recurred to in order to fill all civil situations requiring thought or information. It is wrong to reproach their exercise of these powers as an usurpation; they alone were capable of exercising them. Thus has the natural course of things prescribed for all ages and countries. The clergy alone were mentally strong and morally zealous: they became all-powerful. It is the law of the universe."—(Lecture iii. 27, 31; Civilization Europeenne.)
Nothing can be more just or important than these observations; and they throw a new and consoling light on the progress and ultimate destiny of European society. They are as original as they are momentous. Robertson, with his honest horror of the innumerable corruptions which, in the time of Leo X. and Luther, brought about the Reformation—Sismondi, with his natural detestation of a faith which had urged on the dreadful cruelties of the crusade of the Albigenses, and which produced the revocation of the edict of Nantes—have alike overlooked these important truths, so essential to a right understanding of the history of modern society. They saw that the arrogance and cruelty of the Roman clergy had produced innumerable evils in later times; that their venality in regard to indulgences and abuse of absolution had brought religion itself into discredit; that the absurd and incredible tenets which they still attempted to force on mankind, had gone far to alienate the intellectual strength of modern Europe, during the last century, from their support. Seeing this, they condemned it absolutely, for all times and in all places. They fell into the usual error of men in reasoning on former from their own times. They could not make "the past and the future predominate over the present." They felt the absurdity of many of the legends which the devout Catholics received as undoubted truths, and they saw no use in perpetuating the belief in them; and thence they conceived that they must always have been equally unserviceable, forgetting that the eighteenth was not the eighth century; and that, during the dark ages, violence would have rioted without control, if, when reason was in abeyance, knowledge scanty, and military strength alone in estimation, superstition had not thrown its unseen fetters over the barbarian's arms. They saw that the Romish clergy, during five centuries, had laboured strenuously, and often with the most frightful cruelty, to crush independence of thought in matters of faith, and chain the human mind to the tenets, often absurd and erroneous, of her Papal creed; and they forgot that, during five preceding centuries, the Christian church had laboured as assiduously to establish the independence of thought from physical coercion, and had alone kept alive, during the interregnum of reason, the sparks of knowledge and the principles of freedom.
In the same liberal and enlightened spirit Guizot views the feudal system, the next grand characteristic of modern times.
"A decisive proof that, in the tenth century, the feudal system had become necessary, and was, in truth, the only social state possible, is to be found in the universality of its adoption. Universally, upon the cessation of barbarism, the feudal forms were adopted. At the first moment of barbarian conquest, men saw only the triumph of chaos. All unity, all general civilization disappeared, on all sides was seen society falling into dissolution; and, in its stead, arising a multitude of little, obscure, isolated communities. This appeared to all the contemporaries nothing short of universal anarchy. The poets, the chroniclers of the time, viewed it as the approach of the end of the world. It was, in truth, the end of the ancient world; but the commencement of a new one, placed on a broad basis, and with large means of social improvement and individual happiness.