Historical Essays
by James Ford Rhodes
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All things considered, however, it was an excellent training for a historian of the Roman Empire. But all except the living knowledge of French he might have had in his "elegant apartment in Magdalen College" just as well as in his "ill-contrived and ill-furnished small chamber" in "an old inconvenient house," situated in a "narrow gloomy street, the most unfrequented of an unhandsome town";[89] and in Oxford he would have had the "aid and emulation" of which at Lausanne he sadly felt the lack.

The Calvinist minister, his tutor, was a more useful guide for Gibbon in the matter of religion than in his intellectual training. Through his efforts and Gibbon's "private reflections," Christmas Day, 1754, one year and a half after his arrival at Lausanne, was witness to his reconversion, as he then received the sacrament in the Calvinistic Church. "The articles of the Romish creed," he said, had "disappeared like a dream"; and he wrote home to his aunt, "I am now a good Protestant and am extremely glad of it."[90]

An intellectual and social experience of value was his meeting with Voltaire, who had set up a theater in the neighborhood of Lausanne for the performance mainly of his own plays. Gibbon seldom failed to procure a ticket to these representations. Voltaire played the parts suited to his years; his declamation, Gibbon thought, was old-fashioned, and "he expressed the enthusiasm of poetry rather than the feelings of nature." "The parts of the young and fair," he said, "were distorted by Voltaire's fat and ugly niece." Despite this criticism, these performances fostered a taste for the French theater, to the abatement of his idolatry for Shakespeare, which seemed to him to be "inculcated from our infancy as the first duty of an Englishman."[91] Personally, Voltaire and Gibbon did not get on well together. Dr. Hill suggests that Voltaire may have slighted the "English youth," and if this is correct, Gibbon was somewhat spiteful to carry the feeling more than thirty years. Besides the criticism of the acting, he called Voltaire "the envious bard" because it was only with much reluctance and ill-humor that he permitted the performance of Iphigenie of Racine. Nevertheless, Gibbon is impressed with the social influence of the great Frenchman. "The wit and philosophy of Voltaire, his table and theatre," he wrote, "refined in a visible degree the manners of Lausanne, and however addicted to study, I enjoyed my share of the amusements of society. After the theatrical representations, I sometimes supped with the actors: I was now familiar in some, and acquainted in many, houses; and my evenings were generally devoted to cards and conversation, either in private parties or numerous assemblies."[92]

Gibbon was twenty-one when he returned to England. Dividing his time between London and the country, he continued his self-culture. He read English, French, and Latin, and took up the study of Greek. "Every day, every hour," he wrote, "was agreeably filled"; and "I was never less alone than when by myself."[93] He read repeatedly Robertson and Hume, and has in the words of Sainte-Beuve left a testimony so spirited and so delicately expressed as could have come only from a man of taste who appreciated Xenophon.[94] "The perfect composition, the nervous language," wrote Gibbon, "the well-turned periods of Dr. Robertson inflamed me to the ambitious hope that I might one day tread in his footsteps; the calm philosophy, the careless inimitable beauties of his friend and rival, often forced me to close the volume with a mixed sensation of delight and despair."[95] He made little progress in London society and his solitary evenings were passed with his books, but he consoled himself by thinking that he lost nothing by a withdrawal from a "noisy and expensive scene of crowds without company, and dissipation without pleasure." At twenty-four he published his "Essay on the Study of Literature," begun at Lausanne and written entirely in French. This possesses no interest for the historical student except to know the bare fact of the writing and publication as a step in the intellectual development of the historian. Sainte-Beuve in his two essays on Gibbon devoted three pages to an abstract and criticism of it, perhaps because it had a greater success in France than in England; and his opinion of Gibbon's language is interesting. "The French" Sainte-Beuve wrote, "is that of one who has read Montesquieu much and imitates him; it is correct, but artificial French."[96]

Then followed two and a half years' service in the Hampshire militia. But he did not neglect his reading. He mastered Homer, whom he termed "the Bible of the ancients," and in the militia he acquired "a just and indelible knowledge" of what he called "the first of languages." And his love for Latin abided also: "On every march, in every journey, Horace was always in my pocket and often in my hand."[97] Practical knowledge he absorbed almost insensibly. "The daily occupations of the militia," he wrote, "introduced me to the science of Tactics" and led to the study of "the precepts of Polybius and Caesar." In this connection occurs the remark which admirers of Gibbon will never tire of citing: "A familiar view of the discipline and evolutions of a modern battalion gave me a clearer notion of the Phalanx and the Legion; and the Captain of the Hampshire Grenadiers (the reader may smile) has not been useless to the historian of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire."[98] The grand tour followed his militia service. Three and a half months in Paris, and a revisit to Lausanne preceded the year that he passed in Italy. Of the conception of the History of the Decline and Fall, during his stay in Rome, I have already spoken.

On his return to England, contemplating "the decline and fall of Rome at an awful distance," he began, in collaboration with the Swiss Deyverdun, his bosom friend, a history of Switzerland written in French. During the winter of 1767, the first book of it was submitted to a literary society of foreigners in London. As the author was unknown the strictures were free and the verdict unfavorable. Gibbon was present at the meeting and related that "the momentary sensation was painful," but, on cooler reflection, he agreed with his judges and intended to consign his manuscript to the flames. But this, as Lord Sheffield, his literary executor and first editor, shows conclusively, he neglected to do.[99] This essay of Gibbon's possesses interest for us, inasmuch as David Hume read it, and wrote to Gibbon a friendly letter, in which he said: "I have perused your manuscript with great pleasure and satisfaction. I have only one objection, derived from the language in which it is written. Why do you compose in French, and carry faggots into the wood, as Horace says with regard to Romans who wrote in Greek?"[100] This critical query of Hume must have profoundly influenced Gibbon. Next year he began to work seriously on "The Decline and Fall" and five years later began the composition of it in English. It does not appear that he had any idea of writing his magnum opus in French.

In this rambling discourse, in which I have purposely avoided relating the life of Gibbon in anything like a chronological order, we return again and again to the great History. And it could not well be otherwise. For if Edward Gibbon could not have proudly said, I am the author of "six volumes in quartos"[101] he would have had no interest for us. Dr. Hill writes, "For one reader who has read his 'Decline and Fall,' there are at least a score who have read his Autobiography, and who know him, not as the great historian, but as a man of a most original and interesting nature."[102] But these twenty people would never have looked into the Autobiography had it not been the life of a great historian; indeed the Autobiography would never have been written except to give an account of a great life work. "The Decline and Fall," therefore, is the thing about which all the other incidents of his life revolve. The longer this history is read and studied, the greater is the appreciation of it. Dean Milman followed Gibbon's track through many portions of his work, and read his authorities, ending with a deliberate judgment in favor of his "general accuracy." "Many of his seeming errors," he wrote, "are almost inevitable from the close condensation of his matter."[103] Guizot had three different opinions based on three various readings. After the first rapid perusal, the dominant feeling was one of interest in a narrative, always animated in spite of its extent, always clear and limpid in spite of the variety of objects. During the second reading, when he examined particularly certain points, he was somewhat disappointed; he encountered some errors either in the citations or in the facts and especially shades and strokes of partiality which led him to a comparatively rigorous judgment. In the ensuing complete third reading, the first impression, doubtless corrected by the second, but not destroyed, survived and was maintained; and with some restrictions and reservations, Guizot declared that, concerning that vast and able work, there remained with him an appreciation of the immensity of research, the variety of knowledge, the sagacious breadth and especially that truly philosophical rectitude of a mind which judges the past as it would judge the present.[104] Mommsen said in 1894: "Amid all the changes that have come over the study of the history of the Roman Empire, in spite of all the rush of the new evidence that has poured in upon us and almost overwhelmed us, in spite of changes which must be made, in spite of alterations of view, or alterations even in the aspect of great characters, no one would in the future be able to read the history of the Roman Empire unless he read, possibly with a fuller knowledge, but with the broad views, the clear insight, the strong grasp of Edward Gibbon."[105]

It is difficult for an admirer of Gibbon to refrain from quoting some of his favorite passages. The opinion of a great historian on history always possesses interest. History, wrote Gibbon, is "little more than the register of the crimes, follies, and misfortunes of mankind." Again, "Wars and the administration of public affairs are the principal subjects of history." And the following cannot fail to recall a similar thought in Tacitus, "History undertakes to record the transactions of the past for the instruction of future ages."[106] Two references to religion under the Pagan empire are always worth repeating. "The various modes of worship which prevailed in the Roman world," he wrote, "were all considered by the people as equally true; by the philosopher as equally false; and by the magistrate as equally useful." "The fashion of incredulity was communicated from the philosopher to the man of pleasure or business, from the noble to the plebeian, and from the master to the menial slave who waited at his table and who equally listened to the freedom of his conversation."[107] Gibbon's idea of the happiest period of mankind is interesting and characteristic. "If," he wrote, "a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus."[108] This period was from A.D. 96 to 180, covering the reigns of Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius, and Marcus Aurelius. Professor Carter, in a lecture in Rome in 1907, drew, by a modern comparison, a characterization of the first three named. When we were studying in Germany, he said, we were accustomed to sum up the three emperors, William I, Frederick III, and William II, as der greise Kaiser, der weise Kaiser, und der reise Kaiser. The characterizations will fit well Nerva, Trajan, and Hadrian. Gibbon speaks of the "restless activity" of Hadrian, whose life "was almost a perpetual journey," and who during his reign visited every province of his empire.[109]

A casual remark of Gibbon's, "Corruption [is] the most infallible symptom of constitutional liberty,"[110] shows the sentiment of the eighteenth century. The generality of the history becomes specific in a letter to his father, who has given him hopes of a seat in Parliament. "This seat," so Edward Gibbon wrote, "according to the custom of our venal country was to be bought, and fifteen hundred pounds were mentioned as the price of purchase."[111]

Gibbon anticipated Captain Mahan. In speaking of a naval battle between the fleet of Justinian and that of the Goths in which the galleys of the Eastern empire gained a signal victory, he wrote, "The Goths affected to depreciate an element in which they were unskilled; but their own experience confirmed the truth of a maxim, that the master of the sea will always acquire the dominion of the land."[112] But Gibbon's anticipation was one of the frequent cases where the same idea has occurred to a number of men of genius, as doubtless Captain Mahan was not aware of this sentence any more than he was of Bacon's and Raleigh's epitomes of the theme which he has so originally and brilliantly treated.[113]

No modern historian has been the subject of so much critical comment as Gibbon. I do not know how it will compare in volume with either of the similar examinations of Thucydides and Tacitus; but the criticism is of a different sort. The only guarantee of the honesty of Tacitus, wrote Sainte-Beuve, is Tacitus himself;[114] and a like remark will apply to Thucydides. But a fierce light beats on Gibbon. His voluminous notes furnish the critics the materials on which he built his history, which, in the case of the ancient historians, must be largely a matter of conjecture. With all the searching examination of "The Decline and Fall," it is surprising how few errors have been found and, of the errors which have been noted, how few are really important. Guizot, Milman, Dr. Smith, Cotter Morison, Bury, and a number of lesser lights have raked his text and his notes with few momentous results. We have, writes Bury, improved methods over Gibbon and "much new material of various kinds," but "Gibbon's historical sense kept him constantly right in dealing with his sources"; and "in the main things he is still our master."[115] The man is generally reflected in his book. That Gibbon has been weighed and not found wanting is because he was as honest and truthful as any man who ever wrote history. The autobiographies and letters exhibit to us a transparent man, which indeed some of the personal allusions in the history might have foreshadowed. "I have often fluctuated and shall tamely follow the Colbert Ms.," he wrote, where the authenticity of a book was in question.[116] In another case "the scarcity of facts and the uncertainty of dates" opposed his attempt to describe the first invasion of Italy by Alaric.[117] In the beginning of the famous Chapter XLIV which is "admired by jurists as a brief and brilliant exposition of the principles of Roman law,"[118] Gibbon wrote, "Attached to no party, interested only for the truth and candor of history, and directed by the most temperate and skillful guides, I enter with just diffidence on the subject of civil law."[119] In speaking of the state of Britain between 409 and 449, he said, "I owe it to myself and to historic truth to declare that some circumstances in this paragraph are founded only on conjecture and analogy."[120] Throughout his whole work the scarcity of materials forces Gibbon to the frequent use of conjecture, but I believe that for the most part his conjectures seem reasonable to the critics. Impressed with the correctness of his account of the Eastern empire a student of the subject once told me that Gibbon certainly possessed the power of wise divination.

Gibbon's striving after precision and accuracy is shown in some marginal corrections he made in his own printed copy of "The Decline and Fall." On the first page in his first printed edition and as it now stands, he said, "To deduce the most important circumstances of its decline and fall: a revolution which will ever be remembered and is still felt by the nations of the earth." For this the following is substituted: "To prosecute the decline and fall of the empire of Rome: of whose language, religion, and laws the impression will be long preserved in our own and the neighboring countries of Europe." He thus explains the change: "Mr. Hume told me that, in correcting his history, he always labored to reduce superlatives and soften positives. Have Asia and Africa, from Japan to Morocco, any feeling or memory of the Roman Empire?"

On page 6, Bury's edition, the text is, "The praises of Alexander, transmitted by a succession of poets and historians, had kindled a dangerous emulation in the mind of Trajan." We can imagine that Gibbon reflected, What evidence have I that Trajan had read these poets and historians? Therefore he made this change: "Late generations and far distant climates may impute their calamities to the immortal author of the Iliad. The spirit of Alexander was inflamed by the praises of Achilles; and succeeding heroes have been ambitious to tread in the footsteps of Alexander. Like him, the Emperor Trajan aspired to the conquest of the East."[121]

The "advertisement" to the first octavo edition published in 1783 is an instance of Gibbon's truthfulness. He wrote, "Some alterations and improvements had presented themselves to my mind, but I was unwilling to injure or offend the purchasers of the preceding editions." Then he seems to reflect that this is not quite the whole truth and adds, "Perhaps I may stand excused if, amidst the avocations of a busy winter, I have preferred the pleasures of composition and study to the minute diligence of revising a former publication."[122]

The severest criticism that Gibbon has received is on his famous chapters XV and XVI which conclude his first volume in the original quarto edition of 1776. We may disregard the flood of contemporary criticism from certain people who were excited by what they deemed an attack on the Christian religion. Dean Milman, who objected seriously to much in these chapters, consulted these various answers to Gibbon on the first appearance of his work with, according to his own confession, little profit.[123] "Against his celebrated fifteenth and sixteenth chapters," wrote Buckle, "all the devices of controversy have been exhausted; but the only result has been, that while the fame of the historian is untarnished, the attacks of his enemies are falling into complete oblivion. The work of Gibbon remains; but who is there who feels any interest in what was written against him?"[124] During the last generation, however, criticism has taken another form and scientific men now do not exactly share Buckle's gleeful opinion. Both Bury and Cotter Morison state or imply that well-grounded exceptions may be taken to Gibbon's treatment of the early Christian church. He ignored some facts; his combination of others, his inferences, his opinions are not fair and unprejudiced. A further grave objection may be made to the tone of these two chapters: sarcasm pervades them and the Gibbon sneer has become an apt characterization.

Francis Parkman admitted that he was a reverent agnostic, and if Gibbon had been a reverent free-thinker these two chapters would have been far different in tone. Lecky regarded the Christian church as a great institution worthy of reverence and respect although he stated the central thesis of Gibbon with emphasis just as great. Of the conversion of the Roman Empire to Christianity, Lecky wrote, "it may be boldly asserted that the assumption of a moral or intellectual miracle is utterly gratuitous. Never before was a religious transformation so manifestly inevitable."[125] Gibbon's sneering tone was a characteristic of his time. There existed during the latter part of the eighteenth century, wrote Sir James Mackintosh, "an unphilosophical and indeed fanatical animosity against Christianity." But Gibbon's private defense is entitled to consideration as placing him in a better light. "The primitive church, which I have treated with some freedom," he wrote to Lord Sheffield in 1791, "was itself at that time an innovation, and I was attached to the old Pagan establishment."[126] "Had I believed," he said in his Autobiography, "that the majority of English readers were so fondly attached to the name and shadow of Christianity, had I foreseen that the pious, the timid, and the prudent would feel, or affect to feel, with such exquisite sensibility, I might perhaps have softened the two invidious chapters."[127]

On the other hand Gibbon's treatment of Julian the Apostate is in accordance with the best modern standard. It might have been supposed that a quasi-Pagan, as he avowed himself, would have emphasized Julian's virtues and ignored his weaknesses as did Voltaire, who invested him with all the good qualities of Trajan, Cato, and Julius Caesar, without their defects.[128] Robertson indeed feared that he might fail in this part of the history;[129] but Gibbon weighed Julian in the balance, duly estimating his strength and his weakness, with the result that he has given a clear and just account in his best and most dignified style.[130]

Gibbon's treatment of Theodora, the wife of Justinian, is certainly open to objection. Without proper sifting and a reasonable skepticism, he has incorporated into his narrative the questionable account with all its salacious details which Procopius gives in his Secret History, Gibbon's love of a scandalous tale getting the better of his historical criticism. He has not neglected to urge a defense. "I am justified," he wrote, "in painting the manners of the times; the vices of Theodora form an essential feature in the reign and character of Justinian.... My English text is chaste, and all licentious passages are left in the obscurity of a learned language."[131] This explanation satisfies neither Cotter Morison nor Bury, nor would it hold for a moment as a justification of a historian of our own day. Gibbon is really so scientific, so much like a late nineteenth-century man, that we do right to subject him to our present-day rigid tests.

There has been much discussion about Gibbon's style, which we all know is pompous and Latinized. On a long reading his rounded and sonorous periods become wearisome, and one wishes that occasionally a sentence would terminate with a small word, even a preposition. One feels as did Dickens after walking for an hour or two about the handsome but "distractingly regular" city of Philadelphia. "I felt," he wrote, "that I would have given the world for a crooked street."[132] Despite the pomposity, Gibbon's style is correct, and the exact use of words is a marvel. It is rare, I think, that any substitution or change of words will improve upon the precision of the text. His compression and selection of salient points are remarkable. Amid some commonplace philosophy he frequently rises to a generalization as brilliant as it is truthful. Then, too, one is impressed with the dignity of history; one feels that Gibbon looked upon his work as very serious, and thought with Thucydides, "My history is an everlasting possession, not a prize composition which is heard and forgotten."

To a writer of history few things are more interesting than a great historian's autobiographical remarks which relate to the composition of his work. "Had I been more indigent or more wealthy," wrote Gibbon in his Autobiography, "I should not have possessed the leisure or the perseverance to prepare and execute my voluminous history."[133] "Notwithstanding the hurry of business and pleasure," he wrote from London in 1778, "I steal some moments for the Roman Empire."[134] Between the writing of the first three and the last three volumes, he took a rest of "near a twelvemonth" and gave expression to a thought which may be echoed by every studious writer, "Yet in the luxury of freedom, I began to wish for the daily task, the active pursuit which gave a value to every book and an object to every inquiry."[135] Every one who has written a historical book will sympathize with the following expression of personal experience as he approached the completion of "The Decline and Fall": "Let no man who builds a house or writes a book presume to say when he will have finished. When he imagines that he is drawing near to his journey's end, Alps rise on Alps, and he continually finds something to add and something to correct."[136]

Plain truthful tales are Gibbon's autobiographies. The style is that of the history, and he writes of himself as frankly as he does of any of his historical characters. His failings—what he has somewhere termed "the amiable weaknesses of human nature"—are disclosed with the openness of a Frenchman. All but one of the ten years between 1783 and 1793, between the ages of 46 and 56, he passed at Lausanne. There he completed "The Decline and Fall," and of that period he spent from August, 1787, to July, 1788, in England to look after the publication of the last three volumes. His life in Lausanne was one of study, writing, and agreeable society, of which his correspondence with his English friends gives an animated account. The two things one is most impressed with are his love for books and his love for Madeira. "Though a lover of society," he wrote, "my library is the room to which I am most attached."[137] While getting settled at Lausanne, he complains that his boxes of books "loiter on the road."[138] And then he harps on another string. "Good Madeira," he writes, "is now become essential to my health and reputation;"[139] yet again, "If I do not receive a supply of Madeira in the course of the summer, I shall be in great shame and distress."[140] His good friend in England, Lord Sheffield, regarded his prayer and sent him a hogshead of "best old Madeira" and a tierce, containing six dozen bottles of "finest Malmsey," and at the same time wrote: "You will remember that a hogshead is on his travels through the torrid zone for you.... No wine is meliorated to a greater degree by keeping than Madeira, and you latterly appeared so ravenous for it, that I must conceive you wish to have a stock."[141] Gibbon's devotion to Madeira bore its penalty. At the age of forty-eight he sent this account to his stepmother: "I was in hopes that my old Enemy the Gout had given over the attack, but the Villain, with his ally the winter, convinced me of my error, and about the latter end of March I found myself a prisoner in my library and my great chair. I attempted twice to rise, he twice knocked me down again and kept possession of both my feet and knees longer (I must confess) than he ever had done before."[142] Eager to finish his history, he lamented that his "long gout" lost him "three months in the spring." Thus as you go through his correspondence, you find that orders for Madeira and attacks of gout alternate with regularity. Gibbon apparently did not connect the two as cause and effect, as in his autobiography he charged his malady to his service in the Hampshire militia, when "the daily practice of hard and even excessive drinking" had sown in his constitution "the seeds of the gout."[143]

Gibbon has never been a favorite with women, owing largely to his account of his early love affair. While at Lausanne, he had heard much of "the wit and beauty and erudition of Mademoiselle Curchod" and when he first met her, he had reached the age of twenty. "I saw and loved," he wrote. "I found her learned without pedantry, lively in conversation, pure in sentiment, and elegant in manners.... She listened to the voice of truth and passion.... At Lausanne I indulged my dream of felicity"; and indeed he appeared to be an ardent lover. "He was seen," said a contemporary, "stopping country people near Lausanne and demanding at the point of a naked dagger whether a more adorable creature existed than Suzanne Curchod."[144] On his return to England, however, he soon discovered that his father would not hear of this alliance, and he thus related the sequence: "After a painful struggle, I yielded to my fate.... I sighed as a lover, I obeyed as a son."[145] From England he wrote to Mademoiselle Curchod breaking off the engagement. Perhaps it is because of feminine criticism that Cotter Morison indulges in an elaborate defense of Gibbon, which indeed hardly seems necessary. Rousseau, who was privy to the love affair, said that "Gibbon was too cold-blooded a young man for his taste or for Mademoiselle Curchod's happiness."[146] Mademoiselle Curchod a few years later married Necker, a rich Paris banker, who under Louis XVI held the office of director-general of the finances. She was the mother of Madame de Stael, was a leader of the literary society in Paris and, despite the troublous times, must have led a happy life. One delightful aspect of the story is the warm friendship that existed between Madame Necker and Edward Gibbon. This began less than a year after her marriage. "The Curchod (Madame Necker) I saw at Paris," he wrote to his friend Holroyd. "She was very fond of me and the husband particularly civil. Could they insult me more cruelly? Ask me every evening to supper; go to bed, and leave me alone with his wife—what an impertinent security!"[147]

If women read the Correspondence as they do the Autobiography, I think that their aversion to the great historian would be increased by these confiding words to his stepmother, written when he was forty-nine: "The habits of female conversation have sometimes tempted me to acquire the piece of furniture, a wife, and could I unite in a single Woman the virtues and accomplishments of half a dozen of my acquaintance, I would instantly pay my addresses to the Constellation."[148]

I have always been impressed with Gibbon's pride at being the author of "six volumes in quartos"; but as nearly all histories now are published in octavo, I had not a distinct idea of the appearance of a quarto volume until the preparation of this essay led me to look at different editions of Gibbon in the Boston Athenaeum. There I found the quartos, the first volume of which is the third edition, published in 1777 [it will be remembered that the original publication of the first volume was in February, 1776]. The volume is 11 1/4 inches long by 9 inches wide and is much heavier than our very heavy octavo volumes. With this volume in my hand I could appreciate the remark of the Duke of Gloucester when Gibbon brought him the second volume of the "Decline and Fall." Laying the quarto on the table he said, "Another d—d thick square book! Always scribble, scribble, scribble! Eh! Mr. Gibbon?"[149]

During my researches at the Athenaeum, I found an octavo edition, the first volume of which was published in 1791, and on the cover was written, "Given to the Athenaeum by Charles Cabot. Received December 10, 1807." This was the year of the foundation of the Athenaeum. On the quarto of 1777 there was no indication, but the scholarly cataloguer informed me that it was probably also received in 1807. Three later editions than these two are in this library, the last of which is Bury's of 1900 to which I have constantly referred. Meditating in the quiet alcove, with the two early editions of Gibbon before me, I found an answer to the comment of H. G. Wells in his book "The Future in America" which I confess had somewhat irritated me. Thus wrote Wells: "Frankly I grieve over Boston as a great waste of leisure and energy, as a frittering away of moral and intellectual possibilities. We give too much to the past.... We are obsessed by the scholastic prestige of mere knowledge and genteel remoteness."[150] Pondering this iconoclastic utterance, how delightful it is to light upon evidence in the way of well-worn volumes that, since 1807, men and women here have been carefully reading Gibbon, who, as Dean Milman said, "has bridged the abyss between ancient and modern times and connected together the two worlds of history."[151] A knowledge of "The Decline and Fall" is a basis for the study of all other history; it is a mental discipline, and a training for the problems of modern life. These Athenaeum readers did not waste their leisure, did not give too much to the past. They were supremely right to take account of the scholastic prestige of Gibbon, and to endeavor to make part of their mental fiber this greatest history of modern times.

I will close with a quotation from the Autobiography, which in its sincerity and absolute freedom from literary cant will be cherished by all whose desire is to behold "the bright countenance of truth in the quiet and still air of delightful studies." "I have drawn a high prize in the lottery of life," wrote Gibbon. "I am disgusted with the affectation of men of letters, who complain that they have renounced a substance for a shadow and that their fame affords a poor compensation for envy, censure, and persecution. My own experience at least has taught me a very different lesson: twenty happy years have been animated by the labor of my history; and its success has given me a name, a rank, a character in the world, to which I should not otherwise have been entitled.... D'Alembert relates that as he was walking in the gardens of Sans-souci with the King of Prussia, Frederick said to him, 'Do you see that old woman, a poor weeder, asleep on that sunny bank? She is probably a more happy Being than either of us.'" Now the comment of Gibbon: "The King and the Philosopher may speak for themselves; for my part I do not envy the old woman."[152]

[46] Autobiography, 270.

[47] Autobiography, 333.

[48] Autobiography, 311.

[49] Lectures, 763.

[50] Chief Periods European Hist., 75.

[51] Introduction, lxvii.

[52] Introduction, xxxi.

[53] Preface, ix.

[54] Introduction, xli.

[55] p. 324.

[56] Letters, I, 23.

[57] Autobiography, 310.

[58] Letters, II, 36.

[59] Ibid., 127.

[60] Autobiography, 196.

[61] Autobiography, 310. "I am more and more convinced that we have both the right and power on our side." Letters, I, 248.

[62] Hill's ed. Gibbon Autobiography, 212, 213, 314.

[63] Letters, II, 249.

[64] Autobiography, 342.

[65] Letters, II, 310.

[66] Causeries du Lundi, viii, 469.

[67] Letters, II, 98.

[68] Trevelyan, II, 232.

[69] Lectures on the Hist. of Literature, 185.

[70] Autobiography, 196.

[71] Bury's ed., xxxv.

[72] Decline and Fall, Smith's ed., 236.

[73] Ibid., I, 349.

[74] Decline and Fall, Smith's ed., II, 35.

[75] II, 235.

[76] History, I, 1.

[77] Annals, I, 11.

[78] Bury's introduction, xxxv.

[79] Autobiography, 193.

[80] Ibid., 48, 59.

[81] Ibid., 67.

[82] Autobiography, 86 et seq.; Hill's ed., 69, 291.

[83] Autobiography, 131.

[84] Ibid., 137.

[85] Ibid., 134.

[86] Autobiography, 139-142.

[87] V, 108, 130, 231.

[88] Autobiography, 141.

[89] Autobiography, 133.

[90] Hill's ed., 89, 293.

[91] Autobiography, 149.

[92] Autobiography, 149.

[93] Ibid., 161.

[94] Causeries du Lundi, VIII, 445.

[95] Autobiography, 167.

[96] Causeries du Lundi, VIII, 446.

[97] Autobiography, Hill's ed., 142.

[98] Autobiography, 258.

[99] Ibid., 277.

[100] Ibid.

[101] Letters, II, 279.

[102] Preface, x.

[103] Smith's ed., I, xi.

[104] Causeries du Lundi, VIII, 453.

[105] London Times, November 16, 1894.

[106] Smith's ed., I, 215, 371; II, 230.

[107] Smith's ed., I, 165; II, 205.

[108] Ibid., I, 216.

[109] Ibid., I, 144.

[110] Ibid., III, 78.

[111] Letters, I, 23.

[112] Smith's ed., V, 230.

[113] See Mahan's From Sail to Steam, 276.

[114] Causeries du Lundi, I, 153.

[115] Introduction, xlv, l, lxvii.

[116] Smith's ed., III, 14.

[117] Ibid., IV, 31.

[118] Bury, lii.

[119] Smith's ed., V, 258.

[120] Ibid., IV, 132 n.

[121] Bury's ed., xxxv, xxxvi.

[122] Smith's ed., I, xxi.

[123] Smith's ed., I, xvii.

[124] History of Civilization, II, 308 n.

[125] Morals, I, 419.

[126] Letters, II, 237.

[127] Autobiography, 316.

[128] Cotter Morison, 118.

[129] Sainte-Beuve, 458.

[130] Cotter Morison, 120.

[131] Autobiography, 337 n.

[132] American Notes, Chap. VII.

[133] p. 155.

[134] Letters, I, 331.

[135] Autobiography, 325.

[136] Letters, II, 143.

[137] Letters, II, 130.

[138] Ibid., 89.

[139] Ibid., 211.

[140] Ibid., 217.

[141] Ibid., II, 232.

[142] Letters, II, 129.

[143] Ibid., 189.

[144] Ibid., I, 40.

[145] Autobiography, pp. 151, 239.

[146] Letters, I, 41.

[147] Letters, I, 81. In 1790 Madame de Stael, then at Coppet, wrote: "Nous possedons dans ce chateau M. Gibbon, l'ancien amoreux de ma mere, celui qui voulait l'epouser. Quand je le vois, je me demande si je serais nee de son union avec ma mere: je me reponds que non et qu'il suffisait de mon pere seul pour que je vinsse au monde."—Hill's ed., 107, n. 2.

[148] Letters, II, 143.

[149] Birkbeck Hill's ed., 127.

[150] p. 235.

[151] Smith's ed., I, vii.

[152] Autobiography, 343, 346.


A paper read before the Massachusetts Historical Society at the March meeting of 1902, and printed in the Atlantic Monthly, May, 1902.


It is my purpose to say a word of Samuel Rawson Gardiner, the English historian, who died February 23, 1902, and who in his research and manner of statement represents fitly the scientific school of historical writers. He was thorough in his investigation, sparing neither labor nor pains to get at the truth. It may well enough be true that the designedly untruthful historian, like the undevout astronomer, is an anomaly, for inaccuracy comes not from purpose, but from neglect. Now Gardiner went to the bottom of things, and was not satisfied until he had compassed all the material within his reach. As a matter of course he read many languages. Whether his facts were in Spanish, Italian, French, German, Dutch, Swedish, or English made apparently no difference. Nor did he stop at what was in plain language. He read a diary written chiefly in symbols, and many letters in cipher. A large part of his material was in manuscript, which entailed greater labor than if it had been in print. As one reads the prefaces to his various volumes and his footnotes, amazement is the word to express the feeling that a man could have accomplished so much in forty-seven years. One feels that there is no one-sided use of any material. The Spanish, the Venetian, the French, the Dutch nowhere displaces the English. In Froude's Elizabeth one gets the impression that the Simancas manuscripts furnish a disproportionate basis of the narrative; in Ranke's England, that the story is made up too much from the Venetian archives. Gardiner himself copied many Simancas manuscripts in Spain, and he studied the archives in Venice, Paris, Brussels, and Rome, but these, and all the other great mass of foreign material, are kept adjunctive to that found in his own land. My impression from a study of his volumes is that more than half of his material is in manuscript, but because he has matter which no one else had ever used, he does not neglect the printed pages open to every one. To form "a judgment on the character and aims of Cromwell," he writes, "it is absolutely necessary to take Carlyle's monumental work as a starting point;"[153] yet, distrusting Carlyle's printed transcripts, he goes back to the original speeches and letters themselves. Carlyle, he says, "amends the text without warning" in many places; these emendations Gardiner corrects, and out of the abundance of his learning he stops a moment to show how Carlyle has misled the learned Dr. Murray in attributing to Cromwell the use of the word "communicative" in its modern meaning, when it was on the contrary employed in what is now an obsolete sense.[154]

Gardiner's great work is the History of England from 1603 to 1656. In the revised editions there are ten volumes called the "History of England, from the Accession of James I to the Outbreak of the Civil War," and four volumes on the Great Civil War. Since this revision he has published three volumes on the History of the Commonwealth and the Protectorate. He was also the author of a number of smaller volumes, a contributor to the Encyclopaedia Britannica and the Dictionary of National Biography, and for ten years editor-in-chief of the English Historical Review.

I know not which is the more remarkable, the learning, accuracy, and diligence of the man, or withal his modesty. With his great store of knowledge, the very truthfulness of his soul impels him to be forward in admitting his own mistakes. Lowell said in 1878 that Darwin was "almost the only perfectly disinterested lover of truth" he had ever encountered. Had Lowell known the historian as we know him, he would have placed Gardiner upon the same elevation. In the preface to the revised ten-volume edition he alludes to the "defects" of his work. "Much material," he wrote, "has accumulated since the early volumes were published, and my own point of view is not quite the same as it was when I started with the first years of James I."[155] The most important contribution to this portion of his period had been Spedding's edition of Bacon's Letters and Life. In a note to page 208 of his second volume he tells how Spedding's arguments have caused him to modify some of his statements, although the two regard the history of the seventeenth century differently. Writing this soon after the death of Spedding, to which he refers as "the loss of one whose mind was so acute and whose nature was so patient and kindly," he adds, "It was a true pleasure to have one's statements and arguments exposed to the testing fire of his hostile criticism." Having pointed out later some inaccuracies in the work of Professor Masson, he accuses himself. "I have little doubt," he writes, "that if my work were subjected to as careful a revision, it would yield a far greater crop of errors."[156]

Gardiner was born in 1829. Soon after he was twenty-six years old he conceived the idea of writing the history of England from the accession of James I to the restoration of Charles II. It was a noble conception, but his means were small. Having married, as his first wife, the youngest daughter of Edward Irving, the enthusiastic founder of the Catholic Apostolic Church, he became an Irvingite. Because he was an Irvingite, his university,—he was a son of Oxford,—so it is commonly said, would give him no position whereby he might gain his living. Nevertheless, Gardiner studied and toiled, and in 1863 published two volumes entitled "A History of England from the Accession of James I to the Disgrace of Chief Justice Coke." Of this work only one hundred and forty copies were sold. Still he struggled on. In 1869 two volumes called "Prince Charles and the Spanish Marriage" were published and sold five hundred copies. Six years later appeared two volumes entitled "A History of England under the Duke of Buckingham and Charles I." This installment paid expenses, but no profit. One is reminded of what Carlyle said about the pecuniary rewards of literary men in England: "Homer's Iliad would have brought the author, had he offered it to Mr. Murray on the half-profit system, say five-and-twenty guineas. The Prophecies of Isaiah would have made a small article in a review which ... could cheerfully enough have remunerated him with a five-pound note." The first book from which Gardiner received any money was a little volume for the Epochs of Modern History Series on the Thirty Years' War, published in 1874. Two more installments of the history appearing in 1877 and 1881 made up the first edition of what is now our ten-volume history, but in the meantime some of the volumes went out of print. It was not until 1883, the year of the publication of the revised edition, that the value of his labors was generally recognized. During this twenty-eight years, from the age of twenty-six to fifty-four, Gardiner had his living to earn. He might have recalled the remark made, I think, by either Goldsmith or Lamb, that the books which will live are not those by which we ourselves can live. Therefore Gardiner got his bread by teaching. He became a professor in King's College, London, and he lectured on history for the London Society for the Extension of University Teaching, having large audiences all over London, and being well appreciated in the East End. He wrote schoolbooks on history. Finally success came twenty-eight years after his glorious conception, twenty years after the publication of his first volume. He had had a hard struggle for a living with money coming in by driblets. Bread won in such a way is come by hard, yet he remained true to his ideal. His potboilers were good and honest books; his brief history on the Thirty Years' War has received the praise of scholars. Recognition brought him money rewards. In 1882 Mr. Gladstone bestowed upon him a civil list pension of L150 a year. Two years later All Souls College, Oxford, elected him to a research fellowship; when this expired Merton made him a fellow. Academic honors came late. Not until 1884, when he was fifty-five, did he take his degree of M.A. Edinburgh conferred upon him an LL.D., and Goettingen a Ph.D.; but he was sixty-six when he received the coveted D.C.L. from his own university. The year previous Lord Rosebery offered him the Regius Professorship of History at Oxford, but he declined it because the prosecution of his great work required him to be near the British Museum. It is worthy of mention that in 1874, nine years before he was generally appreciated in England, the Massachusetts Historical Society elected him a corresponding member.[157]

During the latter part of his life Gardiner resided in the country near London, whence it took him about an hour to reach the British Museum, where he did his work. He labored on his history from eleven o'clock to half-past four, with an intermission of half an hour for luncheon. He did not dictate to a stenographer, but wrote everything out. Totally unaccustomed to collaboration, he never employed a secretary or assistant of any kind. In his evenings he did no serious labor; he spent them with his family, attended to his correspondence, or read a novel. Thus he wrought five hours daily. What a brain, and what a splendid training he had given himself to accomplish such results in so short a working day!

In the preface to his first volume of the "History of the Commonwealth," published in 1894, Gardiner said that he was "entering upon the third and last stage of a task the accomplishment of which seemed to me many years ago to be within the bounds of possibility." One more volume bringing the history down to the death of Cromwell would have completed the work, and then Mr. Charles H. Firth, a fellow of All Souls College, Oxford, was to take up the story. Firth now purposes to begin his narrative with the year 1656. Gardiner's mantle has fallen on worthy shoulders.

Where historical scholars congregate in England and America, Gardiner is highly esteemed. But the critics must have their day. They cannot attack him for lack of diligence and accuracy, which according to Gibbon, the master of us all, are the prime requisites of a historian, so they assert that he was deficient in literary style, he had no dramatic power, his work is not interesting and will not live. Gardiner is the product solely of the university and the library. You may visualize him at Oxford, in the British Museum, or at work in the archives on the Continent, but of affairs and of society by personal contact he knew nothing. In short, he was not a man of the world, and the histories must be written, so these critics aver, by those who have an actual knowledge by experience of their fellow-men. It is profitable to examine these dicta by the light of concrete examples. Froude saw much of society, and was a man of the world. He wrote six volumes on the reign of Elizabeth, from which we get the distinct impression that the dominant characteristics of Elizabeth were meanness, vacillation, selfishness, and cruelty. Gardiner in an introductory chapter of forty-three pages restores to us the great queen of Shakespeare, who brought upon her land "a thousand, thousand blessings." She loved her people well, he writes, and ruled them wisely. She "cleared the way for liberty, though she understood it not."[158] Elsewhere he speaks of "her high spirit and enlightened judgment."[159] The writer who has spent his life in the library among dusty archives estimates the great ruler more correctly than the man of the world. We all know Macaulay, a member of Parliament, a member of the Supreme Council of India, a cabinet minister, a historian of great merit, a brilliant man of letters. In such a one, according to the principles laid down by these critics, we should expect to find a supreme judge of men. Macaulay in his essays and the first chapter of the History painted Wentworth and Laud in the very blackest of colors, which "had burned themselves into the heart of the people of England." Gardiner came. Wentworth and Laud, he wrote, were controlled by a "noble ambition," which was "not stained with personal selfishness or greed."[160] "England may well be proud of possessing in Wentworth a nobler if a less practical statesman than Richelieu, of the type to which the great cardinal belonged."[161] Again Wentworth was "the high-minded, masterful statesman, erring gravely through defects of temper and knowledge."[162] From Macaulay we carry away the impression that Wentworth was very wicked and that Cromwell was very good. Gardiner loved Cromwell not less than did Macaulay, but thus he speaks of his government: "Step by step the government of the Commonwealth was compelled ... to rule by means which every one of its members would have condemned if they had been employed by Charles or Wentworth." Is it not a triumph for the bookish man that in his estimate of Wentworth and Laud he has with him the consensus of the historical scholars of England?

What a change there has been in English opinion of Cromwell in the last half century! Unquestionably that is due to Carlyle more than to any other one man, but there might have been a reaction from the conception of the hero worshiper had it not been supported and somewhat modified by so careful and impartial a student as Gardiner.

The alteration of sentiment toward Wentworth and Laud is principally due to Gardiner, that toward Cromwell is due to him in part. These are two of the striking results, but they are only two of many things we see differently because of the single-minded devotion of this great historian. We know the history in England from 1603 to 1656 better than we do that of any other period of the world; and for this we are indebted mainly to Samuel Rawson Gardiner.

[153] History of the Great Civil War, I, viii.

[154] History of the Commonwealth and the Protectorate, III, 27.

[155] History, I, v.

[156] Ibid., IX, viii.

[157] He was transferred to the roll of honorary members in October, 1896.

[158] History, I, 43.

[159] Ibid., VIII, 36.

[160] Ibid., 67.

[161] Ibid., 215.

[162] Ibid., IX, 229.


A paper read before the Massachusetts Historical Society at the November meeting of 1903.


Amazement was the feeling of the reading world on learning that the author of the History of Rationalism was only twenty-seven, and the writer of the History of European Morals only thirty-one. The sentiment was that a prodigy of learning had appeared, and a perusal of these works now renders comprehensible the contemporary astonishment. The Morals (published in 1869) is the better book of the two, and, if I may judge from my own personal experience, it may be read with delight when young, and re-read with respect and advantage at an age when the enthusiasms of youth have given way to the critical attitude of experience. Grant all the critics say of it, that the reasoning by which Lecky attempts to demolish the utilitarian theory of morals is no longer of value, and that it lacks the consistency of either the orthodox or the agnostic, that there is no new historical light, and that much of the treatise is commonplace, nevertheless the historical illustrations and disquisitions, the fresh combination of well-known facts are valuable for instruction and for a new point of view. His analysis of the causes of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire is drawn, of course, from Gibbon, but I have met those who prefer the interesting story of Lecky to the majestic sweep of the great master. Much less brilliant than Buckle's "History of Civilization," the first volume of which appeared twelve years earlier, the Morals has stood better the test of time.

The intellectual biography of so precocious a writer is interesting, and fortunately it has been related by Lecky himself. When he entered Trinity College, Dublin, in 1856, "Mill was in the zenith of his fame and influence"; Hugh Miller was attempting to reconcile the recent discoveries of geology with the Mosaic cosmogony. "In poetry," wrote Lecky, "Tennyson and Longfellow reigned, I think with an approach to equality which has not continued." In government the orthodox political economists furnished the theory and the Manchester school the practice. All this intellectual fermentation affected this inquiring young student; but at first Bishop Butler's Analogy and sermons, which were then much studied at Dublin, had the paramount influence. Of the living men, Archbishop Whately, then at Dublin, held sway. Other writers whom he mastered were Coleridge, Newman, and Emerson, Pascal, Bossuet, Rousseau, and Voltaire, Dugald Stewart, and Mill. In 1857 Buckle burst upon the world, and proved a stimulus to Lecky as well as to most serious historical students. The result of these studies, Lecky relates, was his History of Rationalism, published in the early part of 1865.

The claim made by many of Lecky's admirers, that he was a philosophic historian, as distinct from literary historians like Carlyle and Macaulay, and scientific like Stubbs and Gardiner, has injured him in the eyes of many historical students who believe that if there be such a thing as the philosophy of history the narrative ought to carry it naturally. To interrupt the relation of events or the delineation of character with parading of trite reflections or with rashly broad generalizations is neither science nor art. Lecky has sometimes been condemned by students who, revolting at the term "philosophy" in connection with history, have failed to read his greatest work, the "History of England in the Eighteenth Century." This is a decided advance on the History of Morals, and shows honest investigation in original material, much of it manuscript, and an excellent power of generalization widely different from that which exhibits itself in a paltry philosophy. These volumes are a real contribution to historical knowledge. Parts of them which I like often to recur to are the account of the ministry of Walpole, the treatment of "parliamentary corruption," of the condition of London, and of "national tastes and manners." His Chapter IX, which relates the rise of Methodism, has a peculiarly attractive swing and go, and his use of anecdote is effective.

Chapter XX, on the "Causes of the French Revolution," covering one hundred and forty-one pages, is an ambitious effort, but it shows a thorough digestion of his material, profound reflection, and a lively presentation of his view. Mr. Morse Stephens believes that it is idle to attempt to inquire into the causes of this political and social overturn. If a historian tells the how, he asserts he should not be asked to tell the why. This is an epigrammatic statement of a tenet of the scientific historical school of Oxford, but men will always be interested in inquiring why the French Revolution happened, and such chapters as this of Lecky, a blending of speculation and narrative, will hold their place. These volumes have much well and impartially written Irish history, and being published between 1878 and 1890, at the time when the Irish question in its various forms became acute, they attracted considerable attention from the political world. Gladstone was an admirer of Lecky, and said in a chat with John Morley: "Lecky has real insight into the motives of statesmen. Now Carlyle, so mighty as he is in flash and penetration, has no eye for motives. Macaulay, too, is so caught by a picture, by color, by surface, that he is seldom to be counted on for just account of motive." The Irish chapters furnished arguments for the Liberals, but did not convert Lecky himself to the policy of home rule. When Gladstone and his party adopted it, he became a Liberal Unionist, and as such was elected in 1895 a member of the House of Commons by Dublin University. In view of the many comments that he was not successful in parliamentary life, I may say that the election not only came to him unsought, but that he recognized that he was too old to adapt himself to the atmosphere of the House of Commons; he accepted the position in the belief which was pressed upon him by many friends that he could in Parliament be useful to the University.

Within less than three years have we commemorated in this hall three great English historians—Stubbs, Gardiner, and Lecky. The one we honor to-day was the most popular of the three. Not studied so much at the seats of learning, he is better known to journalists, to statesmen, to men of affairs, in short to general readers. Even our Society made him an honorary member fourteen years before it so honored Gardiner, although Gardiner was the older man and two volumes of his history had been published before Lecky's Rationalism, and two volumes more in the same year as the Morals. One year after it was published, Rationalism went into a third edition. Gardiner's first volumes sold one hundred and forty copies. It must, however, be stated that the Society recognized Gardiner's work as early as 1874 by electing him a corresponding member.

It is difficult to guess how long Lecky will be read. His popularity is distinct. He was the rare combination of a scholar and a man of the world, made so by his own peculiar talent and by lucky opportunities. He was not obliged to earn his living. In early life, by intimate personal intercourse, he drew intellectual inspiration from Dean Milman, and later he learned practical politics through his friendship with Lord Russell. He knew well Herbert Spencer, Huxley, and Tyndall. In private conversation he was a very interesting man. His discourse ran on books and on men; he turned from one to the other and mixed up the two with a ready familiarity. He went much into London society, and though entirely serious and without having, so far as I know, a gleam of humor, he was a fluent and entertaining talker.

Mr. Lecky was vitally interested in the affairs of this country, and sympathized with the North during our Civil War. He once wrote to me: "I am old enough to remember vividly your great war, and was then much with an American friend—a very clever lawyer named George Bemis—whom I came to know very well at Rome.... I was myself a decided Northerner, but the 'right of revolution' was always rather a stumbling block." Talking with Mr. Lecky in 1895, not long after the judgment of the United States Supreme Court that the income tax was unconstitutional, he expressed the opinion that it was a grand decision, evidencing a high respect for private property, but in the next breath came the question, "How are you ever to manage continuing the payment of those enormous pensions of yours?"

It is not, I think, difficult to explain why Stubbs and Gardiner are more precious possessions for students than Lecky. Gardiner devoted his life to the seventeenth century. If we may reckon the previous preparation and the ceaseless revision, Stubbs devoted a good part of his life to the constitutional history from the beginnings of it to Henry VII. Lecky's eight volumes on the eighteenth century were published in thirteen years. A mastery of such an amount of original material as Stubbs and Gardiner mastered was impossible within that time. Lecky had the faculty of historic divination which compensated to some extent for the lack of a more thorough study of the sources. Genius stood in the place of painstaking engrossment in a single task.

The last important work of Lecky, "Democracy and Liberty," was a brave undertaking. Many years ago he wrote: "When I was deeply immersed in the 'History of England in the Eighteenth Century,' I remember being struck by the saying of an old and illustrious friend that he could not understand the state of mind of a man who, when so many questions of burning and absorbing interest were rising around him, could devote the best years of his life to the study of a vanished past." Hence the book which considered present issues of practical politics and party controversies, and a result that satisfied no party and hardly any faction. It is an interesting question who chose the better part,—he or Stubbs and Gardiner—they who devoted themselves entirely to the past or he who made a conscientious endeavor to bring to bear his study of history upon the questions of the present.


A paper read before the Massachusetts Historical Society at the November meeting of 1907.


Sir Spencer Walpole was an excellent historian and industrious writer. His first important work, entitled "The History of England from 1815," was published at intervals from 1878 to 1886; the first installment appeared when he was thirty-nine years old. This in six volumes carried the history to 1858 in an interesting, accurate, and impartial narrative. Four of the five chapters of the first volume are entitled "The Material Condition of England in 1815," "Society in England," "Opinion in 1815," "The Last of the Ebb Tide," and they are masterly in their description and relation. During the Napoleonic wars business was good. The development of English manufactures, due largely to the introduction of steam as a motive power, was marked. "Twenty years of war," he wrote, "had concentrated the trade of the world in the British Empire." Wheat was dear; in consequence the country gentlemen received high rents. The clergy, being largely dependent on tithes,—the tenth of the produce,—found their incomes increased as the price of corn advanced. But the laboring classes, both those engaged in manufactures and agriculture, did not share in the general prosperity. Either their wages did not rise at all or did not advance commensurately with the increase of the cost of living and the decline in the value of the currency. Walpole's detailed and thorough treatment of this subject is historic work of high value.

In the third volume I was much impressed with his account of the Reform Act of 1832. We all have read that wonderful story over and over again, but I doubt whether its salient points have been better combined and presented than in Walpole's chapter. I had not remembered the reason of the selection of Lord John Russell to present the bill in the House of Commons when he was only Paymaster of the Forces, without a seat in the Cabinet. It will, of course, be recalled that Lord Grey, the Prime Minister, was in the House of Lords, and, not so readily I think, that Althorp was Chancellor of the Exchequer and the leader of the House of Commons. On Althorp, under ordinary circumstances, it would have been incumbent to take charge of this highly important measure, which had been agreed upon by the Cabinet after counsel with the King. Russell was the youngest son of the Duke of Bedford; and the Duke was one of the large territorial magnates and a proprietor of rotten boroughs. "A bill recommended by his son's authority," wrote Walpole, "was likely to reassure timid or wavering politicians." "Russell," Walpole continued, "told his tale in the plainest language. But the tale which he had to tell required no extraordinary language to adorn it. The Radicals had not dared to expect, the Tories, in their wildest fears, had not apprehended, so complete a measure. Enthusiasm was visible on one side of the House; consternation and dismay on the other. At last, when Russell read the list of boroughs which were doomed to extinction, the Tories hoped that the completeness of the measure would insure its defeat. Forgetting their fears, they began to be amused and burst into peals of derisive laughter" (III, 208).

Walpole's next book was the "Life of Lord John Russell," two volumes published in 1889. This was undertaken at the request of Lady Russell, who placed at his disposal a mass of private and official papers and "diaries and letters of a much more private nature." She also acceded to his request that she was not to see the biography until it was ready for publication, so that the whole responsibility of it would be Walpole's alone. The Queen gave him access to three bound volumes of Russell's letters to herself, and sanctioned the publication of certain letters of King William IV. Walpole wrote the biography in about two years and a half; and this, considering that at the time he held an active office, displayed unusual industry. If I may judge the work by a careful study of the chapter on "The American Civil War," it is a valuable contribution to political history.

Passing over three minor publications, we come to Walpole's "History of Twenty-five Years," two volumes of which were published in 1904. A brief extract from his preface is noteworthy, written as it is by a man of keen intelligence, with great power of investigation and continuous labor, and possessed of a sound judgment. After a reference to his "History of England from 1815," he said: "The time has consequently arrived when it ought to be as possible to write the History of England from 1857 to 1880, as it was twenty years ago to bring down the narrative of that History to 1856 or 1857.... So far as I am able to judge, most of the material which is likely to be available for British history in the period with which these two volumes are concerned [1856-1870] is already accessible. It is not probable that much which is wholly new remains unavailable." I read carefully these two volumes when they first appeared, and found them exceedingly fascinating. Palmerston and Russell, Gladstone and Disraeli, are made so real that we follow their contests as if we ourselves had a hand in them. A half dozen or more years ago an Englishman told me that Palmerston and Russell were no longer considered of account in England. But I do not believe one can rise from reading these volumes without being glad of a knowledge of these two men whose patriotism was of a high order. Walpole's several characterizations, in a summing up of Palmerston, display his knowledge of men. "Men pronounced Lord Melbourne indifferent," he wrote, "Sir Robert Peel cold, Lord John Russell uncertain, Lord Aberdeen weak, Lord Derby haughty, Mr. Gladstone subtle, Lord Beaconsfield unscrupulous. But they had no such epithet for Lord Palmerston. He was as earnest as Lord Melbourne was indifferent, as strong as Lord Aberdeen was weak, as honest as Lord Beaconsfield was unscrupulous. Sir Robert Peel repelled men by his temper; Lord John Russell, by his coldness; Lord Derby offended them by his pride; Mr. Gladstone distracted them by his subtlety. But Lord Palmerston drew both friends and foes together by the warmth of his manners and the excellence of his heart" (I, 525).

Walpole's knowledge of continental politics was apparently thorough. At all events, any one who desires two entrancing tales, should read the chapter on "The Union of Italy," of which Cavour and Napoleon III are the heroes; and the two chapters entitled "The Growth of Prussia and the Decline of France" and "The Fall of the Second Empire." In these two chapters Napoleon III again appears, but Bismarck is the hero. Walpole's chapter on "The American Civil War" is the writing of a broad-minded, intelligent man, who could look on two sides.

Of Walpole's last book, "Studies in Biography," published in 1907, I have left myself no time to speak. Those who are interested in it should read the review of it in the Nation early this year, which awards it high and unusual commendation.

The readers of Walpole's histories may easily detect in them a treatment not possible from a mere closet student of books and manuscripts. A knowledge of the science of government and of practical politics is there. For Walpole was of a political family. He was of the same house as the great Whig Prime Minister, Sir Robert; and his father was Home Secretary in the Lord Derby ministry of 1858, and again in 1866, when he had to deal with the famous Hyde Park meeting of July 23. On his mother's side he was a grandson of Spencer Perceval, the Prime Minister who in 1812 was assassinated in the lobby of the House of Commons. Walpole's earliest publication was a biography of Perceval.

And Spencer Walpole himself was a man of affairs. A clerk in the War Office in 1858, private secretary to his father in 1866, next year Inspector of Fisheries, later Lieutenant-Governor of the Isle of Man, and from 1893 to 1899 Secretary to the Post-office. In spite of all this administrative work his books show that he was a wide, general reader, apart from his special historical studies. He wrote in an agreeable literary style, with Macaulay undoubtedly as his model, although he was by no means a slavish imitator. His "History of Twenty-five Years" seems to me to be written with a freer hand than the earlier history. He is here animated by the spirit rather than the letter of Macaulay. I no longer noticed certain tricks of expression which one catches so easily in a study of the great historian, and which seem so well to suit Macaulay's own work, but nobody else's.

An article by Walpole on my first four volumes, in the Edinburgh Review of January, 1901, led to a correspondence which resulted in my receiving an invitation last May to pass Sunday with him at Hartfield Grove, his Sussex country place. We were to meet at Victoria station and take an early morning train. Seeing Mr. Frederic Harrison the day previous, I asked for a personal description of his friend Walpole in order that I might easily recognize him. "Well," says Harrison, "perhaps I can guide you. A while ago I sat next to a lady during a dinner who took me for Walpole and never discovered her mistake until, when she addressed me as Sir Spencer, I undeceived her just as the ladies were retiring from the table. Now I am the elder by eight years and I don't think I look like Walpole, but that good lady had another opinion." Walpole and Harrison met that Saturday evening at the Academy dinner, and Walpole obtained a personal description of myself. This caution on both our parts was unnecessary. We were the only historians traveling down on the train and could not possibly have missed one another. I found him a thoroughly genial man, and after fifteen minutes in the railway carriage we were well acquainted. The preface to his "History of Twenty-five Years" told that the two volumes were the work of five years. I asked him how he was getting on with the succeeding volumes. He replied that he had done a good deal of work on them, and now that he was no longer in an administrative position he could concentrate his efforts, and he expected to have the work finished before long. I inquired if the prominence of his family in politics hampered him at all in writing so nearly contemporary history, and he said, "Not a bit." An hour of the railroad and a half-hour's drive brought us to his home. It was not an ancestral place, but a purchase not many years back. An old house had been remodeled with modern improvements, and comfort and ease were the predominant aspects. Sir Spencer proposed a "turn" before luncheon, which meant a short walk, and after luncheon we had a real walk. I am aware that the English mile and our own are alike 5280 feet, but I am always impressed with the fact that the English mile seems longer, and so I was on this Sunday. For after a good two hours' exertion over hills and meadows my host told me that we had gone only five miles. Only by direct question did I elicit the fact that had he been alone he would have done seven miles in the same time.

There were no other guests, and Lady Walpole, Sir Spencer, and I had all of the conversation at luncheon and dinner and during the evening. We talked about history and literature, English and American politics, and public men. He was singularly well informed about our country, although he had only made one brief visit and then in an official capacity. English expressions of friendship are now so common that I will not quote even one of the many scattered through his volumes, but he displayed everywhere a candid appreciation of our good traits and creditable doings. I was struck with his knowledge and love of lyric poetry. Byron, Shelley, Keats, Tennyson, Longfellow, and Lowell were thoroughly familiar to him. He would repeat some favorite passage of Keats, and at once turn to a discussion of the administrative details of his work in the post-office. Of course the day and evening passed very quickly,—it was one of the days to be marked with a white stone,—and when I bade Walpole good-by on the Monday morning I felt as if I were parting from a warm friend. I found him broad-minded, intelligent, sympathetic, affable, and he seemed as strong physically as he was sound intellectually. His death on Sunday, July 7, of cerebral hemorrhage was alike a shock and a grief.


Address at a gathering of historians on June 5, 1909, to mark the placing of a tablet in the inner quadrangle of Jesus College, Oxford, to the memory of John Richard Green.


I wish indeed that I had the tongues of men and of angels to express the admiration of the reading public of America for the History of John Richard Green. I suppose that he has had more readers in our country than any other historian except Macaulay, and he has shaped the opinions of men who read, more than any writers of history except those whom John Morley called the great born men of letters,—Gibbon, Macaulay, and Carlyle.

I think it is the earlier volumes rather than the last volume of his more extended work which have taken hold of us. Of course we thrill at his tribute to Washington, where he has summed up our reverence, trust, and faith in him in one single sentence which shows true appreciation and deep feeling; and it flatters our national vanity, of which we have a goodly stock, to read in his fourth volume that the creation of the United States was one of the turning points in the history of the world.

No saying is more trite, at any rate to an educated American audience, than that the development of the English nation is one of the most wonderful things, if not the most wonderful thing, which history records. That history before James I is our own, and, to our general readers, it has never been so well presented as in Green's first two volumes. The victories of war are our own. It was our ancestors who preserved liberty, maintained order, set the train moving toward religious toleration, and wrought out that language and literature which we are proud of, as well as you.

For my own part, I should not have liked to miss reading and re-reading the five chapters on Elizabeth in the second volume. What eloquence in simply the title of the last,—The England of Shakespeare! And in fact my conception of Elizabeth, derived from Shakespeare, is confirmed by Green. As I think how much was at stake in the last half of the sixteenth century, and how well the troubles were met by that great monarch and the wise statesman whom she called to her aid, I feel that we could not be what we are, had a weak, irresolute sovereign been at the head of the state.

With the power of a master Green manifests what was accomplished. At the accession of Elizabeth—"Never" so he wrote—"had the fortunes of England sunk to a lower ebb. The loss of Calais gave France the mastery of the Channel. The French King in fact 'bestrode the realm, having one foot in Calais, and the other in Scotland.'"

And at the death of Elizabeth, thus Green tells the story: "The danger which had hitherto threatened our national existence and our national unity had disappeared: France clung to the friendship of England, Spain trembled beneath its blows."

With the wide range of years of his subject, with a grasp of an extended period akin to Gibbon's, complete accuracy was, of course, not attainable, but Samuel R. Gardiner once told me that Green, although sometimes inaccurate in details, gave a general impression that was justifiable and correct; and that is in substance the published opinion of Stubbs.

Goethe said that in reading Moliere you perceive that he possessed the charm of an amiable nature in habitual contact with good society. So we, who had not the advantage of personal intercourse, divined was the case of Green; and when the volume of Letters appeared, we saw that we had guessed correctly. But not until then did we know of his devotion to his work, and his heroic struggle, which renders the story of his short and brilliant career a touching and fascinating biography of a historian who made his mark upon his time.


A paper read before the Massachusetts Historical Society at the October meeting of 1897.


I shall first speak of Mr. Pierce as an author. His Life of Sumner it seems to me is an excellent biography, and the third and fourth volumes of it are an important contribution to the history of our country. Any one who has gone through the original material of the period he embraces must be struck not only with the picture of Sumner, but with the skill of the biographer in the use of his data to present a general historical view. The injunction of Cicero, "Choose with discretion out of the plenty that lies before you," Mr. Pierce observed. To those who know how extensive was his reading of books, letters, newspaper files, how much he had conversed with the actors in those stirring scenes—and who will take into account the mass of memories that crowd upon the mind of one who has lived through such an era—this biography will seem not too long but rather admirable in its relative brevity. In a talk that I had with Mr. Pierce I referred to the notice in an English literary weekly of his third and fourth volumes which maintained that the biography was twice too long, and I took occasion to say that in comparison with other American works of the kind the criticism seemed unjust. "Moreover," I went on, "I think you showed restraint in not making use of much of your valuable material,—of the interesting and even important unprinted letters of Cobden, the Duke of Argyll, and of John Bright." "Yes," replied Mr. Pierce, with a twinkle in his eye, "I can say with Lord Clive, 'Great Heavens, at this moment I stand astonished at my own moderation.'"

Any one who has studied public sentiment in this country for any period knows how easy it is to generalize from a few facts, and yet, if the subject be more thoroughly investigated, it becomes apparent how unsatisfactory such generalizations are apt to be; not that they are essentially untrue, but rather because they express only a part of the truth. If a student should ask me in what one book he would find the best statement of popular opinion at the North during the Civil War, I should say, Read Sumner's letters as cited in Mr. Pierce's biography with the author's comments. The speeches of Sumner may smell too much of the lamp to be admirable, but the off-hand letters written to his English and to a few American friends during our great struggle are worthy of the highest esteem. From his conversations with the President, the Cabinet ministers, his fellow-senators and congressmen, his newspaper reading,—in short, from the many impressions that go to make up the daily life of an influential public man,—there has resulted an accurate statement of the popular feeling from day to day. In spite of his intense desire to have Englishmen of power and position espouse the right side, he would not misrepresent anything by the suppression of facts, any more than he would make a misleading statement. In the selection of these letters Mr. Pierce has shown a nice discrimination.

Sumner, whom I take to have been one of the most truthful of men, was fortunate in having one of the most honest of biographers. Mr. Pierce would not, I think, have wittingly suppressed anything that told against him. I love to think of one citation which would never have been made by an idolizing biographer, so sharply did it bring out the folly of the opinion expressed. Sumner wrote, May 3, 1863: "There is no doubt here about Hooker. He told Judge Bates ... that he 'did not mean to drive the enemy but to bag him.' It is thought he is now doing it." The biographer's comment is brief, "The letter was written on the day of Hooker's defeat at Chancellorsville."

It seems to me that Mr. Pierce was as impartial in his writing as is possible for a man who has taken an active part in political affairs, who is thoroughly in earnest, and who has a positive manner of expression. It is not so difficult as some imagine for a student of history whose work is done in the library to be impartial, provided he has inherited or acquired the desire to be fair and honest, and provided he has the diligence and patience to go through the mass of evidence. His historical material will show him that to every question there are two sides. But what of the man who has been in the heat of the conflict, and who, when the fight was on, believed with Sumner that there was no other side? If such a man displays candor, how much greater his merit than the impartiality of the scholar who shuns political activity and has given himself up to a life of speculation!

I had the good fortune to have three long conversations with the Hon. Robert C. Winthrop, the last of which occurred shortly after the publication of the third and fourth volumes of the Life of Sumner. "What," said Mr. Winthrop to me, "do you think of the chapter on the Annexation of Texas and the Mexican War?" "I think," was my reply, "that Mr. Pierce has treated a delicate subject like a gentleman." "From what I have heard of it," responded Mr. Winthrop, earnestly, "and from so much as I have read of it, that is also my own opinion." Such a private conversation I could, of course, repeat, and, somewhat later the occasion presenting itself, I did so to Mr. Pierce. "That is more grateful to me," he said, almost with tears in his eyes, "than all the praise I have received for these volumes."

Mr. Pierce had, I think, the historic sense. I consulted him several times on the treatment of historical matters, taking care not to trench on questions where, so different was our point of view, we could not possibly agree, and I always received from him advice that was suggestive, even if I did not always follow it to the letter. I sent to him, while he was in London, my account of Secretary Cameron's report proposing to arm the slaves and of his removal from office by President Lincoln. Mr. Pierce thought my inferences were far-fetched, and wrote: "I prefer the natural explanation. Horace says we must not introduce a god into a play unless it is necessary."

As a friend, he was warm-hearted and true. He brought cheer and animation into your house. His talk was fresh; his zeal for whatever was uppermost in his mind was contagious, and he inspired you with enthusiasm. He was not good at conversation, in the French sense of the term, for he was given to monologue; but he was never dull. His artlessness was charming. He gave you confidences that you would have shrunk from hearing out of the mouth of any other man, in the fear that you intruded on a privacy where you had no right; but this openness of mind was so natural in Mr. Pierce that you listened with concern and sympathized warmly. He took interest in everything; he had infinite resources, and until his health began to fail, enjoyed life thoroughly. He loved society, conversation, travel; and while he had no passion for books, he listened to you attentively while you gave an abstract or criticism of some book that was attracting attention. In all intercourse with him you felt that you were in a healthy moral atmosphere. I never knew a man who went out of his way oftener to do good works in which there was absolutely no reward, and at a great sacrifice of his time—to him a most precious commodity. He was in the true sense of the word a philanthropist, and yet no one would have approved more heartily than he this remark of Emerson: "The professed philanthropists are an altogether odious set of people, whom one would shun as the worst of bores and canters."

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