William Robertson - Encyclopedia

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WILLIAM ROBERTSON (1721-1793), Scottish historian, born at Borthwick, Mid Lothian, on the 19th of September 1721, was the eldest son of the Rev. William Robertson. He was educated at the school of Dalkeith and the university of Edinburgh. He was from the first intended for the ministry; in 1743 he was presented to the living of Gladsmuir in East Lothian, and two years later he lost both his father and his mother, who died within a few hours of each other. The support and education of a younger brother and six sisters then devolved upon him, though at that time his income was less than £r oo a year. Robertson's inclination for study was never allowed to interfere with his duties as a parish minister, and his power as a preacher had made him a local celebrity while still a young man.

His energy and decision of character were brought out vividly by the rebellion of 1745. When Edinburgh seemed in danger of falling into the hands of the rebels he joined the volunteers in the capital. When the city was surrendered he was one of the small band who repaired to Haddington and offered their services to the commander of the royal forces. Such a man could not remain in obscurity, and in 1746 he was elected a member of the General Assembly, where his influence as leader of the "moderate" party was for many years nearly supreme (See Presbyterianism).

During all this period of prominent activity in the public life of Edinburgh, Robertson was busy with his historical labours. His History of Scotland, begun in 1753, was published in 1759. Till he had finished his book Robertson had never left his native country; but the publication of his history necessitated a journey to London, and he passed the early months of the year 1758 partly in the capital and partly in leisurely rambles in the counties of England. The success of the History of Scotland was immediate, and within a month a second edition was called for. Before the end of the author's life the book had reached its fourteenth edition; and it soon brought him other rewards than literary fame. In 1759 he was appointed chaplain of Stirling Castle, in 1761 one of His Majesty's chaplains in ordinary, and in 1762 he was chosen principal of the university of Edinburgh. In May 1763 he was elected Moderator of the General Assembly, and in August of the same year the office of king's historiographer was revived in his favour with a salary of £200 a year.

The rest of Robertson's life was uneventful. His History of the Reign of the Emperor Charles the Fifth occupied ten consecutive years of labour. It appeared in three volumes quarto in 1769. In 1777 he published his History of America and in 1791 his Disquisition concerning the Knowledge which the Ancients had of India, which concluded his historical labours and appeared only two years before his death, which occurred near Edinburgh on the 11th of June 1793. His fame had long been European, and he left no rival in the field of historical composition save Gibbon alone.

For an adequate appreciation of Robertson's position in British literature, and more especially of his rank as an historian, we have to consider the country and the age in which he was born and his own personal qualities and limits. Considering the small size and poverty of the country, Scotland had made a more than creditable figure in literature in the great age of the Reformation and the Renaissance, and Scottish contributions to British literature in the last half of the ,8th century were distinctly superior to those produced in the southern portion of the island.

Of the three great British historians of the 18th century two were Scotsmen. The exact place of Robertson with regard to his two friends Hume and Gibbon, and to such historians as the rest of Europe had to offer, presents a question of some nicety, because it is complicated by extraneous considerations, so to speak, which should not weigh in an abstract estimate, but cannot he excluded in a concrete and practical one. If we regard only Robertson's potential historic power, the question is not so much whether he was equal to either of his two friends as whether he was not superior to both. The man who wrote the review of the state of Europe prefixed to the History of Charles V., or even the first book of the History of Scotland, showed that he had a wider and more synthetic conception of history than either the author of the Decline and Fall or the author of the History of England. These two portions of Robertson's work, with all their shortcomings in the e y e of modern criticism, have a distinctive value which time cannot take away. He was one of the first to see the importance of general ideas in history. He saw that the immediate narrative of events with which he was occupied needed a background of broad and connected generalizations, referring to the social state of which the detailed history formed a part. But he did more than this. In the appendix to the view of Europe called "Proofs and Illustrations" he enters into the difficult and obscure question of land tenure in Frankish times, and of the origin of the feudal system, with a sagacity and knowledge which distinctly advanced the comprehension of this period beyond the point at which it had been left by Du Bos, Montesquieu and Mably. He was well acquainted with the original documents, - many of them, we may conjecture, not easy to procure in Scotland. It must have been a genuine aptitude for historical research of a scientific kind which led Robertson to undertake the labour of these austere disquisitions of which there were not many in his day who saw the importance. Gibbon, so superior to him for wide reading and scholarship, has pointedly avoided them. Robertson's views are now out of date. But he deserves the honour of a pioneer in one of the most obscure if also important lines of inquiry connected with European history. On the other hand, it must be admitted that he showed himself only too tame a follower of Voltaire in his general appreciation of the middle ages, which he regarded with the mingled ignorance and prejudice common in the 18th century. In this particular he was not at all in advance of his age.

The neglect and gradual oblivion which have overtaken the greater part of Robertson's historical work are owing to no fault of his. He had not and could not have the requisite materials: they were not published or accessible. Justice requires that we should estimate his performance in view of the means at his command, and few critics would hesitate to subscribe to the verdict of Buckle, "that what he effected with his materials was wonderful." His style is singularly clear, harmonious and persuasive. The most serious reproach made against it is that it is correct to a fault and lacks idiomatic vigour, and the charge is not without foundation. But there can be no doubt that, if Robertson's writings are less read than they formerly were, the fact is to be attributed to no defects of style but to the growth of knowledge and to the immense extension of historical research which has inevitably superseded his initiatory and meritorious labours.

By his wife, Mary Nisbet, whom he married in 1751, Robertson left three sons: 'William (1753-1835), who in 1805 was raised to the Scottish bench as Lord Robertson; James, who became a general in the British army; and David, who in 1799 married Margaret, sister of Colonel Donald Macdonald and heiress of Kinloch-Moidart, whose surname he assumed.

There are lives of Robertson by Dugald Stewart (Edinburgh, 1801 and 1802), prefixed to most of the collective editions of his works; by George Gleig, bishop of Brechin (Edinburgh, 1812); and by Lord Brougham in Lives of Men of Letters, &c. (1845-1846).

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