William Roscoe - Encyclopedia

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WILLIAM ROSCOE (1753-1831), English historian and miscellaneous writer, was born on the 8th of March 1753 at Liverpool, where his father, who was a market gardener, kept a publichouse known as the Bowling Green at Mount Pleasant. Roscoe was eager in the acquisition of knowledge, and at twelve he left school, having learned all that his schoolmaster could teach. He now assisted his father in the work of the garden, and gave his leisure hours to reading and study. "This mode of life," he says, "gave health and vigour to my body, and amusement and instruction to my mind; and to this day I well remember the delicious sleep which succeeded my labours, from which I was again called at an early hour. If I were now asked whom I consider to be the happiest of the human race, I should answer, those who cultivate the earth by their own hands." At fifteen it was necessary to decide upon a path in life. A month's trial of bookselling sufficed to disgust him, and in 1769 he was articled to a solicitor. Although a diligent student of law, he did not bid farewell to the Muses, but continued to read the classics, and made that acquaintance with the language and literature of Italy which became the instrument of his distinction in after life. He wrote many verses: his Mount Pleasant was composed when he was sixteen, and this and other verses, though now forgotten, won the esteem of good critics. In 1774 he commenced business as an attorney, and as soon as his professional gains warranted he married (1781) Jane, second daughter of William Griffies, a Liverpool tradesman, and had seven sons and three daughters. He had the courage to denounce the African slave trade in his native town, where not a little of the wealth came from this source. He wrote the Wrongs of Africa (1787-1788), and entered into a controversy with an ex-Roman Catholic priest, who undertook to prove the "licitness of the slave trade" from the Bible. Roscoe was also a political pamphleteer, and like many other Liberals of the day hailed the promise of liberty in the French Revolution.

Meanwhile he had steadily pursued his Italian studies, and had made extensive collections relating to the great ruler of Florence. The result was his Life of Lorenzo de' Medici, which appeared in 1796, and at once placed him in the front rank of contemporary historians. The work has often been reprinted, and translations in French, German and other languages show that its popularity was not confined to its author's native land. Perhaps the most gratifying testimony was that of Fabroni, who had intended to translate his own Latin life of Lorenzo, but abandoned the design and induced Gaetano Mecherini to undertake an Italian version of Roscoe. In 1796 Roscoe gave up practice as an attorney, and had some thought of going to the bar, but relinquished. the idea after keeping a single term. Between 1793 and 1800 he paid much attention to agriculture, and helped to reclaim Chat Moss, near Manchester. He also succeeded in restoring to good order the affairs of a banking house in which his friend William Clark, then resident in Italy, was a partner. This task led to his introduction to the business, which eventually proved disastrous. His translation of Tansillo's Nurse appeared in 1798, and went through several editions. It is dedicated in a sonnet. to his wife, who had practised the precepts of the Italian poet.

The Life and Pontificate of Leo the Tenth appeared in 1805: and was a natural sequel to that by which he had made his reputation. The work, whilst it maintained its author's fame, did not, on the whole, meet with so favourable a reception as the Life of Lorenzo. It has been frequently reprinted, and the insertion of the Italian translation in the Index did not prevent its circulation even in the papal states. Roscoe was elected member of parliament for Liverpool in 1806, but the House of Commons was not a congenial place, and at the dissolution in the following year he declined to be again a candidate. The commercial troubles of 1816 brought into difficulties the banking house with which he was connected, and forced the sale of his collection of books and pictures. It was on this occasion that he wrote the fine "Sonnet on Parting with his Books." Dr S. H. Spiker, the king of Prussia's librarian, gives an interesting account of a visit to Roscoe at this period of trouble. Roscoe said he still desired to write a biography of Erasmus but "wanted both leisure and youth." This project was not executed (Spiker's Travels through England, &c., 1816). After a five years' struggle to discharge the liabilities of the bank, the action of a small number of creditors forced the partners into bankruptcy in 1820. For a time Roscoe was in danger of arrest, but ultimately he received honourable discharge. On the dispersal of his library, the volumes most useful to him were secured by friends and placed in the Liverpool Athenaeum. The sum of 2500 was also invested for his benefit. The independent and sensitive nature of Roscoe made both these operations difficult. Having now resigned commercial pursuits entirely, he found a pleasant task in the arrangement of the great library at Holkham, the property of his friend Coke. In 1822 he issued an appendix of illustrations to his Lorenzo and also a Memoir of Richard Robert Jones of Aberdaron, a remarkable self-taught linguist. The year 1824 was memorable for the death of his wife and the publication of his edition of the works of Pope, which involved him in a controversy with Bowles. His versatility was shown by the appearance of a folio monograph on the Monandrian Plants, which was published in 1828. It appeared first in numbers, and the last part came out after his recovery from a paralytic attack. He died on the 30th of June 1831.

Roscoe's character was a fine one. Under circumstances uncongenial and discouraging he steadfastly maintained the ideal of the intellectual life. Sensitive and conscientious, he sacrificed his possessions to a punctilious sense of duty. He had the courage of unpopular opinions, and, whilst promoting every good object in his native town, did not hesitate to speak out where plain dealing, as in the matter of slavery, was required. He was a sincere friend and exemplary in his domestic relations. Posterity is not likely to endorse the verdict of Horace Walpole, who thought Roscoe "by far the best of our historians," but in spite of newer lights and of some changes of fashion in the world of letters, his books on Lorenzo de' Medici and Leo X. remain important contributions to historical literature.

In addition to the writings already named, Roscoe wrote tracts on penal jurisprudence, and contributed to the Transactions of the Royal Society of Literature and of the Linnean Society. The first collected edition of his Poetical Works was published in 1857, and is sadly incomplete, omitting, with other verses known to be from his pen, the Butterfly's Ball, a fantasy, which has charmed thousands of children since it appeared in 1807. Other verses are in Poems for Youth, by a Family Circle (1820).

The Life by his son Henry Roscoe (2 vols., London, 1833) contains full details of Roscoe's career, and there are references to him in the Autobiographical Sketches of De Quincey, and in Washington Irving's Sketch Book. (W. E. A. A.)

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