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of serious public danger when somebody did not sincerely believe that the country was on the verge of destruction. Sir John Sinclair, - the prince of busybodies,
- brought Adam Smith the news of Saratoga, and added, on his own account, that the nation was now ruined. “There is a great deal of ruin in a nation," was the philosopher's quiet reply; 1 and yet Sir John Sinclair might well have proved to be in the right, if George the Third had pursued his course to the end, unchecked. The prophets of evil, for once in a way, were the wise men; and their predictions would undoubtedly have been fulfilled to the letter, had it not been for a contingency which the most sanguine patriots did not venture confidently to anticipate. How long the end would have been in coming no man fortunately now can tell ; but, in the long run, the policy of the Court must have been fatal to the country unless Parliament had taken the matter into its own hands, and insisted on composing the quarrel with America. Parliament, however, during many sessions seemed to have been effectually bribed into acquiescence; and the means at the disposal of the Treasury for gratifying the cupidity of venal politicians grew in proportion to the growing expenditure on military and naval operations. Every new expedition to the Carolinas or the West India seas, and every fresh enemy who came against us in Europe, increased the mass of profits from loans, and lotteries, and contracts which was available for being divided among supporters of the Government. The war fed corruption, and corruption kept on foot the war; but there was something in the English nature whereon George the Third and the Bedfords had not counted; and two successive Parliaments, which had both begun very badly, shook themselves free from the trammels of self-interest and servility, defied their taskmasters, and saved their country.
The scholarship at our universities in the earlier days of George the Third was less severely accurate than it
1 Life of Adam Smith, by John Rae ; chapter xxii.
became during the first fifty years of the succeeding century; but many English gentlemen, not only at college, but in after life, read Latin as they read French; and every one who pretended to literature had a fair knowledge of ancient history, and a clear conception with regard to the personal identity, and the relative authority and merit, of the most famous Greek authors. It was well understood that the narratives of Xenophon and Polybius, of Sallust and Suetonius, owed much of their peculiar excellence to the fact that those writers had been alive during at least some part of the periods which they treated ; and had been acquainted with not a few of the warriors and rulers whose actions they immortalised, or whose mistakes and crimes they condemned. Despairing English patriots, who correctly predicted a succession of disasters, but who did not foresee that the public ruin would ultimately be averted by a resurrection of national common-sense, looked around them for an historian who might undertake the melancholy task of chronicling the misfortunes of England. They sought a Tacitus; and they thought to have discovered one, ready to their hand, in Doctor William Robertson, whose“ History of Scotland" had founded his position as an author, and whose “ History of Charles the Fifth ” had won him a European name. Robertson had for some years been occupied with the earlier annals of America, and was steadily approaching the point where he would come into contact with the great political question of the hour; for the first instalment of his work, which appeared in 1777, brought him much more than half-way between Christopher Columbus and Charles Townshend. The hopes excited in the reading world are indicated by Edmund Burke, in language on a higher level than is often reached by a letter of thanks for a presentation copy. “There remains before you a great field. I am heartily sorry we are now supplying you with that kind of dignity and concern which is purchased to history at the expense of mankind. I had rather, by far, that Doctor Robertson's
pen were employed only in delineating the humble scenes of political economy, and not the great events of a civil war. However, if our statesmen had read the book of human nature instead of the Journals of the House of Commons, and history instead of Acts of Parliament, we should not by the latter have furnished out so ample a page in the former. Adieu, Sir! Continue to instruct the world, and, — whilst we carry on a poor unequal conflict with the passions and prejudices of our day, perhaps with no better weapons than other passions and prejudices of our own, - convey wisdom to future generations."1
Robertson's “America” was ransacked greedily by people who hoped to discover in its pages satirical references to current events, and arch strokes against the politicians of their own time. But the admirable historians whom that generation produced, both in Edinburgh and in London, habitually refrained from those contemporary allusions which a French writer has stigmatised as the sidelong leers of history, in contradistinction to her straightforward and honest glances into the facts of the past. In his account of the settlement of the Western Continent, Doctor Robertson had much to say about the projects of Las Casas, and much about James the First and Sir Walter Raleigh; but there was not a phrase which could be twisted into a covert expression of his views on the Declaratory Act or the Boston Port Bill. Sedate and sagacious Scotch divine that he was, he had no intention whatever of diving into a perilous controversy which he was not enough of a partisan even to enjoy. Although he considered the Americans premature in asserting their independence, he none the less was of opinion that the whole matter had been sadly mismanaged by the Cabinet. It must not be forgotten that Doctor Robertson was the King's Historiographer for Scotland. The
1 Edmund Burke, Esq., to Doctor Robertson ; June 10, 1777: 2 Letter from Doctor Robertson of October 6, 1775, as printed in Section III. of his Life by Dugald Stewart.
emolument, indeed, was of no object to him in comparison with the profits of literature; for his “Charles the Fifth " alone had produced a sum of money which amounted to twice the capital value of his official salary. Nor, as he on more than one occasion gave honourable proof, was he afraid of speaking his mind when he conceived reticence to be unworthy of his station and his character. But the post of Historiographer had been revived, with the King's consent and at the King's cost, as a particular compliment to Robertson himself; and he was not disposed to requite his Majesty's favour by recording, for the information of all time, the improvidence and incapacity of his Majesty's ministers.
Robertson had a stronger reason yet for circumspection and caution in his reluctance to begin telling a story whose catastrophe was still hidden in the unknown future. His professional pride as an historian forbade him to put forward theories, and deliver judgements, which the issue might show to be erroneous, and even ridiculous. In whatever manner, (so he wrote in the preface to the first volume of his History,) the unhappy contest might terminate, a new order of things must arise in North America, and American affairs would assume quite another aspect. He would therefore "wait, with the solicitude of a good citizen, until the ferment subsided, and regular government was again established.” When those days arrived Robertson must expect to be over sixty; and an extensive history, commenced at that time of life, is too often not so much a tribute to Clio as an excuse to Charon. The Latin saying, which warns the artist that life is brief, came forcibly home to one who had so continuously and conscientiously practised the very longest among all the arts.
Robertson apart, of the triumvirate of noted British historians Gibbon and David Hume remained; but Hume did not remain long. He died on the twentyfifth of August, 1776, and met his fate with a cheerful serenity which deeply scandalised some excellent persons
who had pleased themselves by conceiving a very different picture of the sceptic's death-bed. But, though without any uneasiness as to what might befall himself, he passed away in the conviction that immense dangers overhung the country. A stronger Tory than George the Third, Hume had not allowed his views and prejudices concerning home politics to blind his insight into colonial questions. The most caustic remarks about the folly of alienating the Americans, and the impossibility of subduing them, came from the pen, not of any Whig or Wilkite, but of David Hume; and Hume was a Jacobite who would have been heartily pleased if the King had hanged Wilkes, had shot down the Liverymen and their apprentices by hundreds, and then, after making a terrible example of London, had announced his intention of reigning ever afterwards in Stuart fashion.? The autumn before his death Hume was requested to draw up an Address to the Crown from the county of Renfrew; but he declined, on the ground that he was an American in principle, and wished that the colonists should be let alone to govern, or misgovern, themselves as they thought proper. If, (such was the form that his suggestion took,) the inhabitants of the county felt it indispensably necessary to interpose in public affairs, they should advise the King to punish those insolent rascals in London and Middlesex who had set at nought his authority, and should dutifully inform him that Lord North, though an estimable gentleman, had no head for great military operations.
Any mention of the calmness and equanimity with which Hume departed this life never failed to arouse in Doctor Johnson very opposite emotions. Adam Smith had borne testimony to the tranquillity of his friend's closing hours; and Johnson could not forgive him. Sir Walter Scott's account of the interview at Glasgow between the two philosophers, in spite of the serious nature of the topic, is a gem of comedy. Note to Croker's edition of Boswell's Tour to the Hebrides, under the date of the 29th October, 1773.
2 Hume prayed that he might see the scoundrelly mob vanquished, and a third of London in ruins. “I think,” he wrote, “I am not too old to despair of being witness to all these blessings.” Hume to Sir Gilbert Elliot; 22nd June, 1768.