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“These,” (he said,) " are objects worthy of the respectable county of Renfrew; not mauling the poor unfortunate Americans in the other hemisphere.”'1
Gibbon, indeed, was still in his prime; but he did not even contemplate the notion of exchanging the colossal literary undertaking, to which he looked for the establishment of his fame and the improvement of his modest fortune, for such a hypothetical theme as the decline and fall of England. He had no inclination to leave untold the defeat of Attila at Châlons, and the siege of Constantinople by Mahomet the Second, in order to expend his gorgeous rhetoric over the battle at Monmouth Court House, or the investment and evacuation of Boston. His political opponents, who likewise were his constant and familiar associates, professed to discover a less respectable motive for his unwillingness to transfer his historical researches into another field.
“King George, in a fright
The story of England's disgrace,
As to give the historian a place.”
The little poem, whereof that is the first stanza, is attributed to Charles Fox, and most
and most certainly it emanated from Brooks's Club; an institution which contained a group of witty and scholarly men of the world who, – as the graceful, flowing verse of the
1 Letter to Baron Mure; Oct. 27, 1775. Hume was closely connected with John Crawford, the friend of Charles Fox and the Member for Renfrewshire. It was Crawford who induced young Lord 'Tavistock to read Hume's History, which the Duke of Bedford, a careful Whig parent, had forbidden his son and heir to open.
A very few months before his death Hume confided to his most intimate friend his belief that England was on the verge of decline, and pronounced himself unable to give any reason for the complete absence of administrative genius, civil and military, which marked the period. John Home's Diary of his Journey to London in company with David Tlume; April 30, 1776.
Rolliad very soon made manifest, – literally thought in rhyme. Brooks's had an exceedingly strong case against Gibbon. In the first stages of the American Revolution he was a staunch, though a silent, adherent of the Ministry; but he consorted mainly with the Opposition, among whom he found that which, to his excellent taste, was the best company in London. He belonged to the club as of right; for, great man of letters though Gibbon was, he never ceased to be a recognised personage in the world of fashion. He wrote his letters at Brooks's; he supped there, or at Almack's, after the House of Commons was up for the night; and he freely accepted the condition on which alone it was possible to enjoy good Whig society, inasmuch as he listened tolerantly, — and, (as time progressed,) even complacently, - to orthodox Whig views. “Charles Fox,” he wrote, “is now at my elbow, declaiming on the impossibility of keeping America, since a victorious army has been unable to maintain any extent of posts in the single province of Jersey."2
Gibbon, - to whom usually, at this period of their acquaintance, Fox was “Charles,” and nothing more distant or ceremonious, - loved the young statesman, and never tired of hearing him discourse. The historian, however, did not need any one to teach him the deductions which his own bright and powerful intellect drew from a contemplation of the political facts. Gibbon's familiar epistles already frankly indicated that he had begun to pass through the mental process which, sooner or later, was traversed by almost every sensible man in the country whose perceptions were not distorted by the promptings of self-interest. Even before Saratoga he had serious qualms. In August 1777 he
1" This moment Beauclerk, Lord Ossory, Sheridan, Garrick, Burke, Charles Fox, and Lord Camden, (no bad set, you will perhaps say,) have left me.” Gibbon to J. B. Holroyd, Esq. ; Saturday night, 14th March, 1778. “I have been hard at work since dinner,” (he wrote elsewhere,) "and am just setting out for Lady Payne's Assembly; after which I will perhaps sup with Charles, etcetera, at Almack's.”
2 Almack's ; Wednesday evening, March 5, 1777.
spoke of himself as having found it much easier to defend the justice, than the policy, of the ministerial measures; and, — in a phrase worthy to stand among the weightiest that he ever printed, — he admitted that there were certain cases where whatever was repugnant to sound policy ceased to be just. In the following December, Gibbon had got to the point of saying that, however the Government might resolve, he could scarcely give his consent to exhaust still further the finest country in the world by the prosecution of a war whence no reasonable man entertained any hope of success; in February 1778 he stated it as his opinion that Lord North did not deserve pardon for the past, applause for the present, nor confidence for the future; and on one critical occasion he passed from word to action, and voted with Fox in a division bearing on the conduct of the war.1 None the less, in the summer of the next year, he became a Lord Commissioner of Trade and Plantations. He joined a Board where, according to Edmund Burke, eight members of Parliament received salaries of a thousand pounds a year apiece for doing nothing except mischief, and not very much even of that;?
nd thenceforward, as by contract bound, he acted with the ministers. His story curiously illustrated the artificial and mechanical character of the support which enabled the Court to prolong the American war in opposition to the genuine wish of the people. Eleven
1 On February the end, 1778, Gibbon was in a minority of 165 to 259 on Fox's motion, “That no more of the Old Corps be sent out of the Kingdom.”
? Burke's Speech on presenting to the House of Commons a Plan for the better Security of the Independence of Parliament, and the Economical Reformation of the Civil and other Establishments. The passage relating to the Board of Trade and Plantations, - in itself a treasury of wit and wisdom, - covered a twelfth part of that vast oration, and must have taken twenty minutes to deliver. “I can never forget the delight with which that diffusive and ingenious orator was heard by all sides of the House, and even by those whose existence he proscribed. The Lords of Trade blushed at their own insignificance.” That good-humoured confession is from a note in the most comprehensive of Gibbon's numerous Autobiographies.
days before accepting office, Gibbon, in Brooks's Club, had informed as many of the members as stood within hearing that there could be no salvation for the country until the heads of six of the principal persons in the Administration were laid upon the table. That truculent sentence was carefully entered by Charles Fox in his copy of the “Decline and Fall," with the addition of some biting comments. Two years afterwards an execution took place at Fox's house, and all the volumes in his library were sold by auction ; - whether he had acquired them on credit at a shop, or, (which was the case here,) as a present from the author. Poor Charles's autograph enhanced the value of the History. "Such," wrote Walpole, “was the avidity of bidders for the smallest production of so wonderful a genius that, by the addition of this little record, the book sold for three
In default of these great authors whose names are still known, and whose works are still read, expectation was for a while concentrated upon a writer who then lived in a halo of celebrity which is now dim almost to extinction. Mrs. Catherine Macaulay, the sister of Lord Mayor Sawbridge, had for many years past been giving to the press a History of England from the Accession of the Stuart Family. Each successive volume was hailed by able, learned, and even cynical, men, (if only they were Whigs,) with admiration and delight quite incomprehensible to modern students. Mason pronounced Mrs. Macaulay's book the one history of England which he had thought it worth his while to purchase, and confessed his national pride to be gratified when he learned that, although her husband's name was Scotch, she herself had been born of English parents. Gray ranked her above every previous author
1 Last Journals ; June 20, 1781. Anthony Storer, writing to Lord Carlisle, gave a somewhat different account of the matter. « Charles's books, which were seized, were sold this week. Gibbon's book, which contained the manuscript note by Charles, was smuggled from the sale ; for, though Charles wished to have sold it, yet it never was put up. He bought in most of his books for almost nothing."
who had attempted the same subject, and thereby gave her the preference over Clarendon, Hume, and Burnet; 1 and Horace Walpole endorsed Gray's estimate in the most unqualified language. George, Lord Lyttelton, the historian of Henry the Second, said that she was a prodigy, — solemnly and sincerely, as he said everything, — and exhorted mankind to erect statues in her honour. Portraits of Mrs. Macaulay, in fancy characters, and by engravers of note, were on every print-seller's counter; and an artist came over from America expressly in order to model her and Lord Chatham in wax. She was one of the sights which foreigners were carried to see in London; and she met with flattering attentions in Paris, where England was so much in fashion that current English reputations were taken unreservedly, and sometimes even rapturously, on trust.
Among the more audacious thinkers in the society of the French capital enthusiasm was ecstatic with regard to a lady who was a republican by conviction, and the severity of whose strictures upon a State clergy were not prompted by the narrowness or fanaticism of a religious sectary.2
Overrated by some clever judges, and adulated by many foolish people in exceedingly foolish ways, Catherine Macaulay was at the height of her repute when the American controversy was developed into a war. In one month of 1776 three set panegyrics on her talents and deserts appeared in the columns of a single London newspaper.3 Readers were keenly excited by her promise of a “History of England from the Revolu
1 So did not Lord Macaulay. An industrious, but not very discerning, critic had remarked that Bishop Burnet's History of His Own Times was of a class with the works of Oldmixon, Kennett, and Macaulay. That lady's distinguished namesake wrote thus on the margin of the passage : “ Nonsense! Who reads Oldmixon now? Who reads Kennett ? Who reads Kate Macaulay? Who does not read Burnet ? "
2 "What could persuade the writer that Mrs. Macaulay was a Dissenter ? I believe her blood was not polluted with the smallest taint of that kind.” Extract from a letter, as given in Nichols's Literary Anecdotes ; Vol. IX., page 689.
8 The opening of a Birthday Address, (by a poet who was not afraid of repeating an adjective which pleased his fancy,) exemplifies the taste of