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SECOND, in date of birth, of the illustrious historic triad that graced the eighteenth century, was William Robertson, the son of a Scottish clergyman. Born at Borthwick, in Mid-Lothian, in the year 1721, he studied for the profession of his father; and at the age of twenty-two was presented to the living of Gladsmuir, in Haddingtonshire.
The quietude of his country manse was broken by few incidents, annual visits to the General Assembly at Edinburgh being, perhaps, the greatest events of the young minister's life. But the completion of every week's sermon left his pen trained to greater skill in the weaving of eloquent and dignified English sentences; and every new book, which the weekly carrier brought to the moorland manse from some dim old shop in the High Street of the metropolis, widened his views of society and civilization. In his country retirement history became his favourite study. Most ministers in his sphere are content with their pulpit-work, and their round of farm-house visits, travelling beyond the literary work required for their professional duty only to pen an occasional letter to the newspapers, or to prepare for a telling appearance, when summer calls the great Church Court into session. But Robertson was not content with this. He preached, and visited, and spoke admirably upon the great questions which in his day came to be debated in the General Assembly; but while he did these well, his leisure hours were devoted to building up a kind of réputation which these could never build. The Rev. William
ROBERTSON'S “HISTORY OF SCOTLAND.”
Robertson, a distinguished minister of the Scottish Church, would probably long ago have been forgotten, or, at least, only confounded with all the other Robertsons that have donned the pulpit-gown; but the name of William Robertson, the historian of Scotland, of Germany, and of America, cannot perish from the annals of our literature, while history is read by Englishmen.
In 1758 the country pastor, whose "Recreations" took a shape so noble and enduring, was promoted to Lady Yester's Church in
Edinburgh. And in the following year, the reading 1759 public— especially the literary men of London - were
electrified by the appearance of A History of Scotland
from this unknown minister's pen. Dealing with the reigns of Mary Stuart and her son, down to the accession of the latter to the English throne, he described, in pure, pathetic, and dignified language, the sorrows of that wretched Scotchwoman with a French soul, who saw so little of Holyrood and so much of English jails. He stands midway between those who believe her to have been a beautiful martyr, and those who brand her as a beautiful criminal. Agreeing with all writers as to the great loveliness of this beheaded Scottish queen, he considers that the intensity and long continuance of the sorrows, darkening over her whole life until the bloody catastrophe of Fotheringay, have blinded us to her faults, and that we therefore “approve of our tears, as if they were shed for a person who had attained much nearer to pure virtue.”
The minister of Lady Yester's became, in three years after the publication of this book, Principal of the University of Edinburgh; and soon received a striking mark of royal approval in his appointment as historiographer for Scotland. Not content to rest on the fame he had won, he pushed on to higher ground. His greatest
work, the History of Charles the Fifth of Germany, was 1769 published in 1769, ten years after the appearance of his first A.D. production. A rapid view of European politics and society
previous to the accession of the great Emperor, precedes the story of the reign, which is narrated in clear, majestic English. The materials from which Robertson drew his account of this
ROBERTSON'S HISTORICAL STYLE.
great central epoch of European history, have, since the day he wrote, been tested, and sifted, and reärranged, with all the valuable additions that time has brought. And while his great History still remains a standard work, valuable supplements stand beside it in our libraries, from which a new light shines on many portions of the character and reign of Charles the Fifth. The researches of Prescott the American historian, and Stirling of Keir, the latter of whom wrote “The Cloister Life of Charles V.,” give us another notion of the man Charles than we get from the purple and gold of Robertson's portraiture.
The fault of this great historian was one common to the chief writers of his time. Filled with an exaggerated idea of the dignity of history, he trembles at the thought of descending to so mean a thing as daily life. The Emperor moves before us in all bis grandeur, the rich velvet of his train sweeping in stately waves upon the marble that he treads. We know many of the laws he made, the wars he waged, the great public assemblies and pageants of which he was the brilliant central figure; but we know little of the man who dwelt within the gorgeous wrappings, for we see him as if on a lofty terrace, where he plays his magnificent part, while we stand far away at the foot of the stairs, humble spectators of the imperial drama. Of the many-hued life the people lived, we hear next to nothing. Such a treatment of history may be termed the statuesque, as contrasted with the picturesque pages of a writer like Macaulay. Stateliness and elegance are the characteristic features of Robertson's style; but, inseparable from these, we find a cold sameness and want of colour. He walks a minuet with the historic Muse; who, according to his notion of her, is a lady used only to the very best society, dressed in the perfection of the mode, her complexion heightened with the faintest brush of rouge, and withal too stately and precise in her manners and her gait to be charged with such crines as naturalness or ease.
Eight years passed before his third great work—The History of America-appeared. The story of Columbus fascinated his pen; and nowhere, perhaps, have we a finer specimen of stately narra
DEATH OF ROBERTSON.
tive than we possess in his description of the great first voyage of the Italian sailor, and his landing on the new-found western soil.
A year or two before his death, which occurred in 1793, at the Grange House, near Edinburgh, he published an Essay on the Earlier History of India; which, however, was founded on sources not always reliable or safe. This, indeed, is a fault more or less pervading all his works. Like Hume, he often adopted secondhand statements, without looking carefully into the evidence on which they rested; and even the grand march of a stately style can sometimes scarcely reconcile us to accept as history a narrative, of whose facts we are not sure, and whose descriptive passages may probably be, for aught we know, coloured with brighter than the natural tints, for the mere sake of rhetorical effect.
THE DISCOVERY OF AMERICA.
About two hours before midnight, Columbus, standing on the forecastle, observed a light at a distance, and privately pointed it out to Pedro Guttierez, a page of the queen's wardrobe. Guttierez perceived it, and calling to Salcedo, comptroller of the fileet, all three saw it in motion, as if it were carried from place to place. A little after midnight, the joyful sound of “Land ! laud !" was heard from the Pinta, which kept always ahead of the other ships. But having been so often deceived by fallacious appearances, every man was now become slow of belief, and waited in all the anguish of uncertainty and impatience for the return of day. As soon as morning dawned, all doubts and fears were dispelled. From every ship an island was seen about two leagues to the north, whose flat and verdant fields, well stored with wood, and watered with many rivulets, presented the aspect of a delightful country. The crew of the Pinta instantly began the Te Deum, as a hymn of thanksgiving to God, and were joined by those of the other ships with tears of joy and transports of congratulation. This office of gratitude to IIeaven was followed by an act of justice to their commander. They threw themselves at the feet of Columbus, with feelings of self-condemnation, mingled with reverence. They implored him to pardon their ignorance, incredulity, and insolence, which had created him so much unnecessary disquiet, and had so often obstructed the prosecution of his well-concerted plan; and passing, in the warmth of their admiration, from one extreme to another, they now pronounced the man whom they had so lately reviled and threatened, to be a person inspired by Heaven with sagacity and fortitude more than human, in order to accomplish a design so far beyond the ideas and conception of former ages.
As soou as the sun arose, all their boats were manned and armed. They rowed SPECIMEN OF ROBERTSON'S PROSE.
towarıls the island with their colours displayed, with warlike music, and other martinl pomp. As they approached the coast, they saw it covered with a multitude of people, whom the novelty of the spectacle had drawn together, whose attitudes and gestures expressed wonder and astonishment at the strange objects which presented themselves to their view. Columbus was the first European who set foot on the New World which he had discovered. He landed in a rich dress, and with a naked sword in his hand. His men followed, and, kneeling down, they all kissed the ground which they had so long desired to see. They next erected a crucifix, and prostrating themselves before it, returned thanks to God for conducting their voyage to such a happy issue. They then took solemn possession of the country for the crown of Castile and Leon, with all the formalities which the Portuguese were accustomed to observe in acts of this kind in their new discoveries.