« ZurückWeiter »
REDIARKS UPON BISHOP BURNETT'S HISTORY
OF HIS OWN TINIE.
LORD Dartmouth, in his Notes upon the best known and most popular of Bishop Burnett's works, the History of his own Time, has made this unqualified declaration,-a declaration in accordance with the rest of the calumnies against our author, whether avowed or anonymous: “I wrote” says his Lordship,“ in the first volume of this book, that I did not believe the Bishop designedly published anything he believed to be false; therefore, think myself obliged to write in this, that I am fully satisfied that he published many things that he knew to be so:" and at the close of the work, where Burnett "prays God that his History may be read with the same candour and sincerity which he had written it,” his malignant censurer adds, “ thus piously ends the most partial, malicious heap of scandal and misrepresentation that was ever collected for the laud. able desigu of giving a false impression of persons and things to all future ages.” However, a more liberal and enlightened commen. tator has justly refuted this sweeping accusation. “ His History,” observes Dr. Routh, “is one which will never lose its importance, but will continue to furnish materials for other historians, and to be read by those who wish to derive their knowledge of facts from the first sources of information. The accuracy of his narration has often been attacked with vehemence, and often, it must be confessed, with success; but not so often as to overthrow the general credit of his work. On the contrary, it has, in many instances,
October, 1835.-VOL. III. NO. XIII.
been defended ; and time has already evinced the truth of certain records which rested on his single authority.”*
Now it will be readily admitted by all, that he who voluntarily takes
himself to record the transactions of his own time for the instruction of posterity, engages in an office, not only of grave responsibility, but, perhaps, as thankless as can possibly be imagined : for, however severely he may be trained in the school of discretion, he will be sure to give offence to those of his contemporaries who, according to certain rooted and pre-conceived opinions, think that their own good actions cannot be too highly magnified, or their own faults too lightly censured. Unquestionably, no man is called upon to transmit to future ages the virtues or vices of his contemporaries. But if, for the benefit of his country, he will impose upon himself this task, he must know no middle line between right and wrong-he must shun all casuistry—he must show himself immeasurably superior to those who, actuated by a morbid love of popularity, make it their chief aim and intent to place the actions of their contemporaries in a flattering point of view; and whose pens, therefore, are ever silent when an honest declaration of opinion, and a fearless testimony to important but disagreeable truths may be required. Equal freedom and justice, then, must be used in speaking of the living as well as of the dead, if any one writer wish to render his work subservient to a great moral
purpose, and to be known in after ages as the steady friend of human improvement and the true lover of his country. Nothing, therefore, can be more just than the remark, that impartiality is the most difficult of all virtues. To keep our faculties unbiassed, and not to suffer them to embrace one side or other of a question, appears so impracticable, that few writers have acquired sufficient strength of mind to display this rare independence. It is, indeed, as uncommon to find two cases in which the combination of circum
* Preface, p. 1., Oxford Edit. of Burnett's History of his own Time.-It reflects great credit upon the wisdom and liberality of an University so often and loudly reproached for its high principles of toryism in church and state, that the work of a whig Bishop should have issued, a century after his death, from the Clarendon Press. This surely must be regarded, by moderate men of all parties, as an unequivocal sign of the commencement of truer and juster notions respecting the author and his book; and should teach carping critics to set a higher value upon the excellences of both.
stances is exactly similar, as it is for men not to fall into opposite extremes in speaking of the same persons and the same actions. And it is also a failing no less common to every class of political reasoners, when they engage in the discussion of practical subjects of great interest, to deliver their opinions with an earnestness and passion which, to him who takes only an ordinary concern in such discussions, must pass for heat and personality. I would not, of course, be understood to apply these observations to the justification of any history deformed by violence and exaggeration. But when particular objects and particular occurrences come to be viewed through the magnifying glasses of party, it is matter even of vulgar remark, that it is difficult to distinguish between favouring and lying
Had Burnett, then, in the History of his own Time, acknowledged no influence but what the strictest impartiality could avow, -had he always sought to disentangle truth from error, instead of permitting himself, according to the uncharitable criticisms of his opponents, to write upon the faith of popular rumour and prejudice, from the very peculiar circumstances of the times in which he lived and wrote, not to be occasionally mistaken would have been difficult, not to have offended, impossible ; since he had events to record in which many a leading character was a problem.
It will, indeed, ever be remembered, by those who do not studiously seek to disparage the justness of our Author's conclusions, that his narrative treats of those periods of our country in which the human mind was deeply and roughly stirred in which all the combustible elements of character were in full play and development. Plots, conspiracies, hair-breadth escapes, the
purse, and the dagger, held sway in high places. There was a mighty fermentation throughout the political world. All was enterprise, boldness, and activity. The more attractive prizes in the lottery of life were beginning to be brought within the reach of a larger portion of the community. Accordingly we find that the questions which then pervaded and agitated the breasts of the many, were liberty of conscience, the limits of obedience, the rights of resist
and the corruption of the Romish Church. In this state of things, when the discordant parts of society had not yet amalga,
mated, but existing in a somewhat chaotic disorder, produced those various jarrings which nourish the fiercest and most unbridled passions—when the national mind seemed to have obtained only a glimpse of the glorious race which, by means of a free press,
it destined hereafter to rum—and when the affairs of courts, the intrigues of cabinets, and the influence of secret negociations in the relative situation of kingdoms, were considered as mysteries, not always to be unfolded even to those who lived in intimacy with the conductors of such operations; it were the height of malice and slander to impute to a premeditatel perversion of truth, the errors of him who told the story of such a period. When, indeed, we think of the large field Burnett has traversed, and of the difficulties with which he had to contend, we must allow that these circumstances, if all candour had not been banished from his adversaries, should have put to silence their misrepresentations of his honest and enlightened labours, and have changed their railings against his occasional mistakes and wrong conelusions, into a conviction of the
general fairness of his statements, and of his accuracy, and the extent of his informations
In treating of a period such as I have just described, it cannot fail to occur to every reflecting reader, as a natural and obvious consideration, that with Burnett's temperament, his passions were sure to be warmly actuated, and his prejudices to be strongly interested in the events he had to relate. These feelings, therefore, must be duly weighed. We must take the chaff with the wheat, we must suffer the tares to grow up with the rich grain, until the harvest of time shall have enabled us to separate them. From the following sentence it is evident that our historian judged himself as severely as his neighbours; and, therefore, if the mistakes of conduct into which his impetuosity of temper betrayed him cannot be defended by this explanation, the manliness and sincerity with which he avows them ought to render him, in other respects, worthy of public confidence. “I find,” says he, “that the long expe. rience I have had of the baseness, the malice, and the falsehood of mankind, has inclined me to be apt to think generally the worst both of men and parties : and, indeed, the peevishness, the ill-nature, and the ambition of many clergymen, has sharpened my spi