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of biography—thus helping us to a knowledge of the movements of mankind, or of individual character, by its written disclosures. Our English literature is enriched with collections of remarkable and very various interest: so varied as to furnish an abundant adaptation to different tastes. In treating this subject, my aim will be to endeavour not to wander off into either history or biography, but, as far as possible, to confine my attention to the epistolary literature in itself, making some comments on the principal collections, and incidentally considering the character of a true letter. "It happens not unfrequently that the form of the letter is assumed for the sake of convenience, when neither the writer nor the hearer is at all deluded in the belief that the production is what is usually understood by the term “a letter,” or epistle. Essays, disquisitions, satires, wear the epistolary name and garb, fulfilling a not unreasonable fancy of the writer that such a medium interposes less of formality between him and his readers, and, indeed, brings them into closer and more life-like relations—the letter being somehow more of a reality between the writer and the recipient, than a book is between the author and the reader. The “Drapier's Letters" of Swift, Bolingbroke's Letter to Wyndham, the “ Letters of Junius," Burke's “Reflections on the French Revolution,” and other similar productions, of which there are many with an epistolary designation, do not belong to the proper class of “Letters ;" to which class I propose to confine my attention--at the outset simply suggesting to your minds that it is a subject which does not admit of convenient illustration in a Lecture.
I have arranged this subject under the two general di
visions “historical letters” and “familiar letters”-an arrangement which may be found convenient in the general consideration of it, but which makes no pretension to any thing of logical precision. Under the first head, I do not propose to limit the class to public or official correspondence, but rather to comprehend such letters, whether public or private, which subserve a knowledge of history, and are thus valuable in the study of it: while the second class, being under a more exact principle of classification, is intended to include those private letters, the nature of which is readily understood by the title “ Familiar Letters;" and the true aim and character of which I will endeavour to explain, when I come to that division of my subject.
Lord Bacon, in his treatise on the Advancement of Learning—that great legacy, so rich in counsel for the guidance of inquiry in various departments of human knowledge, that treasury of sagacious sentences of advice-has specially referred to letters among what he calls the “appendices” to history. “Letters,” he says, “ are according to all the variety of occasions, advertisements, advices, directions, propositions, petitions, commendatory, expostulatory, satisfactory; of compliment, of pleasure, of discourse, and all other passages of action. And such as are written from wise men are, of all the words of
man, in my judgment, the best ; for they are more natural than orations and public speeches, and more advised than conferences or private ones. So, again, letters of affairs from such as manage them, or are privy to them, are, of all others, the best instructions for history, and, to
igent reader, the best histories in themselves.” Another wise counsellor, in a later day, the late Dr.
Arnold, speaking words of special advice to the student of history, after noticing that “alchemy which can change apparently dull (historical) materials into bright gold,”
some of the great men of our age have, in all probability, left some memorials of their minds behind them-speeches, it may be, or letters, or a journal; or, possibly, works of a deeper character, in which they have handled, expressly and deliberately, some of the questions which most interested their generation. Now, if our former researches have enabled us to people our view of the past with many images of events, institutions, usages, titles, etc., to make up with some completeness what may be called the still life of the picture, we shall next be anxious to people it also with the images of its great individual men, to change it, as it were, from a landscape or a view of buildings, to what may truly be called an historical picture. Whoever has made himself famous by his actions, or even by his rank or position in society, so that his name is at once familiar to our ears, such a man's writings have an interest for us even before we begin to read them; the instant that he gets up, as it were, to address us, we are hushed into the deepest attention. These works give us an insight not only into the spirit of an age, as exemplified in the minds of its greatest men, but they multiply, in some sort, the number of those with whom we are personally and individually in sympathy; they enable us to recognise, amid the dimness of remote and uncongenial ages, the features of friends and of brethren."
Of the many indications of the great activity and zeal of historical research and study, which distinguishes the present times, none is more remarkable than the care which has been bestowed in collecting and publishing the letters, official and private, of men eminent in their day and in the thoughts of posterity-men illustrious in civil or military life. Within a short period this has grown to be an extensive and most valuable department of historical literature; and the light that has issued from it has not only dispelled frequently much of traditional, oft-repeated error, but given to the historian, both student and writer, larger privileges of power to gain the truth, and new duties in striving for it. It is within a few years past that English history has been illustrated by the publication of Cromwell's letters, of the letters of the Duke of Marlborough, the Stuart papers, the letters to and from the leader of that luckless family during all their years of hope and despair for the recovery of the throne of England, the correspondence of Lord Chatham, the despatches of Nelson, and all the despatches and general orders of the Duke of Wellington, beginning at a camp in India and closing after the battle of Waterloo. In American history, the contributions of epistolary materials have been no less valuable; for we have the whole series of the letters of Washington, extending through his career of military and civil services, and illustrating both his public and private life; the letters of Dr. Franklin, comprehending a scientific, as well as political, career, and the composite collection of letters from various pens, entitled “The Diplomatic Correspondence of the Revolution and of the period of the Confederation.” Many other collections of letters have appeared both in England and the United States; but the most important which I have mentioned amply exemplify the extent to which history has of late received contributions of this kind.
Their general historical value I need not stop to speak of; but let me remark that, as many minds are attracted by biography, and find in the deeds and words of their fel. low-men individually an interest and sympathy more vivid than that which general history inspires, a collection of letters may have such completeness--may be so identified, both as to time and the participation of the writer in public events that history may be read in the letters, and thus achieved through the medium of biography. It is a method of reading which will be found very agreeable, as well as instructive, and has a peculiar advantage, too, in giving the reader that discipline of mind which may be gained by the effort, to which he is attracted consciously, or unawares, of giving something of historical consistency to the informal and familiar narrative of events found in a series of letters; and, further, the moral discipline of freer opinion, instead of that more submissive process of always having his mind made up for him by that kind of historical dictation of which Charles Lamb complained, when he said, "The modern historian flings at once the dead weight of his own judgment into the scale, and settles the matter,” when a wider and more independent sense of truth would come to a less arbitrary conclusion.
To all readers of history, whether the taste be for pure history or for biography, a letter will often give a reality to an historical occurrence, the truth of which is otherwise much less life-like. Allow me to give an illustration of this in a well-known incident in our own history. I refer to what may be considered the very last fact in the history of the war of American Independence, the shaking of hands as it were, when the fighting was done, the re