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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IX. From Steele and Addison to Pope and Swift.

VII. Historical and Political Writers

§ 12. Characteristics of the Work

When we pass on to consider the design and execution of The History as a whole, we may agree that the preface which Burnet wrote in 1702, when setting about the recasting of the work undertaken by him twenty years before, is high-strung, and that the tone of solemn responsibility in which it is indited is not maintained by the spirit of some of the passages of the work which follows. But the plan of narrating the history of half a century of the national life (his actual work somewhat exceeds this limit) could not but present itself to Burnet’s mind, when once more, as it were, contemplating it from the threshold, as a task of high purpose, and he might well entertain a hope that his narrative would “awaken the world to just reflections on their own errors and follies.” It was (as Ranke suggests) as a kind of protest against the reaction confronting him in state and church that he undertook to produce his recast History—a protest on behalf of the principle of resistance, which he had himself only gradually adopted, but which had now lost ground, and on behalf of the principle of comprehension, for which even his friends the whigs and their nonconformist protégés had become content to substitute that of an extended toleration. He asked the public to accept his book as designed for this end; but, on its appearance, the public was slow to receive it in the spirit with which, when he wrote his preface, there is no difficulty in believing him to have been filled.

Its sincerity—that is to say, its veracity of intention as well as of detail—was, from the first, disputed by irreconcilable censors. It was pronounced to be not only “full of legend and false secret tradition,” but, also, to be full of omissions which the author would not have found any difficulty in avoiding. Bolingbroke did not wish it to be left unread, but declared that it must be read as a party pamphlet. Yet there can be little doubt that, though inaccurate by nature, and a victim to the credulity natural to those in whom the desire for information about facts and persons is the least controllable part of their minds, Burnet was neither intentionally unveracious nor essentially untruthful, nor even, by disposition, ungenerous and unfair. What really discredited him, as it has very few other historians of high and honourable intentions and of gifts such as his, was the flaw in his intellect, no doubt deepened by his habits of life—for he was always inquiring, and always writing—which may be described as the weakness of its critical faculty. He had habituated himself to take things for true without inquiring into the evidence for their truth, and thus, when hearsay coincided with his wishes, his foot was sure to find its way into the trap.

By the side of this defect, his partisanship, even had it not been exaggerated by some of his commentators and critics, who were unable to recognise the honesty of purpose which underlay most of his judgments, as well as most of the changes which he introduced into them, is, in itself, of quite secondary importance. And it should be remembered that, though Burnet was not any more successful than was Clarendon in emancipating himself from the influences by which he was surrounded and in accordance with which he shaped his own ecclesiastical and political actions, he did not, as Ranke has well shown, during the reign of Charles II, stand in the actual centre of affairs, or possess the key to the religious and foreign policy of which he observed the unsatisfactory results. His relations with William and Mary became, after a time, intimate at the Hague, and continued so with her after her accession to the throne; but, even in this reign, and much more in that of queen Anne, the part which he played in the history of his times, important though it was, remained only a secondary part; and his life was not, like Clarendon’s, merged in the management of the monarchy. At the same time, he knew all the chief men of his age, both English and Scottish, and, as a collector of materials, used his opportunities with unvarying assiduity.