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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

§ 3. Memoires of the Hamiltons

The Memoires of the Lives and Actions of James and William Dukes of Hamilton and Castleherald grew out of a series of visits to Hamilton, where Anne, the gifted wife of the third, and daughter of the first, duke, gave the eager young professor access to her father’s, and her husband’s, papers. Thus, it naturally suggested itself to him to compose a work on the lines which had already been followed in numerous French memoirs, although, to quote Burnet’s preface, “there is but one in this country that hath hitherto written in that Method, and his Collections are so well received that it gives great encouragement to anyone who will follow him in it.” In other words, Rushworth was Burnet’s exemplar; and, in an interesting disquisition in this preface, he argues in favour of the change of plan which, in accordance with the advice of Sir Robert Moray, esteemed by Burnet the wisest and worthiest man of the age, he had adopted, in substituting for a historical relation a series of original documents, connected with one another by a narrative thread. Some of these links (the account, for instance, of Scottish church affairs from the reformation; the summary of Montrose’s chances; the story of James duke of Hamilton’s escape from Windsor; and the character of the duke following on the long account of his trial, with farewell letters, dying speech and prayer) are clear and impressive pieces of writing; but the interest of the work, as a whole, lies in the documents, as to which we have Gardiner’s assurance that “the general accuracy of the book bears the test of a comparison” with the Hamilton papers examined by himself. Burnet’s work, by reason, rather than in spite, of its pragmatic character, has a place of its own in English historical literature. Whether its purpose of vindicating the character of the first duke of Hamilton from the reflections freely cast upon it was successfully accomplished is not a question which calls for discussion here. Failure was the result of practically every undertaking in which he engaged, from his expedition in support of Gustavus Adolphus to his invasion of England at the head of a Scottish army; and his conciliatory spirit in public, as well as in private, affairs (he was a chief supporter of Dury’s scheme for the union of the protestant churches) is no set-off against his repeated lack of insight as well as of resolution. His brother William, the second duke, of whose experiences up to his death at Worcester Burnet treats in a short concluding seventh book, was of a quicker, brisker and more determined nature; but there is a touch of pathos in the story of his “good end.”