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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.

VIII. Historical and Political Writers

§ 9. Letters on the Study and Use of History

In the ten or eleven years in which, from his fine and costly estate at Dawley—“Dawley Farm” he, characteristically, preferred to call it—Bolingbroke was influencing the political life of England, his thoughts were also occupied with ambitious literary projects. One of these was a history of his own times, which was to have extended from the peace of the Pyrenees to that of Utrecht, but of which only fragments survive. In the autumn of 1735, by which time he had established himself at Chanteloup, in Touraine, having now for some time alternated between philosophical and historical themes, he not unnaturally bethought himself of applying philosophical treatment to historical labours. The result was a series of Letters on the Study and Use of History, addressed by him, in the winter of this year, to Lord Cornbury, Clarendon’s great-grandson, afterwards Lord Hyde, a young nobleman of literary tastes and Jacobite leanings, who played a prominent part in Bolingbroke’s later literary life. It cannot be doubted that these Letters, which are stated to have been of all their author’s writings “the most read,” exercised an important influence upon the progress of historical studies and historical literature both in England and in France, where they inspired Voltaire. Bolingbroke, it has been said, was the first to divert English historical inquiry from the dead to the living; perhaps it might be asserted, more broadly, that he was the first English writer to recognise and illustrate the cardinal principle of the continuity of history. But, here again, the muse of history ends as the apologist of a particular chapter of political action. After the first of these eight Letters has discussed the motives from which different classes of men engage in the study of history—amusement, desire of display, the love of accumulation for accumulation’s sake—the second lays down the time-honoured maxim that history, rightly understood, is philosophy teaching by examples. Although Bolingbroke fails to perceive the radical futility of this theory as applied to a science which has its own work to perform, he is too shrewd not to guard himself, as he does in his third Letter, against an exaggerated use of his principle. Thus, when he reviews extant historical literature, it is in a sceptical spirit that he treats not only ancient history at large, but Jewish history and Scriptural chronology in particular. “The lying spirit,” he says in his fourth Letter, “has gone forth from ecclesiastical to other historians.” But the historical student is not, on that account, to despair; it is folly to endeavour “to establish universal Pyrrhonism in matters of history, because there are few histories without lies, and none without some mistakes.” A critical sifting will leave us still in possession of materials for historical study; the only difficulty, since life is short for the old, and busy for the young, is not to lose time by groping in the dark among them. Abridgments and mere compilations should be eschewed—the ancients are to be read, but modern history, beginning with the era in which a great change was wrought by the concurrence of extraordinary events, is to be studied. From this shallow generalisation, the writer proceeds to a severe judgment as to what English writers have done towards illustrating the division of modern history with which they are more particularly concerned.

  • “Our nation,” he says, “has furnished as ample and as important matter, good and bad, for history, as any nation under the sun; and yet we must yield the palm in writing history most certainly to the Italians and to the French, and I fear even to the Germans. The only two pieces of history we have, in any respect to be compared with the ancient, are the reign of Henry VII, by my Lord Bacon, and the history of our civil wars by your noble ancestor, my Lord Chancellor Clarendon. But we have no general history to be compared with some of other countries; neither have we, which I lament much more, particular histories, except the two I have mentioned, nor writers of memorials, nor collectors of monuments and anecdotes to vie in number or in merit with those that foreign nations can boast.…”
  • Bolingbroke knew very little about the memorials which were either at the disposal of students of the national history or awaiting resuscitation; but the truth of his remarks as to the slow progress of English historical literature to a conception of its highest and comprehensive purposes is made sufficiently clear by any consecutive survey of it, such as has been attempted in these volumes. By way of exemplifying his meaning, Bolingbroke, in his sixth Letter, gives a brief view of the ecclesiastical and of the civil government in Europe in the beginning of the sixteenth century, and in his two remaining Letters carries on this survey, with far greater fulness, from the treaty of the Pyrenees to his own day. This portion of the series may be reckoned among the most effective and enjoyable of Bolingbroke’s writings. He alludes, in one of these Letters, to his intention of writing a history of the latter part of the reign of William III and of the reign of Anne—of which he says more in a separate Letter, apparently addressed to Lord Bathurst. The two concluding Letters of the series are admirably clear and concise; nor could anything be better, in its way, than the account of the growth of the power of France from Richelieu onwards, and the preservation of her preponderance notwithstanding the Triple Alliance. The last Letter is instinct with strong personal feeling, though it maintains a polished calm and, unlike much of Bolingbroke’s political writing, seeks to convince by argument rather than by eloquence and wit. He is fair to William III’s unsuccessful endeavours to settle the Spanish succession by peace, and allows that the war was really unavoidable. The pivot of his argument is that England did not enter into the war to dispossess Philip, but that the English government adopted this point of view in 1706 and persisted in it even after the death of the emperor Joseph I. For economic reasons, it had then become the duty of the British government to make peace, and those who opposed it—the emperor and the arrogant whigs—were responsible for England’s not obtaining better terms at Utrecht. The pessimistic conclusion of the Letter is more in the author’s usual vein, lamenting the condition of the state, composed of “a king without monarchical splendour, a senate of nobles without aristocratic independency, and a senate of commons without democratic freedom,” and a general decay of society to match.

    About the time when Bolingbroke sketched a plan of European history for Lord Bathurst, a tory peer who was the friend of Congreve, Pope and Sterne, he also composed, for the edification of the same recipient, A Letter on the True Use of Retirement and Study (1736). This effort has been very diversely judged; but it can hardly be denied to be a very readable essay on what may be called the philosophy of life, part of which it sees very justly. Though the author nowhere probes human nature very deeply, his diagnosis is keen and his statement of its results forcible without cynicism.