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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.

XII. Historians

§ 6. William Robertson and his Histories; their value

In 1759, William Robertson, a presbyterian minister of Edinburgh, published his History of Scotland during the Reigns of Queen Mary and of James VI until his Accession to the Crown of England, in two volumes: it was received with general applause and had a large sale. Robertson was rewarded by his appointment as principal of Edinburgh university in 1762, and as historiographer royal. In 1769 appeared his History of Charles V in three volumes, for which he received £4500, a larger sum than had ever been paid for a historical work: it brought him an European reputation; it was translated into French in 1771; Voltaire declared that it made him forget his woes, and Catherine II of Russia, who sent him a gold snuff-box, that it was her constant travelling companion. His History of America, in two volumes, recording the voyages of discovery, conquests and settlements of the Spaniards, was published in 1771, and, in 1791, his Disquisition concerning the Knowledge which the Ancients had of India.

Robertson paid more attention to authorities than Hume did, but sometimes misunderstood them, besides being uncritical, and apt to be superficial. Like Hume, he comments on events in a philosophic strain; but his comments are often commonplace, and like Hume, too, he fails to appreciate the forces at work in great social or political movements. Nevertheless, he had the historic sense in a measure given to none of his contemporaries before Gibbon: he had some idea of the interdependence of events and of the unity of history as one long drama of human progress to which even checks in this direction or that contribute fresh forces. His History of Scotland is remarkably fair, though, here and elsewhere, he shows a strong protestant bias: his mistaken view of the character and aims of Esme Stewart, earl of Lennox, is probably connected with the earl’s “firm adhesion to the protestant faith.” In common with Hume, he did not satisfy the more ardent admirers of Mary, queen of Scots; and, in reply to both, William Tytler, a writer to the signet and a member of the Select Society, wrote his Inquiry as to the Evidence against her, in two volumes (1760), which passed through four editions and was twice translated into French. Before him, Walter Goodall, the advocates’ sub-librarian, had defended her in his Examination of the [Casket] Letters &c., in two volumes (1754), an ingenious book, proving that the French versions of the letters were translated; and so the endless dispute began.

Robertson’s Charles V opens with a view of the “Progress of Society during the Middle Ages,” which Hallam praises highly and Carlyle, in boyhood, found inspiring. His misrepresentation of the state of learning, especially among the clergy, from the eighth to the eleventh century, has been exposed by Maitland: it illustrates the contempt with which he, in common with Hume, regarded the Middle Ages, his careless use of authorities, his tendency to hasty generalisation and his religious bias. Other defects might be pointed out, but, though his review can no longer be regarded as authoritative, it is interesting and meritorious as the earliest attempt made by a British historian to present, on a large scale, a general view of history. In his work on the emperior’s reign, his record of events, though insufficient and, occasionally, inaccurate, is, on the whole, more trustworthy than his estimate of their significance or of the characters and conduct of the chief actors in them. His erroneous description of the emperor’s life at Yuste, as withdrawn from this world’s affairs, is due to the authorities he used: in his day, access had not been allowed to the records at Simancas which have enabled later writers to give a very different account of it.