The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume X. The Age of Johnson.
§ 9. Gibbon establishes himself in London and enters Parliament
The death of Gibbon’s father involved the son in a mass of uncongenial business, and, in the end, he found himself far from being a wealthy man. Still, he had saved enough from the wreck to be able, in the autumn of 1772, to establish himself in London, where he found easy access to the materials which he needed for the progress of his great work, together with the stimulus, which he could ill spare, of intellectual society in club and drawing-room. In 1774, he entered the House of Commons, and, two years later, the first volume of The Decline and Fall was published.
The success of his political venture, in itself, was moderate; but he has recorded that “the eight sessions that I sat in parliament were a school of civil prudence, the first and most essential virtue of an historian.” Although, while sitting for Liskeard till 1781 and then for Lymington till 1783, he remained a silent member, he voted steadily for Lord North’s government and, afterwards, adhered to him in his coalition with Fox. In 1779, he was rewarded for his public fidelity by a commissionership of trade and plantations, which he held till its abolition in 1782. The salary of the office was of much importance to him; indeed, he thought himself unable to live in England without it, and when, on its suppression, he was disappointed in his hopes of other official employment, he, in the year before the downfall of the coalition, “left the sinking ship and swam ashore on a plank.” In truth, Gibbon was so conscious of his complete lack of the requisite gifts that (as he apologetically confesses) he rapidly relinquished the “fleeting illusive hope of success in the parliamentary arena.” He was, however, persuaded, by Lords Thurlow and Weymouth, to indite, in the shape of a Mémoire Justificatif (1778), a reply to an official vindication by the government of Louis XVI of its conduct towards Great Britain. This paper, which denounces the intervention of the French government in Great Britain’s quarrel with her American colonies, and the delusive Spanish offer of mediation, is a state manifesto rather than a diplomatic document, and resembles some of the publicistic efforts put forth a generation later by Gentz—if not the productions of Gentz’s model, Burke.