The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIV. The Victorian Age, Part Two.

II. Historians, Biographers and Political Orators

§ 3. Henry Hallam

It was only at a relatively advanced stage of Lingard’s career as a historian—in 1835—that he made acquaintance with the historical work of his contemporary Henry Hallam, a typically national figure among eminent English Hallam, a typically national figure among eminent English writers of history. Eton and Oxford, although they had helped to form the man and give him free access to what was best in the social, political and intellectual life of his generation, had done little else to equip him for the career which he preferred to bar or parliament. Inasmuch as he enjoyed, throughout life, ample leisure and easy conditions of existence, he could take his time about both reading and writing; but he used these opportunities with a conscientious thoroughness such as no class-room training or examinationroom system could have surpassed in effectiveness. The “classic Hallam,” as Byron chose to call the Edinburgh reviewer whose sole avowed pretensions to fame had, so far, consisted in his contributions to Musae Etonenses (1795), spent more than a decade in preparing his first book, which, on its appearance (in 1818), revealed itself at once as what every production of Hallam’s maturity became as a matter of course—a “standard” work of historical literature and learning. In A View of the State of Europe during the Middle Ages, he undertook to subject to a philosophical survey the course of European history, as a whole, during the ten centuries from the great popular migrations to the formation of the chief states of modern Europe, and, at the same time, to consider the special growth of each particular state. In this truly comprehensive essay, Hallam showed himself both too restrained and too surefooted to lapse into mere generalities, although the work cannot, of course, rank with Guizot’s rather later Historie de la Civilisation en France, which, though unfinished, also overshadowed the same writer’s earlier and more concise Histoire générale de la Civilisation en Europe. The chapter on England in The Middle Ages unmistakably announces the future historian of the English constitution, with his consciousness of the value, for an insight into the political and social development of a nation, of an enquiry into the continuous growth of its laws. For the rest, the limits of Hallam’s gifts as a historian are manifest in the earliest of his works; but, together with them, there becomes apparent the unflinching severity of his moral judgment, the most distinctive note of, what Mignet calls him, “the magistrate of history.”

In 1827 was published the best known of Hallam’s works— known, because of the clearness and solidity that still keep it a text-book of the subject which it treats, and which, to the large majority of students of English history, is the sum and substance of all that compels their interest in the national past. We may regret, especially in view of the great internal changes undergone by this country in the epoch of Hallam’s later manhood, that he should have fixed the death of George II as the terminus ad quem of his Constitutional History of England; and we may wish, since he would thus have widened the point of view of a long succession of English learners of history, that he had drawn the line of the book’s terminus a quo at the beginning of the middle ages instead of at their close; albeit, in this respect, his own Middle Ages, in some measure, and the later works of Stubbs and others most effectively supplemented his labours, and gave true unity to the whole subject. Hallam’s own political opinions, however, would hardly have carried him as a historian through the periods of revolution in France and democratic reform at home; he distinctly dissociated himself from the Reform bill movement of 1830–2, and showed a distrust of the multitude which even Sir Archibald Alison’s could hardly have surpassed; while his heart was with the constitutional progress which, after the violent interruption of the Civil war and the ensuing interregnum, was consummated in the revolution of 1688, and crowned by the passing of the Act of settlement. In other words, Hallam was a whig of the “finality” school; what he approved and admired in our laws and institutions was their power of endurance, after they had resulted from centuries of conflict with the pretensions of the prerogative, which came over with foreign conquest, while the principles of the nation’s laws were rooted in its own past. This conflict forms, as it were, the heart or nucleus of his story; nor does it lose anything of its sternness or of its inner consistency in his hands. His style is without fascination, charm or richness; but it is raised above a mere business tone by the sense manifest beneath it of great issues worthy of arduous struggles; so that it never wearies, just as the great interests of life which it befits a man to cherish—the cause of the commonweal and of personal freedom—never grow stale. Of these things, Hallam’s work is, as it were, the representative; what lies beyond, it ignores. Hallam’s Constitutional History was, at a later date (1861–3), adequately continued by Sir Thomas Erskine May, who had made a name for himself by his standard work, The Rules, Orders and Proceedings of the House of Commons (1854). His Constitutional History is distinguished both by the admirable perspicuity of its arrangement and by the decisive clearness of its tone. Walter Bagehot’s The English Constitution (1867) will be briefly noticed elsewhere.

When, in his last great book, Hallam once more passed out of the domain of politics into that of literature, and undertook, with impartial eye and undeflected judgment, to furnish an Introduction to the Literature of Europe during the Fifteenth, Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (1837–9), it was as if he desired to bequeath to the world of letters the knowledge he had garnered during a long life. He had remained a stranger to few fields of literary study and become familiar with most of the homes of European civilisation, since its new birth in the land which he had probably loved next to his own, and which, in his later years, had been specially endeared to him by its varied associations with the two sons whose names will always be remembered with that of their father. The work, which, to this day, few literary students would be willing to spare, illustrates, more than any other of his productions, the equity as well as the acumen of his critical conclusions; but the form it takes is too compressed for it to satisfy more exacting demands. Without being reticent where candour is called for, or shallow where great depths have to be sounded, it offers a model of an introductory survey that needs to be filled up with the comments and illustrations of the best kind of ciceroneship; and, though necessarily it must fail more and more to satisfy in parts, it will, as a whole, long challenge supersession.