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

§ 31. Sir J. R. Seeley

The career of Sir John Robert Seeley, who, though less intimately connected with public life, and less gifted for taking a personal part in it than Goldwin Smith, exercised a far more enduring influence upon imperial politics than he, was of the least eventful. At Cambridge, he won high distinction as a classical scholar; but his great ability in argument was only known to a few; and when, being then professor of Latin in London, he was discovered to be the author of Ecce Homo, published in 1865, the admiration excited by the book, amidst an outburst of controversy, was largely due to its literary qualities. Paradoxically enough, it led to his appointment, in 1869, as regius professor of modern history at Cambridge. His inaugural lecture was published, together with some other lectures and essays delivered by him in the north, in a collection of Lectures and Essays (1870).

Seeley’s standpoint as a historical teacher and writer was clear to himself from the first. In the opening sentence of the most successful of his works, The Expansion of England, he cites “a favourite maxim of mine,” that history, “while it should be scientific in its methods, should pursue a practical object.” This object was practical politics. As a new type of sophist, he set himself the task of training, by his lectures and conversation, the statesmen of the future; the time was not far distant when his applied history would serve to impress upon the nation political lessons of which it seemed to him to stand in need. But he was aware that, while engaged upon this task, he must prove his fitness for it by the production of a historical work of solid merit; and this he was enabled to do by the publication of his Life and Times of Stein, or Germany and Prussia in the Napoleonic Age (1878). The work, which was the fruit of great labour, though hardly of what could justly be called original research, might have filled, at least for a time, a gap in the historical literature of the age in question; for it appeared midway between the monument of the great statesman piled up by Pertz and the later elucidations of his career, and of its bearings upon German and European history, by Max Lehmann and others. The success to which Seeley’s volumes attained was little more than a success of esteem: although he had attentively studied his subject, he was hardly quite at home in the whole of it; and, though clearly, and, in parts, effectively, written, the work failed to establish itself as one of those great political biographies which may be supplemented or corrected, but are quite unlikely to be ever superseded.

In 1883, Seeley put forth the series of Cambridge lectures on the foreign policy of Great Britain to which he gave the title The Expression of England in the Eighteenth Century. Few political historians have more felicitously carried out the avowed purpose of combining a lucid and connected narrative of a period of the past with a statement of conclusions bearing directly upon political problems of the present. Imperialism, the very opposite system to that cherished by Goldwin Smith and those who thought with him, was here demonstrated to be the ideal which it behoved the British nation to accept and apply as the moving factor in the determination of the future of British dominion. And this dogma was proclaimed at a time when, in British and colonial political life, a parting of the ways still seemed possible; so that no half-historical, half-political essay was ever more opportunely timed, or more effectively directed to its purpose.

Seeley’s last work, The Growth of British Policy, was not published till after his death, which took place in 1895. This book is described by its editor, G. W. Prothero, as an attempt to put English history into a new framework, showing how foreign policy affected every stage of its progress. It was intended to be, in substance, an introduction to the history of British policy in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; but the author had to trace the current of his narrative back to Elizabeth, who, as he puts it, was married to her people, whereas James I and Charles I were only married to Anne of Denmark and Henrietta Maria. Seeley avowed it to be his object as a teacher, not to interest his hearers or readers in particular men or deeds, but to show them what results the national action of former times had brought about for ourselves and our children after us, and thus to interest them more and more “to the close.” “It is impossible,” he candidly added, “that the history of any state can be interesting, unless it exhibits some sort of development.”