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

§ 9. Sir Archibald Alison

The career of Sir Archibald Alison as a historical writer resembles lord Macaulay’s in the rapid (though, in Alison’s case, not sudden) rise to abnormal popularity, but differs from it in other respects, and, above all, in the gradual dwindling of his reputation into that of the writer of a useful summary, whose opinions on most subjects may safely be assumed even without consulting him. Alison, herein, again, like Macaulay, was a successful essay-writer as well as historian; in quantity, at least, his contributions to Blackwood’s Magazine can hardly have been rivalled. In 1829, he planned a history of the first French revolution, partly under the influence of Cléry and Huc’s account of the last days of Louis XVI, and still more under that of impressions and ideas which had occupied him since his visit—the first of many—to Paris in 1814. After his History of Scottish Criminal Law had appeared in 1832–3, in the latter year the first two volumes of his History of Europe from 1798 to 1815 followed. He was not daunted by the silence of the great reviews, or by the indifference of most other criticism; and the remaining eight volumes of the work came out at regular intervals—the last being completed by him (with some solemnity) in time for publication on Waterloo day, 1842. Later editions followed, both at home and in the United States; and the work was translated into French, German and Arabic. Its success was unbroken, and, in 1852, he began a Continuation of the History from 1815 to that year, which he finished in 1859. In spite of the wide popularity of the original work, the Continuation met with a cold reception from historical critics and was again strangely ignored where it might have been expected to be congenially welcomed. The researches on which it rested were, necessarily, less extensive than those which had been made by Alison for his earlier volumes; the archives of Europe had scarcely begun to reveal the secret history of these later years. Although, as a whole, the work cannot fairly be said to have fallen flat, its political and social pessimism came to be taken as a matter of course; and the whole of The History of Europe is now falling into oblivion. Not the least interesting, though the most prolix, of its author’s lesser productions is his (posthumously published) Autobiography (to 1862). His life (he long held the sheriffship of Lanarkshire) had been as honourable as it was successful, and singularly attractive in its domestic relations, and he was a good judge of both men and manners.