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THOUGHTS ON THE STUDY OF HISTORY.

BY THE LATE T. WEMYSS, ESQ.

In offering the following remarks, I have not the vanity to suppose that I can furnish you with any new information, or submit any suggestions that may not previously have occurred to your own minds; I merely endeavour to draw your attention to something that may be generally useful. Happily for us, we live in a practical age, when mere fancies and theories are in a great measure discarded, and when the human mind desires utility more than novelty, and valuable instruction rather than mere amusement. To a company of this kind, it is suticient to say, as Dr. Campbell used to say to his theological students, “Gentlemen, do not suppose that I am come here to teach you ; my object is merely to assist you in teaching yourselves.” It is truly gratifying to see any number of young persons associated for the purpose of mutual improvement, and that improvement must be sufficiently promoted by their own exertions; but if they are inclined to seek help from one who is their senior in years, it must be because they naturally consider that such senior has the advantage of an experience which only years can give : at any rate, the inclination is a laudable one. You very judiciously prohibit all discussions of a controversial kind, and all subjects merely professional, and confine your attention to those subjects which belong to general science. Now, looking over the field of general science, no branch of it strikes me as being of the same universal utility as the study of history. Other topics may more readily attract the youthful mind; and, strange to say, the fascinations of fiction have more attraction at such a period, than the charms of truth; but as we advance in life, fiction loses its value, and facts of every kind become increasingly the objects of inquiry. The use and importance of history may be variously estimated; but we cannot demonstrate them more perfectly, than by remarking, that of that volume which forms the basis of true religion, by far the greater part of the contents is historical, thereby proving that the Divine Wisdom judged this to be the most convenient, attractive, and suitable form in which to convey to mankind the intimations of his will ; for not only is the greater portion of the Old, and no small part of the New Testament, of the narrative kind,—but what is prophecy, except history by anticipation? The value of history may also be judged of, by simply supposing, for a moment, that no such work existed, and that the world did not contain a single memorial of past ages. Consider what a blank this would create! We might look around us with an inquisitive eye, but no one could inform us of anything that occurred beyond the age of his immediate

ancestors, from whom, in the way of oral tradition, he might pick up some gleanings of prior events. Supposing that in such a state of things, a stranger were to visit Rome, and hear an inhabitant of that capital call it, as they do, “the Eternal City,” he might conclude that it was coeval nearly with the world itself, instead of being founded seven centuries and a half before the Christian era; for, before that time, as we learn from other sources, Rome was not, and the banks of the Tiber were not honoured by the residence of a singular people. Suppose, again, that the same stranger viewed the processions of monks and nuns, and all the ceremonials of the Romish ritual, passing along its streets, he would, if uninformed by history, reasonably infer that Rome had always been a pontifical city, the metropolis of priesthood; and he would little dream that before a Roman pontiff existed, these streets and that city had been the seat of a pagan empire, a great mart of nations, the depository of the spoils of many kingdoms, and that its monarchs wielded for ages the sceptre of the civilised world. Looking around him, indeed, he would descry monuments of a former era ; he would see what is termed the Pillar of Trajan, fragments of triumphal arches, the vast Amphitheatre in ruins, obelisks and temples in a state of dilapidation, and other appearances that did not comport well with the modern polity of the place. But in vain could he seek for information; the Italian of the day would give him none. Some obscure tradition, indeed, might have handed down the names of Augustus, Trajan, or Hadrian—of Jupiter, Apollo, or Diana; but who these people were, or in what year they flourished, no one, in the absence of all history, could give any satisfactory account. Let us suppose our stranger, however, after a lapse of time, to discover among the ruins of the city the manuscripts of Livy, of Tacitus, of Dionysius Halicarnasseus, of Justin, Sallust, and Cæsar, from that moment all the darkness that brooded over the origin of the place is dispelled, every doubt receives its solution, every inquiry meets its reply, the silence of antiquity becomes vocal, and he learns that kings, decemvirs, tribunes, consuls, alternately swayed the country ; that Goths, and Vandals, and Huns successively invaded the city; that holy apostles formerly proclaimed a pure and unadulterated Gospel there ; and that in the same locality where the lazy monk, the superstitious devotee, and the enervated grandee now enjoy themselves, the fervid eloquence of Cicero, the aspiring genius of Cæsar, the glories of the Augustan reign, the base dissimulation of Tiberius, the undiscriminating cruelties of Nero, and the milder virtues of Trajan, all appeared in their turn. Such is the light which history holds forth—a guide to the uninstructed, a monitor to the incautious, a beacon to tyrants and demagogues, a book of maxims to the statesman and philosopher, a picture of human vicissitudes, and a commentary on the providence of God. The story of the Roman power alone, the fourth empire of Daniel's prophecy, furnishes

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an immense mass of invaluable materials, which no reflecting mind can contemplate and peruse without deep impressions of the evanescent nature of sublunary grandeur, the instability of all dominion that is not founded in equity, and the vanity of all attempts to consolidate or perpetuate authority, where that authority counteracts the will of the Supreme.

In modern times, the term history has acquired a more extensive application ; we have now not only histories of nations, but histories of arts and sciences—so much the better—a history of astronomy, of commerce, of botany, of chemistry, or the like, which in other words is a narrative of the means by which a science has proceeded from infaney to maturity, acquiring strength at every step, in consequence of new discoveries and more patient investigations. This, I say, must always be valuable, and it would be well were such histories so constructed as to embrace nothing but genuine facts illustrative of the real progress ; but, unhappily, there is so much introduced that is irrelevant, or theo. retical, or absurd, that an inquirer has often much ado to separate the wheat from the chaff, before he can ascertain the precise value of the information communicated. Properly speaking, every science should have its repertory or record office, in which new facts and discoveries, and none but such, should be regularly registered, and from which its annals should be gradually compiled. Until we discard fruitless hypotheses, no rapid advancement in true science can be made.

The histories of individuals come more properly under the description of biography, memoirs, and the like ; though sometimes the information of an individual is such, and so identified is he with the rerolutions of his country, that an account of him may more properly be termed a history than a life. Of this class was the late Emperor of France--a man, sui generis, as distinct from Cæsar, as Cæsar was from Alexander, --with one exception, perhaps, that all three aimed at universal conquest, and that they were all equally indifferent about the means employed. It has been said of Napoleon, that he wanted the moral sense. May not the same be affirmed of all conquerors ? War and morality have few things in common. Now, in writing the history of this man, what would be the best method ? Would it be to give a mere record of marches and countermarches, sieges, skirmishes, and pitched battles ? That would suit only a military reader. Would it be to produce evidence of the private intrigues and machinations by which, in addition to his victories, he arrived at unprecedented power? That might please a statesman or diplomatist, but few others. Shall we then accumulate anecdotes of his private life, to show the unprincipled character of the man ? History disdains such minutiæ, and never steps within the domestic threshold, except to expose some transaction that has an influence on the destiny of states. Or shall we mark the leading events, and then stop to moralise on each, inculcating those

lessons which the events suggest ? This might be wise ; but the reader would tire ; he wishes to go forward with the narrative, and prefers deducing the reflections for himself. What then is to be done to constitute a proper account of this meteor of a man, who blazed for a time, shedding a baleful light over Europe, and at length became extinguished on a rock in the Atlantic? Perhaps the first history would be a due and judicious intermixture of all these methods and materials, allowing none of them to preponderate offensively.

I mention these things, because, the case being a recent one, we may, by reference to it, form a judgment not merely of what history should be, but of what it has been. Go to the ancient writers : each has his merits ; but no one is an absolute model. You know their characters : Herodotus is fond of the marvellous ; he is also loose and unconnected, and prone to credulity. Thucydides is grave and accurate, and powerfully descriptive on occasions, but is often uninteresting. Polybius is manly and philosophical, but abounds too much in military details. Xenophon is delightfully entertaining, has the charm of eminent simplicity, and presents the picture of his hero in most engaging colours ; but there is somewhat of the air of romance : you begin to ask whether you are not indebted to the writer's invention for a portion of his work ; he wishes to enamour you of his subject; and he is, perhaps, not very scrupulous about the means. And so go the round. Examine the superstitious Livy, the sententious Tacitus, the concise, but energetic Sallust--they all have their beauties, they all have their defects.

Descending to our own times, and taking the history of our native land for an example,-how has it been written? The old chroniclers are too gossiping, and give us pictures of tilts and tournaments, and the pageantry of ruder times. Rapin is a faithful recorder of events, and an impartial and accurate writer ; but his work is tedious and heavy. Hume is elegant in composition, skilful in the delineation of character, and philosophical in his general remarks ; but we all know his leanings towards the tyranny and bigotry of the Stuarts. Henry's is an excellent production, embracing a wide field of investigation, but unfinished, and too laborious for cursory or superficial readers. Sharon Turner's work is a valuable contribution to the historical library; but he enters rather too minutely into the circumstances of our AngloSaxon ancestors. Lingard's is an able and masterly performance, but strongly tinged, as might be expected, with all the prejudices of Romanism: that freedom from party prejudice which is the primary qualification of a historian, was hardly to be looked for in a zealous member of the Romish church. What the merits of Brodie's History of the British Empire are, I cannot tell, never having seen the book. But, upon the whole, it appears that a history of the rise of Britain to its present splendid pinnacle of power, and of those civil and ecclesiastical institutions of the country, which have moulded it into its present aspect and character, is an enterprise yet to be achieved ; and whoever would undertake and accomplish it, would deserre well of his contemporaries and posterity.

To proceed to further illustrations. Critics, who view history as a mere technical matter, talk of the observance of a principle of unity in such compositions; meaning by that, that some connecting link should be kept up, which may present the narrative as one entire scheme or plan. But history disdains to be thus fettered; nor are human erents always so connected as to enable us to trace the secret links of the chain that binds occurrences apparently remote and isolated. Take for an example the career of Bonaparte : here, if there is any unity, it is the unity of the man himself ; for, who could tell his plans before. hand, or even connect them after their execution ? His was not the formal campaign of a Marlborough, or the preparations of a Marshal Turenne ; it was the flight of an eagle, whose keen sight discerned the carcase at a distance, and hovered not from rock to crag, but at once alighted on his prey. “ Where the slain are, there is be." His vulture eye and raven claw fixed at first on meaner carrion—the petty states of North Italy, and other subordinate territories, till, emboldened by success, wherever there was a monarchy to be overturned, a province to be subjugated, or an army to be defeated, on these he pounced without previous warning, finding his rest in constant activity, and his enjoyment in the battle-field. Hence we are carried with bim, at one time to the burning sands of Egypt, where, from the summit of the Pyramids, as he says, thirty centuries were looking down upon him ; at another, to the bloody plains of Marengo, and the long-contested bridge of Lodi ; at a third, to that sanguinary field, where the sun of Austerlitz rose to light him and his impatient troops to decisive victory. History is fatigued in following the steps of so rapid a conqueror,

" And panting Time toils after him in vain." The best form, therefore, for such a composition, would, probably, be that of annals ; for every year had then its own revolutions, and almost every month produced events far stranger than ever fiction fancied. Compare with this the reigns of eighteen Louises, amidst alternate lusury and despotism, exhibiting scenes more resembling some disjointed and idle dream, than the succession of a dynasty of powerful kings.

After all, the mind averts itself from these scenes with a kind of instinctive horror, and refuses to be always listening to the groans of the wounded, the roar of artillery, and the shrieks of peasants whose cottages are in flames. It is a melancholy consideration, that so many of the pages of history are stained with blood; and that if you abstract the crimes, the warfare, and the oppressions of which man has been guilty, you leave little behind for perusal. It is ardently to be hoped,

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