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rits too much against them: so I warn my reader to take all I say, on these heads, with some grains of allowance, though I have watched over myself and my pen so carefully, that I hope there is no great occasion for this apology."
When a writer frequently repeats this sentiment "that a lie in history is a much greater sin than a lie in common discourse," there is a strong presumption that he will feel more powerfully urged to the observance of this moral distinction than if he had never professed to recognize it. Under the influence of this persuasion, we may expect to find in Burnett many inconsistencies less real than apparent. The first question, in short, which a conscientious man, in such cases, will ask himself, is, whether a writer, of common honesty, would so far degrade himself as intentionally to misrepresent truths to serve his party, or, for its sake, vituperate characters with a venom only to be surpassed by his ignorance?—and if he is satisfied that he would not, he will consider it no false or stupid reasoning, that most of the seeming inconsistencies which occur in the History of his own Time, may be fairly accounted for by the different aspects which the same object presented to the author at different periods: and that he, whose character was one intense glow, in the ardour of composition might have related certain stories and sayings, received from a second or third hand, which, on that account alone, a more cautious and regulated mind would have discarded. But as it is not to be supposed that the same man sees all that is done, or hears all that is said, during his own lifetime, it follows, as a necessary consequence, that the evidence of others, even reported through two or three informants, must frequently be the basis upon which he has to rest some of his positive conclusions ;—while it is equally obvious that when the original story is not wholly true, it must still suffer more and more by successive transmissions. And thus may our historian, even when borrowing his account from eye-witnesses or contemporary narrators, or grounding his belief upon the general notoriety of facts, have identified himself completely with their prejudices and passions, though endowed with a moral sense as keen and apprehensive as any of his readers. When Burnett, therefore, is accused so violently, by Bevil Higgons, of swallowing the grossest and most im
probable stories, and of making malleable to his wish the most stubborn facts, and of uttering those untruths which he would have shrunk from publishing in his life-time, it must strike every unbiassed person, that his accuser was bound, in strict justice, to shewwhere public opinion could not be adduced on the evidence of public opinion where that which is referable to oral testimony could not be supported by oral testimony-and, in like manner, historical proof by historical proofs. Fondly credulous, as the Bishop is stated by the foregoing writer, to have been, it should be remembered, to the eternal honour of his heart and head, that he was incredulous upon a subject, where almost all were believers. He was among the first, strongly anti-papistical as he confessedly was, to offend the principles, and to shock the prejudices of the public, by avowing his disbelief of the existence of the Popish Plot. At this distracting period of our domestic history, when the high and the low were infected with one common panic and one common delusion, he nobly, but vainly, attempted to save one of its victims: and in the very height of this epidemical phrenzy, when it was even dangerous to express, either to Whig or Tory, any doubts of the reality of this conspiracy, he had the courage to tell the House of Commons, that it was unlawful to inflict punishment upon the Roman Catholics on account of conscientious dissent. In reference, again, to the accusation made by Higgons, and his other opponents, that he gives a most welcome reception to so many hearsay stories, built on a wondrous slender foundation, and does not balance and compare contrary statements and sentiments, I run little risk of contradiction in affirming that, to his ardent temperament, strong feelings, and lively fancy, and, more especially, to the extreme rapidity with which he committed his thoughts to paper, may be chiefly ascribed his hasty and not altogether consistent opinions.Such, I venture to pronounce, will be the uniform judgment of those, who are not disposed to impeach our author's candour and good faith because he cannot always follow the right track through the variety of his details and expositions.
As to the charge made by Higgons against the Bishop, that he was afraid to publish his History in his life-time; this explanation can alone be given. Kings, statesmen, warriors, courtiers, lawyers,
divines, and poets were alternately the subject of his invectives.These, whenever they abandoned their public duties, he lashed without measure or mercy. To have fulminated against these great monopolizers of fame and fortune was quite sufficient for the public good, without further courting their indignation, by exposing his person as well as reputation to their assaults; since some of them, experience had taught him to believe, might not be content to confine those assaults to the pen, but be eager to extend them to another mode of revenge, the motive justifying the means. I am not here disposed to deny, that some considerations of delicacy towards the feelings of his more immediate contemporaries might have had their share in influencing him to forbid the presentation of his History to the public eye within ten years after his decease. The principal reason, however, which led him to make it a posthumous publication, was, unquestionably, the wellfounded conviction that it was the recklessness of romantic and quixotic rashness, almost approaching to insanity, to brave the obloquy to which he knew that he should be exposed, for having stood forward as the bold and uncompromising censor of the faults and vices of public men-for endeavouring, as far as possible,
"That no rich or noble knave Should walk the earth in credit to his grave."
With respect to the oversights and mistakes, which occur in some of the dates in this History, and the inference from them, that the facts, therefore, are not to be depended upon; several examples may be found to justify the assertion, that it was not then the fashion to be remarkable for exactness in point of time, and that many violent anachronisms abound among memoir-writers, both French and English, against whom, as relators of events, no suspicion could be entertained as to their accuracy or fidelity. Indeed, it would have been considered, by the generality of readers, as a greater piece of injustice to accuse Burnett of falsifying facts, from the want of chronological precision, than, in our days, to call Abbé Raynal's celebrated work on the Indies a novel founded on fact, because, after the example of antiquity he has omitted his authorities. To the foregoing circumstances may be attributed, I think, our author's failure in rigid adherence to dates; or else to the com
mendable attempt, in disregard of the lapse of time, to exhibit his views in nearer and more admirable perspective, and to form them into groups at once pleasing and important. But the judgment can often recommend a perfection, to which the hand can seldom attain. And Burnett, in seeking to combine causes and consequences in one regular order of succession, has not always so accomplished his task, as to detach them entirely from the rubbish of littleness and insignificance. His fulness and circumstantiality are sometimes painfully tiresome, from his making subordinate particulars the constituent parts of his history. The severe critic would, perhaps, reduce to a single book, what is dilated into two by the excursiveness of the Bishop's pencil.
But if we are to listen to his calumniators, his literary sins, however great, must not be named in the same page with his moral delinquencies. We are told by the bitterest of them all, Higgons, that nothing can equal his insincerity, but his malice, that in his description of persons, "he has so outraged virtue and innocence, as to forfeit that respect which is due to his character, and even to extinguish that tenderness which, in good-nature and charity, we OV to others;" in short, if we are to confide in his representations, we are to regard Burnett as possessing a heart vitiated, corrupted, gangrened to the very core. The portraits drawn by party prejudice, no doubt, are often like objects seen at a great distance, or at twilight; being neither in shape, size, nor colour, such as they really exist. Of all this, no man was more thoroughly aware than the Historian of his own Time. Yet it cannot be denied that, in delineating the character of some of those who have passed before him on the stage of public life, he has painted as much under the influence of this feeling as from actual observation. I would adduce the names of Archbishop Sancroft, Sir William Temple, Sir Cloudesley Shovel, and Sir George Rook. There is a dash of the abusive, in particular against the two last, that, if I might say so, appears blended with almost personal spite against them: while he has endowed, at the same time, a few characters with every species of moral and intellectual excellence, as if he had been writing epitaphs instead of history.
It must likewise be confessed, that he has sometimes, "bared the
mean heart which lurks beneath the star," in such a manner as to leave it doubtful whether public good or private pique had the chief share in the exposure. Through the whole of his life Burnett was a keen partizan, or, as he has been designated, a christian whig. On party topics, therefore, he had an utter contempt for neutrality and indecision. Where are those delicate and dignified antipathies, which would lead him to think it ignoble to repeat his blow if he missed his aim? His object was to strike hard and in the right place; no matter how clumsy the stroke, provided it brought down his antagonist. Nevertheless, where his vituperations are fiercest, he, somehow contrives to make it appear that they spring from the movements of a generous and indignant spirit; and that he is employed in what he thinks a work of just and manly castigation.— Many, indeed, are the passages in this memorable book, which indicate a strong belief that a new era of historical liberality was commencing, which might dare to seize the truth under whatever form, and bring it forward to the view. In speaking, therefore, of that great Revolution which threw off a line of kings for their tyranny, and adopted a new line for their religion, he has not hesitated to display, in their true colours, the conduct, feelings, and views of that party who, in secretly abetting the house of Stuart, sought to revive at the same time, those antiquated and hateful maxims, which taught monarchs to forget that the prosperity and liberty of their subjects were the surest basis of their own greatness. While, then, it is quite apparent to which side Burnett's political feelings carried him, it never with any truth or justice can be said, that he evinces the sad prostitution of mind implied in the condition of a devoted party-man; which leads such a puppet to refer to mean and interested motives the conduct of every opponent. On the contrary, a sense of truth and justice has often forced him to condemn his political friends, and to approve the proceedings of their adversaries; besides which, of every opinion pronounced by our author, he fairly states the grounds, and the reader is thus enabled to judge whether prejudice or sound reasoning were most conspicuous in his preferences and disgusts, his resentments and his friendships. The delineation of the character of King William may be evidenced in verification of these remarks.