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THE UNIVERG'. A
THE NATIONAL REVIEW.
ART. I.-EDWARD GIBBON.
The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, by Ednard Gibbon, Esq. With Notes by Dean Milman and M. Guizot. Edited, with additional Notes, by William Smith, LL.D. In Eight Volumes. London, 1855. Murray.
“PAPA, I wish I was the Roman Empire;” “Child, don’t talk nonsense;” was a dialogue of the early years of this century. This is the fate of Gibbon; no one does or can separate the historian from his subject. If you ask as to the antiquities of Constantinople, you are told those are the times which are “in Gibbon.” Mr. Carlyle, who never exaggerates, speaks of Madame de Staël, in youth of course, romping about the knees of the “Decline and Fall.” He plainly traced a resemblance himself; for he has narrated the events of his own life, “his progression from London to Buriton and from Buriton to London,” in the same majestic periods which record the downfall of states and empires. What the commonplace parent thought absurd, has in simple reality happened. It may be useful to attempt in a few pages to substitute a notion of the man for the indistinct idea of a huge imperial being. The diligence of their descendant accumulated many particulars of the remote annals of the Gibbon family; but its real founder was the grandfather of the historian, who lived in the times of the “South Sea.” He was a capital man of business according to the custom of that age—a dealer in many kinds of merchandise —rivalling probably the “complete tradesman” of Defoe, who was
No. III. JAN. 1856. B
to understand the price and quality of all articles made within the kingdom, and be in consequence a complete master of the inland trade. The peculiar forte, however, of Edward Gibbon, the grandfather, was the article “shares;” his genius, like that of Mr. Hudson, had a natural tendency towards a commerce in the metaphysical and non-existent; and he was fortunate in the age on which his lot was thrown. It afforded many opportunities of gratifying that taste. A great deal has been written and is being written on panics and manias—a great deal more than with the most outstretched intellect we are able to follow or conceive; but one thing seems certain, that at particular times a great many stupid people have a great deal of stupid money. Many saving people have only the faculty of saving; they accumulate ably, and contemplate their accumulations with approbation; but what to do with them they do not know. Aristotle, who was not in trade, had a great idea that money is barren ; and barren it certainly is to quiet ladies, rural clergymen, and country misers. Several excellent economists have plans for preventing improvident speculation; one would abolish Peel's act, and substitute one-pound notes; another would retain Peel's act, and make the calling for one-pound notes a capital crime: but the only real way is, not to allow any man to have a hundred pounds who cannot prove to the satisfaction of the Lord Chancellor that he knows what to do with a hundred pounds. The want of this obvious and proper precaution allows the accumulation of wealth in the hands of rectors, sweepers, grandmothers, and other persons who have no knowledge of business, and no idea except that their money now produces nothing, and ought and must be forced immediately to produce something. “I wish,” said one of this class, “for the largest immediate income, and I am therefore naturally disposed to purchase an advowson.” Every now and then, from causes which are not to the present purpose, the money of people of this class—the blind capital (as oculists call it) of the country—happens to be particularly large and craving; it seeks for some one to devour it, and there is “plethora”—it finds some one, and there is “speculation”— it is devoured, and there is “panic.” The age of Mr. Gibbon was one of these. The interest of money was very low, perhaps under three per cent. The usual consequence followed; able men started wonderful undertakings; the ablest of all, a company “for carrying on an undertaking of great importance, but no one to know what it was.” Mr. Gibbon was not idle. According to the narrative of his grandson, he already filled a considerable position, was worth sixty thousand pounds, and had great influence both in Parliament and in the City. He applied himself to the greatest bubble of all—one so great, that it is spoken of in many books as the cause and parent of all con
temporary bubbles—the great South-Sea Company—the design
of which was to reduce the interest on the national debt, which,
oddly enough, it in fact effected, and to trade exclusively to the
South Sea or Spanish America, where, of course, it never did
trade. Mr. Gibbon became a director, sold and bought, traded
and prospered; and was considered, no doubt with truth, to have
obtained much money. The bubble was essentially a fashion
able one. Public intelligence and the quickness of communica
tion did not then as now at once spread pecuniary information
and misinformation to secluded districts; but fine ladies, men of fashion—the London world—ever anxious to make as much of its money as it can, and then wholly unwise and not now very wise in discovering how the most was to be made of it—“went in” and speculated largely. Of course, all was favourable so long as the shares were rising; the price was at one time very high, and the agitation very general; it was, in a word, the railway mania in the South Sea. All at once the shares “hesitated,” declined, and fell; and there was an outcry against every body concerned in the matter, very like the outcry against the oi Tepi Hudson in our own time. The results, however, were very different. Whatever may be said, and, judging from late experience, a good deal is likely to be said, as to the advantages of civilisation and education, it seems certain that they tend to diminish a simple-minded energy. The Parliament of 1720 did not, like the Parliament of 1847, allow itself to be bored and incommoded by legal minutiae, neither did they forego the use of plain words. A committee reported the discovery of “a train of the deepest villany and fraud hell ever contrived to ruin a nation;” the directors of the company were arrested, and Mr. Gibbon among the rest; he was compelled to give in a list of his effects: the general wish was that a retrospective act should be immediately passed, which would impose on him penalties something like, or even more severe than those now enforced on Paul and Strahan. In the end, however, Mr. Gibbon escaped with a parliamentary conversation upon his affairs. His estate amounted to 140,000l. ; and as this was a great sum, there was an obvious suspicion that he was a great criminal. The whole scene must have been very curious. “Allowances of twenty pounds or one shilling were facetiously voted. A vague report that a director had formerly been concerned in another project by which some unknown persons had lost their money, was admitted as a proof of his actual guilt. One man was ruined because he had dropped a foolish speech that his horses should feed upon gold; another because he was grown so proud, that one day, at the Treasury, he had refused a civil answer to perTxU
sons far above him.” The vanity of his descendant is evidently a little tried by the peculiar severity with which his grandfather was treated. Out of his hundred and forty thousand pounds it was only proposed that he should retain fifteen; and on an amendment even this was reduced to ten thousand. Yet there is some ground for believing that the acute energy and practised pecuniary power which had been successful in obtaining so large a fortune, were likewise applied with science to the inferior task of retaining some of it. The historian indeed says, “On these ruins,” the 10,000l. aforesaid, “with skill and credit of which parliament had not been able to deprive him, my grandfather erected the edifice of a new fortune: the labours of sixteen years were amply rewarded; and I have reason to believe that the second structure was not much inferior to the first.” But this only shows how far a family feeling may bias a sceptical judgment. The credit of a man in Mr. Gibbon’s position could not be very lucrative; and his skill must have been enormous to have obtained so much at the end of life, in such circumstances, in so few years. Had he been an early Christian, the narrative of his descendant would have contained an insidious hint, that “ pecuniary property may be so secreted as to defy the awkward approaches of political investigation.” It was on this property, in whatever way acquired or retained, that the social position of the Gibbons was established; and the remnants of it preserved from death the immortal author of the Decline and Fall. The son of this great speculator, the historian's father, was a man to spend a fortune quietly. He is not related to have indulged in any particular expense, and nothing is more difficult to follow than the pecuniary fortunes of deceased families; but one thing is certain, that the property which descended to the historian — putting out of the question all minor and subsidiary modes of diminution, such as daughters, settlements, legacies, and so forth — was enormously less than 140,000l. ; and if the statistics above quoted are correct, the second generation of the family must have made itself very happy out of the savings of the past generation, and without caring for the poverty of the next. Nothing that is related, indeed, of the historian’s father indicates a strong judgment or an acute discrimination; and there are some scarcely dubious signs of a rather weak character. Edward Gibbon, the historian, was born on the 27th of April 1737. Of his mother we hear scarcely any thing; and what we do hear is not remarkably favourable. It seems that she was a faint inoffensive woman, of ordinary capacity, who left a very slight trace of her influence on the character of her son; who did little, and died early. The real mother, as he is careful to explain, of his understanding and education was her sister, and his aunt, Mrs. Catherine Posten, according to the speech of that age, a maiden lady of much vigour and capacity, and for whom her pupil really seems to have felt as much affection as was consistent with a rather easy and cool nature. There is a panegyric on her in the Memoirs; and in a long letter upon the occasion of her death, he deposes: “To her care I am indebted in earliest infancy for the preservation of my life and health. . . . To her instructions I owe the first rudiments of knowledge, the first exercise of reason, and a taste for books, which is still the pleasure and glory of my life; and though she taught me neither language nor science, she was certainly the most useful preceptress I ever had. As I grew up, an intercourse of thirty years endeared her to me as the faithful friend and the agreeable companion. You have observed with what freedom and confidence we lived,” &c. &c. To a less sentimental mind, which takes a more tranquil view of aunts and relatives, it is perhaps satisfactory to find that he could not write to her. “I wish,” he continues, “I had as much to applaud and as little to reproach in my conduct to Mrs. Posten since I left England; and when I reflect that my letter would have soothed and comforted her decline, I feel” what an ardent nephew would naturally feel at so unprecedented an event. Leaving his maturer years out of the question—a possible rhapsody of affectionate eloquence —she really seems to have been of the greatest use to him in infancy. His health was very imperfect. We hear much of rheumatism, and lameness, and weakness; and he was clearly in general unable to join in work and play with ordinary boys. On this account he was moved from one school to another, never staying any where very long, and owing what knowledge he obtained rather to a strong retentive understanding than to any external stimulants or instruction. At one place he gained an acquaintance with the Latin elements at the price of “ many tears and some blood.” At last he was consigned to the instruction of an elegant clergyman, the Rev. Philip Francis, who had obtained notoriety by a metrical translation of Horace, the laxity of which is even yet complained of by construing schoolboys, and who, having a truly Horatian taste for combining the pleasures of a town with those of a country life, went to London as often as he could, and translated invisa negotia as “boys to beat.” In school-work, therefore, Gibbon had uncommon difficulties and unusual deficiencies; but these were much more than counterbalanced by a habit which often accompanies a sickly childhood, and is very often the commencement of a studious life, the habit of desultory reading. The instructiveness of this is often