Page images

principles? no wild ideas of the rights and natural equality of man? It is these I fear. Some articles in newspapers, some pamphlets of the year, the Jockey Club, have fallen into my hands. I do not infer much from such publications; yet I have never known them of so black and malignant a cast. I shuddered at Grey’s motion; disliked the half-support of Fox, admired the firmness of Pitt's declaration, and excused the usual intemperance of Burke. Surely such men as 2 > , have talents for mischief. I see a club of reform which contains some respectable names. Inform me of the professions, the principles, the plans, the resources of these reformers. Will they heat the minds of the people? Does the French democracy gain no ground? Will the bulk of your party stand firm to their own interest and that of their country? Will you not take some active measures to declare your sound opinions, and separate yourselves from your rotten members? If you allow them to perplex government, if you trifle with this solemn business, if you do not resist the spirit of innovation in the first attempt, if you admit the smallest and most specious change in our parliamentary system, you are lost. You will be driven from one step to another; from principles just in theory to consequences most pernicious in practice; and your first concessions will be productive of every subsequent mischief, for which you will be answerable to your country and to posterity. Do not suffer yourselves to be lulled into a false security; remember the proud fabric of the French monarchy. Not four years ago it stood founded, as it might seem, on the rock of time, force, and opinion; supported by the triple aristocracy of the church, the nobility, and the parliaments. They are crumbled into dust: they are vanished from the earth. If this tremendous warning has no effect on the men of property in England; if it does not open every eye, and raise every arm, you will deserve your fate. If I am too precipitate, enlighten; if I am too desponding, encourage me. My pen has run into this argument; for, as much a foreigner as you think me, on this momentous subject I feel myself an Englishman.” The truth clearly is, that he had arrived at the conclusion that he was the sort of person a populace kill. People wonder a great deal why very many of the victims of the French revolution were particularly selected; the Marquis de Custine, especially, cannot divine why they executed his father. The historians cannot show that they committed any particular crimes; the marquises and marchionesses seem very inoffensive. The fact evidently is, that they were killed for being polite. The world felt itself unworthy of it. There were so many bows, such regular smiles, such calm superior condescension,-could a mob be asked to stand it? Have we not all known a precise, formal, patronising old gentleman—bland, imposing, something like Gibbon? have we not suffered from his dignified attentions? If we had been on the Committee of Public Safety, can we doubt what would have been the fate of that man? Just so wrath and envy destroyed in France an upper-class world.

After his return to England, Gibbon did not do much or live long. He completed his Memoirs, the most imposing of domestic narratives, the model of dignified detail. As we said before, if the Roman empire had written about itself, this was how it would have done so. He planned some other works, but exccuted none; judiciously observing that building castles in the air was more agreeable than building them on the ground. His career was, however, drawing to an end. Earthly dignity has its limits, even the dignity of an historian. He had long been stout; and now symptoms of dropsy began to appear. After a short interval, he died on the 16th of January 1794. We have sketched his character, and have no more to say. After all, what is our criticism worth It only fulfils his aspiration, “that a hundred years hence I may still continue to be abused.”


The Spanish Conquest in America, and its relation to the History of Slavery and to the Government of Colonies. By Arthur Helps. With Maps. Vols. I. and II. London, John W. Parker. 1855.

It needs a slight acquaintance only with our recent historians to discover, that whether they excel or are inferior to their predecessors in the last century, they differ from them in the conception of their office and the character of their researches. When Hume and Robertson claimed for themselves the merit of having raised new altars to the muse of British history, they grounded their pretensions, which are not unfounded, upon the fact, that they had retrenched the somewhat cumbrous grandeur of Bacon and Knollys, of Raleigh and Clarendon, and modelled their narratives upon the rules obeyed by Tacitus and Livy. There was, indeed, some unconscious deception in this assumption; they imagined themselves to have returned to the standards of the ancients, but their actual prototypes were Montesquieu and Voltaire. Like these admirable writers, the best English historians of the eighteenth century aimed, in the first place, at perspicuity of style and arrangement; in the next, at pictorial grouping; and lastly, at conveying to their readers as much information as was consistent with their theory of the narrative art. But in order to attain the simplicity and smoothness of their models, it was necessary to reject many subjects which the recent historian includes in his story as indispensable to his delineations of an age or a people. At social problems they could barely afford to hint, and relinquished them to the ethical speculator; the dry details of finance were either wholly passed over, or relegated to an appendix; the domestic life and manners of a nation were consigned to the antiquary; and art, science, and literature, were glanced at in the briefest of summaries. They succeeded in what they proposed to themselves—their pictures are deftly foreshortened and delicately coloured; and if history has since enlarged its domain, and multiplied its duties, the classical concinnity of the historians of Charles W. and the Stuarts is hitherto unrivalled, and will probably never be surassed. p Its eminence, indeed, will perhaps never be directly assailed, since the ambition of historians has taken quite another direction. In the eighteenth century the best narrators aspired to be as clear and sparkling as their French exemplars; in the present we propose to ourselves instead the exhaustive method of Ranke and Von Raumer, and are not content with a story unless it contains all that can be said collaterally as well as directly upon a subject. Fortunately, with a few exceptions, our writers have not thought it requisite to emulate their Teutonic brethren in the art of packing into a sentence whatsoever may in any way be thrust into it —condition, qualification, exception, and inference; but in all other respects they seem to regard their narratives as a proper receptacle of the omne scibile. Mr. Macaulay is as much a historian of the manners and customs of the English as of the intrigues of courts or the proceedings of parliaments; Sir Archibald Alison deluges the reader on the one hand with financial returns, and on the other with geographical descriptions; and Mr. Grote has written a history of the religion and philosophy as well as of the civil and military affairs of the Greeks. The cause of truth, or at least of information, is perhaps better served by this wholesale mode of dealing with history, than it was by the select and separate sketches of the last century. But the task and responsibility of the historian are immeasurably increased. He has ceased to be an essayist, and has become, and is expected to be, an encyclopædist. Fortunate, accordingly, is the writer whose story, being episodical in its character, admits of isolation without injury to its completeness, and who can pour the full stream of his knowledge into certain limited and shapely reservoirs. The history of the conquest of Spanish America is one of these felicitous themes. It does not form part and parcel of the universal history of Europe, and yet is connected with it by a few filaments sufficiently strong to invest the subjugation and colonisation of the New World with European interest. Its area is limited; for so soon as the red man and his cmpires have finally yielded to the invader, the catastrophe is reached, and the fortunes of the various colonies alone afford any topic of interest. The movement of the drama is rapid : but it does not pass beyond the fifth act; nor is its proper peripeteia, as is so often the case with the convulsions of the Old World, only the commencement of a new series of changes and intrigues. We would not, however, undervalue the real difficulties which are inherent in his subject, and with which Mr. Helps has so successfully grappled. The ease, or rather the natural limitations of his subject, affect his work as a whole, but not its component portions. The conquest of America was the work of so many separate adventurers; and, although springing from one centre, its radii are so numerous, the geographical area is so wide, and the character of the conquered nations so diversified, that it demands no ordinary skill to portray them without confusion, or to afford each scene its proper time and place, without incurring a risk of wearying the reader. And this perhaps is among the least of the difficulties which Mr. Helps has encountered. No one who has read his essays attentively can fail to have perceived that he is richly endowed with that analytic function which readily extracts order from apparent confusion, and amid an undigested mass of materials detects those alone of which the architect has actually need. It was to be expected, therefore, that his narrative, however complicate in its movements, would be lucid in its course, and that the discriminative essayist would possess in large measure the Ordonnance of the historian. The difficulties of his task are of different kind, and arise from two principal sources; in the first place from a certain imperfection in his materials, and in the next from his inevitable repetition of an oft-told tale. It will be the object of the following brief analysis of the volumes before us to show that he has overcome both these disadvantages satisfactorily; the one by the extent of his researches, the other by occupying a new point of view in his narrative, both as regards its scope and its illustrations. The Spaniards themselves are the principal narrators of the conquest of America; and whether we consider that the same hand which guided the pen held also the sword, or the prejudices with which as an invading race they beheld their subjects, or as devout Catholics the abominations of paganism, it is not to be expected that they would afford any very full or direct information respecting the natives of the New World. This their ignorance and their pride alike forbade. As regards the historian, the Spanish writers on this theme are in the position of reluctant witnesses, requiring no ordinary force of cross-examination. Of their own hardships and heroism, of their hunger and thirst and nakedness, in the illimitable forest and the dismal swamp, how ten put a thousand to flight, how often the saints aided them in their strife with the heathem and the elements, even in the very valley of the shadow of death, they speak willingly enough, and not without such pomp and bravery of words as became the hidalgos of Castile. Equally diffuse are they respecting the cowardice and treachery of the Indians, their indolence and evil heart of unbelief, their apathy towards the preachers of the Catholic faith, their contempt of the saints and the Virgin, their unclean ritual, and their ignorance of the laws and usages of civilised men. Neither are they silent touching the signs and wonders which they beheld; the strange aspect of the planets, the fruits, the animals, the cities, the temples; the great arterial rivers, in comparison with which the Tagus and Guadalquivir were but as trenches that gird an olive-yard; the everlasting mountains, beside which their sierras were as mole-hills; or the sheeted lakes, in comparison with which the inundations of the Ebro, “when the sun rides in Taurus” melting the Cantabrian snows, were but a mill-pool. Of all these marvels they speak sufficiently at times; for the Spaniards of that day were not an inapprehensive race, and often write as men awed by the mystery and the majesty around them. But, as will be seen presently, what regards the conquered rather than what affected the conqueror is the object of Mr. Helps's researches; and of this the reapers of the harvest left but scanty gleanings here and there. Luckily for the historian and ourselves, the moral and social phenomena of the red man were objects of deep interest to their earliest and most unwearied advocate; and the memorials of Las Casas supply some of the information which we seek vainly in the chronicles of Oviedo and Bernal Diaz. Yet the observations of the good clerigo were necessarily confined to a few districts, and principally to the island races. He beheld not, even in spirit, “Rich Mexico, the seat of Montezume, And Cusco in Peru, the richer seat Of Atabalipa, and yet unspoiled

Guiana, whose great city Geryon's sons
Call El-dorado.”

And when these empires had become Spanish vice-royalties, the documents of their past history were sedulously destroyed, partly because the conquerors were rude men and cared not for them,

« PreviousContinue »