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HISTORY.....ANCIENT HISTORIANS.....SCRIPTURE HIS
....DE THOU....DAVILA....MODERN HISTORY.....BUCHA
MY DEAR JOHN,
HISTORY may be classed under two general divisions, the history of nations and of individuals; the latter has been termed biography. The history of nations, or public history, will again admit of certain subdivisions, viz. history, properly so called, and chronicles, annals and memoirs.
The first histories of all nations, I have no doubt, were originally in verse; and those early histories which are now extant, even in prose, bear in some measure the characters of poetry. The scripture histories, though brief, are almost poetical. Whether they were originally composed in metre or not, our ignorance of the Hebrew measures renders us incompetent to decide. The older histories of other nations have all somewhat of a dramatic complexion, and the fictitious speeches which are ascribed to their principal character, savour more of the epic than of what I conceive should be the character of true history.
If, however, such is the origin of history, as I conceive it was, this alliance with poetry has given to it a 'dignity, an elevation, a life and spirit above that of a mere chronicle. Instead of a bare record of facts and dates, it is now an artificial composition; a splendid emanation of genius, when well executed, as much as an ora
tion or an epic poem, and scarcely perhaps a less laborious effort.
You will think I shall never have done with divisions and classifications; for I must remark that public history properly so called may again be divided under two heads; 1st. Those general histories which record the transactions of a nation from its rise to its fall; and 2dly. Those histories which treat of a particular period or a particular event. Of the first class are those of Herodotus (which may indeed be regarded as a history of the world to his own time,) Livy, Justin (which is an abridgment of Trogus Pompeius, now lost) Velleius Paterculus, Eutropius, perhaps Tacitus; and in modern times, Rapin's, Hume's, and the larger histories of our own country, and that of Mr. Gibbon. In the second class we may range Thucidydes' History of the Peloponesian War, the two Histories of Sallust, Guiccardini, Davila, Clarendon's History of the Civil Wars in England, the various histories of the Reformation, Dr. Robertson's History of Charles V., and of Scotland at a particular period, Mr. Roscoe's Lorenzo de Medicis, and Leo X., and many others.
It will be obvious, and it will be confirmed by the perusal, that the writer who records a particular event or a particular period, has the easier, and the pleasanter task. He may adopt a perfect unity of design, may arrange his subject to the best advantage, may dramatize it, if I may use the expression. He will have the same set of actors and characters; and can obtain a much clearer view of his subject and all its parts and circumstances, than he who has to drudge through the records of ages, and pursue, often with a faint and glimmering light, the progress of a nation from barbarism to refinement and greatness, and afterwards through all the mazes of luxury and corruption to its enslavement or dissolution.
A French critic terms Mr. Gibbon's an "endless history." Perhaps indeed, consistently with his title, he might have stopped when the seat of empire was transferred from Rome; perhaps more properly at the divi
sion of the empire; still more properly when it was overrun by the barbarians. But who could wish so enchanting a writer to stop at all? His history is indeed not that of a particular dynasty, scarcely that of a particular nation, but of many. But whether we regard it as one or several histories, our only regret is, that instead of having written so much he did not write more, or that he should have left a subject untouched by the magic of his pen.
In what may be termed general history, however, every writer will find it commodious to distribute it into such portions or periods as may enable him to adopt a unity of design for each portion, to exhibit every great event clear and distinct, and to finish one portion or period before he begins upon another. As the materials of history must be drawn from many sources, it must be compiled by the aid of notes or references collected with a view to the arrangement the historian means to pursue, generally I conceive in the order of time. It will however facilitate the task, if he takes one author for his basis, and makes his notes refer to others, either on the margin, or on a separate slip of paper. This I have indeed heard was the practice of Mr. Gibbon. At all events, however, the historian before he begins must have a complete view of his subject in his mind, and compose in a great measure from his preconceived ideas, if he wishes to avoid the character of a mere copyist or transcriber.
It is almost common-place to say, that the great requisites of history are truth, impartiality, and perspicuity. The style of history should be grave, dignified, temperate and sedate. Purity is more essential than ornament, for reasons which I have already assigned; yet the style should not be monotonous, but animated, whenever the occasion is of sufficient importance.
Historical writing as such, without reference to the poetical histories is very ancient, for we may regard the Pentateuch of Moses as the first history. From well authenticated tradition, and from the best of evidence, we are fully authorised to ascribe it to the venerable
personage whose name it bears; but the latter parts were undoubtedly added by Joshua, or some person under his direction. It includes in a small compass a vast scope and a long period, being a history of man from the creation to the death of the author, and including the whole code of laws, civil and religious, which was given to the people of Israel. If no religious character was attached to it; if we ceased to venerate it as the origin and source of that faith which we profess, it would be a most curious relic of antiquity, and must be allowed to contain a record of the first ages, bearing more internal marks of authenticity than any ancient history extant. The style is simple and sententious. It is often interspersed with fragments of poetry, perhaps parts of the original memorial lines from which the narrative was in part at least compiled. Yet it cannot class under the character of a chronicle or annals, but is a regular, though brief, history of many ages and many important transactions. Some parts, and particularly the history of Joseph, are incomparably beautiful, and there is no part deficient in spirit. Yet from the singular, and almost metrical style in which it is composed, it cannot be a model for imitation, and is scarcely an object of criticism in this age of literature.
The other parts of sacred history, particularly the Books of Samuel, of Kings, and Chronicles, belong rather to the class of annals, than of general history. One circumstance I must remark of them all, that brief as they are, they are remarkable for exhibiting always a striking picture to the mind of the reader. They lose not the matter in general, but the principal actors and characters are before our eyes. This is strongly exemplified in the transactions of Samuel with Eli, and afterwards with Saul. In the life of David, and particularly in the affecting interview with Nathan the prophet; in the history of Jeroboam, and of the prophet who declaims against the altars; the seizure of the vineyard of Naboth, and the death of Jezebel. Who can now write history that makes so forcible an impression, or that is so easily and perfectly remembered?
The Greeks and Romans excelled in historical writing as much as in any department of literature. The reason is obvious....Oratory is nearly allied to history, and no people ever cultivated oratory with more indefatigable attention. The democratical governments of these nations afforded such a scope for the display of eloquence, that it was almost the only road to celebrity and promotion. The general was obliged to study this fascinating art both to obtain advancement and to defend himself if assailed by faction. The statesman had no ́other means of rising in the estimation of his countrymen. History, therefore, when committed to writing by generals and statesmen thus accomplished, must necessarily be elegant and rhetorical. Such were the works of Thucidydes, Xenophon, Polybius, Sallust, and perhaps Herodotus and Livy. With respect to the attaining of information also, as they had not the advantages of modern writers, where every public transaction is committed to the press, their labour and exertions are almost incredible. Independant of his own observation, Thucidydes, we are assured, expended large sums of money to obtain correct information. Polybius travelled over most of the countries which were the scenes of the transactions he records, and particularly visited the Alps, that he might form a correct opinton of the celebrated march of Hannibal. Indeed we have the authority of Plautus to satisfy us that in the opinion of the ancients no man was capable of writing history who had not travelled. I allude to a speech of Messenio to Menechmus, advising him to return home......
"Quin nos hinc domum redimus, nisi historiam scripturi sumus."
Of the ancient Greek historians I need scarcely tell you that the most celebrated are Herodotus, Thucidydes, and Xenophon. I cannot better introduce the first of these to your notice than in the beautiful language of Mr. Hayley, whose Essay on History deserves to be read by every person of taste, not only for some excel