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Significant Scots
Gilbert Stuart


STUART, (DR) GILBERT, an eminent historical essayist, was born at Edinburgh in 1742. His father was Mr George Stuart, professor of humanity (Latin) and Roman antiquities, in the university of Edinbuigh. Gilbert received an accomplished education in his native city, under the superintendence of his father. His education was directed towards qualifying him for the bar; but it is questionable whether his magnificent opinion of his own abilities permitted him ever seriously to think of becoming an ordinary practising advocate. Before he was twenty-two years of age, he made what was considered a splendid entrance on the career of authorship, by publishing an "Historical Dissertation concerning the English Constitution;" the circumstance, that four editions of a work on a subject requiring so much information and power of thought, yet which almost every man possessed knowledge enough to criticise, were speedily issued, is of itself sufficient evidence that the young author possessed a very powerful intellect. [Kerr (Life of Smellie) and others say he was then only twenty-two years old; yet there is no edition of this work older than 1768, when, according to the same authorities, he must have been twenty-six years old.] When we consider the reputation of his father, it cannot perhaps be argued as a very strong additional evidence of the esteem in which the work was held, that the university of Edinburgh conferred on the author the degree of Doctor of Laws. His next literary labour was the editing of the second edition of Sullivan’s Lectures on the English Constitution, in 1772, to which he prefixed a "Discourse on the Government and Laws of England." Dr Stuart endeavoured to obtain one of the law chairs in the university of Edinburgh, whether that of Scottish or of civil law, the writers who have incidentally noticed the circumstances of his life, do not mention; nor are they particular as to the period, which would appear from his conduct to his opponents, in the Edinburgh Magazine of 1773, to have been some time before that year. [According to the list of Professors in Bower’s History of the University of Edinburgh, the only law chair succeeded to for many years at this period of Stuart’s life, is that of the law of nature and nations, presented to Mr James Balfour, in 1764. If we can suppose this person to have been Mr Stuart’s successful opponent, we would find him disappointed by the same fortunate person who snatched the moral philosophy chair from Hume. The list seems, however, to be imperfect. No notice, for instance, is taken of any one entering on the Scots law chair in 1765, when it was resigned by Erskine.]Whether he possessed a knowledge of his subject sufficiently minute for the task of teaching it to others, may have been a matter of doubt; his talents and general learning were certainly sufficiently high, but his well-earned character for dissipation, the effect of which was not softened by the supercilious arrogance of his manners, was, to Dr Robertson and others, sufficient reason for opposing him, without farther inquiry. To the influence of the worthy principal, it has generally been considered that his rejection was owing; and as he was of a temperament never to forgive, he turned the course of his studies, and the future labour of his life, to the depreciation of the literary performances of his adversary; turning aside only from his grand pursuit, when some other object incidentally attracted his virulence, and making even his inordinate thirst of fame secondary to his desire of vengeance. After his disappointment, Stuart proceeded to London, where he was for some time employed as a writer in the Monthly Review. His particular contributions to this periodical have not been specified; but to one at all curious about the matter, it might not be difficult to detect every sentence of his magniloquent pen, from the polished order of the sentences, their aspect of grave reflection, and the want of distinctness of idea, when they are critically examined. By the establishment of the Edinburgh Magazine and Review, in 1773, Stuart had more unlimited opportunities of performing the great duty of his life. As manager of that periodical, he was associated with Mr Smellie, a man of very different habits and temperament; and Blacklock, Richardson, Gillies, and other men of considerable eminence, were among the contributors. This periodical, which extended to five volumes, was creditable to the authors as a literary production, and exhibited spirit and originality, unknown to that class of literature in Scotland at the period, and seldom equalled in England. But in regard to literature, Edinburgh was then, what it has ceased to be, a merely provincial town. The connexions of the booksellers, and the literature expected to proceed from it, did not enable it to support a periodical for the whole country. It was the fate of that under consideration, while it aimed at talent which would make it interesting elsewhere, to concentrate it, in many instances, in virulence which was uninteresting to the world in general, and which finally disgusted those persons more personally acquainted with the parties attacked, whose curiosity and interest it at first roused. Mr D’Israeli has discovered, and printed in his Calamities of Authors, a part of the correspondence of Stuart at this period, curiously characteristic of his exulting hopes of conquest. "The proposals," he says, "are issued: the subscriptions in the booksellers’ shops astonish: correspondents flock in; and, what will surprise you, the timid proprietors of the Scots Magazine, have come to the resolution of dropping their work. You stare at all this; and so do I too." "Thus," observes Mr D’Israeli, " he flatters himself he is to annihilate his rival, without even striking the first blow; the appearance of his first number is to be the moment when their last is to come forth." Authors, like the discoverers of mines, are the most sanguine creatures in the world. Gilbert Stuart afterwards flattered himself that Dr Henry was lying at the point of death, from the scalping of his tomahawk pen. But of this anon. On the publication of the first number, in November, 1773, all is exultation; and an account is facetiously expected, that "a thousand copies had emigrated from the Row and Fleet Street." There is a serious composure in his letter of December, which seems to be occasioned by the tempered answer of his London correspondent. The work was more suited to the meridian of Edinburgh, and from causes sufficiently obvious, its personality and causticity. Stuart, however, assures his friend, that "the second number you will find better than the first, and the third better than the second." The next letter is dated March 4th, 1774, in which I find our author still in good spirits. "The magazine rises and promises much in this quarter. Our artillery has silenced all opposition. The rogues of the ‘uplifted hands’ decline the combat." These rogues are the clergy: and some others, who had "uplifted hands," from the vituperative nature of their adversary: for he tells us, that "now the clergy are silent; the town council have had the presumption to oppose us, and have threatened Creech (the publisher in Edinburgh) with the terror of making him a constable for his insolence. A pamphlet on the abuses of Heriot’s hospital, including a direct proof of perjury in the provost, was the punishment inflicted in turn. And new papers are forging to chastise them, in regard to the poor’s rate, which is again started; the improper choice of professors; and violent stretches of the impost. The liberty of the press, in its fullest extent, is to be employed against them." [Calamities of Authors, i. 54-7.]

The natural conclusion from the tone of these letters, from circumstances in the conduct of Stuart, which we have already recorded, and from some we may hereafter mention, might perhaps be, that he was a man possessed with a general malignity against the human race; yet it has been said that he was warm in his friendships, and that his indignation against vice and meanness, frequently exhibited, came from his heart. It will appear perhaps to be the truest conclusion as to his character, that he was simply one of those men who are termed persons of violent passions, and who may be made Falconbridges, squire Westerns, or Gilbert Stuarts, from circumstances. The circumstances which swerved his feelings into their particular course, appear to have done so, by feeding his mind with arrogance, and making him look upon himself as a being of superior mould to that of his fellows. Such a man, independently of the want of restraint, which he must feel from the opinions of people whom he thinks beneath him, invariably finds the world not so complimentary to his genius as he is himself; and he consequently feels surrounded by enemies,--by people who rob him of his just right. His father, long a respectable professor, is said to have possessed the same fiery temperament; but his mind was regulated by a routine of studies and duties. He probably entered the world with lower expectations than those of his son, and had less opportunity of nursing his arrogance, and his passions effervesced in common irritability, and enthusiasm for particular branches of literature. The mind of such a man as Stuart deserves a little study, beyond the extent to which his merely literary importance would entitle him; and perhaps a few extracts from his letters to Mr Smellie—a man certainly his equal in talent, and his superior in useful information--may form not uninteresting specimens of his arrogance. As Stuart was above troubling himself with dates, the extracts are picked miscellaneously.

"Inclosed is Murray’s letter, which you will consider attentively, and send me the result, that I may write to him. That was to have been done by Creech and you, but has not yet been thought of by either. The business we are about to engage in, is too serious to be trifled with.

"It appears to me perfectly obvious, that without a partner in London, we cannot possibly be supplied with books; and on our speedy supply of them, the whole success of the work must depend. Murray seems fully apprized of the pains and attention that are necessary,--has literary connexions, and is fond of the employment,—let him, therefore, be the London proprietor.

"If I receive your letters to-morrow, they may be sent off the day after. Shut yourself up for two hours after supper. Be explicit and full; and in the mean time, let me know what books are sent off besides Harwood and the Child of Nature; which, by the by, might have been sent off three full weeks ago, as they have been so long in your possession.

"As to the introductory paragraph about an extract from Kames, I wrote you fully about it ten days ago; and it is a pain to me to write fifty times on the same subject. It is odd that you will rather give one incessant trouble, than keep a book of transactions, or lay aside the letters you receive with copy inclosed. The extract from Kames is laid aside, to make way for extracts from Pennant, which are more popular. Explain to---, who is by this time in town, the ridiculousness of his behaviour. It would seem that his servants are perfect idiots, and that he trusts to them. If I were in his place, and a servant once neglected to do what I had ordered him, he should never receive from me a second order.

"I beg that Creech and you may have some communing about the fate of magazine; as I am no longer to have any concern with it. I do not mean to write anything for it, after the present volume is finished; and I fancy the next is the last number of the third volume. I have another view of disposing of my time, and I fancy it will almost wholly be taken up; the sooner, therefore, that I am informed of your resolutions, the better." [Kerr’s Life of Smellie, v. i.]

Poor Mr Smellie seems to have laboured with patient, but ineffectual perseverance, to check the ardour of his restless colleague. An attack by Stuart on the Elements of Criticism by lord Kames, he managed, by the transmutation of a few words, adroitly to convert into a panegyric. "On the day of publication," says the memorialist of Smellie, "Dr Stuart came to inquire at the printing office, ‘if the ---- was damned;’" using a gross term which he usually indulged in, when he was censuring an author. Mr Smellie told him what he had done, and put a copy of the altered review into his hands. After reading the two or three introductory sentences, he fell down on the floor, apparently in a fit: but, on coming to himself again, he good naturedly said, "William, after all, I believe you have done right." [Kerr’s Smellie, i. 409.]Smellie was not, however, so fortunate on other occasions. The eccentricities of the classical Burnet of Monboddo, afforded an opportunity which Stuart did not wish to omit. He proposed to adorn the first number of the Magazine with "a print of my lord Monboddo, in his quadruped form. I must, therefore," he continues, "most earnestly beg that you will purchase for me a copy of it in some of the macaroni-print shops. It is not to be procured at Edinburgh. They are afraid to vend it here. We are to take it on the footing of a figure of an animal, not yet described; and are to give a grave, yet satirical account of it, in the manner of Buffon. It would not be proper to allude to his lordship, but in a very distant manner." [Calamities of Authors, i. 53.]Although this laborious joke was not attempted, Stuart’s criticism on the Origin and Progress of Language, notwithstanding the mollifications of Smellie, had a sensible effect on the sale of the magazine. "I am sorry," says Mr Murray, in a letter to Smellie, "for the defeat you have met with. Had you praised lord Monboddo, instead of damning him, it would not have happened." It is to be feared the influence against the periodical was produced, not so much by its having unduly attacked the work of a philosopher, as from its having censured a lord of session.

During his labours for this magazine, Stuart did not neglect his pleasures. He is said one night to have called at the house of his friend Smellie, in a state of such complete jollity, that it was necessary he should be put to bed. Awakening, and mistaking the description of place in which he was lodged, he brought his friend in his night-gown to his bed-side, by his repeated cries of "house! house!" and, in a tone of sympathy, said to him, "Smellie! I never expected to see you in such a house. Get on your clothes, and return immediately to your wife and family: and be assured I shall never mention this affair to any one." The biographer of Smellie, who has recorded the above, gives the following similar anecdote of Stuart and his friends. "On another ramble of dissipation, Dr Stuart is said to have taken several days to travel on foot between the cross of Edinburgh and Musselburgh, a distance of only six miles; stopping at every public-house by the way, in which good ale could be found. In this strange expedition he was accompanied part of the way by several boon companions, who were fascinated beyond their ordinary excesses, by his great powers of wit and hilarity in conversation; but who gradually fell off at various stages of the slow progression. The last of these companions began his return towards Edinburgh from the Magdalen bridge, within a mile of Musselburgh; but, oppressed by the fumes of the ale, which he had too long and too liberally indulged in, he staggered, in the middle of the night, into the ash-pit of a great steam engine, which then stood by the road side, and fell into a profound sleep. On awakening before day, he beheld the mouth of an immense fiery furnace open, several figures, all grim with soot and ashes, were stirring the fire, ranging the bars of the enormous grate, and throwing on more fuel; while the terrible clanking of the chains and beams of the machinery above, impressed his still confused imagination with an idea that he was in hell. Horror-struck at the frightful idea, he is said to have exclaimed, ‘Good God! is it come to this at last?’ [Kerr’s Smellie, i. 504.]

The persecution of Henry, the author of the History of Great Britain, commenced by Stuart in the Edinburgh Magazine and Review, has been recorded in the memoir of that individual. Before quitting this subject, let us give the parting curse of the editor for his literary disappointments in Scotland. "It is an infinite disappointment to me that the Magazine does not grow in London. I thought the soil had been richer. But it is my constant fate to be disappointed in everything I attempt; I do not think I ever had a wish that was gratified; and never dreaded an event that did not come. With this felicity of fate, I wonder how the devil I could turn projector. I am now sorry that I left London; and the moment I have money enough to carry me back to it, I shall set off. I mortally detest and abhor this place, and every body in it. Never was there a city where there was so much pretension to knowledge, and that had so little of it. The solemn foppery, and the gross stupidity of the Scottish literati are perfectly insupportable. I shall drop my idea of a Scots newspaper. Nothing will do in this country that has common sense in it; only cant, hypocrisy, and superstition, will flourish here. A curse on the country, and on all the men, women, and children of it." [Calamities of Authors, ii. 60.] Accordingly, Stuart did return to England, and along with Whitaker, the historian of Manchester, a man of very different literary habits, but somewhat similar in temper, for some time supported the English Review. In 1778, he published his well known "View of Society in Europe in its progress from rudeness to refinement; or, Inquiries concerning the History of Law, Government, and Manners." This, the most popular of his works, and for a long time a standard book on the subject, is certainly the most carefully and considerately prepared of all his writings. Its adoption almost to caricature, of that practice of the great Montesquieu, which was all of him that some writers could imitate, of drawing reflections whether there were, or were not facts to support them, was fashionable, and did not perhaps disparage the work; while the easy flow of the sentences fascinated many readers. It cannot be said that in this book he made any discovery, or established any fact of importance. He contented himself with vague speculations on the description of the manners of the Germans by Tacitus, and new reflections upon such circumstances as had been repeatedly noticed before. To have made a book of permanent interest and utility from facts which every one knew, required a higher philosophical genius than that of Stuart, and since the more accurate researches of Hallam and Meyer, the book has fallen into disuse. In 1779, he published "Observations concerning the Public Law, and the Constitutional History of Scotland, with occasional remarks concerning English Antiquity." To a diligent man, who would have taken the trouble of investigating facts, there would here have been a very tolerable opportunity of attacking Robertson, at least on the score of omissions, for his constitutional views are very imperfect; Stuart, however, had no more facts than those which his adversary provided him with, and he contented himself with deducing opposite opinions. As there was a real want of matter sufficient to supply anything like a treatise on the subject—a want scarcely yet filled up—this work was still moe vague and sententious, than that on the general history of Europe. A sentence towards the commencement is very characteristic of the author’s habits of thought. "An idea has prevailed, that one nation of Europe adopted the feudal institutions from another, and the similarity of fiefs in all the states where they were established, has given an air of plausibility to this opinion. It is contradicted, however, by the principles of natural reason, and by the nature of the feudal usages: and, if I am not mistaken, it receives no real sanction from records or history." Thus, his own opinions on "the principles of natural reason," and on "the nature of the feudal usages," were to him of more importance than "records or history." In 1780, he published his "History of the establishment of the Reformation of Religion in Scotland," commencing in 1517, and ending in 1561; and in 1782, "The History of Scotland, from the Establishment of the Reformation till the death of queen Mary." Both these works are said by those who have perused them, to be written with the view of controverting the opinions of Dr Robertson. In 1785, Stuart was at the head of "The Political Herald and Review, or a survey of Domestic and Foreign Politics, and a critical account of Political and Historical Publications." In this work we frequently meet the flowing sentences of Stuart, especiallyin papers relating to Scotland, of which there are several. It is a curious circumstance that, especially in letters of animadversion addressed to individuals, he has evidently endeavoured to ingraft the pointed sarcasm of Junius on his own slashing weapon. One of these, "An Address to Henry Dundas, Esq., treasurer of the Navy, on the Perth Peerage," is with some servility signed "Brutus." This work extended, we believe, to only two volumes, which are now rather rare.

In London, Stuart seems to have suffered most of the miseries of unsuccessful authorship, and to have paid dearly for talents misapplied.

In the life of Dr William Thomson, in the Annual Obituary for 1822, there is the following highly characteristic notice of his life and habits at this period. "Although the son of a professor, and himself a candidate for the same office, after a regular education at the university of Edinburgh: yet we have heard his friend assert, and appeal to their common acquaintance, Dr Grant, for the truth of the position, that, although he excelled in composition, and possessed a variety of other knowledge, yet he was actually unacquainted with the common divisions of science arid philosophy. Under this gentleman, as has been already observed, he (Dr Thomson) composed several papers for the Political Herald, for which the former, as the ostensible editor, was handsomely paid; the latter received but a scanty remuneration. But it was as a boon companion that he was intimately acquainted with this gentleman, who was greatly addicted to conviviality, and that too in a manner, and to an excess which can scarcely be credited by one who is acquainted with the elegant effusions of his polished mind. The ‘Peacock,’ in Grays-Inn lane, was the scene their festivities, and it was there that these learned Doctors, in rivulets of Burton ale, not unfrequently quaffed libations to their favourite deity, until the clock informed them of the approaching day."

His constitution at length broke down, and he took a sea-voyage to the place of his nativity for the recovery of his health, but died of dropsy, at his father’s house, near Musselburgh, August 13, 1786, aged forty-four.


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