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Significant Scots
Dr Thomas Somerville


SOMERVILLE, (DR) THOMAS, an eminent historian, was born at Hawick, in Roxburghshire, in the spring of 1741. [Memoir in the Annual Obituary for 1831. As this memoir is written by a personal friend of Dr Somerville, and is both better written, and more liberal in its views, than such productions generally happen to be, we shall take the liberty of making some quotations from it.] By the early death of his father, who was minister of the parish of Hawick, he was left an orphan, along with two sisters, his mother having predeceased her husband. His father left the care of his early education to the reverend Mr Cranstoun of Ancrum, and another member of the presbytery of Jedburgh, whose kindness and attention are evidenced by the affection afterwards exhibited towards them by their pupil. Having obtained the education derivable from a provincial grammar school, he became a student in the university of Edinburgh. He is said not to have exhibited in his acquirements the precocity of talent generally recorded of men who have become eminent in any branch of literature; and indeed the branch in which he distinguished himself, when qualified by the manner in which he treated it, is more dependent on a general development of sound ordinary abilities, than on the existence of that genius which shines before the judgment is matured. Nothing seems to be known of his early habits, except his having fallen from a horse, and hurt his head; a circumstance which, not unnaturally gave him a partiality for pedestrian exercises during the remainder of his life. The accident happened in Edinburgh, close to the residence of the reverend Mr Bain, an eminent clergyman of the Relief church. "In his family the patient was attended for several months, with a kindness and humanity which made a lasting impression on his mind. Often has the present writer," continues the memoir above referred to "heard him express the pleasure and improvement he had reaped from the enlightened conversation of his worthy host, during a long and tedious convalescence." Somerville was licensed as a preacher, about the year 1762. He shortly after this event returned to Roxburghshire, and became tutor to the son of Sir Gilbert Elliott, afterwards lord Minto, and governor-general of India. In 1767, Sir Gilbert presented him with the living of Minto; and in 1772, the same friend procured his promotion to the more lucrative living of Jedburgh. At that period, opposition to the right of patronage in Scotland was still warm in the feelings of the people, if if might not be said to have revived. There is no doubt that the right was well exercised, and in the midst of so much scrutiny and opposition, it would have been singular had it not been so; but the very circumstance which produced the election of such men as Mr Somerville, was naturally the cause of objection to the persons chosen: and the subject of our memoir entered on his charge in direct opposition to a great majority of his parishioners. It may be predicated of a man of good feeling and sense, that he would hesitate to be the teacher of the conscience of persons who contemned and disliked him; but it was part of Somerville’s political opinion to think otherwise; and biography affords many instances in which persons so swayed have been excellent men, and might have despised the action, had it been set before them divested of its political bearings. The appointment was followed by repeated protests, but its legality was confirmed. "Whatever," says the memoir, "might be the cause of the reverend presentee’s extreme unpopularity,—whatever objections were alleged against the orthodoxy of his creed, or his mode of public teaching,—his most strenous opponents were compelled to admit the correctness of his moral character; and several of the most discontented having seceded to the relief meeting, tranquillity was gradually restored." Somerville commenced authorship by a pamphlet entitled "Candid thoughts on American Independence," which appeared soon after the commencement of the American war. Like Campbell, and other members of the church of Scotland, he maintained those opinions against the claims of the colonists, which were so much opposed to the principles on which the church of Scotland struggled into existence, however much they might accord with those of its pastors after it was firmly established. In 1792, appeared his "History of Political Transactions, and of Parties, from the Restoration of Charles II. to the Death of King William." In his treatment of this subject, he showed himself a member of that class of politicians, whose doctrines are generally founded on either or both of two opinions, connected with the times. 1st, A dislike of popery, and all persons connected with it; and, consequently, a love of all measures termed protestant: secondly, An affection for the state of things existing atthe period of writing, and such a respect forthe persons, who, by operating great changes, have brought about that existing state, as the writer would have been the last person to feel, when the change was about to be made. Hence Somerville is, on all occasions, not only the admirer, but the vindicator of William, and a supporter of what are called "the principles of the Revolution," or those. of the future permanency of the country, in the position in which the Revolution left it.. Owing to the other eminent histories of the same period, this work is not so valuable as the author’s History of Queen Anne which appeared in 1798, with the title, "The History of Great Britain, during the Reign of Queen Anne; with a Dissertation concerning the Danger of the Protestant Succession: and an Appendix, containing Original Papers." This work was a valuable accession to the literature of the period at which it was published; and it must still be allowed to be the most ample and accurate, if not also the most impartial, history of the times of which it treats. It is certainly above the average of historical works: there is nothing offensive or affected in the style—vices very common among those who were secondary to the three great historians of the last century--it is expressive and plain, and, in many cases, elegant. The reflections, if not those of a profound philosopher, show a well thinking mind; and, although breathing party feeling, never show violent prejudice. That this, however, should be the best history of so remarkable an age, is to be regretted, especially since the late discovery of many documents, illustrative of its dark transactions. A change more interesting than that of a palpable revolution, in the gradual passage from prerogative to influence, forms a subject for a writer more conversant with constitutional subjects, and better able to discuss them in all their bearings, than Dr Somerville, who is in general a better narrator of the intrigues of individual politicians, and the diplomatic intercourse of nations, than a student of laws and governments, and their effects on society. In discussing the question of the danger of the protestant succession, the author professes, as writing at a period when the subject is not looked on with party views, not to be actuated by them. It is very doubtful whether he was correct in the supposition, either as it refers to his own feelings, or to those of the period; and, independently of the information acquired since Somerville wrote, it will perhaps hardly be denied, that there was then enough known to show, from legitimate deduction, that what wascalled "the protestant succession," actually was in danger, not only from the machinations of Bolingbroke, and the zeal of the jacobites, but from the personal feelings of the queen. In the interval between the production of his two great historical works, (1793,) he wrote a pamphlet, "On the Constitution and State of Great Britain." About the same time, he was chosen one of the chaplains in ordinary to his majesty for Scotland, and elected a member of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. He also received the degree of doctor of divinity from the university of Edinburgh, at what period of his life we are not aware. At the period of the publication of his "History of Queen Anne," he visited London, and presented a copy of his work to the king, at an introduction at St James’s. A whimsical circumstance happened to him, during his visit, thus told by his biographer: "On the day subsequent to his arrival, while in the lobby of the house of commons, Dr Somerville was arrested, and taken to Bow street, on a charge of felony. Thunderstruck, and utterly incapable of accounting for the strange predicament in which he was placed, our bewildered divine could scarcely avail himself of the polite advice of the magistrate, to apprise his friends of the circumstance. Meanwhile, the late lord Melville, then Sir Henry Dundas, who had witnessed his seizure, entered the office, and having satisfied the magistrate of the respectability of his countryman, indulged in a hearty laugh at his expense. A notorious and specious swindler had been, it should seem, a passenger on board the packet in which Dr Somerville came to London and being seen in the company of this man on their landing, led to his arrest as an accomplice. This anecdote the writer has often heard Dr Somerville relate with much pleasantry."

Besides his political and historical works, Dr Somerville wrote "Two Sermons communicated to the Scotch Preacher;" "A Collection of Sermons," published in 1815; and a sermon "On the Nature and Obligation of an Oath," which appeared in the "Scottish Pulpit." He died, after a few days’ illness, at Jedburgh, on the 16th May, 1830, at the good old age of ninety, and in the sixty-fourth year of his ministry. His faculties were fresh to the last; and on the Sunday previous to his death, he had preached, and administered the sacrament. Of his opinions and domestic character, the following paragraph from the memoir above referred to, are descriptive. "Political science having long been the favourite study of Dr Somerville, it may readily be supposed that he took a deep interest in all that concerned the French Revolution. But he was not one of those who hailed the dawn of liberty in that enslaved and benighted land; on the contrary, he beheld it as the harbinger of evil to the of whole civilized Europe; while, from the dissensions to which this event gave rise in his own country, he augured the downfall of that constitution, in church and state, which he had so ably vindicated in his writings, and which he regarded as the ne plus ultra of perfection. An alarmist on principle, he involved in one sweeping condemnation, all who entertained views different from his own on this subject; and the wild impracticable theorist--the temperate and philiosophical advocate for reform—were with him equally objects of reprobation." * * * "Devoted through a long life to the pursuits of literature, Dr Somerville numbered among his friends many of the eminent scholars and divines of his native Scotland; and, during his occasional visits to the British metropolis, he was introduced to several of the distinguished literati of the south. Superior to the mean jealousy and petty envy, which too often prevail among the votaries of science and learning, Dr Somerville was at all times, and on every occasion, eager to do justice to the talents and merits of his gifted contemporaries. No man could be more enthusiastically alive to the transcendant genius of Burns, or more feelingly deplore the moral aberrations of that inspired bard. In the dark hour of John Logan’s eventful life, he stretched towards him the supporting hand of friendship, and shielded him, in some measure, from the attacks of bigotry and illiberality, by the weight and influence of his own pure and unimpeachable character. A gold-headed cane, the parting gift of the grateful poet, when he bade a lasting adieu to Scotland, Dr Somerville highly prized, and always carried in his hand when walking."


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