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Significant Scots
Robert Henry

Dr Robert HenryHENRY, (DR) ROBERT, an eminent historian, was born in the parish of St Ninians in Stirlingshire, on the 18th of February, 1718; - his father was James Henry, a respectable farmer in Muirtown of the same parish, who had married the daughter of Mr Galloway of Burrowmeadow in Stirlingshire. As a respectable farmer’s son, young Henry enjoyed opportunities of instruction beyond the average of those who study for the church in Scotland, and he found little difficulty in indulging his inclination to become a member of a learned profession. He commenced his education under Mr Nicholson of the parish school of St Ninians, and having attended the grammar school of Stirling, perfected himself in his literary and philosophical studies at the university of Edinburgh. After leaving that institution, he occupied himself in teaching, the usual resource of the expectants of the Scottish church, and became master of the grammar school of Annan. The district in which he was so employed was soon afterwards erected into a separate presbytery, and Henry was admitted as its first licentiate, on the 27th of March, 1746. In 1748, he was ordained as clergyman of a congregation of presbyterians at Carlisle. Here he remained for twelve years, when he was transferred to a similar dissenting congregation at Berwick upon Tweed. In 1763, he married Ann Balderston, daughter of Thomas Balderston, surgeon in Berwick. Little is said of this lady by Henry’s biographers, except in reference to the domestic happiness she conferred on her husband. During his residence at Berwick, Dr Henry applied his active mind to the preparation of a scheme for establishing a fund to assist the widows and orphans of the dissenting clergymen in the north of England. The admirable fund which had some time previously been so firmly and successfully established for bestowing similar benefits on the families of the clergy of Scotland, formed the model of his imitation; but in assimilating the situation of a dissenting to that of an established church, he laboured under the usual difficulties of those who raise a social fabric which the laws will not recognize and protect. The funds which, in Scotland, were supplied by the annual contribution of the clergy, enforced by act of parliament, depended, in the English institution, on the social and provident spirit of its members. The perseverance of Henry overcame many of the practical difficulties thus thrown in his way: the fund was placed on a permanent footing in the year 1762, and Henry, having for some years undertaken its management, had afterwards the satisfaction to see it flourish, and increase in stability and usefulness as he advanced in years. The design of his elaborate history, which must have gradually developed itself in the course of his early studies, is said to have been finally formed during his residence in Berwick, and he commenced a course of inquiry and reading, which he found that the resources of a provincial town, and the assistance of his literary friends in more favoured situations, were quite incapable of supplying for a subject so vast and intricate, as that of a complete history of Britain from the invasion of Julius Caesar. In this situation Dr Henry found a useful friend in Mr Laurie, provost of Edinburgh, who had married his sister. The interest of this gentleman procured for his brother-in-law, in the year 1768, an appointment to the ministry of the new Grey Friar’s church in Edinburgh, whence, in 1776, he was removed to the collegiate charge of the Old Church.

In the extensive public libraries of Edinburgh, Dr Henry found means of prosecuting his researches with effect. The first volume of his history was published in quarto in the year 1771, the second appeared in 1774, the third in 1777, the fourth in 1781, and the fifth in 1785. The method of treating the subject was original and bold, and one the assumption of which left the author no excuse for ignorance on any subject which had the slightest connexion with the customs, intellects, and history of our forefathers, or the constitution of the kingdom. The subject was in the first place divided into periods, which were considered separately, each period occupying a volume. The volume was divided into seven chapters, each containing a distinct subject, linked to the corresponding subject in the next volume by continuance of narrative, and to the other chapters of the same volume by identity of the period discussed. The subjects thus separated were—lst, The simple narrative of the civil and military transactions of the country—2d, The ecclesiastical history—3d, The information which is generally called constitutional, narrating and accounting for the rise of the peculiarities in the form of government, the laws, and the courts of justice---4th, The state of learning, or rather the state of literature which may be called purely scholastic, excluding the fine arts, and constitutional and political information---5th, The history and state of arts and manufactures—6th, A history of commerce, including the state of shipping, coin, and the prices of commodities; and lastly, The history of the manners, customs, amusements, and costumes of the people.—The writer of a book on any subject on which he is well informed, will generally choose that manner of explaining his ideas best suited to his information and comprehension. It may be questioned whether the plan pursued by Henry was adapted for the highest class of historical composition, and if the other great historians who flourished along with him, would have improved their works by following his complicated and elaborate system. It is true that mere narrative, uninterwoven with reflection, and such information as allows us to look into the hearts of the actors, is a gift entirely divested of the qualities which make it useful; but there are various means of qualifying the narrative—some have given their constitutional information in notes, or detached passages; others have woven it beautifully into the narrative, and presenting us with the full picture of the times broadly and truly coloured, have prevented the mind from distracting itself by searching for the motives of actions through bare narrative in one part of the work, and a variety of influencing motives to be found scattered through another. The plan, which we may say was invented by Dr Henry, has only been once imitated, (unless it can be said that the acute and laborious Hallam has partly followed his arrangement.) The imitator was a Scotsman, the subject he encountered still more extensive than that of Henry, and the ignorance the author displayed in some of its minute branches excited ridicule. This is an instance of the chief danger of the system. The acquisition of a sufficient amount of information, and regularity in the arrangement, are the matters most to be attended to; Henry’s good sense taught him the latter, his perseverance accomplished the former, and the author made a complete and useful work, inferior, certainly, as a great literary production, to the works of those more gifted historians who mingled reflection with the current of their narrative, but better suited to an intellect which did not soar above the trammels of such a division of subject, and which might have fallen into confusion without them.

The circumstances of the first appearance of the earlier volumes of this useful book are interesting to the world, from their having raised against the author a storm of hostility and deadly animosity almost unmatched in the annals of literary warfare. The chief persecutor, and grand master of this inquisition on reputation, was the irascible Dr Gilbert Stuart. The cause of his animosity against a worthy and inoffensive man, can only be accounted for by those whose penetration may find its way to the depths of literary jealousy.

The letters of Stuart on the subject, have been carefully collected by D’Israeli, and published in his "Calamities of Authors," and when coupled with such traces of the influence of the persecutor as are to be found scattered here and there among the various periodicals of the age, furnish us with the painful picture of a man of intelligence and liberality, made a fiend by literary hate. Stuart commenced his dark work in the "Edinburgh Magazine and Review," established under his auspices in 1773. Dr Henry had preached before the Society (in Scotland) for Promoting Christian Knowledge, a sermon entitled "Revelation the most effectual means of civilizing and reforming mankind," and in pursuance of the custom on such occasions, the sermon was published. The sermon was as similar to all others of its class, as any given piece of mechanism can be to all others intended for similar purposes; but Stuart discovered audacity in the attempt, and unexpected failure in the execution; it required "the union of philosophy and political skill, of erudition and eloquence, qualities which he was sorry to observe appeared here in no eminent degree." [Edinburgh Review and Magazine, i. 199.] Dr Macqueen published a letter in an anonymous form, defending the sermon, and the hidden literary assassin boldly maintained it to be the work of Dr Henry, an accusation not withdrawn till the respectable author announced himself to the world. Dr Henry was soon after appointed by the magistrates to the situation of morning lecturer to the Tron church. Under the disguise of the communication of a correspondent, who mildly hints that the consequence of the proceeding will be a suit against the magistrates, we find the rounded periods of Stuart denouncing the act in those terms in which indignant virtue traces the mazes of vice and deceit, as "affording a precedent from which the mortifications of the pious, may be impiously prostituted to uses to which they were never intended." In token of high respect, the General Assembly had chosen Dr Henry as their moderator, on his first return as a member of that venerable body; and being thus marked out as a leader in the affairs of the church, he took a considerable share in the proceedings of the ensuing session. Here his enemy keeps an unsleeping eye on his motions. Whilst the speeches of others are unnoticed or reported in their native simplicity, the narrator prepares himself for the handling of a choice morsel when he approaches the historian. "The opinion of one member," he observes, "we shall lay before the reader, on account of its singularity. It is that of Dr Henry, the moderator of last assembly;" [Edinburgh Review and Magazine, i. 357.] and then he proceeds to attract the finger of scorn towards opinions as ordinary as any opinions could well be conceived. The Doctor cannot even absent himself from a meeting without the circumstance being remarked, and a cause assigned which will admit the application of a preconcerted sneer. Dr Robertson was the opponent of Dr Henry in this assembly. The periodical writer was the enemy of both, and his ingenuity has been taxed to bestow ridicule on both parties. Stuart at length slowly approaches the head and front of his victim’s offending, and fixes on it with deadly eagerness. After having attacked the other vulnerable points of the author, he rushes ravenously on his history, and attempts its demolition. He finds that the unfortunate author "neither furnishes entertainment nor instruction. Diffuse, vulgar, and ungrammatical, he strips history of all her ornaments. His concessions are evidently contradictory to his conclusions. It is thus perpetually with authors who examine subjects which they cannot comprehend. He has amassed all the refuse and lumber of the times he would record." "The mind of his readers is affected with no agreeable emotions, it is awakened only to disgust and fatigue." [Edinburgh Review and Magazine, i. p. 266-270.] But Stuart was not content with persecution at home, he wished to add the weapons of others to his own. For this purpose he procured a worthy associate, Whitaker, the historian of Manchester, and author of the "Genuine History of the Britons." Stuart, a vague theorist in elegant and sonorous diction, who was weak enough to believe that his servile imitations of Montesquieu raised him to a parallel with that great man, associated himself in this work of charity with a minute and pugnacious antiquary, useful to literature from the sheer labour he had encountered, but eminently subject to the prejudices to which those who confine their laborious investigations to one narrow branch of knowledge, are exposed;—a person who would expend many quarto pages in discussing a flint arrow-head or a tumulus of stones, occasionally attempting with a broken wing to follow the flights of Gibbon, but generally as flat and sterile as the plains in which he strove to trace Roman encampments; two more uncongenial spirits hardly ever attempted to work in concert. It may easily be supposed that the minute antiquary looked with jealousy on the extended theories of his generalizing colleague; and the generalizer, though he took occasion to praise the petty investigations of the antiquary, probably regarded them in secret with a similar contempt. But Stuart found the natural malignity of Whitaker a useful commodity; and the calm good sense of Henry afforded them a common object of hatred. A few extracts will give the best display of the spirit of Stuart’s communications to his friends during his machinations. " David Hume wants to review Henry: but that task is so precious, that I will undertake it myself. Moses, were he to ask it as a favour, should not have it; yea, not even the man after God’s own heart. I wish I could transport myself to London to review him for the Monthly—a fire there, and in the Critical, would perfectly annihilate him. Could you do nothing in the latter? To the former I suppose David Hume has transcribed the criticism he intended for us. It is precious, and would divert you. I keep a proof of it in my cabinet, for the amusement of friends. This great philosopher begins to dote. [D’Israeli’s Calamities of Authors, ii. 67. The author appends in a note "The critique on Henry, in the Monthly Review, was written by Hume, and because the philosopher was candid, he is here said to have doted." We suspect this is erroneous, and founded on mere presumption. We have carefully read the two critiques on Henry in the Monthly Review, which appeared previous to Hume’s death. The elegance and profundity of Hume are wanting, and in giving the opinion of the work, which is moderate and tolerably just, the Reviewer compares it somewhat disparagingly with the works of Hume and Robertson, a piece of conceit and affectation which the great philosopher would not have condescended to perpetrate. That Hume prepared and published a Review of Henry’s book we have no doubt. In the Edinburgh Magazine for 1791, and in the Gentleman’s Magazine for the same year, a critique is quoted, the work "of one of the most eminent historians of the present age, whose history of the same periods justly possesses the highest reputation." Without the aid of such a statement, the style stamps the author, and we may have occasion to quote it in the text as the work of Hume. Where is made its first appearance, a search through the principal periodicals of the day has not enabled us to discover. It is in the first person singular, and may have been in the form of a letter to the editor of a newspaper.] To-morrow morning Henry sets off for London, with immense hopes of selling his history. I wish sincerely that I could enter Holborn the same hour with him. He should have a repeated fire to combat with. I entreat that you may be so kind as to let him feel some of your thunder. I shall never forget the favour. If Whitaker is in London, he could give a blow. Paterson will give him a knock. Strike by all means. The wretch will tremble, grow pale, and return with a consciousness of his debility. I have a thousand thanks to give you for your insertion of the paper in the London Chronicle, and for the part you propose to act in regard to Henry. I could wish that you knew for certain his being in London before you strike the first blow. An inquiry at Cadell’s will give this. When you have an enemy to attack, I shall in return give my best assistance, and aim at him a mortal blow; and rush forward to his overthrow, though the flames of hell should start up to oppose me."

Henry was not in possession of the poisoned weapons which would have enabled him to retaliate, and his good sense and equanimity of mind were no permanent protection against assaults so unceasing and virulent. He felt himself the personal subject of ridicule and perversion, his expected gains denied, and the fame which he expected from years of labour and retirement snatched from his grasp by the hand of a ruffian. [Behold the triumph of the calumniator in the success of his labours: "I see every day that what is written to a man’s disparagement is never forgot nor forgiven. Poor Henry is on the point of death, and his friends declare that I have killed him; I received the information as a compliment, and begged they would not do me so much honour." D’Israeli’s Calamities, ii. 72.] In the midst of these adversities Henry went to London for actual shelter, but the watchful enemy observed his motions—attacks were inserted in one print and copied into another—the influence of his persecutor is widely perceptible in the periodical literature of the age. The Critical Review had praised the first volume of his history. The second meets with a very different reception: "it is with pain the reviewer observes, that in proportion as his narrative and inquiries are applied to cultivated times, his diligence and labour seem to relax," and a long list of alleged inaccuracies, chiefly on minute and disputed points, follows: the style is evidently not the natural language of the pompous Stuart, but it is got up in obedience to his directions on the vulnerable points of the historian, and the minuteness hints at the hand of Whitaker. Henry answered by a moderate letter defending his opinions, and acknowledging one mistake. The reviewer returns to his work with renovated vigour, and among other things accuses the historian of wilfully perverting authority. The charge of dishonesty rouses the calm divine, and with some severity he produces the words of the authority, and the use he has made of them. The editor claims the merit of candour for printing the communication, and as there is no gainsaying the fact it contains, appends an obscure hint which seems to intimate he knows more than he chooses to tell; a mode of backing out of a mistake not uncommon in periodical works, as if the editorial dignity were of so delicate a nature as not to bear a candid and honourable confession of error. Years afterwards, it is singular to discover the Critical Review returning to its original tone, and lauding the presence of qualities of which it had found occasion to censure the want. Stuart associated himself with his friend Whitaker in conducting the English Review in 1783, and it is singular, that amidst the devastation of that irascible periodical, no blow is aimed at Henry. But Stuart did not neglect his duty in the Political Herald, published in 1785, an able disturber of the tranquillity of literature, of which he was the sole conductor. Here he gave his last and deepest stab; accusing the venerable historian in terms the most bitter and vituperative, of a hankering after language and ideas, unworthy of his profession; concluding with the observation that "an extreme attention to smut in a presbyterian clergyman, who has reached the last scene of his life, is a deformity so shocking, that no language of reprobation is strong enough to chastise it." [Political Herald, v. i. p. 209.] The heartless insinuation was probably dictated by the consciousness that, whether true or false, no charge would be more acutely felt by the simple-minded divine. Stuart had, however, a very acute eye towards the real failings of Henry, and in his Protean attacks, he has scarcely left one of them without a brand. It was not without reason that he said to his London correspondent, "If you would only transcribe his jests, it would make him perfectly ridiculous." Henry was fond of garnishing with a few sallies of wit, his pictures of human folly; but he was unhappy in the bold attempt. They had too much pleasing simplicity and good-humoured grotesqueness for the purpose to which they were applied. More like the good-natured humour of Goldsmith, than the piercing sarcasm of Voltaire, they might have served to strike the lighter foibles exhibited in our daily path; but to attack the grander follies of mankind displayed in history, it may be said they did not possess sufficient venom to make formidable so light a weapon as wit.

We have been so much engrossed with the dreary details of malignity, that we will scarcely find room for many other details of Henry’s life; but the history of the book is the history of the author—in its fate is included all that the world need care to know, of the unassuming individual who composed it. It is with pleasure, then, that we turn to the brighter side; Henry calmly weathered out the storm which assailed him, and in his green old age, the world smiled upon his labours. Hume, who had so successfully trod the same field, was the first to meet Henry’s book with a welcome hearty and sincere; he knew the difficulties of the task, and if he was sufficiently acute to observe that Henry was far behind himself, neither jealousy nor conceit provoked him to give utterance to such feelings. "His historical narratives," says this able judge, "are as full as those remote times seem to demand, and at the same time, his inquiries of the antiquarian kind omit nothing which can be an object of doubt or curiosity. The one as well as the other is delivered with great perspicuity, and no less propriety, which are the true ornaments of this kind of writing; all superfluous embellishments are avoided; and the reader will hardly find in our language any performance that unites together so perfectly the two great points of entertainment and instruction." Dr Henry had printed the first edition of the first five volumes of his bock at his own risk, but on a demand for a new edition, he entered into a transaction with a bookseller, which returned him £3300. In the middle of its career the work secured royal attention; lord Mansfield recommended the author to George the Third, and his majesty "considering his distinguished talents, and great literary merit, and the importance of the very useful and laborious work in which he was so successfully engaged, as titles to his royal countenance and favour," bestowed on him a pension of a £100 a-year. For the honour of royal munificence, it is to be hoped that the gift was the reward of labour and literary merit, and not (as the author’s enemies have proclaimed) the wages of the political principles he inculcated. The insinuation is, indeed, not without apparent foundation. Henry, if not a perverter of history in favour of arbitrary power, is at least one of those prudent speculators who are apt to look on government as something established on fixed and permanent principles, to which all opposing interests must give way—on the government as something highly respectable,---on the mass of the people as something not quite so respectable,---on the community as existing for the government, and not on the government as adapted to the conveniences of the community.

Five volumes of Dr Henry’s history appeared before his death, and the ample materials he had left for the completion of the sixth were afterwards edited by Mr Laing, and a continuation was written by Mr Petit Andrews. The laborious author prepared the whole for the press with his own hand, notwithstanding a tremulous disorder, which compelled him to write on a book placed on his knee. In the latter years of his life, he retired to Milnfield, about twenty miles from Edinburgh, where he enjoyed the company of his friend and relative, Mr Laurie. In 1786, his constitution began visibly to decline; but he continued his labours till 1790. About that period his wife was affected with blindness from a cataract, and he accompanied her to Edinburgh, where she submitted to the usual operation, which, however, had not the desired effect during her husband’s lifetime. Dr Henry died on the 24th of November, 1799, in the 73d year of his age.-–The fifth edition of the History of Britain was published in 1823, in twelve volumes 8vo. A French translation was published in 1789-96, by MM. Rowland and Cantwell.

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