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THE principal authorities for the biographical details in the following pages were communicated to me by Dr. Robertson's eldest son, Mr. William Robertson, Advocate. To him I am indebted, not only for the original letters with which he has enabled me to gratify the curiosity of my Readers, but for every other aid which he could be prompted to contribute, either by regard for his father's memory, or by friendship for myself.
My information with respect to the earlier part of Dr. Robertson’s life was derived almost entirely from one of his oldest and most valued friends, the Rev. Dr. Carlyle of Inveresk.
It is proper for me to add, that this Memoir was read at different meetings of the Royal Society of Edinburgh; and was destined for a place in their Transactions. The length to which it has extended, suggested the idea of a separate publication, and the addition of an Appendix.
During the long interval which has elapsed since it was composed, a few. sentences have been occasionally inserted, in which a reference is made to later criticisms on Dr. Robertson's writings. I mention this circumstance, in order to account for some slight anachronisms.
COLLEGE OF EDINBURGII,
16th May, 1801.
LIFE AND WRITINGS
WILLIAM ROBERTSON, D.D.
From Dr. ROBERTSON's Birth till the Publication
of his History of Scotland. WILLIAM ROBERTSON, D.D. late Prin
cipal of the University of Edinburgh, and Historiographer to His Majesty for Scotland, was the son of the Reverend William Robertson, Minister of the old Gray-Friars' Church, and of Eleanor Pitcairn, daughter of David Pitcairn, Esq. of Dreghorn. By his father he was descended from the Robertsons of Gladney in the county of Fife; a branch of the respectable family of the same name, which has, for many generations, possessed the estate of Struan in Perthshire.
He was born in 1721, at Borthwick (in the county of Mid Lothian), where his father was then Minister; and received the first rudiments of
his education at the school of Dalkeith, which, from the high reputation of Mr. Leslie as a teacher, was at that time resorted to from all parts of Scotland. In 1733, he again joined his father's family on their removal to Edinburgh; and towards the end of the same year, he entered on his course of academical study.
From this period till the year 1759, when, by the publication of his Scottish History, he fixed a new æra in the literary annals of his country, the habits and occurrences of his life were such as to supply few materials for Biography; and the imagination is left to fill up a long interval spent in the silent pursuit of letters, and enlivened by the secret anticipation of future eminence. His genius was not of that forward and irregular growth, which forces itself prematurely on public notice; and it was only a few intimate and discerning friends, who, in the native vigour of his powers, and in the patientculture by which he laboured to improve them, perceived the earnests of a fame that was to last for ever.
The large proportion of Dr. Robertson's life which he thus devoted to obscurity will appear the more remarkable, when contrasted with his early and enthusiastic love of study. Some of his oldest common-place books, still in his son's possession, (dated in the years 1735, 1736, and 1737,) bear marks of a persevering assiduity, unexampled perhaps at so tender an age; and the motto prefixed to all of them (Vita sine literis mors est) attests how soon those views and sentiments were formed, which, to his latest hour, continued to guide and to dignify his ambition. In times such as the present, when literary distinction leads to other rewards, the labours of the studious are often prompted by motives very different from the hope of fame, or the inspiration of genius ; but when Dr. Robertson's career commenced, these were the only incitements which existed to animate his exertions. The trade of Authorship was unknown in Scotland; and the rank which that country had early acquired among the learned nations of Europe, had, for many years, been sustained entirely by a small number of eminent men, who distinguished themselves by an honourable and disinterested zeal in the ungainful walks of abstract science.
Some presages, however, of better times were beginning to appear. The productions of Thomson, of Armstrong, and of Mallet, were already known and admired in the metropolis of England, and an impulse had been given to the minds of the rising generation, by the exertions of a few able and enlightened men, who filled important stations in the Scottish Universities. Dr. Hutcheson of Glasgow, by his excellent writings, and still more by his eloquent lectures, had diffused, among a numerous race of pupils, a liberality of sentiment, and a refinement of taste, unknown before in this part of the island; and the influence of his example had extended in no inconsiderable degree, to that seminary where Dr. Robertson received his education. The Professorship of Moral Philosophy at Edinburgh was then held by Sir John Pringle, afterwards President of the Royal Society of London; who, if he did not rival Dr. Hutcheson's abilities, was not surpassed by him in the variety of his scientific attainments, or in a warm zeal for the encouragement of useful knowledge. His efforts were ably seconded by the learning and industry of Dr. Stevenson, Professor of Logic; to whose valuable prelections (particularly to his illustrations of Aristotle's Poetics and of Longinus on the Sublime) Dr. Robertson has been often heard to say that he considered himself as more deeply indebted than to any other circumstance in his academical studies. The bent of his genius did not incline him to mathematical or physical pursuits, notwithstanding the strong recommendations they derived from the popular talents of Mr. Maclaurin ; but he could not fail to receive advantage from the eloquence with which that illustrious man knew how to adorn the most abstracted subjects, as well as from that correctness and purity in his compositions which still entitle him to a high rank among our best writers, and which no Scottish author of the same period had been able to attain.
A number of other learned and respectable men, of whose naines the greater part now exist in tradition only, were then resident in Edinburgh. A club, or society of these*, carried on for some years a private correspondence with Dr. Berkeley, the celebrated Bishop of Cloyne, on the subject of his metaphysical publications; and are said to have been numbered by him among the few who com
* Called the Rankenian Club, from the name of the person in whose tavern its meetings were held. The learned and ingenious Dr. Wallace, author of the Dissertation on the Numbers of Mankind, was one of the leading members.