Yvor Winters wrote only once -- and only briefly -- of Robertson, in his essay on Henry Adams, which can be found in In Defense of Reason. A major section of that essay concerned Adams’s obscure history of the administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, inclusive of the War of 1812 (about which I have written on this blog). Winters considered this obscure work to have been Adams’s finest achievement. Selections from Adams’s long-neglected work itself have been issued in a fine new edition, which includes a laudatory preface from American historian Gary Wills. In the course of his discussion of Adams’s historical writings, Winters paused to give an overview of what he judged to be the greatest historical literature in English. This section of the Adams essay is only about four pages long, but it has long been of great interest to me. Winters mentions seven other historians besides Adams as the finest writers of historical literature in our language: Englishmen David Hume, Edward Gibbon, William Robertson, and Thomas Babbington Macauley, and Americans William Hicking Prescott, John Lothrop Motley, and Francis Parkman.
William Robertson lived from 1721 to 1793. He was a leading historical figure of the 18th-century Enlightenment, though he has long been almost entirely forgotten in modern times. He was one of the trio of historians, with David Hume and Edward Gibbon, who profoundly shaped European cultural consciousness in his time, especially concerning the idea of empire and colonization. A fairly recent book on his role in this intellectual movement, William Robertson and the Expansion of Empire, offers essays from many historians and scholars on Robertson's achievement, particularly his treatment of the theme of empire and European expansion. But the best place to start with Robertson is his histories themselves.
Winters was drawn to historical literature as literary art, in part, by the scholarship of J.B. Black, who wrote a superb and compelling book on history as literature in the 1930s, entitled The Art of History. I have read this splendid book (which has been long out of print) and also quite a bit in the works of William Robertson. Both Black and Robertson are well worth your time. Robertson’s major subjects include a history of Scotland, a history of Charles V and his era (a study which was finished by the American Prescott almost a century later), and the history of the Spanish discoveries and conquests in the Caribbean and Central America -- as Robertson called it, from the perspective of the 1780s, The History of America.
Let me pause to consider a broad side issue. The time has long been ripe for a reconsideration and an enlargement of Winters’s views on history as literature. No Wintersian I know of has undertaken to re-assess his ratings of the greatest historians or individual historical works. Nor has anyone tried to determine and re-assess the criteria he employed in making these ratings. Nor, further, has anyone sought to uncover exactly how his theories of poetry and, perhaps more pertinently, fiction are related to his theory of historical literature -- nor to advance the brief and general ideas that formed his theory. Yet another notable matter that deserves some consideration is why Winters’s judgments on historical literature are so much less controversial than those on poetry.
But I should turn back to William Robertson. His first major work was The History of Scotland During the Reigns of Queen Mary and James VI. This long work, which occupies the first couple volumes in the collected works, was published in 1758. It was a huge success in the public and among scholars. Its style and content had widespread appeal because Robertson studied the emerging Scotland of his present in light of a sometimes hostile, even insular past. After spending a long time on his deep study of Imperial Emperor Charles V, which was published in 1768, Robertson turned to a new historical project which he had mentioned in that book's preface. He wrote that he had not discussed New World colonization in Charles V for reasons of coherence, though he noted that his account of Europe in the 16th century was incomplete without it. The project was to include the history of Spanish, Portuguese, and British colonization, but Robertson chose to concentrate on the Spanish, which was naturally rooted in his study of Charles V.
Although Robertson’s original intention was to complete a full history of New World colonization before going to press, he decided to publish his study of the 16th-century Spanish conquest and colonization alone. I have read that this was because the events of 1776 had changed the direction his narrative was taking. The History of America, released in 1777, gathered considerable attention on the continent, where it was deemed Robertson's masterpiece. It went through nine editions between 1777 and 1780. Without doubt, The History of America reveals the Eurocentric limits of Robertson’s thinking. It has been said that it presents a less than supportive report on America’s first peoples while concealing, downplaying, or explaining away the many European barbarities of the era. Yet Robertson does get the facts in there, for the most part -- even if he does not interpret and judge those facts quite the way in which we would nowadays.
Robertson wrote a lapidary, polished prose of great movement and precision. As a stylist, he is the near equal of Hume, though this is not the common judgment. Hume achieved greatness in Winters’s eyes through his great History of England, which Winters praised very highly. Robertson also was a superb classical stylist who deserves your attention, even if it will take a bit of time and effort to become accustomed to his dense, measured style. Here’s a long sample from The History of America, "Volume 6" in the Collected Works:
About half a century after Marco Polo, sir John Mandeville, an Englishman, encouraged by his example, visited most of the countries in the east which he had described, and, like him, published an account of them. The narrations of those early travellers abound with many wild incoherent tales, concerning giants, enchanters, and monsters. But they were not, from that circumstance, less acceptable to an ignorant age, which delighted in what was marvellous. The wonders which they told, mostly on hearsay, filled the multitude with admiration. The facts which they related from their own observation, attracted the attention of the more discerning. The former, which may be considered as the popular traditions and fables of the countries through which they had passed, were gradually disregarded as Europe advanced in knowledge. The latter, however incredible some of them may have appeared in their own time, have been confirmed by the observations of modern travellers. By means of both, however, the curiosity of mankind was excited with respect to the remote parts of the earth; their ideas were enlarged; and they were not only insensibly disposed to attempt new discoveries, but received such information as directed to that particular course in which these were afterwards carried on.
While this spirit was gradually forming in Europe, a fortunate discovery was made, which contributed more than all the efforts and ingenuity of preceding mariner's ages to improve and to extend navigation. That wonderful property of the magnet, by which it communicates such virtue to a needle or slender rod of iron, as to point towards the poles of the earth, was observed. The use which might be made of this in directing navigation was immediately perceived. That valuable but now familiar instrument, the 'mariner's compass,' was constructed. When, by means of it, navigators found that, at all seasons, and in every place, they could discover the north and south with so much ease and accuracy, it became no longer necessary to depend merely on the light of the stars and the observation of the sea-coast. They gradually abandoned their ancient timid and lingering course along the shore, ventured boldly into the ocean, and, relying on this new guide, could steer in the darkest night, and under the most cloudy sky, with a security and precision hitherto unknown. The compass may be said to have opened to man the dominion of the sea, and to have put him in full possession of the earth, by enabling him to visit every part of it. Flavio Gioia, a citizen of Amalfi, a town of considerable trade in the kingdom of Naples, was the author of this great discovery, about the year one thousand three hundred and two. It hath been often the fate of those illustrious benefactors of mankind, who have enriched science and improved the arts by their inventions, to derive more reputation than benefit from the happy efforts of their genius. But the lot of Gioia has been still more cruel; through the inattention or ignorance of contemporary historians, he has been defrauded even of the fame to which he had such a just title. We receive from them no information with respect to his profession, his character, the precise time when he made this important discovery or the accidents and inquiries which led to it. The knowledge of this event, though productive of greater effects than any recorded in the annals of the human race, is transmitted to us without any of those circumstances which can gratify the curiosity that it naturally awakens. But though the use of the compass might enable the Italians to perform the short voyages to which they were accustomed, with greater security and expedition, its influence was not so sudden or extensive as immediately to render navigation adventurous, and to excite a spirit of discovery. Many causes combined in preventing this beneficial invention from producing its full effect instantaneously. Men relinquish ancient habits slowly, and with reluctance. They are averse to new experiments, and venture upon them with timidity. The commercial jealousy of the Italians, it is probable, laboured to conceal the happy discovery of their countryman from other nations. The art of steering by the compass, with such skill and accuracy as to inspire a full confidence in its direction, was acquired gradually. Sailors unaccustomed to quit sight of land, durst not launch out at once and commit themselves to unknown seas. Accordingly, near half a century elapsed, from the time of Gioia's discovery, before navigators ventured into any seas which they had not been accustomed to frequent.
This measured, stately prose can still stand as a model of English as a classical language: well reasoned, dignified, ordered. It uses a technique of accumulation that Yvor Winters prized highly, as Robertson gradually lays brick upon brick in his argument and builds an edifice of understanding. Like the best in a great era in prose era -- known for its clarity, urbanity, precision, and periodic expressiveness -- Yvor Winters’s own prose has the ring of Robertson’s, I think, more so than some of the other prose stylists that he thought had achieved greatness, Johnson or Hume or Adams.
I must note that two recent studies of Robertson, however obscure he is, have been published. The first I have mentioned, Cambridge University Press’s 1997 book, William Robertson and the Expansion of Empire, which is part of its "Ideas in Context" series. I have skimmed this book and found it a beneficial addition to the recent bicentennial emphasis on Edward Gibbon. The essays as a collection are of great value to our understanding not only of Robertson but also of important aspects of 18th-century literary culture. It opens new ways of studying Robertson’s importance to historiography and to English culture in his time. The second recent volume is Society and Sentiment: Genres of Historical Writing in Britain, 1740-1820, by Mark Salber Phillips, published by Princeton University Press (2000). Phillips’s study appears to be a dense study of the importance of changing conceptions of history in the time of William Robertson. In the following passage from the first chapter, note that Phillips draws attention to the general idea that the passage I have quoted from Robertson also deals with, commercial and technological advance (in specific the compass):
The power of commerce, however, only gives us the beginnings of the eighteenth century’s groping toward a new definition of its historical interests. A much wider spectrum of subjects is implied when the Monthly reviewer speaks, for example, of the need for “knowledge of the internal economy of the state, or the private situation of individuals.” As is so often the case, it is easiest to say what was displaced: gone, certainly, was the old restriction of history to statecraft and military maneuver —- and with it an easy accommodation to the clarity and linearity of classical ideals of narrative. In its place stood a much wider, but less easily defined set of concerns for which contemporaries did not really have a name, though philosophical history was a useful term for designating the literary form that did its best to encompass all the parts of this expanded subject. As the philosophical histories of Hume, Robertson, and others attest, the “matter” that history now needed to “imitate” (to adopt the terms of Aristotle’s Poetics) had enlarged itself enormously. It incorporated not only commerce and navigation, but the history of literature, of the arts and sciences, of manners and customs, even of opinion and sentiment. It needed to consider the experiences of women as well as of men, of “rude nations” living without the institution of property, as well as of those of commercial societies. But this diversity of subject matter was only a part of the problem; a further challenge was added by the belief that to write history at its highest level would mean being able to describe the underlying connectedness of all of these different aspects of life in the past, each of which was acquiring a literature of its own.
Phillips is accurate in his description that William Robertson concerned his three major histories with much more than political action. I hope you’ll take some time to explore Robertson’s work. You certainly don’t need to start with "Volume 1," which concerns medieval Scotland, and labor on to the end to the collected writings. Just stroll into Robertson’s account of some time period that you’ve always been interested in to give him a try. The sweep and complications of European politics at the time of the early Reformation in The History of Charles V might be particularly enlightening. Robertson is sure-footed and at times brilliant in his study of Charles V’s snarled conflict with the King of France, Francis I, a lengthy and complicated quarrel that can be thoroughly bewildering.