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What duller looking volume than a Parish Register? What drier commentary on the trite text, Mors omnibus communis ? What is it, but a barren abstract of the annals of mortality
-Where to be born, and die,
Of rich and poor makes all the history? It might, indeed, set on a calculator, or a life-insurance broker, to compute the comparative duration of life in different periods; a Shandean philosopher to speculate on the successive fashions in christian names; a manuscript-hunter to note down the revolutions of penmanship; or a moral economist to infer the progress of corruption from the increase of illegitimate births: but to men whose thoughts and feelings travel in the “high-way of the world,” its all-levelling uniformity presents neither amusement nor instruction. But
suppose an aged man to open this same volume, and, seated in the midst of a circle of his fellow-parishioners, run his eye along the time-discoloured pages, and relate his recollections, and his father's, and his great-great-grandfather's recollections of every name in the list, though perhaps few had done more than erect a new dial, or leave the interest of £5 to be distributed on New Year's Day to twenty poor widows; yet his talk would not be devoid of interest to such as a tale in every thing,” and that all of whom he spake had been born within hearing of the same church clock, would infuse a family-feeling into his narratives. He would be a local biographer.
If a few leading characters be excepted, who often owe their exception more to fortune and circumstance than to their intrinsic power, the notices of men in general histories are very much like the Parish Register :-consisting of names and dates, and events in which the bulk of the species are as passive as in their own birth and death. Nor can the majority of readers derive any thing from such histories,
better than empty speculations, not quite so trifling, perhaps, but quite as foreign to their “business and bosoms," as those of the virtuosos before mentioned. Biography is required, like the old man, to give history a human meaning and purpose.
It is, indeed, frequently asserted, that Biography is a most important part of History; and if by history we mean all such knowledge as rests upon testimony-as distinguished from science, which is grounded on demonstration, or on experiment, this is undoubtedly true. But it is more for our purpose, to consider Biography as the antithesis of History; to divide the knowledge of the past, founded on testimony, into History and Biography. The distinction we would draw, is not between an inclusive greater, and an included less, as Geography is distinguished from Topography, but rather such as obtains between Mechanical philosophy and Chemistry; the former of which calculates the powers of bodies in mass,—the latter analyses substances, and explains their operations by their composition.
The facts of the same life may be considered either biographically or historically. If the acts or circumstances of an individual are related only as they bear upon the public interests—if the man be regarded as a state engine, no matter whether he be the steam engine that sets the whole in motion, or one of the most insignificant spindlesmif his fortune be set forth, not for any personal interest to be taken therein, but merely as an instance, proof, cause, or consequence, of the general destiny-such an account, though it admitted nothing that did not originate from, or tend towards, a single person, ought not to be called a biography, but a history. Thus Robertson's Charles V. is not a life of Charles V. but a history of Europe in the age of Charles V. On the other hand, the private Memoirs of a public character are no necessary part of public history. Anecdotes of Kings and Ministers, Courtiers and Mistresses, do not explain the state of a nation; they are only so far historical as they indicate the average of morals; and in this point of view they are often extremely delusive,--for the Court is not the dial plate of the national heart. We have been led to state this, though not perhaps in the direct line of our argument, because the substituting a very exceptionable kind of Court biography for true national history is a mistake often practically made, and very mischievous ; not only because it bestows the dignity of history on prurient or malignant scandal, but because it breeds a false belief that the welfare and distress of communities are doled out at the discretion of a few fine dressed individuals, who, according to the popular temper, become idols or abominations.
A portion of history does, indeed, enter into all biography. The interests of individuals are so implicated in those of the community, that the life of the most domestic female could not be justly understood without some knowledge of the politics of the time in which she lived. Now what to one age is Politics, becomes History to all that succeed. The impossibility of writing the annals of a nation without recording the acts, words, and characters of many men in that nation, is obvious. But a philosophical historian always has his eye fixed on an Event, or a Principle ; individual interests and personal characters he considers but as water drops in the “mighty stream of tendency.” If he weighs Scipio against Hannibal, it is because they represented Carthage and Rome: if he drops a tear at Philippi, it is not for Brutus, but for the Republic. Whatever diverts attention from the onward course of things, without representing their general aspect, is, in a history, out of place, just as much as anecdotes of physicians and patients, or puffing descriptions of steam-packets, watering places, and the Island of Madeira, in a scientific treatise of medicine. The more interesting such episodes may be, the more they obstruct the historian's legitimate purpose ; for the proper interest of history is of a very high abstract quality, and consists chiefly in observing the operation of great princi. ples upon communities in long periods of time; in remarking how the seeming contradictions of facts, tempers, and opinions unite in one result, as this planet, in which there are at every moment so many millions of conflicting motions,-mechanical, chemical, vital, and voluntary, diverging and converging in every possible direction, is still itself inoving along the same everlasting way. The motion of the heavens is a sublime contemplation; so are the great, ordained revolutions of empires, magnificent subjects of thought. But to understand either the one or the other; to reduce the multitude of phænomena under a law of unity; and again to trace that law in the infinite detail of its operations; to verify general conclusions by fit inductions; to prove what really is the centre and source of motion and change, and what is inertly and
passively moved ; is a slow, dry, laborious work of intellect, requiring an intense and continuous attention, which few minds can sustain, and none will find agreeable. For in all abstract processes, besides the strong exertion of one faculty, which as conveying the sense of power, may be pleasurable, it is necessary to keep others under an almost painful constraint. The mind must be held, if the phrase may allowed, in decomposition. No wonder then, if it seize eagerly on the first opportunity of returning to its natural state, and bringing the imagination and sympathies into play. Hence the introduction of biographical, or human interest, into political history, indisposes both reader and writer for the hard passionless spirit of enquiry, so essentially necessary to arrive at those grand principles which convert facts into truths; principles in the light whereof a statesman ought to read the past, and without which history is, for all political application, something worse than an old almanack. For it should be left to the administrators of the laws to seek for precedents; the makers of laws should regard only principles. Facts, for antiquaries; Examples, for school-boys; Precedents, for lawyers ; Principles, for legislators. Let us take an instance, in the reign of our own Elizabeth. Does not our interest in the beautiful Queen of Scotland, interfere with our attention to the interests of the public? and is that interest at all more historical in the strict sense of the word, than that we take in the fortunes of Desdemona or Clarissa ? Or, to go back a little, are not fair Rosamond, and Jane Shore, in popular recollection, the most prominent characters in their respective epochs; epochs memorable for great changes in society, and rapid development of the constitution ? Let us not deceive ourselves after the manner of those that write, or perhaps rather of those that buy, pretty books for children. The romance of history only differs from other romances by requiring no invention.
But it will be said, that it is quite natural that we should care more about persons,
who are our fellow creatures, than about state interests and revolutions, which, in the aggregate, are brute forces, as unsympathizing as the lever, the pulley, or the steam-engine ; and that most people would find history very tiresome, if it were written according to the idea above proposed. To this we answer, that we do not wish history, for general perusal, to be so written. We only wish to distin
guish the peculiar end, object, and function of History from that of Biography.
In history all that belongs to the individual is exhibited in subordinate relation to the commonwealth ; in biography, the acts, and accidents of the commonwealth are considered in their relation to the individual, as influences by which his character is formed or modified,—as circumstances amid which he is placed, as the sphere in which he moves, or the material he works with. The man, with his works, his words, his affections, his fortunes, is the end and aim of all. He does not, indeed, as in a panegyric, stand alone like a statue, but like the central figure of a picture, around which others are grouped in due subordination and perspective, the general circumstances of his times forming the back and fore ground. In history, the man, like the earth on the Copernican hypothesis, is part of a system ; in Biography, he is like the earth in the ancient Cosmogony, the centre and the final cause of the system.
There is one species of history which may with great propriety be called biographical, to which we do not remember to have heard the term applied ;-we mean that wherein an order, institution, or people, are invested with personality, and described as possessing an unity of will, conscience, and responsibility ;-as sinning, repenting, believing, apostatizing, &c. Of this, the first and finest sample is in the Old Testament, where Israel is constantly addressed, and frequently spoken of, as an individual ; and the final restoration of the descendants of Abraham is treated as the redemption of ONE body from disease, of ONE soul from perdition. The scripture personality of Israel is something far other, and infinitely more real, than the personification of Britannia; and points at a profounder mystery than human sense can ever interpret.
Much has been said about the usefulness of history, meaning thereby the history of nations; and hardly too much can be said, if regard be had to the community and its rulers; for it makes the Past a factor to buy up experience for the Present; and enables the purged eye to “ look into the seeds of time.” But if the consideration be private, fireside, moral usefulness, we think the bene.