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••■'^'.rtt""'-'^ ESSAYS.



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AMD PAIll.IASUiNT STUIiliT



ESSAYS



ON*



HISTORICAL TRUTH.



BY ANDREW BIS^KT.



LONDON :
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187L






<-a^



CONTENTS.



1. IS TIIEin; A SCIKiVCE OF GOVERNMENT? ... 1

II. nOBBES 63

III. JAMES MILL 103

IV. HUME 13t;

V. SIR WALTER SCOTT 172

VI. THE GOVERNMENr ( »!• THE (•(>M:\IoXWE ALTIT AM) THE

GOVERNMENT OF CROMVVELI 303

VII. PRINCE HENRY 357

VIIL SIR THOMAS OVERIUJKY 411



fl^f-nQ'yAS



ESSAYS



ON



HISTOKICAL TP.UTH.



ESSAY I.
IS THERE A SCIENCE OF GOVERNMENT?^

Whex it is considered how much of what is put
forth as history is only falsehood under the name of
history, the opinions of tliose who have pronounced
history useless and mischievous may be found to have a
portion of truth in tliem. But history and historical
truth are two very different things. Whatever difference
of opinion may exist respecting the value of history,
there can be no difference of opinion about the value of
historical truth. For historical truth will be found to
be nearly allied to philosophical truth, and we shall have
no political philosophy of any value till those who study
the subject are as careful to obtain accurate materials —

^ The word government is used in two senses. In one of these it signifies
the disposition or distribution of the sovereign power in a political society ;
in the other, the administration of public affairs. In the former only can
the expression science of government be used. In this sense, of course, the
word government is used in this essay. In a subsequent essay — The Govern-
ment of the Commonwealth and the Government of Cromwell — the word is
used in the other sense, namely, the administration of public affairs, or the
act of governing. The two senses of the word may also be distinguished by
calling the first the science^ the second the art of government.

B



2 ESSAYS OX HISTORICAL TliUTIl.

that is, accurately-observed facts, or, in other words,
facts instead of fictions under tlie name of facts — as
Newton was to obtain an at least a])proximately accu-
rate measure of the earth's radius for the verification of
his hypothesis respecting the law of gravitation.

In reference to the remark of David Hume, that the
world is yet too young to have a political philosophy, or,
to quote his w^ords, ' is still too young to fix many
general truths in politics which will remain true to the
latest posterity,'^ it has been said that if history is to be the
basis of it, after ten thousand years the world will still be
too young. Hume's words ' truths in politics ' show that
he meant that there were too few historical truths, and
contemplated historical truths rather than the laws of
human nature as the basis of political philosophy. On
the other hand, thinkers of at least as great name as
Hume have sought to found a political philosophy on the
laws of human nature. But here we are met with a
difficulty as great as the difficulty of discovering histo-
rical truth. For not only have two celebrated writers
on government, Hobbes and James Mill starting from
the same theory of the laws of human nature — what has
been termed the selfish, in contradistinction to the
sentimental theory of morals — come to opposite conclu-
sions respecting the best form of government, but many
persons have altogether objected to their treatment
of the subject. Other writers, again, have adopted
another method of philosophising on this subject, and
have sought to evolve a social and political philosophy
out of historical facts, or at least of what they assume as
historical facts, by a process similar to that employed by

' Essay, Of Civil Liberty. — Hume's Essays, vol. i. p. 81, Edinburgh,
1825.



IS TllFAlE A SCIENCE OF (JOVERNMENT? 3

astronomers witli respect to physical facts. The result,
however, has certainly not as yet Ijeeii to produce a
science of government, or of political society bearing any
resemblance to the science of astronomy.

In regard to the difficulties attending the pursuit of
historical truth, there are some facts in connection with
English history which place the matter in a strong light.
And as we can hardly be supposed to possess equal
facilities for research into the arcliives of foreign nations,
the difficulties encountered with respect toEnglisli history
may be assumed to increase rather than to diminish
when we turn our researches to tlie history of other
coimtries. As regards the works styled ' Histories,'
Bacon's ' History of King Henry VH.' contains but this
one reference in these words : 'The original of this
proclamation remaineth with Sir Eobert Cotton, from
whose manuscripts I have had much light for the
furnishing of this work.' ^ Consequently, the facts set
forth in that history must rest upon Bacon's character
for veracity, which hardly stands so high as his character
for 'command over facts;' in other words, for the power
of moulding facts to suit his purpose as an advocate.

With regard to the manuscript materials in the public
archives, while it is true that of late years the jiublio
authorities have afforded facilities for the use of those
materials by persons engaged in historical inquiries, and
also that there has been a considerable degree of activity
in the publication of Calendars of the papers in the State
Paper 01fice,it appears to be forgotten that, in almost all the
darkest questions, ' precisely those papers whicli constitute

' Montagu's edition of Bacon's Works, vol. iii, p. 318, note.

B 2



4 ESSAYS OX HISTORICAL TEUTII.

tlie most important evidence are missing,' ^ and that many
of those which are not missing are of no value whatever,
and others are of less than no value from being intended
not to reveal but to conceal the truth. In all State
trials down to the time of the Commonwealth examina-
tions were taken in secret, and often wrung from the
prisoner by torture. Such parts of these examinations
as suited the purpose in view were read before a judge
removable at the will of the Crown, and a jury packed
for the occasion, who gave their verdict under the
terror of fine and imprisonment.^ The Government
then published such accounts of the trials as suited their
purposes. In those accounts truth and falsehood are
mixed up together with such apparent simplicity,
the fidelity of the story is vouched by the introduction
of depositions and documents,^ which might be garbled
at the discretion of the writer without fear of detection,
as the originals were in his power and were often des-
troyed after having served his purpose, but which give

1 Jardine's Criminal Trials, vol. ii. preface, p. x.

2 In the case of Sir Nicholas Throckmorton, the jury, having, in accord-
ance with the evidence, but in opposition to the will of the Court, brought
in a verdict of not guilty, were committed to prison. Four of them after-
wards made their submission, and were discharged. Of the other eight,
five were discharged after having lain in prison from the 17th of April till
the 12th of December, on the payment of fines of 220/. apiece, and the re-
maining three, having set forth in a petition that their estates did not
amount to the sum they were required to pay, were discharged December
21st on the payment of three score pounds apiece. Of the abject condition
of the people at that time in England the words of the foreman of this jury
present a striking picture, ' Foreman : I pray you, my lords, be good
unto us, and let us not be molested for the faithful discharge of our con-
sciences. We are poor merchant-men, and have great charge on our hands,
and our livelihood depends upon our travails. We beseech the Court to
appoint a certain day for our appearance, because perhaps else some of us
may be in foreign parts, about our business.' — Jardine's Criminal Trials,

vol. i. p. 109.

3 Jardine's Criminal Trials, vol. ii. pp. 4, 5.



IS THERE A SCIENCE OF GOVERNMENT? 5

an air of candour and authenticity ; and all this is
performed with so much art, Avhen tlie writer is a man
of consummate ability like Francis Bacon, that the reader
is beguiled into an unsuspecting belief of the whole
narration.

While the State Papers that were intended to be made
public were thus carefully prepared not to reveal but to
conceal the truth, it is evident that no papers will be
found, unless such as may have been preserved by some
accident whereby the intention of their destruction was
defeated, which will throw any light on the true character
of the persons who occupied the throne, and who, being
placed in a position where they were subjected to no
check either of law or of public opinion, pursued the
course which human beings so placed — whether called
kings or queens, or emperors or dictators or protectors —
might be expected to pursue. For instance, we are
indebted to some accidental oversight in the destruction
of all papers containing even the smallest glimpse of the
truth respecting the death of Prince Henry and the
murder of Sir Thomas Overbury, for those papers and
fragments of papers which will be examined in the
two last essays in this volume, and which throw such ex-
traordinary light upon the inner life of the court of
James I. If Leicester had been brought to a public
trial, as in a free country he would have been, for the
murder of his first wife, Amy Pobsart, some light might
have been thrown upon the interior of the court of Queen
Elizabeth — a lisi-ht which w^ould have shown a startling
contrast between the repulsive reality and the rose-
coloured phantom of romance under the name of history.
The trial of Somerset would not have taken place if the



6 ESSAYS ON inSTOlilCAL TRUTH.

favour of Kinir James had not been transferred from So-
merset to Buckingham. If Elizabeth had for similar
reasons wished to get rid of Leicester, and had brought
him to trial on the charge of murdering his wife, some
licrht miixht have been thrown on Ehzabeth's court. But
Leicester continued in favour to the end of his life, and
died without beinsj broug-ht to account in this world for
his crimes, a part of the guilt of which must conse-
quently devolve on the queen who protected him from
the punishment due to them. Ehzabeth also knew the
true character of the king (James) whom she named as
as her successor. She also received most graciously as a
suitor one of the infamous sons of Catharine de' Medici
— a person resj)ecting whom Don John of Austria, Gover-
nor of the Netherlands for Philip II., assigned as his
reason for advising Philip to give him hopes of epousing
the Infanta, but by no means ever to go farther, that ' he
was unscrupulously addicted to infamous vices.' ^

Whatever may have been the case under the Plantage-
nets, it is beyond a doubt that under the Tudors and
Stuarts no subject could breath a whisper respecting the
vices and crimes of the reigning dynasty without the
peril of a death of torture and ignominy. It would of
course be idle to expect to find in the public archives of
England any evidence of a direct or conclusive nature
respecting such crimes. Some evidence, however, exists in
the French archives, and lias been published by Von
Eaumer, and that some evidence also exists in the Spanish
archives appears from the extraordinary letter of De
Quadra, published by Mr. Froude, in which the Spaniard

^ * Se tiene eiitendido que ne hace scrupulo del pecado nefando.' MS.
cited by ^fr. Motley. — liise of tJie Butch licimhlic, vol. iii. p. 114, note,
London, IHfJl.



IS THERE A SCIENCE OF GOVERNMENT? 7

represents Cecil as saying to him in a familiar conversa-
tion, among other starthng remarks on the intimacy
between Queen Ehzabetli and Lord Robert Dudley, ' tliat
they were tliinking of destroying Lord Robert's wife.'
And before the letter relating this conversation was des-
patched, news liad arrived of the death of Amy Robsart.
The word ' they ' of course means Elizabeth and Dudley.
Till within the last half century, before the publications of
Lord Hailes and Von Raumer, about as much was known
of King James I. as of King Nimrod ; and about as mucli
was known of Queen Elizabeth as of Queen Semiramis
till the publication of the history of Mr. Froude, who
has the jjreat merit of havina; unearthed that extra-
ordinary letter of the Spanish ambassador De Quadra. If
as much of the evidence respecting Elizabeth as respecting
James had escaped destruction, she would probably be
found to have been much such a woman as lie was a man.
Some evidence also exists in Britain, not in the repositories
of the State, but in such repositories as the Advocates'
Library in Edinburgh, from the collection of MSS. in
which Lord Hailes published those strange letters relating
to the court of James I. And these would seem to have
been preserved only by some accident, for some of them
conclude with these words : ' I pray you burn this letter.' ^
It is strange that men of such powerful minds as
Hobbes and Hume should have entertained such loose

^ These are the concluding words of a letter from the Duke of Bucking-
ham to King James I., pul^lished by Sir David Dalrymple (Lord Hailes),
p. 127 of a small volume entitled ' Memorials and Letters relating to the
History of Britain in the Reign of James the Fir^t, from the originals,
Glasgow, 17G2.' There are also some letters of a similar kind among the
Ilarleian MSS. in the British Museum; and a curious Italian MS. letter, to
which I shall refer in a subsequent essay, among the additional MSS. iu
the British Museum.



8 ESSAYS OX HISTORICAL TRUTH.

notions as they appear to have done on the subject of evi-
dence. Hobbes appears to have missed the matter most
signally when he objects, in his preface to his trans-
lation of Homer, to the judgment of Tacitus on the
emperors of Eome. Had the government established at
Eome after the battle of Pharsalia been a despotism
secured to one family for a long series of years, as that of
the Tudors and Stuarts was, Tacitus and other writers
could never have told so much as they have done res-
pecting the vices and crimes of the emperors of Eome
between the death of Augustus and the accession of
Nerva. It is true we do not possess the records necessary
to verify the statements of Tacitus and Suetonius. But
the circumstances above indicated of a writer like Tacitus
having more freedom to speak what he believed to be
true than a writer under a monarchy like the English,
which remained for so many generations in the same
family, or in that family's heirs or representatives, seems
to have been overlooked by Hobbes, in his expression of
doubt as to the justness of the judgment passed by
Tacitus on the Eoman emperors.

When we consider that under a government such as
that of England was down to the time of the Common-
wealth, all the ability of such statesmen and lawyers as
Cecil and Bacon was employed to keep from the know-
ledge of the governed every particle of truth that might
tend in the smallest degree to tell against the Government,
we may admit to the fullest extent the force of a remark
made by Mr. Amos with reference to ancient State trials,
and even extend its application beyond State trials. The
observation referred to is ' that a reader of ancient State
trials is in the condition of Bishop's Berkeley's idealist,



IS THERE A SCIENCE OF GOVERNMENTf 9

in re<Tfard to having no security that anything he reads
had ever a real existence ; ' and tliat ' lie may be certain
that much he reads is misrepresentation or pure fiction.' ^
These considerations place in a strong light tlie difficulties
to be encountered by tlie searcher after historical trutli —
difficulties so great as to form an argument of some
weisfht in favour of those who have souf;^ht to found tlieir
systems of political philosophy on the laws of liuman
nature, rather than on historical facts.

Against the opinion of Lord Macaulay ^ and others,
that politics is an experimental science, Mr. J. S. Mill, in
the chapter of his Logic headed, ' Of the Chemical, or
Experimental, Method in the Social Science,' has adduced
arguments which it would not be easy to overtlirow ; and
towards the close of his chapter on this subject remarks
that ' the generality of those who reason on political sub-
jects satisfactorily to themselves and to a more or less
numerous body of admirers, know notliing whatever of
the methods of physical investigation beyond a few pre-
cepts which they continue to parrot after Bacon, being
entirely unaware that Bacon's conception of scientific
inquiry has done its work, and that science has now ad-
vanced into a higher stage.' ^

The great difficulty, amounting to impossibility, ' which
meets us,' says Mr. Mill, ' in the attempt to apply experi-
mental methods for ascertaining the laws of social phe-
nomena, is that we are w^ithout the means of making
artificial experiments.' *

^ Amos, The Great Oyer of Poisoning, p. 492,

2 See his essay on Sir James Mackintosh's History of the Revolution, and
his essay on James Mill's Essay on Government.

3 Mill's Logic, vol. ii. pp. 474, 47o, 7th edition, London, 18G8.
* Mill's Logic, vol. ii. p. 4G8, 7th edition.



10 ESSAYS ON HISTORICAL TRUTH.

The difficulties, arising from plurality of causes and
iutermixtiu'e of effects, with which the study of the phe-
nomena of pohtics and history is beset, are so great that
it would be no discredit to anyone to have failed in an
attempt to overcome them. Of these difficulties Mr.
J. S. Mill, in his chapter ' Of Plurality of Causes, and of
the Intermixture of Effects,' gives a description which
might almost seem to place the solution of them beyond
the reach of the human capacity. ' If so little can be
done,' he says, ' by the experimental method to determine
the conditions of an effect of many combined causes, in
the case of medical science, still less is this method ap-
plicable to a class of phenomena more complicated than
even those of physiology — the phenomena of politics and
history. There, pku-ality of causes exists in almost
boundless excess, and effects are, for the most part,
inextricably interwoven with one another. To add to
the embarrassment, most of the inquiries in political
science relate to the production of effects of a most com-
prehensive descT-iption, such as the public wealth, public
security, public morality, and the like : results liable to be
affected directly or indirectly either in plus or in minus
by nearly every fact which exists, or event which occurs,
in human society. The vulgar notion, that the safe
methods on political subjects are those of Baconian in-
duction, that the true guide is not general reasoning but
specific experience, will one day be quoted as among the
most unequivocal marks of a low state of the speculative
faculties in any age in which it is accredited.' ^

Tlio difficulties with which the study of the phenomena
of politics and history is beset being so great, let us now

^ Mill's Lof,'io, vol. i. p. ~A)A, 7lli edition.



IS THERE A SCIENCE OF UOVERNMEXTf 11

look at some of the attempts made to overcome them.
The most ambitious attempts that have l)eeii made in tliis
branch of study are those of certain French writers. The
great snare of such writers is the ambition of generah-
satiou, accompanied by an astonishing indifference to ac-
curacy of facts. Mr. John Stuart Mill has given the
following explanation of this phenomenon : —

' Descartes is the completest type which history pre-
sents of the purely mathematical type of mind — that in
which the tendencies })roduced by mathematical cultiva-
tion reign unbalanced and supreme. This is visible not
only in the abuse of deduction, which he carried to a
greater length than any distinguished thinker known to
us, not excepting the schoolmen ; but even more so in
the character of the premises from which his deductions
set out. And here we come upon the one really grave
charge which rests on the mathematical spirit, in respect
of the influence it exercises on pursuits other than mathe-
matical. It leads men to place their ideal of Science in
derivimr all knowled^-e from a small number of axiomatic
premises, accepted as self-evident, and taken for imme-
diate intuitions of reason. This is what Descartes attempted
to do, and inculcated as the thing to be done ; and as
he shares with only one other name the honour of having
given his impress to the whole character of the modern
speculative movement, the consequences of his error have
been most calamitous. ... All reflecting persons in
England, and many in France, perceive that the chief



Online LibraryAndrew BissetEssays on historical truth → online text (page 1 of 40)