Edward Gibbon.

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money, was admitted as a proof of his actual guilt. One man was
ruined because he had dropped a foolish speech, that his horses should
feed upon gold ; another because he was grown so proud, that, one day
at the Treasury, he had refused a civil answer to persons much above
him. All were condemned, absent and unheard, in arbitrary fines and
forfeitures, which swept away the greatest part of their substance.
Such bold oppression can scarcely be shielded by the omnipotence of


parliament ; and yet it may be seriously questioned, whether the Judges
of the South Sea Directors were the true and legal representatives of
their country. The first parliament of George the First had been chosen
(17 1 5) for three years : the term had elapsed, their trust was expired ;
and the four additional years (171 8 — 1722), during which they continued
to sit, were derived not from the people, but from themselves ; from the
strong measure of the septennial bill, which can only be paralleled by
il serar di coiisi-:;lio of the Venetian history. Yet candour will own
that to the same parliament every Englishman is deeply indebted : the
septennial act, so vicious in its origin, has been sanctioned by time, ex-
perience, and the national consent. Its first operation secured the
House of Hanover on the throne, and its permanent influence main-
tains the peace and stability of government. As often as a repeal has
been moved in the House of Commons, I have given in its defence a
clear and conscientious vote.

My grandfather could not expect to be treated with moi-e lenity than
his companions. His Tory principles and connections rendered him
obnoxious to the ruling powers : his name is reported in a suspicious
secret ; and his well-known abilities could not plead the excuse of igno-
rance or error. In the first proceedings against the South Sea Direc-
tors, Mr. Gibbon is one of the few who were taken into custody ; and,
in the final sentence, the measure of his fine proclaims him eminently
guilty. The total estimate which he delivered on oath to the House of
Commons amounted to ^106,543 5s. 6d., exclusive of antecedent settle-
ments. Two different allowances of ^i 5,000 and of ^10,000 were moved
for Mr. Gibbon ; but, on the question being put, it was carried without
a division for the smaller sum. On these ruins, with the skill and
credit, of which parliament had not been able to despoil him, my grand-
father at a mature age erected the edifice of a new fortune : the labours
of sixteen years were amply rewarded ; and I have reason to believe
that the second structure was not much inferior to the first. He had
realized a very considerable property in Sussex, Hampshire, Bucking-
hamshire, and the New River Company ; and had acquired a spacious
house,* with gardens and lands, at Putney, in Surrey, where he resided
in decent hospitality. He died in December 1736, at the age of seventy;
and by his last will, at the expense of Edward, his only son, (with whose
marriage he was not perfectly reconciled,) enriched his two daughters,
Catherine and Hester. The former became the wife of Mr. Edward
EUiston, an East India captain : their daughter and heiress Catherine
was married in the year 1756 to Edward Eliot, Esq. (now lord Eliot),
of Port Eliot, in the county of Cornwall ; and their three sons are my
nearest male relations on the father's side. A life of devotion and celi-
bacy was the choice of my aunt, Mrs. Hester Gibbon, who, at the age
of eighty-five, still resides in a hermitage at Cliffe, in Northamptonshire ;
having long survived her spiritual guide and faithful companion Mr.
William Law, who, at an advanced age, about the year I76i,died in her
house. In our family he had left the reputation of a worthy and pious
man, who believed all that he professed, and practised all that he en-
joined. The character of a non-juror, wliich he maintained to the last,
is a sufficient evidence of his principles in church and state ; and the
• Since inhabited by Mr. Wood, Sir John Shelley, the Duke of Norfolk, &c. — S.


sacrifice of interest to conscience will be always respectable. His theo-
logical writings, which our domestic connection has tempted me to
peruse, preserve an imperfect sort of life, and I can pronounce with
more confidence and knowledge on the merits of the author. His last
compositions are darkly tinctured by the incomprehensible visions of
Jacob 15ehmen ; and his discourse on the absolute unlawfulness of
stage entertainments is sometimes quoted for a ridiculous intemperance
of sentiment and language. — "The actors and spectators must all be
damned : ti'.e playhouse is the porch of Hell, the place of the Devil's
abode, where he holds his filthy court of evil spirits : a play is the
Devil's triumph, a sacrifice performed to his glory, as much as in the
heathen temples of Bacchus or Venus, iJv:c., &c." But these sallies of
rehgious frenzy must not extinguish the praise, which is due to Mr.
William Law as a wit and a scholar. His argument on topics of less
absurdity is specious and acute, his manner is lively, his style forcible
and clear ; and, had not his vigorous mind been clouded by enthusiasm,
he might be ranked with the most agreeable and ingenious writers of
the times. While the Bangorian controversy was a fashionable theme,
he entered the lists on the subject of Christ's kingdom, and the
authority of the priesthood : against the plain account of the sacra-
ment of the Lord's Supper he resumed the combat with Bishop Hoad-
ley, the object of Whig idolatry, and Tory abhorrence ; and at every
weapon of attack and defence the non-juror, on the ground which is
common to both, approves himself at least equal to the prelate. On
the appearance of the Fable of the Bees, he drew his pen against the
licentious doctrine that private vices are public benefits, and morality
as well as religion must join in his applause. IMr. Law's master-work,
the Serious Call, is still read as a popular and powerful book of devotion.
His precepts are rigid, but they are founded on the gospel ; his satire
is sharp, but it is drawn from the knowledge of human life ; and many
of his portraits are not unworthy of the pen of La Bruyere. If he
finds a spark of piety in his reader's mind, he will soon kindle it to a
flame ; and a philosopher must allow that he exposes, with equal
severity and truth, the strange contradiction between the faith and prac-
tice of the Christian world. Under the names of Flavia and Miranda
he has admirably described my two aunts — the heathen and the Chris-
tian sister.

My father, Edward Gibbon, was born in October, 1707 : at the age of
thirteen he could scarcely feel that he was disinherited by act of par-
liament ; and, as he advanced towards manhood, new prospects of
fortune opened to his view. A parent is most attentive to supply in his
children the deficiencies, of which he is conscious in himself : my
grandfather's knowledge was derived from a strong understanding, and
the experience of the ways of men ; but my father enjoyed the benefits
of a liberal education as a scholar and a gentleman. At Westminster
School, and afterwards at Emanuel College in Cambridge, he passed
through a regular course of academical discipline ; and the care of his
learning and morals was intrusted to his private tutor, the same Mr.
William Law. But the mind of a saint is above or below the present
world ; and while the pupil proceeded on his travels, the tutor remained
at Putney, the much-honoured friend and spiritual director of the whole


family. My father resided some time at Paris to acquire the fashionable
exercises ; and as his temper was warm and social, he indulged in those
pleasures, for which the strictness of his former education had given
him a keener relish. He afterwards visited several provinces of France ;
but his excursions were neither long nor remote ; and the slender know-
ledge, which he had gained of the French language, was gradually ob-
literated. His passage through Besan^on is marked by a singular con-
sequence in the chain of human events. In a dangerous illness Mr.
Gibbon was attended, at his own request, by one of his kinsmen of the
name of Acton, the younger brother of a younger brother, who had
applied himself to the study of physic. During the slow recovery of
his patient, the physician himself was attacked by the malady of love :
he married his mistress, renounced his country and religion, settled at
Besanqon, and became the father of three sons ; the eldest of whom.
General Acton, is conspicuous in Europe as the principal Minister of
the king of the Two Sicilies. By an uncle whom another stroke of
fortune had transplanted to Leghorn, he was educated in the naval ser-
vice of the Emperor ; and his valour and conduct in the command of
the Tuscan frigates protected the retreat of the Spaniards from Algiers.
On my father's return to England he was chosen, in the general election
of 1734, to serve in parliament for the borough of Petersfiield ; a burg-
age tenure, of which my grandfather possessed a weighty share, till he
alienated (I know not why) such important property. In the opposi-
tion to Sir Robert Walpole and the Pelhams, prejudice and society
connected his son with the Tories, — shall I say Jacobites ? or, as they
were pleased to style themselves, the country gentlemen 1 with them he
gave many a vote ; with them he drank inany a bottle. Without ac-
quiring the fame of an orator or a statesman, he eagerly joined in the
great opposition, which, after a seven years' chase, hunted down Sir
Robert Walpole : and in the pursuit of an unpopular minister, he grati-
fied a private revenge against the oppressor of his family in the South
Sea persecution.

I was born at Putney, in the county of Surrey, April 27th, O. S., in
the year one thousand seven hundred and thirty-seven ; the first child
of the marriage of Edward Gibbon, esq., and of Judith Porten.* My
lot might have been that of a slave, a savage, or a peasant ; nor can I
reflect without pleasure on the bounty of Nature, which cast my birth
in a free and civilized country, in an age of science and philosophy, in
a family of honourable rank, and decently endowed with the gifts of
fortune. From my birth I have enjoyed the right of primogeniture;
but I was succeeded by five brothers and one sister, all of whom were
snatched away in their infancy. My five brothers, whose names may
be found in the parish register of Putney, I shall not pretend to lament :
but from my childhood to the present hour I have deeply and sincerely
regretted my sister, whose life was somewhat prolonged, and whom I
remember to have been an amiable infant. The relation of a brother

* The union to wliich I owe my birth was a marriage of inclination and esteem. Mr. James
Porten, a merchant of London, resided with his family at Putney, in a house adjoining to the
bridge and churchyard, where I have passed many happy hours of my childliood. He left one
son (the late Sir Stanier Porten) and three daughters ; Catherine, who preserved her maiden
name, and of whom I shall hereafter speak ; another daughter married Mr. Darrel of Richmond,
and left two sons, Edward and Rohevt ; the youngest of the three sisters was Judith, my mother.


and a sister, especially if they do not marry, appears to me of a very
singular nature. It is a familiar and tender friendship with a female,
much about our own age ; an aflection pcrhajjs softened by the secret
influence of sex, and the sole species of Platonic love that can be
indulged with truth, and without danger.

At the general election of 1741, Mr. Gibbon and Mr. Delme stood an
expensive and successful contest at Southampton, against Mr. Dummer
and Mr. Henly, afterwards Lord Chancellor and Earl of Northington.
The Whig candidates had a majority of the resident voters ; but the
corporation was firm in the Tory interest : a sudden creation of one
hundred and seventy new freemen turned the scale ; and a supply was
readily obtained of respectable volunteers, who flocked from all parts
of England to supj>ort the cause of their political friends. The new
parliament opened with the victory of an opposition, which was fortified
by strong clamour and strange coalitions. From the event of the first
divisions. Sir Robert Walpole perceived that he could no longer lead a
majority in the House of Commons, and prudently resigned (after a
dominion of one-and-twenty years) the guidance of the state (1742).
But the fall of an unpopular minister was not succeeded, according to
general expectation, fjy a millennium of happiness and virtue : some
courtiers lost their places, some patriots lost their characters. Lord
Orford's offences vanished with his power ; and after a short vibration,
the Pelham government was fixed on the old basis of the Whig aristo-
cracy. In the year 1745, the throne and the constitution were attacked
by a rebellion, which does not reflect much honour on the national
spirit ; since the English friends of the Pretender wanted courage to
join his standard, and his enemies (the bulk of the people) allowed him
to advance into the heart of the kingdom. Without daring, perhaps
without desiring, to aid the rebels, my father invariably adhered to the
Tory opposition. In the most critical season he accepted, for the
service of the party, the office of alderman in the city of London : but
the duties were so repugnant to his inclination and habits, that he
resigned his gown at the end of a few months. The second parliament
in which he sat was prematurely dissolved (1747) : and as he was unable
or unwilling to maintain a second contest for Southampton, the life of
the senator expired in that dissolution.

The death of a new-born child before that of its parents may seem an
unnatural, but it is strictlya probable, event : since of any given number the
greater part are extinguished before their ninth year, before they possess
the faculties of the mind or body. Without accusing the profuse waste
or imperfect workmanship of Nature, I shall only observe, that this
unfavourable chance was multiplied against my infant existence. So
feeble was my constitution, so precarious my life, that, in the baptism
of each of my brothers, my father's prudence successively repeated my
Christian name of Edward, that, in case of the departure of the eldest
son, this patronymic appellation might be still perpetuated in the family.

Uno avulso non deficit alter.

To preserve and to rear so frail a being, the most tender assiduity was
scarcely sufficient, and my mother's attention was somewhat diverted
by an exclusive passion for her husband, and by the dissipation of the


world, in which his taste and authority obhged her to mingle. But the
maternal oliice was supplied by my aunt, Mrs. Catherine Porten ; at
whose name I feel a tear of gratitude trickling down my cheek. A life
of celibacy transferred her vacant affection to her sister's first child :
my weakness excited her pity ; her attachment was fortified by labour
and success : and if there be any, as I trust there are some, who rejoice
that I live, to that dear and excellent woman they must hold themselves
indebted. Many anxious and solitary days did she consume in the
patient trial of every mode of relief and amusement. Many wakeful
nights did she sit by my bedside in trembling expectation that each hour
would be my last. Of the various and frequent disorders of my child-
hood my own recollection is dark. Suffice it to say, that while every
practitioner, from Sloane and Ward to the Chevalier Taylor, was suc-
cessively summoned to torture or relieve me, the care of my mind was
too frequently neglected for that of my health : compassion always
suggested an excuse for the indulgence of the master, or the idleness of
the pupil ; and the chain of my education v/as broken, as often as I was
recalled from the school of learning to the bed of sickness.

As soon as the use of speech had prepared my infant reason for the
admission of knowledge, 1 was taught the arts of reading, writing, and
arithmetic. So remote is the date, so vague is the memory of their
origin in myself, that, were not the error corrected by analogy, I should
be tempted to conceive them as innate. In my childhood I was
praised for the readiness with which I could multiply and divide, by
memory alone, two sums of several figures ; such praise encouraged my
growing talent ; and had I persevered in this line of application, I might
have acquired some fame in mathematical studies.

After this previous institution at home, or at a day school at Putney,
I was delivered at the age of seven into the hands of Mr. John Kirkby,
who exercised about eighteen months the office of my domestic tutor.
His learning and virtue introduced him to my father; and at Putney he
might have found at least a temporary shelter, had not an act of indis-
cretion driven him into the world. One day reading prayers in the
parish church, he most unluckily forgot the name of King George : his
patron, a loyal subject, dismissed him with some reluctance, and a
decent reward ; and Jiow the poor man ended his days I have never
been able to learn. Mr. John Kirkby is the author of two small volumes;
he Life of Automathes (London, 1745), and an English and Latin
Grammar (London, 1746); which, as a testimony of gratitude, he dedi-
cated (Nov. 5th, 1745) to my father. The books are before me : from
them the pupil may judge the preceptor ; and, upon the whole, his
judgment will not be unfavourable. 1 he grammar is executed with
accuracy and skill, and I know not whether any better existed at the
time in our language : but the Life of Automathes aspires to the honours
of a philosophical fiction. It is the story of a youth, the son of a ship-
wrecked exile, who lives alone on a desert island from infancy to the age
of manhood. A hind is his nurse ; he inherits a cottage, with many
useful and curious instruments ; some ideas remain of the education of
his two first years; some arts arc borrowed from the beavers of a
neighbouring lake ; some truths are revealed in supernatural visions.
With these helps, and his own industry, Automathes becomes a self-


taught though speechless philosopher, who had invesligalcd with
success his own mind, the natural world, the abstract sciences, and the
great principles of morality and religion. The author is not entitled
to the merit of invention, since he has blended the English story of
Robinson Crusoe with the Arabian romance of Hal Ebn Yokhdan,
which he might have read in the Latin version of Pocock. In the
Automathes I cannot praise either the depth of thought or elegance of
style ; but the book is not devoid of entertainment or instruction ; and
among several interesting passages, I would select the discovery of tire,
which produces by accidental mischief the discovery of conscience. A
man who had thought so much on the subjects of language and edu-
cation was surely no ordinary preceptor: my childish years, and his
hasty departure, prevented me from enjoying the full benefit of his
lessons ; but they enlarged my knowledge of arithmetic, and left me a
clear impression of the English and Latin rudiments.

In my ninth year (Jan., 1746), in a lucid interval of comparative
health, my father adopted the convenient and customary mode of
English education ; and I was sent to Kingston-upon-Thames, to a
school of about seventy boys, which was kept by Dr. Wooddeson and
his assistants. Every time I have since passed over Putney Common,
I have always noticed the spot where my mother, as we drove along in
the coach, admonished me that I was now going into the world, and
must learn to think and act for myself. The expression may appear
ludicrous ; yet there is not, in the course of life, a more remarkable
change than the removal of a child from the luxury and freedom of a
wealthy house, to the frugal diet and strict subordination of a school ;
from the tenderness of parents, and the obsequiousness of servants, to
the rude familiarity of his equals, the msolent tyranny of his seniors,
and the rod, perhaps, of a cruel and capricious pedagogue. Such
hardships may steel the mind and body against the injuries of fortune ;
but my timid reserve was astonished by the crowd and tumult of the
school ; the want of strength and activity disqualified me for the sports
of the play-field ; nor have I forgotten how often in the year forty-six
I was reviled and buffeted for the sins of my Tory ancestors. By the
common methods of discipline, at the expence of many tears and
some blood, I purchased the knowledge of the Latin syntax : and not
long since I was possessed of the dirty volumes of Phjedrus and Cor-
nelius Nepos, which I painfully construed and darkly understood. The
choice of these authors is not injudicious. The lives of Cornelius
Nepos, the friend of Atticus and Cicero, are composed in the style of
the purest age : his simplicity is elegant, his brevity copious ; he
exhilDits a series of men and manners ; and with such illustrations, as
every pedant is not indeed qualified to give, this classic biographer
may initiate a young student in the history of Greece and Rome. The
use of failles or apologues has been approved in every age from ancient
India to modern Europe. They convey in familiar images the truths of
morality and prudence ; and the most childish understanding (I advert
to the scruples of Rousseau) will not suppose either that beasts do
speak, or that men may lie. A fable represents the genuine characters
of animals ; and a skilful master might extract from Pliny and Buffon
some pleasing lessons of natural history, a science well adapted to the


taste and capacity of children. Tlie Latinity of Pha^drus is not
exempt from an alloy of the silver age ; but his manner is concise,
terse, and sententious : the Thracian slave discreetly breathes the
spirit of a freeman ; and when the text is found, the style is per-
spicuous. But his fables, after a long oblivion, were first published by
Peter Pithou, from a corrupt manuscript. The labours of fifty editors
confess the defects of the copy, as well as the value of the original ; and
the school-boy may have been whipped for misapprehending a passage,
which Bentley could not restore, and which Burman could not explain.

My studies were too frequently interrupted by sickness ; and after
a real or nominal residence at Kingston School of near two years, I
was finally recalled (Dec, 1747) by my mother's death, in her thirty-
eighth year. I was too young to feel the importance of my loss ; and
the image of her person and conversation is faintly imprinted in my
memory. The affectionate heart of my aunt, Catherine Porten,
bewailed a sister and a friend ; but my poor father was inconsolable,
and the transport of grief seemed to threaten his life or his reason. I
can never forget the scene of our first interview, some weeks after the
fatal event ; the awful silence, the room hung with black, the mid-day
tapers, his sighs and tears ; his praises of my mother, a saint in
heaven ; his solemn adjuration that I would cherish her memory and
imitate her virtues ; and the fervor with which he kissed and blessed
me as the sole surviving pledge of their loves. The storm of passion
insensibly subsided into calmer melancholy. At a convivial ineeting
of his friends, Mr. Gibbon might affect or enjoy a gleam of cheerful-
ness ; but his plan of happiness was for ever destroyed : and after the
loss of his companion he was left alone in a world, of which the
business and pleasures were to him irksome or insipid. After some
unsuccessful trials he renounced the tumult of London and the hos-
pitality of Putney, and buried himself in the rural or rather rustic
solitude of Beriton ; from which, during several years, he seldom

As far back as I can remember, the house, near Putney-bridge and
churchyard, of my maternal grandfather appears in the light of my
proper and native home. It was there that I was allowed to spend the
greatest part of my time, in sickness or in health, during my school
vacations and my parents' residence in London, and finally after my
mother's death. Three months after that event, in the spring of 1748,
the commercial ruin of her father, Mr. Janies Porten, was accom-
plished and declared. He suddenly absconded : but as his effects

Online LibraryEdward GibbonThe life and letters of Edward Gibbon, with his History of the Crusades → online text (page 2 of 69)