George Thomson.

The spirit of general history : in a series of lectures, from the eighth, to the eighteenth century : wherein is given a view of the progress of society, in manners and legislation during that period online

. (page 1 of 31)
Online LibraryGeorge ThomsonThe spirit of general history : in a series of lectures, from the eighth, to the eighteenth century : wherein is given a view of the progress of society, in manners and legislation during that period → online text (page 1 of 31)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook




« .QX

' /«



¥\ ^


■'1' x^ y






-^>.' -





.^^ ^-^'f




\-:-' ,














Theological Seminary,


<^«*^. D..- - B^-V?

Shelf, Sec; , I

Book, t^o^^

■• ' • '«ij«»^,


^ H E





Series of JLeSJures^







During that Period.



The Second Edition, corrected hy the Author*













The Ufe and 'Advantages of Hiftory .-—^How it
JJjould be Ji tidied, — The Hijiory of modern Na-^
tions more ufefuly than that of the ancient
World. — Knowledge of the lattery neceffary to
the Study of the former. — Sketch of ihe Hijiory
of ancient Nations y i^c,

^ I ^HE hiftory of mankind, is an inexhauftible
-*■ fource of rational entertainment, and ufe-
fui inflrudlion. The rife, progrefs and decline
of nations, with the caufes which produced
them ; the advances of fociety from barbarifm
to civilization, from rude and favage, to gentle
and refined manners ; the eflablifhment of laws
and liberty, or of defpotifm and flavery ; the

A 2 pernicious



pernicious effedls of vice, and the happy confe-
quences of \irtue; thefe, fo very interefting to
thofe who wifh, by a proper condud: to be ufe-
ful in life, are placed by the Hiftorian full in
our view.

A defire to emerge from ignorance, and to
enlarge the fphere of his knowledge, by an ac-
quaintance with what he does not know, is
natural toman. Hiftory gratifies this defire:
fo that, whether curiofity, or a real thirft for
knowledge, excites us to perufe the hiftory of
pafl tranfaclions, the mind cannot fail to receive
improvement and pleafure. However, there
is this difference between one who reads hiftory
merely to gratify curiofity, and another who
reads it for inftrudlion ; that the former does-
indeed receive pleafure in fuch gratification,
but not that knowledge which might be obtain-
ed to inform and rectify the mind ; whereas the
latter, by being inftructed, enjoys a permanent
delight, and treafures up in his memory, juft
maxims for the right condud: of life. We may
read many pages in a day, run over the tranf-
actions of a century, inlefs time than we could
travel a mile,boalt that we have devoured many
volumes, and yet be totally unacquainted with
men and things. The man who can mention
by name, the nations which have appeared and
aded with applaufe on the theatre of this world-


can afcertain the date of their rife, the periods
iOf their progrefs and decline, the conquerors,
who have been the fcourges of mankind, and
filled the earth with the calamities of war, may
be admired for his hiftorical knowledge : but,
to know the rife and fall of nations, the exploits
of warriors, when fuch or fuch a battle was
fought, by whom gained, and the number of
the wounded and flain in each army; when
the/ renowned cities of antiquity were founded,
by whom taken and deftroyed • to be able to
give an account of thefe things, and be ignorant
of the caufes which produced them, or not to
think them worth attending to, is to read hiflory
to no good purpofe.

The philofopher and politician read the me-
moirs of nations, and of individuals with a dif-
ferent view : they cultivate an acquaintance with
the hiftory of mankind, not to gratify an idle
curiofity, but to enrich the mind with ufeful
knowledge. Scenes of violence give them dif-
guft rather than pleafure; but to know that
thefe were the effeds of ambition, of pride and
revenge, working in the mind, inftruds them
in the knowledge of the human heart. A tran-
sient glance at the defcription of a battle, or a
fiege, is enough to them, whilft they carefully
attend the hiftorian in his delineation of the
charadlers of nations and eminent men; in his

A 3 invef^


invefligation of the caufes of events ; in his tra-
cing the beginning of laws and government, of
civilization, manners, arts and fciences.

As the knowledge of men and things, affords
an inftrudiive entertainment to the rational
mind ; and as none would wifh to continue in
the ignorance of his infant ftate, fo various me-
thods have been employed at different times,
and by different perfons, to convey ufeful
knowledge to mankind ; ahd of thefe, one of the
moil important, is History. « Hiftory, (to
"quote the words of an elegant writer) that
*' faithful and true witnefs has been unfolded
to us ; ages and generations lapfed and gone,
pafs in review, and leffons of infbruclion are
forcibly inculcated, by a fair and impartial
** difclofure of the effedts, which an adherence
" to redlitude and virtue, or a negled: of them,
** produced on the affairs of men. The pencil
** of hiftory has delineated, not only men in
" groups, but feledling diftinguiihed individu-
** als, has drawn them in their juft proportions,
*' and enlivening them with the colours of na-
" ture, has exhibited a collecflion of flriking
" portraits, for our entertainment and inftruc-
*' tion. In contemplating the charadlers of
*^ nations, or of eminent perfcns, we feem to
" walk in a large gallery of family pidures, and
*' take delight in comparing the various features

" of


" of the extenfive kindred, as they refemble or

" differ from one another,-* we find in them,

^' though long ago, carried down the tide of

*' time, pleafing and inftrudive companions, "f

Were I to give a definition of hiflory, it

"would be in the words of an ancient hiftorian,

as quoted by a noble author ; ' Hiflory is phi-

lofophy, teaching hy examples, how to condud:

ourfelves in every lituation of private or public

life ;'X or, hiftory is a faithful reprefentation of

what has been adted on the great theatre of this

world, and a true defcription of the charadiers

of the adlors. According to this definition,

hiftory fliould be ftudied with a philofophical

turn of mind. We ihould habituate ourfelves

to a careful examination of the characters of

nations or individuals, as defcribed by the hif-

torian, and the chain of events he relates. By

a proper attention to this, we improve in the

mofk ufeful parts of knowledge, and in time

become qualified to fill the various departments

of life with propriety and ufefulnefs. In a word,

by carefully obferving, and retaining in mind,

the great revolutions, avhich, in the courfe of

providence, have taken place in nations, and

the progrefs offociety amidft thefe revolutions;

A 4 by

Ovid's Met. Lib. 2.
f See Hunter's Biograph. Left,
t Dion. Hal. quoted by BolI» in Left, on Hill.


by a jufl inveftigation of the many, and even
oppolite caufes, which often concur in produ-
cnig one efiedl:, or one caufe, from which fome-
timcs many eftedls follow ; by a near obferva-
tioh of the characters of thofe, who have made
a figure in fociety, what were their views in
adins in fuch or fuch a manner, and the nature
of the paflions, which led them on to avflion ;
it is by purfuing fome fuch method like this,
that any real advantage can be obtained from
the labours of the hiftorian.

Though hiftory may be confidered as the
fchool for princes, and for thofe diftinguiihed
characlers, whom providence has deftined to be
at the head of nations ; yet thofe who tread the
private walks of life, fhould, would they wifhto
be ufeful m their ftation, not negled: to replen-
ifh their minds with the knowledge which may
be obtained from this fource. For, were an
acquaintance with the hiftory of paft ages, and
with the lives of thofe who have gone before us,
attended with only this advantage, that wifdom
may be learned by the example and experience
of others; it would indeed be a very import-
ant One. We muftoft,en find ourfelves, efpeci-
ally when beginning to acl: in the world, in
fituations new to us, and very different from
any thing we have experienced before : thofe,
therefore, who are uninformed how others have



adled in fuch or fuch circumftances, muft pof-
fefs uncommon judgment and caution, not to be
liable to fall into errors, and fometimes into
fuch errors, as may have an unhappy influence
upon their future condudl.

There are examples upon record to prove,
that the ftudy of hiftory may fupply the want of
experience. Cicero informs us, " That Lu-
cullus, a famous Roman, being appointed gene-
ral, to carry on the war againft Mithridates,
king of Pontus, went from Rome ignorant of
the military art ; yet by fpending the time of
his journey and voyage, partly by putting quef-
tions to men of knowledge, and partly by read-
ing the hiftory of former adlions, he came into
Afii with fuch a character, and performed fuch
exploits, as obliged the great Mithridates to
confefs, that he had found him to be an abler
general, than any of thofe concerning whom he
had read."

" A man (fays Frederick the Great) who does
not think he dropt from the clouds, or does not
date the origin of the world from the day of his
nativity, ought naturally to be curious of being
acquainted with the tranfadtions of different ages
and countries. If he is indifferent to the fate of
fo many other nations, that have been the fport
£)f fortune, he will be pleafed, at lead, with the
Jliftory of the country he lives in, and with the



relation of events, in which his anceflors were
concerned.* To which let me add, that. if the
hifiory of remote ages and diftant nations, is but
little interefting to him, that of times near his
own, and of nations on the fame continent ; na-
tions with which his own is connected, fliould
artrad his notice. But, the great improvements
and extenfion of commerce, by uniting the mofl
diftant nations, render an acquaintance with the
cufloms, and manners of every people, and with
the prcdudions of almoft every part of the
w^orld, highly necefTary and beneficial to the
inhabitants of Britain. '' If an Englifhman,
(continues the royal author) has no knowledge
of thofe kings that filled the throne of Perfia ;
if his memory is embarralTed with that infinite
number of popes that ruled the church, vv^e are
ready to excufe him ; but we fliall hardly have
the fame indulgence for him, if he is a ftranger
to the origin of parliaments, to the cufloms of
his country, and to the different lines of kings
who have reigned in England.**

As the hiftory of our native country is more
interefting to us, than that of other nations, fo
is alfo a knowledge of the modern hifiory of the
world, (efpecially of Europe) of much greater
importance, than that of ancient times. In


* Mem. Brands


little more than tv/o centuries ago, thofe fur-
prifingly great revolutions happened, which
have efFe&d an almofl univerfal change in the
nations of modern Europe : a falutary change of
the fentiments of Chriflians ; a change which
has given a different tone to national manners,
produced juft notions of the rights and liberties
of men, and great improvements in commerce
and manufac1;ures. But modern hiftory is llu-
died with much greater advantage, v/hen we
have an acquaintance withthe (late of mankind
in early times. Our knowledge of the revolu-
tions which affeded the anciT^nt kingdoms of the
world, of the governments and laws, cuftoms
and m.anners which prevailed in the early pe-
riods of fociety, efpecially among the Greeks and
Romans, (like the knowledge of one branch of
fcience being preparatory to another) renders
the ftudy of the hiflory of mo4ern fociety more
eafy, pleafant and improving. Such knowledge
prepares the mind to receive infbrudiion from
reading, either the modern general hiftory of
all nations, or that of any particular nation in
the detail. For, ancient and modern hiflory
fhew us, that men in all ages and countries,
have been, and are much the fame ; that tlie
fame caufes, have for the mod part, uniformly
produced the fame effecfts, to the advantage,
or difadvantage of individuals or nations. A


(1 2 ) MODERN HISTORY. Lec t. L

general idea of hillory, opens and expands the
mind, removes prejudices, and convinces us,
how ill-founded and extravagant thofe notions
are, which mofl people entertain of the fuperior
grandeur, wifdom, and refinement of their own
times, and of the country in which they live.

Having faid thus much of hiftory, and of the
advantages which may be derived from the pro-
per ftudy of it ; let me caution my readers a-
gainfl a too implicit faith in all that a hiflorian
relates ; more efpecially, when he endeavours
to drefs what is probably fabulous in the garb
of truth, and would make ficlion pafs for reality.
Where the hiftorian has no authentic monu-
ments and records of the early periods of foci-
ety to direct: him in his refearches, he mull
depend upon uncertain tradition, or give his
own conjedlures inltead of true hifbory. There
is fuch a thing as national vanity. A predelic-
tion for one's country is a prejudice common
to all men ; hence we are fond to draw our an-
ceftors in bright colours, give a remote anti-
quity to our country, and reprefent its ancient
inhabitants, as wife, valiant, learned and po-
lifhed. But it is an undeniable truth, that there
was a time, when the anceilors of the modern
nations of Europe, who at prefent boaft of the
perfecftion of their wiidom, legiOation, and re-
fined manners, were only a gang of banditti,



altogether barbarous in their difpofitions, and
• uncivilized in their manners.

As we lliould be cautious how we receive for
truth thofe parts of hiftory which are colledled
from the rubbiih of fidtion, and unfupported by
authentic records ; fo neither fhould we adopt
every fentiment and refledion of the hiftorian;,
as unprejudiced and juft. ^ We, who fee only

* the outfide of things, (it not being our prero-

* gative to examine the heart) mufl of ne-

* ceflity infer the principles of adion from the

* actions themfeives ; and yet, there is no rule

* of judgment more erroneous ; becaufe experi-

* ence alTures us, that many, perhaps the greater

* part of our actions, are not the refult of defign^

* are not founded on principle, but are produ-

* ced by a concourfe of incidents we could not

* forefee, and proceed from pallions kindled at

* the moment. 't

Moreover, when we fit down to write, whe-
ther of ages pad, or of the prefent, it is with a
bias upon the mind, which we naturally endea-
vour to communicate to our readers. All men
have their favourite periods, caufes and charac-
ters, which of courfe, they flrive to embelliih,
fupport, and recommend. They, on the other
hand, are equally fubjedt to antipathies ; under

• the

f Letters to a Young Nobleman.


the influence of which, they as readily ftrive to
depreciate, to expofe, and to cenfure what they
diilike. The partizans of fadlion think juftice,
virtue, knowledge, anci good fenfe, centre in
their party ; but will fcarcely allow any of thefe
good qualities to belong to thofe of a different
one. As men write and fpeak, fo they read and
hear, under the influence of 'pafiion and preju-
dice. When the hiftorian's opinions coincide
with our own, we allow him to be right, when
they differ, we, without fcruple, pronounce
him miliaken. It is indeed true, pre-polTefllons
we will always have ; it is impofllble to divefh
the mind of prejudice,- but when thefe are on
the fide of virtue and truth, the fentiments and
refledlions of an hiftorian, will be no farther"
afTented to by us, than as they appear to be
virtuous and true.

I would, in thefe ledlures, endeavour to en-
tertain and inflrud: my readers, with what I
chufe to call, (if the expreflion is proper) the
fpirit of modern hiftory, from the time of
Charlemagne, emperor of the wefl, near the
end of the year of our Lord eight hundred,
(almoft contemporary with whom was Egbert,
King of the Weft Saxons, who united the petty
kingdoms of the Heptarchy) to the beginning
of the prefent century. To give an account of
vidlories won or loft, of cities befieged and taken,



of the names and number of thofe that fell
in fuch or fuch a battle, does not enter into
my plan. Minute details of this kind may be
acceptable to the favage difpolition, and un-
feeling temper of a vulgar mind ; but can, I am
fure, 'afford no pleafure to the feelings of a hu-
mane and tender heart ; no profit to thofe who
read for inftrudlion. I would rather mark the
progrefs of civilization, of governments and
laws, of commerce, arts and fciences ; chiefly,
the feveral changes in the manners of mankind,
from their rude and barbarous ftate, to the re-
fined polifh they have now received.

An effect cannot be produced without a
caufe. Has the feudal fyftem given place to a
more free and unreftrained pofTelTion of pro-
perty ? Are the rights of mankind much better
known and attended to than they once were ?
Are governments and laws more propitious to
civil and religious liberty, than they were in
barbarous ages ? And has the manners of foci-
cty been progreflive in improvement ? Thefc
changes are indeed owing to the natural ad-
vances of fociety from ignorance to knowledge,
and from barbarifm to civilization. But thofe
changes could not have been, had not caufes
cxifted to produce them. Thefe caufes fhall be
inveftigated, and the following truth evinced,



that when fociety is ripe for a change, there h
a caufe at hand to bring it about.

The hiftory of mankind, from the beginning
of the world to the prefent time, is a chain
confining of many links. To ftrike off one,
would be to difcompofe the whole. There
is an intimate connection between ancient and
modern hiflory. Thefe two parts make up the
whole And though any part of hiftory may
be the fubje6l of our ftudy, yet unlefs we vievr
it in connection with the other parts, it cannot
be ftudied with that advantage, it otherwife
would. I Ihall, in the fequel of this ledure>
point out the conned:ion, by giving fuch a
fketch of the hiftory of ancient nations, as may-
be fufficient to anfwer this purpofe.

The Bible affords the only true account of
the origin of the human race. Mofes informs
us, in the book of Genefts, that there was a
time, when all the inhabitants of this world
were only one man and one woman. That the
poftdeluvian generations of our fpecies de-
fcended from Noah's three fons : and that im-
mediately upon the confuiion of tongues, meil
feparated from the plains of Shinar; thofe of
the fame language continuing together, and
making choice of thofe parts of the earth, as
l^eft fuited their way of life,



Hiilory and tradition agree in reprefenting
men to have been in a favagre flate. That there
Was a time, when fcattered over this earthj they
had no bond of conne(5lion, but every indivi-
dual was furrounded with wants and danglers,
which depended folely upon himfelf to provide
for, and guard againft. Laws, governments,
and arts were then unknovv'n. The ftronger
took from the weaker the food he had pro*
cured from the chace, or by fiiliing; and he
could not have redrefs for the injury done him.
The American tribes, the Hottentots, and the
natives of New-Holland, are in a ftate nearly
refembling this defcription. A flate mofl
humiliating to mankind*

But as man is naturally focial, having fome-
thincr inherent in him which attradls him to
his kind, this liate muft have been of fhort
duration. For, (as an ingenious author obferves)
** The earlieft and latefl accounts collected from
every quarter of the earth, reprefent mankind
as alFembled in troops and companies ; and the
individual not alone, fhunnino- thofe of his
fpecies, but always joined by aiTcclion to one
party, while he is poflibly oppofed to another ;
employed in the exercifc of recolleilion and
foreiight; inclined to communicate his own
fentiments, and to be made acquainted with

B thofc


thofe of others."! A propenfity to alTocfate
with men like himfelf, a kn^e of danger, and a
defire of afliftance and protedticn ; love for a fe-
male to whom he conneds himfelf, and chiU
dren, the fruit of that conne6tion, impel him to
form a more extended union with his fpecies^
The fame wants, and a perfuafion of that mu-
tual affiftance, which can be given and recei-
ved, unite individuals in fociety ; and the more
fenfible they are of the advantages of fuch an
union, the more defirous they are to make it
clofe and extenfive. The firft eiTays towards
fuch focial conned:ions and engagements, by
which men bound themfelves one to ano-
ther, were to the knowledge and
feeling of their then fituation. Laws to re-
train violence, government and regular police
were unknown in the firft ftages of fociety.
Then, in a certain fenfe, (if I may be allowed
a fcripture exprefTion) " every one did what
was right in his own eyes." But without en^
gagements, and cuftoms to fupply the want of
laws; without fome kind of government, even
hoards of favages could not fublift.

To unite fmall> fcattered and independent
tribes into one large fociety, to ered: kingdoms,
build cities, and civilize m.en, is the work of
time. Eefore this could be accompliflied, an


X Fcrgufon's EfTay, Civ. Soc,


union between the fexes by marriage, muft have
been eflablifhedj the neceifary and ufeful arts of
life invented, and fome progrefs made in agri-
culture. Men who live by hunting and filhing,
or who are employed in the feeding of cattle,
iove to roam from place to place. Free and
unconfined, they ftay no longer upon a fpot of
ground, then till they have exhaufled the game,
or their cattle have eaten up the palturage. In
this llage of fociety, every tribe is a band of
robbers, who plunder and carry off their
neighbour's cattle wherever they can find them.
Homer's heroes were men of this complexion,
who, to revenge the rape of Helen, made a prey
of the cattle, the flaves, and the v/omen, w^hich
were found in the nations around them. ' A

* Tartar on his horfe, is an animal of prey, who
' only inquires where cattle are to be found, and

* how. far he muft go to polTefs them. The

* monk who had fallen under the difpleafure

* of Mango Chan made his peace, by promiiing,

* thai: the Pope, and the Chriftian Princes,

* fhould make a furrender of all their herds."*
A fpirit of plunder brought our ancedors from
the forefrs of Germany into the fertile provin-
ces of Italy ; and the flime fpirit, more perhaps,
than their refpccl for the crofs, led them m
Alia to fliare in the fpoils of the eaflern and
Saracen empires.

B 2 As

* Ruhruquisf quoted by Fergufon.


As the Egyptians were, very probably, the
firft civilized nation, among whom laws and
government took their rife, I would, in ihewing
the connection of ancient with modern hiflory,
begin with them.

Egyptians. — The Egyptians were a nation, as
early as the time of Abraham, who lived in the

Online LibraryGeorge ThomsonThe spirit of general history : in a series of lectures, from the eighth, to the eighteenth century : wherein is given a view of the progress of society, in manners and legislation during that period → online text (page 1 of 31)