Gibbon, Edward

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Gibbon, Edward (1737-94): English Historian.

A historian best known for The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Born at Putney, Surrey on 27 April 1737, he was the son of Edward Gibbon, a well-to-do Tory (perhaps Jacobite) member of parliament, and his wife Judith, daughter of James Porten. His mother died in 1747, and his grief-stricken father abandoned parliament for Buriton, Hampshire, leaving Edward with his aunt, Catherine Porten. The sickly child received sporadic education at Kingston-upon-Thames (1746), Westminster (1749), and Magdalen College, Oxford (1752-53), where he claims to have spent the “most idle and unprofitable” fourteen months of his life. After he converted to Catholicism in 1753, his horrified father sent him to study under freethinker David Mallett at Putney and then Calvinist pastor Daniel Pavillard in Lausanne, Switzerland, where he returned to Protestantism on Christmas 1754. He became fluent in French, befriended George Deyverdun, and fell in love in 1757 with Suzanne Curchod. In 1758 he returned to England, where his father refused him permission to marry. His father had married Dorothea Patton, whom Gibbon grew to love.

Living in Buriton and London, Gibbon completed Essai sur l’Étude de la Littérature in 1759 (published 1761). In 1759 he joined the Hampshire Militia as captain, serving in southern England from 1760 to 1762 and meeting John Wilkes, then a colonel in the Buckinghamshire Militia. In 1763 he visited Paris before returning to Lausanne. The spurned Suzanne Curchod married Necker, Jacques in 1764 but became Gibbon’s close friend. He also befriended John Holroyd, Lord Sheffield. Gibbon spent a year in Italy and claimed that he decided to write about the Roman Empire’s decline while in the ruins of the Roman Capitol on 15 October 1764. He returned to England in 1765 and published two volumes of Mémoires Littéraires de la Grande-Bretagne with Deyverdun in 1767-68 and Critical Observations on the Sixth Book of the Æneid in 1770. His father died on 10 November 1770. After selling Buriton, Gibbon acquired a house in London in 1772 and became a member of several clubs, including Johnson, Samuel’s in 1774. That year he won election to the House of Commons for Liskeard, Cornwall.

In 1776 Gibbon published volume one of Decline and Fall, which brought him great renown. He responded to critics with his Vindication in 1779. Throughout the American Revolution, Gibbon supported Lord North, who in 1779 appointed him to the Board of Trade with a salary of £750 and persuaded him to write a Mémoire justificatif denouncing the French alliance with America. Charles James Fox, Wilkes, and others accused Gibbon of selling out, though he had never been part of the Opposition. After Gibbon lost his seat in 1780, North helped him win a by-election at Lymington, Hampshire in 1781, though when North fell in 1782, Gibbon lost both positions. In 1781 he published volumes two and three. In 1783 he settled with Deyverdun in Lausanne, where he completed his history on 27 June 1787. He published volumes four, five, and six in England on his birthday in 1788 and returned to Lausanne, where Deyverdun died on 4 July 1789. Gibbon took a dim view of the nearby French Revolution. He returned to England in 1793, died in London on 16 January 1794, and is buried in the Sheffield vault at Fletching, Sussex. Sheffield published Gibbon’s Miscellaneous Works, including his Memoirs, in 1796. Portraits survive by Henry Walton (1774) and Reynolds, Sir Joshua (1779).

Gibbon’s great legacy is Decline and Fall. The first half deals with the period from A.D. 98 to 476, the traditional date for the “fall” of Rome, and the other half with the Byzantine Empire to the fall of Constantinople in 1453, though it concentrates on the sixth and seventh centuries. In his own day it enjoyed popular acclaim and earned the praise of such luminaries as Lord Camden, Ferguson, Adam, Hume, David, Robertson, William, Smith, Adam, and Horace Walpole. Some criticism also came from notables, including Priestley, Joseph and Richard Watson. Though some unfairly questioned Gibbon’s scholarship, the fundamental issue was his very real bias against the Church, reflected in his statement, “I have described the triumph of barbarism and religion.” He also gives short shrift to the Byzantine Empire. Another weakness, more apparent now, is that he worked exclusively from printed sources. Some criticism was more pedestrian—the duke of Gloucester supposedly greeted one volume with the remark, “Another damned thick square book.” Remarkably, this classic work remains indispensable reading for anyone interested in ancient and medieval history, and it is valued for its method and style. There are many editions, including one by Thomas Bowdler, who removed controversial material concerning Christianity, and the now standard edition by J. B. Bury.

Further Reading:

Patricia B. Craddock, Young Edward Gibbon, Gentleman of Letters, 1982

Edward Gibbon, Luminous Historian 1772-1794, 1989

Edward Gibbon, A Reference Guide, 1987.

William B. Robison

Southeastern Louisiana University