Robertson, William

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Robertson, William (1721-1793): Scottish Historian.

Though not as well known today, William Robertson was one of the most widely known Scottish historians during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

A minister of the Church of Scotland, Robertson served as the Moderator of its General Assembly from 1762 to 1788. Within church circles, he was a leader of the moderate wing of clerics who sought to reform the Church and it’s doctrines in order to make them more realistic and modern. Robertson supported religious tolerance, and in 1778, he received considerable criticism for his defense of the failed attempt to extend toleration to Catholics.

As an intellectual, Robertson was, along with Hume, David, Smith, Adam, and Lord Monboddo, among others, a founder of the Select Society, a group of Edinburgh literati, in the 1750s. In 1756, he collaborated with Adam Smith and others on the briefly-lived Edinburgh Review. In 1759, he published his History of Scotland on the basis of which he was appointed Principal of the University of Edinburgh in 1762, a position he held until 1793.

In the History of Scotland, Robertson presented a moderate reply to Hume’s skeptical take on the Reformation. In general, Robertson sought to situate Scottish history in a larger European context. He was critical of the union of the crowns of Scotland and England in 1603 as it resulted in the loss of the court to England, thereby damaging Scottish culture, but he was supportive of the Act of Union between Scotland and England in 1707, which he thought had revitalized Scottish politics, culture, and commerce by bringing Scotland into the broader sphere of European political, economic, and cultural life.

In 1764, Robertson published his History of the Reign of Charles V, which expanded his range historical concern to Europe in general. In that work, Robertson detailed the origins of the system of European states from the decay of feudalism to the growth of monarch, along with its attendant development of civil liberty and balance of power politics. His History of America in 1776 was the first sympathetic treatment in English of Spanish colonialism. There he provided the best known formulation of the sequential progression of stages in stadial history: hunter-gatherer, pastoral, agricultural, and commercial. His last work was his Historical Disquisition Concerning the Knowledge Which the Ancients Had of India in 1791.

In general, Robertson held to a Whig outlook on history. Robertson conceived of human activity as working within a providential framework. He conceived of providence as God’s action through efficient causes in history and maintained that this providence could be apprehended through rational inquiry.

Further Reading:

Karen O’Brien, Narratives of Enlightenment, 1997.

Richard Sher, Church and University in the Scottish Enlightenment, 1985.

Kevin E. Dodson

Lamar University