Front Page Titles (by Subject) LETTER XLII.: The Historical Age: Dr. Henry's History. - Letters of David Hume to William Strahan
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LETTER XLII.: The Historical Age: Dr. Henry's History. - David Hume, Letters of David Hume to William Strahan 
Letters of David Hume to William Strahan, ed. G. Birkbeck Hill (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1888).
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The Historical Age: Dr. Henry's History.
I believe this is the historical Age1. and this the historical Nation2. : I know no less than eight Histories upon the Stocks in this Country; all which have different Degrees of Merit, from the Life of Christ, the most sublime of the whole, as I presume from the Subject, to Dr. Robertson's American History, which lies in the other Extremity3. .
You will very soon be visited by one, who carries with him a Work, that has really Merit: It is Dr. Henry, the Author of the History of England, writ on a new Plan4. : He has given to the World a Sheet or two, containing his Idea5. , which he will probably communicate to you. I have perus’d all his Work, and have a very good Opinion of it. It contains a great deal of Good Sense and Learning, convey’d in a perspicuous, natural, and correct Expression. The only discouraging Circumstance is its Size: This Specimen contains two Quartos, and yet gives us only the History of Great Britain from the Invasion of Julius Cæsar to that of the Saxons: One is apt to think that the whole, spun out to the same Length, must contain at least a hundred Volumes: And unhappily, the beginning of the Work will be for a long time very uninteresting, which may not prepossess the World in its favour. The Performance however has very considerable Merit; and I coud wish that you and Mr. Cadel may usher it in to the Public6. . I wish that Dr. Robertson's Success may not have renderd the Author too sanguine in his pecuniary Expectations7. : I dare advise nothing on that head, of which you are the better Judge. I shoud only think, that some Plan, which woud reserve to the Author the Chance of profiting by his good Success and yet not expose the Booksellers to too much hazard, might be the most suitable. You know, that I have been always very reservd in my Recommendations; and that when an Author, tho much connected with me, has producd a Work, which I coud not entirely approve of, I rather pretended total Ignorance of the Matter, than abuse my Credit with you. Dr. Henry is not personally much known to me, as he has been but lately settled in this Town, but I cannot refuse doing Justice to his Work: He has likewise personally a very good Character in the World, which renders it so far safe to have dealings with him8. . For the same Reason, I wish for his Sake that he may conclude with you9. . You see I am a good Casuist, and can distinguish Cases very nicely. It is certainly a wrong thing to deceive any body, much more a Friend; but yet the Difference must still be allowd infinite between deceiving a man for his Good and for his Injury10. .
I am Dear Sir Yours sincerely
[1.]Note 1. See ante, p. 15, n. 2.
[2.]Note 2. Hume is speaking only of the Scotch.
[3.]Note 3. Among these Histories were Robertson's History of America and Henry's History of Great Britain, and probably Sir John Dalrymple's Memoirs of Great Britain and Ireland, Monboddo's Origin and Progress of Language, and Kames's Sketches of the History of Man. Lord Hailes's Annals of Scotland may have been begun by this time (see Boswell's Johnson, ii. 278), and also Adam Ferguson's History of the Roman Republic (see Gibbon's Misc. Works, ii. 163) and Watson's History of Philip II. Burke, speaking of this last book in a debate on Nov. 6, 1776, said:—’I have been reading a work given us by a country that is perpetually employed in productions of merit.’ Parl. Hist. xviii. 1443.
[4.]Note 4. ‘I have heard,’ said Dr. Johnson on April 29, 1778, ‘Henry's History of Britain well spoken of. I am told it is carried on in separate divisions, as the civil, the military, the religious history. I wish much to have one branch well done, and that is the history of manners, of common life.’ Boswell's Johnson, iii. 333.
[5.]Note 5. Boswell writing to Temple on June 19, 1770, says that he has just received the Prospectus of the History. ‘Mr. Henry,’ he continues, ‘argues strongly for his extensive plan; but will it not be too much like the Dictionary of Arts and Sciences in an historical form? Mr. Hume, when I spoke to him of it, before I saw the plan, seemed to think it would be much of the nature of a book published a few years ago, Anderson's History of Commerce. . . . I am to consider the plan at leisure, and give Mr. Henry my opinion.’ Letters of Boswell, p. 166.
[6.]Note 6. Henry was injured by Gilbert Stuart, the malignant editor of the Edinburgh Magazine and Review, who ‘had vowed that he would crush his work,’ and refused to insert a review of it by Hume, because it was laudatory. Had he rejected it for its hypocrisy; he might have had some justification. Hume, joining Robertson with Henry, and pointing out that they were both ministers of religion, continues:—’These illustrious examples, if any thing, must make the infidel abashed of his vain cavils, and put a stop to that torrent of vice, profaneness and immorality, by which the age is so unhappily distinguished. . . . One in particular [Blair], with the same hand by which he turns over the sublime pages of Homer and Virgil, Demosthenes and Cicero, is not ashamed to open with reverence the sacred volumes; and with the same voice by which, from the pulpit, he strikes vice with consternation, he deigns to dictate to his pupils the most useful lessons of rhetoric, poetry, and polite literature.’ Burton's Hume, ii. 470–1.
[7.]Note 7. ‘Dr. Robertson said, “Henry erred in not selling his first volume at a moderate price to the booksellers, that they might have pushed him on till he had got reputation. I sold my History of Scotland at a moderate price, as a work by which the booksellers might either gain or not; and Cadell has told me that Millar and he have got six thousand pounds by it. I afterwards received a much higher price for my writings. An author should sell his first work for what the booksellers will give, till it shall appear whether he is an author of merit, or, which is the same thing as to purchase money, an author who pleases the public.”’ Boswell's Johnson, iii. 333. I have seen a MS. letter from Robertson to Strahan, dated May 27, 1768, in which he says:—’I do agree to accept from Mr. Millar, Bookseller in Pall Mall, or, in case of his declining it, from yourself, of the sum of £3400 for the copyright of my History of Charles V. in three volumes quarto, and of your engagement to pay me £400 more in case of a second edition. The terms of payment to be afterwards settled.’ Barker MSS. It is of this History that Southey is speaking when he mentions ‘the thousand and one omissions for which Robertson ought to be called rogue, as long as his volumes last.’ Life and Correspondence of Southey, ii. 318.
[8.]Note 8. Lord Cockburn in his Memorials, p. 51, gives an interesting account of Dr. Henry's peaceful death. ‘He wrote to Sir H. Moncreiff that he was dying, and thus invited him for the last time—“Come out here directly. I have got something to do this week, I have got to die.”
[9.]Note 9. The History was published by Cadell. The first volume appeared in 1771, and the fifth, which brought the narrative to the accession of Henry VII, in 1785. The author died in 1790, leaving a sixth volume (down to the accession of Edward VI) almost completed. It was published in 1793. The work went through many editions, and was translated into French. Knight's Cyclo. of Biog. and Lowndes’ Bibl. Manual.
[10.]Note 10. See post, Letter of March 24, 1773.