MR. BISSET'S HISTORY OF THE COMMONWEALTH OF ENGLAND.*
THE second volume, now published, completes the History of the Commonwealth of England by Mr. Bisset, of which the first volume was published three years ago. We do not propose to review these volumes at any length or in detail, for reasons which we will proceed to explain. In the preface to his first volume the author tells us, " In the course of a somewhat minute inveiitiga- don, continued for a good many years, of the records of English history during the seventeenth century, I found when I reached the immediatelysncceeding the death of Charles I. that while the printedsources of information were scanty, there existed in theState Paper Office a vast number of MSS. relating to the period of Eng- lish history oalled in the State Paper Office classification The Interregnum.' Among _others are the MS. volumes which contain the original minutes of all the proceedings of the Council of State as long as the Government called the Commonwealth lasted. On a careful perusal of some of the volumes and a more cursory examination of others, I resolved to attempt to write by their aid a history of England during the period extending from the death of Charles I. to the restoration of Charles II." And accordingly, a volume appeared from Mr. Bisset's pen in 1864 under the bold title of Omitted Chapters of the History of England. In the preface to his second volume the author tells us, in addition to the pre- ceding explanation, "The new materials which I have used in the c -imposition of this and the preceding ;%olume are the minutes of the Council of State contained in forty MS. volumes of the 'Original Draft Order Books' of that Council. It may, I trust, not be deemed impertinent to state here that my attention was first directed some years ago to these MIS. minutes of the proceedings of the Council of State by the kindness of the English historian of Greece, Mr. Grote, who then said that when some years before he went through the State Paper Office, the gentleman who showed him these volumes of original MS. minutes, told him that they had never yet been examined (as far as he knew) by any English historian." Such, then, is the claim put forward by Mr. Bisset, and somewhat ostentatiously paraded in his title-page, to the employment of entirely new materials as the basis of his history. That Mr. Grote, whose studies have led him to the more particular conside- ration of ancient rather than modern history, should have taken. for gospel the assertion of the ill-informed official at the State Paper Office, whoever he may have been, is not to be wondered at ; but that a gentleman who, according to his own account, had made the seventeenth century in English history for some years a subject of special study, should have remained ignorant of the fact that forty years ago Mr. Godwin professedly based those chapters in his History of the Commonwealth which cover the period occupied by Mr. Bisset's volumes on these very papers, is very astonishing, and taken in connection with the statement in his title-page, is not very creditable. "I have derived an in- valuable accession of authorities, particularly for the present volume of my work," writes Mr. Godwin, in the preface to his third volume, dated the 9th of June, 1827, "from the collection of records relating to this period deposited at the State Paper Office in Great George Street, Westminster. Especially the 'Order Books' of the Council of State have been a guide to me in a multitude of difficult questions." He then proceeds to pay a tribute to the merits of the then deputy-keeper, Mr. Robert Lemon. " By the labour of years, by an industry and appli- cation indefatigable and unparalleled, he has rescued innumer- able documents from oblivion, and has arranged and caused to be bound up in volumes, to the amount of some hundreds, detached memoranda, and single leaves of paper, which together form an almost complete record of the pecuniary measures and financial proceedings of the Long Parliament, daring the arduous and critical period of its Government." Mr. Godwin's work is not, indeed, so well known as its great merits deserve that it should be by the general public of the present day ; but it has long been an acknowledged standard text-book among all students of "English history, and the manner in which it has been totally ignored by Mr. Bisset, says little for his research as to what had really been omitted in the history of England.
Here, then, is an end at once to the ground on which Mr. Bisset especially calls for attention to his volumes. He has been working not on materials unknown to every preceding writer, but on those which an historian of the same period employed forty * History of the Commonwealth of England, from the Death of Charles I. to the Expul- sion of the Long Parliament by °forme's! ; being Omitted Chapters of the History of England. By Andrew Bisect. Vol. IL London : Murray, 1867.
Omitted Chapters of the History of England, from the Death of Charles I. to the Battle of Dunbar. By Andrew Bisset. London: Murray, 1864.
years ago. The claim to attention on the score of "original materials," however, though that most commonly put forward at the present day, is undoubtedly a very inferior one, as far as the merit of the writer himself is concerned, to that based on a careful and critical treatment of the materials, whether old or new.
Many a book enriched by new materials is nearly worthless, owing to the utterly uncritical character of the editor or compiler. The
new materials may be worthless in themselves, or the editor may have made them so by the blundering use he has made of them.
He may be too ignorant to see the meaning and bearing of what lies before him, or he may be too little acquainted with the " principles of evidence to be able to form an estimate of the com- parative value of his materials, or to harmonize and combine them. If Mr. Bisset, then, can lay no claim to original materials, may he
not, it may be reasonably asked, put forward a much higher claim to our regard as the first writer on this period who has made a critical use of the materials ? We should be glad, considering
the amount of labour the author must have expended on these volumes, to be able to answer this question in the affirmative, but we cannot do so. In several cases Mr. Bisset has given his materials in a more detailed form than Mr. Godwin had done, and in a few cases he has supplied us with facts of in- terest which had been passed over or overlooked by that writer. But in point of general critical treatment of his ma- terials, Mr. Bisset is very decidedly inferior to his predecessor, while he is much less modest in his tone. Mr. Godwin, it is true, lived at, a time when strict historical criticism was but little employed or appreciated, and therefore he has admitted into his volumes many gossiping stories without subjecting them to a proper sifting process. Still, owing to a naturally sound judg- ment and considerable acuteness of perception, he produced a history contrasting most favourably in this respect with preceding histories, and to a great extent based on really valuable materials. But Mr. Bisset, in an age when much more is reasonably expected from an historian in this respect, has retrograded instead of advancing, and really, when it suits the views which he entertains, seems hardly to be conscious of the difference between the solid value of the Journals of the Houses of Parliament and Council Books of the Commonwealth, and the prejudiced, one-aided, random, and incorrect reminiscences of such writers as Ludlow and Mrs. Hutchinson, or the memoranda of Whitelocke interspersed through that bookseller's compilation which goes by the general name of his Memorials. If the character of Oliver Cromwell, his bite noire, can be rendered more odious to his readers, it seems to matter little to Mr. Bisset from what quarter he derives his text. Here we have most of the old stereo- typed stories which are familiar to us all, and have been repro- duced ad nauseam in successive publications on the period, and of which the authority and value are more than doubtful. It is not by a reproduction of such idle gossip and jaundiced outpourings of disappointed men that the reputation of such a man as Vane can be really advanced against that of Cromwell. It is painful indeed to see a defence of Vane based on such rubbish. Although we do not agree with Mr. Bisset in his advocacy of the enlightened oligarchs of the Com- monwealth against the great Protector, we at once admit that a very fair case may be urged for them ; but it rests on a very different basis from that on which Mr. Bisset has placed it. Mr. Bisset, indeed, has evidently neither the breadth of wind nor the calmnssa of judgment which are required for such a task. He treats us with frequent digressive invectives against tyrants and tyranny, set off by allusions to Timoleon, Epaminondas, Julius Czezar, and Washington, very much in the style of a precocious schoolboy or a member of a youthful debating society. He has the true juve- nile conception of tyranny as the absolute government of one wicked person. Iureading his pages we seem to be carried back to the old, unanalytic eloquence on Liberty and Tyranny which was the common-place of the writers in the eighteenth century, but which we hoped the stern reality of the first French Revolu- tion had effectually extinguished :-
"Yet let not this renowned Parliament die unheard," writes our author, in the old grand strain. "And in the vindication of the purity of its intentions, and of the respect due to its memory, by such men as Scot and Vane, who 'sealed the cause with their blood,' and declared upon the scaffold, in the last words they uttered, that it was a cause not to be repented of,' there is a tone of deep, yet manly sorrow, that must command the respect of every candid and generous mind. There is, too, in the words of these men all the solemnity of death, for events were already looming in no distant future which foreboded to them a dark and inevitable fate. Nevertheless, their courage quailed not ; and in theirp I might say, dying words—even as it were from the very ashes of that groat Assembly which such men as they were to make immortal—there flashed forth a stream of heroic rays.' And ay ! these are the true heroes, though libraries may be written and temples
dedicated to the Moloch-worship of successful renegades, liars, and robbers."
Our author, Mr. Bisset, it will be seen, can use strong language. He belongs, indeed, to the old class of historians who have very little other division of character than into " bad " and "good" men, heroes or demi-gods and villains. He seems to be incapable of conceiving of a mixed character and mixed motives, and to take a doubtful or wrong line of political conduct is generally treated by him as tantamount to a crime, or at least to an amount of egregi- ous folly destructive of all respect. It is much to be regretted that some advocates of Cromwell have indulged in this indis- criminate and unphilosophic mode of speaking of his various opponents, as if it were impossible for two conscientious and thoughtful men to diverge in their opinions and lines of conduct in the excitement and pressing demands of a great Revolution. We ask for Cromwell no more than we ask for Vane and the Commonwealth Men, and Falkland and the Constitutional Royalists, some little analysis of human motives and some consi- deration for natural character and circumstances. We believe that a history may be written of this period, in which full justice may be done to the intentions and intellect of all the really great men, without at all detracting from the claims of truth and justice, or from a decided judg- ment on the character of events. But until the field is swept clear of such writers as Mr. Bisset, who prolong the echoes of the old tittle-tattle and invectives, it is hopeless to expect any really just estimate of the actors in the great Civil War. We must ourselves decline to follow him into this miserable gossip of the past, which he has placed once more on the level of authentic history, and with which he has overlaid and destroyed the value of such really good materials as he has employed—the one-aided reports of con- versations published many years after their alleged occurrence, and when there was no longer any means of correcting or con- tradicting them, or the scurrilous stories fabricated after the Re- storation, such as that about Jeremiah White and Frances Crom- well, which Mr. Bisset cannot resist giving quite unnecessarily, though with some misgiving, and which can be proved by dates to be absolutely false. Nor can we pretend to reason seriously with an author who, after the sincerity of Cromwell has come out unimpeached and stainless from the crucial test of the collection and juxtaposition of his letters, written to so many people and under such varying circumstances, can revive without an attempt to explain this startling fact, the old theory of Cromwell as a selfish and designing hypocrite. Whatever errors of judgment he may have committed, however imperfect his character, and however inexcusable his conduct may have been in some respects, he certainly was no such man as that ; and no writer since the publication of Mr. Carlyle's volumes has a right to fall back on that theory without an infinitely fuller exposition of his reasons than Mr. Bisset, in his supercilious treatment of the subject, has ever vouchsafed. Mr. Forster, whose early writings set forth far more fully and more powerfully this view, has honourably confessed in a more recent publication that his conclusions on that point have undergone a change, and that since perusing Mr. Carlyle's book he no longer entertains the same opinion of Cromwell. Has Mr. Bisset seen that collection of letters ? As to his general reasoning, we are certainly unable to find a single argument of any force which has not been urged before by Mr. Forster, and it would therefore be well for him to pay some attention to a work which has had so great an effect in modifying the views of that gentleman. A considerable portion of his second volume, it should be observed, is occupied with details of the naval actions of Blake, which are already to be found related at length in Mr. Hepworth Dixon's Life of Blake, to which indeed he refers as an authority. We must, therefore, reluctantly pro- nounce on this work the verdict that it is not based, as it professes to be, on unused materials—that it is thoroughly uncritical in its use of all its materials—that it is written in a discursive and loose manner, and disfigured occasionally by somewhat coarse language, and by a stilted and puerile style ; and that it is, in short, wholly wanting in the essential characteristics of a good history, or a clever disquisition.