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William Robertson, 1721-1793

The Scottish historian, William Robertson, was born at the manse of Borthwick in Midlothian, studied at Edinburgh, and at twenty-two was ordained minister of Gladsmuir. He volunteered for the defense of Edinburgh against the rebels in 1745. From 1751 he took a prominent part in the general assembly, and soon became leader of the "Moderates." From 1761 to his death he was joint minister with Dr. Erskine of Greyfriars, Edinburgh. In 1761 he became a royal chaplain, in 1762 principal of Edinburgh University, and in 1764 king's historiographer. His History of Scotland 1542-1603 (1759) was a success. Next followed the History of Charles V (1769), his most valuable work, and highly praised by both Voltaire and Gibbon (a selection follows). His History of America appeared in 1777, and a disquisition on The Knowledge which the Ancients had of India in 1791.

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No period in history of one's own country can be considered as altogether uninteresting. Such transactions as tend to illustrate the progress of its constitutions, laws, or manners, merit the utmost attention. Even remote and minute events are objects of a curiosity, which, being natural to the human mind, the gratification of it is attended with pleasure.

But with respect to the history of foreign states, we must set other bounds to our desire of information. The universal progress of science during the last two centuries, the art of printing, and other obvious causes, have filled Europe with such a multiplicity of histories, and with such vast collections of historical materials, that the term of human life is too short for the study of even the perusal of them. It is necessary, then, not only for those who are call to conduct the affairs of nations, but for such as inquire and reason concerning them, to remain satisfied with a general knowledge of distant events, and to confine their study of history in detail chiefly to that period, in which the several states of Europe having become intimately connected, the operations of one power so felt by all, as to influence their councils, and to regulate their measures.

Some boundary, then, ought to be fixed in order to separate these periods. An era should be pointed out, prior to which, each country, little connected with those around it, they trace its own history apart; after which, the transactions of every considerable nation in Europe become interesting and instructive to all. With this intention I undertook to write the history of the Emperor Charles V. It was during his administration that the powers of Europe were formed into one great political system, in which each took a station, wherein it has since remained with less variation than could have been expected after the shocks occasioned by so many internal revolutions, and so many foreign wars. The great events which happened then have not hitherto spent their force. The political principles and maxims, then established, still continue to operate. The ideas concerning the balance of power, then introduced or rendered general, still influence the councils of nations.

The age of Charles V may therefore be considered as the period at which the political state of Europe began to assume a new form. I have endeavored to render my account of it, an introduction to the history of Europe subsequent to his reign. While his numerous Biographers describe his personal qualities and actions; while the historians of different countries relate occurrences the consequences of which were local or transient, it hath been my purpose to record only those great transactions in his reign, the effects of which were universal, or continue to be permanent.

As my readers could derive little instruction from such history of the reign of Charles V without some information concerning the state of Europe previous to the sixteenth century, my desire of supplying this has produced a preliminary volume, in which I have attempted to point out and explain the great causes and events, to whose operation all the improvements in the political state of Europe, from the subversion of the Roman Empire to the beginning of the sixteenth century, must be ascribed. I have exhibited a view of the progress of society in Europe, not only with respect to interior government, laws and manners, but with respect to the command of the national force requisite in foreign operations; and I have described the political constitution of the principal states in Europe at the time when Charles V began his reign.

In this part of my work I have been led into several critical disquisitions, which along more properly to the province of the lawyer or antiquary, than to that of the historian. These I have placed at the end of the first volume, under the title of Proofs and Illustrations. Many of my readers will, probably, give little attention to such researches. To some they may, perhaps appear the most curious and interesting part of the work. I have carefully pointed out the sources from which I have derived information, and have cited the writers on whose authority I rely with a minute exactness, which might appear to border upon ostentation, if it were possible to be vain of having read books, many of which nothing but the duty of examining with accuracy whenever I laid before the publick, could have induced me to open. As my inquiries conducted me often into paths which were obscure or little frequented, such constant recourse to the authors who have been my guides, was not only necessary for authenticating the facts which are the foundations of my reasonings, but may be useful in pointing out the way to such as shall hereafter hold the same course, and in enabling them to carry on their researches with greater facility and success.

Every intelligent reader will observe one omission in my work, the reason of which it is necessary to explain. I have given no account of the conquests of Mexico and Peru, or of the establishment of the Spanish colonies in the continent and islands of America. The history of these events I originally intended to have related at considerable length. But upon a nearer and more attentive consideration of this part of my plan, I found that the discovery of the new world; the state of society among its ancient inhabitants; their character, manners, and arts; the genius of the European settlements in its various provinces, together with the influence of these upon the systems of policy or commerce in Europe, were subjects so splendid an important, that a superficial view of them could afford little satisfaction; to treat of them as extensively as they merited, must produce an episode, disproportionate to the principal work. I have therefore reserved these for a separate history; which, if the performance now offered to the publick shall receive its approbation, I propose to undertake.

Though, by omitting such considerable but detached articles in the reign of Charles V I have circumscribed my narration within more narrow limits, I am yet persuaded, from this view of the intention and nature of the work which I thought it necessary to lay before my readers, that the plan must still appear to them too extensive, anti-undertaking to arduous. I have often felt them to be so. But my conviction of the utility of such a history prompted me to persevere. With what success I have executed it, the publick must now judge. I wait, in solicitude, for its decision; to which I shall submit with a respectful silence.

[Source: William Robertson, The History of the Reign of Charles V. In The Progress of Society in Europe, ed., Felix Gilbert, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972), pp.3-6.

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