1812 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Alexander Cunningham

Alexander Chalmers, in General Biographical Dictionary (1812-17) 10:160-64.



ALEXANDER CUNNINGHAM, an historian, was born in Scotland, in the time of Cromwell's usurpation, in 1654; his father was minister at Ettrick, in the shire and presbytery of Selkirk. He was educated, according to the custom of the Scotch gentlemen of those times who were of the presbyterian sect, in Holland, where we may suppose he imbibed his principles of government, and was much with the Scotch and English refugees at the Hague before the revolution, particularly with the earls of Argyle and Sunderland. He came over to England with the prince of Orange; and was honoured with the confidence and intimacy of many leading men among the friends of king William and the revolution. We find him employed, at different times, in the character of a travelling companion or tutor; first to the earl of Hyndford and his brother Mr. William Carmichael, solicitor-general in the reign of queen Anne for Scotland; secondly, with the lord Lorne, afterwards so well known under the name of John duke of Argyle; and thirdly, with the lord viscount Lonsdale. In 1703 we find him at Hanover with the celebrated Addison, and graciously received by the elector and princess Sophia.

Lord Lorne, at the time he was under the tuition of Mr. Cunningham, was colonel of a regiment, which the father of the earl of Argyle had raised for his majesty's service in Flanders. Mr. Cunningham's connection with the duke of Argyle, with whom he had the honour of maintaining an intimacy as long as he lived, together with the opportunities he enjoyed of learning in his travels what may be called military geography, naturally tended to qualify him for writing intelligibly on military affairs. On this subject Achilles, it is probable, communicated information to his preceptor Chiron. When we reflect on these circumstances, we shall the less wonder that his accounts of battles and sieges, and in general of all the operations of war, should be so copious, and at the same time so conceivable and satisfactory. It is not unnatural on this occasion to call to mind, that the historian Polybius, so justly renowned for his knowledge of both civil and military affairs, was tutor to Scipio Africanus.

Mr. Cunningham, both when he travelled with the noblemen abovementioned, and on other occasions, was employed by the English ministry in transmitting secret intelligence to them on the most important subjects. He was also on sundry occasions employed by the generals of the confederate armies to carry intelligence and to make representations to the court of Britain. In Carstares' State papers, published by Dr. Macormick, principal of the united college of St. Andrew's, in 1774, there are two letters from our author, dated Paris the 22d and 26th of August 1701, giving an account of his conferences with the marquis de Torcy, the French-minister, relative to the Scotch trade with France. This commercial negotiation, from the tenor of Cunningham's letters compared with his history, appears to have been only the ostensible object of his attention: for he sent an exact account to king William, with whom he was personally acquainted, of the military preparations throughout all France.

Mr. Cunningham's political friends, Argyle, Sunderland, sir Robert Walpole, &c. on the accession of George I. sent him as British envoy to the republic of Venice, where he resided from 1715 to 1720. His correspondence, or at least part of it (for secretary Craggs carried away his official correspondence from the public office, and probably, among others, some of Mr. Cunningham's letters), with the secretaries of state is preserved, in the paper-office. His dispatches have been collected and arranged by Mr. Astle, who very obligingly communicated this information to the author of the critical and biographical memoirs prefixed to the translation of the Latin manuscript.

A question has, no doubt, been anticipated by the reader of these memorials of Mr. Cunningham, whether he was not the celebrated critic on Horace, and the author of the posthumous criticisms in an edition of Virgil published by Hamilton and Balfour of Edinburgh in 1742. On this question, which is, no doubt, not a little interesting to philologists, but not perhaps so interesting as it would have been 50 or 60 years ago, his editor Dr. Thomson has exhausted not a little reading, inquiry, and probable conjecture, and bestows perhaps more consideration on it than the importance of the question deserves. It must be owned, at the same time, that the circumstances tending to prove the identity of the critic and the historian, and those tenting to prove their diversity, are so many, and the evidence for and against each so nicely balanced, that it becomes a question of infinite curiosity on this account, and of importance too as illustrating the uncertainty of both direct and circumstantial evidence. — The historian Alexander Cunningham was born in Scotland in the time of Cromwell's usurpation; was educated in Holland, where he was intimately acquainted with many of the Scotch and English refugees, at the Hague, and particularly with the earls of Argyle and Sunderland: he enjoyed, in an eminent degree, the favour and familiarity of the great: he travelled with the duke of Argyle: he was distinguished by his skill in the game of chess: he was in politics a whig; and he lived to extreme old age. Now there is very strong evidence that all these circumstances belong to the life, and point to Alexander Cunningham, the editor and commentator of Horace. It would seem strange indeed, if two Alexander Cunninghams, countrymen, contemporaries, so distinguished for erudition and the familiarity and favour of men of rank and power, and the same men too, should have flourished at the same aera, in modes of life, in places of residence, in peculiarities of character, and other circumstances so nearly parallel. And yet, notwithstanding these accumulated coincidences, there are circumstances too of diversity and opposition that seem incompatible with their identity; and therefore Dr. Thomson, after all his inquiries concerning the identity or the diversity of the historian and the critic, on that subject remains sceptical; and from those curious points of coincidence and opposition draws the following pertinent inference: "If the writings of our author have increased the stores of history, the incidents of his life, by strewing the uncertainty of oral tradition, have illustrated its importance."

He lived many years after his return from Venice, which he seems chiefly to hate passed in a studious retirement. In 1735 he was visited in London by lord Hyndford, at the instance of his lordship's father, to whom he had been tutor; when he appeared to be very old. It is probable that he lived about two years after; for the body of an Alexander Cunningham lies interred in the vicar chancel of St. Martin's church, who died in the 83d year of his age on the 15th day of May 1737; and who was probably the same person.

His History of Great Britain, from the revolution in 1688 to the accession of George I. was published in two vols. 4to, in 1787. It was written by Mr. Cunningham in Latin, but was translated into English by the rev. Dr. William Thomson. The original manuscript came into the possession of the rev. Dr. Hollingberry, archdeacon of Chichester, some of whose relations had been connected with the author. He communicated it to the late earl of Hardwicke, and to Dr. Douglas, the late bishop Salisbury, both of whom recommended the publication. In a short preface to the work, the archdeacon says: "My first design was to have produced it in the original; but, knowing how few are sufficiently learned to understand, and how many are indisposed to read two quarto volumes in Latin, however interesting and entertaining the subject may be, I altered my purpose, and intended to have sent it into the world in a translation. A nervous fever depriving me of the power, defeated the scheme." Accordingly, be afterwards transferred the undertaking to Dr. Thomson; and, we are told by Dr. Hollingberry that this gentleman, "has expressed the sense of the author with fidelity." The work was undoubtedly well deserving of publication. It contains the history of a very interesting period, written by a man who had a considerable degree of authentic information, and his book contains many curious particulars not to be found in other histories. His characters are often drawn with judgment and impartiality: at other times they are somewhat tinctured with prejudice. This is particularly the case with respect to general Stanhope and bishop Burnet, against whom he appears to have conceived a strong personal dislike. He sometimes also indulges himself in severe sarcasms on the clergy, and on the female sex. But he was manifestly a very attentive observer of the transactions of his own time; his works abound in just political remarks; and the facts which be relates are exhibited with great perspicuity, and often with much animation. Throughout his book be frequently intersperses some account of the literature and of the most eminent persons of the age concerning which he writes; and he has also adorned his work with many allusions to the classics and to ancient history.

The compilers of the Encyclopaedia Britannica thus conclude their article on this subject: Alexander Cunningham, the author of the History of Great Britain, has been supposed to be the same person with Alexander Cunningham who published an edition of Horace at the Hague, in 2 vols. 8vo. 1721, which is highly esteemed. But, from the best information we have been able to collect, they were certainly different persons; though they were both of the same name, lived at the same time, had both been travelling tutors, were both said to have been eminent for their skill at the game of chess, and both lived to a very advanced age. The editor of Horace is generally said to have died in Holland, where he taught both the civil and canon laws, and where he had collected a very large library, which was sold in that country." That these remarks are just has been since placed beyond a doubt by a writer, under the signature of Crito, in the Scots Magazine for October 1804, who proves that the editor of Horace died at the Hague in 1730, and the historian at London in 1737.