1844 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Sir James Mackintosh

Robert Chambers, in Cyclopaedia of English Literature (1844; 1850) 2:638-39.



As a philosophical historian, critic, and politician, SIR JAMES MACKINTOSH deserves honourable mention. He was also one of the last of the Scottish metaphysicians, and one of the most brilliant conversers of his times — qualifications apparently very dissimilar. His candour, benevolence, and liberality, gave a grace and dignity to his literary speculations and to his daily life. Mackintosh was a native of Inverness-shire, and was born at Aldouriehouse, on the banks of Loch Ness, October 24, 1765. His father was a brave highland officer, who possessed a small estate, called Kylachy, in his native county, which James afterwards sold for £9000. From his earliest days James Mackintosh had a passion for books and though all his relatives were Jacobites, he was a stanch Whig. After studying at Aberdeen (where he had as a college companion and friend the pious and eloquent Robert Hall), Mackintosh went to Edinburgh, and studied medicine. In 1788 he repaired to London, wrote for the press, and afterwards applied himself to the study of law. In 1791 he published his Vindiciae Gallicae, a defence of the French Revolution, in reply, to Burke, which, for cogency of argument, historical knowledge, and logical precision, is a remarkable work to be written by a careless and irregular young man of twenty-six. Though his bearing to his great antagonist was chivalrous and polite, Mackintosh attacked his opinions with the ardour and impetuosity of youth, and his work was received with great applause. Four years afterwards he acknowledged to Burke that he had been the dupe of his own enthusiasm, and that a "melancholy experience" had undeceived him. The excesses of the French Revolution had no doubt contributed to this change, which, though it afterwards was made the cause of obloquy and derision to Mackintosh, seems to have been adopted with perfect sincerity and singleness of purpose. He afterwards delivered and published a series of lectures on the law of nature and nations, which greatly extended his reputation. In 1795 he was called to the bar, and in his capacity of barrister, in 1803, he made a brilliant defence of M. Peltier, an emigrant royalist of France, who had been indicted for a libel on Napoleon, then first consul. The forensic display of Mackintosh is too much like an elaborate essay or dissertation, but it marked him out for legal promotion, and he received the appointment (to which his poverty, not his will, consented) of Recorder of Bombay. He was knighted, sailed from England in the beginning of 1804, and after discharging faithfully his high official duties, returned at the end of seven years, the earliest period that entitled him to his retiring pension of £1200 per annum. Mackintosh now obtained a seat in parliament, and stuck faithfully by his old friends the Whigs, without one glimpse of favour, till in 1827 his friend Mr. Canning, on the formation of his administration, made him a privy councillor. On the accession of the Whig ministry in 1830, he was appointed a commissioner for the affairs of India. On questions of criminal law and national policy Mackintosh spoke forcibly, but he cannot be said to have been a successful parliamentary orator. Amid the bustle of public business he did not neglect literature, though he wanted resolution for continuous and severe study. The charms of society, the interruptions of public business, and the debilitating effects of his residence in India, also co-operated with his constitutional indolence in preventing the realisation of the ambitious dreams of his youth. He contributed, however, various articles to the Edinburgh Review, and wrote a masterly Dissertation on the Progress of Ethical Philosophy for the Encyclopaedia Britannica. He wrote three volumes of a compendious and popular History of England for Lardner's Cabinet Cyclopaedia, which, though deficient in the graces of narrative and style, contains some admirable views of constitutional history and antiquarian research. His learning was abundant; he wanted only method and elegance. He also contributed a short but valuable life of Sir Thomas More (which sprung out of his researches into the reign of Henry VIII., and was otherwise a subject congenial to his taste) to the same miscellany; and he was engaged on a History of the Revolution of 1688, when his life was somewhat suddenly terminated on the 30th of May 1832. The portion of his history of the Revolution which he had written and corrected (amounting to about 350 pages) was published in 1834, with a continuation by some writer who was opposed to Sir James in many essential points. In the works of Mackintosh we have only the fragments of a capacious mind; but in all of them his learning, his candour, his strong love of truth, his justness of thinking and clearness in perceiving, and his genuine philanthropy, are conspicuous. It is to be regretted that he had no Boswvll to record his conversation.