Robertson, William (1721–1793)
ROBERTSON, WILLIAM (1721–1793)
ROBERTSON, WILLIAM (1721–1793), Scottish historian, clergyman, and educator. William Robertson was born on 8 September 1721 in Borthwick, Midlothian, where his father, William, was a parish minister in the Church of Scotland. The Robertson name was descended from the Robertsons of Gladney in Fifeshire and, more distantly, from the Robertsons of Struan in Perthshire. His mother, Heleanor, was the daughter of David Pitcairn of Dreghorn and Mary Anderson. The eldest of eight children, Robertson was educated in the Borthwick school and in nearby Dalkeith. In 1733, his father was called to Edinburgh as minister of Lady Yester's Church, and two years later Robertson entered the University of Edinburgh. According to his biographer Dugald Stewart, his dedication as a student was aptly demonstrated by his prefixing to his commonplace books the motto vita sine literis mors est (life without literature is death). As was typical of many students at the time, Robertson did not take a degree, but in 1740–1741 he studied divinity and subsequently took his examinations to become a minister of the Church of Scotland. In 1744 he was ordained minister of Gladsmuir, and seven years later he married his cousin Mary Nisbet, daughter of James Nisbet, minister of the Old Church, Edinburgh, and Mary, daughter of David Pitcairn. Together they had six children.
In 1758 Robertson, like his father, was called to Lady Yester's Church. Before arriving in Edinburgh, Robertson had already begun to establish himself as a leader in the church, joining a group of ministers, eventually to be known as the Moderates, who advocated church reforms, and publishing a well-regarded sermon, "The Situation of the World at the Time of Christ's Nativity" (1755), which prefigured his historical interests. He had also completed much of the work on his first book, The History of Scotland during the Reigns of Queen Mary and King James VI. Published in 1759, the book was a great success, going through some thirteen editions in his lifetime. As a result of this success, Robertson received several appointments, the most notable coming in 1762 when he was named principal of the University of Edinburgh, a post that he would hold until his death.
During his years as an administrator, Robertson made substantial contributions to the stature of the university, improving the library, strengthening the medical school faculty, and lobbying for new buildings (a dream that only became reality beginning in 1789). In assuming the position, Robertson relinquished some of his parish duties, though he remained a minister, moving from Lady Yester's to Old Greyfriars in 1761. Robertson also exercised leadership in the Church of Scotland's General Assembly during the 1760s and 1770s, championing the Moderate Party's often controversial policies of patronage and toleration, together with a demand for a more educated clergy.
In 1769 he published The History of the Reign of the Emperor Charles V in which he studied the development of the European state system and the concept of the balance of power by tracing the career of the most notable Habsburg ruler of the sixteenth century. He was unable to include discussion of the Spanish conquests in the Americas because he believed they would dilute the focus of his history, and this omission gave rise to his next project. In 1777 he published The History of America, describing the Spanish exploration of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries in Mexico and South America. He had intended this history to be part of a general history of European colonization in the Americas, but after America he was only able to complete a small portion concerning English colonization (published posthumously in 1796). His work was interrupted by a physical breakdown, manifested in chronic congestion and increasing deafness during the late 1770s and early 1780s. He retired permanently from church leadership in 1780. By 1785, however, his health had revived sufficiently for him to undertake a complete revision of his historical works (published in 1787–1788) and to write An Historical Disquisition concerning the Knowledge Which the Ancients Had of India (1791), a discussion of European contacts with India up to the sixteenth century, with clear implications for contemporary British involvement in the area. In 1792, however, his health once again began to fail, and, after enduring considerable pain, he died on 11 June 1793. He is buried in Old Greyfriars churchyard.
See also Charles V (Holy Roman Empire) ; Edinburgh .
Brown, Stewart J., ed. William Robertson and the Expansion of Empire. Cambridge, U.K., 1997. Collection of essays by various scholars on Robertson's work as historian and writer, with a bibliography of writing about him from 1755–1996.
Horn, David Bayne. A Short History of the University of Edinburgh, 1556–1889. Edinburgh, 1967. A concise history of the university assessing Robertson's role as principal.
Sher, Richard B. Church and University in the Scottish Enlightenment: The Moderate Literati of Edinburgh. Princeton, 1985. Groundbreaking study of the careers of Robertson and four other Moderates.
Sher, Richard B., ed. The Works of William Robertson. 12 vols. London, 1996. The most complete edition including, in Vol. 12 (edited and introduced by Jeffrey Smitten), his miscellaneous works and the important early lives by John Erskine, Dugald Stewart, and Henry Brougham.
Smitten, Jeffrey. "Selected Bibliography: William Robertson." Web site at http://www.c18.org/biblio. A bibliography of secondary sources, regularly updated.