Imágenes de páginas
[ocr errors]

most agreeable and ingenious writers of the times. While the Bangorian controversy was a fashionable theme, he entered the lists on the subject of Christ's kingdom, and the authority of the priesthood : against the plain account of the sacrament of the Lord's Supper, he resumed the combat with bishop Hoadley, the object of Whig idolatry and Tory abhorrence; and at every weapon of attack and defence the nonjuror, on the ground which is common to both, approves himself at least equal to the prelate. On the appearance of the Fable of the Bees', he drew his pen against the licentious doctrine that private vices are public benefits; and morality as well as religion must join in his applause. Mr Law's master-work, the

Serious Call', is still read as a popular and powerful book of devotion. His precepts are rigid, but they are founded on the gospel : his satire is sharp, but it is Irawn from the knowledge of human life ; and many of his portraits are not unworthy, of the pen of La Bruyere. If he finds a spark of piety in his reader's mind, he will soon kindle it to a flame; and a philosopher must allow that he exposes, with equal severity and truth, the strange contradiction between the faith and practice of the Christian world. Under the names of Flavia and Miranda he has admirably described my two aunts—the Heathen and the Christian sister.

My father, Edward Gibbon, was born in October 1707 : at the age of thirteen he could scarcely feel that he was disinherited by act of parliament; and, as he advanced towards manhood, new prospects of fortune opened to his view. A parent is most attentive to supply in his children the deficiencies of which he is conscious in himself: my grandfather's knowledge was derived from a strong understanding, and the experience of the ways of men; but my father enjoyed the benefits of a liberal education as a scholar and a gentleman. At Westminster school, and afterwards at Emanuel college in Cambridge, he passed through a regular course of academical discipline; and the care

of his learning and morals was entrusted to his private tutor, the same Mr William Law. But the mind of a saint is above or below the present world; and while the pupil proceeded on his travels, the tutor remained at Putney, the much-honoured friend and spiritual director of the whole family. My father resided some time at Paris, to acquire the fashionable exercises; and as his temper was warm and social, he indulged in those pleasures for which the strictness of his former education had given him a keener relish. He afterwards visited several provinces of France; but his excursions were neither long nor remote; and the slender knowledge which he had gained of the French language was gradually obliterated.

His passage through Besancon is marked by a singular consequence in the chain of human events. In a dangerous illness Mr Gibbon was attended, at his own request, by one of his kinsmen of the name of Acton, the younger brother of a younger brother, who had applied himself to the study of physic. During the slow recovery of his patient, the physician himself was attacked by the malady of love: he married his mistress, renounced his country and religion, settled at Besançon, and became the father of three sons; the eldest of whom, general Acton, is conspicuous in Europe as the principal minister of the king of the Two Sicilies. By an uncle whom another stroke of fortune had transplanted to Leghorn, he was educated in the naval service of the emperor; and his valour and conduct in the command of the Tuscan frigates protected the retreat of the Spaniards from Algiers. On my father's return to England, he was chosen, in the general election of 1734, to serve in parliament for the borough of Petersfield; a burgage tenure, of which my grandfather possessed a weighty share, till he alienated (I know not why) such important property. In the opposition to sir Robert Walpole and the Pelhams, prejudice and society connected his son with the Tories, -shall I say Jacobites—or, as they were pleased to style them

selves, the country gentlemen ? With them he gave many a vote; with them he drank many a hottle. Without acquiring the fame of an orator or a statesman, he eagerly joined in the great opposition which, after a seven years' chase, hunted down sir Robert Walpole: and in the pursuit of an unpopular minister, he gratified a private revenge against the oppressor of his family in the South Sea persecution.

I was horn at Putney, in the county of Surry, the 27th of April, 0. S. in the year 1737; the first child of the marriage of Edward Gibbon, esq. and of Judith Porten.* My lot might have been that of a slave, a savage, or a peasant; nor can I reflect without pleasure on the bounty of nature, which cast my birth in a free and civilized country, in an age of science and philosophy, in a family of honourable rank, and decently endowed with the gifts of fortune. From my birth I have enjoyed the right of primogeniture; but I was succeeded by five brothers and one sister, all of whom were snatched away in their infancy. My five brothers, whose names may be found in the parish register of Putney, I shall not pretend to lament: but from my childhood to the present hour I have deeply and sincerely regretted my sister, whose life was somewhat prolonged, and whom I remember to have seen an amiable infant. The relation of a brother and a sister, especially if they do not marry, appears to me of a very singular nature. It is a familiar and tender friendship with a female much about our own age;

* The union to which I owe my birth was a marriage of inclination and esteem. Mr James Porten, a merchant of London, resided with his family at Putney, in a house adjoining to the bridge and church-yard, where I have passed many happy hours of my childhood. He left one son (the late sir Stanier Porten) and three daughters; Catherine, who preserved her maiden name, and of whom I shall hereafter speak: another daughter married Mr Darrel of Richmond, and left two sons, Edward and Robert: the youngest of the three sisters was Judith, my mother.

an affection perhaps softened by the secret influence of sex, but pure from any mixture of sensual desire; the sole species of platonic love that can be indulged with truth and without danger.

At the general election of 1741, Mr Gibbon and Mr Delmé stood an expensive and successful contest at Southampton, against Mr Dummer and Mr Henly, afterwards lord chancellor and earl of Northington. The Whig candidates had a majority of the resident voters; but the corporation was firm in the Tory interest: a sudden creation of 170 new freemen turned the scale; and a supply was readily obtained of respectable volunteers, who flocked from all parts of England to support the cause of their political friends. The new parliament opened with the victory of an opposition which was fortified by strong clamour and strange coalitions. From the event of the first divisions, sir Robert Walpole perceived that he could no longer lead a majority in the House of Commons, and prudently resigned (after a dominion of one and twenty years) the guidance of the state (1742). But the fall of an unpopular minister was not succeeded, according to general expectation, by a millennium of happiness and virtue: some courtiers lost their places, some patriots lost their characters; lord Orford's offences vanished with his power; and after a short vibration, the Pelham government was fixed on the old basis of the Whig aristocracy. In the year 1745 the throne and the constitution were attacked by a rebellion, which does not reflect much honour on the national spirit: since the English friends of the Pretender wanted courage to join his standard, and his enemies (the bulk of the people) allowed him to advance into the heart of the kingdom. Without daring, perhaps without desiring, to aid the rebels, my father invariably adhered to the Tory opposition. In the most critical season he accepted, for the service of the party, the office of alderman in the city of London; but the duties were so repugnant to his inclination

and habits, that he resigned his gown at the end of a few months. The second parliament in which he sat was prematurely dissolved (1747:) and as he was unable or unwilling to maintain a second contest for Southampton, the life of the senator expired in that dissolution.

The death of a new-born child before that of its parents may seem an unnatural, but it is strictly a probable event: since of any given number the greater part are extinguished before their ninth year, before they possess the faculties of the mind or body. Without accusing the profuse waste or imperfect workmanship of nature, I shall only observe, that this unfavourable chance was multiplied against my infant existence. So feeble was my constitution, so precarious my life, that in the baptism of my brothers my father's prudence successively repeated my christian name of Edward, that, in case of the departure of the eldest son, this patronymic appellation might be still perpetuated in the family.

Uno avulso non deficit alter. To preserve and to rear so frail a being, the most tender assiduity was scarcely sufficient; and my mother's attention was somewhat diverted by her frequent pregnancies, by an exclusive passion for her husband, and by the dissipation of the world, in which his taste and authority obliged her to mingle. But the maternal office was supplied by my aunt, Mrs Catherine Porten; at whose name I feel a tear of gratitude trickling down my cheek. A life of celibacy transferred her vacant affection to her sister's first child; my weakness excited her pity; her attachment was fortified by labour and success; and if there be any, as I trust there are some, who rejoice that I live, to that dear and excellent woman they must hold themselves indebted. Many anxious and solitary days did she consume in the patient trial of every mode of relief and amusement. Many wakeful nights did she sit by my bed

« AnteriorContinuar »