Burton, John Hill (DNB00)

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BURTON, JOHN HILL (1809–1881), historiographer of Scotland, was born at Aberdeen 22 Aug. 1809. His father, of whose family connections nothing is known, was a lieutenant in the army, whose feeble health compelled him to retire on half-pay shortly after his son's birth. His mother was the daughter of John Paton, laird of Grandholm, a moody, eccentric man driven into seclusion by frantic sorrow for the death of his wife, and possessed by an insane animosity towards his own children. The family circumstances were thus by no means promising. Burton, however, obtained a fair education after his father's death in 1819, and gained a bursary, which enabled him to matriculate at the university of his native city. On the completion of his college course he was articled to a writer, but, assuredly from no want of industry, found the confinement of an office intolerable. His articles were cancelled, and he repaired to Edinburgh to qualify himself for the bar, accompanied by his devoted mother, who had disposed of her little property at Aberdeen to provide him with the means of study. He in due time became an advocate, but his practice was never large, and for a long time he found it necessary to earn his livelihood by literature. His beginnings were humble. Much that he wrote cannot now be identified, but he is known to have composed elementary histories under the name of White, to have shared in the compilation of Oliver & Boyd's 'Edinburgh Almanack,' and to have furnished the letterpress of Billings's 'Ecclesiastical and Baronial Antiquities.' His ardent adoption of Bentham's philosophy probably served to introduce him to the 'Westminster Review,' from which he subsequently migrated to the 'Edinburgh.' He also contributed to the 'Cyclopædia of Universal Biography' and Waterston's 'Cyclopædia of Commerce;' prepared (1839) a useful 'Manual of the Law of Scotland,' afterwards divided into distinct treatises on civil and criminal jurisprudence; edited the works of Bentham in conjunction with Sir John Bowring; and compiled (1843) 'Benthamiana,' a selection from Bentham's writings, designed as an introduction to the utilitarian philosophy. About this time he acted for a season as editor of the 'Scotsman,' and committed the journal to the support of free trade. He also edited the 'Athole Papers' for the Abbotsford, and the 'Darien Papers' for the Bannatyne Club. In 1844 he married, and in 1846 achieved solid literary distinction by his biography of Hume, assisted by the extensive stores of unpublished matter bequeathed by Hume's nephew to the Royal Society of Edinburgh. It was a great opportunity, and if Burton's deficiency in imagination impaired the vigour of his portrait of Hume as a man, he has shown an adequate comprehension of him as a thinker, and is entitled to especial credit for his recognition of Hume's originality as an economist. A supplementary volume of letters from Hume's distinguished correspondents, one half at least French, followed in 1849. In 1847 Burton had produced his entertaining biographies of Lord Lovat and Duncan Forbes; and in 1849 he wrote for Messrs. Chambers a 'Manual of Political and Social Economy,' with a companion volume on emigration, admirable works, containing within a narrow compass clear and intelligent expositions of the mutual relations and duties of property, labour, and government. In the same year the death of his wife prostrated him with grief, and although he to a great extent recovered the elasticity of his spirits, he was ever afterwards afflicted with an invincible aversion to society. Seeking relief in literary toil, he produced in 1852 his 'Narratives from Criminal Trials in Scotland;' in 1853 his 'Treatise on the Law of Bankruptcy in Scotland;' and in the same year the first portion of his 'History of Scotland,' comprising the period from the Revolution to the rebellion of 1745. Like Hume, he executed his task in instalments, and without strict adherence to chronological order, a method prompted in his case by a delicate reluctance to enter into manifest competition with his predecessor Tytler during the latter's lifetime. The work was eventually completed in 1870; and a new edition with considerable improvements, especially in the prehistoric and Roman periods, appeared in 1873. In 1854 Burton obtained pecuniary independence by his appointment as secretary to the prison board, and in 1855 married the daughter of Cosmo Innes. Though no longer necessary to his support, his literary labours continued without remission; he wrote largely for the 'Scotsman,' became a constant contributor to 'Blackwood's Magazine,' and edited (1860) the valuable autobiography of Alexander Carlyle. His essays in 'Blackwood' formed the substance of two very delightful works, 'The Book Hunter' (I860), containing a vivid personal sketch of De Quincey, and 'The Scot Abroad' (1862). Burton, who had always been a great pedestrian at home, had now imbibed a taste for solitary tours on the continent, which formed the theme of his latest contributions to 'Blackwood.' After the completion of his 'History,' he undertook the editorship of the 'Scottish Registers,' a work of great national importance, and published two volumes. The task has since his death been continued by Professor Masson. His last independent work of much compass was his 'History of the Reign of Queen Anne,' published in 1880. Ere this date his extraordinary power of concentrated application had become impaired by a serious illness, and the book, dry without exactness, and desultory without liveliness, hardly deserves to be ranked among histories. The most valuable part is his account of Marlborough's battles, the localities of which he had visited expressly. From this time Burton suffered from frequent attacks of illness, and indicated the change which had come over his spirit by disposing of his library, weighing eleven tons, as he informed the writer of this memoir. He continued, however, to write for 'Blackwood,' performed his official duties with undiminished efficiency, rallied surprisingly in health and spirits after every fit of illness, and was preparing to edit the remains of his friend Edward Ellice, when he succumbed to a sudden attack of bronchitis on 10 Aug. 1881.

Burton's biographies and his 'Book Hunter' secure him a more than respectable rank as a man of letters; and his legal and economical works entitle him to high credit as a jurist and an investigator of social science. His historical labours are more important, and yet his claims to historical eminence are more questionable. His 'History of Scotland' has, indeed, the field to itself at present, being as yet the only one composed with the accurate research which the modern standard of history demands. By complying with this peremptory condition, Burton has distanced all competitors, but must in turn give way when one shall arise who, emulating or borrowing his closeness of investigation, shall add the beauty and grandeur due to the history of a great and romantic country. Burton indeed is by no means dry; his narrative is on the contrary highly entertaining. But this animation is purchased by an entire sacrifice of dignity. His style is always below the subject; there is a total lack of harmony and unity; and the work altogether produces the impression of a series of clever and meritorious magazine articles. Possessing in perfection all the ordinary and indispensable qualities of the historian, he is devoid of all those which exalt historical composition to the sphere of poetry and drama. His place is rather that of a sagacious critic of history, and in this character his companionship will always be found invaluable. To render due justice to Scottish history would indeed require the epic and dramatic genius of Scott, united with the research of a Burton and the intuition of a Carlyle; and until such a combination arises, Burton may probably remain Scotland's chief historian. As a man, he was loved and valued in proportion as he was truly known. With a dry critical intellect he combined an intense sensitiveness, evinced in a painful shrinking from deficient sympathy, the real and pathetic cause of his unfortunate irascibility and impatience of contradiction. His private affections were deep and constant, his philanthropy embraced mankind, his gracious and charitable actions were endless, and it is mournful to think that the mere exaggeration of tender feeling, combined with his aversion to display and neglect of his personal appearance, should have obstructed the general recognition of qualities as beautiful as uncommon. His main defect was, as remarked by his widow, an absence of imagination, rendering it difficult for him to put himself in another's place. In an historian such a deficiency is most serious, and could be but imperfectly supplied by the acuteness of his critical faculty. In biography it was to a certain extent counteracted by the strength of the sympathy which originally attracted him to his theme; and hence his biographical writings are perhaps the most truly and permanently valuable.

[Memoir by Mrs. Burton, prefixed to the large-paper edition of the Book Hunter, 1882; Blackwood's Mag. September 1881.]

R. G.