Classic Works

William Robertson, History of the Reign of Charles the Fifth (1769)

Hume, Gibbon, and Robertson. The first two men are widely recognized as leading historical writers of the British Enlightenment. The third—William Robertson, a Minister of the Church of Scotland and Principal of the University of Edinburgh—is much less well known today; but in the 18th century he was regarded as an equal and perhaps superior member of this great scholarly triumvirate (who were also friends). Voltaire, Edmund Burke, John Quincy Adams, and Catherine the Great counted themselves among his admirers. The contemporary backdrop of his writings was that of the Seven Years War, the American Revolution, and the expansion of the British Empire in India. His most notable works were the History of Scotland (1759); History of the Reign of the Emperor Charles the Fifth (1769); History of America (1777); and Disquisition concerning the Knowledge which the Ancients had of India (1791). The purely historical authority of his writings has long been superseded by modern scholarship, but the grand themes of strategy and politics that he identified endure.

The most important of Robertson’s writings, as viewed by his contemporaries, was probably his treatment of Charles V and efforts to prevent the emergence of a Universal Monarchy in Europe. The powers of Europe, in resisting Charles V’s drive for hegemony, “were formed into one great political system, in Emperor Charles Vwhich each took a station, wherein it has since remained with less variation, than could have been expected after the shocks occasioned by so many internal revolutions, and so many foreign wars. The great events which happened then have not hitherto spent their force. The political principles and maxims, then established, still continue to operate. The ideas concerning the balance of power, then introduced or rendered general, still influence the council of nations.” The “great secret in modern policy,” Robertson wrote, was “the preservation of a proper distribution of power.” The fate of every state was tied up in the fate of others, however remote. The same principle of balance applied to the internal organization of modern European states. Domestic and international counterweights prevented the emergence of despotism, the absolute control by one person or one class. The principle of the balance of power also introduced a critical element of moderation into what had been irrational, violent and cruel pre-modern politics. The age of chivalry had been replaced by “the well-regulated operations of sound policy.” Statesmen could calculate the factors making up the balance and develop a rational foreign policy accordingly.

Robertson, however, does not leave his readers merely with a paean to the balance of power, but also with recognition of the power of unintended consequences and unexpected historical/ providential developments. Robertson argues that the modern European world emerged from the barbarism of the Middle Ages in large part because the rise of commerce created a third, intermediate force to balance the monarchical and aristocratic parts of the feudal regimes. Commerce also “softens and polishes the manners of men,” and fosters the sense of community among nations. Charles V’s efforts to establish a Universal Monarchy led to a state system designed to prevent exactly that. The Crusades were religious madness but they opened new channels of commerce and knowledge. Robertson thought that European imperialism, despite its destruction of native cultures and societies, might have a similar effect in uniting humanity. Not all of these judgments have stood the test of time or political correctness. But Robertson told a large and serious story and told it well.