- Gibbon and the ‘Watchmen of the Holy City’: The Historian and His Reputation 1776-1815 by David Womersley
Oxford, 452 pp, £65.00, January 2002, ISBN 0 19 818733 5
Since two pioneering studies appeared in 1954, Arnaldo Momigliano’s ‘Gibbon’s Contribution to Historical Method’, and Giuseppe Giarrizzo’s Edward Gibbon e la cultura europea del Settecento, the historian of the Roman Empire has himself become the object of serious historical study. It can still be maintained that his work is, in D.R. Woolf’s words, ‘probably the most famous and perhaps the most misunderstood history written in the past three centuries’, and that this is the consequence of an excessive focus on the Decline and Fall’s first volume, which appeared in 1776 and had no successor until 1781. Because the reading public has been more interested in classical Rome than in late antique or medieval history, Gibbon is remembered as the author of this volume’s first 14 chapters, which recount the break-up of the Augustan and Antonine principate. The 15th and 16th chapters, which conclude the volume with a survey of Christian history before the victory of Constantine, instantly occasioned a fierce controversy over Gibbon’s evident unbelief and his use of irony to convey it, so that his writings on the history of the Church have been viewed through the glass of this controversy, and he is known as a polished and derisive sceptic carrying on the offensive against Christianity begun by Voltaire and continued by Parisian philosophy.
These readings have shaped his reputation since 1776 and form a large part of the history of his work; yet it can be argued, by the historian no less than the critic, that the volume of 1776 is preparatory and even tentative. The chapters on the Augustan-Antonine decline introduce the history of the monarchy founded by Constantine and lasting till 1453, which is the subject of five further volumes of the Decline and Fall. Since this was a Christian monarchy, co-existing with the Orthodox and Catholic Church or churches, its history entails an ecclesiastical history; but the narrative of this co-existence does not begin until the establishment of Christianity as the religion of the Empire, and this is not narrated until chapter 21 of Gibbon’s second volume – five years and five chapters later than those closing the volume of 1776. It is therefore a problem why the historian found it necessary to go back to the post-apostolic age and write an introductory history, occasioning a controversy by whose lurid light his subsequent work was prejudged and has been judged ever since.
David Womersley – now Warton Professor of English Literature at Oxford – stands at the head of those scholars who try to situate Gibbon in his 18th-century context, thus raising and trying to answer many questions, of which that just framed is central to the book he has now published. He has already given us a three-volume edition of the Decline and Fall which is by contemporary standards the first critical edition it has received. To this he has added a selection of the chief clerical responses to Gibbon’s first volume between 1776 and 1781, and has edited one of the several volumes occasioned by the Gibbon bicentennials between 1976 and 1994 (Gibbon died suddenly in January 1794). The book under review consists of essays written and rewritten with the aim of exploring documents, lying mainly outside the text of the Decline and Fall itself, that illustrate three themes: the controversy of 1776-81, which obviously furnishes Womersley with his title; Gibbon’s composition, between 1788 and 1791, of the various drafts of his autobiography; and the publication between 1796 and 1815 of his Miscellaneous Works, including an edited text of the autobiography, by his friend and executor Lord Sheffield. The two latter enterprises bear particularly on the controversy over the 1776 volume, and on questions arising from Gibbon’s (and Sheffield’s) responses to the French Revolution.
This is therefore not a study of the Decline and Fall, or altogether of its reception, or even of ‘the historian’s reputation from 1776 to 1815’ – which would have to be put together from many sources – so much as of attempts by Gibbon and Sheffield to shape the book’s reception and the historian’s reputation. Womersley has been motivated in writing it in two ways. In the first place, he is aware that history is overwhelmingly written from secularist and agnostic standpoints – there are reasons why it could hardly have been otherwise – that silently marginalise the writings of clerics and believers; it is taken for granted that Gibbon’s critics were an incompetent and slightly ridiculous crew, easily swept from the field by philosophic irony and superior scholarship. Womersley is persuaded, as I am, that a key to English history, between 1660 and 1830, is the contested maintenance by the Church of England of its position as the religion of state; from which it follows that the discourse of that Church – Gibbon’s critics (other than Joseph Priestley) were nearly all Anglican clergy – must be taken seriously, as argument from known premises dealing with problems known to arise from those premises. It may further follow that chapters 15 and 16 of the Decline and Fall can be considered as criticism intelligible to Anglicans and other Christians, situated partly within the context of a discourse already formed. Womersley is not primarily concerned to treat them in this way, but it is of the first importance that he knows it can and should be done.
His second set of motives is methodological. The book’s epigraph comes from Westcott and Hort, a Victorian team of New Testament scholars, and runs: ‘Knowledge of documents should precede final judgment upon readings.’ This admirable doctrine is developed into theological metaphor, when Womersley distinguishes between reading the text, studying its context and attending to ‘bibliography’ – the documented history of its production – after which he warns us that his ‘literary trinity is Arian, not Athanasian. The father is bibliography, the spirit is context, but close reading is only the son.’ One should not ask an Arian whether the spirit proceeds from the son as well as the father, but at a less exalted level there is need to remember that the text is also a document: it can tell us things other than the interpretations we read into it; while a document is also a text – someone wrote it and we have to read it. Womersley knows the text of the Decline and Fall as well as anyone now living, but in this book he studies documents for what they tell us about the text far less than for what they tell us about how Gibbon and Sheffield wished the text to be read. There are times when the Decline and Fall has to be read for what it may tell us in its own voice (and literary theory disregarded). Womersley knows this, too; the question may be how often he does it.
Chapters 15 and 16 of the Decline and Fall provoked an outcry. In a Vindication of his writings, comprised during 1778, and in one of the several drafts of his unfinished autobiography – more of this later – Gibbon made two self-exculpatory statements: one that he had not anticipated causing so much offence, the other that he might have written differently had he known that his English readers were still ‘so fondly attached to the name and shadow of Christianity’. The two do not quite fit together, and the second manages to sound insincere while causing further offence (if Gibbon wrote it in early 1791, as is believed, this was no time to tell the English their religion was but a shadow). Womersley moves in with a detailed study of the changes Gibbon made to his text between the publication of the first edition of Volume I in February 1776, the appearance of the second edition in June – before any attacks on his irreligion had appeared – and the third edition in May 1777, by which time they had begun. He finds signs that Gibbon, even at the earlier period, was softening some statements in the two chapters and sharpening others, in ways that suggest he knew very well that he was going to offend the clergy, and therefore that he intended to do so. He also asked Sheffield whether he should withdraw these chapters altogether, and was told it was too late; they had already appeared. So far so good; Gibbon’s self-exculpations cannot stand. But the discovery that he knew he would give offence, and persisted in doing so, does not inform us of the ways in which he gave it, how far he intended to give it in these ways, or with what intentions he wrote the text that gave it. Here we must begin to explore the text of the Decline and Fall, and may ask whether Womersley, intent on giving bibliography precedence over reading, has gone deeply enough into it.
It is no easy matter to decide why Gibbon wrote his 15th and 16th chapters. One may even suggest that he did not need to write them. He had reached Constantine’s seizure of power and announced that the establishment of Christianity was among its consequences. He could have proceeded direct to recount and interpret that action, and since Christian feelings about Constantine were always ambiguous, he could have done so without causing the offence he did. But he inserted the two chapters on the Church before Constantine, and – though he seems to have been at work on a second volume soon after publishing the first in 1776 – his chapters on Constantine’s reign, the Arian controversy and the Council of Nicaea did not appear until 1781. During this five-year gap, which is not easy to account for, the controversy over the two chapters ran its course and his image as an infidel was fixed before his history of the Church in the Empire had fairly begun. If he did not intend this result, it becomes all the harder to tell what he initially intended the two chapters to achieve, or how he may have felt about their reception. To answer such questions we have to look at texts – the two chapters, Gibbon’s critics, his replies – as well as the documents of their bibliography.
The two chapters gave offence primarily by their insistence on treating the growth of Christianity as a secular phenomenon, whose causes Gibbon arranged under five heads. James Chelsum, one of his most acute critics, thought he was cheating by beginning his narrative in post-apostolic times. Not only had Christianity been spread by the apostles themselves – it is noteworthy that Gibbon has very little to say about St Paul – it was during their lifetimes that it had been spread by the miraculous gifts they had received on the day of Pentecost. Chelsum suspected Gibbon of following the tactics of Conyers Middleton, a crucial figure in all this controversy, who in his Free Enquiry of 1749 had questioned the extension of miraculous powers into the second century on grounds which left it doubtful whether he believed they had existed in the days of the apostles. The real issue is latent here: Gibbon’s critics wanted him to concede – and thought he had not conceded – that the spread of Christianity, in the teeth of Jewish hostility, Greek indifference and Roman persecution, had been so extraordinary that secondary causes could not account for it and the direct action of God must be supposed. It was not so much that they wanted to believe in miracles or divine providence as that they wanted to believe in the Incarnation; God had intervened immediately in human history and changed it for ever. This of course could not be proved by writing history; they wanted Gibbon to declare, as Christian historians did, that historical explanation had encountered something it could not explain, and they accused him of denying this proposition by evading it. Their attempts to fault his scholarship – sometimes, if not often, successful – necessarily fell a little short of what they were trying to prove.
The figure of Conyers Middleton recurs when we inquire what the critics thought Gibbon was trying to do, and whether he was in fact trying to do it. In a historiographical climate where the term ‘Enlightenment’ is used with considerable breadth and flexibility, it is easy to read the two chapters as part of an ‘Enlightened’ or ‘philosophic’ programme of undermining Christianity. Gibbon’s language sometimes supports such a reading, but it is hard to identify any group or coterie of ‘philosophers’ in whose activities he supposed he was taking part. His critics were more confident; they set him in the company of Middleton, Morgan, Tindal and Bolingbroke – Hume and Voltaire are also prominent, but the assault on Gibbon as an ‘English Voltaire’ responsible for the French Revolution necessarily belongs to the 1790s more than the 1770s – and to this mainly English coterie they applied such terms as ‘deism’ and ‘deist’. The question whether this terminology accurately characterises Gibbon and his language in the two chapters becomes more necessary when we find that Womersley on the whole accepts that it does; he does not see Gibbon as a confederate of the English deists, but he regularly employs the words ‘deist’, ‘deistic’ and ‘deistical’ to describe his language or his attitudes. Is the term applicable, and does it convey a single or coherent set of meanings?
If we are to use it as freely as Gibbon’s critics did, or as Womersley does, we might extend it to mean the determination to accept only philosophical definitions of God, not exclusive of the possibility that no such definition could be constructed. But within this formulation a number of diverse positions were possible. A ‘deist’ might subscribe to a ‘natural religion’ – the position that God might be held to exist but not to have acted or revealed himself in any historical narrative – or, far more subversively, to a ‘religion of nature’: the Spinozistic doctrine, at once atheist and pantheist, that matter and spirit were one and God identical with nature. Gibbon subscribed to neither – we know, though Womersley does not mention, that after Hume’s death in August 1776 he read and admired the manuscript of the Dialogues on Natural Religion – and is probably to be accounted, like Hume, a sceptic who did not believe that the existence of God could be philosophically affirmed (or perhaps denied). It is one thing, however, to discern this or some other position in the text of the Decline and Fall; another to assert that the historical narratives pursued in chapters 15 and 16 are set forth with the intention or effect of advancing it. To all appearances, chapter 15 pursues the five secondary causes for the growth of Christianity, while chapter 16 contends that the persecutions of the Church were not so severe that only the finger of God accounts for its surviving them.
There is in fact a great deal more history to be read in these chapters, and it is at this point that a reader may be dissatisfied with Womersley’s willingness to use the term ‘deist’ of Gibbon in a sense, or with a lack of precision, much the same as that employed by his contemporary critics. I have argued that he was not a deist, but a sceptic, and there is a complex relation between his scepticism and his decision to write historical narratives in which many meanings appeared together. Womersley, who wishes to state the case for Gibbon’s critics and rightly perceives that they had much to say for themselves in a discourse suited for their purposes, ends by suggesting that Gibbon’s ‘deism’ was superficial; he was led by the infidelities of speech in fashionable company which he kept – there is not much detail about this – into a tissue or lacework of irreligious witticisms, which he then found it harder than he had expected to defend.
There seem to me to be two sets of reasons why this will not do. In the first place, the five secondary causes, and the history of persecution in chapter 16, are argued in depth and documented in detail. In the second place, as Gibbon pursues them he is led, especially in chapter 15, into a historiography to which they do not belong: that of the Ebionites and the Gnostics and the ancient as well as modern problem of the origins of heresy, orthodoxy and the theological debates occasioned by the conjunction of the Gospels with Greek philosophy. Was the Arian controversy – to which Gibbon must return as soon as he resumed the history of Constantine – a product simply of Platonism and neo-Platonism, or did it require a narrative looking beyond Gnosticism to Zoroaster? Gibbon cites three major scholars as guiding his history of the early Church: Jean Le Clerc, a Genevan exile living in Amsterdam, Isaac de Beausobre, a Huguenot exile living in Berlin, and Johann Lorenz von Mosheim, a professor in the Lutheran universities of Helmstedt and Göttingen. Each was deeply involved in the problems of the history of theology, and each, like many English scholars whom Gibbon also quotes, was caught up in a debate at least a century old, in which Protestant churches in particular had been obliged to review, and sometimes restate, both the doctrine of the Trinity and its history. Gibbon was taking part in this debate, and the fact that he could adopt a sceptical and historicising attitude towards it does not mean that he was, or is, intelligible without it. We have turned from documents illustrating Gibbon’s accounts of his intentions to the texts in which those intentions were put in execution, and have found ourselves in deeper and older waters than the concept of deism can clarify.
There follow two chapters, one on Gibbon’s portrait of Athanasius, the other on his portrait of Muhammad (Womersley prefers the older spelling ‘Mahomet’, used by Gibbon), which take us deep into the text of the Decline and Fall and oblige us to join Womersley in reading it. Here we are in the person of the son, a subordinate figure in Womersley’s trinity. He seems to have returned to the argument of his first study of Gibbon, published in 1988, when he showed the historian rising above the philosophe pursuit of general laws to write narratives of true historical complexity; I find this reinforced by Gibbon’s early Essai sur l’étude de la littérature, which advocates an ironic pursuit of the unexpectedness of human behaviour. The trinitarian Athanasius – a villain figure to Arians, Socinians and deists – emerges as a greater statesman and a better man than the otherwise attractive emperor Julian the Apostate; the Prophet displays how genius may rise above imposture and attain sincerity.
Now, however, we take leave of the Decline and Fall, and consider how documentation can be made to subvert two later texts, those of Gibbon’s autobiography and Sheffield’s edition of his Miscellaneous Works. Both are collections never reduced to textual unity. Between 1788 and 1792 Gibbon composed six drafts of an autobiography, hesitating between publishing it in his lifetime and leaving it to appear posthumously. After his death, Sheffield – rather hesitantly – reduced the drafts to a single narrative, published in 1796, and this has been more or less the practice of editors ever since. The six drafts were, however, printed together in John Murray’s edition of 1896, and Womersley has taken the lead in insisting that this is the source the student of Gibbon must use. He is right; but Murray’s volume has never been reprinted, and we need a new edition, whether electronic or typographic. Someone must see to this.
Both the autobiography and the Miscellaneous Works must be read in the light of our knowledge – gained mainly from Gibbon’s letters – that his response to the French Revolution of 1789 (occurring during his composition of the six drafts) was rapidly if not instantaneously identical with Edmund Burke’s, even before he read the latter’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, which he was anxious to have sent him in Lausanne when he heard it was in preparation. The two men were not specially close; Gibbon had been a Lord North Whig when Burke was a Rockingham, and it had been Burke’s economic reforms that deprived Gibbon of his place in government and helped to cause his removal to Lausanne in 1783. More generally, he was a historical ironist and Burke certainly was not; and Burke, pious if not pietist, loudly upheld the Christian and ecclesiastical character of the English established order. ‘I can almost excuse his reverence for church establishments,’ Gibbon wrote in one version of his autobiography; and Gibbon was about to come under fierce attack as the ‘English Voltaire’ who had joined the French philosophes in subverting religion and preparing revolution. He had certainly no such intention, and had already recommended the Unitarian Priestley to the attention of the civil magistrate; we need to keep in mind the perception of Rational Dissent as potentially revolutionary before 1789 as well as after.
The conjunction of Gibbon and Burke remains, however, arresting; notably in Gibbon’s vehement letters to Sheffield of 1792, when he insists that even the slightest and most reasonable reform in the English Parliamentary structure must lead to unlimited revolutionary consequences. It would be easy to write this off as a case of governing-class paranoia; but though Burke may have had a paranoid personality, Gibbon did not, and in Lausanne he was out of touch with English collective opinion. We need to take account of the rapidity with which the Revolution convinced observers that they were living in an utterly new and incalculable world; though where Gibbon located the revolutionary potential in English society is not clear.
Womersley explores the consequences of revolution and counter-revolution for Gibbon’s writing and Sheffield’s editing. He most interestingly explores the genesis, and then the abandonment, of the history of the house of Brunswick, which Gibbon conceived as a great work that he might undertake after finishing the Decline and Fall. What survives of this shows that it would have been written in the grand and ironic manner, as a history of a German dynasty from its Guelf and Este beginnings – Gibbon meant to rely on Leibniz and Muratori – through medieval history into modern, concluding with its accession to the British throne. Gibbon would have had to reconsider German history, of which he knew little, and come to terms with German scholarship at a critical moment in the history of historiography. He seems to have abandoned the project towards the end of 1792 – the year of the Brunswick Manifesto – and Womersley is most convincing in his argument that history in the high ironic manner was no longer appropriate in the years of the French Revolution (though it had been a triumphant success in those of the American). There was a sense that all civilised hierarchy was fighting for its life, and Gibbon may be thought of as sharing with Burke an awareness that revolution sought to create a world in which choices were absolute and irony no longer possible; the antithesis of Enlightenment as he (perhaps not Burke) conceived it. The political conditions that irony presupposes are worth considering.
The argument is also that Gibbon believed it imprudent in these circumstances to write a history of the Hanoverian succession, when he was coming under attack as an irreligious subversive. Certainly, he would have had to align himself with Burke (to whom he was not close) by arguing that what had been done in 1688 and 1714 was compatible with hereditary succession, and distance himself from Charles Fox (whose company he found delightful) by arguing that it had not been the act of a sovereign people; but he would not have found this difficult. Womersley might have gone deeper. That Gibbon should have envisaged the English succession as the third act of his dynastic history places him a long way from his warning to himself – in a journal entry thirty years before, repeated in one of the draft autobiographies – to avoid English history as the domain of faction. He would have had to explore the consequences of the Stuart-Palatine marriage of 1613; he would have had to relate the history of Western Europe in the 17th century, a subject his friend William Robertson had not explored; and the history of the succession to the English and Scottish thrones would have involved him in issues, still very heated, on which his own family had shown Jacobite leanings and of which radical Whig readings were being revived. Small wonder that he decided not to write this history; a greater wonder that he should have thought of doing so. Since he died suddenly in 1794, all thought about his post-Revolution life is necessarily speculative. He died at 56, whereas his friend Sheffield, two years his senior, lived to be 86, dying in 1821. It is a fascinating counterfactual to endow Gibbon with the same longevity, and imagine him living on through the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. His world would have changed, and his historiography with his history.
With these thoughts in mind, we find ourselves scrutinising Womersley’s accounts of both Gibbon’s writings of his autobiography and Sheffield’s editing of these and other texts. The first premise is that the draft autobiographies are deeply affected by Gibbon’s increasingly Burkean view of the political world. There is truth in this; I have elsewhere examined a fairly clear case of Burke’s presence in his account of encounters with atheists in Paris during 1763. I am less comfortable with Womersley’s study of the changing drafts of Gibbon’s narrative of the decline and death of his father, held to be linked with Burke’s counter-revolutionary exaltation of the family and of the state as the image of the family. Other explanations are possible, and a historian such as myself is uneasy about the status as historical evidence, and as historical occurrences, of the patterns of suggestion and illocution apparent to a student of literature such as Womersley; the communication between disciplines could be made better here.
A far more complex field of inquiry is opened up in the following chapter, dealing with Gibbon’s various accounts of his undergraduate years at Oxford. These are to be situated in a variety of contexts. One, of special interest to Womersley, is furnished by the century-long literature concerning the abuses and possible reforms of Georgian Oxford (and Cambridge), coloured first by Oxford’s conspicuous lack of allegiance to the earlier Hanoverian kings, then by the question how far it could remain a seminary when called on to educate a philistine but increasingly modern gentry and nobility. Womersley follows this through a detailed account of the writings of Vicesimus Knox, mentioned in a late footnote to one of the autobiographies. But each of the six drafts deals with Gibbon’s juvenile conversion to Catholicism and his exile to Lausanne; while grateful for the latter, he blamed Magdalen and Oxford for the former, and blames his tutors for their failure to provide him with both the doctrine and the scholarship which (it is assumed) would have kept him from Popery. Since his return to Protestantism occurred at Lausanne rather than Oxford, there arises a connection between his apostasy, his recovery and his ultimate (and scarcely concealed) scepticism; and the figure of Burke loses prominence, in the recensions of his memoirs, compared with his Anglican critics and the deists and unbelievers with whom they confounded him – the more so as post-1789 evangelicals denounced him as an associate of Voltaire, Holbach and Rousseau.
Conyers Middleton returns to our attention. All but one of the six draft autobiographies say no more of the young Gibbon’s conversion to Catholicism than that his undirected eye happened to fall on some works of Romish controversy and that he was persuaded by them; this seems also to have been all he ever told Sheffield about it. But the draft written last, known to us as ‘F’, is unlike the others in length, depth and complexity; and it tells us that Middleton’s denial of miraculous powers in the post-apostolic church had the effect of denying it all spiritual authority, at which point the young Gibbon met with two works by Bossuet – identified and in Gibbon’s library – where he found it affirmed that both authority and the powers occasionally signifying it continued in the Church of Rome to the present day. Young Gibbon now made a Pascalian wager, and opted for the Church whose claims were unequivocal.
Womersley proposes that this narrative be considered a fiction, partly because it cannot be otherwise documented – as it cannot – partly because ‘it suits Gibbon’s book, in the aftermath of the Burkean response to the French Revolution and his desire to appear as the friend to all that the Revolution menaced, to depict himself as yet another who suffered at the hands of religious freethinking.’ This is surely too thin for the complexity of narrative to be found in F. Womersley does not mention Bossuet, by introducing whom into the history of his mind Gibbon recapitulates the well-worn Anglican scenario in which unbelief often led to Popery and vice versa. The story he tells of himself could certainly have been told of others, and if undocumented is not implausible. Perhaps it is ben trovato – Gibbon looking back may have seen his juvenile experience as a case of this syndrome and recounted it as one – or it may conceivably have been true. As for Gibbon the victim of freethinking, he goes on in F and other drafts to recount the cases of William Chillingworth and Pierre Bayle, in whom the return from conversion to Rome was a journey towards freethinking; Chillingworth could not free himself from doubts about the Trinity, Bayle’s methodological scepticism made him (like Gibbon) more a historian than a theologian (though Gibbon thought Le Clerc a better scholar). F does not present its author as a Burkean conservative, but as a Humean sceptic; if evangelicals denounced both Hume and Gibbon as Voltairean subversives, Hume, too, has been called (by Laurence Bongie) a ‘prophet of the counter-revolution’. As for Middleton, Womersley does not notice a footnote to Gibbon’s Essai sur l’étude de la littérature (1761) in which his Free Inquiry and Beausobre’s Histoire de Manichée et du Manichéisme are bracketed as ‘deux beaux monumens d’un siècle éclairé’. He was thus figuring in Gibbon’s philosophical history of religion a little earlier than Womersley believes; it is his role as an antithesis to Bossuet that we find only in F.
Lord Sheffield, Womersley rightly says, is a figure worth studying. His daughter was a sharp observer, whose letters have been published – what did she mean by concluding a letter to Gibbon recounting some Revolutionary massacres ‘Citoyen Gibbon je suis ton égale’? – and his writings on trade with the newly independent American states helped persuade Thomas Jefferson that there was a neo-colonial conspiracy of which Alexander Hamilton was the instrument and Hume the ideologue. As Gibbon’s executor he had problems editing the Miscellaneous Works, and Womersley premises that, as an Irish landlord and Irish peer, he disapproved of Burke and of Gibbon’s alignment with Burke. A tough-minded man of business, he wanted counter-revolutionary policy to be pragmatically founded, and disliked Burke’s emotionalism and apocalypticism. Is he therefore among the targets of Burke’s insistence that the war against the Revolution could not be conducted as a normal war among states without making fatal concessions to the revolutionary spirit? Womersley suggests that Gibbon’s letters of 1792 warning against the slightest Parliamentary reform may have been aimed at Sheffield himself, but it would be interesting to know whether any such reforms were in contemplation that year. Before we enter on his role as an editor, we need to consider his personality. This hard-headed man who denied his emotions found them hard to control, and pessimism and withdrawal hard to avoid, throughout the twenty years of the French wars; he had neither Burke’s passion nor Gibbon’s irony to sustain him (though we can only imagine how the latter would have stood up to the naval mutinies, Austerlitz and Tilsit). He produced an edition of the Miscellaneous Works in 1796, a second not until 1815 when he was 80; his life between those dates is a microhistory of governing-class responses, as well as of the shaping of Gibbon’s reputation.
Womersley’s thesis is that Sheffield, especially in editing the autobiographies, was torn between the desire to minimise Gibbon’s irreligion (condemned as smoothing the way to revolution) and the desire to minimise his association with Burke. Here the difficulty – Sheffield’s, Womersley’s or ours – is that Gibbon’s critics exceeded even Burke in insisting on the Christian and ecclesiastical foundations of the English regime (whether or not ancien), and though both Gibbon and Sheffield covered up some points and misleadingly suggested others, there is no sign that Gibbon made any essential concessions or that Sheffield suggested he had. Both were irreligious, but in Sheffield this became indifference; in Gibbon it took the form of curiosity, which made him a historian of religion. This he did not conceal, and Sheffield could only hesitate over what to excise or to let stand. The crucial document remains draft F, the most complex statement of both the history in which Gibbon and Middleton had found themselves, and the processes which had led Gibbon and Bayle through conversion to scepticism and the consequent writing of history. Gibbon may have decided that F should not be published in his lifetime; Womersley suggests that it was incompatible with Burkean positions he otherwise desired to stand by, and that by making it (after Gibbon’s death) the foundation of his edition of the autobiography, Sheffield succeeded in detaching him from Burke at the cost of admitting his irreligion. But is Burke – who himself died in 1797 – so pivotal a figure, once publication becomes, as Gibbon envisaged, posthumous? In draft F Gibbon declares himself a historian, and if the Church cannot be reduced to history without diminishing the divinity of Christ, it does not follow that to write such a history is a revolutionary act; it is merely sceptical and ironic. By 1815 the world was no longer as Burke had seen it in 1796; Gibbon in his vault at Sheffield Park could be an ironist again.