GIBBON, Edward (1737-94), of Bentinck St., London; Buriton, Hants; and Lenborough, Bucks.
Available from Boydell and Brewer
Family and Education
b. 27 Apr. 1737, o. surv. s. of Edward Gibbon, M.P., by his 1st w. Judith, da. of James Porten, merchant, of Putney, Surr. educ. Kingston g.s. 1746; Westminster 1748-50; Magdalen, Oxf. 1752; in Lausanne 1753-8; Grand Tour (France, Switzerland and Italy) 1763-5. unm. suc. fa. 1770.
Ld. of Trade June 1779-May 1782.
In 1719 Gibbon’s grandfather, army contractor and director of the South Sea Company, bought Buriton, the manor of Petersfield, and an interest in the burgages; Gibbon’s father represented the borough 1734-41, but in 1739 sold his interest to John Jolliffe. When Gibbon returned from Lausanne in 1758 his father gave him hopes of a seat in Parliament, and ‘fifteen hundred pounds were mentioned as the price of the purchase’. Shortly before the general election of 1761 Gibbon asked his father to reconsider the matter.1
This design [he wrote] flattered my vanity, as it might enable me to shine in so august an assembly. It flattered a nobler passion; I promised myself that by the means of this seat I might be one day the instrument of some good to my country. But I soon perceived how little a mere virtuous inclination, unassisted by talents, could contribute towards that great end; and a very short examination discovered to me, that those talents were not fallen to my lot ... I never possessed that gift of speech, the first requisite of an orator, which use and labour may improve, but which nature can alone bestow. That my temper, quiet, retired, somewhat reserved, could neither acquire popularity, bear up against opposition, nor mix with ease in the crowds of public life. That even my genius ... is better qualified for the deliberate compositions of the closet than for the extemporary discourses of the Parliament. An unexpected objection would disconcert me; and as I am incapable of explaining to others what I do not thoroughly understand myself, I should be meditating while I ought to be answering. I even want necessary prejudices of party and of nation.
He did not yet realize that the ‘gift of speech’ or ‘prejudices of party’ were needed only by those who aimed at the front bench, and life in Parliament was not necessarily uncongenial to a reserved and scholarly nature. But Gibbon had set his heart on going to Italy, ‘a country which every scholar must long to see’, and resented the diversion of energy or money to any other purpose.
Yet his father set him up as candidate at the general election. On 20 Mar. 1761, the day Parliament was dissolved, Gibbon, at Dover with the militia, was summoned to Buriton. Next day, with a letter from Sir Thomas Worsley of Appuldercombe, Isle of Wight, he waited on Lord Fitzmaurice, a friend of Bute and Henry Fox. Here is the entry in Gibbon’s journal for 22 Mar.:2
Some freeholders of Petersfield had persuaded my father to stand against Jolliffe’s interest upon the supposition he could not transfer any of his votes, having settled them upon his wife. My father declined in my favour. I had never any opinion of the affair, and was only comforted by the reflexion that it cost hardly anything. One Barnard of Alresford made me lose the election or rather gave me an opportunity of giving it up with honour.
And on 1 Apr.:3 ‘The election came on. I in a set speech thanked my friends, abused Barnard, and declined a poll.’
On 8 July Shelburne (as Fitzmaurice had now become) sent Bute a copy of Gibbon’s first book, the Essai sur l’Etude de la Littérature, published the previous day. Shelburne wrote in a covering letter:4
He has ... been an enthusiast in the militia, and my acquaintance with him was on account of his election at Petersfield, where he failed, which prevented my mentioning him to you. He since comes to me to give me this book written in French, and to desire me to present another copy to your Lordship, which he is very anxious should be understood by you as a mark of respect for your public character, and not an interested one—having nothing to ask.
In January 1763 Gibbon set out again for the continent, intending to spend a year at Lausanne before making the tour of Italy. He was apprehensive lest financial difficulties might curtail or prevent the tour, and received with ‘much uneasiness’ his father’s suggestion to mortgage Buriton.
The advantages for me would be [he wrote to his father from Lausanne on 10 Sept. 1763] your being able to bring me into Parliament, increasing my annuity, and enabling me to continue my travels. Give me leave to say, dear sir, that the first has very little weight with me. I find my ambition diminish every day, and my preference of a quiet studious life to hurry and business grow upon me. Besides ... if I was in, what could I do? Whether I consulted principle or prudence, everything seems so unsettled that I might find myself very soon at the tail of an opposition; (and as a total change seems to be the modern maxim of every new ministry) in case I had got anything I should be reduced to my former situation, with the added mortification of having just tasted a little more power and plenty.
Italy, not Parliament, was his ‘great object’. ‘When I am just in view of Italy’, he wrote, ‘to be obliged to give up a scheme which has been always a favourite, would afflict me to the greatest degree.’
1763 to 1765 were formative years in Gibbon’s life: at Lausanne in August 1763 he met John Baker Holroyd and began a friendship that lasted till death; and at Rome on 15 Oct. 1764 he ‘conceived the first thought’ of the Decline and Fall. His enjoyment of his Italian tour however was marred by the need to practise parsimony and he had to abandon his plan of a tour through southern France. He spent the next five years between Buriton and London, but after his father’s death in 1770 made London his home. Here he found ‘that unity of study and society’ which best suited his temperament; began the Decline and Fall; and turned his thoughts towards entering Parliament. His friends and neighbours were in the House of Commons; his letters touched more and more on political affairs; and he began to sense and relish the atmosphere of the House. He felt towards it as he had towards the Italian tour ten years earlier.
He had no electoral interest or political connexion, and could not afford to buy a seat. But Edward Eliot, husband of his cousin Catherine, had six seats at his disposal. It seems that it was Eliot who suggested sending Gibbon to Lausanne in 1753; his sons were Gibbon’s nearest male relatives; yet Gibbon had no strong liking for him. In the spring of 1773 Gibbon meditated a visit to Port Eliot with his stepmother. He wrote to her on 25 Mar.:
With regard to the Cornish journey ... as we are often tempted to sacrifice propriety to inclination, I am afraid that I should have deferred it another summer in favour of Derbyshire. Your company has fixed me ... I fancy my stay at Port Eliot will hardly be so long as yours.
On 5 May he wrote: ‘I have seen the Eliots several times, and think he and I take to each other very well this year.’ And again on 31 July: ‘The Eliots testify a strong inclination to see us in Cornwall, a passionate one indeed. I hope we shall like one another.’
The visit was deferred until the autumn, and on 10 Sept. Gibbon wrote to Holroyd from Port Eliot: ‘In general our time rolls away in an equal kind of insipidity’; Eliot possessed neither hounds, horses, nor a good library.
One possession he has indeed most truly desirable [Gibbon continued] but I much fear that the Danae of St. Germans has no particular inclination for me, and that the interested strumpet will yield only to a golden shower.
During the next twelve months Gibbon hardly refers to Eliot in his correspondence, but in August 1774 Eliot asked Gibbon to become executor to his will and guardian to his children and then—
Yesterday morning, about half an hour after seven [Gibbon wrote to Holroyd on 10 Sept.] as I was destroying an army of barbarians, I heard a double rap at the door, and my Cornish friend was soon introduced. After some idle conversation he told me, that if I was desirous of being in Parliament, he had an independent seat very much at my service. You may suppose my answer, but my satisfaction was a little damped when he added that the expense of the election would amount to about £2,400, and that he thought it reasonable that we should share it between us. I paused, and recovering myself, hinted something of parental extravagance, and filial narrowness of circumstances and want of ready money, and that I must beg a short delay to consider whether I could with prudence accept of his intended favour, on which I set the highest value. His answer was obliging, that he should be very much mortified if a few hundred pounds should prevent it, and that he had been afraid to offend me by offering it on less equal terms. His behaviour gave me courage to propose an expedient, which was instantly accepted with cordiality and eagerness, that when his second son John (who is now thirteen) came of age I would restore to him my proportion of the money.
‘This is a fine prospect opening upon me’ he concluded, ‘and if next spring I should take my seat and publish my book, it will be a very memorable era in my life.’ He recognized that Eliot had acted ‘in the most liberal manner’: indeed Gibbon was fortunate to secure a safe and independent seat for only £1,200 and that on deferred payment.
Gibbon attended the eve of the session meeting as a Government supporter; on 5 Dec. he voted for the first time—with Government on the amendment to the Address, but ‘resisted the premature temptation to speak’. He took pains to become acquainted with American affairs. On 31 Jan. 1775 he wrote to Holroyd:
I think I have sucked Mauduit [agent for Massachusetts Bay] and Hutchinson [late governor] very dry; and if my confidence was equal to my eloquence, and my eloquence to my knowledge, perhaps I might make no very intolerable speaker. At all events, I fancy I shall try to expose myself ... I am more and more convinced that we have both the right and the power on our side, and that, though the effort may be accompanied with some melancholy circumstances, we are now arrived at the decisive moment of persevering or of losing forever both our trade and Empire.
And on 8 Feb.: ‘I am more and more convinced that with firmness all may go well; yet I sometimes doubt Lord North.’ Though he supported Government on America, he voted against them on 22 Feb. 1775 when Wilkes moved to rescind the decision on the Middlesex election. Walpole described him in 1776 as ‘whimsical ... because he votes variously as his opinion leads him’.5 And here is his character as given in the Public Ledger in 1779:
A most ingenious and learned gentleman. He follows the dictates of his own opinion, voting sometimes with Government, and sometimes against, and lives in good friendship with all parties.
But in the House he remained ‘a mute’. ‘It is more tremendous than I imagined’, he wrote to Holroyd on 15 Feb. 1775, ‘the great speakers fill me with despair, the bad ones with terror.’ He felt he had come into Parliament too late in life to exert ‘the talents of an orator’. Still the House of Commons, he wrote to his step-mother on 30 Mar. 1775,
is, upon the whole, an agreeable improvement in my life, and forms just the mixture of business, of study, and of society, which I always imagined I should, and now I find I do, like.
It was ‘a very agreeable coffee house’.
He had no doubt of the justice of the British case, yet did not imagine the war would be quickly or easily won, and was frequently critical of its conduct. On 16 Dec. 1777, on the news of Burgoyne’s surrender at Saratoga, he wrote:
What will be the resolutions of our governors I know not, but I shall scarcely give my consent to exhaust still further the finest country in the world in the prosecution of a war from whence no reasonable man entertains any hopes of success. It is better to be humbled than ruined.
On 27 Jan. and 2 Feb. 1778 he voted with Opposition on motions directed against the conduct of the war, and on 28 Feb. wrote to Holroyd about North’s conciliatory proposals:
You are mistaken in supposing that the bills are opposed ... in the only division I voted with Government. Yet I still repeat that in my opinion, Lord North does not deserve pardon for the past, applause for the present, or confidence for the future.
The entry of France into the war and the failure of the conciliatory mission convinced Gibbon that the only course was to support Government. He had no confidence in the Opposition; he silenced his doubts about the vigour and ability of ministers; and henceforth voted regularly with the court.
About this time his financial affairs were causing him considerable uneasiness. Negotiations for the sale of Lenborough, in progress for some years, broke down; he was forced to sell his shares in the New River Company; Buriton was causing him expense; moreover he had to provide for his stepmother.
My desires have always been moderate [he wrote to her on 7 Jan. 1779] and my domestic economy has been conducted with tolerable prudence. Yet my income has never been quite adequate to my expenses, and those expenses, unless I retired from Parliament, from London, and from England, it would be impossible for me to retrench. When I look back I cannot find much to censure or regret in my own conduct, but when I look forwards I am sometimes alarmed and perplexed.
But he had a good friend and patron in Alexander Wedderburn, attorney-general, and by his interest hoped soon to achieve ‘an honourable and advantageous post either at home or abroad’. This, he wrote on 21 Mar., ‘would remove every difficulty and supply every want’. On 20 June the King consented to the appointment of ‘the attorney-general’s friend’ to the Board of Trade, although, he wrote to North, it ‘will I fear, and not without reason, greatly offend the clergy’.6
Next he had to sound Eliot, now in opposition, about his re-election.
My answer [to Wedderburn’s offer] was sincere and explicit [he wrote on 20 June 1779]. I told him that I was far from approving all the past measures of Administration, even some of those in which I myself had silently concurred; that I saw with the rest of the world many essential defects in the character of ministers, and was sorry that in so alarming a crisis the country had not the assistance of several able and honest men who are now in opposition. But ... that I did not discover among them such a superiority either of measures or abilities as could make it a duty for me to attach myself to their cause; and that ... opposition could not tend to any good purpose and might be productive of much serious mischief. That in this view of public affairs I saw no reason which ought to prevent me from accepting office ... But that he must be sensible that it was impossible for me to give a decisive answer till I had consulted the person to whose generous friendship I was indebted for my seat in Parliament ... That from my knowledge of your dislike to the present system it was not in my power to determine whether you might not feel some reluctance to replace me in a situation, in which I could never oppose and must generally support the measures of Government. But the experience of your friendship inspired me however with a lively hope that you would not refuse on this interesting occasion to renew and confirm the obligation you had already conferred upon me.
Your answer will decide whether I may continue to live in England or whether I must speedily withdraw myself into a kind of philosophical exile in Switzerland ... The addition of the salary which is now offered will make my situation perfectly easy; but I hope you will do me the justice to believe that my mind would not be so, unless I were sincerely persuaded that I could accept the offer with honour and integrity.
Eliot agreed to re-elect Gibbon, although it was ‘highly unpleasant to him’.
Gibbon was conscientious in his attendance at the Board; his duties did not unduly interfere with his work on the Decline and Fall, although the post was no sinecure; and it gave him an insight into the workings of the Government machine. In July 1779, at the request of Weymouth and Thurlow, he wrote the Mémoire Justificatif against the conduct of France and Spain. ‘Though I will never make myself the champion of a party’, he told his step-mother on 10 Dec. 1779, ‘I thought there was no disgrace in becoming the advocate of my country against a foreign enemy.’
He was now at work on the second and third volumes of the Decline and Fall, and frankly admitted that if it were not for his place he would retire ‘without regret’ from Parliament—‘that scene of noise, heat and contention’. But what would happen at the dissolution, now expected?
I am totally ignorant of the designs of the electors of Liskeard [he wrote on 15 May 1780]. My great constituent grows warmer in patriotism, but he still expresses the same regard for me, and though I have no motives for confidence, I have not any reasons for fear. He is perfectly silent on the subject, and I am prepared for the worst.
He had taken few pains to cultivate Eliot: in spite of invitations to visit Cornwall he had not done so since 1773. On 11 Aug. 1780 he wrote to Eliot about the approaching election:
Unless I obtain a seat in the next Parliament, I cannot flatter myself with a hope of remaining at the Board of Trade; such is the unpleasant state of my private affairs, that I must resign with my office all prospect of living in England, and the discontinuance of your favours will therefore be a sentence of banishment from my native country.
Various circumstances of public and private distress have hitherto prevented me from disposing of my Buckinghamshire estate, from whence I may expect to derive a considerable supply, and I shall find myself under the necessity of soliciting your indulgence till I can discharge what I shall always esteem a very small part of my obligations.
What he did not tell Eliot was that on 1 June, less than six weeks earlier, he had sold the copyright of the second and third volumes of the Decline and Fall for £4,000.7
Neither was Eliot frank with Gibbon: he did not disclose that he had placed the available seats in his boroughs at the disposal of Opposition. His reply, dated 24 Aug. 1780,8 was long, rambling, and shuffling: he was plainly concerned and embarrassed. More than half the letter sought to demonstrate that Administration would find Gibbon a seat in Parliament anyway. And here is the reason he gave for not returning Gibbon:
The most zealous friends I have in Liskeard declare decidedly against choosing you again, so that if I were ever so desirous of prevailing on them it is out of my power.
‘Mr. Eliot’, wrote Gibbon in retrospect in his Autobiography, ‘was now deeply engaged in the measures of Opposition, and the electors of Liskeard are commonly of the same opinion as Mr. Eliot.’ And in his reply of 8 Sept. 1780, a masterpiece of irrefutable argument delicately phrased, he wrote that he would not ‘presume to arraign the consistency of the electors of Liskeard, whom you so gravely introduce’.
He offered a dignified defence of his parliamentary conduct:
I may fairly rest my apology on the truth of one single assertion, that I have never renounced any principle, deserted any connexion, or violated any promise. I have uniformly asserted ... the justice of the American war. I have constantly supported in Parliament the general measures of Government, except at one particular crisis while it was doubtful ... whether they would offer terms to the rebels. I agreed with you in a speculative opinion, almost equally rejected by both parties, that after the substance of power was lost, the name of independence might be granted to the Americans. I have often and severely censured the faults of Administration, but I have always condemned the system of opposition: and your judgment will allow that in public life every man is reduced to the necessity of choosing the side which upon the whole appears to him the least reprehensible.
He concluded, as Eliot had done, with an avowal that political differences should not mar private friendships.
Eliot’s ‘civil ambiguous silence’ had prevented him from applying to Administration for a seat; now he hastened to do so. Loughborough (as Wedderburn had now become) wrote to him on 4 Sept.: ‘It would be bad policy in Administration to suffer ... you ... to wait long for a seat because it behoves a Government to show that no protection was so powerful as theirs.’ Eden too encouraged him to apply to ‘the powers above’. Gibbon told North that he could bear but a small part of the expense, and asked for ‘an almost gratuitous seat’. He was returned on the Burrard interest at Lymington on 25 June 1781. His seat cost the Government £3,000, towards which Gibbon made an immediate contribution of £800—presumably the rest was paid later.9
The second and third volumes of the Decline and Fall had been published in March 1781, and Gibbon now decided to continue his work to the fall of the Eastern Empire. He had lost his taste for Parliament and was concerned only for the safety of his place. He supported North’s Administration to the end, and in May 1782 was dismissed from the Board of Trade. ‘I am heartily tired of the scene’, he wrote on 4 May.
He could expect nothing from Rockingham or his successor.
If Lord Shelburne should be the man [he wrote on 3 July 1782] as I think he will, the friends of his predecessor will quarrel with him before Christmas. At all events, I foresee much tumult and strong opposition, from which I should be very glad to extricate myself, by quitting the House of Commons with honour and without loss.
He watched with detachment and almost indifference the game that followed: yet ‘from honour, gratitude, and principle’ attached himself to North, and on 18 Feb. 1783 voted against Shelburne’s peace preliminaries.
North’s return to office with the Coalition seemed to be favourable to his prospects.
Notwithstanding their apparent neglect [he wrote on 5 May 1783], I have reason to think them well inclined to me, and have even received some assurances, but as everything that depends on ministers is precarious and uncertain, I would not raise too much either your hopes or my own.
He had resumed work on the Decline and Fall and now wished to retire to Lausanne to complete it. On 20 May he informed his friend Deyverdun of his plan. But Lord Sheffield (as John Baker Holroyd had become) and his English friends urged him to try to obtain a place, and he agreed to make the effort. He told Deyverdun that success was uncertain, and he did not know if he wanted it.
In truth, his heart was set on Lausanne and completing his history, and on 10 July he wrote to Sheffield:
The source of pensions is absolutely stopped, and a double list of candidates is impatient and clamorous for half the number of desirable places. A seat at the board of customs or excise was certainly the most practicable attempt, but how far are we advanced in the pursuit? ... Have we received any promise of the first vacancy? How often is the execution of such a promise delayed to a second or third opportunity? When will those vacancies happen? Incumbents are sometimes very tough ...
But I will take a more favourable supposition, and conceive myself, in six months, firmly seated at the board of customs; before the end of the next six months, I should infallibly hang myself. Instead of regretting my disappointment, I rejoice in my escape; as I am satisfied that no salary could pay me for the irksomeness of attendance, and the drudgery of business so repugnant to my taste, (and I will dare to say) so unworthy of my character.
It was his ‘IRREVOCABLE resolution’ to be in Lausanne by the beginning of October. Sheffield and Loughborough, while regretting his departure, agreed he could do no other.
On 27 Aug., almost on the eve of Gibbon’s departure, George Maddison, secretary of the embassy at Paris, died. John Craufurd, intimate with Fox, solicited the post on Gibbon’s behalf, but Gibbon probably neither expected nor desired success. There is in his papers a list written in double columns, of reasons ‘for and against accepting’.10 The first three reasons ‘for’ were: ‘The credit of being distinguished and stopped by Government, when I was leaving England’; ‘The salary of £1,200 a year’; ‘The society of Paris’. Against these he put the disappointment of Deyverdun who was expecting him, his inexperience in diplomacy, the lack of permanency, and (number four) ‘Giving up the leisure and liberty for prosecuting my history’. On 4 Sept. Portland sent to the Duke of Manchester, ambassador at Paris, a list of candidates,11 and invited his comments. Fox was no friend to Gibbon, and could not have been displeased to learn that Gibbon was persona non grata with the French court.
One person only (Mr. Gibbon) [wrote Manchester to Fox on 11 Sept. 178312] has, I am told, rendered himself obnoxious here by an expression in his book, in which he talks of the French sceptre slumbering in the hands of Arcadius or Honorius.13 The King formally took notice of the expression.
Gibbon left England on 17 Sept., before Storer’s appointment was decided.
He entrusted Sheffield with the disposal of his seat in Parliament and the sale of Lenborough. Negotiations were opened in respect of his seat, which Gibbon hoped would bring him a thousand guineas. But Sir Harry Burrard proved difficult, and when the Coalition was dismissed Gibbon, not expecting Parliament to be dissolved or Pitt’s Administration to last, yet anxious to be rid of his seat, lowered his price by half. On 2 Feb. he gave Sheffield carte blanche to obtain the best price he could. He had now come round to a different view of Pitt’s prospects.
Fox drives most furiously [he wrote] yet I should not be surprised if Pitt’s moderation and character should insensibly win the nation, and even the House, to espouse his cause.
By the end of April he had little hope of getting anything for the seat. ‘Can nothing, nothing be done’, he wrote, ‘in any way by direct or indirect, by humble or strenuous measures?’ He did not know that Parliament had been dissolved on 25 Mar.
‘The eight sessions that I sat in Parliament’, wrote Gibbon in his Autobiography, ‘were a school of civil prudence, the first and most essential duty of a historian.’ War, the intrigues of parties, and the government of nations are the staple themes around which Gibbon wove the rich fabric of the Decline and Fall; and he had been militia officer, Member of Parliament, and lord of Trade. ‘The deliberate compositions of the closet’ were enriched by experience of ‘the extemporary discourses of the Parliament’.
Gibbon died 16 Jan. 1794. He left the bulk of his fortune (over £20,000) to cousins on his mother’s side, Charlotte and Stanier Porten. Lady Eliot, he wrote, ‘is my nearest relation on the father’s side: but her mother was so favourably treated by our common grandfather, and her three sons are in such prosperous circumstances, that I may well be excused for withholding from them a small addition, which they cannot desire and have never solicited.’
Ref Volumes: 1754-1790
Author: John Brooke
- 1. All quotations, unless otherwise stated, are from Letters of Edward Gibbon, ed. J. E. Norton.
- 2. Gibbon’s Jnl. ed. D. M. Low, 23.
- 3. Ibid. 24.
- 4. Bute mss.
- 5. Walpole to Mason, 18 Feb. 1776.
- 6. Fortescue, iv. 364.
- 7. J. E. Norton, Bibliog. Gibbon, 45.
- 8. Add. 34886, ff. 111-12.
- 9. I. R. Christie, End of North’s Ministry, 100.
- 10. Add. 34882, f. 256.
- 11. HMC 8th Rep. pt. 2, p. 131.
- 12. Corresp. C. J. Fox, ii. 157-8.
- 13. In ‘General Observations on the fall of the Roman Empire in the west’, following ch. 38 of the Decline and Fall.