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Edward Freeman in United Kingdom

Life and Work

From the book “Studies in Contemporary Biography”, by James Bryce:

Edward Freeman was born at Harborne in South Staffordshire on 2nd August 1823, and died at Alicante on 16th March 1892, in the course of an archæological and historical journey to the east and south of Spain, whither he had gone to see the sites of the early Carthaginian settlements. His life was comparatively uneventful, as that of learned men in our time usually is. He was educated at home and at a private school till he went to Oxford at the age of eighteen. There he was elected a scholar of Trinity College in 1841, took his degree (second class in literae humaniores) in 1845, and was elected a fellow of Trinity shortly afterwards. Marrying in 1847, he lost his fellowship, and settled in 1848 in Gloucestershire, and at a later time went to live in Monmouthshire, whence he migrated in 1860 to Somerleaze, a pretty spot about a mile and a half to the north-west 263 of Wells in Somerset. Here he lived till 1884, when he was appointed (on the recommendation of Mr. Gladstone) to the Regius Professorship of Modern History at Oxford. (…)

With no great turn for the refinements of classical scholarship, and indeed with some contempt for the practice of Latin and Greek verse-making which used to absorb much of the time and labour of undergraduates and their tutors at Oxford and Cambridge, he was extremely fond of tracing words through different languages so as to establish the relations of the peoples who spoke them, and, indeed, used to argue that all teaching of languages ought to begin with Grimm’s law, and to base his advocacy of the retention of Greek as a sine qua non for an Arts degree in the University on the importance of that law. (…)

n 1859 he was on the point of coming forward as a parliamentary candidate for the borough of Newport in Monmouthshire, and again at the election of 1868 he actually did stand for one of the divisions of Somerset, and showed in his platform speeches a remarkable gift of eloquence, and occasionally, also, of humour, coupled with a want of those minor arts which usually contribute more than eloquence does to success in electioneering. I went round with him, along with his and my friend Mr. Albert Dicey, and few are the candidates who get so much pleasure out of a contest as Freeman did. He was a strenuous advocate of disestablishment in Ireland, the question chiefly at issue in the election of 1868, because he thought the Roman Catholic Church was of right, and ought by law to be, the national Church there; but no less decidedly opposed to disestablishment in England, where it would have pained him to see the uprooting of a system entwined with the ideas and events of the Middle Ages. In his later years he told me that if the Liberal party took up the policy of disestablishment in Wales, he did not know whether he could adhere to them, much as he desired to do so.

Similarly he disliked all schemes for drawing the colonies into closer relations with the United Kingdom, and even seemed to wish that they should sever themselves from it, as the United 274 States had done. This view sprang partly from his feeling that they were very recent acquisitions, with which the old historic England had nothing to do, partly also from the impression made on him by the analogy of the Greek colonies. He held that the precedent of the Greek settlements showed the true and proper relation between a “metropolis,” or mother-city, and her colonies to be one not of political dependence or interdependence, but of cordial friendliness and a disposition to render help, nothing more. These instances are worth citing because they illustrate a remarkable difference between his way of looking historically at institutions and Macaulay’s way. A friend of his (the late Mr. S. R. Gardiner), like Freeman a distinguished historian, and like him a strong Home Ruler, wrote to me upon this point as follows:

“Freeman and Macaulay are alike in the high value they set upon parliamentary institutions. On the other hand, when Macaulay wants to make you understand a thing, he compares it with that which existed in his own day. The standard of the present is always with him. Freeman traces it to its origin, and testifies to its growth. The strength of this mode of proceeding in an historian is obvious. Its weakness is that it does not help him to appreciate statesmanship looking forward and trying to find a solution of difficult problems. Freeman’s attitude is that of the people who cried out for the good laws of King Edward, trying to revive the past.” (…)

His determination to get to the bottom of a question was the cause of the censure he so freely bestowed both on lawyers, who were wont to rest content with their technicalities, and not go back to the historical basis on which those technicalities rested, and on politicians who fell into 280 the habit of using stock phrases which muddled or misrepresented the principles involved. The expression “national property,” as applied to tithes, incensed him, and gave occasion for some of his most vigorous writing. So the commonplace grumblings against the presence of bishops in the House of Lords, which may be heard from people who acquiesce in the presence of hereditary peers, led him to give the most clear and forcible statement of the origin and character of that House which our time has produced. Here he was on ground he knew thoroughly. But his habits of accuracy were not less fully illustrated by his attitude towards branches of history he had not explored.

With a profound and minute knowledge of English history down to the fourteenth century, so far as his aversion to the employment of manuscript authorities would allow, and a scarcely inferior knowledge of foreign European history during the same period, with a less full but very sound knowledge down to the middle of the sixteenth century, and with a thorough mastery of pretty nearly all ancient history, his familiarity with later European history, and with the history of such outlying regions as India or America, was not much beyond that of the average educated man. He used to say when questioned on these matters that “he had not come down to that yet.” But when he had occasion to refer to those periods or countries, he hardly ever made a 281 mistake. If he did not know, he did not refer; if he referred, he had seized, as if by instinct, something which was really important and serviceable for his purpose. The same remark applies (speaking generally) to Gibbon and to Macaulay, and I have heard Freeman make it of the writings of Mr. Goldwin Smith, for whom he had a warm admiration. (…)

Resources

Notes

  1. James Bryce, “Studies in Contemporary Biography” (1903), MacMillan and Co., Limited, New York

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  • Article Name: Edward Freeman
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  • Description: Life and Work From the book Studies in Contemporary Biography, by James Bryce: Edward Freeman was born at Harborne in [...]

This entry was last updated: October 28, 2016



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