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Sir James Mackintosh 1765

This section is from the "The Boyhood of Great Men" book, by John G. Edgar.
The entrance upon boyhood of Sir James Mackintosh was not made under circumstances favourable to the acquirement of the enormous amount of historical learning by which he was distinguished; nor was he in infancy associated with persons likely to lead his thoughts and inclinations to study and speculation. On the contrary, his earliest years were passed in a remote part of the country—in glens and fastnesses —into which the frowning body of the Highland army had been accustomed to retire for safety after defeat,—and he had not even the benefit of a father's care; for his, who was twenty-four years in the army, and served in Germany during the Seven Years' War, was always absent, and, indeed, had too little respect for learning or the learned to have afforded any particular assistance or encouragement to the pursuits of the boy, whose knowledge soon became the admiration of his native district.

He was born at Aldourie, on the banks of Loch Ness, near Inverness, on the 24th of October, 1765. His father, Captain Mackintosh, was the representative of a family that had for two centuries possessed a small Highland estate. Soon after the historian's birth, the Captain joined his regiment at Antigua, and continued with it for eight or nine years; so that his son was reared with great care and tenderness by his mother, who resided at a small house named Clune, with his grandmother, a woman of extraordinary mental powers and cultivated understanding, though bearing the hard-sounding name of Mac-gillivray.

This place, with its wide and spreading lake, surrounded with wooded rock, was not unworthy of being the scene of so great a man's childhood; and it made impressions on his memory which were never effaced. The romantic path leading to the cottage, the clear streamlet by which he walked, and the turf seat on which he rested, were, he wrote forty years after, when under an Indian sky, more frequently and fondly present to his fancy than any other scenes in nature. Besides, his mother regarded him with more than the ordinary fondness of a parent; and, being an only child in a household of several women, they rivalled each other in their displays of kindness and attention to his comfort. In this way the first ten years of his life passed without any occurrence of consequence.

In the summer of 1775 he was sent to a school at the small town of Fortrose, the master of which was a man of some ability. One of the ushers, who was boarded in the same house with Mackintosh, was suspected of holding certain opinions, which the pious and orthodox mistress of the house considered heretical. The unfortunate usher was soon shipped off to die of yellow fever in Jamaica; but the disputes to which his heresy had led produced in Mackintosh a spirit of inquiry, which directed his mind to many subjects that occupied it during life. | This was very much kept alive by his visits to an ancient gentleman, Mr. Mackenzie of Suddie, whose favourite study of genealogy, a love of which he communicated to his young friend, had induced him gradually to interest himself in history and theology This old Highlander's studies had led him to take a particular interest in the events of the seventeenth century, in which his ancestors had played a part; and Mackintosh's attention was thus directed to the history of a period which, at the time of his death, he was engaged in illustrating. He likewise read books on theology, and forthwith began to argue on the subject with great boldness. He perused, with eagerness and delight, "Plutarch's Lives," and Echard's "Roman History;" and was led by the latter into a habit of castle-building in the air, from which he never wholly freed himself. At first he used to indulge in the pleasing day-dream that he was Emperor of Constantinople; and, as such, distributed the different offices of state among his schoolfellows, loading his favourites with rewards and honours, and letting those whom he disliked feel the weight of his imperial wrath. In solitude, he used to carry on a series of imaginary political events, resuming and continuing them from day to day, and, no doubt, himself enacting a conspicuous part in all. Indeed, from his thirteenth year he took a remarkable interest in, and exhibited a singular love of, politics. Mr. Fox and Lord North were, at that time, making against each other their memorable speeches on the American War. Mackintosh's imagination was quite captivated by the report of them; and, adopting the cry of liberty, he, notwithstanding his Jacobite origin, became a supporter of that party of which he was in after years so distinguished an ornament, both as orator and historian. Having thus chosen his side, he prevailed upon the more advanced and intelligent of his companions to devote the hours allotted to play to more serious matters, and to join him in a debate on the political events of the day, of which they obtained information from the columns of a provincial newspaper. This assembly they called the House of Commons; and the master's desk from which they harangued, the tribune. Mackintosh was ever the foremost and keenest in debate. One day he would appear as Burke, another as Fox, or some other leading member of the opposition; and when no one ventured to reply to him, he would, for the sake of argument, change sides; personate Lord North, and endeavour to combat what he considered the strongest parts of his own speech. At this period, a boy of his own age, named Mackenzie, who afterwards, as a major-general, fell bravely at Talavera, was his sworn friend and comrade. They often rehearsed, while wandering in the fields, what they were to deliver in the mimic senate; and, as they completely differed on politics, were generally antagonists. But Mackenzie, though a dexterous and clever boy, had no chance with the scion of Clanchattan in the battle of debate. Indeed, the oratorical exhibitions of the latter were marvellous under the circumstances, and his arguments sufficiently powerful to have done credit to many double his age. He particularly excelled when, in the character of Fox, he directed his eloquence against some measure of the prime minister. His voice, though weak, was musical; and his efforts seem to have much surprised and delighted any grown-up person who had the curiosity to go and listen to them.

He always went, during the vacation times, to his grandmother's house, where he found volumes enough to monopolise his attention. His father complained that he would become "a mere pedant," and sneered at his partiality for books; but Mackintosh's love for reading withstood all sneers, and he was constantly devouring the pages of some author. He frequently carried his dinner with him, and remained reading all day in one of those quiet, retired glens, from which the chief of his clan had, in other days, drawn faithful and formidable bands of followers. There, seated in a sequestered nook, he fed his mind with the writings of Pope or Swift. Pope's "Pastorals" was the first verse he read; and, as early as 1777, he attempted a pastoral of his own, on the death of an uncle who fell in battle. In 1779, and the following year, his poetic muse was exceedingly prolific; its highest emanation being an epic poem, "On the Defence of Cyprus," of which he had read in Rollin's "Ancient History;" a book that no doubt occupied much of his attention, and conveyed much instruction to his mind. He also signalised his poetic prowess by versifying a satirical representation of some of the village notables, which had been written in prose by a young lady who had formerly treated him with much kindness, and whose firm friend and ally he continued throughout the little war to which the composition gave rise. During the vacation one year, he put the friendship of the society of Fort-rose to the proof, by writing a letter in a hand like his uncle's announcing his death, from wounds re-ceived in falling down a rock, while gathering hazelnuts.

The news of his supposed untimely fate excited as much mourning and as many tears as he could reasonably have desired, and he was, on the whole, rather gratified than otherwise with the result of his perilous experiment on the sincerity of his friends and acquaintances. In 1779 he had to part from his good and affectionate mother, who went to England to join her husband, then in camp near Plymouth. Ere long she died at Gibraltar, where, thirty years after, he, with filial regard, and grateful affection, erected a monument to her memory.

Death had already deprived him of his old schoolmaster, who was succeeded in his important functions by the usher. This man, unlike his predecessor, was extremely good-natured and indulgent, and allowed Mackintosh to do what he thought fit He trusted him to teach some of the younger hoys, and permitted him to come and go, read and lounge, just as he pleased. It was then that a learned professor of Aberdeen, being on a visit to the neighbourhood, met one morning, near Fortrose, a little boy, whose appearance and conversation very much interested and astonished him. On mentioning the circumstance, and the name of his newly-made acquaintance, to the gentleman at whose house he was staying, his host said, "Everybody knows that boy - that Jamie Mackintosh;" for by this familiar name the future historian was already widely known as a prodigy of learning. All his feelings, and the manner in which he expressed them, were considered remarkable; and an aged lady near his grandmother's described him as "a spontaneous child." He spent some part of his vacations with an old, and somewhat eccentric, uncle, who, from fear of being burned in his house, only allowed a small bit of candle for his guest to go to bed with; but Mackintosh managed, by bribing the housekeeper, to obtain a whole one, wherewith to indulge in solitary study during the long and silent night.

In 1780 he went to college at Aberdeen, where, having brought with him a collection of his verses, he was soon known as "the poet,"—an appellation which he seems to have been anxious afterwards to shake off. That winter he commenced the study of such books as Warburton's "Divine Legation," which, he says, were very much out of the course of boys anywhere, and especially at Aberdeen. It appears, however, to have afforded him a pleasure of no ordinary kind, and to have had a considerable effect on his mode of thinking.

On arriving in Aberdeen, he had the good fortune to make the acquaintance of the celebrated Robert Hall, whose abilities and conversation exercised a great influence on his mind; and with whom, as they lived in the same house, and were both disputatious, he had perpetual controversies. These led to their forming a little debating society, where Mackintosh and Hall were generally pitted against each other, and far outshone all their contemporaries.
In 1782 he fell violently in love with a young lady, whom he wooed in prose and rhyme till the flame was mutual. For four years this subject continued to form his chief thoughts, but his ardour cooled when, in 1784, he went to Edinburgh to enter upon the study of medicine. In his case, at least, it could not be said that "absence made the heart grow fonder;" but, perhaps, the head grew wiser.

When he had gone through the enjoined course of medical study he obtained his diploma, and repaired to London in the spring of 1788; but the period was one of fierce political excitement; and after contemplating an appointment in Russia, and providing himself with a wife, he resolved to abandon his profession. He began to write for the press, and in 1791 published his "Vindiciae Gallicae" in reply to Mr. Burke's "Reflections on the French Revolution," which at once proved his abilities, and caused his merits to be acknowledged. Having been called to the bar, he, in 1803, made his brilliant speech in defence of M. Peltier, an emigrant royalist of France, who had been indicted for a libel on Napoleon, then First Consul. Mackintosh was immediately afterwards appointed Recorder of Bombay. In the beginning of next year, after being knighted, he sailed for India, where for seven years he ably and faithfully discharged the duties of his office. On returning, he entered the House of Commons. In 1830, having previously made several contributions to the "Edinburgh Review," he produced a popular "History of England" for the "Cabinet Cyclopaedia," for which he had already written a "Life of Sir Thomas More "and the "History of Ethical Philosophy." He was engaged in his great work, the "History of the revolution of 1188," when he breathed his last, somewhat suddenly, on the 30th of May, 1832. In another week he was buried at the parish church of Hampstead. His "History of the English Revolution" was subsequently published, hut, owing to its unflnished state, it is hut an imperfect monument of the genius of its gifted and accomplished author.