CHALMERS, GEORGE (1742–1825), Scottish antiquarian and political writer, was born at Fochabers, a village in the county of Moray, in 1742. His father, James Chalmers, was a grandson of George Chalmers of Pittensear, a small estate in the parish of Lhanbryde, now St Andrews-Lhanbryde, in the same county, possessed by the main line of the family from about the beginning of the 17th to the middle of the 18th century. After completing the usual course at King’s College, Aberdeen, young Chalmers studied law in Edinburgh for several years. Two uncles on the father’s side having settled in America, he visited Maryland in 1763, with the view, it is said, of assisting to recover a tract of land of some extent about which a dispute had arisen, and was in this way induced to commence practice as a lawyer at Baltimore, where for a time he met with much success. Having, however, espoused the cause of the Royalist party on the breaking out of the American War of Independence, he found it expedient to abandon his professional prospects in the New World, and return to his native country. For the losses he had sustained as a colonist he received no compensation, and several years elapsed before he obtained an appointment that placed him in a state of comfort and independence.
In the meantime Chalmers applied himself with great diligence and assiduity to the investigation of the history and establishment of the English colonies in North America; and enjoying free access to the state papers and other documents preserved among what were then termed the plantation records, he became possessed of much important information. His work entitled Political Annals of the present United Colonies from their Settlement to the Peace of 1763, 4to, London, 1780, was to have formed two volumes; but the second, which should have contained the period between 1688 and 1763, never appeared. The first volume, however, is complete in itself, and traces the original settlement of the different American colonies, and the progressive changes in their constitutions and forms of government as affected by the state of public affairs in the parent kingdom. Independently of its value as being compiled from original documents, it bears evidence of great research, and has been of essential benefit to later writers. Continuing his researches, he next gave to the world An Estimate of the Comparative Strength of Britain during the Present and Four Preceding Reigns, London, 1782, which passed through several editions. At length, in August 1786, Chalmers, whose sufferings as a Royalist must have strongly recommended him to the government of the day, was appointed chief clerk to the committee of privy council on matters relating to trade, a situation which he retained till his death in 1825, a period of nearly forty years. As his official duties made no great demands on his time, he had abundant leisure to devote to his favourite studies,—the antiquities and topography of Scotland having thenceforth special attractions for his busy pen.
Besides biographical sketches of Defoe, Sir John Davies, Allan Ramsay, Sir David Lyndsay, Churchyard and others, prefixed to editions of their respective works, Chalmers wrote a life of Thomas Paine, the author of the Rights of Man, which he published under the assumed name of Francis Oldys, A.M., of the University of Pennsylvania; and a life of Ruddiman, in which considerable light is thrown on the state of literature in Scotland during the earlier part of the last century. His life of Mary, Queen of Scots, in two 4to vols., was first published in 1818. It is founded on a MS. left by John Whitaker, the historian of Manchester; but Chalmers informs us that he found it necessary to rewrite the whole. The history of that ill-fated queen occupied much of his attention, and his last work, A Detection of the Love-Letters lately attributed in Hugh Campbell’s work to Mary Queen of Scots, is an exposure of an attempt to represent as genuine some fictitious letters said to have passed between Mary and Bothwell which had fallen into deserved oblivion. In 1797 appeared his Apology for the Believers in the Shakespeare Papers which were exhibited in Norfolk Street, followed by other tracts on the same subject. These contributions to the literature of Shakespeare are full of curious matter, but on the whole display a great waste of erudition, in seeking to show that papers which had been proved forgeries might nevertheless have been genuine. Chalmers also took part in the Junius controversy, and in The Author of Junius Ascertained, from a Concatenation of Circumstances amounting to Moral Demonstration, Lond. 1817, 8vo, sought to fix the authorship of the celebrated letters on Hugh Boyd. In 1824 he published The Poetical Remains of some of the Scottish Kings, now first collected; and in the same year he edited and presented as a contribution to the Bannatyne Club Robene and Makyne and the Testament of Cresseid, by Robert Henryson. His political writings are equally numerous. Among them may be mentioned Collection of Treaties between Great Britain and other Powers, Lond. 1790, 2 vols. 8vo; Vindication of the Privileges of the People in respect to the Constitutional Right of Free Discussion, &c., Lond. 1796, 8vo, published anonymously; A Chronological Account of Commerce and Coinage in Great Britain from the Restoration till 1810, Lond. 1810, 8vo; Opinions of Eminent Lawyers on various points of English Jurisprudence, chiefly concerning the Colonies, Fisheries, and Commerce of Great Britain, Lond. 1814, 2 vols. 8vo; Comparative Views of the State of Great Britain before and since the War, Lond. 1817, 8vo.
But Chalmers’s greatest work is his Caledonia, which, however, he did not live to complete. The first volume appeared in 1807, and is introductory to the others. It is divided into four books, treating successively of the Roman, the Pictish, the Scottish and the Scoto-Saxon periods, from 80 to 1306 A.D. In these we are presented, in a condensed form, with an account of the people, the language and the civil and ecclesiastical history, as well as the agricultural and commercial state of Scotland during the first thirteen centuries of our era. Unfortunately the chapters on the Roman period are entirely marred by the author’s having accepted as genuine Bertram’s forgery De Situ Britanniae; but otherwise his opinions on controverted topics are worthy of much respect, being founded on a laborious investigation of all the original authorities that were accessible to him. The second volume, published in 1810, gives an account of the seven south-eastern counties of Scotland—Roxburgh, Berwick, Haddington, Edinburgh, Linlithgow, Peebles and Selkirk—each of them being treated of as regards name, situation and extent, natural objects, antiquities, establishment as shires, civil history, agriculture, manufactures and trade, and ecclesiastical history. In 1824, after an interval of fourteen years, the third volume appeared, giving, under the same headings, a description of the seven south-western counties—Dumfries, Kirkcudbright, Wigtown, Ayr, Lanark, Renfrew and Dumbarton. In the preface to this volume the author states that the materials for the history of the central and northern counties were collected, and that he expected the work would be completed in two years, but this expectation was not destined to be realized. He had also been engaged on a history of Scottish poetry and a history of printing in Scotland. Each of them he thought likely to extend to two large quarto volumes, and on both he expended an unusual amount of enthusiasm and energy. He had also prepared for the press an elaborate history of the life and reign of David I. In his later researches he was assisted by his nephew James, son of Alexander Chalmers, writer in Elgin.
George Chalmers died in London on the 31st of May 1825. His valuable and extensive library he bequeathed to his nephew, at whose death in 1841 it was sold and dispersed. Chalmers was a member of the Royal and Antiquarian Societies of London, an honorary member of the Antiquarian Society of Scotland, and a member of other learned societies. In private life he was undoubtedly an amiable man, although the dogmatic tone that disfigures portions of his writings procured him many opponents. Among his avowed antagonists in literary warfare the most distinguished were Malone and Steevens, the Shakespeare editors; Mathias, the author of the Pursuits of Literature; Dr Jamieson, the Scottish lexicographer; Pinkerton, the historian; Dr Irving, the biographer of the Scottish poets; and Dr Currie of Liverpool, But with all his failings in judgment Chalmers was a valuable writer. He uniformly had recourse to original sources of information; and he is entitled to great praise for his patriotic and self-sacrificing endeavours to illustrate the history, literature and antiquities of his native country. (J. M‘D.)