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Cunningham, Alexander (1654-1737) (DNB00)

CUNNINGHAM, ALEXANDER (1654–1737), historian, whose identity has often been confused with that of Alexander Cunningham (1655?–1730) [q. v.], was the son of the Rev. Alexander Cunningham, minister of Ettrick, and was, by his own assertion in his will, a relation of General Henry Cunningham, governor of Jamaica, who was a descendant of the Earls of Glencairn. He was educated at Selkirk school and in Holland, and was travelling tutor to James, afterwards Earl of Hyndford, from 1692 to 1695, and by a letter to Carstares in October 1697 appears at that date to have been established as tutor to John, marquis of Lorne, afterwards the great Duke of Argyll and Greenwich, who was then, though only nineteen years of age, colonel of a regiment in the Netherlands. He visited Rome in 1700, after giving up his tutorship to Lord Lorne, and in the following year, probably through the Campbell influence, received an important mission to Paris. He was nominally directed to prepare a trade convention, or sort of commercial treaty, between France and Scotland, but in reality he acted as a spy, and gave William III a full account of the French military preparations. The death of King William lost him his reward at the time, but he continued to be an active agent of the whig party, and visited Hanover with Addison in 1703, where he was graciously received by the Electress Sophia and the future George I of England. He was frequently consulted by the framers of the union between England and Scotland, tried to reconcile Harley and Somers, and was an acquaintance of Sir Isaac Newton; but he seems to have grown weary of political work in a subordinate capacity, and after the overthrow of the whig party in 1710, he returned to his old profession, and in 1711 accompanied Lord Lonsdale to Italy as travelling tutor. The accession of George I brought Cunningham his reward, and he was in 1715 appointed British envoy to Venice, where he remained till 1720, when he retired on a pension. He then returned to London, where he occupied himself in writing his great history in Latin, and where he died in 1737. He was buried in the church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields on 15 May 1737, and by his will, which is quoted in the ‘Scots Magazine’ for October 1804, left a fortune of 12,000l. behind him.

The controversy as to the identity of this Alexander Cunningham with Alexander Cunningham the critic was raised on the publication of his history in 1787, and has given rise to considerable literature. His manuscript history in Latin had come into the possession of the Ven. Thomas Hollingbery, archdeacon of Chichester, a relative of his, who entrusted it to Dr. William Thomson, the author of a continuation of Watson's ‘Histories of Philip III and Philip IV of Spain.’ Thomson published an elaborate translation of it, in two volumes 4to, in 1787 under the title of ‘The History of Great Britain from the Revolution in 1688 to the accession of George I, translated from the Latin manuscript of Alexander Cunningham, Esq., Minister from George I to the Republic of Venice, to which is prefixed an Introduction containing an account of the author and his writings by William Thomson, LL.D.’ The history is very valuable, and is an authority of the first order for many of the events of which it relates, but it is naturally written with a strong whig tendency and a disposition to eulogise the Duke of Argyll, and is further remarkable for the author's evident dislike to Bishop Burnet. Dr. Thomson, in a long and elaborate argument, tried to prove that his author was the same person as Alexander Cunningham the critic; he asserted that it was very unlikely there should have been two Alexander Cunninghams, both tutors to whig Scotch noblemen, both famous chess-players, and both good scholars, as the one's edition of Horace and the other's manuscript history abundantly proved. His view had many opponents and also many warm supporters, including Dr. Parr and David Irving, the author of the ‘Life of Ruddiman,’ and the latter's positiveness, and his declaration that every one who did not believe in the identity of the two Cunninghams was a fool, roused an anonymous critic to examine the wills preserved at Doctors' Commons, and thus in a very simple fashion to demolish Dr. Thomson's ingenious theory. The result of his investigations was published in a letter, signed ‘Crito,’ to the ‘Scots Magazine’ in October 1804, in which he gave the burial entry, and extracts from the will, of Alexander Cunningham the historian, dated 1737, and also proved the death of Alexander Cunningham the critic at the Hague in 1730. Another anonymous writer, who signs himself a ‘Friend to Accuracy,’ and evidently did not know of ‘Crito's’ letter, also demolishes the theory of identity in the ‘Gentleman's Magazine’ for August 1818, where he shows, from an anonymous book ‘On the Present State of Holland’ in 1743, that the critic died in 1730, and from his own independent inquiries he too shows that the historian died in 1737. The whole controversy is a curious one, and does not gain much additional light from Peacock's ‘English-speaking Students who have graduated at Leyden University,’ published by the Index Society in 1883, which contains two entries of the taking of degrees by Alexander Cunningham on 4 Sept. 1724, and by Alexander Cunningham on 25 Sept. 1709; these two Cunninghams may be the critic and historian, but if so, the degrees were probably honorary.

[Scots Mag. October 1804; Gent. Mag. August 1818; Thomson's edition of Cunningham's History; Chambers's Dict. of Eminent Scotsmen.]

H. M. S.