Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Alison, Archibald (1792-1867)

ALISON, Sir ARCHIBALD (1792–1867), historian, was born 29 Dec. 1792, at Kenley, Shropshire, in his father's parsonage [see Alison, Archibald, 1757–1839]. On the removal of the family to Edinburgh in 1800, he was placed under a private tutor, till, in November 1805, he was entered at the university of Edinburgh. He was intelligent and hard-working, if not brilliant; and a paper written by him in 1808 in answer to Malthus determined his father to make him a lawyer instead of a banker. He began his legal studies in the winter of 1810. In a debating society called the ‘Select’ he showed liberal leanings, though his staunch toryism already asserted itself in questions connected with the church or foreign policy. On 8 Dec. 1814 he was called to the bar; his father's friends helped him, and in less than three years he was making 500l. or 600l. a year. At the end of 1822 he was appointed advocate depute by Sir W. Rae, the lord advocate, who promised at the same time to recommend him as solicitor-general on the next vacancy. His rising income had enabled him to make some continental tours. In 1814 he had already visited Paris, seen a great review of the allied troops, afterwards described in his history, and an inspection of the old guard at Fontainebleau. He and his brother joined a friend, A. F. Tytler, in writing a book of French travels for Tytler's benefit. In 1816 he visited the Alps; in 1817 he travelled in Ireland; and in 1818, with Captain Basil Hall and two others, went to Italy, saw Byron in Venice, and Canova and Sir Humphry Davy in Rome. In 1821 he visited Switzerland and many of the famous battlefields of the last war in Germany. Alison was an enthusiastic traveller. He made it a principle ‘to see everything,’ and carried out his theory systematically and unflinchingly. He took some interest in art and history, and made observations in Ireland and Flanders to support an intended demolition of Malthus. His professional income had enabled him to pay for four expensive continental tours, and to accumulate a library and a fine collection of prints. The laborious duties of an advocate depute in preparing indictments and prosecuting criminals put a stop to his travels. He ‘worked like a galley-slave.’ On 21 March 1825 he married Elizabeth Glencairn, youngest daughter of Colonel Tytler, niece of Lord Woodhouselee, and a descendant, like himself, of barons mentioned by Ariosto. His marriage, a thoroughly happy one, ‘detached his mind from dangerous excitements,’ and delivered him from the dangers incident to a disposition which led him ‘in a peculiar manner to prize the society of elegant and superior women.’ In November 1830 the defeat of the Duke of Wellington's ministry caused the resignation of all the crown counsel in Scotland. Sir W. Rae had never had an opportunity of fulfilling his promise to recommend Alison to the solicitor-generalship; and the failure of two firms, hitherto his clients, diminished his professional income by 1,000l. a year. He employed his enforced leisure on a work upon Scotch criminal law, the first volume of which was published January 1832, and the second in March 1833. He became also an energetic contributor to Blackwood, foretelling in its pages the many evils impending from democracy and the Reform Bill. He was already working hard at his history, the first two volumes of which appeared in April 1833. In July 1833 he again visited Paris to seek and discover demonstrations of the truth that popular convulsions lead to military despotism. His literary gradually supplanted his legal ambition; and upon the resignation of the Melbourne administration in October 1834, he declined an ofter of Sir W. Rae to nominate him for solicitor-general, and accepted instead the office of sheriff of Lanarkshire, a permanent post of over 1,400l. a year. On 12 Feb. 1835 he left Edinburgh, and settled at Possil House, near Glasgow, which was his residence for the rest of his life. His office was one of considerable labour. As judge of the small-debt and criminal jury courts, he had large and rapidly increasing duties. To carry out his work, he adopted a systematic time-table. From 8 to 9.30 he heard his son's lessons; breakfasted till 10; wrote history till 11.30; walked to Glasgow by 12; was in court till 4.30 or 5; walked home and dined at 6; walked in the garden or read the newspapers till 8; wrote history till 10 or 11; read authorities or authors upon whom to ‘form his style’ till 11.30 or 12, when he went to bed. A nominal vacation of two months was filled with business, and for ten years he was never absent for more than a few days in each year. Besides this, he had the responsibility of preserving the peace of the county, preparing criminal cases, attending official committees, and managing a large official correspondence. The commercial distress of 1837 produced strikes and riots; the organisation of a proper police force had been hindered by difficulties about assessment; and great anxiety prevailed. At last a new hand was murdered, 22 July 1837, by the agents of a secret society. Alison soon afterwards showed his courage and judgement in seizing the whole committee of the society, who were tried and convicted in January 1838. This led to the collapse of the strikes and the restoration of order. During the winter 1842–3 another great strike happened amongst the miners; houses were plundered and crops destroyed. Alison, with the assistance of a small body of troops and some police organised for the purpose, ultimately succeeded in putting down disorder and arresting some of the rioters. In April 1848 he was successful in preserving order under trying circumstances; whilst a great strike in March 1858 passed off more quietly, owing to the better feeling of the people and the presence of a superior force.

Alison had meanwhile become a popular author. His ‘History of Europe’ was definitely begun on 1 Jan. 1829. He intended, as he tells us, to show the corruption of human nature and the divine superintendence of human affairs; or, as Disraeli said of ‘Mr. Wordy’ in ‘Coningsby’ (bk. iii. ch. 2), to prove that Providence was on the side of the tories. The first two volumes (1833) brought him 250 guineas, but little success at starting. Even the ‘Quarterly’ preserved an unbroken silence, attributed by the author to the chagrin of Croker at finding himself superseded in a similar plan. The book, however, made its way; increased numbers were printed of succeeding volumes and new editions published of the old; the later volumes were regularly produced at the rate of one in eighteen months; and being resolved to bring out the tenth and concluding volume on the anniversary of the battle of Waterloo, he began to dictate the last pages at 10 a.m. on 6 June 1842, and went on till 3 a.m. of the next day, when his amanuensis broke down, and he finished the last line by himself at 6 a.m. In emulation of Gibbon, he then opened his windows and looked out complacently at a summer morning. The book was afterwards frequently revised as he obtained new materials. A sixth edition, for which he received 2,000 guineas, was published in 1844. By 1848 100,000 copies had been sold in the United States. It was translated into French, German, and even Arabic, in which language 2,000 copies were published ‘under the auspices of the Pasha of Egypt.’ In 1847 was published a crown 8vo edition in 20 vols. of 12,000 copies, in 1849 a library edition of 2,000 copies, and in 1853 the book was stereotyped; 3.000 copies were sold at once, and of the later volumes 25,000 copies were printed and 20,000 sold at the first subscription. Alison modestly, truly, and, it is to be hoped, sincerely, attributed his success to his fortunate choice of an interesting subject and his priority in occupying the field. In truth, the book has been useful as a good business-like summary of an important period of history, whilst the reader can sufficiently discount for the strong prejudices of the author and skip his ambitious reflections upon the currency and political philosophy.

His other works were less successful. The essay on ‘Population,’ of which the first draft was written in his boyhood, was finished after various interruptions on 22 Dec. 1828, but not published till June 1840. Though the author was now well known, it made little impression, because it attacked received principles, or because it was long, heavy, pompous, and irrelevant. It states, however, some obvious limitations to the applicability of Malthus's theory.

In 1845 and 1846 he published some articles upon Marlborough in ‘Blackwood.’ A ‘Life of Marlborough,’ constructed from these articles, was published in November 1847, and, after a sale of two editions, was rewritten on a larger scale and published in the new form in 1852. Between 1 Jan. 1852 and 1 Jan. 1859 he wrote a continuation of the ‘History’ which had a considerable sale, though it was unfavourably received by critics in consequence of the malignity of liberals, the jealousy which ‘Quarterly’ reviewers had inherited from Croker, and the growing tyranny of democratic opinions.

In 1855 he had inspected the manuscripts in possession of Lady Londonderry, preserved at Wynyard Park, and in 1861 he published the lives of Lord Castlereagh and Sir Charles Stewart founded upon these materials, having begun the work on 27 March 1859 and written five pages a day regularly for two years. The family and other ‘persons of eminence’ were satisfied with the result. A volume called ‘England in 1815 and 1845; or a Sufficient and Contracted Currency,’ was published in the autumn of 1845, and another, called ‘Free Trade and a Fettered Currency,’ in 1847. A collection of his essays was published in America in 1845, and another collection from ‘Blackwood’ appeared in England in 1849. Lists of his articles in ‘Blackwood’ are given in his ‘Autobiography,’ i. 308, 326, 363, 516, 554, 598, ii. 9.

Alison's domestic life was prosperous. His sons, the present Sir Archibald, and Frederick, were distinguished in the Crimea and the Indian mutiny; his daughter, Eliza Frances Catherine, was married to Robert Cutlar Ferguson, who died in 1859, and in 1861 to the Hon. J. C. Dormer. Sir Archibald was elected lord rector of Marischal College, Aberdeen, in 1845, against Macaulay, and in 1851 lord rector of Glasgow against Lord Palmerston. In 1852 he was made a baronet by Lord Derby's government. The last volume of his autobiography contains full details of many interviews with distinguished persons in London and elsewhere, his reception at the houses of the nobility, and his speeches at public dinners and meetings, together with speculations upon politics, human nature, and criticism. He was a strong opponent of the North in the American civil war, believed in the necessity of slavery, and was a devoted adherent of protection. He disliked Dickens's novels because they dealt with the foibles of middle and low life, and preferred ‘elevating’ romances. He thought Cobden a monomaniac. But, on the whole, his accounts of distinguished men, though coloured by his prejudices, are sensible as far as they go. The book is amusingly characteristic of his even temper, calm conviction of his own merits, and confidence in his own predictions; but, like all autobiographies, is chiefly interesting in the earlier part. After publishing the ‘Life of Castlereagh,’ he resolved to lay down his pen, thinking it useless to provoke hostility by his resolute refusal to ‘worship the Dagon of Liberalism.’ He concluded his autobiography, part of which had been written in 1851–2, bringing it down to 1862. He was thoroughly amiable and beloved in his domestic life, and preserved health and strength, having given up writing after dinner on finishing the ‘History’ in 1842. He notes that on 9 Sept. 1862, that is, at the age of seventy, he walked twenty miles in five hours without fatigue. He enjoyed great popularity in Glasgow; attended to his duties on 10 May 1867, was taken ill next day, and closed a singularly industrious and thoroughly honourable life on 23 May. His funeral was attended by a crowd of from 100,000 to 150,000 of the people of Glasgow.

[Autobiography, edited by his daughter-in-law, Lady Alison, 1883.]

L. S.

Dictionary of National Biography, Errata (1904), p.5
N.B.— f.e. stands for from end and l.l. for last line

Page Col. Line  
289 ii 28 Alison, Sir Archibald: for Cutlar Ferguson read Cutlar Fergusson
32 for 1851 read 1850