Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Chalmers, George (1742-1825)

1326711Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 09 — Chalmers, George (1742-1825)1887Aeneas James George Mackay

CHALMERS, GEORGE (1742–1825), Scottish antiquary and historian, was almost the last of the extinct race of authors who were antiquarians rather than historians, collectors and publishers rather than minute critics of historical antiquities. They existed in all countries, but Scotland produced several notable examples. The life of Chalmers is comprised in a record of the works which he compiled with indefatigable industry, and issued without a break during the last fifty years of his long life. His fame rests on one of them, the ‘Caledonia,’ which he called his standing work. The rest have been superseded by better editions, or become antiquated through his want of originality or mistaken views. Even the ‘Caledonia’ has not stood the test of time. It is below the standard of Camden's ‘Britannia’ or the works of Dugdale, the English antiquarian treatises which can most fairly be compared with it. Still, to have composed what is, though never completed, the fullest account of the antiquities of a nation which has specially cultivated that department of history is a merit not to be despised, and subsequent writers have borrowed from Chalmers without acknowledging their obligations. Born at Fochabers in Moray, a descendant of the family of Pittensear, Chalmers was educated at the parish school of Fochabers and King's College, Aberdeen. He afterwards studied law in Edinburgh. When twenty-one he accompanied his uncle to Maryland, and practised as a lawyer at Baltimore. Returning to Great Britain at the outbreak of the civil war, he settled in London in 1775, and devoted himself to literature. His first publications were political, and chiefly connected with the colonies. An answer from the electors of Bristol to Burke's letter on the affairs of America, published in 1777, appears to have been the latest, and it was soon followed by ‘Political Annals of the present United Colonies,’ 1780; an ‘Introduction to the History of the Revolt of the Colonies,’ vol. i. 1782; ‘Estimate of the comparative Strength of Great Britain during the present and four preceding Reigns,’ 1782; ‘Three Tracts on Ireland,’ 1785. In 1786 he was appointed chief clerk of the committee of privy council for trade and foreign plantations, and in 1790 he issued a ‘Collection of Treaties between Great Britain and other Powers.’ He next turned to biography, and published lives of De Foe, Thomas Paine (under the pseudonym of Oldys), and Thomas Ruddiman, the Scottish grammarian and printer, one of his best known works, containing much interesting matter conveyed in a style copied from Dr. Johnson. He was one of the literati deceived by Ireland's Shakespeare forgeries, and published several tracts on that controversy. In the beginning of this century he was attracted to the poetry and history of his native country, which had been too much neglected, and he printed editions of the poems of Allan Ramsay and Sir David Lyndsay, with lives of these poets. In 1807 he issued the first volume of his ‘Caledonia,’ designed to embrace the whole antiquities and history of Scotland in six volumes, but only three were published, the second in 1820, and the third in 1824. Scarcely a year passed without some new work, but none of them have now any but a bibliographical interest except his ‘Life of Mary Queen of Scots,’ with subsidiary memoirs, not of much value, but useful till better memoirs appear, of the lives of the regent Moray, Francis II, Darnley, Bothwell, and Maitland of Lethington. Besides his published works, Chalmers left large manuscript collections for the completion of the ‘Caledonia,’ a ‘History of Scottish Poetry,’ and a ‘History of Printing in Scotland,’ most of which are now in the Advocates' Library or the library of the university of Edinburgh (Laing Bequest). He died on 31 May 1825. A list of his works is appended; several of them were issued anonymously or pseudonymously.

  1. ‘Answer from the Electors of Bristol to the letters of Edmund Burke, Esq., on Affairs of America.’
  2. ‘Political Annals of the present United Colonies from the Settlement to the Peace of 1768. Compiled chiefly from Records. Ending at the Revolution, 1688,’ London, 1780, 4to.
  3. ‘The Propriety of allowing a qualified Export of Wool discussed historically,’ London, 1782, 8vo.
  4. ‘An Introduction to the History of the Revolt of the Colonies,’ vol. i. only printed, which was cancelled, London, 1782, 8vo, 500 pp. ending with the reign of George I.
  5. ‘An Estimate of the Comparative Strength of Great Britain during the present and four preceding Reigns,’ London, 1782, 4to.
  6. ‘Opinions on interesting subjects of Public Laws and Commercial Policy arising from American Independence,’ London, 1784, 8vo.
  7. ‘Three Tracts on the Irish Arrangements,’ London, 1785, 8vo.
  8. ‘Historical Tracts by Sir John Davies, with a Life of the Author,’ 1786, 8vo.
  9. ‘Life of Daniel De Foe,’ London, 1786, 1790, 8vo.
  10. ‘A Collection of Treaties between Great Britain and other Powers,’ London, 1790, 2 vols. 8vo.
  11. ‘Life of Thomas Paine. By Francis Oldys, A.M., of the University of Pennsylvania,’ London, 1793, 8vo.
  12. ‘Prefatory Introduction to Dr. Johnson's “Debates in Parliament,”’ London, 1794, 8vo.
  13. ‘Life of Thomas Ruddiman, M.A. To which are subjoined new Anecdotes of Buchanan,’ London, 1794, 8vo.
  14. ‘Vindication of the Privilege of the People in respect of the Constitutional Right of Free Discussion,’ London, 1796, 8vo. (anon.).
  15. ‘Apology for the Believers in the Shakespeare Papers which were exhibited in Norfolk Street, London,’ 1796, 8vo.
  16. ‘A Supplemental Apology,’ London, 1799, 8vo.
  17. ‘Appendix to the “Supplemental Apology,” being the Documents for the opinion that Hugh Boyd wrote Junius's Letters,’ 1800, 8vo.
  18. ‘The Poems of Allan Ramsay, with a Life of the Author,’ London, 1800, 2 vols. 8vo.
  19. ‘Observations on the State of England in 1696, by Gregory King, with a Life of the Author,’ 1804, 8vo.
  20. ‘Life of Sir David Lyndsay of the Mount, Lyon King-at-arms under James V,’ London, 1806, 3 vols. 8vo.
  21. ‘Caledonia; or an Account, Historical and Topographical, of North Britain … Chorographical and Philological,’ vol. i. London, 1807, vol. ii. 1810, vol. iii. 1824, all 4to.
  22. ‘A Chronological Account of Commerce and Coinage in Great Britain from the Restoration till 1810,’ 1810, 8vo.
  23. ‘Considerations on Commerce,’ 1811, 8vo.
  24. ‘An Historical View of the Domestic Economy of Great Britain and Ireland.’ New edition of ‘The Comparative Estimate’ corrected and enlarged, Edin. 1812, 8vo.
  25. ‘Opinions of Eminent Lawyers on various Points of English Jurisprudence,’ 1814, 2 vols. 8vo.
  26. A tract, privately printed, in answer to Malone's account of Shakespeare's ‘Tempest,’ London, 1815, 8vo.
  27. ‘Comparative Views of the State of Great Britain and Ireland before and since the War,’ London, 1817, 8vo.
  28. ‘The Author of “Junius” ascertained,’ 1817.
  29. Churchyard's ‘Chips concerning Scotland,’ with a life of the author, London, 1817, 8vo.
  30. ‘Life of Mary Queen of Scots, drawn from the State Papers, with six subsidiary Memoirs,’ London, 1818, 2 vols. 4to; reprinted in 3 vols. 8vo.
  31. ‘The Poetical Remains of some of the Scottish Kings now first collected,’ London, 1824, 8vo.
  32. ‘Robene and Makyne and the Testament of Cresseid,’ by Robert Henryson, edited and presented by Mr. Chalmers as his contribution to the Bannatyne Club, Edin. 1824, 4to.
  33. ‘A Detection of the Love Letters lately attributed in Hugh Campbell's work to Mary Queen of Scots,’ London, 1825, 8vo.

[Chalmers's own works; Anderson's Scottish Nation; David Laing's bibliography in Lowndes's Manual.]

Æ. M.