Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Napier, Macvey

NAPIER, MACVEY (1776–1847), editor of the ‘Edinburgh Review,’ born on 11 April 1776 at Kirkintilloch, Dumbartonshire, was a son of John Macvey, merchant, of Kirkintilloch, by a daughter of John Napier of Craigannet, Stirlingshire. He was christened Napier, but afterwards changed his name to Macvey Napier in deference to the wish of his grandfather. He was educated in the school of his native parish. In 1789 he went to the university of Glasgow, and two or three years later to Edinburgh. He there studied law, and in 1799 was admitted to the society of writers to the signet. His tastes, however, were rather literary than legal. In 1798 he made acquaintance with Archibald Constable [q. v.], who then kept a bookshop, and was just setting up as a publisher. They formed a close friendship, which lasted till Constable's death. In 1805 the writers to the signet appointed him their librarian, and for the next thirty years, according to a successor, Mr. Law, he was ‘the life and soul’ of every enterprise in ‘connection with the library.’ In the same year he wrote an article upon De Gerando in the ‘Edinburgh Review,’ and was subsequently a regular contributor. In 1814 he undertook to edit for Constable a supplement to the sixth edition of the ‘Encyclopædia Britannica,’ which was ultimately completed in six volumes in 1824. He went to London in 1814 with an introduction from Dugald Stewart to Francis Horner, in order to collect contributors. The undertaking brought him into friendly relations with some eminent writers, especially Mackintosh, Malthus, and James Mill—Mill, in particular, writing some of the most valuable articles in the ‘Supplement.’ Napier had attended Dugald Stewart's lectures in 1795, and in 1811 had contributed an article upon Stewart's ‘Philosophical Essays’ to the ‘Quarterly Review.’ When, in 1820, Stewart finally resigned the professorship of moral philosophy, upon the death of his colleague, Thomas Brown, he strongly recommended Napier as his successor in a letter to the lord provost. He stated that Napier agreed with him in philosophy, and had given proofs of ability by his writings upon Bacon, De Gerando, and Stewart himself. Napier, however, declined to become a candidate, knowing that his whig principles would be an insuperable objection. In later years Napier made arrangements with the publishers for Stewart's last writings.

In 1824 Napier became the first professor of conveyancing at the university of Edinburgh. He had already, from 1816, held the lectureship, founded by the writers to the signet in 1793, and they congratulated him officially upon the erection of the office into a professorship. His lectures were much valued, and he supplemented them by catechetical instruction.

Constable wished Napier, upon the completion of the ‘Supplement,’ to become editor of a new (seventh) edition of the ‘Encyclopædia.’ Constable's bankruptcy and death in 1827 interfered with this undertaking, the property in which was acquired by Adam Black [q. v.] and two others. Napier was continued as editor, although he had some difficulty with the new proprietors, who wished to limit the new edition to twenty instead of twenty-four volumes. Napier completed the work in 1842, the edition containing twenty-two volumes, of which the first is formed of ‘dissertations’ by Stewart, Mackintosh, Playfair, and Leslie. The editor was to receive 7,000l., but he gave up 500l. of this in order to increase the sum payable to contributors from 6,500l. to 7,000l.

Meanwhile, upon Jeffrey's resignation of the editorship of the ‘Edinburgh Review’ in 1829, Napier became his successor. The interesting volume of correspondence published in 1879, although it includes few of Napier's own letters, incidentally shows that he performed his duties with great tact and firmness. He had to withstand the overbearing pretensions of Brougham, who tried to drag the ‘Review’ into his own quarrel with the whig ministers; while the mutual antipathy of Brougham and Macaulay—his most valuable contributor—produced many awkward discords. Napier won the respect even of these powerful supporters without losing their help. The ‘Review’ had now many more rivals, and therefore occupied a less prominent position than under Jeffrey's rule. The articles, however, were probably superior in literary merit, and Napier obtained contributions from the most eminent writers of the day. In his first number he persuaded Sir William Hamilton to write the metaphysical article which made his reputation; and the correspondence records assistance from Carlyle, J. S. Mill, Thackeray, Bulwer, Hallam, Sir G. Cornewall Lewis, G. H. Lewes, Nassau Senior, Sir James Stephen, and many other distinguished authors.

Napier's ‘Remarks on the Scope and Influence of the Philosophical Writings of Lord Bacon,’ originally contributed to the ‘Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh,’ was privately printed in 1818, and published, with a ‘Life of Raleigh,’ in 1853.

In 1837 Napier was appointed one of the principal clerks of session in Edinburgh, and thereupon resigned his librarianship, when he was warmly thanked for his long services. He was F.R.S. of London and Edinburgh. He died on 11 Feb. 1847.

Napier married Catharine, daughter of Captain Skene, on 2 Dec. 1797; she died 17 March 1826. They had seven sons and three daughters. One son, Macvey, who edited his father's correspondence, died in July 1893. The sixth son, Alexander Napier (1814–1887), was born at Edinburgh in 1814, educated at Trinity College, Cambridge, and was vicar of Holkham, Norfolk, from 1847 till his death in 1887. He was chaplain and librarian to the Earl of Leicester. He edited Barrow's ‘Works’ in 1859 and Boswell's ‘Life of Johnson’ in 1885. He also translated and edited Elze's ‘Byron’ in 1872 and Payer's ‘Arctic Circle’ in 1876.

[Introduction to Correspondence, 1879; information from his son, the late Mr. Macvey Napier; History of Society of Writers to the Signet, 1890, pp. lxxi, lxxix–lxxx, cxvii, cxxi, &c.; Chambers's Eminent Scotsmen, 1855, v. 480; Gent. Mag. 1847, i. 436; Biographical Notice, 1847.]

L. S.