Now that I have stupefied the faithful out of their skull with my persistent citations to David Hume, allow me to recall another voice in the same genre. That would be Edward Hyde, first Earl of Clarendon, great—perhaps the greatest—servant of the House of Stuart in the turbulent age of the English Revolution.
Hyde was, after his manner, a remarkable historian, but he was more: through his daughter, he was the grandfather of two monarchs. Still, his memorable achievement was how, in forced retirement—exile—out of power and otherwise unoccupied, he produced his masterpiece: his History of the Rebellion, the record of his times and with it, his life. The book is not easy to describe: it is part narrative, part advocacy, part rumination on the tasks and possibilities of government. Also perhaps—though I'm not sure of this—the greatest single account of those years of upheaval. I should think only real competitor would be Hume himself,* who undertook his own history a couple of generations later with a view to restoring the shopworn reputation of that same doomed Stuart monarchy. Aside: they say that history is written by the winners but is that really true? In the case of the English—also, I should say, the American Civil War—what the losers have lost on the battlefield, they seem at least partially to have recaptured in the library.
My guess is that Clarendon is even more completely forgotten than Hume. Hume, of course has his reputation as a philosopher to sustain him. Clarendon's name survived in the Clarendon Code which, inter alia, forbade nonconformist preaches from residing within five miles of their former livings unless they took a a loyalty oath. He also gave his name to the Clarendon Building, once the home of the Oxford University Press, and Clarendon House, in it time admired as one of the grandest great houses in London but long since demolished (and who remembers the people that building are named after, anyway?).
Clarendon's History itself, one would have to admit, takes a bit of patience. It's in part an old man's remembrance with some of the longeurs you would expect from that sort of thing. At times you'd have to suspect a certain amount of score-settling and self-justification. But his real strength is in his character sketches. Clarendon was, after all, primarily a man of action, which means he lived in a world where your skill at judging your fellows can be a matter of life or death. A friend of mine this morning writes that as he read Clarendon, "I kept saying to myself, when he looks at someone he sees so much more than I do." All true; and in the end, what's remarkable is how fair-minded so much of it sounds. Just by way of example:
He was of that rare affability and temper in debate, and of that seeming humility and submission of judgment, as if he brought no opinion with him, but a desire of information and instruction; yet he had so subtle a way of interrogating, and, under the notion of doubts, insinuating his objections, that he left his opinions with those from whom he pretended to learn and receive them. And even with them who were able to preserve themselves from his infusions, and discerned those opinions to be fixed in him, with which they could not comply, he always left the character of an ingenious and conscientious person.
On first glance, this may appear to be just an encomium. But consider it again: “subtle a way of interrogating … insinuation of doubts … pretended to learn.” The thing is, the subject here is John Hampden, leader of the parliamentary forces against the King and necessarily therefore one of Clarendon's great adversaries. Last I knew, their statues stood facing each other across the lobby at the Palace of Westminster—a remarkable instance of assimilating implacable conflict into a common story.--Anyway, the delight of this history is the way the author is able to identify the talents and appreciate the virtues even of his foes. Hampden was, in sum:
[A] man of greater cunning, and it may be said of the most discerning spirit, and of the greatest address and insinuation to bring any thing to pass which he desired, of any man of that time, and who laid the design deepest. … He was of an industry and vigilance not to be tired out, or wearied by the most laborious; and of parts not to be imposed upon by the most subtle or sharp; and of a personal courage equal to his best parts; so that he was an enemy not to be wished wherever he might have been made a friend; and as much to be apprehended where he was so, as any man could deserve to be.
In a word, what was said of Cinna might well be applied to him; 'he had a head to contrive, and a tongue to persuade, and a hand to execute, any mischief.' His death [emphasis added—ed.] therefore seemed to be a great deliverance to the nation.
As one might say, with enemies like that, who needs friends?
Access to Clarendon is in some ways easier than to Hume, in some ways harder. If you are a glutton for punishment with a bottomless wallet, you can buy all six volumes from Oxford (of course) at upwards of $200 per volume (nothing as cheap or convenient as the Liberty Edition Hume, though). Or you could read what appears to be a complete reprint here. Oddly enough, there doesn't seem to be any Clarendon at Gutenberg or Librivox.
For those of more restrained enthusiasm, Oxford offers a selection in its World Classics line—paperback, and also Kindle. There's an older one-volume including selections from the history along with selections from an autobiography (excellent introduction by Hugh Trevor-Roper, who also did a biography of Clarendon). There's other stuff out there; just in general, if you are searching I think you may have better luck at Amazon.co.uk than in the US list. Oxford also offers some helpful audio.
Acknowledgment I got my own introduction to Clarendon through another neglected gem: The Legal Imagination (1973) by James Boyd White, surely the most interesting (and unusual) law classroom book I've ever encountered. It seems to be out of print; Amazon offers only five copies, those from after-market sellers (there is an “abridged paperback”--I'll bet someone talked him into paring it down for the undergraduate market--but it's not a patch on the real thing). White (who has continued to produce important work on the frontier between law and literature) offers a bit of context on the book here. White says in his acknowledgments that he learned about Clarendon from this man.
Fun Fact: Google “Edward Hyde,” and you'll likely wind up here.
* I suppose another contender might be G.M. Trevelyan's England Under the Stuarts, but I haven't read it.