Perhaps it may be necessary to inform the Public, that not long since an Examination of the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Chapters of the History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was published by Mr. Davis. He styles himself a Bachelor of Arts, and a Member of Baliol College in the University of Oxford. His title-page is a declaration of war, and in the prosecution of his religious crusade, he assumes a privilege of disregarding the ordinary laws which are respected in the most hostile transactions between civilized men or civilized nations. Some of the harshest epithets in the English language are repeatedly applied to the historian, a part of whose work Mr. Davis has chosen for the object of his criticism. To this author Mr. Davis imputes the crime of betraying the confidence and seducing the faith of those readers, who may heedlessly stray in the flowery paths of his diction, without perceiving the poisonous snake that lurks concealed in the grass. Latet anguis in herbâ. The Examiner has assumed the province of reminding them of "the unfair proceedings of such an insidious friend, who offers the deadly draught in a golden cup, that they may be less sensible of the danger."(1) In order to which, Mr. Davis has selected several of the more notorious instances of his misrepresentations and errors; reducing them to their respective heads, and subjoining a long list of almost incredible inaccuracies: and such striking proof of servile plagiarism, as the world will be surprised to meet with in an author who puts in so bold a claim to originality and extensive reading?(2) Mr. Davis prosecutes this attack through an octavo volume of not less than two hundred and eighty-four pages with the same implacable spirit; perpetually charges his adversary with perverting the ancients, and transcribing the moderns; and, inconsistently enough, imputes to him the opposite crimes of art and carelessness, of gross ignorance and of wilful falsehood. The Examiner closes his work (3) with a severe reproof of those feeble critics who have allowed any share of knowledge to an odious antagonist. He presumes to pity and to condemn the first historian of the present age, for the generous approbation which he had bestowed on a writer who is content that Mr. Davis should be his enemy, whilst he has a right to name Dr. Robertson for his friend.
When I delivered to the world the First Volume of an important History, in which I had been obliged to connect the progress of Christianity with the civil state and revolutions of the Roman Empire, I could not be ignorant that the result of my inquiries might offend the interest of some and the opinions of others. If the whole work was favourably received by the Public, I had the more reason to expect that this obnoxious part would provoke the zeal of those who consider themselves as the Watchmen of the Holy City. These expectations were not disappointed; and a fruitful crop of Answers, Apologies, Remarks, Examinations &c. sprung up with all convenient speed. As soon as I saw the advertisement, I generally sent for them; for I have never affected, indeed I have never understood, the stoical apathy, the proud contempt of criticism, which some authors have publicly professed. Fame is the motive, it is the reward, of our labours; nor can I easily comprehend how it is possible that we should remain cold and indifferent with regard to the attempts which are made to deprive us of the most valuable object of our possessions, or at least of our hopes. Besides this strong and natural impulse of curiosity, I was prompted by the more laudable desire of applying to my own, and the public, benefit, the well-grounded censures of a learned adversary; and of correcting those faults which the indulgence of vanity and friendship had suffered to escape without observation. I read with attention several criticisms which were published against the Two last Chapters of my History, and unless I much deceive myself, I weighed them in my own mind without prejudice and without resentment. After I was clearly satisfied that their principal objections were founded on misrepresentation or mistake, I declined with sincere and disinterested reluctance the odious task of controversy, and almost formed a tacit resolution of committing my intentions, my writings, and my adversaries to the judgment of the Public, of whose favourable disposition I had received the most flattering proofs.
The reasons which justified my silence were obvious and forcible: the respectable nature of the subject itself, which ought not to be rashly violated by the rude hand of controversy; the inevitable tendency of dispute, which soon degenerates into minute and personal altercation; the indifference of the Public for the discussion of such questions as neither relate to the business nor the amusement of the present age. I calculated the possible loss of temper and the certain loss of time, and considered, that while I was laboriously engaged in a humiliating task, which could add nothing to my own reputation, or to the entertainment of my readers, I must interrupt the prosecution of a work which claimed my whole attention, and which the Public, or at least my friends, seemed to require with some impatience at my hands. The judicious lines of Dr. Young sometimes offered themselves to my memory, and I felt the truth of his observation, That every author lives or dies by his own pen, and that the unerring sentence of Time assigns its proper rank to every composition and to every criticism, which it preserves from oblivion.
I should have consulted my own ease, and perhaps I should have acted in stricter conformity to the rules of prudence, if I had still persevered in patient silence. But Mr. Davis may, if he pleases, assume the merit of extorting from me the notice which I had refused to more honourable foes. I had declined the consideration of their literary Objections; but he has compelled me to give an answer to his criminal Accusations. Had he confined himself to the ordinary, and indeed obsolete charges of impious principles, and mischievous intentions, I should have acknowledged with readiness and pleasure that the religion of Mr. Davis appeared to be very different from mine. Had he contented himself with the use of that style which decency and politeness have banished from the more liberal part of mankind, I should have smiled, perhaps with some contempt, but without the least mixture of anger or resentment. Every animal employs the note, or cry, or howl, which is peculiar to its species; every man expresses himself in the dialect the most congenial to his temper and inclination, the most familiar to the company in which he has lived, and to the authors with whom he is conversant; and while I was disposed to allow that Mr. Davis had made some proficiency in Ecclesiastical Studies, I should have considered the difference of our language and manners as an unsurmountable bar of separation between us. Mr. Davis has over-leaped that bar, and forces me to contend with him on the very dirty ground which he has chosen for the scene of our combat. He has judged, I know not with how much propriety, that the support of a cause, which would disclaim such unworthy assistance, depended on the ruin of my moral and literary character. The different misrepresentations, of which he has drawn out the ignominious catalogue, would materially affect my credit as an historian, my reputation as a scholar, and even my honour and veracity as a gentleman. If I am indeed incapable of understanding what I read, I can no longer claim a place among those writers who merit the esteem and confidence of the Public. If I am capable of wilfully perverting what I understand, I no longer deserve to live in the society of those men, who consider a strict and inviolable adherence to truth, as the foundation of every thing that is virtuous or honourable in human nature. At the same time, I am not insensible that his mode of attack has given a transient pleasure to my enemies, and a transient uneasiness to my friends. The size of his volume, the boldness of his assertions, the acrimony of his style, are contrived with tolerable skill to confound the ignorance and candour of his readers. There are few who will examine the truth or justice of his accusations; and of those persons who have been directed by their education to the study of ecclesiastical antiquity, many will believe, or will affect to believe, that the success of their champion has been equal to his zeal, and that the serpent pierced with an hundred wounds lies expiring at his feet. Mr. Davis's book will cease to be read (perhaps the grammarians may already reproach me for the use of an improper tense); but the oblivion towards which it seems to be hastening, will afford the more ample scope for the artful practices of those, who may not scruple to affirm, or rather to insinuate, that Mr. Gibbon was publickly convicted of falsehood and misrepresentation; that the evidence produced against him was unanswerable; and that his silence was the effect and the proof of conscious guilt. Under the hands of a malicious surgeon, the sting of a wasp may continue to fester and inflame, long after the vexatious little insect has left its venom and its life in the wound.
The defence of my own honour is undoubtedly the first and prevailing motive which urges me to repel with vigour an unjust and unprovoked attack; and to undertake a tedious vindication, which, after the perpetual repetition of the vainest and most disgusting of the pronouns, will only prove that I am innocent; and that Mr. Davis, in his charge, has very frequently subscribed his own condemnation. And yet I may presume to affirm, that the Public have some interest in this controversy They have some interest to know, whether the writer whom they have honoured with their favour is deserving of their confidence, whether they must content themselves with reading the History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire as a tale amusing enough, or whether they may venture to receive it as a fair and authentic history. The general persuasion of mankind, that where much has been positively asserted, something must be true, may contribute to encourage a secret suspicion, which would naturally diffuse itself over the whole body of the work. Some of those friends who may now tax me with imprudence for taking this public notice of Mr. Davis's book, have perhaps already condemned me for silently acquiescing under the weight of such serious, such direct, and such circumstantial imputations.
Mr. Davis, who in the last page of his(4) Work appears to have recollected that modesty is an amiable and useful qualification, affirms, that his plan required only that he should consult the authors to whom he was directed by my references; and that the judgment of riper years was not so necessary to enable him to execute with success the pious labour to which he had devoted his pen. Perhaps, before we separate, a moment to which I most fervently aspire, Mr. Davis may find that a mature judgment is indispensably requisite for the successful execution of any work of literature, and more especially of criticism. Perhaps he will discover, that a young student, who hastily consults an unknown author, on a subject with which he is unacquainted, cannot always be guided by the most accurate reference to the knowledge of the sense, as well as to the sight of the passage which has been quoted by his adversary. Abundant proofs of these maxims will hereafter be suggested. For the present, I shall only remark, that it is my intention to pursue in my defence the order, or rather the course, which Mr. Davis has marked out in his Examination; and that I have numbered the several articles of my impeachment according to the most natural division of the subject. And now let me proceed on this hostile march over a dreary and barren desert, where thirst, hunger, and intolerable weariness, are much more to be dreaded, than the arrows of the enemy.