restricted access 9. Principles, Prejudices, and the Politics of James Macpherson’s Historical Writing
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119 CHAPTER NINE Principles, Prejudices, and the Politics of James Macpherson’s Historical Writing Robert W. Jones This chapter explores James Macpherson’s historical writing, an extensive and demanding body of work. Macpherson’s histories have received little scholarly attention, but their time might at last have come. The last two decades have witnessed a resurgence of interest in eighteenthcentury historiography, its aims, methods, and published forms. Scholars have charted the key developments in the enlightened and sentimental historical writing of, among others, David Hume, Edward Gibbon, and William Robertson.1 Macpherson’s work has not featured in this reappraisal either because its author is still (erroneously) associated with ‘forged’ histories or, more interestingly, because Macpherson is a rather awkward presence, neither fully committed to new developments in historiographic writing nor truly against them. He is furthermore ardently polemical, a trait reflecting both conviction and habit.2 This essay will begin a process of re-reading Macpherson’s histories in the light of these concerns and underline the most distinctive aspects of his work. Macpherson’s most significant interventions almost always involve an anxious musing on the nature of opposition, legitimate or otherwise. This is most clearly expressed in his Short History of the Opposition during the Last Session of Parliament, published in support of Lord North’s beleaguered Ministry in 1779, and, in the same year, The History and Management of the East-India Company, from its Origin in 1600 to the Present Times.3 The focus here will, however, fall on Macpherson’s engaging and often scrupulous The History of Great Britain, from the Restoration, to the Accession of the House of Hannover, published by William Strahan and Thomas Cadell in two handsome volumes in 1775.4 At one level Macpherson sought to continue Hume’s celebrated History of Great Britain (1754–62), hoping presumably for comparable success and remuneration, but he seems also to have been keen, as this essay will explore, to challenge Hume’s reorientation of historiography away from 120 ‘the rhetoric of disclosure’.5 To this end, the History was supplemented by the publication of what amounted to Macpherson’s sources: Original Papers: Containing the Secret History of Great Britain, from the Restoration, to the Accession of the House of Hannover. Original Papers, with its alluring promise of a ‘Secret History’, is suggestive of Macpherson’s deep interest in exploring and, crucially, revealing otherwise hidden motives, returning historical writing, in the process, to the exploration of illustrative anecdote.6 The densely compiled Original Papers is indicative equally of Macpherson’s canny awareness of the expanding horizons and increasingly professionalised methods of modern historians. Perhaps scarred by the controversy provoked by Ossian, Macpherson provides what is a very modern response to the past, one that invites further investigation, offering readers the opportunity via his sources to become active students of the past.7 Macpherson was a confident user of footnotes, a practice which, like the publication of source documents, enabled the reader to enquire further, even if the notes are, by modern standards, rather elliptic.8 Macpherson would have been conscious of the already illustrious range of Scottish historical writing. By the 1770s this impressive canon included not only Hume’s History, but also Tobias Smollett’s The Complete History of England (1758–60), Robertson’s History of Scotland (1759), and later his History of America (1777). Hume thought he was working in ‘a historical age’ and that Scotland was a superlatively ‘historical nation’.9 If Hume, along with Robertson, represents a high-water mark in historical writing in these isles, then it is equally the case that the writing of multivolume histories, especially of Britain, was a lucrative and not always conspicuously meritorious genre, as Oliver Goldsmith’s career as a hack writer of popular histories, natural and otherwise, demonstrates. Macpherson’s historical writing ought to be seen in relation to this market, as much as to the conceptual ambitions of historicism on the one hand and the pleasures of controversy on the other. Controversy was certainly never far from Macpherson’s mind in the 1770s. He was working, and he was deeply conscious of this, at a critical moment in British history as the American colonies declared their independence, with rebellion very much in the air and the authority of the Crown contested. Macpherson was no friend to the Americans and served as one of the North government’s best propagandists.10 He was not alone in his endeavour, even if the path...