Electronic Enlightenment colloquium on the sociology of the letter

Epistolary unease: William Robertson’s queries and the construction of a “compleat library” — Porter White, University of Edinburgh


I know very well & to my sorrow, how servilely Historians copy from one another & how little is to be learned from reading many books, but at the same time when one writes upon any particular person it is both necessary & decent for him to consult every book in relation to it, upon which he can lay his hands.

(William Robertson, Letter to Thomas Birch, 1759)1

How an age creates knowledge from knowledge — the process of recasting fact into theory — exposes intellectual values of that age. During the Enlightenment, new fora of communication emerged that altered the way knowledge was exchanged. The salon, the coffeehouse and the expansive network of letter-writers each encouraged an informality in the movement of knowledge that was unthinkable in the prior age, when the rigid formality of the Church, the university and court dominated intellectual life. In the new fora, the tone set by participants was more often than not conversational, and so great talkers like Dr Johnson are remembered now as standard bearers of their era. Yet underlying this great shift in the communication of ideas, there was also ambivalence. The work of one of the prominent figures in the Scottish Enlightenment, William Robertson (1721–1793), indicates a considerable ambivalence about the authority of information received via the newly expansive international post. While writing his History of America (1777),2 Robertson sent out a detailed set of queries to North American informants asking questions about the Native peoples. In his History he included information from almost none of the Americans’ replies — even when their answers were questions of observable fact and all informants were in agreement. Robertson simply did not view this form of communication as authoritative. Instead, he constructed his America through his building of the library collections at the University of Edinburgh, where he was principal for thirty years. To Robertson, despite making motions to accept the information received in a new type of communication network, his History needed only a “compleat library” to be an accurate record of the subject to be studied. Robertson never went to America; he found it instead in the presses of a library.

The queries Roberston sent to North Americans ask a range of questions about the Native peoples, their bodies, their societial and family mores and their belief systems. Based on his papers held at the National Library of Scotland,3 we know that Robertson received at least seven sets of queries answered by North American informants. None of the identified sources were particularly noteable men, but each had extensive experience with Native Americans. Among their number were a missionary in Massachussetts, an “Indian Trader” in the Middle Colonies and a professor of moral philosophy in Virginia.

A number of the questions cannot be answered with a simple yes or no — Robertson asks about the qualities of filial attachment and the ideas about property among the native peoples, for example — and the responses to queries like these are unsurprisingly varied. However, among the queries one stands out, in that it shows how little value Robertson placed on the answers he received, how unwilling he was to construct the very basics of his image of the Native Americans from his own eyewitness informants.

That query is on the straightfoward matter of hair. Robertson asks, “Is the beardless chin and the want of hair upon every part of the body but the Head natural to all the Indians?” As to why Robertson is asking this question, he goes on to append the note, “The most accurate Spanish and French travellers, who have viewed the Indians in every climate of America consider this as a natural distinction of the race; some English travellers mentioned Indians with beards.”

The informants respond in unison. One informant, identified as “Crogan, an old Indian trader,” who was George Croghan, and had acted as a deputy of Indian affairs in the English colonies, replied, “as to the want of hair on their bodies, it is Pretty General, they accustom themselves to Pluck it out when young&yet I have observed numbers of Old Men of Different Tribes who have Beards.” Another informant, writing from the Middle Colonies explains, “the hairs of an Indian Beard are very strong and thinly scattered. It is a painful operation to have such a beard. Some civilized Indians use a Rasor but most of them like their savage brethren extirpate their Beards by Pinchers or twisted wire.” Similar reports of Native men having beards and plucking them out are found in the answers from all other informants. Richard Brooke, one of Robertson’s contacts in America for spreading the queries, even tested the beard-plucking apparatus. He writes, “The Indians are not naturally beardless, were they [not] to shave, they would have as large beards as any people, but with a special wire, such as I sent [to] Mr. Russell (that belonged to an Indian) they pluck the beard out by the roots; I have seen Indians with long scattering beards, I suppose these fellows could not bear the tweezers better than myself — he and all his company were much diverted when I complained of pain from the use of one I borrowed of him” (41v).

Yet when description of the natives appears in Book IV of The History of America, Robertson rejects his informants’ unified answer. Instead, he writes, shortly, “They have no beards, and every part of their body is perfectly smooth” (IV, 61). Here, Robertson upholds the French and Spanish print sources he mentioned in the note to his original query, Don Antonio Ulloa and M. le Chevalier de Pinto.

In his account of the queries, Mark Duckworth suggests three explanations for why Robertson would send out the queries and then reject the answers of his informants. Each explanation fundamentally has to do with authority. The first is simply that Robertson “did not want to be accused of partiality to a particular system” (43).4 Duckworth goes on to explain that the construction of what appears to be a scientific means of gathering information is also the construction of an image as a trustworthy historian. He points out that Robertson highlights his sending out of the queries in History of America. To the reader, the surveys give the appearance that Robertson included a variety of sources in his research and weighed them against prior authoritative accounts in print. Yet this is appearance only, as evidenced by Robertson’s rejection in the case of beards. Duckworth’s next explanations underline that Robertson was not a historian to upset prior authoritative accounts. He writes, “faced with the immense assertiveness of Buffon, he deferred to his authority rather than write against him” (43).4 Although Robertson may have been claiming the image of historian conducting research from the source, the accepted underlying facts he used were far from novel. Duckworth also argues that Robertson was not, fundamentally, an innovator, an assessment that does not fully explain Robertson’s oeuvre, but if accepted in the case of the native Americans, would explain his hesitancy to incorporate information that would overturn prior held assumptions.

I want to suggest an alternate explanation for why Robertson would send off the queries but ultimately reject them, and it is also related to authority. There is good reason to believe that Robertson was intimately involved in the construction of the Edinburgh University Library collections. Moreover, from Robertson’s personal use of the Library’s collections, it is clear that he viewed the Library as critical to his own scholarly work, indeed, important in a way that is difficult to understand in light of modern conventions for writing history. To Robertson, if one possessed a “compleat” library, one also possessed an accurate image of the world. The place of answers to queries was uncertain within such a world; in his practice of writing history, Robertson deemed them superfluous.

From a letter to the compiler and antiquary, Thomas Birch (1705–1766), dated 13th December, 1759, it is clear that Robertson was preoccupied with the Enlightenment project of circumscribing knowledge. He writes:

I beg leave once more to have course to your good nature, & to your love of literature, & to presume upon putting you to a piece of trouble. After considering several subjects for another history, I have at last fixed upon the reign of Charles V, which contains the first establishment of the present so liberal system of Europe. I am begun to labor seriously upon my task. One of the first things was to form a Catalogue of books which might be consulted. As I never had access to very compleat Libraries, I do not pretend to any extensive knowledge of Authors, but I have made a list of such as I thought essential to the subject, & have put them down just in the order in which they occurred to me, or as I found them mentioned in any book I happened to read. I beg you would be so good as to look it over & as your erudition and knowledge of books is infinitely superior to mine, I doubt not but you’ll be able to make such additions to my catalogue as might be of great use to me.

(Letter to Birch 232–233)

The particular word “compleat” is significant, because it connects to contemporary attempts to circumscribe the known world within taxonomies. Note too that Robertson is explicitly concerned with a taxonomy of sorts, as he remarks on drawing up a catalogue for his research.

Edinburgh University Library was one of a number of great research libraries that were born or reshaped during the age of Enlightenment. When Thomas Birch received Robertson’s letter, he was a trustee for the newly opened British Museum, and involved with the management of their books. Innerpeffray, the first public lending library in Scotland, open from 1710, moved to its current library building in the same year that Robertson came to the principalship at the University (Innerpeffray Library: A Brief History).5 With the passing of Queen Anne’s Copyright Act (1709–1710), the Scottish Universities gained copyright privilege. Thus there were a number of institutions receiving an influx of books and needing to classify them, but most were far from exhaustive in their collections. Even the Advocates Library, ancestor to the National Library of Scotland, was not “compleat” according to Robertson’s account. At the time of his letter to Birch, Robertson was living in Edinburgh proper and though not an advocate himself, his prestige and contacts would almost have certainly allowed him some access privileges. Evidently the Advocates Library did not figure in what he considered a “compleat” library.

When Robertson began his principalship at the University, he took an active hand in reforming the Library. Given the value he placed on “compleat” libraries, it is likely that changes in the 1760s reflect some of his ideas about what constituted completeness. During his first year as Principal, Robertson introduced new regulations regarding the library.

Like some of his predecessors, Robertson was personally present to collect fees from students at matriculation. The Senate allocated these funds to purchase books for the Library and Robertson himself kept records of the sums collected and disbursed (Senatus 370–375).6 For someone to take so much interest in raising funds and little interest in what they would be used for ultimately is unlikely. Another reason to believe that Robertson was directly involved in deciding what books to purchase was his presence on the Library Committee during the first three years of his tenure (Senatus 138–190).6 Another reason still is a manuscript receipt he wrote in the 1790s, to send certain books back to a publisher, while keeping the others to be given to the Library and charged against the University’s accounts (Letter to Messrs. Bell and Bradfute).7

Perhaps the most compelling reason to believe that Robertson had a strong hand in shaping the library collections is the disproportionate presence of his own interests in the stock intake of the library. The first decade of his tenure is illustrative. In the first year of Robertson’s administration, December 1762–November 1763, a Library ledger, Accession book [including Books purchases 1762–1784],8 records that the Library purchased fifty-two books for the general collections. Of these works, the books range in topic greatly. There is listed an entry for an anonymous mathematical memoir, directly above a tract on public law in France. Musical scholarship is represented, as well as modern economy. There are only two instances in which an author is represented more than once. Edinburgh carried on the tradition of the classical education, so it is not perhaps surprising that two separate works of Sallust appear as entries in the purchase register. What is far more surprising is the other author. To the English-speaking literati of the day he was obscure, despite having been in his own time and nation foremost among historians. The writer was Antonio Herrera y Tordesillas (1559- 1625), and the works Descriptio Indiae Occidentalis (1622) and The General History of the Continent and Islands of America, translated by John Stevens (1740).

Herrera might be called a giant in the shaping of imperial Spain’s notions about itself. He was born in 1559 near Segovia and became, in 1596, Royal Historiographer of the Indies under Philip II. Herrera’s four volume Historia General . . . de Las Indias Occidentales (Madrid 1601–1615) compiled and commented on much of the primary source material available from the original conquistadors and priests exploring the New World on Spanish expeditions. In his appendix of notes and illustrations to America, Robertson wrote of him, “of all the Spanish writers, Herrera furnishes the fullest and most accurate information concerning the conquest of Mexico as well as every other transaction of America” (2: 440). Herrera figures largely in The History of America as a source of factual information and modern scholars have argued Robertson relied rather too heavily on some of Herrera’s accounts of Cortés and Pizarro (Cañizares-Esguerra 38).9 Robertson was noted in his lifetime for the felicity of his prose style and he only reserves placing Herrera in his pantheon of historians for the latter’s strict adherence to chronological narration of history.

That the Library under Robertson bought two of Herrera’s works within the first year of the Principal’s tenure is highly suggestive. Indeed, the Herrera in Latin was the second book listed in the manuscript purchase list and that may be quite meaningful. The manuscript ledger that records author, title, format and imprint for each separate work does not appear to have been organized by any of these, and so was most likely organized by date of acquisition if indeed there was any particular ordering principle. If this chronological order structured the ledger, the Herrera in Latin was probably a book particularly desired. Based on later borrowing patterns and his own writing, the reader seeking it was probably the Principal.

Other Library purchases during the first decade similarly supported Robertson’s History of America. The second and third years in his administration also show a similar commitment to purchasing books on the New World as the first year did, and a number of these books Robertson cites in the source catalogue he included as an appendix to America. For example, 1763–1764, the second year under Robertson, was dominated by the buying of classic and contemporary French literature, yet again, the Library invested limited funds in two books in French, one on the exploration of Peru, the other on Paraguay. The trend of spending precious Library funds in this area — one that was not even taught at the University — continues throughout the decade. What is perhaps more striking than the purchase records are Robertson’s own choices of books to borrow from the Library stacks.

In 1762, when serving as the University professor of Hebrew, James Robertson, also took up the role of Librarian and instituted a meticulous yet simple system for recording borrowed books. When a reader borrowed a book, the title, author and volume references of the work would be entered in a ledger as well as the date the reader withdrew the book. In the case of students, one list was kept for all and kept chronologically, so it is, for example, possible to know precisely what students borrowed from the Library on the 15th of January, 1768 (EUL, [Student Receipt Book] 126–127).10 The Library maintained borrowing records for professors differently. Each professor had a running list recording their borrowed books over the course of their tenure as professors. These lists are an excellent resource for confirming what professors were intending to consult, but they cannot be considered complete, as other documentary evidence has shown that they are not exhaustive. Nonetheless some concrete facts regarding New World narratives and the Principal are possible to distill from the records despite being incomplete.

Charles V, Robertson’s second history, was published in 1769 after at least ten years of labor. It is clear from what remains of the borrowing records that he was soon working on The History of America, which followed it, and that indeed the Library provided outstanding source material for it. In 1769, Robertson borrowed at least five works relating to the exploration of the New World. By 1770, this number had more than doubled. By 1772, Robertson had borrowed at least thirty-seven books relating to the New World (EUL, [Professors’] Receipt Book No.I).11 According to the borrowing ledgers, the likelihood is also that Robertson still had five of the Library’s six volumes of Herrera at his death.

The point to be made from the acquisitions of the Library and the borrowing habits of Robertson is that in taking an active hand in constructing the collections — as it appears strongly likely — Robertson was taking an active hand in constructing a “compleat” library and then using it for his own work. That Robertson more closely relied on items within the library collections than the responses to his queries may be a testament more about an enlightenment view on what the library could offer a scholar instead of a dismissive view of the queries. That Robertson sent the queries out at all underline his own uncertainty about particular points in his narrative; it is perhaps not surprising that a scholar operating within the world afforded by a library would ultimately reject sources that would not be kept on those library shelves.

— Porter White, University of Edinburgh


1 Robertson, William. Letter to Thomas Birch. 13th December, 1759. MS Add. 4317, ff. 232–233. British Lib., London.

2 Robertson, William. The History of America. London and Edinburgh: Strahan, Cadell and Balfour, 1777. Print.

3 Robertson, William. [Papers, Including the Responses to Robertson’s Queries]. MS 3954. National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh.

4 Duckworth, Mark. “An Eighteenth-Century Questionnaire: William Robertson on the Indians.” Eighteenth-Century Life, n.s. 2 (1987): 36–49. Print.

5 Innerpeffray Library. Innerpeffray Library: A Brief History. Innerpeffray Library, 2008. Web. 20 Aug. 2010.

6 University of Edinburgh, Senatus Academicus. Minutes of the College/Senatus Academicus. 1733–1790. Volume I. MS Da.31.5. Edinburgh U. Lib., Edinburgh.

7 Robertson, William. Letter to Messrs. Bell and Bradfute. [1790]. MS Gen. 1733/51. Edinburgh U. Lib., Edinburgh.

8 Edinburgh University Library. Accession book [including Books purchases 1762–1784]. 1762–1792. MS Da.1.46. Edinburgh U. Lib., Edinburgh.

9 Cañizares-Esguerra, Jorge. How to Write the History of the New World: Histories, Epistemologies, and Identities in the Eighteenth-Century Atlantic World. Stanford, California: Stanford UP, 2001. Print.

10 Edinburgh University Library. Accessions book [including Student Receipt Book]. 1693–1789. MS Da.1.34. Edinburgh U. Lib., Edinburgh.

11 Edinburgh University Library. [Professors’] Receipt Book No. I. 1763–1790. MS Da.2.2. Edinburgh U. Lib., Edinburgh.

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