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  • THE LIFE OF THE REV. ADAM CLARKE:
    BOOK 3, CH. 11,
    THE LITERARY SERVANT OF THE STATE

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    CHAPTER 11

    THE LITERARY SERVANT OF THE STATE

    It was about the year 1808 that the attention of the House of Commons was directed to the condition of the Public Records. The principal archives of the more remote reigns of the English kings had been, a hundred years before, collected and embodied in a series of twenty folios, under the title of FOEDERA, Conventiones, et cujuscunque Generis Acta publica, inter Reges Angliae et alios Principes. Fourteen of these were edited by Thomas Rymer, an eminent antiquary who held the office of Royal Historiographer, and who died in 1713; the remaining six, by Robert Sunderson, his assistant, afterwards Keeper of the Rolls. Since that time there had been a large accumulation of public documents, which were lying in confusion in various repositories, together with a number of valuable papers not incorporated in the Foedera. Rymer left a collection of state papers in no less than fifty-nine volumes folio, which, after his death, were taken into the possession of the government. To have these multitudinous documents arranged, in continuation of that great work, was felt to be a duty to the country; and a commission was appointed to take the measures proper for its accomplishment. One preliminary was the appointment of a suitable editor; and it will serve to give an idea of the high estimate which had been already formed of Adam Clarke, to state that he was the man to whom the government and senate of England made their application. Our surest method will be to give a statement of this transaction from a memorandum in the Doctor’s own handwriting.

    Some time in February, 1808, I learned that I had been recommended to His Majesty’s commissioners of the public records, by the Right Hon.

    Charles Abbott, Speaker of the House of Commons, and one of the commissioners, (to whom I was known only by some of my writings on bibliography,) as a fit person to undertake the department of collecting and arranging those state papers which might serve to complete and continue Rymer’s Foedera John Caley, Esq., secretary to the commission, was appointed to see me He called on Mr. Butterworth, and desired an introduction to me on the following Thursday I attended the appointment, and was introduced to him in Mr. B.’s study. “After the usual compliments, Mr. Caley said, ‘Mr. Clarke, I am desired to call on you to know whether you would be willing to undertake a work in which His Majesty’s government would wish to employ you?’ A. C. ‘Pray, what is it in which his Majesty’s government could employ so obscure an individual as myself?’ Mr. C. ‘Sir, I am not at liberty to specify it at present.’ A. C. ‘Then, sir, I can give no answer, because I know not whether I have the requisite qualifications for the work.’ Mr. C. ‘Sir, those who have sent me have no doubt of your qualifications. The work is confidential; but I can say no more at present, than that it requires the habits of a Christian, a scholar, and a gentleman.’ A. C. ‘ Why, sir, I may very reasonably doubt whether I have any of these qualifications in an adequate degree: all I can say is, if there be any way in which, in addition to my present sacred duties, I can serve my king and country, it must be my duty to embrace it. But, as I know not the nature of the work, nor the abilities and time it may require, I cannot give any particular answer.’ Mr. C. ‘Mr. Clarke, your answer is sufficient. I shall report it, and you may expect to hear from me shortly.’ “Within a few days I received a note from Mr. Caley, wishing me to call upon him. I did so, and was then informed what the work was, — a supplement and continuation of Rymer; and that His Majesty’s commissioners had desired me to draw up an Essay on that work. I was struck with surprise, and endeavored to excuse myself on the ground of general unfitness At this the secretary smiled, and said, ‘Mr. Clarke, you will have the goodness to try; and meanwhile, pray, draw up the paper which the commissioners require, and I am always ready to give you any assistance in my power.’” He felt on consideration strongly inclined to consent. But previously “ I laid,” says he, “the whole business before the committee of preachers at City-road, and begged their advice. Some said, ‘It will prevent your going on in the work of the ministry;’ others, ‘ It is a trick of the devil to prevent your usefulness.’ Others, ‘ It may rather be a call of Divine Providence to greater usefulness than formerly; and, seeing you compromise nothing by it, and may still preach as usual, accept it, in God’s name.’ Others, ‘ If Mr. Wesley were alive, he would consider it a call of God to you; and so close in with it without hesitation.’ “ He did so, — but, he adds, “with the positive understanding that I would only consider myself a locum tenens till they could procure another.”

    His first task was to produce a report of the nature, number, and localities of the materials which were to form the new Supplement to the Foedera. It was to take the form of “An Essay on the best Mode of carrying into Effect a Compilation from unedited and latent Records, to form a Supplement,” &c.; and, as he writes in a letter to his friend Mr. Roberts, “was to be prepared in fourteen days These records were to be found in,

    1. The British Museum.

    2. The Tower.

    3. The Chapter-House, Westminster.

    4. The Rolls Chapel.

    5. The State Paper Office.

    6. The Privy Council Office.

    7. The Signet Office

    Write I must Well, I thought, for the honor of my God, and for the credit of my people, I will put my shoulder to a wheel deeply stuck in the mud, and raise it if I can. To do anything with effect, I must examine sixty folio volumes, with numerous collateral evidences, and write on a subject, ‘Diplomatics,’ on which I had never tried my pen, and in circumstances, too, the most unfriendly, as I was employe d in the visitation of the classes during the whole time. I thought, prayed, read; like John Bunyan, ‘I pulled, and, as I pulled, it came.’” The Essay, thus required, he was enabled to furnish with an incredible activity; and, to quote the words of the official minute, “At a Board of the Commissioners appointed by His Majesty on the Public Records of the Kingdom, holden Friday, 25 March, 1808, — Present, the Rt. Hon. C. Abbott, Lord F. Campbell, Lord Redesdale, Lord Glenbervie, the bishop of Bangor, &c.; the secretary stated that Adam Clarke, LL D., having been recommended on account of his extensive learning and indefatigable industry, as a fit person to revise and form a Supplement to Rymer’s Foedera, had prepared an ‘Essay on the best Mode of executing such an undertaking;’ which report the secretary delivered in, and the same was now read.”

    In this elaborate dissertation, he gives a short history of the origin and progress of the Foedera, examines the comparative merits of the different merits through which it had passed; considers the materials of which it is composed, and how far they accord with the original design; then takes into view the projected Supplement; considers the nature of the proper materials, and the repositories where they could be found; and finally points out the best mode by which they might be selected, arranged, and edited.

    Upon the presentation of the report, the board “ordered that the secretary do obtain admission for Dr. Clarke to make searches in the several public offices, libraries, and repositories, which it may be necessary for him to consult.”

    Furnished with this authority, and appointed also a subcommissioner, he applied himself with assiduity [close attention] to the work before him. In May, the following year, the secretary stated to the board that Dr. Clarke had been diligently employed in collecting materials; when it was ordered that he be desired to lay before them a further report; which was accordingly prepared, and followed, in January, 1810, by a third, which turned especially on the structure of Rymer’s work, and on the use which he made of our ancient English historians. In the course of this disquisition, Dr. Clarke impugns [calls in question] the authenticity of the celebrated letter of “Veins de Monte,” the Elder of the Mountain, to Leopold, duke of Austria, exculpating king Richard from the murder of the marquis of Montferrat. He considers the letter to be a forgery of Longchamp, bishop of Ely, and, as such, unworthy of a place in the Foedera.

    A minute of the board in March states, that, having considered Dr. Clarke’s several reports, they are of opinion “that the work will be best executed by a consolidation of all the old and new materials in a chronological series, with indexes, analytical and alphabetical, according to the plan laid down in the said reports; and order that Dr. Clarke do forthwith prepare materials for a first volume of a new edition of Rymer according to the said plan, and be desired to propose a plan for carrying on the continuation concurrently.”

    In this new edition the various supplements were to be embodied chronologically, and the whole material so arranged and fixed that the Foedera should be a permanent standard.

    Dr. Clarke’s labors in this public undertaking extended through a period of nearly ten years, in the course of which he spent many a toilsome day among the antiquated records in the Tower, the Chapter-House, and the Cottonian, Harleian, Lansdown, and Sloane collections in the British Museum, as well as at the State Paper Office and the Rolls Chapel. The same work called him to take frequent journeys to the provincial repositories of such documents, in the archives of various cathedrals, the Bodleian at Oxford, and the libraries of Corpus Christi and other Colleges at Cambridge; and in Dublin, at Christchurch, and the library of Trinity College. He found in general every facility from the local authorities, and at the British Museum was furnished with a room which he could call his own apartment. Associated with him, as assistants, at different times, were Messrs. Holbrooke and Janion, Dr. Steinhauer, and his son, Mr. J.

    W. Clarke.

    In the preceding chapters we have had frequent occasion to notice journeys taken by him for the prosecution of this work. A recurrence to these will show that most of them were connected with evangelical labors as well.

    This combination, as we have seen, was at times most oppressive and wasting in its effects on Dr. Clarke’s strength and health. He made repeated overtures to the government commission to be absolved from further service, but did not find a release till the year 1819, when his constitution was so broken down as to compel him to be decisive in renouncing it. The board, though they had refused before, now accepted his resignation; on which occasion the late Speaker, then Lord Colchester, addressed to him a kind letter, in which he says, — “I will not lose a day in assuring you that you have, and ever had, through your long and successful labors under the Record Commission, my entire confidence and approbation.” In finishing his connection with this national work, which he truly calls “a proud monument to the glory of the British nation, and to the enlarged views and munificence of those sovereigns under whose auspices it was projected,” the Doctor gives expression to his devout gratitude in the following words: — “I register my thanks to God, the Fountain of wisdom and goodness, who has enabled me to conduct this difficult and delicate work for ten years, with credit to myself, and satisfaction to his Majesty’s government To God only wise be glory and dominion by Christ Jesus, for ever and ever. Amen.”

    The studies connected with the discharge of these official duties gave Dr. Clarke a more thorough insight into English history than was possessed by some men who have become famous as historians. Compared with his attainments in this kind of knowledge, those of Hume, for example, were, superficial. That elegant but plausible writer had, as Dr. Clarke learned, the privilege of consulting the Records, but did not take the trouble to avail himself of it. A man of genius, it seems, can write history without much research: like M. Vertot, who finished his narrative of the siege of Malta before getting the authentic documents; and, when they arrived, threw them on the sofa behind him, with, “My siege is done.”

    Dr. Clarke’s researches tended to confirm him in those liberal yet constitutional principles which formed his political creed from first to last.

    He was what is called a moderate Whig. “Honor all men — honor the king:” Dr. Clarke did both. He loved the British Constitution, recognizing its practical and expansive capabilities for the exercise of those harmonious duties. “The constitution is good,” says he; “it is the best under the sun: it can scarcely be mended. The executive government may in particular cases adopt bad measures, and therefore should not be vindicated in those things: yet, in general the executive government must be supported; because, if it be not, down goes the constitution, and up rise anarchy and every possible evil.”

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