Frederick the Great, historiography
[Thomas Carlyle, French Revolution]
historian, history, biography

Home > History & Historians > Famous Historian index > Thomas Carlyle

   Site Map   |   Slide Shows   |   Guest Book   |   Links   |   About Us   |   Download Wisdoms   |   Support Us  

Thomas Carlyle
The French Revolution, A History

  Thomas Carlyle was born in December 1795 at Ecclefechan in southern Scotland as the eldest of an eventual nine children with which the second marriage of a James Carlyle was blessed. This James Carlyle earned his living as a stonemason but later farmed on a small scale.

  The family were raised within a strict but affectionate Calvinist religious tradition and, as Thomas showed a great aptitude for learning at Annandale grammar school, his father decided to support his being educated as a divinity student at the University of Edinburgh.

  At Edinburgh Carlyle distinguished himself in Mathematics and was offered a fairly well paid teaching position at Annan in 1814 that prompted him to 'temporarily' leave aside his intentions to become a minister of religion. Over the immediately subsequent years Carlyle continued in his intention to eventually become a minister but in the meantime taught Mathematics at Annan and then Kirkcaldy. This later posting brought Carlyle into association, and close friendship, with Edward Irving. Irving had a small personal library from which Carlyle was able to read books concerning history and French literature. Carlyle also considered entering into marriage with a Margaret Gordon but her friends used their influence against such an engagement.

  Carlyle was dissatisfied with teaching as a profession and in 1818, when Irving left Annan, Carlyle resigned and moved to Edinburgh. Carlyle now entered a period of economic privation where he briefly attempted to study law and then became a private tutor whilst also writing articles for the Edinburgh Encyclopedia. These were also months of spiritual crisis from which Carlyle emerged with a faith that led him approach the world with a measure indignation and defiance. In June 1821, in Leith Walk, Edinburgh, he had experienced a striking spiritual rebirth. Put briefly and prosaically, it consisted in a sudden clearing away of doubts as to the beneficent organization of the universe; a semi-mystical conviction that he was free to think and work, and that honest effort and striving would not be thwarted by what he called the "Everlasting No."

  During these times Carlyle taught himself the German language building on an introductory course taken whilst at Edinburgh University and was able to participate in the rising tendency for people widely in Europe to recognise that there were several important new intellectual currents arising out of German thought. He also made an intensive study of German literature and was particularly drawn to the works of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.

  Through his friendship with Irving Carlyle gained a well paid tutorship that lasted from January 1822 to July 1824. He nonetheless found the time to prepare a translation of Goethe's Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre (1796) that was published as Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship in 1824. Carlyle also wrote a Life of Schiller which appeared first in serial form in 1823-4 in the London Magazine and was published as a book in 1825.

  Carlyle felt that it might be possible for him to launch his talents on a broader stage and, after travels in London, decided that his best option was to settle back in his native district where he could live simply and still achieve a great deal in the line of interpreting German thought for English consumption. He also wrote for the Edinburgh Review, a literary periodical.

  In 1826 Carlyle married Jane Baillie Welsh, whom he had first met through his friend Irving in 1821. Miss Welsh was a talented writer who, at 25, was some six years younger than Carlyle.
  Miss Welsh had inherited property from her father, a doctor, in 1819 yet at the time of their marriage Miss Welsh and Carlyle agreed that Miss Welsh's mother should benefit from the income of the Welsh family property for her lifetime. Carlyle was personally intent on trying to develop his talents as a principled, rather than popular, writer moreso than on gaining a greater level of income. The young couple embarked on life together with some expectation of being obliged to live frugally and possibly well below the level of material security in which Miss Welsh had been raised.

  The couple lived modestly in Edinburgh where they attracted the favourable notice of literary society. Carlyle interested himself in transcendentalism and mysticism. He was unsuccessful in an attempt to gain a professorship at St. Andrews although his application had received the support of influential friends.

  After 1828 the Carlyles lived in a modest house located on a farm in Craigenputtock, Scotland, that was owned by Mrs. Welsh. Here Carlyle wrote a philosophical satire, Sartor Resartus (The Tailor Retailored), which despite the "passion" that he had put into it was found to be difficult to profitably place with a publisher.
  In late 1831 and into 1832 the Carlyles attempted to establish themselves in London. Despite gaining introductions to some personalities in the London literary scene, including John Stuart Mill, the Carlyle's were unable to see their way to actually settling down to live there. The Carlyle's finances were assisted in these difficult times by loans from Lord Jeffrey the editor of the Edinburgh Review.

  The couple returned to Craigenputtock in 1832 and Carlyle began to make more headway in Edinburgh literary circles. He found inspiration amidst the contents of the Advocate's Library for his celebrated work "Diamond Necklace." Carlyle's satire "Sartor Resartus" was published between 1833 and 1834 in Fraser's Magazine but was not particularly well received by its readership.

  It was in these times that Carlyle wrote some of his most distinguished essays and also established what proved to be a lifelong friendship with the American essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson following Emerson's visit of August 1833 to him in Scotland. Carlyle also began to study the history of the French Revolution.

  Following on from this mixed success in Scotland the Carlyles decided to again try their luck in the English capital, this move being decided in large part by the readier availability of resources for historical study there.
  In the summer of 1834 the Carlyles moved to the Chelsea, London, and this time Thomas Carlyle had more success as a man of letters becoming accepted in the literary circle that included the essayists Leigh Hunt and John Stuart Mill.

  In London Carlyle's friendship with Mill was of practical benefit in that Mill had a collection of books relating to the French Revolution that were made available to Carlyle. When Carlyle had finished the manuscript of the first volume he lent it to Mill who happened to leave it at the house of a lady friend. The manuscript was subsequently regarded by an illiterate housekeeper to be a pile of waste paper, and was as such consumed by flames whilst at this house. Although Mill offered to pay a fairly handsome amount to Carlyle by way of compensation Carlyle who was most reluctant to take any of Mill's money was eventually persuaded into accepting a lesser sum that was, in his opinion, broadly appropriate to the loss of time that had been incurred.

  It was in January 1837 that Carlyle finished his two volume "The French Revolution, A History." This study concentrated on the oppression of the poor, and was immediately successful upon its publication in that same year. Carlyle's "French Revolution" benefited by being favourably reviewed by Mill and by Thackeray. It is seen as not being fully in line with stricter modern standards of factual accuracy yet as being enhanced by the insight, sympathy and intuition about human life that Carlyle was able to portray upon a solid historical framework.

  Following on from the publication of his work on the French Revolution Carlyle was sought after to give series of Lectures from which he earned a welcome income from 1837-41.
  One of these series of lectures was published, in 1841, as On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History. The central theme of this publication maintained that world civilization had developed as it had primarily because of the activities of heroes. This theme being different in tenor from the quasi-philosophic intuitions about the human condition, and its vagaries, that had featured strongly in his earlier work about the revolution in France.

  Carlyle was by this time firmly established as one of the leading literary and intellectual figures in the London of the day. Amongst his later historical works are Life and Letters of Oliver Cromwell (1845) and his celebrated multi volume History of Frederick the Great that was published between 1858 and 1865. This later work was based on extensive researches that included a number of trips to Germany to survey battlefields and to obtain more source materials. The final work benefits from Carlyle's literary talents as well as from his extensive scholarship.

  In 1865 Carlyle was elected to the rectorship of the University of Edinburgh. He was awarded the Prussian Order of Merit in 1874 due to the respect with which his History of Frederick the Great was regarded. In this same year Carlyle was offered a knighthood and pension by the British prime minister Disraeli but these were courteously declined.

  Upon Carlyle's death in February 1881 it was made possible for his remains to be interred in Westminster Abbey but his wish to be buried beside his parents in Ecclefechan was respected.
  Carlyle left property to fund bursaries at Edinburgh University and left his library to Harvard University.

Emerson's "Transcendental" approach to History
.
Spirituality & the wider world
.
Some Social Theory and insights
.
The Unfolding of History
.
The Vienna Declaration
.
Framework Convention on National minorities


Return to start of
Thomas Carlyle
The French Revolution