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
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
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
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
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
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
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.