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The Life of William Robertson

Minister, Historian, and Principal

Jeffrey R. Smitten

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The first modern biography of William Robertson, a key figure of the Scottish Enlightenment

A prominent figure in the Scottish Enlightenment, William Robertson differed from his contemporaries, such as Voltaire, Hume and Gibbon, because he used the critical tools of the Enlightenment to strengthen religion, not to attack it. As an historian, he helped shape 18th-century historiography. As a minister of the Church of Scotland, he sought to make the church fit for a polite age. And, as principal of the University of Edinburgh, he presided over a flourishing of intellectual inquiry in the midst of the Enlightenment. But despite his European fame, he was a controversial figure.

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Bibliographical Note
1. Early Years, 1721–35
2. Education of a Minister, 1734–44
3. Parish Ministry, 1744–50
4. Ministry and History, 1750–9
5. "Innumerable Occupations", 1760–9
6. Achievement and Decline, 1770–80
7. Last Years, 1781–93

About the Author

Jeffrey R. Smitten, Professor Emeritus of English at Utah State University, has published a number of articles on William Robertson and edited Dugald Stewart’s biography of Robertson. With Richard B. Sher, he co-edited Scotland and America in the Age of the Enlightenment and, with Sher and Nicholas Phillipson, an edition of Robertson’s Works. He has also served as Executive Secretary of the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies.


Drawing on a host of previously unknown letters, manuscripts and other primary source materials, this book adds significantly to our understanding of Robertson's life, especially as a Scottish Presbyterian clergyman. Thanks to Jeffrey Smitten, the long wait for a modern biography of William Robertson is finally over.

- Richard Sher, New Jersey Institute of Technology

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