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Alison, Sir Archibald, The Younger

ALISON, SIR ARCHIBALD, THE YOUNGER, Bart. (1792-1867), the historian, was the younger son, and was born at Kenley, Shropshire, on the 29th of December 1792. He studied at the university of Edinburgh, distinguishing himself especially in Greek and mathematics. In 1814 he passed at the Scottish bar, but he did not at once practise. The close of the war had opened up the continent, and Alison set out in the autumn of 1814 for a lengthened tour in France. It was during this period that the idea of writing his history first occurred to him. A more immediate result of the tour was his first literary work of any importance, Travels in France during the Years 1814-1815, written in collaboration with his brother and A. F. Tytler, which appeared in the latter year. On his return to Edinburgh he practised at the bar for some years with very fair success. In 1822 he became one of the four advocates-depute for Scotland. As a result of the experience gained in this office, which he held until 1830, he wrote his Principles of the Criminal Law of Scotland (1832) and Practice of the Criminal Law of Scotland (1833), which in 1834 led to his appointment by Sir Robert Peel to the office of sheriff of Lanarkshire, which ranks next to a judgeship in the supreme court. The office, though by no means a sinecure, gave him time not only to make frequent contributions to periodical literature, but also to write the long-projected History of Europe, for which he had been collecting materials for more than fifteen years. The history of the period from the beginning of the French Revolution till the restoration of the Bourbons in 1815 was completed in ten volumes in 1842, and met with a success almost unexampled in works of its class. Within a few years it ran through ten editions, and was translated into many of the languages of Europe, as well as into Arabic and Hindustani. At the time of the author's death it was stated that 108,000 volumes of the library edition and 439,000 volumes of the popular edition had been sold. A popularity so widespread must have had some basis of merit, and the good qualities of Alison's work lie upon the surface. It brought together, though not always in a well-arranged form, an immense amount of information that had before been practically inaccessible to the general public. It at least made an attempt to show the organic connexion in the policy and progress of the different nations of Europe; and its descriptions of what may be called external history-of battles, sieges and state pageants-are spirited and interesting. On the other hand the faults of the work are numerous and glaring. The general style is prolix, involved and vicious; mistakes of fact and false deductions are to be found in almost every page; and the constant repetition of trite moral reflections and egotistical references seriously detracts from its dignity. A more grave defect resulted from the author's strong political partisanship, which entirely unfitted him for dealing with the problems of history in a philosophical spirit. His unbending Toryism made it impossible for him to give any satisfactory explanation of so complex a fact as the French Revolution, or accurately to estimate the forces that were to shape the Europe of the 19th century. A continuation of the History, embracing the period from 1815 to 1852, which was completed in four volumes in 1856, did not meet with the same success as the earlier work. The period being so near as to be almost contemporary, there was a stronger temptation, which he seems to have found it impossible to resist, to yield to political prejudice, while the materials necessary for a clear knowledge of the influences shaping European affairs were not as yet accessible. The book is now almost wholly out of date. In 1845 Alison was chosen rector of Marischal College, Aberdeen, and in 1851 of Glasgow University. In 1852 a baronetcy was conferred upon him, and in the following year he was made a D.C.L. of Oxford. His literary activity continued till within a short time of his death, the chief works he published in addition to his History being the Principles of Population (1840), in answer to Malthus; a Life of Marlborough (1847, 2nd edition greatly enlarged, 1852); and the Lives of Lord Castlereagh and Sir C. Stewart (1861.) This latter, based on MS. material preserved at Wynyard Park, is still of value, not only as the only available biography, but more especially because Alison's Tory sympathies enabled him to give a juster appreciation of the character and work of Castlereagh than the Liberal writers by whom for many years he was misjudged and condemned (see LONDONDERRY, Robert Stewart, 2nd marquess of). Three volumes of Alison's political, historical and miscellaneous essays were reprinted in 1850. He died at Possil House, Glaagow, on the 23rd of May 1867. His autobiography, Some Account of my Li/e and Writings, edited by his daughter-in-law, Lady Alison, was published in 1883 at Edinburgh. Sir Archibald Alison married in 1825 Elizabeth Glencairn, daughter of Colonel Tytler, by whom he had three children, Archibald, Frederick and Eliza Frances Catherine. Both sons became distinguished officers.

Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)

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