William Edward Hartpole Lecky (1838-1903), an Anglo-Irish historian and essayist of classic Whig proclivities, was perhaps the greatest historical scholar Ireland ever produced.
William Lecky was born in Newtown Park near Dublin on March 26, 1838. After the death of his father when he was 14, Lecky was raised as a member of the family of the 8th Earl of Carnwath, whom his stepmother had married. Family wanderings during his childhood gave him a varied education at Kingstown, the Royal School at Armagh, Cheltenham, and Trinity College, Dublin, where he received his bachelor of arts degree in 1859 and his master of arts degree in 1863. An indifferent student, he appears to have benefited much more from the wide range of reading in which he engaged to satisfy his own eclectic interests than from the inspiration of formal academic study.
Lecky entered an active career in letters with the anonymous publication of his first book, Religious Tendencies of the Age, in 1860, at the age of 22. The following year a second work, The Leaders of Public Opinion in Ireland, also published anonymously, was received with disappointing results. Fortunately, Lecky did not have to depend upon his earnings as a writer for financial support; his private income also made it possible for him to develop language skills and to spend a large part of each year working abroad in the great Continental libraries.
Lecky's reputation as historian and essayist was finally secured with the publication of his History of the Rise and Influence of the Spirit of Rationalism (1865) and the History of European Morals from Augustus to Charlemagne (1869). Both proved enormously popular. His most important work, the great multivolumed History of England in the Eighteenth Century, apparently resulted at least in part from a desire to answer James Froude, whose English in Ireland, published in 1872, had passed some unflattering judgments on the people of Ireland. Lecky's magisterial study, whose twelfth and final volume appeared in 1890, occupied his unremitting attention during all the mature years of his scholarly life. The work finally took form in two parts—seven volumes on England and five on Ireland. The undertaking remains a monument to Lecky's scholarly diligence and insight, so much so that it must still be read by serious students of the period despite the severe modifications imposed on some of his judgments by a later generation of scholars. The last major work of his life was a two-volume historical-political essay entitled Democracy and Liberty (1896), in which he, like many another Victorian intellectual, gave voice to some of his doubts about the growing democratic tendencies of his age.
A happy marriage and a successful career were capped in his last years by entry into Parliament, where as a Liberal Unionist he opposed the separatism of the Irish home rule movement. In 1897 he was made a privy councilor and in 1902 a member of the exclusive Order of Merit. Lecky died in London on Oct. 22, 1903.
Lecky was a Whig in the tradition of Edmund Burke, who remained his lifelong intellectual hero. Always suspicious of democracy, he deplored the evils of excess in religion or nationalism; at the same time he was acutely and somewhat pessimistically aware of the importance of mass social influences and ideas in history. Like his contemporary John Richard Green, he helped to reorient the purposes of 19th-century historical writing away from politics and diplomatics.
Biographies of Lecky are Elisabeth van Dedem Lecky (Mrs. W. E. H. Lecky), A Memoir of the Right Honourable William Edward Hartpole Lecky (1909), and James J. Auchmuty, Lecky: A Biographical and Critical Essay (1945).
McCartney, Donal, W.E.H. Lecky, historian and politician, 1838-1903, Dublin: Lilliput Press, 1994.