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nine hundred years. It followed, that when the posterity of Noah began to separate into small families, and settle in a wilderness; and when those families increasing, made war upon one another, a circumstance that caused new dispersions, (the duration of life in every succeeding generation becoming shorter and shorter, tradition must have failed, knowledge disappeared, and the several nations on the face of the earth, in a few ages, became nearly savage. This abbreviation of human life, and a a similar decay of memory, made the art of writing necessary; but before that practice became general, the origin of nations was forgotten.
Our ancestors, and the several nations who have grown up and perished, had no idea of the importance of civil history; they did not perceive that it might serve as one of the best lights to posterity. If the first settlers in every region, when civil government was instituted, have neglected to preserve the history of early occurrences, their descendants, in sundry cases, have made ample amends. They have not only gone back to the very beginning of the nation, but they have gone many a thousand years beyond it.
The oldest credible history of any nation, that has descended to us, is the history of the family of Abraham. That history was written a little more than thirty-three hundred years ago, and is so well supported by collateral circumstances, that it cannot be disputed. The oldest history of any other nation, that has the semblance of truth, is the history of the Grecians by Herodotus. That history was written a little more than twenty-two hundred years ago. When I speak of the oldest history that bears the appearance of truth, it is not to be understood that some nations have not the history of older times than either of the people mentioned. The Chinese, the Egyptians, and the Hindoos, de
duce their history from an earlier period. They have claims to great antiquity. The Chinese have a chronology of princes that extends back to the great Fo-hi, who stands at the head of their race. He lived many centuries before the flood of Noah. His origin was somewhat miraculous; for, like the Trojan Eneas, he was the son of a goddess. That celestial personage, walking on the bank of a river, was encircled by a rainbow, and after twelve years, she was delivered of a son. This son of a rainbow, from whom a long race of princes descended, was not so kind as to enlighten the world by any marks of his wisdom. But as Confucius himself, the great Chinese legislator, confesses, that for want of evidence, he could give no certain account of his nation beyond three thousand years, which carries their history back to the birth of Noah, all pretences of Chinese historians to greater antiquity, are doubtless the pure effect of vanity. When confucius mentions three thousand years as the duration of the empire, he seems to have used a round number, that was nearly correct: for Noah was born about two thousand five hundred years before the age of Confucius. There are many reasons for believing, that Noah, about one hundred and fifty years after the flood, removed from Persia to China, of which he became the first patriarch, or emperor; and the fabulous history of the Chinese writers, makes this opinion nearly certain. When they tell us, dealing in wonders, that their first emperor was the son of a rainbow, they must have borrowed the fable from the circumstance of that emperor being the man to whom the first rainbow was given, in confirmation of a covenant. It is admitted, that Confucius is the most correct heathen philosopher of whom we have any account ; but he modestly disclaimed being the author of the precepts that he taught. He borrowed them, as he said, from the
writings of men who flourished fifteen hundred years before his time. Those men had been cotemporary with Noah, and doubtless were instructed by that excellent man.
The Egyptians, when they had learning among them, carried back their history to a surprising length of time. They had long been governed, as they alleged, by divine beings. Those divine princes were succeeded by a race of mortals. Herodotus was informed by their priests, that from the age of Menes, the first of mortal kings, to Sethos, who died about two thousand four hundred and eighty years ago, there had been a regular succession of princes, who reigned in all about eleven thousand three hundred and sixty-six years. This was a longer succession than has fallen to the lot of any other kingdom. But the most astonishing circumstance observed in that long dynasty was, that the sun, contrary to his usual course, rose twice in the west, and sat in the east. People there are among us, who affect to believe this story, and they have a pleasure in repeating it, as we presume, because it contradicts the Mosaic history of man. The man who is capable of digesting this story, is prepared to see the invisible mountain.
The Hindoos have by far the highest pretences to antiquity. Their sacred book, that contains the institutes of civil and religious duties, was received, as they pretend, from the supreme being himself, by a subordinate divine being, about one thousand nine hundred and sixty millions of years ago. From another divine being, of the saine rank, there descended two races of kings, called children of the sun, and children of the moon, who reigned in different parts of India, about three millions of years. When compared to those people we are perfect ephemera. The ancients do not seem to have believed that much benefit could arise from correct
history, else they would have been more careful to preserve it. The pontiffs in Rome had the charge of preserving their annals; the magi in Persia should have been their historians: the priests in Egypt had the charge of preserving their public transactions. We know in what manner they discharged this part of their duty; for in the time of Herodotus, they could not tell when or by whom their pyramids were built; nor could they give any credible account of Sesostris, who was confessedly among the greatest of their kings. Could any credit be given to such men, when they talked of a succession of kings for more than eleven thousand years?
The great defects or chasms in civil history are not the only faults of which we complain : the frequent departures from truth in what they have written, is another subject of serious complaint. When I speak of their neglect of truth, I have no reference to those writers who tell us of gods and demi-gods who reigned in days of old. Such writers are beyond criticism. But Herodotus himself, who is called the father of history, was a dealer in romance. Like a poet, he sought to please rather than to instruct. He gave us a collection of stories that he advanced on the mere authority of faithless tradition. This father of history has been too well imitated by the greater number of his posterity. Perhaps the satirist said rather too much, when he proposed to write a history “in the common form,” in which there would not be a line of truth, except this single assertion, that the whole of it was false.
The historian is often biassed by national prejudices, which induce him to depart from the truth, or he may wish to embellish his history by dealing in the marvellous. The effects are nearly the same. I will give a small specimen of each' kind: An ancient historian, whose ancestors were Goths, and had been driven from their country by the Huns
when they passed from Asia into Europe, speaking of the Huns, gives the following account of their origin : He says, that a certain Gothic king, removing from Scandinavia into Sarmatia in Asia, discovered, that among bis subjects there were many witches. He banished those witches into a wilderness at a considerable distance. Evil spirits that inhabited the desert fell in love with the witches, by whom they had children: these were the ancestors of the Huns. However ridiculous this story must appear, it was advanced by a respectable historian at the risk of his character. It is known that the famous Attila invaded the Roman territories in Italy more than once; but it is not so clear that he ever came to Rome. We are told, however, by Damascus the historian, that in the fifth century he marched to Rome with a great army of Scythians. That under the walls of the city he encountered a Roman army equally numerous. They fought with such uncommon fury, that the whole of both armies were killed, except a few who were lifeguards to the king, or the commanding general ; that for three days and three nights after the slaughter of the armies a constant war was carried on between the souls of the dead Romans and Scythians, with much uproar or noise. How many of them were killed, the author has not stated, nor was it necessary. The story is sufficiently wonderful.
Historians, too, in order to gratify the vitiated taste of their readers, are apt to cominend the worst of men with more ardour than they commend the best. “ Probitas laudatur et alget.” Few men in any country are admired for a single murder, or a single act of robbery. But the man who murders thousands and tens of thousands; who desolates whole kingdoms, robbing every inhabitant, and filling the country with mourning widows and perishing children; that man is sure to be great