William Edward Hartpole Lecky, Irish historian and political theorist, is born at Newtown Park, near Dublin, on March 26, 1838. His major work is an eight-volume History of England during the Eighteenth Century.
Lecky is educated at Kingstown, Armagh, at Cheltenham College, and at Trinity College, Dublin, where he graduates BA in 1859 and MA in 1863, and where he studies divinity with a view of becoming a priest in the Church of Ireland.
In 1860, Lecky publishes anonymously a small book entitled The Religious Tendencies of the Age, but upon leaving college he turns to historiography. In 1861 he publishes Leaders of Public Opinion in Ireland, containing brief sketches of Jonathan Swift, Henry Flood, Henry Grattan, and Daniel O’Connell, originally anonymous and republished in 1871. The essay on Swift, rewritten and amplified, appears again in 1897 as an introduction to an edition of Swift’s works. Two surveys follow: A History of the Rise and Influence of Rationalism in Europe (2 vols., 1865), and A History of European Morals from Augustus to Charlemagne (2 vols., 1869). The latter arouses criticism, with its opening dissertation on “the natural history of morals.”
Lecky then concentrates on his major work, A History of England during the Eighteenth Century, Vols. i. and ii. which appear in 1878, and Vols. vii. and viii., which complete the work, in 1890. In the “cabinet” edition of 1892, in twelve volumes, A History of Ireland in the Eighteenth Century is separated out.
A volume of Poems (1891) is less successful. In 1896, he publishes two volumes entitled Democracy and Liberty, in which he considers modern democracy. The pessimistic conclusions at which he arrives provoked criticism both in the UK and the United States, which is renewed when he publishes in a new edition (1899) his low estimate of William Ewart Gladstone, then recently dead.
In The Map of Life (1899) Lecky discusses in a popular style ethical problems of everyday life. In 1903 he publishes a revised and enlarged edition of Leaders of Public Opinion in Ireland, in two volumes, with the essay on Swift omitted and that on O’Connell expanded into a complete biography. A critic of the methods by which the Act of Union is passed, Lecky, who grew up as a moderate Liberal, is opposed to Gladstone’s policy of Home Rule and, in 1895, he is returned to parliament as Unionist member for University of Dublin constituency in a by-election. In 1897, he is made a privy councillor, and among the coronation honours in 1902, he is nominated an original member of the new Order of Merit.
William Edward Hartpole Lecky dies in London on October 22, 1903.