Full Title: Public Characters of 1798-9. A New Edition. Enlarged and Corrected to the 25th of March, 1799. To be continued annually. London: Printed for R. Phillips, No. 71, St. Paul’s Church-Yard; and sold by T. Hurst and J. Wallis, Paternoster-Row; Carpenter and Co. Old Bond-Street; R. H. Westley, Strand; and by all booksellers, 1799.
THE object of the Work which is now submitted to the Public, is to exhibit, in the memoirs of the illustrious actors, the public and secret history of the present times. Respectable works, of a a similar description, have been published in various countries on the continent; none, however, have hitherto been attempted, upon the same plan, in this country.
BIOGRAPHY, in all its forms, is allowed to be the most fascinating and instructive species of literary composition. It not only possesses all the advantages of general history, the various excellencies of which may be judiciously interwoven with the lives of eminent personages, but it frequently discovers the minute and latent springs of great events, which, in the comprehensive range of History, would have escaped attention.
Many of the attractions of Biography in general, and some additional advantages, are possessed by contemporary Biography. The memoirs of men, who are the present actors on the great theatre of life, who acquire and demand public confidence, and from whom further results of action or meditation are to be expected, necessarily excite a higher degree of curiosity, than the lives of those who have made their exit from the stage, by some no future good or evil can be performed or perpetrated, and who, “dead, gone, and forgotten,” are generally carried down the stream of oblivion, and swallowed up in the gulph of unregistered mortality.
It must be admitted, taht the biographer of deceased persons is better enabled, by the independence of his situation, and a more extensive retrospect, to estimate the degree of virtue and vice, and to appreciate the sum total of merit and demeit with greater precision, than the contemporary biographer, who is restrained, by the extreme delicacy of his undertaking, from giving finishing stroke to his delineations of character, whose incomplete materials prevent him from deducing general and important conclusions in their proper latitude, and, in many cases, from discriminating between hypocrisy and sincerity. Still, however, a writer of this description is better able to collect facts, and may, in general, be more depended upon, as to the authenticity of his testimony, than he who writes the lives of deceased persons. Many eminent men, respecting whom posterity have cause to lament the deficiency of biographical information, have passed their early days in obscurity, and those who then knew them were either too ignorant, or too unobservant, to be able to make any communications respecting them. When death has once set his seal upon their labours, few or no opportunities offer of obtaining satisfactory and circumstantial information; their early contemporaries are, probably, also gone off the stage. From causes like these, how little is known of some of the most distinguished luminaries that have irradiated the political and literary hemispheres! Of many we know only that they filled elevated situations, that they composed splendid works, made important discoveries, died in a particular year, and were at length interred in some venerable repository of the dead.
An annual publication lie the present will best provide against a future deficiency of this kind, with respect to the distinguished personages who now fill up the drama of public life in the British empire. The Editors are not likely to commit themselves, and the reputation of their work, by inserting direct falsehoods, or partial misrepresentations: no character, of whom they now or may hereafter treat, can be thought insensible to the love of contemporary or posthumous fame; hence, should any undesigned error, or any inaccurate statement, inadvertently escape them, it may be rationally presumed, that the party affected, from a regard to his own reputation, will take the earliest opportunity to correct such mistatements [sic; or that some friend, intimately acquainted with the subject, in the candour and warmth of esteem, may be stimulated to write a more particular and accurate account, for a subsequent edition.
From these premises may it not be reasonably concluded, that this Work possesses a legitimate claim to public patronage, as well from its promised utility to future biographers and historians, as from its being an highly entertaining and useful assemblage of interesting and important facts and anecdotes?
In respect to the present volume, it is necessary to remark, that the articles are written by a number of gentlemen, whose adopted signatures are affixed to their respective communications. Such a multiplicity of facts, in so extensive and various a group of characters, could not have been supplied by any one or two individuals. Although a delicate task, the mode generally adopted in the composition of this Work, has been to apply to some friend of the party, whose intimate knowledge of the relative facts and circumstances qualified him to do ample justice to the character. This indispensible [sic] arrangement, requisite to produce the faithful execution of the volume, has, however, occasioned a variety in the style and manner of the several articles, which, at first sight, may give it a sort of heterogeneous appearance, but will not detract from its real merit in the estimation of the judicious reader . . .