Henry Thomas Buckle was an eminent British historian. He was born at Lee, in Kent. Despite having had no formal education, he was to become one of the most celebrated British historians of the 19th century. Traveling widely, he taught himself 19 languages and devoted himself to writing an extensive and detailed history of English civilization.

The vast extent of this project can be gauged by Buckle’s book, Introduction to the History of Civilization in England (originally published in two volumes, 1857 and 1861), which became an international best seller. The definitive critical edition of this work, edited by J. M. Robertson, consists more than 900 pages in small type, and this edition was merely intended to be an introduction to additional volumes. Buckle never lived to complete his project. Always in frail health and having worked himself to exhaustion, he died in Damascus at age 42.

Buckle’s Introduction is usually remembered for its defense of the thesis that history is governed by deterministic laws of mental development, most notably the progress of knowledge. Also significant is its strident defense of laissez‐​faire liberalism.

The Introduction is a comparative intellectual history—richly detailed and meticulously documented—of four countries: England, Spain, France, and Scotland. Buckle traces the development of individual liberty in each country and attempts to isolate the factors that explain why freedom was more prevalent in some countries than in others. The result is a masterpiece of libertarian literature, but also a work that is virtually unknown to modern readers.

Further Readings

Buckle, Henry Thomas. Introduction to the History of Civilization in England. J. M. Robertson, ed. New York: Albert and Charles Boni, 1925.

Huth, Alfred Henry. The Life and Writings of Henry Thomas Buckle. New York: Appleton, 1880.

George H. Smith
Originally published