A biography of Newton, intended for such a collection as this, must necessarily be much condensed; the account of his discoveries must be little more than allusion, and a perfect list of his writings and their editions is out of the question. The only life which exists on any considerable scale (as justly remarked by the author), is that by Sir David Brewster in the Family Library (No. 24): this will be our chief reference on matters of fact. On those of opinion, particularly as to the social character of Newton, we must differ in some degree from our guide, as well as from all those (no small number) whose well founded veneration for the greatest of philosophical inquirers has led them to regard him as an exhibition of goodness all but perfect, and judgment unimpeachable. That we can follow them a long way will sufficiently appear in the course of this sketch.

Isaac Newton was born at Woolsthorpe, near Grantham, in Lincolnshire, on Christmas Day, 1642; a weakly and diminutive infant, of whom it is related, that, <79> at his birth, he might have found room in a quart mug. He died March 20, 1727, after more than eighty-four years of more than average bodily health and vigour: it is a proper pendant to the story of the quart mug to state that he never lost more than one of his second teeth. His father, Isaac Newton, though lord of the poor manor of Woolsthorpe, was in fact a small farmer, who died before the birth of his son. The manor, which had been in the family about 100 years, was Newton's patrimony: it descended to the grandson of his father's brother. This heir sold it in 1732 to Edmund Turnor, to whose descendant the world is much indebted for a collection of facts connected with Newton's history. A curious tradition of a conversation of Newton with Gregory, in which the former affirmed himself to be descended from a Scotch family, his grandfather having come from East Lothian at the accession of James I., will be found in the appendix to Brewster's life, with a careful attempt to see how far the presumption it affords can be supported by collateral evidence. But Newton himself (twenty years before the date of this conversation) gave his pedigree on oath into the Heralds' Office, stating that he had reason to believe that his great grandfather's father was John Newton, of Westby, in Lincolnshire. To bring all that relates to his family together, his mother, when he was three years old, married Barnabas Smith, rector of North Witham, by whom she had one son and two daughters (who gained by marriage the names of Pilkington and Barton). The children of these three, four nephews and four nieces of Newton by the half-blood, inherited his personal property, amounting to 32,000l. One of these nieces, Catherine, who married a Colonel Barton, became a widow, and afterwards lived in Newton's house. After her second marriage (to Mr. Conduit, who succeeded Newton as master of the Mint) she and her husband resided with him until his death. They are the authority for many anecdotes given by Fontenelle in the 'Eloge' read to the Academy of Sciences. Mrs. Conduit's only daughter, Catherine, married Mr. Wallop, <80> afterwards Viscount Lymington by inheritance; she transmitted a large collection of Newton's papers, also by inheritance, to the family of the Earl of Portsmouth. These 'Portsmouth Papers' still exist unpublished: and there is also a mass of papers in the Library of Trinity College, Cambridge, which are well known.

At his mother's second marriage, Newton passed under the care of his grandmother. After some education at day schools, he was placed, in his twelfth year, at the public school at Grantham. He distinguished himself here by a turn for mechanics and carpentering; and among his early tastes was the love of writing verses and of drawing. The dials which he made on the wall of his family house at Woolsthorpe have lasted to our day. They were lately carefully cut out by Mr. Turnor, and presented, framed in glass for preservation, to the Royal Society. While at Grantham he formed a friendship, which afterwards became a more serious feeling, with a young lady named Storey, who lived with the family in which he boarded. Their marriage was prevented by their poverty: Miss Storey was afterwards twice married, and as Mrs. Vincent, at the age of eighty-two, after Newton's death, gave many particulars concerning his early life. He continued her friend to the end of his life, and was her frequent benefactor: and he lived and died a bachelor, though to say for her sake would perhaps be going beyond evidence; particularly when the engrossing nature of his subsequent studies is considered.

When he was fourteen years old his step-father died, and his mother, who then took up her residence at Woolsthorpe, recalled him from school to assist in the management of the farm. As it was found, however, that he was constantly occupied with his books when he should have been otherwise engaged, his maternal uncle recommended that he should be sent to Cambridge. He was accordingly admitted, June 5, 1660, a member of Trinity College, a foundation which his name has ever since not only supported, but invigorated. According to <81> the college books, he was subsizar[1] in 1661, scholar in 1664, Bachelor of Arts in 1665, Junior Fellow in 1667, Master of Arts and Senior Fellow in 1668. In 1669, Dr. Barrow resigned the Lucasian Professorship of Mathematics, and Newton was appointed his successor. From this period, when all money cares were removed by the emoluments of his fellowship and professorship, we must date the beginning of Newton's public career.

To go back a little; it does not appear that Newton went to Cambridge with any remarkable amount of acquired knowledge, or any results of severe discipline of mind. He had read Euclid, it is said, and considered the propositions as self- evident truths. This is some absurd version of his early studies: many propositions, no <82> doubt, are very evident; but if Newton ever gave this account of himself, which we do not believe, it proves nothing but that the lad carried to the University as much of self-conceit as the man brought away of learning and judgment. That the young mechanician, desultory in his previous reading, deep beyond his years in construction,[2] and practical verification, found within himself at first some dislike to the beaten road of mathematics, and was willing to make it royal by admitting all he was asked to prove, is what we can easily believe: for such is the most frequent tendency of an unbalanced exercise of manual ingenuity. That he may have stated this when he expressed his regret that he had not paid greater attention to the geometry of the ancients, is not improbable. Were such his bent, the discipline of the University would soon show a mind like his the paramount necessity of a different mode of proceeding. Again, we are not told anything of Newton's pupillar career at Cambridge, except that he is known to have[3] bought a prism (an epoch in his life) in 1664; and that, in the same or the next year, being competitor for a college law-fellowship with a Mr. Robert Uvedale, the two candidates were of perfectly equal merit, and Dr. Barrow accordingly elected Mr. Uvedale as the senior in standing. We have no account of any great sensation produced by the talents of Newton during his college career. Even Barrow, the best judge in Cambridge, and, after Wallis, in England, writing to Collins in 1669 (when he was on the point of resigning the mathematical chair to Newton), mentions him as an unknown man[4] of <83> great promise, in terms of high, but not unusual commendation.

The first period of Newton's life is twenty-seven years, ending with his appointment to the Lucasian professorship. The second, of twenty-six years, ending with his appointment to his first office in the mint in 1695, was the period of the announcement of all his discoveries. The third and longest, of thirty-two years, containing his official residence in London, saw him in the uninterrupted possession of as much fame as man can have, and power never equalled over those of the same pursuits as himself. The merely biographical history of his second period is not long. Dec. 21, 1671, and Jan. 11, 1671-2, the Royal Society entered on their minutes, in such terms as people use who have not the gift of prophecy, two of the most important announcements they ever had to make. "Mr. Isaac Newton, Professor of Mathematics in the University of Cambridge, was proposed candidate by the Lord Bishop of Salisbury (Dr. Seth Ward)," and "Mr. Isaac Newton was elected." During the whole of this second period, he was seldom out of Cambridge more than three or four weeks in one year. Having missed the Law Fellowship (which was a lay fellowship), he would have been required, in 1675, either to take orders or to vacate the fellowship which he did hold. But in that year he obtained a dispensation from Charles II., no doubt granted at the application of the college. He lectured on optics in the year following his appointment to the Professorship; and it would appear that he lectured on elementary mathematics. The 'Arithmetica Universalis' (published by Whiston, it was said against Newton's consent, which Whiston denies) was taken from the lectures delivered on algebra and its application to geometry, which were preserved in the depositories of the university. When, in 1687, James II., among his other attempts of the same kind, ordered the University <84> of Cambridge to admit a Benedictine as Master of Arts without taking the oaths, and upon the resistance of the university, Newton was appointed one of the delegates to the High Court for the purpose of stating the case. The king withdrew his order, and in the next year Newton was proposed as Member of Parliament for the University, and gained his election by a small majority. He sat accordingly in the Convention Parliament which declared the throne vacant, though it appears by the records of the college that, except in 1688 and 1689, he was not absent from the university often enough or long enough to have taken much share in public business.

In 1692 occurred the curious episode of his history which produced abroad, as has recently appeared, a report that he had become insane. Most readers know the tradition of his dog Diamond having upset a light among the papers which contained his researches, and of the calmness with which he is said to have borne the loss, The truth, as appears by a private diary of his acquaintance Mr. de la Pryme, recently discovered, is, that in February, 1692, he left a light burning when he went to chapel, which, by unknown means, destroyed his papers, and among them a large work on optics, containing the experiments and researches of twenty years. "When Mr. Newton came from chapel, and had seen what was done, everybody thought that he would have run mad; he was so troubled thereat that he was not himself for a month after." Such phrases, reported, gave rise to a memorandum in the diary of the celebrated Huyghens (the first foreigner who understood and accepted the theory of gravitation), stating that he had been told that Newton had become insane, either from study, or from the loss of his laboratory and manuscripts by fire — that remedies had been applied by means of which he had so far recovered as to be then beginning again to understand his own Principia. That Newton was in ill health in 1692 and 1693 is known, but his letters to Dr. Bentley on the Deity, written during that period, are proof that he had not lost his mind.


We now give a slight enumeration of the matters on which Newton's attention was fixed during the second period, which we have just quitted.

Optics. — The great discovery of the unequal refrangibility of the rays of light was made in 1666, the year in which he was driven from Cambridge by the plague. In 1668 he resumed his inquiries, and, judging that the decomposition of light which he had discovered would render it impossible to construct refracting telescopes free from colour, or achromatic, he applied himself to the improvement of the reflecting telescope. The telescope which he made with his own hands, now in possession of the Royal Society, was made in 1671. It was submitted to the Society immediately after his election as a Fellow, and was followed by the account of his discovery of the decomposition of light. This explanation of the known phenomenon of the colours of the prismatic spectrum was fully appreciated by the Society: but Newton had to reply to various objections from foreign philosophers, and to those of Hooke at home. At this time first appeared (indeed there had been nothing before to draw it out) that remarkable trait in his character of which we shall afterwards speak; extreme aversion to all kinds of opposition. "I intend," he says, "to be no further solicitous about matters of philosophy." And again, "I was so persecuted with discussions arising from the publication of my theory of light, that I blamed my own imprudence for parting with so substantial a blessing as my quiet to run after a shadow."

The researches on the colours of thin plates, and the explanation known by the name of the Theory of Fits of Reflexion and Transmission, was communicated to the Royal Society in 1765-6. Those on the inflexion of light, though probably made long before 1704, first appeared in that year, in his treatise on Optics. He never would publish this work as long as Hooke lived, from that fear of opposition above noted.

Principia; Theory of Universal Gravitation. — The discoveries of Kepler had laid down the actual laws of the planetary motions: and the idea of universal gravita <86> tion began to occupy the minds of those who thought on these subjects. Gravitation was a term of some antiquity used to denote the effort of bodies on the earth to descend: weight, in fact. The notion of matter acting upon matter as an agent of attracting force, and the possibility of such force extending through the heavens, and being the proximate cause of the motions of the planets, was floating through men's minds when Newton first turned his attention to the subject. There has hardly ever been a great discovery in science, without its having happened that the germs of it have been found in the writings of several contemporaries or predecessors of the man who actually made it. In the case before us it had even been asserted as matter of necessity, that supposing attraction to exist, it must be according to the law of the inverse squares of the distances: and Huyghens announced, in 1673, before Newton had completed any part of his system, the relations which exist between attractive force and velocity in circular motion. Newton first turned his attention to the subject in 1666, at Woolsthorpe; sitting alone in a garden, his thoughts turned towards that power of gravity which extends to the tops of the highest mountains, and the question whether the power which retains the moon in her orbit might not be the same force as that which gives its curvature to the flight of a stone on the earth. To deduce from what Kepler had exhibited of the laws of the planetary motions, that the force must vary inversely as the square of the distance, came within his power: but on trying the value of that force, as deduced from the moon's actual motion, with what it should be as deduced from the force of gravitation on the earth, so great a difference was found as to make him throw the subject aside. The reason of his failure was the inaccurate measure which he used of the size of the earth. The subject was not resumed till 1679; not, as commonly stated, because he then first became acquainted with Picard's measure of the earth (we think Professor Rigaud had shown this), but because leisure then served, and some discussions on a kindred subject at the Royal Society had awakened his attention to the question. In <87> 1679 he repeated the trial with Picard's measure of the earth: and it is said that when he saw that the desired agreement was likely to appear, he became so nervous that he could not continue the calculation, but was obliged to intrust to a friend. From that moment the great discovery must be dated: the connexion of his speculations on motion with the actual phenomena of the universe was established. At the time when we write this, a distant result of that calculation has been announced, which Newton himself would hardly at any period of his life have imagined to have been possible. A planetary body, unknown and unseen till after the prediction, has made itself felt by its attraction on another. Unexplained (and very trivial) irregularities in the motion of Uranus suggested the idea of there being yet another planet by the attraction of which they were produced. From those irregularities the place and distance of that planet have been inferred, and, on looking into the part of the heavens at which its silent action proved it to be, if indeed it existed — there it was found. A heavenly body has thus been calculated into existence, as far as man is concerned.

How much Newton might have got ready it is not easy to say: all that is known is that he kept it to himself. At the end of 1683 Halley had been considering the question, and was stopped by its difficulties; but, being in August, 1684, on a visit to Newton, the latter informed him of what he had done, but was not able to find his papers. After Halley's departure, he wrote them again, and sent them: upon which Halley paid another visit to Cambridge, to urge upon Newton the continuance of his researches; and (December, 1684) informed the Royal Society of them, and of Newton's promise to communicate them. The Society, who knew their man, and how little they should get without asking, appointed a Committee (Halley and Paget, the mathematical master in Christ's Hospital) to keep Newton in mind of his promise; so that (February, 1684-5) a communication was sent up, amounting to those parts of the first Book of the Principia which relate to central forces. <88> Newton went on with the work, and (April 21, 1686) Halley announced to the Society that "Mr. Newton had an incomparable treatise on Motion, almost ready for the press." On the 28th Dr. Vincent (the husband, it is supposed, of Miss Storey) presented the manuscript of the first book to the Society, who ordered it to be printed, and Halley undertook to pay the expenses. But it was not yet in harbour: Hooke, who used to claim everything, asserted that he had been in possession of the whole theory before Newton; with which the latter was so disgusted, that he proposed to omit the third book (being in fact all the application to our system). Halley, the guardian angel of the work, wrote him a letter, in which he soothed him almost as if he had been a child, and prevailed upon him to complete it as first intended. It appeared under the title of Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, about Midsummer, 1687, containing the mathematical discussion of the laws of solid and fluid motion, with their application to the heavenly motions, the tides, the precession of the equinoxes, &c. &c. The reader who understands the terms may refer to the Penny Cyclopædia (article Principia), in which the heads of all the propositions are given. No work on any branch of human knowledge was ever destined to effect so great a change, or to originate such important consequences.

Fluxions, now called the Differential Calculus. A curved figure differs from one the boundaries of which are consecutive straight lines in that there is always a gradual change of direction going on at the boundaries of the former, while at those of the latter the changes are made only at certain places, and as it were in the lump. To apply the doctrines of mathematics to cases in which such perfectly gradual changes take place, had been always the greatest difficulty of the science. Archimedes had conquered it in a few cases: the predecessors of Newton had greatly extended what Archimedes had done, and had given what, to those who come after Newton and Leibnitz, would appear strong hints of an organized method of treating all cases. But the method itself, and an appro <89> priate language for expressing its forms of operation, were still wanting. About 1663, Newton turned his attention to the writings of Des Cartes and Wallis, and, in the path which the latter had gone over, found the celebrated Binomial Theorem: Wallis having in fact solved what would now be called a harder problem. This, far from lessening the merit of the discovery, increases it materially. In 1665 Newton arrived at his discoveries in series, and substantially at his method of fluxions. In 1669 Barrow communicated to Collins (on the occasion before referred to) a paper by Newton on series, not containing anything on fluxions. Various letters of Newton, Collins, and others, state that such a method had been discovered, without giving it. But one letter from Newton to Collins, December 10th, 1672, states a mode of using one case of this method, confined to equations of what are called rational terms (it being admitted on all sides that the great pinch of the question then lay in equations of irrational terms). Leibnitz, who had been in England in 1673, and had heard something indefinite of what Newton had done, desired to know more: and Newton, June 13th, 1676, wrote a letter to Oldenburg, of the Royal Society, which he desired might be communicated to Leibnitz. This letter dwells on the binomial theorem, and various consequences of it; but has nothing upon fluxions. Leibnitz still desiring further information, Newton again wrote to Oldenburg, October 24th, 1676, explaining how he arrived at the binomial theorem, giving various other results, but nothing about fluxions except in what is called a cipher. A cipher it was not, for it merely consisted in giving all the letters of a certain sentence, to be put together if Leibnitz could do it. Thus, the information communicated was —

aaaaaa cc d æ eeeeeeeeeeeee ff iiiiiii lll nnnnnnnnn oooo qqqq rr ssss ttttttttt uuuuuuuuuuuu x.

These are merely the letters of a Latin sentence which, translated word by word in the order of the words, is "given equation any-whatsoever, flowing quantities involving, fluxions to find, and vice versa." Even this letter <90> had not been sent to Leibnitz on March 5, 1677; it was sent soon after this date. But in the mean time, Leibnitz, by himself, or as was afterwards said, having taken a hint from other letters of Newton, had invented his differential calculus. And, as open as Newton was secret, shortly after receipt of the above, he wrote to Oldenburg, June 21, 1677, a letter giving full and clear statement of everything he had arrived at: making an epoch as important in the pure mathematics, as was the discovery of the moon's gravitation in the physical sciences. In the Principia, Newton acknowledges this in the following Scholium: "In letters which went between me and that most excellent geometer G. G. Leibnitz, ten years ago, when I signified that I was in the knowledge of a method of determining maxima and minima, of drawing tangents and the like, and when I concealed it in transferred letters involving this sentence (Data æquatione, &c., as above), that most distinguished man wrote back that he had also fallen upon a method of the same kind, and communicated his method, which hardly differed from mine except in the forms of words and symbols. The foundation of both is contained in this Lemma." In 1684 Leibnitz published his method: while in the Principia, Newton still gave nothing more than the most general description of it, and avoided its direct use entirely. By 1695 it had grown into a powerful system, in the hands of Leibnitz and the Bernoullis: while in England it was very little noticed. About 1695 an alarm began to be taken in England at its progress: and the friends of Newton began to claim what they conceived to be his rights. Wallis excused himself from mentioning the differential calculus in his works, on the ground that it was Newton's method of fluxions. In 1699, Fatio de Duillier, a Genevese residing in England, published an implied charge of plagiarism on Leibnitz: the latter denied the imputation and appealed to Newton's own testimony. The Leipsic Acts made something very like the same charge against Newton: and in the course of the dispute, Keill, an Englishman, asserted (Phil. Trans. 1708) that Leibnitz had taken Newton's method, <91> changing its name and symbols. This accusation roused Leibnitz, who complained to the Society: and after some correspondence, in which allusion was made to the Oldenburg letters as being sources from which he might have drawn knowledge of Newton's method, the Royal Society appointed a committee; consisting of eleven members, to examine the archives, and to defend Newton. This latter purpose, though not stated in words, was fully understood: and since the usual impression is that it was intended for a judicial committee, meaning of course an impartial one, we give in a note[5] some heads <92> of the proof of our assertion. The committee, appointed at different times in March 1711-2, reported in April that they had examined, &c., and that they were of opinion that Leibnitz had no method till after the letter to Collins of December 10, 1672, had been sent to Paris to be communicated to him, and that Keill, in asserting the priority of Newton, had done Leibnitz no injustice. This is, to us, the main part of the report. It was published, with abundance of extracts from letters, and letters at length, most of which had been found among Collins's papers, under the name of Commercium Epistolicum, &c., in 1712 and in 1725. The conclusion was not to the point: Leibnitz asked reparation for a charge of theft, and the answer is that there was no injustice to him in saying that the other party had the goods before the time when he was alleged to have stolen them. With regard to Collins's letter, besides its containing no more than any good mathematician could have drawn from Barrow and Fermat together, no proof[6] was given to <93> the world of Leibnitz ever having seen it, which any man who valued his character would have ventured to produce in any kind of court with rules of evidence. In truth, though the committee were not unfair judges (simply because they were not judges at all), we cannot but pronounce them unscrupulous partisans, for the reasons given and others. Leibnitz never made any formal answer, but his friends retorted the charge of plagiarism upon Newton, and John Bernoulli made a short anonymous reply. The committee, content perhaps with the number of those who were ready to swear that black was both black and white, and neither, and to believe it too, rather than yield anything to a foreigner (and it is to be remembered that Leibnitz, the servant of the Elector, was particularly obnoxious to all the Jacobites), published nothing further: the Society (May 20, 1714), in reference to the complaint of Leibnitz that he had been condemned unheard, resolved that it was never intended that the Report of the Committee should pass for a decision of the Society: but others persisted in calling it so. A mutual friend, the Abbé Conti, being in England in 1715, Leibnitz <94> at the latter end of that year wrote him a letter, in the postscript of which he adverted to the usage he had received. This letter excited curiosity in London: and Newton, whose power in matters of science was then kingly, requested and obtained the presence of all the foreign ambassadors at the Royal Society to collate and examine the papers. After this had been done, Baron Kirmansegger, one of the ambassadors, stated his opinion that the dispute could not be terminated in that manner; that Newton ought to write to Leibnitz, state his own case, and demand an answer. All present agreed, and the King (George I.), to whom the matter was mentioned that same evening, was of the same opinion, Newton accordingly wrote a letter to Conti, in which he relies mostly upon what Leibnitz had either expressly or tacitly admitted. Nine times, on different points, he calls upon Leibnitz to acknowledge something because he had once acknowledged it. Leibnitz replied at great length, Newton did not rejoin, except in notes on the correspondence which he circulated privately among his friends. Leibnitz died in November, 1716, and Newton forthwith handed the whole correspondence, with his final notes, to Raphson, whose history of Fluxions was then in process of printing. The book appeared with this correspondence as an appendix: it is dated 1715, but the publication was retarded, and in the third edition of the Principia, published in 1726, Newton omitted the scholium we have quoted above, in spite of his doctrine that what was once acknowledged should be always acknowledged. In its place he put another scholium, with a similar beginning and ending, but referring not to Leibnitz but to his own letter to Collins of December, 1672. In the Conti correspondence — that is, in the notes which he would not print while Leibnitz was alive – he had evaded the plain meaning of this scholium, asserting that it was not an admission, but a challenge to Leibnitz to make it appear that the latter had the priority; and further, that by referring to the letters, he left the reader to consult them and interpret the paragraph thereby. This was the climax of blind <95> unfairness: for Newton does not specify the dates of the letters, and gives their description wrongly (for they were written to Oldenburg, not to him). And further, the reader could not use them, for they were not published, nor at that time intended for publication.

We shall presently make some remarks on the conduct of Newton in this transaction; but we now proceed to the merits of the question. That Leibnitz derived nothing from Newton except the knowledge that Newton could draw tangents, find maxima and minima, &c., by some organised method, we have no doubt whatever, nor has any one else, at this time, so far as we know. But, though we may be singular in the opinion, we agree with Bernoulli that Newton did derive from Leibnitz (without being aware of the extent of his obligation, we think) the idea of the permanent use of an organized mode of mathematical expression. On a simple question of fact, opinion and construction apart, we take the words of both as indisputable; neither would have descended to bare falsehood. Now, in the first place, it is essential to observe that the genius of Newton did not shine in the invention of mathematical language: and, the disputed fluxions apart, he added nothing to it. The notation of the Principia is anything but a model. We know by the Letter in which Leibnitz communicated his system to Newton, in 1677, that, at that period, Newton received communication of the idea of an organised and permanent language: and the question is whether he had it already. From his own Conti correspondence, written after it was within his knowledge that Bernoulli had asserted him to have taken his idea of notation from Leibnitz, and when he makes the fullest and most definite assertions as to the extent to which he has carried the use of his method, he does not assert that before receipt of Leibnitz's letter he did more than "sometimes" use one dot for a first fluxion, two for a second, &c. Neither of the parties knew of the importance which posterity would attach to this simple point: and it is our full conviction, that Newton, who had only got the length of finding it occasionally convenient to <96> use a specific language, would never have organised that language for permanent use had he not seen the letter of Leibnitz. Even as late as the publication of the Principia he has no better contrivance than using small letters to represent the fluxions of great ones. We are avowedly expressing, in one point, our low estimate of Newton's power: and we believe the reason to have been, that he did not cultivate a crop for which he had no use. He who can make existing language serve his purpose never invents more: and Newton was able to think clearly and powerfully without much addition to the language he found in use. The Principia, obscure as it is, was all light in Newton's mind; and he did not attempt to conquer difficulties which he never knew.

We now pass on to the third period of Newton's life. In 1694, his old friend Charles Montague[7] (afterwards <97> Lord Halifax) became Chancellor of the Exchequer, and it was one of his plans to restore the adulterated coinage. He served both his friend and his plan by making Newton warden of the Mint, a place of five or six hundred a-year (March 19, 1695). In 1699, Newton was made Master of the Mint, on which occasion he resigned to Whiston, as his deputy, the duties and emoluments of the Lucasian Professorship, and resigned to him the professorship itself of 1703. In 1701, he was again elected member for the University; but he was turned out by two sons of Lords in 1705. In 1703, he was chosen President of the Royal Society, and was annually re-elected during the rest of his life. In 1705, he was knighted at Cambridge by Queen Anne. In 1709, he entrusted to Roger Cotes the preparation of the second edition of the Principia, which appeared in 1713. All the correspondence relating to the alterations made in this edition is in the library of Trinity College. In 1714, at the accession of George I., he became an intimate acquaintance of the Princess of Wales (wife of George II.), who was also a correspondent of Leibnitz. Some observations made by the latter on the philosophy of Locke and of Newton brought on the celebrated correspondence between Leibnitz and Clarke. And at the same time, an abstract of Newton's ideas on chronology, drawn up for the Princess, and at her request communicated to Conti, got abroad and was printed at Paris: on which, in his own defence, he prepared his large work on the subject. On this it is not necessary to speak: his ideas on chronology, founded on the assumption of an accuracy in the older Greek astronomers which nobody now allows them, are rejected and obsolete. But the work does honour to his ingenuity and his scholar <98> ship, showing him to be not meanly versed in ancient learning. In 1726, Dr. Pemberton completed, at his request, the third edition of the Principia. With this he seems to have had little to do, for his health had been declining since 1722. He was relieved by gout in 1725. February 28, 1726-7, he presided for the last time at the Royal Society. He died of the stone (so far as so old a man can be said to die of one complaint) on the 20th of March. All the tributes of respect to his memory belong rather to the biographies of those who had the honour to pay them than to his: the gradual reception of his philosophy throughout Europe belongs to the history of science. We shall now offer some remarks on his character as a philosopher and as a man.

We have already adverted to the manner in which his biographers have represented him to be as much above ordinary humanity in goodness as in intellectual power. That his dispositions were generally good and his usual conduct in the relations of life admirable to the extent which should make his worst enemy, if he had any regard to truth, hand him down as a man of high principle, no one who knows his history can deny. But when injustice is not merely concealed but openly defended; when meanness is represented as the right of a great philosopher; when oppression is tolerated, and its victims are made subjects of obloquy because they did not submit to whatever Newton chose to inflict; — it becomes the duty of a biographer to bear more hardly upon instances of those feelings, than, had they been properly represented, would have been absolutely necessary. Nor does it matter anything in such a case, that the instances alluded to are the exception in the character and not the rule: forbearance and palliation are so much of injustice towards the injured parties.

The great fault, or rather misfortune, of Newton's character was one of temperament: a morbid fear of opposition from others ruled his whole life. When, as a young man, proposing new views in opposition to the justly honoured authority of Des Cartes and lesser names, he had reason to look for opposition, we find him dis <99> gusted by the want of an immediate and universal assent, and representing, as he afterwards said, that philosophy was so litigious a lady, that a man might as well be engaged in lawsuits as have to do with her. How could it be otherwise? What is scientific investigation except filing a bill of discovery against nature, with liberty to any one to move to be made a party in the suit? Newton did not feel this; and, not content with the ready acceptance of his views by the Royal Society, a little opposition made him declare his intention of retiring from the field. He had the choice of leaving his opponents unanswered, and pursuing his researches; committing it to time to show the soundness of his views. That this plan did not suit his temper shows that it was not the necessity of answering, but the fact of being opposed, which destroyed his peace. And he steadily adhered, after his first attempt, to his resolution of never willingly appearing before the world. His several works were extorted from him; and, as far as we can judge, his great views on universal gravitation would have remained his own secret if Halley and the Royal Society had not used the utmost force they could command. A discovery of Newton was of a twofold character — he made it, and then others had to find out that he had made it. To say that he had a right to do this is allowable; that is, in the same sense in which we and our readers have a right to refuse him any portion of that praise which his biographers claim for him. In the higher and better sense of the word, he had no right to claim the option of keeping from the world what it was essential to its progress that the world should know, any more than we should have a right to declare ourselves under no obligation to his memory for the services which he rendered. To excuse him, and at the same time to blame those who will not excuse him, is to try the first question in one court and the second in another. A man who could write the Principia, and who owed his bread to a foundation instituted for the promotion of knowledge, was as much bound to write it as we are to thank him for it when written.


When he was young and comparatively unknown, this morbid temperament showed itself in fear of opposition: when he became king of the world of science it made him desire to be an absolute monarch; and never did monarch find more obsequious subjects. His treatment of Leibnitz, of Flamsteed, and (we believe) of Whiston is, in each case, a stain upon his memory. As to Leibnitz, it must of course be a matter of opinion how far Newton was behind the scenes during the concoction of the 'Commercium Epistolicum:' but from the moment of his appearance in propriâ personâ, his conduct is unjust. Leibnitz, whose noble candour in unfolding his own discovery, in answer to Newton's a b c, &c., must have been felt at the time as a stinging reproof, is answered with arrogance (dignified severity is the other name) and treated with unfairness. Nothing can excuse Newton's circulating his reply among his friends in writing, and printing it when he heard of the death of Leibnitz: this conduct tells its own story in unanswerable terms. And, if it were Newton's own act and deed, nothing can excuse in him the omission of the Scholium from the third edition, or rather the alteration of it in such manner as to resemble the former one in its general tenor. But, as Newton was then very old, and as he had allowed it to stand in the second edition, published when the dispute was at its height, it is possible that he left the matter to Dr. Pemberton, the editor, or some other person.

The story of the treatment of Flamsteed has only recently become known, by the late Mr. Baily's discovery of the correspondence. Flamsteed was Astronomer Royal, and his observations were to be printed at the expense of the Prince Consort. A committee, with Newton at its head, was to superintend the printing. If we took Flamsteed's word for the succession of petty annoyances to which he was subject, we might perhaps be wrong; for Flamsteed was somewhat irritable, and no doubt the more difficult to manage because he was the first observer in the world, and not one of the committee was an observer at all. But there are two specific facts which speak for themselves. The catalogue of stars <101> (Flamsteed's own property) had been delivered sealed up, on the understanding that the seal was not to be broken unless Flamsteed refused to comply with certain conditions. After the Prince was dead, and the trust had been surrendered (it seems to have been transferred to the Royal Society), and without any notice to Flamsteed, the seal was broken, with Newton's consent, and the catalogue was printed: Halley was exhibiting the sheets in a coffee-house, and boasting of his correction of their errors. A violent quarrel was the consequence, and a scene took place on one occasion at the Royal Society which we cannot discredit (for Flamsteed's character for mere truth of narration has never been successfully impugned, any more than Newton's), but which most painfully bears out our notion of the weak point of Newton's character. As to the breaking of the seal Newton pleaded the Queen's command — an unmanly evasion, for what did the Queen do except by advice? who was her adviser except the President of the Royal Society? Shortly afterwards the second edition of the Principia appeared. Flamsteed, whose observations had been of more service to Newton than those of any other individual, and to whom proper acknowledgment had been made in the first edition, and who had increased the obligation in the interval, had his name erased in all the passages in which it appeared (we have verified, for this occasion, eight or nine places ourselves). To such a pitch is this petty resentment carried, that whereas in one place of the first edition (prop. 18, book iii.) there is, in a parenthesis, "by the observations of Cassini and Flamsteed"; the corresponding place of the second is, "by the consent of the observations of astronomers."

There is a letter of Newton to Flamsteed (Jan. 6, 1698-9), written before they were in open rupture, containing an expression which has excited much surprise and some disapprobation. Flamsteed having caused a published reference to be made to Newton's continuation of his lunar researches, the latter says, "I do not love to be printed on every occasion, much less to be dunned <102> and teased by foreigners about mathematical things, or to be thought by your own people to be trifling away my time when I should be about the King's business." This letter was not intended for publication, still less for posterity: the phrase was pettish, unworthy even of Newton in a huff. But the feeling was the right one. If there were any thing unworthy of the dignity of Newton, it was in taking a place which required him to give up the glorious race in which he had outstripped all men, and the researches which were for him alone, while the regulation of the Mint was not above the talents of thousands of his countrymen. But, having taken it, it was his duty to attend to it in the most regular and conscientious manner, as in fact he did to the end of his days. His contemporary Swift had the sense to refuse the troop of dragoons which King William offered him before he took orders: it would have been better for Newton's fame if he had left all the coinage, clipped and unclipped, to those who were as well qualified as himself. His own share might not have been so large,[8] but money was not one of his pursuits. He was nobly liberal with what he got, particularly to his own family: and it may be added that the position of his family, which was far from well off in the world, is the only circumstance which can palliate his giving up the intellectual advancement of all men, ages, and countries, to trifle away his time about the King's business.

His treatment of Whiston, as published in the autobiography of the latter, was always disregarded, as the <103> evidence of a very singular person. Standing alone — for his conduct to Leibnitz was defended by national feeling, and his treatment of Flamsteed was unknown, — it never carried much weight. Whiston had excessive vanity and a peculiar fanaticism of his own invention, which were sure to be made the most of; for a man who loses his preferment for his conscience had need be perfect, if he would escape those who think him a fool, and those who feel him a rebuke. And in Whiston's day the number was not small of the clergy who disavowed the articles to which they had sworn, without even having the decency to provide a non-natural sense. Newton refused him admission into the Royal Society, declaring that he would not remain president if Whiston were elected a fellow. A reason is asserted for this which we shall presently notice; but Whiston's account is as follows. After alluding to Newton having made him his deputy, and then his successor, he adds: — "So did I enjoy a large portion of his favour for twenty years together. But he then perceiving that I could not do as his other darling friends did, — that is, learn of him without contradicting him when I differed in opinion from him, — he could not in his old age bear such contradiction; and so he was afraid of me the last thirteen years of his life. He was of the most fearful, cautious, and suspicious temper that I ever knew."

It would have been more pleasant merely to mention these things as what unfortunately cannot be denied, than to bring them forward as if it were our business to insist upon them. But the manner in which the biography of Newton is usually written, leaves us no alternative. We are required to worship the whole character; and we find ourselves unable to do it. We see conduct defended as strictly right, and therefore, of course, proposed for imitation, which appears to us to be mean, unjust, and oppressive. As long as Newton is held up to be the perfection of a moral character, so long must we insist upon the exceptional cases which prove him to have been liable to some of the failings of humanity. <104> But to those who can fairly admit that his conduct is proof of an unhappy temper which sometimes overcame his moral feeling, and who therefore look for the collateral circumstances which are to excuse or aggravate, there are various considerations which must not be left out of sight.

In the first place, this temperament of which we have given instances, is of all others the one which occasionally lessens the control of the individual over his own actions. Everyone knows how apt we are, from experience, to think of insanity as the possible termination of the morbidly suspicious habit. That the report which arose about Newton's mind was much assisted by a knowledge of this habit existing in him, we have little doubt: for we see, in our own day, how corroborative such a temper is held to be of any such urmour. In one instance, and in illness of a serious character, it did take a form which we can hardly hold consistent with sanity at the time. He spoke severely of Locke, his old and tried friend (in 1693), being under the apprehension that Locke had endeavoured to embroil him with women and by other means; he thought there was a design to sell him an office and to embroil him. For these suspicions he wrote a letter, worthy of himself, asking pardon, and saying also that he had been under the impression that there was an evil intention, or tendency at least, in some of Locke's writings. The latter, in an affectionate answer, desired to know what passages he alluded to: and the rejoinder was that the letter was written after many sleepless nights, and that he had forgot what he said. As we have only the letters and no further information, we must decide as we can whether Newton did really express himself to others as he said he had done, or whether he only fancied it. In either case there is, under illness, that morbid imagination of injury done or meditated, which seems to have been but the exaggeration of an ordinary habit. If we thought, from the evidence, that Newton had ever been insane, we should see no reason whatever for concealing our opinion: we do not think so; but we <105> think it likely that if his years from 1660 to 1680 had been past in the excesses of the licentious court of his day, instead of the quiet retirement of his college, there might have been another story to tell.

Next, it is not fair to look upon the character of any man, without reference to the notions and morals of his time. Take Newton from his pinnacle of perfection, form the background of the picture from the incidents of the era of political and social profligacy in which he lived, and his relative character then seems to be almost of the moral magnificence which is made its attribute. Let the sum total of his public career be compared with that of others who were "about the king's business," and we cannot help looking upon the honest and able public servant, who passed a life in the existing corruption of public affairs without the shadow of a taint upon his official morals, with an admiration which must tend to neutralise the condemnation we may not spare upon some incidents of his scientific life. Further, the idolatrous respect in which he was held at the Royal Society, and the other haunts of learning — the worship his talents received at home and abroad, from Halley's[9] nec fas est propius mortali attingere divos, to De l'Hôpital's almost serious question whether Newton ate, drank, and slept — the investment of his living presence with all the honours once paid to the memory of Aristotle — make it wonderful, not that he should sometimes have indulged an unhappy disposition, but that he should have left so few decided instances of it on record. That both his person and his memory were held dear by his friends there is no doubt: this could not have been unless the cases we have cited had been exceptions to the tenor of his conduct; and, knowing the disposition of which we have spoken to be one against which none but a high power can prevail, we are to infer that it was, in general, heartily striven against and successfully opposed.


The mind of Newton, as a philosopher, is to this day, and to the most dispassionate readers of his works, the object of the same sort of wonder with which it was regarded by his contemporaries. We can compare it with nothing which the popular reader can understand, except the idea of a person who is superior to others in every kind of athletic exercise; who can outrun his competitors with a greater weight than any one of them can lift standing. There is a union, in excessive quantity, of different kinds of force: a combination of the greatest mathematician with the greatest thinker upon experimental truths; of the most sagacious observer with the deepest reflecter. Not infallible, but committing, after the greatest deliberation, a mistake in a simple point of mathematics, such as might have happened to any one: yet so happy in his conjectures, as to seem to know more than he could possibly have had any means of proving. Carrying his methods to such a point that his immediate successors could not clear one step in advance of him until they had given the weapons with which himself and Leibnitz had furnished them a completely new edge, yet apparently solicitous to hide his use of the most efficient of these weapons, and to give his researches the appearance of having been produced by something as much as possible resembling older methods. With few advantages as a writer or a teacher, he wraps himself in an almost impenetrable veil of obscurity, so as to require a comment many times the length of the text before he is easily accessible to a moderately well-informed mathematician. He seems to think he has done enough when he has secured a possibility of finding one reader who can understand him with any amount of pains: as if, seeing Halley to be of all men he knew next to himself in force, he had determined that none but Halley at his utmost stretch of thought should follow him. Accordingly one, to whom in his later years he used to send inquirers, saying, "Go to Mr. De Moivre, he knows these things better than I do," avowed that when he saw the Principia first, it was as much as he could do to follow the <107> reasoning. It would be difficult to name a dozen men in Europe of whom, at the appearance of the Principia, it can be proved that they both read and understood the work.

Newton himself attributed all his success to patience and perseverance more than to any peculiar sagacity: but on this point his judgment is worth nothing. Unquestionably, he had the two first in an enormous degree, as well as the third; nor is it too much to say that there is no one thing in his writings which the sagacity of some of his contemporaries might not have arrived at as well as his own. But to make an extensive system many things are necessary: and one point of failure is fatal to the whole. Again, it is difficult to put before the ordinary reader, even if he be a mathematician, a distinct view of the merit of any step in the formation of a system. Unless he be acquainted with the history of preceding efforts, he comes to the consideration of that merit from the wrong direction; for he reads the history from the end. He goes to the mail-coach, back from the railroad instead of forward from the old strings of pack-horses: from a macadamized road lighted with gas to the rough stones and the oil-lamps, instead of beginning with the mud and the link-boys. Perhaps the same sort of wrong judgment may accompany the retrospect of its own labours in a mind like Newton's; causing it to undervalue the intellectual part of which, in any case, it is least capable of judging.

The world at large expects, in the account of such things, to hear of some marvellous riddles solved, and some visibly extraordinary feats of mind. The contents of some well-locked chest are to be guessed at by pure strength of imagination: and they are disappointed when they find that the wards of the lock were patiently tried, and a key fitted to them by (it may be newly imagined) processes of art. Thus the great experiment, the trial of the moon's gravitation, seems wonderfully simple to those who have to describe it; precisely what anybody could do. If the moon were not retained by some force, she would proceed in a straight line MB: something causes her to <108> Figure describe MA instead, which is equivalent to giving a fall of BA towards the earth. Now since EM, the distance of the moon from the earth's centre, is about 60 times EC, the earth's radius, it follows that if there be gravitation at the moon, and if it diminish as the square of the distance increases, it ought to be 60 times 60, or 3600 times as great at the surface of the earth as at M; or a body at the earth's surface ought to fall in one minute 3600 times as much as BA (supposing MA to be the arc moved over in one minute). A surveyor's apprentice, even in Newton's day, could with great ease have ascertained that such is the fact, if the data had been given to him. Now why was Newton the first to make this simple trial? The notion of gravitation was, as we have said, afloat: and Bouillaud had declared his conviction that attractive forces, if they exist, must be inversely as the squares of the distances. Did he try this simple test? Perhaps he did, and threw away his result as useless, not being able to make the next step. Or was it that neither he nor any one except Newton had any distinct idea of measuring from the centre of the earth? If so, then Newton was in possession of what he afterwards proved, namely, that a spherical body, the particles of which attract inversely as the squares of the distances, attracts as if all its particles were collected in its centre. In either case, this may serve to illustrate what a popular reader would hardly suppose, namely, that the wonder of great discoveries consists in there being found one who can accumulate and put together many different things, no one of which is, by itself, stupendous after the fact, nor calculated to produce that sort of admiration with which the whole is regarded.

We have not yet mentioned the theological writings of Newton, as his discussion of the prophecies of Daniel, &c. About his opinions on this subject there is a little controversy: and the various sects of opinion are in the habit <109> of opposing to each other the great names which are on their several sides of the question. That Newton was a firm believer in Christianity as a Revelation from God, is very certain: but whether he held the opinions of the majority of Christians on the points which distinguish Trinitarians from Arians,[10] Socinians, and Humanitarians, is the question of controversy. It is to be remembered that during the whole of Newton's life the denial of the doctrine of the Trinity was illegal, the statute of King William (which relaxed the existing law, for a man was hanged in 1696 for denying the Trinity) making it incapability of holding any place of trust for the first offence, and three years' imprisonment with other penalties for the second. Few therefore wrote against the Trinity, except either as, in the 'Unitarian Tracts', without even a printer's name, or evasively, by arguing against the Trinity being an article of faith, that is, a necessary part of a Christian's hope of salvation. Premising this, we take the evidence, as it stands, for and against the heretical character of Newton's opinions.

There is a wide-spread tradition that Horsley objected to publish a part of the Portsmouth Papers on account of the heresy of the opinions contained in them; which statement used to be even in children's books, and was made by Dr. Thomson in his History of the Royal Society. These papers have never been published, nor has any one of those who have had access to them denied the rumour on his own knowledge. The refusal of Horsley is not conclusive in itself; because, to use the words of one of the children's books we remember (called <110> a 'British Plutarch,' or some such name), he was a "rigid high priest," and heterodoxy short even of Arianism would probably have led him to such a determination. But the suppression still continues, long after the above rumour has been very effective in aiding the probabilities drawn from other sources, that Newton's opinions were even more heterodox than Arianism; and there is some force in this.

Two witnesses from among Newton's personal friends, Whiston, an Arian (calling himself a Eusebian), and Hopton Haynes, who was employed under him in the Mint, and who was a Humanitarian, severally bear testimony to his having held their several opinions. Whiston, whose intimate acquaintance with him terminated some time before 1720, states in two places that Newton was a Eusebian [Arian] and a Baptist, and that he was "inclined to suppose" these two sects to be the two witnesses[11] mentioned in the book of Revelations. Haynes[12] <111> declares him to have been a Humanitarian, and states that he much lamented that his friend Dr. Clarke had stopped at Arianism. On the other hand, the writer in the Biographia Britannica, who cites the last edition[13] (1753) <112> of Whiston's memoirs, says that Whiston there states that Newton was so much offended with him for having represented him as an Arian, that this was the reason why he would never consent to his admission into the Royal Society. The edition of 1749, thirteen years after Newton's death, shows that Whiston had then no such knowledge of the cause. But, if it were so, and Haynes's testimony be true, he might have had Priestley's objection to Arianism rather than Horsley's: and in either case, we know enough of Newton to be sure that he would be likely to take offence at any talk about opinions he did not choose to avow, particularly such as were illegal; and above all, he would fear the tongue of a man like Whiston, all honesty and no discretion, who told the world long before his death all that he knew about himself and everybody else, without the least reserve.

Newton wrote (about 1690) under the title of 'Historical Account of two Notable Corruptions of Scripture,' against the genuineness of two passages on which Trinitarian[14] writers then placed much reliance: that is, against the genuineness of 1 John v. 7, and that of the word θεος (God) in 1 Timothy iii. 16. Now, though Trinitarians have often abandoned the first passage, and given up the Protestant reading of the second, it has rarely happened, if ever, that they have written expressly against them: the world at large sees no difference <113> between opposing an argument, and opposing the conclusion; and parties in religion and politics require[15] assent, not merely to their tenets, but to each and every mode of maintaining them. And writers who go so far as to say anything against one mode of supporting their own side of a question, generally make a decided profession of adherence to the conclusion while they reason against one mode of maintaining it. Newton does no such thing: his expressions are vague, or, if not vague, they are the formular[16] words under which the opponents of the received <114> doctrine avoided imprisonment. The truth is to be purged of things spurious: the faith subsisted before these texts were introduced or changed; it is not an article of faith or a point of discipline, but a criticism, &c. There is an expression towards the end which admits of a double interpretation: "if the ancient churches, in debating and deciding the greatest mysteries of religion, knew nothing of these two texts; I understand not, why we should be so fond of them now the debates are over." The first clause, by itself, might rather have been written by a Trinitarian: though a Unitarian might write it, more especially if he wanted a formular phrase. But the second clause looks very like a formula: for there was no time at which the debate raged so fiercely as in the day of Newton, which was that of Wallis, South, Sherlock, &c., and hosts of anonymous writers. We find it difficult to suppose that Newton, whose friendship with Locke, Clarke, and Whiston at that time was notorious, would do that which none but Anti-trinitarians, or very few, ever did, in a communication to an Anti-trinitarian intended at that time for publication abroad, without making a definite avowal of the orthodoxy of his belief, if he had it to make. It is right to <115> state, on the other side, Bishop Burgess's argument: that this was a writing which Newton suppressed from publication. Printing should have been the word: Newton published it when he caused it to be sent to Le Clerc. There is to us something corroborative, or at least significative of much difference from the most common opinion, in the Scholium which he added at the end of the second edition of the Principia. With Jewish and Christian writers, Deity is necessarily from eternity and without superior: the word God implies both necessary existence and omnipotence. With the Greeks, divine power might be communicated in such a manner that a hero, for instance, after death, might become as truly the object of worship as Jupiter himself. Newton adopts the Greek definition, or one very like it. The rule of a spiritual being makes him God. Dominatio entis spiritualis Deum constituit. And as if this were not precise enough, he adds, in the third edition, a note stating that thus the souls of dead princes were called gods by the Gentiles, but falsely, from want of dominion. He then proceeds to his well-known reflections on the Supreme Deity.

We have entered into this question, not from any particular interest in it — for there are too many great minds on both sides of the controversy to make one more or less a matter of any consequence to either, — but because we have a curious matter of evidence, and an instructive view of party methods of discussion. Whatever Newton's opinions were, they were in the highest degree the result of a love of truth, and of a cautious and deliberate search after it. His very infirmity is a guarantee for the existence of this feeling in no usual measure. With a competent livelihood, and the dread of discussion so strong that he would gladly have hidden his results from the world rather than encounter even respectful opposition, he could not have worked either for the hope of wealth or office, or even for the love of fame, except in a very secondary degree. The enthusiasm which supported him through the years of patient thought out <116> of which the Principia arose, must have been strong indeed when he had no ultimate worldly end to propose to himself. Who can say how much of the truth of his system we may owe to this very position? Had he been desirous of pleasing, he must have had strong temptation to build upon some of the prevailing notions; to have a little mercy upon the Physics of Des Cartes. Or even without going so far, a small portion of the vanity which loves to present complete systems and to confess no ignorance, might have biased him to adopt such an addition to his law of attractive force (such a one as Clairaut for a little while thought necessary) as, without interfering with the main phenomena, would have served to bring out some more explanations. But he had no such bias: and speaking of his philosophic character, it may be said that never was there more of the disinterested spirit of inquiry, unspurred by love of system, unchecked by dread of labour or of opinion. For, however much he might dislike or fear opposition, there was one tribute to it which his philosophy never paid: the pages which he would gladly have burned rather than encounter discussion, contain no concession whatever.

In concluding this brief outline of a truly great man, one of the first minds of any age or country, of whose labours the world will reap the fruits in every year of its existence, we cannot help expressing our hope that future biographers will fairly refute, or fairly admit, the existence of those blots of temper to which the undiscriminating admiration of preceding ones has obliged us to devote so much of the present article. Of the facts, where we have stated them as facts, we are well assured: and there can be no reason why the warnings which the best and greatest of the species must sometimes hold out to the rest, should be softened, or, what is worse, converted into examples of imitation, by fear of opposing an established prejudice, or by the curious tendency of biographers to exalt those of whom they write into monsters of perfection. Surely it is enough that Newton is the greatest of philosophers, and one of the best of men — <117> that all his errors are to be traced to a disposition which seems to have been born[17] with him — that, admitting them in their fullest extent, he remains an object of unqualified wonder, and all but unqualified respect.

For reasons which will be easily understood, the author of this article subscribes his name.



A sizar at Cambridge was, in the original meaning of the word, a student whose poverty compels him to seek to maintain himself in whole or part by the performance of some duties which were originally of a menial character. By this institution a youth could live by the work of his hands while he pursued his studies. In our days there is but little distinction between the sizars and those above them; except in college charges, none at all. Those who look upon universities as institutions for gentlemen only, that is, for persons who can pay their way according to a certain conventional standard, praise the liberality with which poorer gentlemen than others have been gradually emancipated from what seems to them a mere badge of poverty. But those who know the old constitution of the universities see nothing in it except the loss to the labouring man and the destitute man of his inheritance in those splendid foundations. If sizarships with paid personal services had not existed, Newton could not have gone to Cambridge; and the Principia might never have been written. Let it be remembered then that, so far as we owe this immortal work and its immortal work to the University of Cambridge, we owe it to the institution which no longer exists, by which education and advancement were as open to honest poverty seeking a maintenance by labour, as to wealth and rank. Let the juries who find on their oaths that scores of pounds' worth of cigars are reasonable necessaries for young college students, think of this, if they can think.


Let it be remembered that we are not told that Newton, when very young, took greatly to anything except arts of construction.


The status pupillaris lasts about seven years, that is, until the degree of Master of Arts is taken.


"A friend of mine here, that hath an excellent genius to these things, brought me . . . some papers. . . . which I suppose will please you." And again, some days after, "I am glad my friend's paper gives you so much satisfaction; his name is Mr. Newton, a Fellow of our College, and very young <83> (being but the second year Master of Arts), but of an extraordinary genius and proficiency in these things."


First, the committee consisted of Halley, Jones, De Moivre, and Machin, Newton's friends, and mathematicians; Brook Taylor, a mathematician, but not then otherwise known except as a friend of Keill, the accused party; Robarts, Hill, Burnet, Aston, and Arbuthnot, not known as mathematicians, but the two latter intimate personal friends of Newton; and Bonet, the Prussian minister. To call this a judicial committee would be to throw a great slur on the Society. Secondly, the names of the committee were never published with their report, which would have been anything but creditable, if that report had been a judgment: but if the committee were only counsel for Newton's case it mattered not who they were. Thirdly, the Society had committed itself to Newton's side, by hearing his statement, and thereupon directing Keill to write the second letter in the controversy, and to "set the matter in a just light:" the only light they had sought being that which Newton himself could give, Fourthly, Burnet wrote to John Bernoulli while the matter was pending, stating in express terms — not that the Royal Society was inquiring — but that it was busy proving that Leibnitz might have seen Newton's letters. Fifthly, De Moivre, as appears by the statement of an intimate friend, considered himself, by merely joining that committee, as drawn out of the neutrality which he had till then observed: which shows that he did not consider himself a juryman. Sixthly, no notice was given to Leibnitz of the proceeding, still less an invitation to produce documents on his own side. All these things put together show that the committee was not judicial, nor meant to be so, nor asserted to be so on the part of the Society. If any one will have it that it was so, he must needs, we think, hold that it was one of the most unfair transactions which ever took place.


A parcel (collectio) of extracts from Gregory's letters are found in the handwriting of Collins, with a memorandum by Collins that they were to be sent to Leibniz and returned by him: with a letter to Oldenburg, desiring him to send them: no mention of any one but Gregory in either memorandum or letter. With the parcel is this letter to Collins: what reason the Committee have for supposing this letter belonged to the parcel they do not say: they do not even say whether it was a separate paper or not. The papers of dead mathematicians, after going through the hands of executors, are, we suspect, not always tied up exactly in the order they were untied. Whether the parcel is otherwise known to have found its way to Oldenburg than from the intention expressed in the memorandum, we are not told — nor whether Oldenburg sent it to Paris — nor whether, having arrived at Paris, it was sent on to Hanover: and finally they state, without adding how they came to know it, that it was sent to Leibniz, June 26, 1676. If the letter belonged to the parcel, and if the parcel were sent to Olden <93> burg, and if Oldenburg sent it to Paris, and if his Paris correspondent sent it to Hanover, and if it arrived safe, and if Leibnitz, meaning to make an unfair use of it, was unwise enough to return this evidence against himself — the case of the Committee is good, with only one more if; that is, if the letter contained anything new to the purpose, which we think it palpably does not. That is to say, the letter itself is only what any strong mathematician might have drawn from Barrow and Fermat, who are almost the joint inventors of Fluxions, if that letter contained them. It is worth the remembering that Collins was not likely to tie up letters miscellaneously: he was a regular accountant, a methodical writer on and practiser of book-keeping, and a man of business. For aught we know, he may lie unquiet in his grave to this day, under the imputation of having sent a parcel which contained a paper neither mentioned in the docket nor in the letter of advice. Perhaps he never sent it at all: would not this methodical man have written on the parcel the date of its return?


Montague was deeply attached, says Sir David Brewster, to Newton's half-niece, Catherine Barton, to whom he left a large part of his fortune. Mrs. Barton, to use Sir D. Brewster's words, "though she did not escape the censures of her contemporaries, was regarded by those who knew her as a woman of strict honour and virtue." Sir D. Brewster, who copies the words from the 'Biographia Britannica', declines in his reverence for all that belonged to Newton (a feeling with which we have more sympathy than our readers will give us credit for), to state the whole case. — After the death of Montague's wife, he was disappointed in a second marriage which he projected, "which was the less to be regretted as he had some time before cast his eye upon a niece of his friend Sir Isaac Newton, to be the superintendent of his domestic affairs. This gentlewoman . . . was then a celebrated toast, being young, beautiful, and gay, so that she did not escape censure, which was however passed upon her very undeservedly, since we are well assured she was a woman of strict honour and virtue. 'Tis certain she was very agreeable to his Lordship in every particular." . . . No wonder she did not escape censure, especially when the legacy left by Lord Halifax is left, to use his own words, "as a token of the sincere love, affection, and esteem I have long had for her person, and as a small recompence for the pleasure and happiness I have had in her conversation." And <97> all this from an apologist: what, then, was the truth? On reviewing this note, we think it right to add, that the statement that there were feelings of love between the parties (which, if true, puts their relation to one another beyond any reasonable doubt) is not from the author here cited, but from Sir D. Brewster, who does not give his authority.


Sir D. Brewster represents Newton as having a very scanty income before he gained his office in the Mint. But in fact he had from his college board and lodging (both of the best) and the stipend of his fellowship: from the university the salary of his professorship: and from his patrimony about 100l. a-year. He could not have had less than 250l. a-year over and above board and lodging: which, in those days, was a very good provision for an unmarried man, and would not be a bad one now.


Nor is it possible for man to be nearer to God: the last line of Halley's verses on the Principia.


These names are bandied about in vituperative discussions, until they are so misused that the chances are many readers will need explanation of them. An Arian believes in the finite pre-existence of Jesus Christ, before his appearance on earth: a Socinian believes him to be a man, who did not exist before his appearance on earth, but who is still a proper object of prayer: a Humanitarian, with all others who come under the general name of Unitarian (the personal unity of the Deity being a common tenet of all), believes him to be a man, and not an object of prayer.


This is strange; and if such had been Whiston's own opinion, we should not have hesitated to conclude that he had misinterpreted some civil decliner of controversy. But Whiston expressly states himself to have no such opinion. That he would intentionally utter a falsehood we believe to be out of the question.


The testimony of Whiston is in his memoirs: that of Haynes is less direct. The Unitarian minister, Richard Baron, who was a friend of Haynes, states the preceding as having passed in conversation between him and Haynes. The statement is made in the preface of the first volume of his collection of tracts, called 'A Cordial for Low Spirits' (three volumes, London, 1763, third edition 12mo.), published under the name of Thomas Gordon. This is not primary evidence like that of Whiston; and it loses force by the circumstance that in the posthumous work which Mr. Haynes left on the disputed points (and which was twice printed) there is no allusion to it. But those who weigh testimony will of course take into consideration its amount of corroborative force. And a great many writers on the Antitrinitarian side deserve blame for not stating distinctly that it is only a testimony to a testimony: Baron was a man against whose character for truth we never heard anything, <111> but the chances of misapprehension increase very rapidly with the number of steps, in the communication of oral tradition.


Though aware that we should have many results of bias to encounter, we had hoped that we should have got through our task without having to expose absolute and fraudulent falsification. Since writing what is in the text, we have obtained the loan of the edition of 1753, which is scarce compared with that of 1749. The Biogr. Brit. informs us (p. 3241) that in pages 178, 249, 250 of Whiston's Memoirs, edition of 1753, 8vo., we shall find the justification of these words: "Mr. Whiston, who represented Sir Isaac as an Arian, which he so much resented that he would not suffer him to be a member of the Royal Society while he was President." We look, and in p. 178 we find that Whiston states Newton to be an Arian, and in pages 249 and 250 we find that Newton excluded Whiston from the Royal Society, for which the reason Whiston gives is that Newton could not bear contradiction, in the words we have quoted in another part of this article. The biographer distinctly implies that he is giving, not his own reason, but Whiston's reason. And, having diligently compared the editions of 1749 and 1753 (the latter of which had some additions, by which the false biographer hoped to gain credit from those who looked at the former), we find that the paragraphs cited only differ as follows: In the first, 1749 has Revelation, 1753 has Revelation. The former has "and friendly address to the Baptists" (pages 14, 15), which the latter has not. In the second, 1749 has "desire", and 1753 has "desires" (a little instance, by the way, of the disappearance of the old English subjunctive), and the former has "through confutation," when the latter has "thorough confutation." Sir D. Brewster (p. 284) has copied the false biographer without verifying the reference — a common, but a dangerous practice. It was a mere accident that we went to the Biogr. Brit., for we distrust it from old acquaintance on all matters connected with Newton. We do not know at this moment that the false biographer, as we call him, is the original falsifier: but he must bear the blame <112> for the present. We might have had to leave the explanation to Sir D. Brewster: for he who copies a reference without verification, and without stating that he copies, must take the responsibility of that reference. But as it stands, we need not say that Sir D. Brewster is as clear in this instance from the imputation of intentionally misleading his reader, as those could wish who respect his character and admire his labours: among the number of whom we desire to place ourselves. And his candour will lead him to acknowledge that he has had a happy escape from an imminent danger of misconstruction, with no blame to those who made it.


Protestant writers, we mean; the reading contended for by Newton in the second instance has been that of Catholics from the time of Jerome.


Dr. Chalmers, for example, states Newton to have "abetted" the leading doctrine of the Unitarians: whether upon the evidence of this writing only, or the general evidence, does not precisely appear: probably upon the former alone. The author of the life in the Biographia Britannica does not mention these letters. But it appears by the testimony of Le Clerc and Wetstein, that Locke sent them to Le Clerc, who did not know their author. The possessors of Newton's papers never published them until an incomplete edition had appeared abroad.


Sir D. Brewster, to whom the admirers of Newton have much obligation, and from whom they expect more, in the larger life on which he is known to be engaged, argues from these words, which he quotes formally, that Newton received the Trinity. But, having the work before him, he should also have destroyed the effect of the following words of Newton: — "He [Cyprian] does not say the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost, as it is now in the 7th verse, but the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, as it is in Baptism, the place from which they tried at first to derive the Trinity." We never were quite satisfied till we saw this passage. We found the Trinitarian writers evidently shy of the question: and the Anti-trinitarians as evidently laying such an undue stress on Mr. Haynes's testimony, or rather Mr. Baron's testimony to Mr. Haynes's testimony, as made us suspect that our authorities on both sides were not fully satisfied in their own minds. But we hold it to be out of the question that a Trinitarian could have written the words in our italics. That many would not admit the baptismal form in itself to be a proof of the doctrine, is known; but what Trinitarian ever talked of a "they" who tried a text to prove the doctrine, "at first," implying that they failed, and then went to others: <114> the clear implication being that he thought they had the doctrine before they tried any texts. Again, there is the following. Speaking of the manuscript on which Erasmus at last introduced I John v. 7 into his text, he says that the English, "when they had got the Trinity into his edition, threw by their manuscript (if they had one) as an almanac out of date." Now most of our readers are Trinitarians, and know whether this is the way in which those who hold that doctrine speak of it. The citations above are from Horsley's Newton.

When M. Biot said that there was absolutely nothing in Newton's writings which was other than ortodox, he must have meant in the writings which he had seen. This of course may have been the case. Moreover, what is more absurd than to argue from his silence that a man does not hold an opinion for which he might be ruined and imprisoned, or, up to 1699, even hanged?


We cannot trace, in Newton's character, an acquired failing; nothing but the manifestations of the original disposition due to different circumstances.

© 2017 The Newton Project

Professor Rob Iliffe
Director, AHRC Newton Papers Project

Scott Mandelbrote,
Fellow & Perne librarian, Peterhouse, Cambridge

Faculty of History, George Street, Oxford, OX1 2RL - newtonproject@history.ox.ac.uk

Privacy Statement

  • University of Oxford
  • Arts and Humanities Research Council
  • JISC