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Significant Scots
Macvey Napier

NAPIER, MACVEY.—This learned lawyer, professor, and encyclopedist, was born in 1777, and was the son of John Macvey of Kirkintilloch, by a natural daughter of Napier of Craigannet. He was educated for the profession of the law, and passed as a writer to the signet in 1799. As his training had been of no ordinary kind, while his talents and attainments were of a very high order, a career of profit and reputation was anticipated for him by his friends, which, however, was not fulfilled, as he was not only of too sensitive a disposition for the practical department of his profession, but too exclusively devoted to the abstract philosophy of legislation, and the charms of general literature. These researches, however, were such as to win him distinction in the path he had chosen. His first production as an author appeared in 1818, when he published, but for private circulation, "Remarks illustrative of the Scope and Influence of the Philosophical Writings of Lord Bacon." In 1825 he was appointed professor of conveyancing in the university of Edinburgh, having been the first who held that chair of the law faculty; and his lectures, while he officiated in this capacity, evinced the vigorous and thoughtful attention he had bestowed upon the subject. In 1837 he was finally raised to one of the clerkships of the Court of Session, an office of sufficient honour, as well as emolument, to satisfy the ambition of the most thriving legal practitioner.

The elevation of Mr., afterwards Lord Jeffrey, to the deanship of the faculty of advocates in 1829, was the cause of bringing the literary talents of Macvey Napier into full exercise. On becoming dean of faculty, the great Aristarchus of criticism was obliged to abandon the editorship of the "Edinburgh Review," and this responsible charge was forthwith devolved upon Mr. Napier. To have been summoned to such an office, and to succeed such a man, shows the high estimate that had been formed of his talents. Afterwards a still more important claim was made upon his labours: this was to undertake the editorship of the "Encyclopedia Britannica," of which a seventh edition was about to be published, with many additions and improvements. Such, indeed, had been the progress of art and science in the course of a few years, that not only a new edition of the work, but also a nearly new work itself was deemed necessary, so that such an editorship was in the highest degree a most complex and laborious task. Of the manner in which this was discharged by Mr. Napier there can be but one opinion. He not only wrote able articles for the work, but secured the co-operation of the most talented writers of the day; and the result was, that the "Encyclopedia," on being completed, took the highest place in that important class of publications to which it belongs. Years, which are now accomplishing the work of centuries, have once more left the "Encyclopedia Britannica" in abeyance, and a fresh effort is now in operation to bring it up to the mark of the present day. Such must always continue to be the fate of colleges and cyclopedias: knowledge will not submit to the imprisonment of stereotype.

From the foregoing account, it will be seen that the literary life of Macvey Napier was of that kind in which the individuality of the author is lost in the association of which he forms a part. In this way, it would be difficult to particularize his writings, which are scattered over such extensive fields as those of the "Encyclopedia" and "Edinburgh Review." But such is now the fate of many of the most talented of our day, whose anonymous productions melt away into the mass of journalism, and are forgot with the occasion that called them forth. Such men, however, do not live idly nor in vain, and their history is to be read in the progress of society, which continues to go onward with an always accelerating step. This was eminently the case of Macvey Napier during a life of literary exertion that continued over a course of thirty years. He died at Edinburgh, on the 11th of February, 1847, in the seventieth year of his age.

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