Born at Newtown Park, near Dublin, he was the eldest son of John Hartpole Lecky, a landowner. He was educated at Kingstown, Armagh, at Cheltenham College, and at Trinity College, Dublin, where he graduated BA in 1859 and MA in 1863, and where he studied divinity with a view to becoming a priest in the Church of Ireland.
In 1860, Lecky published anonymously a small book entitled The Religious Tendencies of the Age, but on leaving college he turned to historiography. In 1861 he published Leaders of Public Opinion in Ireland, containing brief sketches of Jonathan Swift, Henry Flood, Henry Grattan and Daniel O'Connell, originally anonymous, republished in 1871; the essay on Swift, rewritten and amplified, appeared again in 1897 as an introduction to an edition of Swift's works. Two surveys followed: A History of the Rise and Influence of Rationalism in Europe (2 vols., 1865), and A History of European Morals from Augustus to Charlemagne (2 vols., 1869). The latter aroused criticism, with its opening dissertation on "the natural history of morals." Lecky's History of European Morals was one of Mark Twain's favorite books, and influenced the writing of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court.
Lecky then concentrated on his major work, A History of England during the Eighteenth Century, Vols. i. and ii. of which appeared in 1878, Vols. v. and vi in 1887, and Vols. vii. and viii., which completed the work, in 1890. In the "cabinet" edition of 1892, in 12 volumes (later reprinted), A History of Ireland in the Eighteenth Century is separated out.
A volume of Poems (1891) was less successful. In 1896, he published two volumes entitled Democracy and Liberty, in which he considered modern democracy. The pessimistic conclusions at which he arrived provoked criticism both in the UK and USA, which was renewed when he published in a new edition (1899) his low estimate of William Ewart Gladstone, then recently dead.
In The Map of Life (1899) Lecky discussed in a popular style ethical problems of everyday life. In 1903 he published a revised and enlarged edition of Leaders of Public Opinion in Ireland, in two volumes, with the essay on Swift omitted and that on O'Connell was expanded into a complete biography. A critic of the methods by which the Act of Union was passed, Lecky, who grew up as a moderate Liberal, was opposed to Gladstone's policy of Home Rule and, in 1895, he was returned to parliament as Unionist member for Dublin University in a by-election. In 1897, he was made a privy councillor. In the 1902 Coronation Honours list published on 26 June 1902 he was nominated an original member of the new Order of Merit (OM), and he was invested as such by King Edward VII at Buckingham Palace on 24 October 1902.
His university honours included the degree of LL.D. from Dublin, St Andrews and Glasgow, the degree of D.C.L. from Oxford and the degree of Litt.D. from Cambridge. In 1894 he was elected corresponding member of the Institute of France. He contributed occasionally to periodical literature, and two of his addresses, The Political Value of History (1892) and The Empire, its Value and its Growth (1893), were published.
He was married in 1871 to Elizabeth van Dedem, a lady-in-waiting to Queen Sophie of the Netherlands and member of the aristocratic van Dedem family. The couple had no children. Elizabeth, herself a writer and historian, contributed articles, chiefly on historical and political subjects, to various reviews.
In 1904, money for a memorial was raised by subscription and a statue by Goscombe John was erected in Trinity College, Dublin.
A volume of Lecky's Historical and Political Essays was published posthumously (London, 1908), edited and introduced by his wife.
In 1978, part of the college's humanities library complex was named in his honour.
History of England in the Eighteenth Century.CS1 maint: location (link)
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