Thomas Babington Macaulay

The English essayist, historian, and politician Thomas Babington Macaulay, 1st Baron of Rothley (1800-1859), was the most popular and dazzling English historian of the 19th century. He was an eloquent spokesman for the liberal English middle classes.

The views of the Tory ascendancy, which had dominated England in the later 18th and early 19th centuries, also gave color to David Hume's History of England, the leading text on the subject after its publication between 1754 and 1761. The growing power of the Whigs, as the party of the middle-class industrialists and businessmen, created the need for a reinterpretation of English history that emphasized the role of the civil war of the 17th century, the Glorious Revolution, and the Hanoverian Settlement as the cornerstones of English freedom, prosperity, and social progress. More than any other writer, Macaulay promulgated this "Whig view of history" and trusted to the maintenance of this tradition for continued national advancement. Macaulay was, therefore, the spokesman for Victorian material advancement; but he was correspondingly somewhat blind to the social and economic evils that followed upon the industrial revolution.

Thomas Babington Macaulay was born at Rothley Temple, Leicestershire, on Oct. 25, 1800. His father, Zachary Macaulay, a Scotsman, had been a governor of Sierra Leone and was a leading figure in the "Clapham sect," a group of Evangelical reformers and abolitionists. The young Macaulay was educated at a private school and then went to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he became a fellow. In 1826 he was called to the bar.


His Essays

At Cambridge, Macaulay's brilliant reputation attracted the attention of Francis Jeffrey, editor of the Edinburgh Review, the leading organ of Whig opinion and the most authoritative literary periodical of the day. He was invited to become a contributor, and his first publication in the Edinburgh was the famous essay on Milton (1825). In it Macaulay's main concern was to defend Milton as a champion of civil and intellectual liberty against tyranny and despotism. The essay was an immediate success and inaugurated a long connection with the magazine.

Macaulay's essays are immensely readable and vigorous. They dispose judgment with majestic ease, but their inability to perceive subtle qualifications and shades of character diminishes their critical value. They are all laced with partisan zeal. The essay on Dr. Johnson, for instance, is unsympathetic to his Tory leanings and violently hostile to John Wilson Croker, the editor of Boswell's Life of Johnson, who was associated with the High Tory Quarterly Review. The essays do, however, show a shrewd awareness of the social context of literature.

Macaulay admitted the occasional and transient value of his essays. However, he did feel that the later ones were markedly superior to the earlier ones. Although the style does improve and the bias becomes less obvious, the point of view is essentially unchanged.


Career in Politics

The essays were composed in the midst of an active political life. In 1830 Macaulay entered Parliament, first as a member for Calne and then for Leeds. He delivered memorable speeches in support of the 1832 reform bill. His brilliant conversational powers and lively social gifts made him popular in the fashionable world. He was appointed a commissioner of the Board of Control and devoted himself to a study of Indian affairs. In 1834 he became a member of the Supreme Council of India. During his 4-year stay in India he helped found a system of national education and was the chief architect of the criminal code.

On his return to England, Macaulay was elected to Parliament to represent Edinburgh (1839-1847). He also had a seat in the Cabinet as secretary of war from 1839 to 1841. But Macaulay's interests had now turned more fully to writing. In 1842 his Lays of Ancient Rome appeared. He continued to write essays, including those on Warren Hastings and Robert Clive, which derived from his Indian experience; one on Addison; and one on William Pitt the Elder.


History of England

However, the principal labor of Macaulay's later years was the celebrated History of England, to which he sacrificed both his political career and his life in society. The first two volumes of the History appeared in 1848, volumes 3 and 4 in 1855, and the last installment posthumously in 1861. The success of the History was enormous.

Macaulay intended to write the history of England from the accession of James II (1685) through the reign of George IV. However, it was also his aim to emphasize the art of narrative and evoke the drama and scenic quality of historical events. His methods prevented the realization of his plan, for despite the rapidity with which he worked and notwithstanding the help of a miraculous photographic memory, he could barely bring his work to 1700. The common taste of today is unlikely to respond to the oratorical style of the work or to its optimistic presentation of the historical origins of Victorian prosperity and the grandeur of its imperial power. Nevertheless, the discerning reader will still admire the vigor of the work. And, finally, the History remains a valuable index of the style and values of its age.

In 1857 Macaulay was raised to the peerage. He died on Dec. 28, 1859, and was buried in Westminster Abbey.


Further Reading on Thomas Babington Macaulay

The standard biography of Macaulay is by his nephew, Sir George Otto Trevelyan, The Life and Letters of Lord Macaulay (2 vols., 1876; repr. 1932). Other useful introductions to his life and work are Arthur Bryant, Macaulay (1933), and Richmond C. Beatty, Lord Macaulay, Victorian Liberal (1938). Recommended for general historical and intellectual background are George Peabody Gooch, History and Historians in the Nineteenth Century (1913; rev. with a new intro., 1961); George Macaulay Trevelyan, British History in the Nineteenth Century, and After, 1782-1919 (1938); David Churchill Somervell, English Thought in the Nineteenth Century (1929); and Walter Houghton, The Victorian Frame of Mind, 1830-1870 (1957).


Additional Biography Sources

Bryant, Arthur, Sir, Macaulay, New York: Barnes & Noble, 1979, 1932.

Clive, John Leonard, Macaulay, the shaping of the historian, Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1987, 1973.

Edwards, Owen Dudley, Macaulay, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1988.

Hamburger, Joseph, Macaulay and the Whig tradition, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976.

Roberts, S. C. (Sydney Castle), Lord Macaulay, the pre-eminent Victorian, Philadelphia: R. West, 1977.

Trevelyan, George Otto, Sir, The life and letters of Lord Macaulay, Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.

Young, Kenneth, Macaulay, Harlow Eng.: Published for the British Council by Longman Group, 1976.