*Macaulay, Thomas Babington

Thomas Babington Macaulay

Thomas Babington Macaulay



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Macaulay, Thomas Babington

British, 1800–1859
Thomas Babington Macaulay wrote histories, polemics, book reviews, and government reports rather than essays on subjects such as friendship or his own position in the world. Although his prose has distinct marks of a personality, he never exploits his emotions as a subject. He was a Whig politician, a Member of Parliament, active in the government of India, and a proponent of reform, but Macaulay engaged his issues by the requirement of a book review or an editor’s assignment. As an historian, he is admired for his lively and interesting prose, but his underlying agenda enraged subsequent historians. As Jane Millgate (1973) notes, Whig historians “derive their historical patterns from the last item in a sequence of events” and trace the line backward, “disregarding all occurrences which that line does not intersect.” Even his poetry—his book of verse was immensely popular, often reprinted and quoted—advocates his causes: a more open society dependent on commercial interests in England, a progressive view of English history, and faith in the English constitution.
Macaulay is sometimes called the first Victorian because he tames early 19th-century enthusiasm for the sublime, the mystic, and the distant by his practical sense of what ordinary humans can fathom. We live, with his essayist’s voice, in the best of possible worlds, solidly in the middle way between fanatics of the left (the Puritans) and of the right (High Tories, Anglo-Catholics, and admirers of the Middle Ages). He probably wrote to an imagined audience composed, first, of his two beloved sisters. We overhear a conversation from an older brother, reaching and directing our thought in the best possible way. He expects his readers to catch allusions to Spenser, Dante, and Milton.
Macaulay is always at our elbow with gentle nudges and not-so-innocent pushes.
Courteously, he allows others in the room to listen. His prose, his focus, his sureness restore order in distracted minds. Gently he introduces good causes like votes for women, the rights of the Irish, the place of poetry. The voice is never shrill and always accommodating. His judgments are clear, assured, and firm. Macaulay aimed to attract novel readers and general readers high and low. How can this happy breed be but cheerful in the hands of a narrative voice that describes how “the long struggle between our sovereigns and their Parliaments… bound up together the rights of the people and the title of the reigning dynasty”? He speaks to an American audience when he notes that the “British colonies rapidly became far mightier and wealthier than the realms which Cortes and Pizarro” added to Spain. Macaulay joyfully reels off the epic names and places of Celt, Saxon, and Norman until, presumably, we arrive at the First Reform Bill in 1832, when all is perfected.
Macaulay’s judgments are distinct even in anonymous essays he wrote for the Edinburgh Review. Of Scottish ancestry himself, Macaulay disliked James Boswell but admired his biography of Samuel Johnson. His essay on Milton sent his readers to learning Italian so they could evaluate his comparison of the Protestant Milton to the Catholic Dante. His five biographical essays for the eighth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1854–59) define the form. Although an advocate of progress, he believed poetry and religion were best written and revealed in primitive times. He sought a literary tradition in opposition to the court or aristocratic literary history; his own time, manners, and truths seemed a triumph to him and to his audience.
Macaulay’s essay style, on the surface, resembles his 18th– century predecessors. His sentences balance clause against clause, and phrase against phrase. He is fond of alliteration and witty lists: the austere Puritans thought it a “sin to hang garlands on a Maypole, to drink a friend’s health, to fly a hawk, to hunt a stag, to play at chess, to wear lovelocks, to put starch into a ruff, to touch the virginals, to read the Fairy Queen.” He is aphoristic, epigrammatic, and effortless. His play of wit is that of a serious person who causes laughter by his sure sense of conclusion. He mastered the art of the outrageous paradox, marveling that the boorish Boswell wrote the life of the hero Dr. Johnson.
Macaulay’s imagination could not see that Boswell created a fiction to dramatize his portrait of Johnson.
To his contemporaries Macaulay seemed arrogant, his firmness immature. He had a boy’s joy and delight in exposing fallacies and follies, coupled with adult indignation.
Nonetheless, like all good essayists, he is a good companion. William Makepeace Thackeray noted that Macaulay had, and revealed, a “brilliant intellect” with an “amazing variety and extent of learning” that produced essays “which all may so easily read.” That ease is both the bane and the charm of Macaulay as essayist.


Born 25 October 1800 at Rothley Temple, Leicestershire. Studied at Aspenden Hall, Hertfordshire, 1814–18; Trinity College, Cambridge, 1818–22, B.A., 1822; Lincoln’s Inn, London, admitted to the bar, 1826. Contributor, Knight’s Quarterly, 1823, and the Edinburgh Review, 1825–44. Fellow of Trinity College, 1824–31. Commissioner of bankruptcy, 1828–30; Whig Member of Parliament for Calne, Wiltshire, 1830–32, Leeds, 1832–34, and Edinburgh, 1839–47 and 1852–56; commissioner, Board of Control, 1832– 34; legal adviser to the Supreme Council of the East India Company, Calcutta, 1834–38; secretary of war in Melbourne’s cabinet, 1839–41; paymaster-general in Russell’s cabinet, 1846–47. Rector, University of Glasgow, 1849. Made Baron Macaulay of Rothley, 1857. Awards: Prussian Order of Merit, 1853; honorary degree from Oxford University. Died in London, 28 December 1859.

Selected Writings
Essays and Related Prose
Critical and Miscellaneous Essays, 5 vols., 1841–44; revised editions, 4 vols., 1857, 7 vols., 1859–61
Critical and Historical Essays Contributed to the Edinburgh Review, 3 vols., 1843;
selections edited by Hugh Trevor-Roper, 1965
Speeches, 2 vols., 1853
Selections from Essays and Speeches, 2 vols., 1856
Biographical and Historical Sketches, 1857
The Miscellaneous Writings, 2 vols., 1860
Biographies by Lord Macaulay Contributed to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1863
Selected Writings, edited by John Clive and Thomas Pinney, 1972
The Letters, edited by Thomas Pinney, 6 vols., 1974–81; part as Selected Letters, edited by Pinney, 1982

Other writings: poetry (Lays of Ancient Rome, 1842) and The History of England from the Accession of James II (5 vols., 1848–61).
Collected works editions: Works (Albany Edition), 12 vols., 1898, reprinted 1980;
Works, edited by Thomas F.Henderson, 9 vols., 1905–07.

Pinney, Thomas, in The Letters of Thomas Babington Macaulay, vol. 6, Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1981:289–302
Potter, George Reuben, in Macaulay, London: Longman, 1959

Further Reading
Bryant, Arthur, Macaulay, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, and Lanham, Maryland: Barnes and Noble, 1979 (original edition, 1932)
Clive, John, Macaulay: The Shaping of the Historian, New York: Knopf, 1973
Clive, John, and Thomas Pinney, Introduction to Selected Writings by Macaulay, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972
Clive, John, and Thomas Pinney, “Macaulay,” in Victorian Prose: A Guide to Research, edited by David De Laura, New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1973:29–30
Crosby, Christina, The Ends of History: Victorians and “the Woman Question”, London and New York: Routledge, 1991
Edwards, Owen Dudley, Macaulay, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, and New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988
Fisher, H.A.L., “The Whig Historians,” in Pages from the Past, Freeport, New York.
Books for Libraries, 1969:40–92 (original edition, 1939)
Fraser, G.S., “Macaulay’s Style as an Essayist,” Review of English Literature 1, no. 4 (1960):9–19
Geyl, Pieter, “Macaulay in His Essays,” in his Debates with Historians, Gröningen: Wolters, 1955:19–34
Hamburger, Joseph, Macaulay and the Whig Tradition., Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1976
Levine, George, The Boundaries of Fiction: Carlyle, Macaulay, Newman, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1968
Madden, William A., “Macaulay’s Style,” in The Art of Victorian Prose, edited by Madden and George Levine, New York: Oxford University Press, 1968:127–53
Millgate, Jane, Macaulay, London and Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1973
Svaglic, Martin J., “Classical Rhetoric and Victorian Prose,” in The Art of Victorian Prose, edited by George Levine and William A.Madden, New York: Oxford University Press, 1968: 268–88
Trevelyan, G.O., The Life and Letters of Lord Macaulay, Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2 vols., 1978 (original edition, 1876)
Weber, Ronald, “Singer and Seer: Macaulay on the Historian as Poet,” Papers on Language and Literature 3 (1967):110–19

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