Macaulay, Thomas Babington

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Macaulay, Thomas Babington



Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800–1859), English historian, essayist, and politician, was born at Rothley Temple, Leicestershire. His father, Zachary, one of the leading members of the “Clapham sect,” was a stern evangelical who fought unremittingly for the abolition first of the slave trade and then of slavery itself. Macaulay's mother was the daughter of a Quaker bookseller and herself a devout evangelical. Thus, the young Macaulay, an astonishingly precocious boy, grew up in an atmosphere of piety, introspection, and humanitarian endeavor. He absorbed and retained the moral and ethical imperatives inculcated upon him; but much to the chagrin of his father, he never underwent a conversion experience and always remained wary of the emotional excesses, cant, and hypocrisy to which an experiential religion so easily lends itself.

At Trinity College, Cambridge, he distinguished himself as a classicist and a poet. He became a fellow of the college in 1824. While at the university, he triumphed as an orator in the Union Debating Society and began his brilliant career as an essayist. In the latter role, he first made his mark with his essay “Milton,” which appeared in the Edinburgh Review of October 1825 ([1825–1844] 1963, vol. 1, pp. 150-194). It was indeed appropriate that in that essay, which made him famous overnight, he should have taken his place on the libertarian side of seventeenth-century English politics. Although Macaulay had been a mild Tory when he entered the university, he was a staunch Whig when he left, and in many ways his political stance was derived from his study of the constitutional conflicts of the seventeenth century.

In “Milton” and subsequent writings he transferred the theme of those conflicts to the decade of struggle between Whig and Tory before the passage of the Reform Act of 1832.

His early essays in the Edinburgh Review are richly caparisoned with wit, paradox, and antithesis, but as Bagehot justly remarked, “Macaulay is anything but a mere rhetorical writer, there is a very hard kernel of business in him.” What gave his writings this “kernel of business” was his sturdy common sense, his fondness for Baconian induction, his suspicion of system making and idees revues, and his ability to get to the root of the matter. These characteristics led him on occasion to anticipate some of the insights of twentieth-century social science; the results are still well worth sampling in some of his articles: “Thoughts on the Advancement of Academic Education in England” (1826), in which he presented a well-argued case against the collegiate system of Oxford and Cambridge and for a nonresidential university in an urban setting; “Social and Industrial Capacities of Negroes”; (1827), in which Macaulay saw the roots of the Negro problem as fundamentally social and economic rather than in any sense innately “racial” “Machiavelli” (The Works of Lord

Macaulay, vol. 7, pp. 63-113), which, as Paul Lazarsfeld has pointed out (1957), contains an account of what is probably the first projective test recorded in the literature; “History” (Works, vol. 7, pp. 167-220), which makes an excellent case for writing the history of societies as a whole, rather than of wars, battles, diplomacy, and politics; “Mill on Government” (Works, vol. 7, pp. 327-371), which argues against the utilitarian theory of government persuasively enough to have convinced John Stuart Mill himself; and “Civil Disabilities of the Jews” (Works, vol. 8, pp. 1-17), which brilliantly places the problem of anti-Semitism into a historical context.

Macaulay was elected to Parliament in 1830. His speeches in favor of the Reform Bill in 1831 and 1832 gained him immense repute as an orator and secured for him, an outsider who lacked both wealth and noble birth, entry into the strongholds of Whig society. For him parliamentary reform was not merely a matter of expediency, although, to be sure, he emphasized that the aristocracy had better make timely political concessions to the middle classes if it wanted to avoid revolution. Reform was, rather, the latest inevitable stage in a series of historical developments that had resulted in a more widespread distribution of property, great increase of wealth, ever greater triumphs of science and industry, and a steady progress from rudeness to refinement. In other words, the Reform Act was merely one way of bringing political arrangements into alignment with an advancing state of society.

In 1834 Macaulay went to India as a member of the governor's Supreme Council. His personal motive for going was to make himself financially independent. In India he made two significant contributions. In 1835 he wrote the historic and still controversial “Minute on Indian Education” ([1831–1853] 1935, pp. 345-361), which proposed English as the principal language of instruction for any national system of education in India, so that Western science, culture, and technology could more easily be transmitted. And he was largely responsible for drawing up a uniform Indian penal code in 1837. Its substance was the English criminal law. Revised by Sir Barnes Peacock, it went into operation in 1862.

In 1838 Macaulay returned to England, and it was in the course of that year that he began seriously to plan his major literary work, which eventually appeared under the title The History of England, From the Accession of James the Second,. .. (1848–1861). He remained active in politics, was Secretary at War from 1839 to 1841, and sat in Parliament for most of the rest of his life.

The first two volumes of the History came out late in 1848, and it was appropriate that a work celebrating the bloodless revolution of 1688 and the establishment of English constitutional stability should make its appearance in the course of a year that had seen revolutionary violence on the continent of Europe, but not in England. In his History Macaulay showed himself to be a master of historical narrative.

The tour de force of the History is undoubtedly “England in 1685,” the first volume's famous third chapter which in the space of 150 pages surveys the nation's geography, population, resources, means of transport, and varied social classes and their occupations, as well as its army, navy, science, literature, and press. It is descriptive rather than analytical social history. Still, of its kind and of its time it remains a magnificent achievement.

The History of England is not without its defects. Macaulay's historical imagination was strong but limited. He approached the past from the vantage point of a more glorious present. He was, as S. R. Gardiner pointed out, a better judge of situations than of character. There are some distortions. But those who expect to find in the History a naively stated parti pris will look in vain.

The popular success of the History (volumes 3 and 4 appeared in 1855, a fifth volume posthumously in 1861) was immense and constituted a unique publishing phenomenon in nineteenth-century England. It appealed to the pride as well as the prejudices of its purchasers and was read with both pleasure and profit by an ever-growing literate public. In historiographical terms it marked, as Leopold von Ranke observed, the triumph of the Whig view of seventeenth-century English history over the Tory view, articulated by David Hume. But the recent tendency to categorize and then dismiss Macaulay as a “mere” Whig historian is giving way to a more balanced sense of his achievement.

Macaulay was awarded a peerage in 1857, the first English historian to be so honored.

John Clive

[For the historical context of Macaulay's work, see History,article on Social History.!


(1825–1844) 1963 Critical and Historical Essays. 2 vols. New York: Dutton.

1826 Thoughts on the Advancement of Academic Education in England.Edinburgh Review 43:315–341. → Published anonymously.

1827 [Social and Industrial Capacities of Negroes.] Edinburgh Review 45:383–423. → An anonymously published review of four papers.

(1831–1853) 1935 Speeches by Lord Macaulay, With His “Minute on Indian Education.” Selected with an introduction and notes by G. M. Young. Oxford Univ. Press.

(1835–1837) 1946 Lord Macaulay's Legislative Minutes. Selected with a historical introduction by C. D. Dhaker. Oxford

Univ. Press.

(1848–1861) 1913–1915 The History of England, From the Accession of James the Second,. .. . Edited by Charles Harding Firth. 6 vols. London: Macmillan.

The Works of Lord Macaulay. Albany edition, 12 vols London: Longmans, 1898. →Volumes 1-6: History of

England. Volumes 7-10: Essays and Biographies. Volumes 11-12: Speeches, Poems and Miscellaneous Writings.


Bagehot, Walter (1856) 1950 Thomas Babington Macaulay. Volume 2, pages 198–232 in Walter Bagehot, Literary Studies. New York: Dutton.

Beatty, Richmond C. 1938 Lord Macaulay: Victorian Liberal. Norman: Univ. of Oklahoma Press.

Bryant, Arthur 1933 Macaulay. London: Davies.

Clive, John 1960 Macaulay's Historical Imagination. Review of English Literature 1, no. 4:20-28.

Firth, Charles H. (1938) 1964 A Commentary on Macaulay's History of England. New York: Barnes & Noble.

Gladstone, William E. (1876) 1879 Macaulay. Pages 265–341 in William E. Gladstone,Gleanings of Past Years: 1843–1878. Volume 1: Personal and Literary. London: Murray.

Lazarsfeld, Paul F. 1957 The Historian and the Pollster. Pages 242–262 in Mirra Komarovsky (editor), Common Frontiers of the Social Sciences. Glencoe, 111.: Free Press.

Paget, John 1861 The New “Examen”: Or, an Inquiry Into the Evidence Relating to Certain Passages in Lord Macaulay's History Concerning I. The Duke of Marlborough; II. The Massacre of Glencoe; III. The Highlands of Scotland; IV. Viscount Dundee; V. William Penn. Edinburgh and London: Blackwood.

Stephen, Leslie (1876) 1904 Macaulay. Volume 3, pages 227–271 in Leslie Stephen, Hours in a Library. New York and London: Putnam.

Trevelyan, George O. (1876) 1932 The Life and Letters of Lord Macaulay. Oxford Univ. Press.

Thomas Babington Macaulay

views updated May 18 2018

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

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 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. □

Macaulay, Thomas Babington

views updated May 11 2018


MACAULAY, THOMAS BABINGTON (1800–1859), British politician and historian.

Thomas Babington Macaulay was the precocious eldest son of a Quaker, Selina Mills Macaulay, and the notable Evangelical reformer Zachary Macaulay. A playful, affectionate, humorous man, Macaulay the public figure was combative, cocksure, and fond of exaggeration.

He is best known for his History of England from the Accession of James II. Volumes one and two were published in 1848, three and four in 1855, and the last volume posthumously in 1861. Macaulay thought history should be as interesting as fiction, and his History became nearly as popular as Dickens's novels. It was widely read in the United States and on the Continent. Believing that the lives of ordinary people were as relevant to historical writing as battles, treaties, and great deeds, Macaulay brought to life dramatic, picturesque scenes of the past. As a social historian, he used a range of material besides archival sources, including ballads, pamphlets, and diaries.

The story of seventeenth-century England exemplified for him the gradual progressive movement of history, not only in material improvement but also in extensions of liberty. The timely arrival of William III (r. 1689–1702) represented a "preserving revolution," whereby William became the instrument for restoring both English liberty and English Protestantism. This inherently dramatic story involving the downfall of King James II (r. 1685–1701) lacks the analytic power, however, that the critic Macaulay had recommended in his 1828 Edinburgh Review essay "History."

Macaulay was elected to Parliament in 1830 as a Whig. The party that abolished the slave trade occupied a middle ground between Tories and Radicals that suited him. In eloquent speeches in the House of Commons, Macaulay defended the Reform Bill (that extended political power to the middle class) and advocated grants to a Catholic institution in Ireland, factory legislation, and equal rights for Unitarians and Jews. He also opposed universal suffrage and supported capital punishment.

As a legal member of the Supreme Council of India from 1834 to 1837, Macaulay expressed a comparable range of opinion, disparaging Indian culture, for example, but also supporting a uniform justice system that treated rulers and the ruled alike, and advocating an end to press censorship. He believed India would eventually be free of British rule and acknowledged that coercion was needed to maintain it.

Macaulay's Minute on Indian Education (1835) argued that English should be the language of instruction in India, against Orientalists, who favored Arabic and Sanskrit rather than vernacular languages. Late-twentieth-century postcolonial studies have revived interest in Macaulay's role in this debate. The best account of Macaulay is given by John Clive in the last four chapters of Macaulay: The Shaping of the Historian.

Macaulay's essays fall into two groups: arguments and narratives. His 1825 Edinburgh Review essay on John Milton made him famous. Other polemical essays demonstrate more skill in treating concrete, practical subjects than at analyzing abstract subjects such as political economy. Macaulay used contrasts, allusions, historical analogies, hypothetical cases, and metaphor to make his points. His language was vivid and forceful. "Gladstone on Church and State" (1839), one of his best argumentative essays, cautions against too close a link between the two institutions.

Three notable, long narrative essays are "Lord Clive" (1840), "Warren Hastings" (1841), and "Frederic the Great" (1842). Of the five essays Macaulay contributed to the Encyclopaedia Britannica in the 1850s, "Samuel Johnson" best illustrates his mature style, marked by careful judgments and the ability to sustain a complex narrative.

The antithetical style of Macaulay signals more than word arrangement: it was a way of perceiving, one that showed a strong affinity for order and balance, and an eighteenth-century sensibility. He was also influenced by the Romantic movement. Though sometimes rigid and oversimplifying, his antithetical style imparted special force to aphorisms: for example, "An acre in Middlesex is better than a principality in Utopia."

Macaulay's impressive accomplishments in several fields, including colonial administration, are remarkable. In his own day the preeminent Victorian, Macaulay today is less read than other great nineteenth-century English writers—George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans; 1819–1880), Matthew Arnold (1822–1888), John Ruskin (1819–1900), and John Stuart Mill (1806–1873). One reason is that he often has been represented in texts and anthologies by his poorest work, and by excerpts, rather than whole essays, that obscure his humanism. In addition, modern specialization has made his concept of history as a branch of literature seem obsolete. Nonetheless, some of his opinions, such as his support of women's education, bring him closer to the present. What Macaulay did best, historical narration, he did incomparably well.

See alsoHistory; Liberalism; Whigs.


Primary Sources

Clive, John, and Thomas Pinney, eds. Thomas Babington Macaulay: Selected Writings. Chicago, 1972.

Secondary Sources

Clive, John. Macaulay: The Shaping of the Historian. New York, 1973.

Edwards, Owen Dudley. Macaulay. New York, 1989.

Rau, Uma Satyavolu. "The National/Imperial Subject in T. B. Macaulay's Historiography." Nineteenth-Century Contexts 23, no. 1 (2001): 89–119.

Thomas, William. "Macaulay, Thomas Babington." In Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Vol. 35. Oxford, U.K., 2004.

Margaret Cruikshank

Macaulay, Thomas Babington

views updated May 29 2018


MACAULAY, THOMAS BABINGTON (1800–1859), British politician and writer. MACAULAY, THOMAS BABINGTON (1800–1859), British politician and writer. Thomas Babington Macaulay, brilliant historian of England, was the first law member of the British East India Company's Supreme Council in Calcutta (Kolkata; 1834–1837). A precocious genius, reading from age three, Macaulay started writing his compendium of "universal history" at seven. He took up residence at Trinity College, Cambridge, at eighteen, was called to the Bar from Gray's Inn at twenty-six, and entered the House of Commons at thirty. Four years later he left for India, joining the executive council of Governor-General William Bentinck as British India's first law member.

Macaulay compiled British India's Code of Criminal Procedure almost single-handed, as both of his original collaborators soon fell too ill to continue. His contempt for ancient Indian religious philosophy and literature—based on his total ignorance of both—led him to argue that "a single shelf" of "paltry abridgements" of works based on Western science was of much greater value to Indian students than the entire corpus of ancient India's "false" and "superstitious" Sanskrit Vedas, Brāhmaṇas, and epics. Lord Bentinck's Calcutta Council was so impressed with Macaulay's rhetoric that they voted against "wasting" any company funds allocated for higher education on "Oriental learning" for Indians, who were only to study "Western learning" in English. Indian civilization's richly wonderful cultural roots and scientific wisdom were thus left undiscovered by most of the brightest young Indians of the nineteenth century, who memorized works of John Milton, Geoffrey Chaucer, and William Shakespeare instead. Macaulay's goal, as he put it in his famed 1835 "Minute on Education," was "to form a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect."

Though Macaulay sailed from Calcutta less than four years after he arrived there, his impact on India's educational future, as well as upon its entire legal system, was perhaps greater than that of any other nineteenth-century Englishman in the service of the East India Company. A year after returning home, he joined the British Cabinet as secretary of war (1839–1841), and was later appointed paymaster general (1846–1847). His health started to fail, however, so he devoted most of his last years of life to writing his monumental History of England, five volumes of which he finished before being honored by the Crown as Baron Macaulay of Rothley in 1857, the year Britain almost lost India, following the "Sepoy Mutiny" at Meerut in early May.

Stanley Wolpert

See alsoBritish East India Company Raj ; Educational Institutions and Philosophies, Traditional and Modern


Dharkar, C. D., ed. Lord Macaulay's Legislative Minutes. London and New York: Oxford University Press, 1946.

Macaulay, Thomas Babington. History of England. 5 vols. Boston: Crosby, Nichols, Lee and Co., 1861.

——. Essays, Critical and Miscellaneous. New York: D. Appleton, 1864.

Pinney, Thomas, ed. The Letters of Thomas Babington Macaulay, vol. 3: Jan. 1834August 1841. London: Cambridge University Press, 1976.

Wolpert, Stanley. A New History of India. 7th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Macaulay, Thomas Babington, 1st Baron

views updated May 29 2018

Macaulay, Thomas Babington, 1st Baron (1800–59). Poet, historian, and politician. Of Scottish presbyterian ancestry, he was the son of Zachary Macaulay, the evangelical anti-slaver and co-founder of the Clapham sect. A child prodigy, educated at Trinity College, Cambridge, he acquired an early reputation as a Whig orator and a later reputation as a formidable contributor to the Edinburgh Review, where he first published most of his greatest essays. A Whig MP for Calne, Leeds, and Edinburgh, he became secretary at war, paymaster-general, and was involved in drafting a new penal code for India. His Lays of Ancient Rome appeared in 1842, four years after he had projected the future History of England. The History was published between 1848 and 1862. Originally intended as a history of England since 1688, Macaulay had only reached 1702 by the time of his death. The History can be regarded as a triumphant reply to David Hume's History of England and its attack on the Whig historiographical tradition, setting the terms of a new Whig historiography which survived until the middle of the 20th cent.

Nicholas Phillipson

Macaulay, Thomas Babington

views updated May 23 2018

Macaulay, Thomas Babington (1800–59) English historian and statesman. He upheld liberal causes in Parliament (1830–38) and served on the British governor's council in India (1834–38), where he introduced a Western education system. He re-entered Parliament but spent his later years mainly in writing his History of England (1849–61).

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