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Thomas Babington Macaulay

Thomas Babington MacaulayBorn: 25-Oct-1800
Birthplace: Rothley Temple, Leicestershire, England
Died: 28-Dec-1859
Location of death: London, England
Cause of death: unspecified
Remains: Buried, Westminster Abbey, London, England

Gender: Male
Religion: Anglican/Episcopalian
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Occupation: Historian, Author, Politician

Nationality: England
Executive summary: History of England

Thomas Babington Macaulay, 1st Baron Macaulay, English historian, essayist and politician, was born at Rothley Temple, Leicestershire, on the 25th of October 1800. His father, Zachary Macaulay (1768-1838), had been governor of Sierra Leone, and was in 1800 secretary to the chartered company which had founded that colony; an ardent philanthropist, he did much to secure the abolition of the slave trade, and he edited the abolitionist organ, the Christian Observer, for many years. Happy in his home, the son at a very early age gave proof of a determined bent towards literature. Before he was eight years of age he had written a Compendium of Universal History, which gave a tolerably connected view of the leading events from the creation to 1800, and a romance in the style of Sir Walter Scott, in three cantos, called The Battle of Cheviot. A little later he composed a long poem on the Historia of Olaus Magnus, and a vast pile of blank verse entitled Fingal, a Poem in Twelve Books. After being at a private school, in October 1818 young Macaulay went to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he afterwards became a fellow. He gained in 1824 a college prize for an essay on the character of William III. He also won a prize for Latin declamation and a Craven scholarship, and wrote the prize poems of 1819 and 1821.

In 1826 Macaulay was called to the bar and joined the northern circuit. But he soon gave up even the pretense of reading law, and spent many more hours under the gallery of the House of Commons than in the court. His first attempt at a public speech, made at an anti-slavery meeting in 1824, was described by the Edinburgh Review as "a display of eloquence of rare and matured excellence." His first considerable appearance in print was in No. 1 of Knight's Quarterly Magazine, a periodical which enjoyed a short but brilliant existence, and which was largely supported by Eton and Cambridge. In August 1825 began Macaulay's connection with the periodical which was to prove the field of his literary reputation. The Edinburgh Review was at this time at the height of its power, not only as an organ of the growing opinion which leaned towards reform, but as a literary tribunal from which there was no appeal. His essay on John Milton (August 1825), so crude that the author afterwards said that "it contained scarcely a paragraph such as his matured judgment approved", created for him at once a literary reputation which suffered no diminution to the last, a reputation which he established and confirmed, but which it would have been hardly possible to make more conspicuous. The publisher John Murray declared that it would be worth the copyright of Childe Harold to have Macaulay on the staff of the Quarterly Review; and Robert Hall, the orator, writhing with pain, and worn out with disease, was discovered lying on the floor employed in learning by aid of grammar and dictionary enough Italian to enable him to verify the parallel between Milton and Dante.

This sudden blaze of popularity, kindled by a single essay, is partly to be explained by the dearth of literary criticism in England at that epoch. For, though a higher note had already been sounded by William Hazlitt and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, it had not yet taken hold of the public mind, which was still satisfied with the feeble appreciations of the Retrospective Review, or the dashing and damnatory improvisation of Wilson in Blackwood or Jeffrey in the Edinburgh. Still, allowance being made for the barbarous partisanship of the established critical tribunals of the period, it seems surprising that a social success so signal should have been the consequence of a single article. The explanation is that the writer of the article on Milton was, unlike most authors, also a brilliant conversationalist. There has never been a period when an amusing talker has not been in great demand at London tables; but when Macaulay made his debut witty conversation was studied and cultivated as it has ceased to be in the more busy age which has succeeded. At the university Macaulay had been recognized as pre-eminent for inexhaustible talk and genial companionship among a circle of such brilliant young men as Charles Austin, Romilly, Praed and Villiers. He now displayed these gifts on a wider theater. Launched on the best that London had to give in the way of society, Macaulay accepted and enjoyed with all the zest of youth and a vigorous nature the opportunities opened for him. He was courted and admired by the most distinguished personages of the day. He was admitted at Holland House, where Lady Holland listened to him with deference, and scolded him with a circumspection which was in itself a compliment. Samuel Rogers spoke of him with friendliness and to him with affection. He was treated with almost fatherly kindness by "Conversation" Sharp.

Thus distinguished, and justifiably conscious of his great powers, Macaulay began to aspire to a political career. But the shadow of pecuniary trouble early began to fall upon his path. When he went to college his father believed himself to be worth 100,000. But commercial disaster overtook the house of Babington & Macaulay, and the son now saw himself compelled to work for his livelihood. His Trinity fellowship of 300 a year became of great consequence to him, but it expired in 1831; he could make at most 200 a year by writing; and a commissionership of bankruptcy, which was given him by Lord Lyndhurst in 1828, and which brought him in about 400 a year, was swept away, without compensation, by the ministry which came into power in 1830. Macaulay was reduced to such straits that he had to sell his Cambridge gold medal.

In February 1830 the doors of the House of Commons were opened to him through what was then called a "pocket borough." Lord Lansdowne, who had been struck by two articles on James Mill and the Utilitarians, which appeared in the Edinburgh Review in 1829, offered the author the seat at Calne. The offer was accompanied by the express assurance that the patron had no wish to interfere with Macaulay's freedom of voting. He thus entered parliament at one of the most exciting moments of English domestic history, when the compact phalanx of reactionary administration which for nearly fifty years had commanded a crushing majority in the Commons was on the point of being broken by the growing strength of the party of reform. Macaulay made his maiden speech on the 5th of April 1830, on the second reading of the Bill for the Removal of Jewish Disabilities. In July the king died and parliament was dissolved; the revolution took place in Paris. Macaulay, who was again returned for Calne, visited Paris, eagerly enjoying a first taste of foreign travel. On the 1st of March 1831 the Reform Bill was introduced, and on the second night of the debate Macaulay made the first of his reform speeches. It was, like all his speeches, a success. Sir Robert Peel said of it that "portions were as beautiful as anything I have ever heard or read."

Encouraged by this first success, Macaulay now threw himself with ardor into the life of the House of Commons, while at the same time he continued to enjoy to the full the social opportunities which his literary and political celebrity had placed within his reach. He dined out almost nightly, and spent many of his Sundays at the suburban villas of the Whig leaders, while he continued to supply the Edinburgh Review with articles. On the triumph of Earl Grey's cabinet, and the passing of the Reform Act in June 1832, Macaulay, whose eloquence had signalized every stage of the conflict, became one of the commissioners of the board of control, and applied himself to the study of Indian affairs. Giving his days to India and his nights to the House of Commons, he could only devote a few hours to literary composition by rising at five when the business of the house had allowed of his getting to bed in time on the previous evening. Between September 1831 and December 1833 he furnished the Review with eight important articles, besides writing his ballad on the Armada.

In the first Reform Parliament, January 1833, Macaulay took his seat as one of the two members for Leeds, which up to that date had been unrepresented in the House of Commons. He replied to O'Connell in the debate on the address, meeting the great agitator face to face, with high, but not intemperate, defiance. In July he defended the Government of India Bill in a speech of great power, and he was instrumental in getting the bill through committee without unnecessary friction. When the abolition of slavery came before the house as a practical question, Macaulay had the prospect of having to surrender office or to vote for a modified abolition, viz. twelve years' apprenticeship, which was proposed by the ministry, but condemned by the abolitionists. He was prepared to make the sacrifice of place rather than be unfaithful to the cause to which his father had devoted his life. He placed his resignation in Lord Althorp's hands, and spoke against the ministerial proposal. But the sense of the house was so strongly expressed as unfavorable that, finding they would be beaten if they persisted, the ministry gave way, and reduced apprenticeship to seven years, a compromise which the abolition party accepted; and Macaulay remained at the board of control.

While he was thus growing in reputation, and advancing his public credit, the fortunes of the family were sinking, and it became evident that his sisters would have no provision except such as their brother might be enabled to make for them. Macaulay had but two sources of income, both of them precarious -- office and his pen. As to office, the Whigs could not have expected at that time to retain power for a whole generation; and, even while they did so, Macaulay's resolution that he would always give an independent vote made it possible that he might at any moment find himself in disagreement with his colleagues, and have to quit his place. As to literature, he wrote to Lord Lansdowne (1833), "it has been hitherto merely my relaxation; I have never considered it as the means of support. I have chosen my own topics, taken my own time, and dictated my own terms. The thought of becoming a bookseller's hack, of spurring a jaded fancy to reluctant exertion, of filling sheets with trash merely that sheets may be filled, of bearing from publishers and editors what Dryden bore from Tonson and what Mackintosh bore from Lardner, is horrible to me." Macaulay was thus prepared to accept the offer of a seat in the supreme council of India, created by the new India Act. The salary of the office was fixed at 10,000, out of which he calculated to be able to save 30,000 in five years. His sister Hannah accepted his proposal to accompany him, and in February 1834 the brother and sister sailed for Calcutta.

Macaulay's appointment to India occurred at the critical moment when the government of the company was being superseded by government by the Crown. His knowledge of India was, when he landed, but superficial. But at this juncture there was more need of statesmanship directed by general liberal principles than of a practical knowledge of the details of Indian administration. Macaulay's presence in the council was of great value; his minutes are models of good judgment and practical sagacity. The part he took in India has been described as "the application of sound liberal principles to a government which had till then been jealous, close and repressive." He vindicated the liberty of the press; he maintained the equality of Europeans and natives before the law; and as president of the committee of public instruction he inaugurated the system of national education.

A clause in the India Act 1833 occasioned the appointment of a commission to inquire into the jurisprudence of the Eastern dependency. Macaulay was appointed president of that commission. The draft of a penal code which he submitted became, after a revision of many years, and by the labor of many experienced lawyers, the Indian criminal code. Of this code Sir James Stephen said that "it reproduces in a concise and even beautiful form the spirit of the law of England, in a compass which by comparison with the original may be regarded as almost absurdly small. The Indian penal code is to the English criminal law what a manufactured article ready for use is to the materials out of which it is made. It is to the French code penal, and to the German code of 1871, what a finished picture is to a sketch. It is simpler and better expressed than Livingston's code for Louisiana; and its practical success has been complete."

Macaulay's enlightened views and measures drew down on him, however, the abuse and ill-will of Anglo-Indian society. Fortunately for himself he was enabled to maintain a tranquil indifference to political detraction by withdrawing his thoughts into a sphere remote from the opposition and enmity by which he was surrounded. Even amid the excitement of his early parliamentary successes literature had balanced politics in his thoughts and interests. Now in his exile he began to feel more strongly each year the attraction of European letters and European history. He wrote to his friend Ellis: "I have gone back to Greek literature with a passion astonishing to myself. I have never felt anything like it. I was enraptured with Italian during the six months which I gave up to it; and I was little less pleased with Spanish. But when I went back to the Greek I felt as if I had never known before what intellectual enjoyment was." In thirteen months he read through, some of them twice, a large part of the Greek and Latin classics. The fascination of these studies produced their inevitable effect upon his view of political life. He began to wonder what strange infatuation leads men who can do something better to squander their intellect, their health and energy, on such subjects as those which most statesmen are engaged in pursuing. He was already, he says, "more than half determined to abandon politics and give myself wholly to letters, to undertake some great historical work, which may be at once the business and the amusement of my life, and to leave the pleasures of pestiferous rooms, sleepless nights, and diseased stomachs to Roebuck and to Praed."

In 1838 Macaulay and his sister Hannah, who had married Charles Trevelyan in 1834, returned to England. He at once entered parliament as member for Edinburgh. In 1839 he became secretary at war, with a seat in the cabinet in Lord Melbourne's ministry., His acceptance of office diverted him for a time from prosecuting the plan he had already formed of a great historical work. But in less than two years the Melbourne ministry fell. In 1842 appeared his Lays of Ancient Rome, and in the next year he collected and published his Essays. He returned to office in 1846, in Lord John Russell's administration, as paymaster-general. His duties were very light, and the contact with official life and the obligations of parliamentary attendance were even of benefit to him while he was engaged upon his History. In the sessions of 1846-47 he spoke only five times, and at the general election of July 1847 he lost his seat for Edinburgh. The balance of Macaulay's faculties had now passed to the side of literature. At an earlier date he had relished crowds and the excitement of ever new faces; as years went forward, and absorption in the work of composition took off the edge of his spirits, he recoiled from publicity. He began to regard the prospect of business as worry, and had no longer the nerve to brace himself to the social efforts required of one who represents a large constituency.

Macaulay retired into private life, not only without regret, but with a sense of relief. He gradually withdrew from general society, feeling the bore of big dinners and country-house visits, but he still enjoyed close and constant intercourse with a circle of the most eminent men that London then contained. At that time social breakfasts were in vogue. Macaulay himself preferred this to any other form of entertainment. Of these brilliant reunions nothing has been preserved beyond the names of the men who formed them -- Rogers, Henry Hallam, Sydney Smith, Lord Carlisle, Lord Stanhope, Nassau Senior, Charles Greville, Milman, Sir Anthony Panizzi, G. C. Lewis, Van de Weyer. His biographer thus describes Macaulay's appearance and bearing in conversation: "Sitting bolt upright, his hands resting on the arms of his chair, or folded over the handle of his walking-stick, knitting his eyebrows if the subject was one which had to be thought out as he went along, or brightening from the forehead downwards when a burst of humour was coming, his massive features and honest glance suited well with the manly sagacious sentiments which he set forth in his sonorous voice and in his racy and intelligible language. To get at his meaning people had never the need to think twice, and they certainly had seldom the time."

But, great as was his enjoyment of literary society and books, they only formed his recreation. In these years he was working with unflagging industry at the composition of his History. His composition was slow, his corrections both of matter and style endless; he spared no pains to ascertain the facts. He sacrificed to the prosecution of his task a political career, House of Commons fame, the allurements of society. The first two volumes of the History of England appeared in December 1848. The success was in every way complete beyond expectation. The sale of edition after edition, both in England and the United States, was enormous.

In 1852, when his party returned to office, he refused a seat in the cabinet, but he could not bring himself to decline the compliment of a voluntary amende which the city of Edinburgh paid him in returning him at the head of the poll at the general election in July of that year. He had hardly accepted the summons to return to parliamentary life before fatal weakness betrayed itself in deranged action of the heart; from this time forward until his death his strength continued steadily to sink. The process carried with it dejection of spirits as its inevitable attendant. The thought oppressed him that the great work to which he had devoted himself would remain a fragment. Once again, in June 1853, he spoke in parliament, and with effect, against the exclusion of the master of the rolls from the House of Commons, and at a later date in defense of competition for the Indian civil service. But he was aware that it was a grievous waste of his small stock of force, and that he made these efforts at the cost of more valuable work.

In November 1855 volumes III and IV of the History appeared and obtained a vast circulation. Within a generation of its first appearance upwards of 140,000 copies of the History were printed and sold in the United kingdom alone; and in the United States the sales were on a correspondingly large scale. The History was translated into German, Polish, Danish, Swedish, Hungarian, Russian, Czech, Italian, French, Dutch and Spanish. Flattering marks of respect were heaped upon the author by foreign academies. His pecuniary profits were (for that time) on a scale commensurate with the reputation of the book: the cheque he received for 20,000 has become a landmark in literary history.

In May 1856 he quitted the Albany, in which he had passed fifteen happy years, and went to live at Holly Lodge, Campden Hill, then, before it was enlarged, a tiny bachelor's dwelling, but with a lawn whose unbroken slope of verdure gave it the air of a considerable country house. In the following year (1857) he was raised to the peerage by the title of Baron Macaulay of Rothley. "It was", says Lady Trevelyan, "one of the few things that everybody approved; he enjoyed it himself, as he did everything, simply and cordially." It was a novelty in English life to see eminence which was neither that of territorial opulence nor of political or military services recognized and rewarded by elevation to the peerage.

But Macaulay's health, which had begun to give way in 1852, was every year visibly failing. In May 1858 he went to Cambridge for the purpose of being sworn in as high steward of the borough, to which office he had been elected on the death of Earl Fitzwilliam. When his health was given at a public breakfast in the townhall he was obliged to excuse himself from speaking. In the upper house he never spoke. Absorbed in the prosecution of his historical work, he had grown indifferent to the party politics of his own day. Gradually he had to acquiesce in the conviction that, though his intellectual powers remained unimpaired, his physical energies would not carry him through the reign of Anne; and, though he brought down the narrative to the death of William III, the last half-volume wants the finish and completeness of the earlier portions. The winter of 1859 told on him, and he died on the 28th of December. On the 9th of January 1860 he was buried in Westminster Abbey, in Poets' Corner, near the statue of Joseph Addison.

Lord Macaulay never married. A man of warm domestic affections, he found their satisfaction in the attachment and close sympathy of his sister Hannah, the wife of Sir Charles Trevelyan. Her children were to him as his own. Macaulay was a steadfast friend, and no act inconsistent with the strictest honor and integrity was ever imputed to him. When a poor man, and when salary was of consequence to him, he twice resigned office rather than make compliances for which he would not have been severely blamed. In 1847, when his seat in parliament was at stake, he would not be persuaded to humor, to temporize, even to conciliate. He had a keen relish for the good things of life, and desired fortune as the means of obtaining them; but there was nothing mercenary or selfish in his nature. When he had raised himself to opulence, he gave away with an open hand, not seldom rashly. His very last act was to write a letter to a poor curate enclosing a cheque for 25. The purity of his morals was not associated with any tendency to cant.

The lives of men of letters are often records of sorrow or suffering. The life of Macaulay was eminently happy. Until the closing years (1857-59), he enjoyed life with the full zest of healthy faculty, happy in social intercourse, happy in the solitude of his study, and equally divided between the two. For the last fifteen years of his life he lived for literature. His writings were remunerative to him far beyond the ordinary measure, yet he never wrote for money. He lived in his historical researches; his whole heart and interest were unreservedly given to the men and the times of whom he read and wrote. His command of literature was imperial. Beginning with a good classical foundation, he made himself familiar with the imaginative, and then with the historical, remains of Greece and Rome. He went on to add the literature of his own country, of France, of Italy, of Spain. He learned Dutch enough for the purposes of his history. He read German, but for the literature of the northern nations he had no taste, and of the erudite labors of the Germans he had little knowledge and formed an inadequate estimate. The range of his survey of human things had other limitations more considerable still. All philosophical speculation was alien to his mind; nor did he seem aware of the degree in which such speculation had influenced the progress of humanity. A large -- the largest -- part of ecclesiastical history lay outside his historical view. Of art he confessed himself ignorant, and even refused a request to furnish a critique on Jonathan Swift's poetry to the Edinburgh Review. Lessing's Laocoon, or Goethe's criticism on Hamlet, "filled" him "with wonder and despair."

Of the marvelous discoveries of science which were succeeding each other day by day he took no note; his pages contain no reference to them. It has been told already how he recoiled from the mathematical studies of his university. These deductions made, the circuit of his knowledge still remains very wide -- as extensive perhaps as any human brain is competent to embrace. His literary outfit was as complete as has ever been possessed by any English writer; and, if it wants the illumination of philosophy, it has an equivalent resource in a practical acquaintance with affairs, with administration, with the interior of cabinets, and the humor of popular assemblies. Nor was the knowledge merely stored in his memory; it was always at his command. Whatever his subject, he pours over it his stream of illustration, drawn from the records of all ages and countries. His Essays are not merely instructive as history; they are, like Milton's blank verse, freighted with the spoils of all the ages. As an historian Macaulay has not escaped the charge of partisanship. He was a Whig; and in writing the history of the rise and triumph of Whig principles in the latter half of the 17th century he identified himself with the cause. But the charge of partiality, as urged against Macaulay, means more than that he wrote the history of the Whig revolution from the point of view of those who made it. When he is describing the merits of friends and the faults of enemies his pen knows no moderation. He has a constant tendency to glaring colors, to strong effects, and will always be striking violent blows. He is not merely exuberant but excessive. There is an overweening confidence about his tone; he expresses himself in trenchant phrases, which are like challenges to an opponent to stand up and deny them. His propositions have no qualifications. Uninstructed readers like this assurance, as they like a physician who has no doubt about their case. But a sense of distrust grows upon the more circumspect reader as he follows page after page of Macaulay's categorical affirmations about matters which our own experience of life teaches us to be of a contingent nature. We inevitably think of a saying attributed to Lord Melbourne: "I wish I were as cocksure of any one thing as Macaulay is of everything." Macaulay's was the mind of the advocate, not of the philosopher; it was the mind of Bossuet, which admits no doubts or reserves itself and tolerates none in others, and as such was disqualified from that equitable balancing of evidence which is the primary function of the historian.

Macaulay, the historian no less than the politician, is, however, always on the side of justice, fairness for the weak against the strong, the oppressed against the oppressor. But though a Liberal in practical politics, he had not the reformer's temperament. The world as it is was good enough for him. The glories of wealth, rank, honors, literary fame, the elements of vulgar happiness, made up his ideal of life. A successful man himself, every personage and every cause is judged by its success. "The brilliant Macaulay", says Ralph Waldo Emerson, "who expresses the tone of the English governing classes of the day, explicitly teaches that 'good' means good to eat, good to wear, material commodity." Macaulay is in accord with the average sentiment of orthodox and stereotyped humanity on the relative values of the objects and motives of human endeavor. And this commonplace materialism is one of the secrets of his popularity, and one of the qualities which guarantee that that popularity will be enduring.

Father: Zachary Macaulay (Governor of Sierra Leone, b. 1768, d. 1838)

    University: Trinity College, Cambridge University

    UK Member of Parliament
    Athenaeum Club (London)


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