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Thomas Babington Macaulay

ON 25 OCTOBER 1800, Thomas Babington Macaulay was born at Rothley Temple, Leicestershire. He went on to rival Edward Gibbon and David Hume as one of the greatest historians ever. He died at Holly Lodge, Kensington on 28 December 1859. It is not easy to gauge how many read his History of England (1848-61) nowadays. It is haply most often bought from second-hand bookshops and that is how I got my copy. The essays and lays can also be had by anyone who wants them from a second-hand bookshop. Yet he was the most modern author of his day, which lasted until 1859.

His father, Zachary Macaulay, was a keen member of the Clapham Sect that set out to abolish slavery. He even moved the family to live in Clapham in 1802, and the boy was brought up in a radical household. The young Macaulay was said to read lots and to argue and debate almost from the cot. Later, he got to like the Tory Dr Johnson, who would never let the Whigs have the last word. Macaulay turned the tables by never letting the Tories have the last word. His father was a Pittite Tory, as was Wilberforce, and Zachary rather expected his son to follow suit. But in the Cambridge Union, the students of Tom's day found the Tories oppressive, especially in the Peterloo attack on Leigh Hunt's meeting in Manchester. Tom was a Liberal even though it flouted the opinions of his beloved parents. He wrote a letter home saying that he got the creed from great ancient authors rather than from the current liberal propagandists like Leigh Hunt, and that consoled his father somewhat.

Earlier, in 1812, he had been sent to a private school near Cambridge and two years later to Aspenden Hall in Hertfordshire from where he entered the college of Isaac Newton, Trinity, Cambridge in 1818. Unlike Newton, Macaulay never could get on with mathematics, which he soon found himself hating no end. Again, unlike Newton, he hated theology and thought that religious disputes of the past were the only ones where both sides were wrong. He detested superstition and all the talk of ghosts that was becoming ever more common throughout his life. He preferred mundane common sense. As such, he did not think well of philosophy. He even doubted the Stoic wisdom of Seneca, thinking that it was even worse than a 'load of cobblers', saying, "It may be worse to be angry than to be wet. But shoes have kept millions from being wet; and we doubt whether Seneca ever kept anybody from being angry." In fact, Seneca's outlook works, even if many fewer have tried it than tried shoe repairers.

Macaulay was excellent at English and he took to Latin with ease as well. He won prizes, such as the Chancellor's medal for English verse, whilst an undergraduate and got his BA in 1822. In 1824 he was elected to a fellowship. He was very much at home debating in the Cambridge Union. He was called to the bar in 1826 but found law to be a bore. By then he had been submitting articles to various magazines and it is here that he sought to make a living.

The Edinburgh Review had accepted his piece on Milton in August of the year before. It was one of the leading magazines of the day and it was quite clear that Macaulay could make a living by writing for it. For the next 20 years he continued as a major contributor to that magazine. In 1830, he entered parliament for the pocket borough of Calne and he immediately took part in the parliamentary reform movement that led to the Reform Bill of 1832. Macaulay's debating skills were fully exercised in the House of Commons in the debates leading up to that event. His first speech brought praise that made him feel like a lion and it won him an invitation from Lady Holland to dine at Holland House.

Like his hero, Dr Johnson, Macaulay was becoming very well known as a conversationalist at this time, a reputation that was to be undiminished for the rest of his life. He took the post of legal adviser to the Supreme Council of India at £10,000 a year in 1834 and set sail to Bengal, remaining in India for four years. There, he attempted to read the full corpus of the extant Greek and Latin literature, saying that it was folly to have spent the first 20 years of his life learning the two great classical languages only to neglect the literature that they gave access to. He found his adult readings of Greek and Latin to be far more rewarding than he had expected from the snippets he had confronted whilst learning these dead languages. Imagining the past to be as alive as the present was the acme of his talents.

He returned to England in 1838 and in 1839 was elected as an MP for Edinburgh. He took up the cabinet position of secretary of war. His liberalism was not as doctrinaire as that of Cobden, who would not go into a Government that might declare war, let alone be the one responsible for that most illiberal of activities. He lost his seat in 1847, but won it back in 1852 without having to visit the constituency. He retired from the Commons in 1856. In 1857 he was put into the House of Lords, but within two years he was buried in Westminster Abbey.

Macaulay never married, but was inordinately fond of his sisters and of his nieces. He regretted not having children but he felt that theirs were also his. His father lost quite a bit of money while Thomas was at Cambridge and from the mid-1820s, as the eldest child, he helped the family of three girls and another boy. His favourite sister, Hannah, married into the Trevelyan family from the West Country via Charles, whom Thomas had met in India. Macaulay's nephew and biographer George Otto Trevelyan was a child of that marriage, and George Macaulay Trevelyan, the great historian, was George Otto's son.

More than anyone else, Macaulay was known as the author who eulogised progress. Fools feel that the human race has learnt not to be so naïve since his day, but they have not come up with criticisms of the idea of progress that Macaulay did not read over and again in his beloved Dr Johnson. As he said, we cannot refute those who tell us that society has reached a turning point, that we have seen our best days. "But so said all before us, and with just as much reason. On what principle is it that, when we see nothing but improvement behind us, we are to expect nothing but deterioration before us?" Of late, Julian Simon has given the meme of progress a boost but it never was the case that the Whigs thought that progress could not be checked from a logical point of view. Macaulay had among his contemporaries no end of Romantic authors who thought that change meant decline, that the race was going along a tunnel that had no light at the end of it merely the dark Satanic mills. Macaulay saw such mills as "populous and opulent hives of industry". Progress in the "multiplying of human enjoyments and the mitigating of human sufferings" was almost bound, if not quite bound, to continue. It was logically possible that progress would not be made but it was also logically possible that we might live forever.

"Of Macaulay, too, something must here be said, because an undistinguished condemnation of him used to be the shibboleth of that school of English historians who destroyed the habit of reading history among their fellow-countrymen." - G.M. TREVELYAN

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© Libertarian Alliance  2001

 

 

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