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Macaulay, Thomas Babington, Baron Macaulaylocked

  • William Thomas

Thomas Babington Macaulay, Baron Macaulay (1800–1859)

by Maull & Polyblank, 1856

Macaulay, Thomas Babington, Baron Macaulay (1800–1859), historian, essayist, and poet, was born on 25 October 1800, the son of Zachary Macaulay (1768–1838) and Selina Mills (d. 1831). Zachary Macaulay was the son of John Macaulay, minister of Cardross in Dunbartonshire. After apprenticeship to a merchant in Glasgow, Zachary became an overseer on a West Indian plantation, where he formed a deep hatred for the institution of slavery. In 1793 he was made the first governor of the settlement which the first abolitionists had founded as a refuge for escaped slaves in Sierra Leone. Zachary's sister Jean had married Thomas Babington of Rothley Temple, Leicestershire, and Babington inspired his brother-in-law with many of his evangelical beliefs. Selina Mills was the daughter of a Quaker family who had been a pupil and later an assistant of Hannah More, the evangelical writer who had founded a school in Bristol. The two met when Zachary returned from Africa in 1796 to recover his health, but were not married until he had returned from a second visit to the colony in 1799. In his absence Selina had frequently stayed at Rothley Temple. On his return, he became secretary to the Sierra Leone Company and took a house in Lambeth. But Thomas was born in Rothley Temple and the house was a second home to him, as it was to all the Macaulay children. When raised to the peerage he became Baron Macaulay of Rothley.

Childhood and education

From both parents Thomas derived strong religious views. In 1802 Zachary Macaulay moved his family from Birchin Lane, Cornhill, to a home in the High Street, Clapham. It was here that most of the Macaulay children were brought up, among Wilberforces, Thorntons, Grants, and other evangelical families devoted to the cause of slavery abolition. All the settings of his childhood, from Rothley, the house of the Misses More in Barley Wood, near Clifton, and in Clapham reinforced the evangelical influences upon Macaulay. He was a highly precocious and sensitive child. He was reading by the age of three, and even as a small boy he astonished adults with his odd learning and recondite vocabulary. He very early showed the two salient features of his published work, a love of rhetoric and a highly retentive memory. The Bible in King James's version was the earliest and probably the greatest influence. When as a little child he found a maid had thrown away the oyster shells with which he had marked out a plot in the garden, he came into his mother's drawing-room and declared, 'Cursed be Sally: for it is written, Cursed is he that removeth his neighbour's landmark.' This childish outburst illustrates the pattern of Macaulay's more mature controversies. His reading was so insatiable, his head so filled with eloquent phrases that his response was often quite unsuited to the occasion. Interior conviction was always more important to him than its social effects. Even when he had shed the evangelical outlook, the language of the Bible shaped his style. He was shocked when supposedly educated people displayed an ignorance of scripture. In times of sorrow or loss his language became more biblical and sonorous. When he wanted to learn a new language he bought a Bible in it to save the trouble of using a dictionary. Later influences were Milton (he could say Paradise Lost by heart), Shakespeare, and Scott. The Lay of the Last Minstrel and Marmion inspired him to write a poem called 'The Battle of Cheviot'. He wrote hymns and commemorative verse, and even a religious tract to convert the native inhabitants of Malabar.

His parents, aware that he showed 'marks of uncommon genius', strove to keep him humble, a plan applied more consistently by Zachary, who criticized him freely, than by Selina, who adored him and tried to soften the effects of her husband's severity. But his education as Zachary's heir and successor could not but mark him out as special. His siblings received less attention and seem to have accepted the fact. The two girls nearest him in age, Selina (b. 1802) and Jane (b. 1804), were largely taught at home. The third daughter, Frances (b. 1808), was too young to be a playmate of her brilliant brother, but too old to be an admirer. She never married, and she became the maid of all work who nursed her father in his last years. Henry (b. 1806) was apprenticed to a Liverpool merchant. Charles (b. 1813) was apprenticed to a surgeon. Only Thomas and John (b. 1805) went to university. John, after a short attempt in commerce, graduated from Queens' College, Cambridge, and became a clergyman.

Thomas alone had a gentleman's education. In 1812 he was sent to a school run by an evangelical clergyman, Matthew Preston, at Little Shelford, near Cambridge. Here he was thoroughly drilled in the Latin and Greek classics and evangelical Christianity. In 1818 he entered Trinity College, Cambridge. There he distinguished himself in classical scholarship and literary feats. He attended the lectures of a Trinity fellow, J. H. Monk, who became the biographer of Richard Bentley, a former master of Trinity and a figure whom Macaulay greatly admired. But he found the mathematics which loomed so large in a Cambridge education much less congenial. He won a Trinity scholarship in April 1820, the Craven scholarship in March 1821, and in June that year the chancellor's medal for English verse. But in January 1822 he withdrew from the mathematics examination which was required for honours and had to be content with a plain BA. The reverse upset him less than it did his family. Besides his formal studies he had laid the foundations of an extraordinary knowledge of the classics of European literature, in Italian and French. His classical scholarship encouraged a scepticism about the foundation documents of Christianity which generated an impatience and contempt for the simplicities of the evangelical creed. He also encountered, in men like Charles Austin and the Romilly brothers, the philosophy of the utilitarians Bentham and James Mill.

Utilitarianism for a short time gave an uncompromising edge to Macaulay's ethics, and helped form the public man with his carapace of aggressive self-confidence which concealed a deeply emotional nature. This first appears in his childhood letters to his mother, but in the middle 1820s he began to develop an affection for his sisters Hannah (1810–1873) and Margaret (1812–1834) which involved the deepest emotional relationship of his life. His letters to them read like love letters, and when Margaret married Edward Cropper he described his feelings like a spurned lover. After her death, which was a terrible blow to him, he depended on Hannah and her family. All through his public career the famous man, who held distinguished political office and was ‘lionized’ in society, needed the reassurance of an admiring family circle in which he could take refuge and return to the unselfconscious playfulness of childhood. He could be abrasive in company and critical of cant, especially of the religious sort. But his abiding affection for his family prevented any overt revolt against his religious inheritance; if he felt any scepticism for the central doctrines of Christianity he was discreet in the family circle, and in his published writings his real opinions were buried in an admiration for the grandeur of Christian civilization.

Début as a reviewer

After his degree Macaulay took up, without much more enthusiasm than he felt for mathematics, the study of the law. He was admitted a student of Lincoln's Inn on 25 January 1822. He could still however hope to gain a fellowship of Trinity and, after a disappointment in 1823, was elected to one on 1 October 1824. His most productive years at Cambridge followed. While ostensibly studying for the bar, he was still living there, debating regularly in the Cambridge Union, and writing his first articles for reviews. In June 1824 he began, with a few Cambridge contemporaries, writing for Knight's Quarterly Magazine, to his father's distress. In January 1825 he made his début in the Edinburgh Review with an article on West Indian slavery. The following August the Edinburgh published his 'Milton' essay, which made him famous.

Macaulay's formal education was completed before financial disaster struck his family. When Sierra Leone became a crown colony in 1808 Zachary's secretaryship ended and he set up as a merchant in partnership with his nephew Thomas Gisborne Babington. At first the business prospered. The Macaulay family moved in 1818 from Clapham to a larger house in Cadogan Place. But Zachary's part in the campaign for the abolition of slavery took more and more of his time, and in 1823 he handed over effective control of the business to his nephew. The family moved again, to 50 Great Ormond Street. In the following three years Babington rashly overextended the firm's commitments and in 1826 it became clear that it was insolvent. The partnership was dissolved in December 1828 and Zachary resumed control, but thereafter he and his family became dependent on the charity of others. Tragedy struck, in the death of the ailing sister Jane in 1830, a blow which hastened her mother's death the following year. They were not destitute, but they had to retrench and Thomas had for the first time in his life to consider a profession.

Political opinions

Macaulay was not very successful at the law. Although called to the bar in February 1826 he never made a profit at his profession. The law could lead to a political career, but Macaulay was more interested in literature than politics. His nephew and biographer, G. O. Trevelyan, claimed that he became 'a staunch and vehement Whig' (Trevelyan, Life, 1.120). This seems unlikely, first because the leaders of the Clapham Sect had a tradition of being above party; and second because Macaulay made his political début when the prospects of the whig party in parliament were poor. For the ‘saints’ of Clapham Sect, political influence was less important than doing God's work, and Thomas Macaulay retained something of this otherworldly attitude. If he did not retain his father's religious fervour he always had a conviction that the actions of politicians were ephemeral and that the works of great writers were more enduring. He certainly shared the impatience of his Cambridge contemporaries at the stuffiness and traditionalism of their elders, but his political opinions, as they appear in his early articles, are not so much whig as a mixture of Burkean toryism with its high regard for tradition and the historic constitution, and utilitarianism, with its critique of aristocratic government, the established church, and the law. The two themes are reconciled in the developing conviction that political abuses could be peacefully reformed and violent revolution avoided if the movement for popular education were to include teaching ordinary people the main events of their nation's past and encouraging them to value its achievements as their own.

The conviction that this was the key to peaceful reform and that Macaulay could provide the historical work which would be both accurate and vivid had formed by 1828. In that year he was approached to write a history of England for the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, and he wrote his essay 'History' and a long review of Hallam's Constitutional History of England in the Edinburgh Review. 'History' argues the romantic case that narratives which deal only with rulers, battles, and treaties miss the 'noiseless revolutions' which alter the lives of the majority; that the materials for these more profound changes in the structure of ordinary lives have been appropriated by the novelist, and that the historian must recover them. The review of Hallam applies this theme to a historian Macaulay admired but considered too dry and too traditional. These two essays were followed in 1829 by the famous assault on James Mill's Essay on Government in which Macaulay repudiated the utilitarian view that a science of politics could be derived deductively from certain principles of human nature. The three articles attacking Mill and his followers are in Macaulay's most powerful polemical style, and they are a notable contribution to the quarrel between the Edinburgh Review and its radical rival the Westminster Review, the organ of Benthamite utilitarianism; but they also elaborate Macaulay's conception of an inductive social science and his repudiation of the a priori method of the utilitarians and political economists. They provide an important clue to the method he used in the History of England twenty years later, and they suggest that by 1829 Macaulay had, at least sketchily, conceived the ingredients of that popular success.

Parliamentary and official career

Zachary Macaulay's business failure put these plans in abeyance, and made some steady alternative source of income essential. Despite his liberal, not to say radical, views, Thomas's political career began in a very traditional way. In December 1828 Lord Lyndhurst, the lord chancellor in Goderich's short-lived ministry and in the Wellington ministry which followed, appointed him to a commissionership in bankruptcy, which he held until the duke's fall. It was not renewed when Henry Brougham succeeded Lyndhurst as lord chancellor. Macaulay's relations with Brougham were already marred by mutual jealousy over their capacity to influence the Edinburgh Review, Brougham claiming it as an organ of the party he led, Macaulay reluctant to contribute to any periodical reputedly controlled by Brougham. When in February 1830 Lord Lansdowne offered Macaulay a seat in parliament for his borough of Calne, Brougham was very annoyed that it was not offered to his friend Denman. When Brougham told Napier, the Edinburgh's editor, to countermand an article by Macaulay on the French revolution of July 1830, Macaulay resigned from the Review. The quarrel was made up, at least outwardly, when Brougham offered a church living to John Macaulay, and a charity commissionership to Zachary, but Thomas remained unforgiving. He called Brougham 'a kind of Semi-Solomon. He half knows everything from the cedar to the hyssop', and he refused to enter his house when invited (Letters, 1.314).

Macaulay was elected for Calne on 15 February 1830 and took his seat three days later. He made his maiden speech on 5 April 1830 in support of a motion for the repeal of Jewish disabilities, but he made his name as an orator with the introduction of the whig government's Reform Bill in March 1831. He made five major speeches in support of the reform of parliament. They were carefully prepared, replete with literary and historical learning, and they held the House of Commons entranced with the richness of their language and the vehemence of the speaker. They were not however debating speeches. The whig diarist Greville called them 'harangues and never replies' (C. C. F. Greville, Memoirs, ed. Strachey and Fulford, 1938, 2.203). Macaulay was not skilled at impromptu replies to interruptions: 'Answer me', he said on one occasion, 'but do not interrupt me' (Macaulay, Speeches, ed. Young, 1935, 31). He was also hampered and embarrassed by the fact that he himself sat for the sort of close borough (nominally a close corporation but with only twenty-four electors) the Reform Bill was supposed to abolish. For the first time too, he had to endure public correction. When one of his historical assertions was demolished by J. W. Croker in the debate of 20 September 1831, he did not answer in the house but took his revenge in a review of Croker's edition of Boswell's Life of Johnson in the Edinburgh Review. Soon after the Reform Act was law, he sought a change of seat, and in the first elections for the reformed parliament he stood for Leeds. The election was marked by his polemic in the Edinburgh against his tory opponent Sadler, whom he ridiculed for his anti-Malthusian views. He was returned on 14 December, second on the poll after John Marshall the flax-spinner. Marshall had 2012 votes, Macaulay 1984, and Sadler 1596. Macaulay held the seat for a little more than a year.

Promotion when it came was probably due more to his Clapham connections than to his loyalty to the ministry. In June 1832 he had been appointed to the Board of Control, whose president was Charles Grant, 'the only saint in the ministry' of Grey, and son of Zachary Macaulay's Clapham friend. In December 1832, just before the Leeds election, he was made the board's secretary and thereby a spokesman in the House of Commons for Indian affairs. Grant was an amiable but indecisive chief, and Macaulay claimed on one occasion that he ran the board himself. His loyalty to his father's friends was in one case stronger than his loyalty to the ministry. When the government proposal for the abolition of slavery included a scheme for the freed slaves' wages to be used to help compensate the owners, the Clapham party objected and Macaulay agreed with them. He twice offered to resign his post but the offer was declined; in this way, as he said, he saved both his honour and his place. But in any case, the family's money difficulties combined with his own disillusionment with the ministers to convince him that he must leave office. In 1833 the government's Charter Act, presented to parliament by Grant, created a new supreme council for India, with a fourth post for a 'law member'. It was offered (probably not without some lobbying on his part) to Macaulay. The post in India would, he thought, enable him to be away from England while political parties regrouped and new questions arose. While in India, he could save money (he calculated on saving half his salary of £10,000) and 'return with a competence honestly earned' which would give his family security and himself independence (Letters, 2.301).

Indian exile

In early March 1834 Macaulay resigned his seat for Leeds, and on the 15th he sailed for India. He had persuaded his sister Hannah to go with him, and he also took a large library of books, as if for a prolonged exile. The voyage took nearly three months. They arrived in Madras early in June, and Macaulay immediately joined Lord William Bentinck, the governor-general, at Ootacamund, while his sister went on to Calcutta to stay with the bishop. Macaulay joined her at the end of September. Within a few weeks he suffered two blows. The first was Hannah's engagement to Charles Edward Trevelyan, a rising star of the Bengal civil service. Macaulay approved of Trevelyan as a vigorous, reforming official of strong character, but noticed his manners were brusque and his reading limited. The loss of Hannah was a severe shock. She and Trevelyan were married in December and while they were away on their honeymoon the news arrived of Margaret Cropper's death from scarlet fever. Macaulay's distress was so extreme that the Trevelyans returned early to be with him. He recovered, and it was some comfort to him that the three decided to keep house together, but the loss of Margaret marked him deeply. It strengthened his preference for books over people. 'Literature has saved my life and my reason,' he wrote, adding, 'Even now I dare not, in the intervals of business, remain alone without a book in my hand' (Letters, 3.158). The books he read and reread were his beloved classical editions. In his stay in India he read most of the extant authors of ancient Greece and Rome. He took no interest in Indian literature or antiquities save as a mark of the superiority of things European. He avoided Calcutta society and incurred a lot of unpopularity for doing so. He lost something of his exuberant enjoyment of controversy, and as between politics and writing, he felt the balance of his interests tipping towards the latter. He recurred to the idea of 'some great historical work' instead of a return to politics. Above all, he became more conservative, more distrustful of change, and more respectful of the efforts of the rulers and administrators as against the radicals and theorists. His schoolboy love of the heroic now settled into a preference for the soldier and the pioneering adventurers whose courage had created British rule in India.

Macaulay left his mark on British administration, less in actual change than in memorable arguments on disputed issues. These have been taken as more typical of British attitudes to India than the work of more hardened but more obscure men. His most famous contribution, in which he joined Trevelyan, was to the controversy between orientalists and Anglicizers over the allocation of a sum of money to native students in higher education, one party favouring instruction in Sanskrit and Arabic, the other pressing for all instruction in English. Macaulay's Minute on Indian Education (2 February 1835) argued vigorously for the latter, on the grounds previously advanced by James Mill, that instruction in English would convey the findings of a more advanced culture and so the money would be more usefully spent. The Minute has become famous as a landmark in the dispute, but it owes its fame mainly to the fact that G. O. Trevelyan printed it in an appendix to his book The Competition Wallah (1864).

In March 1836 Macaulay defended the so-called Black Act which ended the privilege enjoyed by European settlers to appeal from the Suddur courts of the company to the supreme court, and put them instead on a par with the native inhabitants in the company's jurisdiction. In September 1836 he defended the decision of Bentinck's government to end censorship of the press, writing a minute which persuaded Lord Auckland, Bentinck's successor, to leave the decision unaltered. But the largest undertaking of Macaulay's Indian years was the penal code, the work of a commission in which he was joined by John Macleod and Charles Hay Cameron. As their health gave way, Macaulay completed the code more or less single-handed in May 1837. He pronounced it superior to Napoleon's and to Livingston's for Louisiana. He then gave notice of his intention to return home early in 1838. He had been abroad not five years but four. He sailed with the Trevelyans, and they arrived early in June, three weeks after Zachary Macaulay's death.

Italian tour

Macaulay found the political scene much changed. While in India he had expected the English radical party to grow stronger. The general election of 1837 had reduced the whig government's majority but also wiped out the radical party in parliament. London was in a ferment of sentimental loyalty for the young Queen Victoria. At first Macaulay savoured his independence. When Greville met him, he said he was still a radical. In October 1838 he set out for Rome, partly to visit the scenes of the events which he described in what would become his Lays of Ancient Rome, partly in imitation of Gibbon meditating The Decline and Fall. Being alone, he kept a journal which has some of the vividness of his letters to his sisters, and in which he meditated upon the history of the city, its past greatness and present dependence. He saw the squalor of papal administration which he thought 'Brahminical' (Letters, 3.268), but also the grandeur of papal power which captivated him. He made frequent visits to St Peter's and called it a 'glorious place'. After Christmas he travelled to Naples and saw Pompeii under snow.

Politics pursued him. On his journey out, while he was in Florence, he received a letter offering him the post of judge advocate. He refused it. 'The offer did not strike me as even tempting.' A man in office, but out of the cabinet, he reflected, was 'a mere slave' (Trevelyan, Life, 1909, 357). He wrote to Lord Melbourne saying he would support the government in parliament but hold no subordinate office. But in Naples he talked to Frederick Lamb, the premier's brother, and was relieved to hear the government had weathered the crisis in Canada and the scandal of Durham's mission. He returned by sea to Marseilles and coach through France, arriving in London in February 1839. He began work on the History of England the following month.

Cabinet minister

In May he was invited to stand as parliamentary candidate for Edinburgh in place of James Abercromby, who had been raised to the peerage. He was elected on 4 June, making the famous declaration of whig allegiance, 'I entered public life a Whig; and a Whig I am determined to remain.' He had actually gone to India to avoid whig collapse. Now he declared, 'While one shred of the old banner is flying, by that banner will I at last be found' (Speeches, 182). He took his seat in parliament after the ‘bedchamber’ crisis: had he done so before, he might have had to vote against the ministry in the Jamaica debate which precipitated it. But he soon found independence impossible. In a weak ministry with a slender majority his talents were likely to be in greater demand, and on 17 September he was offered the cabinet post of secretary at war. He began his official duties with an unfortunate gaffe, when he addressed a letter to his constituents from Windsor Castle, and was much mocked for his arrogance. His two years in the cabinet were relatively uneventful, if only because the ministry was too weak to propose any major legislative measures. Macaulay spoke in its defence on a no-confidence motion on 29 January 1840, but failed to hold his own against a hostile opposition. He presented his department's estimates in March with more authority, having worked long at the details. His speech on the debate on war with China on 7 April was more successful. He began to like the official routine and confessed, 'I became too mere a bookworm in India, and on my voyage home' (Letters, 3.321–2). But the government was sadly irresolute over the major issue of the corn laws, and to this debate Macaulay contributed nothing, being a convinced supporter of free trade but disliking the leaders of the Anti-Corn Law League. He was relieved when in early June 1841 the government was defeated in the debate on the corn laws and he was able to return to his History.

He seems at first to have thought he could write it in his intervals of leisure. At the general election of July 1841 he had retained his seat in parliament and continued to speak, occasionally but very effectively. In February 1841 he had done more than any other speaker to destroy Sergeant Talfourd's Copyright Bill, which proposed extending copyright to sixty years from the death of an author. The following year Lord Mahon brought in another bill, reducing the term to twenty-five years. Macaulay proposed an amendment, giving forty-two years from the date of publication, on the grounds that the best work was generally published late in a writer's life and was most unfairly penalized if the copyright dated only from his death. Macaulay's speech involved very much the same display of vast reading in the annals of literature, great and trivial, which he used to such effect in his critical reviews. It is a sign of the respect in which he was held that the motion was carried. On 3 May 1842 he showed his deep distrust for popular radicalism when he opposed the reception of the Chartist petition. His reasons were again utilitarian: he thought the non-electors had shown that they did not know their own best interests. He also spoke on Irish affairs in July 1843 and February 1844 and again on 14 April 1845 in the debate on the Maynooth grant, when his speech closed with a famous criticism of Peel's career.

These efforts made it quite natural that he should be considered as a minister in any future Liberal ministry. When, on Peel's resignation early in December 1845, Lord John Russell tried to form a ministry, Macaulay was to have been paymaster-general, though he did not expect to be in office long. 'If I give to my history the time which I used to pass in transacting business when I was Secretary at War, I shall get on nearly as fast as when I was in opposition.' In the event the ministry foundered on Lord Grey's refusal to work with Lord Palmerston. It was Macaulay's indiscreet letter to his constituents, containing the sentence 'All our plans were frustrated by Lord Grey,' which made the matter public (Letters, 4.280–81). It was not until Peel's resignation the following June that Russell formed a ministry and Macaulay became paymaster-general. By then, however, his liberal views on economic policy were not sufficient to satisfy his Edinburgh constituents, and a motley collection of critics, from free church presbyterians who disliked his preference for the kirk, to members of the kirk who disliked his sympathy for the Catholics in Ireland, and many others who questioned if he was a Christian at all, gathered against him. At the general election in July 1847 he was third in the poll. He was personally very hurt and indignant, but to a friend he merely said he felt 'manumitted, after the old fashion, by a slap in the face' (ibid., 342). He resigned his office in April the following year.

Return to literature

In 1839 Macaulay's happiness was threatened by the prospect that the Trevelyans would be returning to India. He may have been instrumental in the appointment which staved this off, when Trevelyan was offered and accepted the post of assistant secretary to the Treasury. For some months in 1840 he and the Trevelyans lived together in a house in Great George Street. The Trevelyans decided to move to Clapham, however, and in September 1841 Macaulay himself moved to the Albany where much of the History of England was written. He called it 'a very pleasant student's cell' but his life there, in central London, was not devoted exclusively to study. He was close to the clubs and the British Museum. He entertained friends to breakfast. While in office he gave formal dinners. He travelled a good deal, not always in search of materials for the History, and wherever he went in London he walked at least some of the way, often reading a book. He regularly walked to Clapham to see the Trevelyans. The History was not even his sole literary activity. He was able to establish a reputation outside reviewing with the Lays of Ancient Rome, published in 1842. These were based on a hypothesis of the historian Niebuhr, himself reviving the theory of a Dutch scholar of the seventeenth century, Perizonius, that the early books of Livy's History had been based on stories taken from oral poetry, since lost, and rendered into prose. Macaulay's aim was to put the stories back into ballad form for English readers. They were begun in India, and at first shown in manuscript form to friends. The poetry (for which Macaulay was always modest) was accompanied, and buttressed, by prose introductions, each offering a historical explanation of individual poems, in which Macaulay displayed considerable scholarship. He was sharply aware from precedents such as Talfourd's Ion and Bulwer-Lytton's Last Days of Pompeii of the dangers of historical anachronism. He thought the Lays might be unpopular, but asserted that 'no man who is not a good scholar can attack it without exposing himself' (Letters, 4.68). In fact the book was a great popular success. A first edition of 750 was sold out by December when a second of 500 was printed.

By then he was obliged by the threat of a pirated edition in America to consider the reprinting of his review articles. At first he was against this, because he thought papers intended for a natural life of six weeks would look superficial in a more permanent format. Longman, however, disagreed and the three volumes appeared in April 1843. They contain all that Macaulay thought the least impermanent of his articles, and proved more popular than the collections of reviewers who in their own time had been equally famous. In 1849 he noted that while Francis Jeffrey's collected articles had reached a second edition and Sydney Smith's a fourth, his own Critical and Historical Essays were reprinting for the seventh time. This may have been because he had left out his juvenilia in Knight's Quarterly Magazine and his early political articles in the Edinburgh Review. He included his 'Milton' but not his 'Dryden' (1828), which is biographically as interesting. He also omitted his attacks on James Mill and the utilitarians from a feeling of gratitude to Mill who had subsequently supported his appointment in India. He did not reprint the attacks on his old Leeds antagonist Sadler. Three polemics which he did reprint, probably with a certain vindictive relish, were his articles on Southey's Colloquies (1830), Robert Montgomery's Poems (1830), and Croker's edition of Boswell's Life of Johnson (1831).

Composition of the History of England

Macaulay did not reprint the 1828 essay, 'History'. It may have seemed to him too crude. Some writers have taken it as a prospectus for the History of England. But in the following twenty years his literary ambitions changed, as did his political views. Unfortunately we cannot follow them in detail: he had kept a journal of his visit to Italy in 1838–9, but abandoned it when he became a minister, resuming it again in 1848 when he was out of politics. So his plans for the History from 1839 onwards must be inferred from his other writings and references in his letters. On his return from India he was given custody of the papers which Sir James Mackintosh had gathered for his unfinished History of the Revolution of 1688 and these included many transcriptions of official correspondence which Macaulay later called 'the rudest ore of history'. Already he had an intimate knowledge of English literature after 1660, and Mackintosh's work may have focused his attention on the political events of the reigns of James II and William III. But his stay in Rome gave Macaulay's reflections an international dimension. It was there that he decided to begin the History at 1685. The revolution could be set in the context of the struggle between Catholicism and protestantism, with William III's accession finally tipping the balance of influence in Europe in favour of the latter. Here was a revolution of vital importance for the modern world, not only for English readers. The small stage of seventeenth-century England became the scene of a titanic struggle. The idea broached in the 1828 essay that the important changes in history are 'noiseless revolutions' was retained, but played down. Macaulay's sympathy for the life of the common people, never very strong, had been further weakened by the Chartist experience. He still held the utilitarian view that societies could progress only if people were freed from the controls of superstition, but he wanted enlightened leadership, not democracy, and he loathed disorder. He did not subscribe to any of the contemporary schemes (utilitarian, socialist, or positivist) for explaining or accelerating social progress. He merely wanted the energies of the individual freed for his own and therefore society's betterment. He assumed that the ignorant would agree with the better informed in such an arrangement. Yet he also wanted his History to be popular, and he kept to his old aim of reclaiming for history the materials which had been assumed by the novelist. He did this not by extensive research in statistics of wages, poor relief, or demographic records, but by drawing on his encyclopaedic knowledge of the popular literature of the time—chapbooks, ballads, popular songs, theatre, and what he called 'the lighter literature of the age'.

Macaulay has been criticized for using novels and plays as if their characters were based on real people. On the contrary, he thought he could write a history which was as accessible and readable as a novel, yet which told a story that was true, and would on that account, 'supersede the last fashionable novel on the tables of young ladies' (Letters, 4.15). It was accordingly written in a much more simple, modest, and undogmatic style than that used in his reviews. They were designed to be read once; the History to be read again and again. Macaulay's long-standing conviction that literature outlasts politics and has greater influence in shaping opinion than the decisions of governments, enabled him to be, much more than is supposed, above party. Of course he did not conceal his opinion that England had in two hundred years become better governed and more humane, or hesitate to praise those he thought had contributed to make it so, and to condemn their opponents. It is clear that he favoured the forces of progress. But within that limitation he distributed praise and blame impartially on whig or tory. In any society there were, he said, supporters of change and innovation and supporters of tradition and order: but 'the best specimens of each class are to be found not far from the common frontier'. In times of crisis they co-operate; in 1660 their co-operation restored the monarchy, and in 1688 again it restored 'constitutional liberty'. In 1848, the year of revolution, this was a doctrine to please Englishmen of both parties. In the History of England Macaulay told his readers why they had escaped the fate of European governments: 'It is because we had a preserving revolution in the seventeenth century that we have not had a destroying revolution in the nineteenth.' The message of the History of England was not democratic, but its appeal was popular.

The first two volumes, which took the story to the proclamation of William and Mary in February 1689, were published on 2 December 1848. Macaulay was very aware of their faults. 'As compared with excellence the work is a failure. But as compared with other similar books I cannot think it so' (Trevelyan, Life, 2.243). When the first sales passed expectations he thought there would be a reaction. But the sales continued to be spectacular. Twelve days from publication 3000 copies had been sold. By 10 January 1849 a second edition of 3000 had gone, and of a third edition of 5000, 1250 had been already ordered. Macaulay was praised in every social gathering he attended. Reviews were flattering. He was particularly touched in May 1849 by a letter from a group of working men in Dukinfield, near Manchester, thanking him for the pleasure of having the book read aloud to them every Wednesday evening for the past few months.

Critics of the History

The two volumes had their critics. Macaulay expected strong censure from the religious sects, 'Papists, churchmen, puritans and Quakers'. The Quakers were the first. A deputation of five came to him by appointment on 5 February 1849 to protest at his treatment of William Penn. Macaulay seems to have borne them down with a volley of evidence. 'Never was there such a rout,' he wrote, 'They had absolutely nothing to say' (G. O. Trevelyan, Life and Letters of Lord Macaulay, 1909 edn, 521). Perhaps they were given no time to say it: one of the delegation later recalled that Macaulay was 'extremely rude, treating the Friends with contempt' (Letters, 5.6n). He had expected criticism from churchmen, and especially Tractarians, for his description in the third chapter of the clergy in 1685. He had a courteous but bruising exchange with the high-church bishop of Exeter, Henry Phillpotts. Another pamphlet by a Cambridge cleric, Churchill Babington, Macaulay dismissed as 'a silly book'. In April 1849 appeared a long-awaited critique in the Quarterly Review from his old antagonist, J. W. Croker. Croker had had the assistance of various contributors, and Macaulay thought the length and tediousness of the review had done him a service. In fact it makes a number of shrewd criticisms which deserve more space, and exposes many practical errors which Macaulay silently corrected for subsequent editions. Its main weakness was that Croker had no quarrel with Macaulay's political interpretation of the revolution, and spent all his ingenuity in exposing small errors of fact and taste, paying little attention to the overall design. Much more damaging was the criticism of John Paget a decade later. Paget examined closely particular episodes and people in Macaulay's History and his essays were published in Blackwood's Magazine. Macaulay never replied to them.

Volumes 3 and 4 of the History

Amid all the critical acclaim, Macaulay began work on the next volume of the History of England. He worked with more concentration than before. There were distractions. For six years from 1849 he took the Trevelyans on an Easter tour to some cathedral city to see fine buildings and savour historical associations. In November 1848 he had been elected lord rector of the University of Glasgow, and the following March he was inaugurated and made a learned and uplifting address. But when in July he was offered the regius chair in history at Cambridge he refused it. 'It would be strange if, having sacrificed for liberty a seat in the cabinet and 2,500£ a year, I should now sacrifice my liberty for a chair at Cambridge at 400£ a year' (Trevelyan, Life, 2.261). He travelled, but his journeys, even the Easter tours, were to gather inspiration and colour for the History. In mid-August he took a three-week tour in Ireland. He crossed to Dublin at night and sat on deck in his greatcoat. 'As I could not read', he recorded in his journal, 'I used an excellent substitute for reading. I went through Paradise Lost in my head. I could repeat half of it, and the best half. I really never enjoyed it so much' (ibid., 263). After working for a few days in Dublin he took the train to Drogheda and traced the course of William III's battle. From Dublin he went to Limerick and on to Killarney, thence to Kilkenny, Cork, and back to Dublin. At the end of August he went to Londonderry and acquired the close knowledge of its layout which makes his account of the siege of the city in chapter 12 so vivid. He returned on 4 September and immediately set out with his friend T. F. Ellis to France, a short trip which included some work in Parisian archives. They returned on 17 September. The Irish chapter was written in the autumn of 1849 when the memory of Ireland was still fresh. But the next chapter, on Scotland, was begun, and largely written in draft, before his Scottish tour in June and July 1850. These tours were essential for the graphic descriptions of the History but they took their toll. In the winter of 1850 he suffered much from what he thought were rheumatic pains and congestion of the chest. By spring he had recovered and in June and July he went with his sister Hannah, now Lady Trevelyan, and her daughter, Margaret, on a tour of Scotland. On his return, while on holiday at Ventnor, Isle of Wight, that September, he wrote his account of the battle of Killiecrankie. His journal however has frequent complaints of difficult respiration, sleeping badly, and, what worried him most, flagging inspiration. But he did his Easter tours in 1851 and early 1852. In June 1852 he was asked to stand again for Edinburgh and took the request as a sign of contrition for the electors' mistake of five years before, and his acceptance as a demonstration that a large city electorate 'should not expect slavish obedience from men of spirit and ability'. He refused from a mixture of pride and ill health to canvass or even to travel to Edinburgh. He went to Clifton for a change of air and on his return suffered a heart attack. He managed to address his constituents only in November. His recovery was slow. He later said of this crisis, 'I became twenty years older in a week, and shall never be young again' (Letters, 5.318).

Macaulay soon found parliamentary life a strain. He spoke on 1 June 1853 against a bill for excluding the master of the rolls from the House of Commons. The measure was defeated, but he was exhausted by the effort. He supported the same month a measure for competitive examinations for appointees to the East India Company, but could not complete the speech, though he chaired the committee appointed to draw up rules for the examination which published its report in December 1854. His last speech in the Commons was on 19 July 1853. Then he went to Tunbridge Wells where he began preparing an edition of his speeches to combat the pirated edition by Henry Vizetelly. The volume was published the following year and is really his farewell to politics. He had by this time become convinced that he was too ill to continue an MP, and had ceased to attend late sessions. He was confined to his rooms throughout the winter and 1855 was the first year since 1849 in which he made no Easter tour. Instead he finished the fourth volume of the History. The two volumes, 3 and 4, appeared in December 1855. Only in January 1856 did he retire from parliament.

Last years

Macaulay had expected a cooler reception for the two volumes, but they sold as well as the first two. In ten weeks 26,500 copies were sold, and in March 1856 Longman's paid him the famous cheque for £20,000. But he no longer had any hopes of meeting his original aim, to take the narrative into the Hanoverian era. He had reached 1697 with chapter 22, the last of volume 4. After volume 4 his literary aims rapidly contracted. He moved out of the Albany when he bought Holly Lodge, Campden Hill, Kensington, where he moved in May 1856. He seized eagerly what diversions he could still manage. He resumed the Easter tours in 1856, but they were shorter. He went with his friend T. F. Ellis on an Italian tour in August. He did not take up volume 5 of the History until November 1856, and then 'with little expectation of living to publish anything more'. He thought, privately, that he would have done his duty if he completed a history of the reign of William III. He still enjoyed the reading and writing for the work, but its composition was not a race against time. He was able to fit in five biographical essays, on Atterbury, Bunyan, Goldsmith, Johnson, and William Pitt for the Encyclopaedia Britannica, edited by his friend and former constituent Adam Black. He also accepted in August 1857 a peerage offered by Palmerston, taking his seat in the Lords (where he never spoke) in December. In October that year he was elected high steward of the borough of Cambridge, and the installation was deferred until the warm weather, in May 1858. He arranged a French tour with Ellis in the autumn, but in his hibernation which was now a necessity he received the blow he had been spared in 1839. Sir Charles Trevelyan was appointed governor of Madras, and his wife would have to follow him to India. He left England on 18 February, and in May, Macaulay knew that Hannah and the children would follow. He took them on a two-week tour of Scotland in late July and August. In October Hannah told him, by letter, that she would leave for India in February. He tried to find comfort in his books and writing, but was oppressed with the certainty that he would never see her again. In mid-December he had a heart attack, and he died in his study at Holly Lodge on 28 December 1859. He was buried in Westminster Abbey on 9 January 1860, in Poets' Corner, at the feet of the statue of Addison.

Macaulay was a short, stout, physically awkward man who, in common with other men of genius, was indifferent to his appearance and to adverse comments on it. He was much more sensitive to his literary reputation, which he came to realize was likely to suffer from a career in politics. He was not a natural politician. He was a fine orator in a parliament which still admired elaborate, polished, and learned speeches on great occasions, but he was too proud to use the common methods of acquiring and keeping political influence and too fastidious for intrigue. He hid his distaste for the political process behind a touchy independence. He had most impact on issues like Indian administration and the laws of copyright, where neutral votes could be swayed by specialist knowledge. His polemical writing was more often driven by private moral feeling than by political opinion. He was quite capable of discharging ministerial duties efficiently and thoroughly, but they bored him. So did debates when the issues did not seem to compete for historic significance with the men and events he was reading about. For all his political experience he preferred the world of literature and especially of drama and epic poetry to that of everyday reality, and was never happier than in his study engaging in a dialogue with his favourite authors. 'With the dead there is no rivalry. In the dead there is no change. Plato is never sullen. Cervantes is never petulant. Demosthenes never comes unseasonably. Dante never stays too long' (Macaulay, Critical and Historical Essays, 2.282). The great exception to this preference for books over people was his family, at least those members of it who had not forfeited his esteem by financial irregularity or religious enthusiasm. He never outgrew the need to escape from the strains of public life into an intimate circle in which he could behave unselfconsciously and receive sincere love and admiration. In one way this domestic anchorage restricted the movement and range of his sympathy. Though he shed his religious fundamentalism he remained very rigid in his ethical standards, especially towards sexual infidelity. In another way however his love of family life served him well. It was the foundation for the extraordinary clarity of his writing. He loved to read his writings aloud in the family circle, in his boyhood to his mother and sisters, in later years until his last illness to Hannah Trevelyan and her children. He had an actor's feeling for his audience. He loved the company of children and the experience of introducing them, through word games and quizzes and nonsense verses, to the rich heritage of their language and its subtle nuances. If he had lived to read Matthew Arnold's condescending remark that his writings were 'pre-eminently fitted to give pleasure to all who are beginning to feel enjoyment in the things of the mind' (quoted in G. S. Fraser, Macaulay's style as an essayist, Review of English Literature, 1/4, Oct 1960, 16) he would have taken it as a compliment. It is the foundation of his enduring popularity.


  • G. O. Trevelyan, The life and letters of Lord Macaulay, 2 vols. (1876)
  • The letters of Thomas Babington Macaulay, ed. T. Pinney, 6 vols. (1974–81)
  • J. Clive, Thomas Babington Macaulay: the shaping of the historian (1973)
  • W. Thomas, The quarrel of Macaulay and Croker: politics and history in the age of reform (2000)
  • M. J. Holland, Life and letters of Zachary Macaulay (1900)
  • [M. Macaulay], Recollections of a sister of T. B. Macaulay (1864)
  • G. O. Trevelyan, Marginal notes by Lord Macaulay (1907)
  • A. N. L. Munby, Macaulay's library (1966)
  • H. R. Trevor-Roper, The Romantic movement and the study of history (1969)
  • J. W. Burrow, A liberal descent: Victorian historians and the English past (1981)
  • J. Hamburger, Macaulay and the whig tradition (1976)
  • The works of Lord Macaulay, ed. Lady Macaulay, 8 vols. (1866)


  • BL, letters, Add. MS 63092
  • CKS, corresp. and papers
  • Col. U., Rare Book and Manuscript Library, papers
  • CUL, corresp.
  • Edinburgh Central Reference Library, letters on Edinburgh elections
  • Hunt. L., letters
  • LUL, corresp.
  • NL Scot., letters
  • NL Scot., MSS of biographical articles for Encyclopaedia Britannica
  • Trinity Cam., corresp., journals, commonplace book, and literary papers
  • University of Chicago Library, papers
  • University of Virginia, Charlottesville, papers
  • BL, letters to Lord Broughton, Add. MSS 47227–47229
  • BL, letters to Lord and Lady Holland, Add. MSS 51838, 51843, 51850–51855
  • BL, letters to Leigh Hunt, Add. MSS 38109–38110, 38524
  • BL, letters to Zachary Macaulay, M/566 [copies]
  • BL, Napier MSS, Add. MS 34613
  • BL, letters to Macvey Napier, Add. MSS 34614–34626
  • BL, letters to Royal Literary Fund, loan 96
  • Bodl. Oxf., letters to Mary Somerville
  • Bodl. Oxf., letters to Wilberforce family
  • Borth. Inst., letters to Lord Halifax
  • Borth. Inst., letters to Sir Charles Wood
  • Harvard U., letters to Zachary Macaulay
  • Herts. ALS, letters to Lord Lytton
  • Hunt. L., letters to Zachary Macaulay
  • Hunt. L., Zachary Macaulay MSS
  • NL Scot., letters to Adam Black
  • NL Scot., letters to John Burton
  • NL Scot., corresp. with Robert Cadell
  • NL Scot., letters to Dundas family and papers relating to his funeral
  • NL Wales, letters to Sir George Cornwall Lewis
  • Notts. Arch., letters to Lord Belper
  • NRA, priv. coll., letters to John Swinton
  • TNA: PRO, corresp. with Lord John Russell, PRO 30/22
  • Trinity Cam., letters to Thomas Babington and others
  • Trinity Cam., letters to Lord Houghton
  • Trinity Cam., letters to William Whewell
  • U. Nott. L., corresp. with Lord Bentinck
  • U. Nott. L., letters to J. E. Denison
  • U. Reading, archives of Thomas Longman
  • U. Reading L., letters to Longman's
  • Yale U., Beinecke L., letters to Thomas Flower Ellis and Marion Ellis


  • L. Haghe, lithograph, 1832 (after J. N. Rhodes), BM
  • Inchbold, lithograph, pubd 1832 (after I. Atkinson), Trinity Cam.
  • S. W. Reynolds, group portrait, oils, 1832 (The Reform Bill receiving the king's assent), Palace of Westminster, London
  • S. W. Reynolds senior, mezzotint, pubd 1833 (after S. W. Reynolds junior), BM, NPG
  • F. Bromley, group portrait, etching, pubd 1835 (The Reform banquet, 1832; after B. R. Haydon), NPG
  • H. Inman, oils, 1844–5, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Philadelphia
  • P. Park, plaster bust, 1846, Wallington, Northumberland
  • C. Marochetti, bronze medallion, 1848, National Liberal Club, London
  • C. Marochetti, two bronze medallions, 1848, NPG, Scot. NPG
  • J. W. Gordon, oils, 1850, U. Glas.; related portrait Scot. NPG
  • W. Holl, stipple, 1850 (after G. Richmond), BM
  • F. Grant, oils, 1853, NPG
  • E. M. Ward, oils, 1853, NPG
  • Maull & Polyblank, photograph, 1856, NPG [see illus.]
  • G. Scharf, group portrait, pen-and-ink, 1860 (The funeral of Lord Macaulay), NPG
  • T. J. Barker, group portrait, mixed engraving, pubd 1864 (The intellect and valour of Great Britain; after C. G. Lewis), NPG
  • G. Burnard, marble bust, 1866, Westminster Abbey, London
  • T. Woolner, marble statue, 1868, Trinity Cam.
  • J. Archer, oils, 1880 (after photograph by Claudet, 1856), Reform Club, London
  • J. Brown, stipple (after E. U. Eddis), BM, NPG; repro. in Bentley's Miscellany (1852)
  • J. Doyle, two caricature drawings, BM
  • W. Greatbach, line engraving (after E. U. Eddis), NPG; repro. in T. B. Macaulay, Critical and historical essays, 2 vols. (1857)
  • G. Hayter, group portrait, oils (The House of Commons, 1833), NPG
  • Maull & Co., carte-de-visite, NPG
  • J. Partridge, group portrait (The fine arts commissioners, 1846), NPG; oil study, 1849–53, NPG
  • photogravure (after Claudet), NPG
  • prints (after photographs by Claudet, and Maull & Polyblank), NPG

Wealth at Death

under £70,000: resworn probate, Aug 1860, CGPLA Eng. & Wales