Thomas Babington Macaulay was born on October 25th, 1800, at
Rothley Temple, Leicestershire, as the son of former African
Colonial Governor and anti-slavery philanthropist Zachary
Macaulay was a notably precocious child and something of an
actual literary prodigy, he began to write poetry and a world
history before he was ten years of age. He was later educated at
Trinity College, Cambridge where he became known as a debater, as
a brilliant conversationalist, and as a classical scholar.
In 1824 he gained a college prize for an essay on the
character of William III. He was also awarded a fellowship at
Trinity College. An anti-slavery address he gave in 1824 was
reported upon by the favourably by the Edinburgh Review, one of
the most notable literary magazines of the period.
His essay on the English poet John Milton was published
(August 1825) in the Edinburgh Review and met with considerable
acclaim, Macaulay was thereafter one of the best-known and most
popular contributors to that publication.
Macaulay was called to the bar in 1826, and joined the
northern circuit. He practiced little, preferring to follow
literary pursuits and politics spending many hours watching the
proceedings of the house of commons from the public gallery. It
happened, however, that his family's business met with financial
disaster - Macaulay was even forced to sell a Gold Medal he had
won at Cambridge - and he was therafter obliged by his new
circumstances to work seriously for his living.
In February 1830 he entered the House of Commons where he sat
for the "pocket borough" of Calne that had been made available to
him through the "no strings attached" patronage of Lord
Landsdowne. Macaulay began to draw notice through the quality of
his speeches including one delivered in support of the
dramatically contentious parliamentary Reform Bill in March 1831
that was praised by Sir Robert Peel as containing portions "as
beautiful as anything I have ever heard or read."
"...Renew the youth of the State. Save property,
divided against itself. Save the multitude, endangered by its own
ungovernable passions. Save the aristocracy, endangered by its
own unpopular power. Save the greatest, and fairest, and most
highly civilised community that ever existed, from calamities
which may in a few days sweep away all the rich heritage of so
many ages of wisdom and glory. The danger is terrible. The time
is short. If this bill should be rejected, I pray to God that
none of those who concur in rejecting it may ever remember their
votes with unavailing remorse, amidst the wreck of laws, the
confusion of ranks, the spoilation of property, and the
dissolution of the social order...."
Following the passage of the Reform Bill of 1832 and a Whig
(Liberal Party) victory in the following general election that
was held before a now much broadened electorate, (and where many
former "pocket boroughs" had been abolished), Macaulay was
appointed a one of the commissioner of the Board of Control and
took a special interest in Indian Affairs. He continued in these
months to make time for some involvement in literary pursuits and
was able to submit a number of essays to the Edinburgh
In 1834 Macaulay became a member of the Supreme Council of
India, created by the India Act of 1834; for which he was to be
paid the then princely salary of £10,000 per annum. He
spent four years in India, devoting his time chiefly to reforming
the criminal code of the colony and to instituting an educational
system based on that of Great Britain. In 1835 Macaulay began to
seriously consider that he might someday attempt to write about
the History of England.
In 1839, a year after his return, as a now well off man, to
England, Macaulay resumed his political career and was elected to
Parliament to represent an Edinburgh constituency. It was in this
same year that Macaulay began to write his History of England. He
served as secretary of war from 1839 to 1841 and, as such, had a
seat in the British cabinet. The loss of office in 1841 being
associated with the fall of the ministry in which he had
As he was now relatively free of political duties Macaulay was
able to give more time to literary pursuits. In 1842 he finalised
his Lays of Ancient Rome, this being a collection of poems in
ballad form, retelling legends of the beginning of the Roman
Republic. Three volumes of his Essays were published in 1843. His
ongoing major historical work was now envisaged to eventually
become a comprehensive history of England from the accession of
King James II to 1832 - this last being the year of the
parlimentary reform act. The history would then extend from the
"Revolution which brought the Crown into harmony with the
Parliament" until the "Revolution which brought the Parliament
into harmony with the nation."
Macaulay continued to devote time to politics, and served as a
Liberal Party member of Parliament. The Liberals were returned to
power in 1846, and Macaulay was appointed paymaster general for
the armed forces. In the general election of July 1847, however,
he was not returned to parliament and, given that his interest in
politics had been waning and his interest in literary pursuits
had been growing, now decided to concentrate on writing. He also
adapted his pattern of life towards living a more retired life as
a private citizen.
The first two volumes of the History of England from the
Accession of James the Second were published in December 1848 and
at once achieved a huge success. They were published in numerous
editions in both Britain and the United States. The third chapter
inherently contributed to the development of social history by
presenting an highly contextually relevant extensive survey of
English society in the year 1685 in terms of such things as
population, cities, classes and tastes.
In 1852 Macaulay was again voted into Parliament for his
former Edinburgh constituency, but declined to take up the offer
of a place in the Cabinet. It transpired that he had developed a
weakness in his heart causing him to decide to take little part
in political activity and to continue to spend most of his time
writing with the view of attempting to complete his History of
He worked to such effect that the third and fourth volumes of
his history were published in November 1855, and achieved an even
greater circulation than the first two. The volumes so far
published were subsequently translated into several European
languages and Macaulay received royalties in association with his
efforts to the then prodigious amount of £20,000.
He was created Baron Macaulay of Rothley in 1857 but the
continued failure of his health contributed to his never making a
speech the house of lords. He resigned himself to the reality of
his failing health and curtailed his next projected volume of his
history to the close of the reign of William III. He died on
December 28, 1859, in London and was buried in Westminster
The last completed volume of his history, relating events
until 1702, was published posthumously in 1861.
The History of England from
the Accession of James the Second
Macaulay's masterwork achieved unprecedented levels of sales.
The first two volumes sold to the extent of 13,000 sets in four
months, volumes three and four achieved twice this figure in half
the time. The publishers sold more than 140,000 sets of the
entire history in Great Britain alone during the first twenty
five years of its availability.
Macaulay work is today held to have weaknesses that detract
from its many real merits. These weaknesses stem largely from
Macaulay's approach to his subject which was that of a definite
advocate of "progress." Macaulay's view of progress being closely
aligned with an interpretation of history that saw many real
achievements in British and World history as resulting from
policies pursued by the Whig political interest.
In a speech delivered to the electors of Edinburgh in 1839,
for example, his audience were left in no doubt as to Macaulay's
devotion to the Whig party.
"...To the Whigs of the nineteenth century we
owe it that the House of Commons has been purified. The abolition
of the slave trade, the abolition of colonial slavery, the
extension of popular education, the mitigation of the rigour of
the penal code, all, all were effected by that party; of that
party, I repeat, I am a member...."
The History of England from the Accession of James II
opens with a declaration that Britain had recently been on a path
"...the history of our country during
the last hundred and sixty years is eminently the history of
physical, of moral, and of intellectual
For Macaulay an important aspect of such improvement was
associated with the adoption of new industrial methods. As he had
written in his famous essay "Southey's Colloquies on Society"
"...we must confess ourselves unable to
find any satisfactory record of any great nation, past or
present, in which he working classes have been in a more
comfortable situation than in England during the last thirty
years. When this island was thinly peopled, it was barbarous;
there was little capital; and that little was insecure. It is
now the richest and most highly civilised spot in the
Macaulay effectively subscribed to a view of history where it
was the Whigs, who had primarily sponsored many "progressive"
reforms that had contibuted to the emergence of the British
system of liberal parliamentary democracy that had, importantly,
tended to facilitate the development of a commercial and
industrial society. His history writing tended to acclaim those
Whigs who had sought reforms and to decry those who had
obstructed the passing of such reforms.
...People live longer because they are better fed, better
lodged, better clothed, and better attended in sickness,
and these improvements are, owing to that increase of
national wealth which the manufacturing system has
Macaulay's heroes were those who stood on the side of the
developing powers of Parliament in the struggle to overcome the
"autocratic powers of kingship." Such heroes included those who
had supported the signing of the Magna Carta (1215), the
individually liberalising Protestant Reformation against the
reactionary and despotic Catholic Church. In his treatment of the
English Civil War Macaulay's sympathies lie with those who sought
to uphold the authority of Parliament against the encroachments
of Charles I. In terms of the events of 1688 Macaulay obviously
approves of the Whig involvements in securing the departure of
James II who is seen as being a champion of the exercise of a
high degree of royal power.
Macaulay's writing of history shows a partisanship, often
expressed in intemperate and excessive terms, in support of the
Whigs and it also shows an high degree of certainty that the
course of British history during the years in question had been
one of progress.
For many readers there is something irritating about
historical writings that seek to illustrate and to advocate
rather than to understand and to elucidate. An obviously partisan
approach can lead to a degree of distrust where the reader
suspects that the author may not fairly presented the characters
of individuals or adequately furnished a rounded presentation of
the course of events. It is surely a definite drawback to the
credibility of any historian for their readers to be brought to
suspect that the work that they are considering may not present a
broad and balanced picture.
Our own world is perhaps a more disillusioned place than that
in which Macaulay lived. There have been realities brought home
to us (depletion of resources, industrial pollution, also
Communism and Fascism as awkwardly potent experimental?
alternatives to liberal democracy) that may lead us to be a
little envious of, and impatient with, Macaulay's own certain
belief in liberal democracy as tending to ensure progress.
Popular European History pages
The preparation of these pages was influenced to some degree by a particular "Philosophy
of History" as suggested by this quote from the famous Essay "History" by Ralph Waldo Emerson:-
There is one mind common to all individual men...
Of the works of this mind history is the record. Its genius is
illustrated by the entire series of days. Man is explicable by
nothing less than all his history. Without hurry, without rest,
the human spirit goes forth from the beginning to embody every
faculty, every thought, every emotion, which belongs to it in
appropriate events. But the thought is always prior to the fact;
all the facts of history preexist in the mind as laws. Each law
in turn is made by circumstances predominant, and the limits of
nature give power to but one at a time. A man is the whole
encyclopaedia of facts. The creation of a thousand forests is in
one acorn, and Egypt, Greece, Rome, Gaul, Britain, America, lie
folded already in the first man. Epoch after epoch, camp,
kingdom, empire, republic, democracy, are merely the application
of his manifold spirit to the manifold world.
- 1 The European Revolution of 1848 begins
- A broad outline of the background to the onset of the turmoils and a consideration of some of the early events.
- 2 The French Revolution of 1848
- A particular focus on France - as the influential Austrian minister Prince Metternich, who sought to encourage the re-establishment of "Order" in the wake of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic turmoils of 1789-1815, said:-"When France sneezes Europe catches a cold".
- 3 The Revolution of 1848 in the German Lands and central Europe
- "Germany" had a movement for a single parliament in 1848 and many central European would-be "nations" attempted
to assert a distinct existence separate from the dynastic sovereignties they had been living under.
- 4 The "Italian" Revolution of 1848
- A "liberal" Papacy after 1846 helps allow the embers of an "Italian" national aspiration to rekindle across the Italian Peninsula.
- 5 The Monarchs recover power 1848-1849
- Some instances of social and political extremism allow previously pro-reform conservative elements to support
the return of traditional authority. Louis Napoleon, (who later became the Emperor Napoleon III), attains to power
in France offering social stability at home but ultimately follows policies productive of dramatic change in the wider European
structure of states and their sovereignty.