Edinburgh Review, India, William III, John Milton, biography, Southey's Colloquies on Society [Thomas Babington Macaulay, History of England]
Essays, Reform Act, Whig, interpretation, history, historian, Macaulay

Home > History & Historians > Famous Historian index > Thomas Macaulay

  Site Map  |  Slide Shows  |  Guest Book  |  Links  |  About Us  |  Download Wisdoms  |  Support Us  |  Share

Thomas Babington Macaulay

  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.

  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 Review.

  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 served.
  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 England.
  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 Abbey.

  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 of progress:
  "...the history of our country during the last hundred and sixty years is eminently the history of physical, of moral, and of intellectual improvement..."

  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" (1830)
  "...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 world...
  ...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 produced..."
 
  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.
  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
at Age-of-the-Sage


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.
Ralph Waldo Emerson's Essay "History"
Italian Unification - Cavour, Garibaldi and
the Unification of Risorgimento Italy
Otto von Bismarck &
The wars of German unification
Italian unification map
Risorgimento Italy
Map of German unification
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.
Emerson's "Transcendental" approach to History
.
Spirituality & the wider world
.
Some Social Theory and insights
.
The Unfolding of History
.
The Vienna Declaration
.
Framework Convention on National minorities



Return to start of
Thomas Babington Macaulay
History of England