Macaulay: The Shaping of the Historian
Thomas Babington Macaulay: Selected Writings
It is very difficult to be fair to Macaulay. He was seldom fair to other people. He survives as a brilliant Whig historian, but Whig history is now out of fashion, and his particular historical judgments seem to us partisan, complacent, and unjust. His writing is indeed marvelously vigorous and clear, but it lacks the gentler virtues of flexibility, sensitivity, warmth. We are overborne by his prose as his contemporaries were overborne by his conversation. He cannot make a point quickly and allow it to sink in by its own force: he must always hammer it home. His dogmatism can be repellent. He does not reason, he “pronounces”; and he will pronounce even when he is ignorant or wrong. For all his genuine love of literature and his vast reading, he lacked a discriminating taste and his range of sympathy was limited. His mind, said Carlyle, was “intrinsically common,” “the sublime of commonplace”; and the features which it informed (contemporaries observed) were common too. He was essentially plebeian, said Lady Holland; “uncouth and not a man of the world,” Lord Melbourne said to Queen Victoria.
And yet, when we have said the worst that we can of him, how triumphantly he turns and conquers us, as he conquered his contemporary critics! That little, squat man, ungainly and protruding from his clothes, took the House of Commons by storm. When he rose to speak, wrote Gladstone, members crowded in as to a division. For all his “lack of pedigree,” he captured the aristocratic citadel of Holland House and what Lady Holland herself described as “that most aristocratical body,” the English House of Commons. A man could become a Liberal, said Gladstone; but he had to be born a Whig; and yet Macaulay, almost alone of outsiders, penetrated into the heart of the Grand Whiggery and assimilated its spirit.
And how quickly he penetrated it! He was a prodigy of precocity. “No man in this country,” wrote Gladstone, “with the exception of Mr. Pitt and Lord Byron, had obtained at thirty-two the fame of Macaulay.” And he always seemed to succeed at once, almost without effort. His first essays, his first speeches, his first published poems, his History, were instantly successful. Nor was that success ephemeral. In spite of the resistance which it provoked, in spite of the inevitable shift of fashion and the radical changes in the world since his death, his writing retains its power. He is still read. He is still challenged. He still commands an often reluctant attention, an equally reluctant assent. Whig history may be unfashionable, but who can prove Macaulay’s version of it to be wrong? His claim to have given law and letters to India may be resented by a people of ancient civilization, but can it altogether be denied? His historical prophecies wear better than those of most historians. His historical judgments, though based on hasty scholarship, expressed in peremptory language, and illustrated by personal caricatures, are often maddeningly right.
There are other …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.