Thomas Macaulay
Thomas Macaulay; drawing by David Levine

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 contrasts too in this apparently straightforward man of philistine tastes and instant, if accurate, judgment. There are contrasts of personality. Macaulay’s contemporaries saw him as an uncomplicated man and his life as a success story; and they found this confident personality harsh, cold, even inhuman. But six years after his death, when his nephew, Sir George Otto Trevelyan, published his Life and Letters of Lord Macaulay, he revealed a different character. In his family circle at least, Macaulay appeared affectionate, humorous, life-enhancing. Trevelyan’s Life is one of the great biographies in our language; but it is also, inevitably, partial. In some respects it is too discreet. With the accustomed liberty of a Victorian editor, Trevelyan softened the rough edges of Macaulay’s letters and protected his human weaknesses. He also shared Macaulay’s Whig assumptions: to him Macaulay was naturally, self-evidently right.

As guardians of Macaulay’s papers, the Trevelyan family continued their protective role into the mid-twentieth century. Nearly a century after Macaulay’s death, George Macaulay Trevelyan was invited to allow the publication of Macaulay’s diary. He reacted strongly. “Over my dead body!” he exclaimed. “I’m not going to have those Bloomsbury people laughing at my greatuncle.” It is only since G. M. Trevelyan’s death that Macaulay’s papers have been freely accessible to scholars. By then, fortunately, “those Bloomsbury people” were even more dead. The days of the post-Victorian snigger, the petty tea-table giggle of Lytton Strachey, are over. We can see the great Victorians in the setting of their age, and look them in the face.

Mr. Clive has used all the sources now available and has looked Macaulay in the face with more political detachment, but with no less sympathy, than Trevelyan. His book is not a complete biography: it carries us no further than 1838. But it is a complete portrait of the man and, above all, of his mind and its formation. For by 1838, when Macaulay left Calcutta, more disliked as a man, and more execrated as an official (that is, by the British community there), “than any Englishman that ever left the shores of the Thames to visit those of the Ganges,” his long-term plans were made. He had resolved to disengage himself from politics and concentrate his intellectual resources and experience upon “some great work which may be at once the business and the amusement of my life”: the History of England.


Much has been written on the “Whig” background of Macaulay’s History, but (as Mr. Clive points out) there was more than one tradition in English nineteenth-century Whiggism, and it is easy, for those who only read Trevelyan, to overemphasize the single-mindedness of Macaulay’s Whiggism. Macaulay became a convinced “aristocratic” Whig: he believed deeply in the necessity, almost the divine right, of aristocratic political leadership. But the substance of politics, to him, was essentially “utilitarian,” even radical. He was not, of course, a doctrinaire utilitarian, any more than he was a doctrinaire Whig: he was in many ways the least doctrinaire, as also the least philosophical, of men.

Nor was he a utilitarian in politics, a “philosophic radical”: indeed, he castigated the philosophic radicals in language so violent that even he, afterwards, when it had served its purpose, preferred to forget it. In politics, he believed in Whig methods, Whig men: in reform gradually achieved, and firmly secured, under traditional, educated leadership. He hated and feared democracy, seeing it as the prelude to barbarism. But Whiggism, to him, was the means of securing the utilitarian social ideals (or some of them) which had been set forth by the very men whose politics he had castigated: Bentham and James Mill. If only Bentham and Mill had left policy alone—that is, had left it to the Whigs—Macaulay was willing to acknowledge his debt to them. To him Bentham was the father of jurisprudence, the inspiration of his own Indian reforms; and James Mill, both as examiner for the East India Company and as the historian of British India, was a powerful influence behind Macaulay’s whole Indian career.

If Trevelyan hardly showed the “utilitarian” side of Macaulay, he was equally reticent about Macaulay’s relationship with his father, the formidable evangelical philanthropist Zachary Macaulay. Macaulay himself habitually protected his inmost feelings, but there were revealing episodes and occasional explosions. Trevelyan went so far as to ascribe to Macaulay a great interest in religion. This was denied at the time by Gladstone, whose review of Trevelyan’s biography is one of the best and justest essays on Macaulay, and who rightly saw that Macaulay’s outlook was completely secular. In fact, Macaulay’s distaste for religious evangelism colors all his writing, and there was continuous, if latent, tension between the evangelical father and the unbelieving son.

Zachary Macaulay also disapproved of his son’s novel reading, that love of ephemeral literature which was to enliven his History, and his son, who outwardly yielded to a father as inconvertible as himself, no doubt nurtured a secret, perhaps unconscious resentment against him. He afterward complained that he received less encouragement and appreciation from his father than from others. He also came to detest the “cant” of the Evangelicals: both of the Quakers (like his mother’s family) and of the “negrophils” (like his father). His absorption into Holland House was a great step forward in Macaulay’s career, but it can hardly have pleased his father. Lady Holland was the heiress of a slave-owning West India planter and referred to Zachary Macaulay as “a great saint and enemy to all West India concerns.”

Macaulay’s difficulties with his father must have been intensified by his real love of domesticity, his dependence on the family circle. Mr. Clive brings this out clearly and well. Whenever he was away from home, Macaulay felt deprived. An eloquent avowal of this is to be found in his little-known essay on “The London University” which Mr. Clive and Mr. Pinney have recently republished in their excellent selection of Macaulay’s writings. Here Macaulay rejected, for London, the “monastic” college system of Oxford and Cambridge as leading to selfishness and self-indulgence, and urged that a student would work better among “those kind familiar faces which are always anxious in his anxiety and joyful in his success” than beneath a row of college portraits of “philosophers who died centuries ago.”

Unencouraged by his parents, Macaulay came to find that domesticity which he so genuinely loved in the company of his two younger sisters, Hannah and Margaret. Margaret’s death, when he was in India, was a terrible blow to him. He himself wrote that only literature then saved his reason: for a long time he was afraid to be alone without a book in his hand. Hannah accompanied him to India, kept house for him, and there married a young officer of the East India Company, Charles Trevelyan. The Trevelyans continued to live in his house in India, and the genuine affection which united them all is clear from the veneration which he stimulated in that family, to the third generation.


The death of his sister Margaret was one of the most searing experiences in Macaulay’s life. It, perhaps, more than anything else, turned him back from politics to literature. There is no mistaking the depth of his feeling, the terrible void which it opened, the passionate energy with which he sought to fill that void. He could, of course, have filled it with political activity. He did at first so fill it: those were the years of his incredible energy in Indian education and legislation. But they were also the years in which he read or reread almost all classical literature, and much else, and wrote some of his best essays. In particular, he wrote his essay on Mackintosh, which (like his letters to his closest friend T.F. Ellis) clearly declared his own ultimate ambition: to fill the great lacuna in English historical writing by narrating the history of England from 1688 to 1789.

If the death of his sister turned him back to literature, Macaulay’s work in India enlarged his understanding of history. His philosophy did not change in those years, but it acquired depth. Many of the harshest judgments of his writing are based on his early essays. But those essays (as Acton wrote) are flashy and superficial, “a key to half the prejudices of the age.” The young Macaulay was undoubtedly a brilliant essayist, a brilliant political propagandist, a brilliant debater and parliamentary orator. But until he held office in India and found himself in a society, and a political system, totally different from that of England, his historical perspective, though long and crowded, lacked stereoscopic depth. It was in India that his easy Whig assumptions were tested and sometimes adjusted; in India that he was forced to rethink about the problems of government and the mechanics of progress and reform.

Mr. Clive’s chapters on Macaulay’s work in India are excellent. Macaulay did not enjoy India. He hated the climate and disliked the provincial society. He would not stay there till he was forty, he wrote, “for all the Duke of Westminster’s streets and all Lord Durham’s mines.” He went there not to exercise power or make a fortune but, as fourth or “legal” member of the Governor’s Council, to gain experience and a competence and thereafter devote himself to letters. But once there, his quick, strong mind seized the realities of the situation and he threw himself into the work of reform. It was utilitarian reform, untrammeled by “Whig” ideas: for in India he saw that Whig ideas were simply inapplicable. Indeed, for India, he hoped for more from “a firm and impartial despotism” than from any Whiggish liberty.

What he sought to achieve was a modern system of education, a rational, uniform, equitable system of law, and ultimate political independence: the independence of a prosperous and enlightened people; for (to put it in its most utilitarian form) “to trade with civilized men is infinitely more profitable than to govern savages.” This was the policy which he did not indeed initiate, but which he consistently forwarded, sometimes with more zeal and eloquence than discretion, in his famous minute on education and his penal code. The effects of both have lasted to this day. English is still the essential language of the subcontinent, and Macaulay’s code “has remained the most enduring monument to his efforts in India.”

Of course the policy was not his alone. It was the policy of a party—or rather, an alliance of parties. The Evangelicals (including his brother-in-law Charles Trevelyan) believed that Western education was the means to Christianize India. The utilitarians (or some of them, including the governor, Lord William Bentinck) believed that it was the way to modernize India. Against them were ranged the “Orientalists” who sympathized with native culture and sought to preserve it. It is easy for Indians, now that they have accepted the benefits of modernity, to resent the cultural cost of its acquisition, and (especially) the brusque language in which Macaulay dismissed their own traditions. But the fact remains that the Orientalists were preaching cultural elitism. Progressive Hindus clamored to be taught English as the means of improvement. H.H. Wilson, the leading Orientalist, had recently opposed the legal prohibition, by Bentinck, of sutee—the ritual burning of widows. Sutee, after all, was a cultural tradition.

Macaulay’s penal code was similarly designed as a means to improvement. Originally necessitated to protect the Indians against the consequences of unlimited British settlement, it gave him the opportunity to appear as the legislator of India. His aims were simplicity, rationality, uniformity; his models Bacon and Bentham. As Mr. Clive points out, it was in India that he wrote his famous essay on Bacon, and it is his Indian policy, both in education and in law, that is reflected in it. All his legal reasoning is characterized by a freedom from legal pedantry (unlike the seventeenth-century Whigs, he had no respect for the archaisms of Engish common law) and an unfailing common sense. But quite apart from questions of justice, Macaulay hoped by legal as by educational modernity to create the objective conditions of material progress and the spirit of independence. He recognized that India was not ready, in the 1830s, to take the Whig road to freedom; but “firm and impartial despotism” could create the conditions in which, historically, that road would afterward be found.

For always Macaulay, with his vast range of historical information, would place present politics in their long historical setting. This was his great strength as a propagandist, his strength and weakness as a historian. Others might argue that the English Reform Bill was immediately desirable or immediately necessary. Macaulay would lift the whole question above such immediate circumstances and declare it to be a historical necessity whose causes were not the episodes of today or yesterday but were deeply embedded in history. Similarly he would set the problems of British India in the 1830s against the huge backcloth of universal experience and discover that the present moment had an unsuspected significance for the progress of mankind. Such parallels are sometimes dangerous to historical truth, but they can give to a political program “a philosophic dignity and a sense of awe” which in turn can create power. It was because he could so elevate the reforming policy of the Whig party in England and the utilitarian policy of Bentinck in India that Macaulay, though not their initiator, was credited at the time with so decisive a voice.

I have seldom enjoyed any book as much as this splendid biography. Mr. Clive is a historian who is also at home in literature: who knows the context of the age, understands the politics, the ideas; the issues, and is as happy in India as in England. He has written a book of exact scholarship which is also a work of great intellectual power and penetration, great fairness and, above all, great humanity. It is a pleasure, and an education, to read it.

This Issue

May 3, 1973