Eliohs: Electronic Library of Historiography
01
 
Collane Catalogo Generale Altre Risorse Ricerca Home

Leslie Stephen

Thomas Babington Macaulay:
The article from the Dictionary of National Biography

Note editoriali

Back to main text

«Macaulay, Thomas Babington Baron Macaulay 1800-1859, historian, eldest child of Zachary Macaulay [q.v.], was born at Rothley Temple, Leicestershire, the seat of Zachary Macaulay’s brother-in-law, Thomas Babington, on 25 Oct. 1800, the day of St. Crispin, and of the battle of Agincourt. His first two years were spent in Birchin Lane, whence his parents moved to a house in the High Street of Clapham. From the age of three he read incessantly, and talked in ‘printed words.’ Hannah More made a pet of him when he was four, and about the same time his father took him to Strawberry Hill, where he saw the Orford collections, and ever afterwards carried the catalogue in his memory. He was, with all his precocity, a simple and merry child. He rambled on Clapham Common, and discovered the Alps and Mount Sinai in its ridges and hillocks. He was sent as a day-boy to a Mr. Greaves. When he was seven he began a compendium of universal history; at eight he wrote a treatise intended to convert the natives of Malabar to Christianity; and after learning Scott’s ‘Lay’ and ‘Marmion’ by heart, he took to composing poems and hymns. A poem on Olaus Magnus of Norway, the supposed ancestor of the Macaulays, is an echo of Scott. His parents and Hannah More, with whom he often stayed at Barley Wood, judiciously refrained from stimulating his self-consciousness, and left him, it seems, under the impression that all schoolboys knew as much as himself. Hannah More started his library by presents of books. In 1812 Macaulay was sent to a school, kept at Little Shelford, near Cambridge, by the Rev. Mr. Preston, which in 1814 was moved to Aspenden Hall, near Buntingford, Hertfordshire. Preston was a strong evangelical, and a friend of Milner, president of Queens’ College, Cambridge, then one of the chief representatives of the school. Milner recognised the boy’s promise. Macaulay’s parents not only sent him religious and moral advice, but wrote of the political topics most interesting to them in terms which implied that he fully shared their interest. Henry Malden [q.v.], afterwards known as a Greek scholar, was his ablest companion. He read voraciously, and with astonishing rapidity. His powers of memory are shown by the fact that forty years later he repeated a scrap from the poet’s corner of a country newspaper of 1813, which he had never recalled in the interval. He thought that he could reproduce ‘Paradise Lost’ and the ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’ if every copy had been lost. His reading was of the most miscellaneous kind. In the holidays, while his playfulness made him the delight of his brothers and sisters, he used to read aloud in the evenings, one summer being devoted to ‘Sir Charles Grandison.’ His father disapproved of novel-reading, but incautiously inserted in the ‘Christian Observer’ a defence of the practice, with eulogies upon Fielding and Smollett, written, as afterwards appeared, by his son. This was Macaulay’s first appearance in print, except an index to the thirteenth volume of the same periodical. Zachary Macaulay, though inclined to austere views, was never really harsh to his son, whose thoughts were led to public life by the political agitation against slavery, of which the father’s house was a centre.

In October 1818 Macaulay began residence at Trinity College, Cambridge. He shared lodgings in Jesus Lane with Henry Sykes Thornton, eldest son of Henry Thornton, a leader of the ‘Clapham sect.’ He soon afterwards obtained rooms in the old court of the college, between the gate and the chapel. Among his friends were Derwent and Henry Nelson Coleridge, W. M. Praed, Sidney Walker, Moultrie, Lord Grey, Lord Belper, and Lord Romilly (the titles are of a later date), and above all, Charles Austin [q.v.], who was the eldest and the intellectual leader of the set. Austin and Macaulay discussed utilitarianism, and all the political questions of the day. They made speeches at the Union, evading, at little cost of ingenuity, the rule which forbade a discussion of public affairs later than those of the last century. Macaulay at first inclined to the tory politics of his father’s friends. Austin made him a partial convert to radicalism, but he left college a thorough whig. Intense enjoyment of converse with youthful intellects, awake to all literary and intellectual movements, rather distracted Macaulay from the official course of study. He had not acquired the art of classical composition as taught at public schools, and heartily disliked the practice. He won, however, a prize for Latin declamation at Trinity, and in 1821 gained a Craven scholarship, in company with Malden and George Long (afterwards professor). He also won the English prize-poem in 1819 (on ‘Pompeii’), and in 1821 (on ‘Evening’). Mathematical studies were totally uncongenial to his mind, and he was in consequence ‘gulphed,’ i.e. refused honours, though allowed to pass in the mathematical tripos of 1822. He was therefore disqualified for competing for the chancellor’s medals, then the most coveted classical prizes. Later in the year he won the annual college prize for an essay on the character of William III, and already gave a sample of his distinctive style. He was elected a fellow of Trinity on 1 Oct. 1824, having failed on the two previous trials. He apparently spent most of his vacations at Cambridge, though he joined a reading party at Lanrwst, Denbighshire, in 1821; and he preserved through life an affection for his old college, which prompted occasionally a half regret that he had not settled down to the life of a resident don.

When Macaulay went to college his father was in prosperous circumstances. Macaulay was encouraged to expect that he would have the portion of an eldest son, and be independent of a profession. During his college career his father’s business had suffered, and in 1823 he had thought it desirable to take a couple of pupils while reading for his fellowship. In 1823 the family settled in 50 Great Ormond Street, where they lived till 1831. Macaulay lived with them till 1829, when he took chambers in 8 South Square, Gray’s Inn (since pulled down to make room for the library). He was called to the bar in 1826, and joined the northern circuit. He took part in the bar convivialities, but never obtained, or apparently desired to obtain, any business. After a year or two he gave up the practice of studying law, and passed his time at the House of Commons instead of the courts. He had already taken to literature; and had distinguished himself by a speech at a meeting of the Anti-slavery Society on 25 June 1824, which was highly praised in the ‘Edinburgh Review.’ In 1823 he had begun his literary career by contributing to ‘Knight’s Quarterly Magazine,’ started by Charles Knight [q.v.], and supported by some of his college friends. His father was startled by some articles in the magazine which were not adapted for the ‘Christian Observer,’ and Macaulay withdrew, in deference to an apparently unreasonable prohibition. He wrote again upon its speedy withdrawal, but the magazine soon died. Macaulay had meanwhile been invited to try his hand in the ‘Edinburgh.’ His first article (upon Milton) appeared in August 1825. Jeffrey welcomed it with enthusiasm, saying, ‘The more I think, the less I can conceive where you picked up that style!’ and Macaulay at once gained a popularity which was to increase with every subsequent publication. He became a regular contributor, and soon a mainstay of the review. His articles eclipsed all others, and were almost invariably the most telling in the number. He was invited to take the editorship upon Jeffrey’s retirement, and would have consented (Trevelyan, Life, 1 vol. edit., p. 135) if the headquarters had been moved to London. Brougham opposed a plan which would have diminished his own influence. His jealousy had been aroused by Macaulay’s success, and Macvey Napier, when he succeeded to the editorship, had to suffer under the angry remonstrances of each of his chief contributors against the favour shown to the other. Macaulay’s most remarkable articles at this time were perhaps those directed against James Mill, which he declined to reprint during his lifetime, on account of their ‘unbecoming acrimony’ towards Mill, who was afterwards a cordial friend. This, and the articles upon Sadler and Southey’s colloquies, show that he was not only a thorough whig, but pretty much convinced that all but whigs were fools. His growing fame was shown by the rough assault from ‘Christopher North’ in ‘Blackwood’s Magazine.’ In 1828 he brought down a party of whigs from London, who succeeded in rejecting a vote in the Cambridge senate for a petition against catholic emancipation. In January 1828 Lord Lyndhurst made him, in spite of his politics, a commissioner in bankruptcy. The office, added to his fellowship, and his earnings from the ‘Edinburgh Review,’ made up his income to 900l. a year. In February 1830 Lord Lansdowne, who had been impressed by the articles on Mill, wrote to offer the author a seat for Calne, without asking for any pledges as to voting. The offer was gratefully accepted, and Macaulay made his first speech in the house on 5 April 1830, in support of the second reading of Robert Grant’s bill for the removal of Jewish disabilities. He visited the continent for the first time, after the French revolution of July, and wrote an article upon the state of France, which, to his great vexation, was cancelled by Napier in deference to a remonstrance from Brougham. He began a book upon the history of France, from the restoration of the Bourbons till the accession of Louis-Philippe, for ‘Lardner’s Cabinet Cyclopædia,’ which was partly printed, but never finished or published.

In the parliament which met on 26 Oct. 1830 he again sat for Calne. On 2 March 1831 he spoke in the debate upon the second reading of the Reform Bill. The speaker told him that he had never seen the house in such a state of excitement. Peel praised his opponent, and he was compared to all the famous parliamentary orators. His success encouraged him to become a frequent speaker. He was welcomed at Holland House, invited to breakfast by Rogers, who became really attached to him, introduced to Sydney Smith, Moore, Hallam, and all the literary celebrities, and overwhelmed with the most flattering attentions. The abolition of his commissionership by Grey’s administration, at a time when his fellowship (tenable for seven years only by a layman) was just running out, reduced his means so far, that he was obliged to sell his university gold medals (ib. p. 127). To a bachelor, indeed, with the road to success so widely open, such an evil was endurable enough. It is, however, to his credit that he never incurred debts, and more so that his social successes never interfered with the affectionate intercourse with his family, especially with his two sisters, Hannah and Margaret. His letters to them, giving many details of his parliamentary career, are charming proofs of his affectionate nature. The sudden death, in 1830, of a third sister, Jane, grieved him deeply, and it was followed by the death of his mother, who had never recovered the shock of losing her daughter, in 1831 (ib. p. 145). He acquired at the same time an antipathy or two, especially for J. W. Croker [q.v.], with whom he had various parliamentary encounters, and whose edition of ‘Boswell’ he attacked with perhaps excessive acrimony in the ‘Edinburgh Review.’

Although Macaulay never became a skilful debater, his set speeches had made a great impression; and he had obtained a position in the house, which was recognised by his appointment (ib. p. 184) in June 1832 to be a commissioner of the board of control. He worked hard at his duties, rapidly acquiring a wide knowledge of Indian affairs. By rising at five he managed to write some articles for the ‘Edinburgh,’ in spite of his official and parliamentary duties. He had been invited in October 1831 to stand for Leeds in company with Mr. J. G. Marshall. He took a very independent line with the electors, refusing to give any definite pledges. When an elector asked him at a meeting to state his religious opinions, he denounced the rash inquirer for turning a meeting into an arena for theological discussion; and though he declared himself to be a ‘Christian,’ treated the question as an exhibition of intolerance. He was opposed by Michael Sadler, whose theories of population he had attacked in the ‘Edinburgh Review.’ Marshall and Macaulay were elected in Dec. 1832 by 2,012 and 1,984 votes (respectively), to Sadler’s 1,596.

Just before the election, Macaulay had been appointed secretary to the board of control, of which Charles Grant [q.v.], afterwards Lord Glenelg, was president. Their main duty in the session of 1833 was to carry through parliament the bill for renewing the charter of the East India Company; by which the monopoly of the China trade was abolished, and the company ceased to be a commercial body. Macaulay distinguished himself by a speech on the second reading, upon which his chief pronounced an enthusiastic eulogy; and the bill was passed with ease and with general approval. The bill for the abolition of slavery had been introduced by government, with a provision for a twelve years’ apprenticeship of the liberated slaves. The abolitionists, led by Sir Fowell Buxton, strongly objected to this proposal; and Macaulay was in constant correspondence with his father upon the subject. Zachary Macaulay had now fallen into poverty, and Thomas, helped by his brother Henry, was devoting all that he could save to paying off his father’s creditors. All parties, however, took for granted that he should, if necessary, sacrifice his income to his duty. He sent in his resignation to Lord Althorp, and then spoke in favour of an amendment proposed by Buxton to shorten the term of apprenticeship. The government having consented to reduce the term from twelve years to seven, the abolitionists were contented; and Macaulay’s resignation was not accepted.

Meanwhile (ib. p. 35) Macaulay received an offer of a seat on the supreme council of India, as constituted by the recent bill. He would receive 10,000l. a year for five years, which would enable him to save 30,000l. during his tenure of office. The prospects of the ministry were so bad, that he would not give 50l. for the chance of keeping his present post for six months (ib. p. 235). He would honourably avoid any entanglement in the approaching political complications, and save his family from distress. He shrank only from the necessary parting. His sister, Margaret, had married John Cropper, a quaker, in 1833; and the shock of separation seems to have been almost as great to him as the loss of a wife to most men. His other favourite sister, Hannah, agreed to accompany him to India. He accepted the appointment, which was confirmed by the directors of the East India Company, on 4 Dec. 1833, James Mill, in spite of their old controversy, saying that he was the best man for the place. He made arrangements to write for the ‘Edinburgh’ during his absence, requesting Napier to supply him in return with books, laid in a library for his own consumption during the voyage, and sailed for India in February 1834. He landed at Madras on 10 June, and joined the governor-general, Lord William Bentinck, at Ootacamund in the Neilgherries. On his way to the hills he visited Arcot, Seringapatam, and Mysore. During the monsoon he persuaded all the English at the station to go wild over ‘Clarissa Harlowe.’ In September he went to Calcutta, whither his sister had preceded him. Macaulay remained at Calcutta until the end of 1837, sailing for England in the first fortnight of 1838 (ib. p. 309). He compressed into this stay of three years and a half a prodigious quantity of work. He was attacked with extraordinary scurrility in the Calcutta press for his share in passing the so-called Black Act (1836), by which appeals from British residents in India were transferred from the supreme to the Sudder court. This destroyed a privilege of the Europeans; but, according to Macaulay, the privilege was worthless, and the real motive of his assailants was the fear that the act might injure the business of lawyers practising in the supreme court. He received their abuse with equanimity, and argued vigorously and successfully with the directors against the maintenance of the old system of a press censorship. A petition against the act was brought before the House of Commons on 22 March 1838; but a motion for a select committee was dropped upon the government consenting to lay before the house the minutes of council on which the act was founded.

At the time of his arrival, a committee of public instruction was equally divided as to the policy of applying their funds to the encouragement of oriental or of English studies. Macaulay decided the question by a minute explaining with great force the reasons for preferring English. He became president of a reconstructed committee, and took a very active part in founding the educational system of India. His most important work, however, was the composition of a criminal code and the code of criminal procedure for India. A commission was appointed for the purpose at his suggestion in 1835. He was the president, and his colleagues were (Sir) John Macleod, and Charles Hay Cameron [q.v.]. They began their task in August 1835 (ib. p. 317). Macleod’s health was weak; Cameron had to leave Calcutta from illness at Christmas 1836; and Macaulay had to finish the work almost single-handed. It was, however, finished in June 1837, and published at the end of the year. Sir J. F. Stephen, one of Macaulay’s successors, speaks in the highest terms of its merits, and of the extraordinary command of the subject possessed by a man whose whole experience as an English lawyer was confined to a single prosecution of a boy for ‘stealing a parcel of cocks.’ The penal code became law in 1860, after careful revision by Sir Barnes Peacock. Macaulay found time, by devoting the early morning to study, to get through a vast mass of classical literature, reading some authors three or four times, and carefully annotating every page. He learnt German during his voyage home. He wrote his long and brilliant, though far from satisfactory, article upon Bacon. The society, except that of a few friends, was not much to his taste, and he felt the exile from his home. His sister, Hannah, married (Sir) Charles Trevelyan, then in the company’s service, at the end of 1834. Soon afterwards he was deeply grieved by news of the death of his sister Margaret (Mrs. Cropper). The marriage of Hannah, like the marriage of Margaret, was felt by him as a severe blow (ib. p. 280), though he was too generous to let his feeling be seen, and comforted himself by plunging into literature. He lived with the Trevelyans after the marriage, and became the most devoted of uncles to their children, the first of whom was born during his residence in Calcutta. Macaulay had helped his father, and had saved an independence during his stay in India, which was increased by a legacy of 10,000l. from his uncle, General Macaulay. On reaching London in company with the Trevelyans, in June 1838, he found that his father had died in May. Upon his arrival, Macaulay was challenged by a Mr. Wallace, whose life of Mackintosh (prefixed to the posthumous history) he had condemned with his usual vigour in the ‘Edinburgh Review’ of July 1835, Macaulay was ready to fight, but his friends judiciously discovered terms of arrangement, which made pistols needless. In the autumn, Macaulay made a tour in Italy, much in the spirit of Addison, deeply interested in every illustration of history and literature, looking at scenery ‘in the intervals of reading’ and receiving impressions, afterwards turned to account in the ‘Lays of Ancient Rome.’

He was again in London in February 1839, living with the Trevelyans. For some years his life was distracted by the rival claims of literature and politics. He began his ‘History of England’ (ib. p. 387) in March 1839; intending to include the period from the revolution of 1688, to the death of George III. He contributed several articles to the ‘Edinburgh Review,’ including his attack upon Mr. Gladstone’s theory of church and state in 1839; and his famous article upon Clive. Meanwhile he was elected for Edinburgh in 1839, with the support of the government, and professing emphatically his determination to stand by the whig banner ‘while one shred was flying.’ His first speech was in support of the ballot, to which he had pledged himself in Edinburgh, and which was left an open question by the government. In September he was made secretary at war, with a seat in the cabinet. In addressing his constituents upon his re-election, he dated his letter from Windsor Castle, where he was staying. The incident suggested an amount of ridicule, now rather difficult to understand, to which Thackeray refers in the ‘Roundabout Papers.’ At the end of the year, Trevelyan left the Indian service on his being appointed assistant secretary of the treasury, thus relieving Macaulay from the dread of a new separation. He spent the year of 1840 with the Trevelyans, in a house in Great George Street. At the end of the year they moved to Clapham, and he took chambers in the Albany. As secretary at war, Macaulay had to suspend his history to attend to estimates and official work, but he had little occasion of coming prominently forward. He had to defend the government upon a Chinese war, and on the Irish registration question in 1840; and in 1841 was chiefly occupied in defending Lord Cardigan. The government was obviously losing ground. After the dissolution of June-July 1841, Macaulay was returned for Edinburgh without opposition. On the meeting of the new parliament in August, Macaulay did not speak on the debate which led to the fall of the ministry and his own emancipation from office.

Macaulay used his leisure to write the article upon Warren Hastings, and returned to the composition of his ‘History.’ He began (ib. p. 419) to withdraw from the ‘Edinburgh’ as the demands of the ‘History’ became more pressing, though he wrote a few more articles. The Americans meanwhile had been doing him a service by reprinting his essays, and thus forcing him in spite of himself to publish a collective edition. He for a time refused to take a step which, as he held, would imply a claim to permanent interest and fitness to be judged by a high standard on behalf of writings only intended to be ephemeral. Such republication was then much less common than it has now become; but Macaulay’s reluctance was clearly genuine, though it implies a curious miscalculation of his own merits. The essays, published in 1843, became popular at once, and the annual sale rose from an average of 1,230 between 1843 and 1853, to an average of six thousand after 1864. The ‘Lays of Ancient Rome’ had appeared in October 1842 with equal success. They were warmly welcomed by his old assailant, ‘Christopher North,’ in ‘Blackwood;’ 18,000 copies were sold in ten years, and over one hundred thousand copies by 1875.

During this period Macaulay’s chief political appearance was upon a question in which his literary fame gave him unequalled authority in parliament. In 1841 Talfourd proposed to extend the length of copyright from twenty-eight years, reckoned from the date of publication, to sixty years from the death of the author. Macaulay secured the rejection of this bill by a majority of 45 to 38. In 1842 Lord Mahon proposed a copyright of twenty-five years from the death of the author. Macaulay in a vigorous speech, with even more than his usual wealth of appropriate instances, proposed a copyright of forty-two years from the date of publication. He brought the house round to his view, and the bill, remodelled so as to embody his proposal, became law. In the years of 1844 and 1845 he took an active part in the opposition to Peel, and, while defending the increased grant to Maynooth, bitterly condemned Peel’s inconsistency upon the question. In 1845 the pressure of parliamentary business compelled him to devote all the leisure he could obtain to history alone. He told Napier that he could write no more articles for the ‘Edinburgh’ until he had finished his first two volumes. In the event he never contributed again.

On the fall of Peel, at the end of 1845, Macaulay was consulted during the fruitless attempts to construct a new cabinet. He declared that although he would support, he would not join a coalition ministry, and that he would not join any ministry not pledged to a total repeal of the corn laws. The attempts, however, to form a government failed, as Macaulay wrote to one of his constituents, a Mr. Macfarlan, in consequence of Lord Grey’s refusal to join a ministry in which Lord Palmerston should be foreign minister. Macfarlan published the letter, with the censure of Grey, in spite of Macaulay’s expressed objection. Macaulay’s indignation was great and lasting.

Macaulay was appointed paymaster-general in Lord John Russell’s administration, and re-elected for Edinburgh in 1846 by a triumphant majority over Sir Culling Eardley [q.v.]. He had preferred the office as one which would leave him most leisure for his ‘History.’ He only spoke five times during the sessions of 1846 and 1847, his chief speech being in favour of the Ten Hours Bill. He was always received in a way which proved his great popularity in the house.

On the general dissolution of 1847 Macaulay again stood for Edinburgh. There alone he had lost much popularity. He was too independent and outspoken to please such of his constituents as desired to make use of their representative for the promotion of their own interests. Though generous to excess in money matters, he declined subscriptions to races and charities. He was too thorough a whig to please the radicals. His approval of church establishments was offensive to the enthusiasts who had recently founded the free church. A combination of these elements gave strength to the cry that ‘Christian men should be represented by Christian men,’ which was also supported by the spirit dealers, whose plan for altering the excise duties was rejected by Macaulay. Mr. Cowan, a radical opponent of church establishment, received many second votes from the tories, and was elected by 2,063 votes, with Mr. Craig, who received 1,854 as his colleague. Macaulay received 1,477, and Blackburn 980. Macaulay on the same evening wrote an eloquent copy of verses, showing how literature had been his consolation under all the trials (of which it was rather difficult to make a respectable list) of his life.

Though asked to stand for other places, Macaulay wisely determined to devote himself to the service of literature. He was now a valued member of the most cultivated society in London, and found a more infinite source of happiness in his affectionate relations to his family. He withdrew by degrees from the wider circle to devote himself to his books, though he left even the books to amuse his sister’s children. During 1848 the first two volumes of the ‘History’ were passing through the press, and on their appearance in November made a success to which the only parallels in English literary history are the novels of Scott and Dickens, and possibly Byron’s poems. Thirteen thousand copies were sold in four months. His old friends, from Jeffrey downwards, were enthusiastic in their congratulations, and the attack of his old enemy, Croker, in the ‘Quarterly Review,’ probably rather gave additional flavour to the chorus of praise.

On21 March 1849 he delivered his address as lord rector of the university of Glasgow, having been elected in the previous November, and afterwards visited Jeffrey for the last time. The professorship of modern history at Cambridge was offered to him in June, but he naturally declined a post of little value which would have interfered with his historical work. He continued to write steadily, making occasional tours to the scenes of some of the chief events to be described. He read in the British Museum, where he also assiduously discharged his duties as trustee. In January 1852, after the fall of Palmerston, he was strongly pressed by Lord John Russell (ib. p. 556) to join the cabinet, but declined to give up his literary pursuits for duties to which his health was now unequal. On the general election in July 1852 he was proposed for Edinburgh. He declined to give any pledges, or in any way to present himself as a candidate. He was returned spontaneously at the head of the poll by 1,872 votes on 14 July. Almost at the same time his health broke down. The heart’s action was deranged, and he was forbidden to address his constituents. Although the immediate attack passed off, he was henceforward weaker, and he soon had to resign himself to the life of an invalid. He had, he said, ‘become twenty years older in a week.’ In October 1852, however, he was able to speak to his constituents, and he attended the House of Commons during the following winter. He had announced at Edinburgh that he would not again take office, and was not personally interested, although he was consulted, in the arrangements for a new ministry in the winter. He made one remarkable speech on 1 June 1853, when he persuaded the House of Commons to throw out a bill for excluding the master of the rolls from the House of Commons. The bill would have been passed without difficulty had he not spoken, and the proposed change which he denounced was accepted without debate in 1873. In the same year he supported the India Bill. He had already in 1833 introduced clauses for throwing open the appointment of servants of the company to competition. The plan was then dropped; but it was now embodied in the bill introduced by Sir Charles Wood, and vigorously supported by Macaulay. Exhaustion forced him to cut his speech short, and he therefore excluded it from his collected speeches. In 1854 he was chairman of a committee for laying down the rules for examination of candidates. He drew the report, and his list of subjects and marks with other suggested regulations were adopted without modification. He desired the introduction of the same system into other public offices, but opinion was not yet ripe for the change.

Macaulay’s last speech in the House of Commons was on 19 July 1853, in support of a bill desired by his constituents for altering the system of paying the stipends of Edinburgh ministers. In the same summer he prepared for publication a collection of his speeches, a spurious edition with innumerable errors having been brought out by Vizetelly. He then devoted himself steadily to his ‘History.’ Parliamentary labours were evidently becoming too much for him, and he accepted the Chiltern Hundreds in January 1856. The third and fourth volumes of the ‘History’ were published in December 1855. The success was as great as that of the first volumes. Everett told him that in the United States the sale had exceeded that of any book except the Bible and one or two school books. In ten weeks 26,500 copies had been sold, and Messrs. Longman paid him in March a cheque for 20,000l., which is still preserved by the firm as a curiosity in the history of publishing. The ‘History’ has been translated into German, Polish, Danish, Swedish, Italian, French, Dutch, Spanish, Hungarian, Russian, Bohemian, and Persian (ib. p. 622).

In the beginning of 1856 Macaulay bought Holly Lodge, Campden Hill, Kensington, a suburban house with a pleasant garden, which united the attractions of town and country. He began his occupation in May 1856. He became something of a gardener, entertained his friends hospitably, and was able to enjoy his autumn tour at home and abroad. In August 1857 Lord Palmerston offered him a peerage, and he took the title of Baron Macaulay of Rothley. In the same autumn he was elected high steward of the borough of Cambridge, and his last public speech was in acknowledgment of the honour, in May 1858. He prepared for a speech upon Indian affairs in the House of Lords about the same time, but the expected occasion did not occur. Meanwhile he was becoming sensible that his history could scarcely extend to the end of William III’s reign. His friendship for Mr. Adam Black induced him to send to the ‘Encyclopædia Britannica’ a few excellent lives. He worked at his ‘History,’ still amusing his leisure hours by reading his old favourites. In 1859 his brother-in-law, Trevelyan, was appointed governor of Madras, and sailed from England in February, his family intending to follow him in a few months. Macaulay was much saddened by the approaching separation. He was strong enough to visit the Lakes and Scotland in the autumn, but after his return to Holly Lodge his weakness became more marked. He had fainting fits, and on 28 December 1859 died quietly, sitting in his library in an easy chair, with the first number of the ‘Cornhill Magazine’ lying open before him. He was buried in Westminster Abbey on 9 Jan. 1860. His grave is in the Poet’s Corner, at the foot of Addison’s statue.

Macaulay was short, stout, and upright, with homely but expressive features, and a fine brow. He was physically clumsy, and, though he took a simple delight in gorgeous waistcoats, never learnt to tie his neckcloth or wield a razor with moderate skill. He never cared for bodily exercises, and, when offered a horse at Windsor, said that if he rode it must be upon an elephant. He enjoyed pedestrian rambles till his health gave way, but often read as he walked, and preferred to country lanes streets abounding in bookstalls and historical associations. The most obvious of his intellectual qualities was his stupendous memory. He read voraciously, and forgot nothing, from the best classical literature to the most ephemeral rubbish. He learnt by heart ‘Paradise Lost’ and the ‘Cambridge Calendar,’ and maintained that every fool could say his archbishops of Canterbury backwards. His memory was the servant, sometimes perhaps the master, of a vivid imagination and vigorous understanding. He was incessantly ‘castle-building’ (ib. p. 133), reconstructing the past, whether in his library or in the streets; seeing Whitehall with the eyes of Pepys, and peopling Grub Street with old authors, as Scott peopled the Cheviots with moss-troopers. The past, he says, became in his mind ‘a romance,’ though to the best of his abilities a true romance. His masculine intellect made him a thorough man of business as well as a bookworm. His memory provided a vast supply of cases in point for every possible contingency, and led him perhaps too often to substitute a string of precedents for a logical exposition. He not only distrusted the symmetry of abstract reason, but seemed to prefer anomaly or compromise for its own sake. Yet his sturdy understanding enabled him always to take firm ground, and to hit hard and straight. As an orator he spoke without grace of voice or manner, but with an impetuosity and fulness of mind, and clearness of language, which always dominated his hearers. Members of parliament were carried away by the rare spectacle of a man of the highest literary fame who yet never soared out of their intellectual ken. His rhetorical power is as manifest in the ‘Lays of Ancient Rome’ as in his speeches, and if they are hardly poetry, they are most effective declamation. His essays are equally unapproached in their kind. He ascribes the invention of the genus to Southey, but claims, rightly, to have improved the design (ib. p. 415). In striking contrast to most periodical literature, they represent the greatest condensation instead of the greatest expansion of knowledge, and the sense of proportion, and consequent power of effective narrative, are as remarkable in his best essays¾especially the essays on Clive and Warren Hastings¾as the clearness of style and range of knowledge. The first part of the ‘History’ shows the same qualities, though the later volumes begin to suffer from the impracticable scale.

Macaulay’s marvellous popularity was in part due to qualities which have alienated many critics. He spoke to the middle classes in terms appropriate to the hustings. The tenets of the whig party were for him the last word of political wisdom. The essay on Bacon is a deliberate declaration of the worthlessness of all speculation not adapted to immediate utility. His attack upon the utilitarians expresses a more thorough-going empiricism than that of their own official advocates. Though he liked theological, and even some metaphysical controversy, he never revealed his own views except so far as they are implied in sharing the true whig antipathy to high church principles. The philosophical and imaginative tendencies represented by such men as Wordsworth, Coleridge, or Carlyle, struck him as mere mystical moonshine. In such matters he was on the side of the vulgar, and certainly sacrificed to their tastes. He delights in proving the obvious, prefers the commonplace to the subtle, and his purple patches are too often glaring and discordant, and produce a bathos due to the absence of the finer literary sense.

Macaulay has been accused of gross partiality. It is obvious that he does not rise above the party view of politics, and explains all opposition to which principles by the folly and knavery of their opponents. It does not seem that he was ever consciously unfair, and an historian without prejudices has hitherto always meant a writer without imagination. His misrepresentations are a result of his ‘castle building.’ In spite of his wide reading, he had often constructed pictures from trifling hints, and a picture, once constructed, became a settled fact. Closer examination often shows a singular audacity in outrunning tangible evidence, when he has to deal with a hateful person, a James II, a Marlborough, or an Impey; and he is too much in love with the picturesque to lower his colouring to the reality. The same desire for effect at any cost makes some of his characters, such as Bacon, mere heaps of contradictory qualities. Among the critics who have criticised Macaulay upon special topics may be mentioned James Spedding, whose ‘Evenings with a Reviewer,’ discussing the Bacon essay, was first published in 1881 (privately printed many years before); W. Hepworth Dixon, who replied in his ‘Life of Penn,’ 1851, to Macaulay’s view of Penn in the ‘History;’ W. E. Forster, who in 1849 published ‘Observations’ on the same passages; Churchill Babington, who in 1849 published ‘Macaulay’s Character of the Clergy in the Seventeenth Century considered;’ E. B. Impey, who in ‘A Life of Sir Elijah Impey,’ 1846, answered part of the essay upon Warren Hastings; Sir J. F. Stephen, who has discussed the same question in ‘The Story of Nuncomar,’ 1885; and John Paget, who in his ‘New Examen,’ 1861, and in ‘Puzzles and Paradoxes,’ 1874, has discussed the evidence from various passages in the ‘History.’ With all his faults, Macaulay’s great qualities may well make rivals despair. The pictures which he has drawn have rightly or wrongly stamped themselves ineffaceably upon the popular mind. If his long hesitation between two careers prevented the completion of his ‘History’ while limiting his political success, it also gave to his writings the rare value of wide literary accomplishment combined with keen insight of practical experience.

In his private life, Macaulay was admirable. He was perhaps rather too good a hater, as in the cases of Croker and Brougham. But his integrity, moral courage, and kindness of heart were unrivalled. In society he was delightful, and not intentionally overbearing, though his torrents of talk must have been occasionally oppressive. He was a warm friend, though he had few intimates except Thomas Flower Ellis [q.v.]; generous, almost to excess, in money matters; yet an excellent and prudent man of business; an exemplary master to his servants; and, above all, the light of his domestic circle. He was a perfect brother and uncle; he was never tired of playing with children and encouraging the development of their minds; and his affection has been repaid by one of the best biographies in the language. The absence of any trace of love affairs in the life of so true-hearted and masculine a nature is unexplained, but perhaps characteristic of a man whose affections were stronger than his passions, and who through life devoted himself with unwearying self-control to ambitions not unworthy of the complete absorption of his faculties.

Macaulay’s works have been republished in a variety of forms. The first editions are: 1. ‘Pompeii’ (prize poem), 1819. 2. ‘Evening’ (prize poem), 1821. 3. ‘Lays of Ancient Rome,’ 1842. ‘Ivry,’ first published in Knight’s ‘Quarterly Magazine,’ and ‘The Armada,’ first published in ‘Friendship’s Offering’ in 1833, were added in 1848. 4. ‘Critical and Historical Essays contributed to the Edinburgh Review,’ 1843. (The essays appeared as follows: (1) ‘Milton,’ August 1825; (2) ‘Machiavelli,’ March 1827; (3) Hallam’s ‘Constitutional History,’ September 1828; (4) Southey’s ‘Colloquies,’ January 1830; (5) ‘Robert Montgomery’s Poems,’ April 1830; (6) ‘Civil Disabilities of the Jews,’ January 1831; (7) ‘Byron,’ June 1831; (8) Croker’s ‘Boswell,’ September 1831; (9) Bunyan’s ‘Pilgrim’s Progress,’ December 1831; (10) ‘Hampden,’ December 1831; (11) ‘Burleigh,’ April 1832; (12) ‘War of the Succession in Spain,’ January 1833; (13) ‘Horace Walpole,’ October 1833; (14) ‘Lord Chatham,’ January 1834; (15) Mackintosh’s ‘History of the Revolution,’ July 1835; (16) ‘Bacon,’ July 1837; (17) ‘Sir William Temple,’ October 1838; (18) ‘Gladstone on Church and State,’ April 1839; (19) ‘Clive,’ January 1840; (20) Ranke’s ‘History of the Popes,’ October 1840; (21) ‘Comic Dramatists,’ January 1841; (22) ‘Lord Holland,’ July 1841; (23) ‘Warren Hastings,’ October 1841; (24) ‘Frederick the Great,’ April 1842; (25) ‘Madame d’Arblay,’ January 1843; (26) ‘Addison,’ July 1843; (27) ‘Lord Chatham’ (second article), October 1844.) 5. ‘History of England,’ vols. i. and ii. 1849; vols. iii. and iv. appeared in 1855, and vol. v., edited by Lady Trevelyan, in 1861. An edition in 8 vols. (1858-62) includes a life by Dean Milman, prefixed to vol. viii., which is also prefixed to the ‘People’s Edition’ in 4 vols. 8vo, 1863-4. 6. ‘Inaugural Address’ (as Lord Rector of Glasgow), 1849. 7. ‘Speeches Corrected by Himself,’ 1854 (an unauthorised edition had been published by Vizetelly in 1853). 8. ‘Miscellaneous Writings,’ 2 vols. 8vo, 1860, edited by T. F. E(llis). This includes his contributions to Knight’s ‘Quarterly Magazine,’ some poems, lives of Atterbury, Bunyan, Goldsmith, Johnson, and Pitt, contributed to the 8th edit. of the ‘Encyclopædia Britannica’ (published separately), and the following previously uncollected articles in the ‘Edinburgh Review:’ (1) ‘Dryden,’ January 1828; (2) ‘History,’ May 1828; (3) ‘Mill on Government,’ March 1829; (4) ‘Westminster Reviewer’s Defence of Mill,’ June 1829; (5) ‘Utilitarian Theory of Government,’ October 1829; (6) Sadler’s ‘Law of Population,’ July 1830; (7) Sadler’s ‘Refutation Refuted,’ January 1831; (8) ‘Mirabeau,’ July 1832; (9) ‘Barère,’ April 1844.

The complete works, edited by Lady Trevelyan, appeared in 8 vols. 8vo, 1866.

Sources:

The chief authority is Sir G. O. Trevelyan’s Life and Letters of Lord Macaulay (2 vols. 8vo, 1876), here cited from popular edition. (Cf. new edit. 1908, and Marginal Notes by Lord Macaulay, ed. Trevelyan, 1907.) See also The Public Life of Lord Macaulay, by Frederick Arnold, 1862, with extracts from newspapers; Milman’s Life (as above); Macvey Napier’s Correspondence, 1879, for many letters; John Moultrie’s Poems (1876), i. 421-3, for college career; Greville’s Journals (George IV and William IV. 1874), ii. 199, 245-6, iii. 35, 337-8 (Victoria, 1885), i. 121, ii. 69, 70; Moore’s Diaries, vi. 215, vii. 280, 283, 284.

Contributor: L. S.; published 1893


Back to main text