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Politics

Thomas Babington Macaulay: Extraordinary Eloquence for Liberty

Jim Powell

Thomas Babington Macaulay ranks among the most eloquent of all authors on liberty. In terms of the sheer quantity and range of eloquence, perhaps only Thomas Jefferson soared to such breathtaking heights.

Macaulay’s essays and History of England had an enormous sale during the nineteenth century. When English emigrants left for far corners of the world, they invariably brought with them three essentials of civilization—the Bible, Shakespeare, and Macaulay. His work was even more popular in America than in England. It was translated into nine languages. Nobel Laureate F.A. Hayek observed that “it is doubtful whether any historical work of our time has had a circulation or direct influence comparable with, say, Macaulay’s History of England.

Throughout his life, Macaulay expressed a sincere, exuberant, unwavering love for liberty. He called for the abolition of slavery. He advocated repeal of laws against Jews. He defended freedom of the press. He spoke out for free trade and the free movement of people. He celebrated the achievements of free markets. He believed women should be able to have property in their own name. He rejected government excuses for suspending civil liberties—There is only one cure for the evils which newly acquired freedom produces; and that cure is freedom. He insisted that liberty is impossible without secure private property, that great institution to which we owe all knowledge, all commerce, all industry, all civilization. . . .

Macaulay recognized evil much more clearly than sophisticated philosophers of his century and ours. He denounced Socialism, or any of those other `isms’ for which the plain English word is robbery. He thundered against profuse expenditures, heavy taxation, absurd commercial restrictions, corrupt tribunals, disastrous wars, seditions, persecutions.

Back when historians focused on political history (mainly the story of rulers), Macaulay pioneered economic history and social history (the story of ordinary people). He inspired generations of historians to chronicle struggles for liberty.

Macaulay has been derided as a shill for Whig aristocrats, yet he had commoner origins and earned a livelihood from his pen. After his father’s business went broke, he helped pay off the creditors and provided support for his younger siblings and aging parents. He paid all bills within 24 hours. I think that prompt payment is a moral duty, he remarked, knowing, as I do, how painful it is to have such things deferred. When Macaulay had little money, he resigned political office rather than compromise his principles.

Historian A.J.P. Taylor observed that Those who criticize Macaulay either do not care about liberty, or they think it can take care of itself. Macaulay was a good deal more sensible. Not only did he regard liberty as supremely important; he knew that it needs ceaseless defending. Macaulay’s severest critics were the enemies of civilization. Karl Marx dismissed him as a Scottish sycophant. Thomas Carlyle called Macaulay vulgar, intrinsically common, the sublime of commonplace, an author without the slightest tincture of greatness or originality of any kind of superior merit.

Macaulay was an inviting target because of his popularity as one of the supreme masters of the English language. He was lucid—no one ever strained to understand him. He told a compelling story. He portrayed unforgettable characters. He provided details appealing to the senses. He offered striking illustrations drawn from his encyclopedic knowledge of history and literature of ancient Greece and Rome, Italy, France, and England. Said A.J.P. Taylor: Start off on any page, in the middle of a paragraph, and it is impossible not to read on . . . he remains the most readable of all historians. After faulting Macaulay on a number of points, Lord Acton urged a friend: Read him therefore to find out how it comes that the most unsympathetic of critics can think him very nearly the greatest of English writers.

Winston Churchill was among those inspired by Macaulay. At age 13, Churchill memorized the 1,200 lines of Macaulay’s heroic poem Lays of Ancient Rome. A little later, he was thrilled when a friend read to him aloud from Macaulay’s History of England. At 23, Churchill read Macaulay’s History and essays for himself—12 volumes—and declared triumphantly: Macaulay crisp and forcible. Churchill acknowledged that in his own writing, I affected a combination of the style of Macaulay and Gibbon. . . .

Macaulay never married. He was utterly devoted to books and to his family, especially his youngest sisters, Hannah and Margaret. After Margaret’s death at 22 from scarlet fever, Macaulay spent considerable time with Hannah, her husband Charles Trevelyan, and their son George Otto Trevelyan. In 1876, George repaid his uncle’s affection by writing an impassioned biography of him.

Precocious Beginning

Thomas Babington Macaulay was born at his uncle’s mansion, Rothley Temple, Leicestershire, England, October 25, 1800. He was the eldest of nine children. His mother, Selina Mills, was the daughter of a Quaker bookseller. His father, Zachary Macaulay, was a stern Evangelical crusader against slavery. He had witnessed slaves being whipped and murdered, and he had served as governor of Sierra Leone, a settlement of freed slaves. He became a principal leader in the successful campaign to abolish slavery throughout the British Empire.

Tom was a precocious child. With little encouragement, he began reading widely around age three. He memorized John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost and poems by the romantic Walter Scott. At seven, Macaulay wrote a Compendium of World History in which, among other things, he declared that English Puritan dictator Oliver Cromwell was an unjust and wicked man.

He was tutored at home, attended a day school and then a boarding school. There he learned Greek and Latin, developing a lifelong enthusiasm for classical literature. Early on, he became a prolific writer, and his mother cautioned: I know you write with great ease to yourself and would rather write ten poems than prune one; but remember that excellence is not attained at first. All your pieces are much mended after a little reflection. . . .

Margaret Macaulay believed that a major reason why her brother developed an extraordinarily lucid and dramatic style was his experience as the oldest child, always explaining things to younger siblings.

In October 1818, Macaulay enrolled at Trinity College, Cambridge University, where he deepened his knowledge of the classics and, apparently, studied law. He became an eager debater in the Cambridge Union, covering such issues as free trade, Catholic emancipation, and Greek independence. Along the way, Macaulay abandoned his father’s mild Tory views and emerged an ardent Whig. After his father inquired about his reaction to a Manchester meeting on universal suffrage—outraged Tories had killed a dozen people—Macaulay wrote back: I may be wrong as to the facts of what occurred at Manchester; but if they be what I have seen them stated, I can never repent speaking of them with indignation. When I cease to feel the injuries of others warmly, to detest wanton cruelty, and to feel my soul rise against oppression, I shall think myself unworthy to be your son.

In June 1824, Macaulay first caused a stir as a public speaker by appearing before the annual meeting of the London Anti-Slavery Society. Among those attending were William Wilberforce, who had led the English anti-slavery movement for nearly three decades; Henry Brougham, a leading Whig reformer; and Daniel O’Connell, the Irish patriot. Although the speech text was lost, published excerpts suggest Macaulay’s trademark eloquence: the peasant of the Antilles will no longer crawl in listless and trembling dejection round a plantation from whose fruits he must derive no advantage, and a hut whose door yields him no protection; but when his cheerful and voluntary labour is performed, he will return with the firm step and erect brow of a British citizen from the field which is his freehold to the cottage which is his castle.

The Edinburgh Review

Meanwhile, Francis Jeffrey, editor of the pro-liberty Edinburgh Review, England’s leading journal of political opinion, invited Macaulay to write for him. The first article was “The West Indies,” published in January 1825. It was an attack on slavery and colonialism.

Altogether, Macaulay wrote 39 essays for the Edinburgh Review. His last appeared in 1844. They cover major figures primarily in European and English literature and history. Macaulay, noted the nineteenth-century classical liberal biographer John Morley, had an intimate acquaintance both with imaginative literature and the history of Greece and Rome, with the literature and the history of modern Italy, of France, and of England. Whatever his special subject, he contrives to pour into it with singular dexterity a stream of rich, diversified sources. Figures from history, ancient and modern, sacred and secular; characters from plays and novels from Plautus down to Walter Scott and Jane Austen; images and similes from poets of every age and every nation . . . all throng Macaulay’s pages with the bustle and variety and animation of some glittering masque and cosmoramic revel of great books and heroical men. . . . His essays are as good as a library.

Writing about Macaulay’s essays in 1856, Walter Bagehot, editor of the free trade journal Economist, noted that their first and most striking quality is the intellectual entertainment which they afford. This, as practical readers know, is a kind of sensation which is not very common, and which is very productive of great and healthy enjoyment.

Said historian G.P. Gooch: If Macaulay did not invent the historical essay, he found it of brick and left it of marble.

In 1824, Utilitarians had started the Westminster Review to promote their views and challenge the influence of the Edinburgh Review. Francis Jeffrey asked Macaulay to mount a counterattack, and his opening salvo appeared in the March 1929 issue. He attacked James Mill’s Essay on Government, which was written for the Encyclopedia Britannica and claimed that a philosophy of government could be deduced from axioms about human nature. Macaulay expressed an empirical view that one must see what actually works. An unnamed Westminster Review author defended James Mill, and Macaulay attacked again, in the June 1829 Edinburgh Review. He affirmed his critique of Utilitarian apriorism while adding that he didn’t necessarily see much difference between Whigs and Utilitarians on public policy—Macaulay agreed that the voting franchise must be expanded. The Westminster Review responded again, and Macaulay produced his final essay in the series, October 1829.

Defending the Industrial Revolution

One of Macaulay’s most important essays was Southey’s Colloquies (January 1830), in which he emerged as perhaps the first and still the most eloquent defender of the Industrial Revolution. Industrialization had begun in England, probably because it offered entrepreneurs a bigger free trade area and more secure private property rights than Continental Europe. During the eighteenth century, people developed more efficient ways to grow food, produce cheap clothing, and improve life in myriad ways. Annual progress wasn’t dramatic—Adam Smith never mentioned it in The Wealth of Nations—and improvement was masked by nearly two decades of war with France. But the Industrial Revolution had a dynamic impact: it saved millions of human beings from starvation, children especially. Millions died in Ireland, India, and other places which experienced a population explosion without an Industrial Revolution.

The Industrial Revolution offered new job opportunities to both men and women who had previously been stuck with agricultural work, and they moved to cities in droves. They did it voluntarily because although factory work was tough and the hours were long, it was more attractive than tedious toil which went from dawn to dusk on the farm—and children did farm work with everyone else. The alternative was starvation.

Landed aristocrats were horrified to see their workers move away. Who was going to keep the estates going? So it wasn’t surprising that the earliest critics of the Industrial Revolution were Tories—landed aristocrats and their intellectual minions. They originated the dogma that the Industrial Revolution produced an urban proletariat, huddled masses exploited for slave wages in dangerous factories. Tories harped on the alleged evils of child factory labor, as if children hadn’t been working even longer hours on the farms. Tories demanded government intervention to slow down the pace of the Industrial Revolution. The Tory case against the Industrial Revolution was later picked up whole cloth by socialists and persists in some quarters now.

Whig Political Connections

Macaulay’s literary enterprise became financially important after family fortunes collapsed. When young Tom entered Cambridge, his father had figured he was worth about \P100,000, earned from his business, Macaulay & Babington, a wholesaler which shipped European clothing and manufactured goods to liberated blacks in Africa. But as the senior Macaulay singlemindedly devoted himself to abolishing slavery, he turned over the business to his nephew who spent the company’s funds into oblivion within four years. Macaulay had a \P300 Cambridge fellowship, but it ended in 1831. He earned about \P200 a year writing for the Edinburgh Review. Macaulay had impressed Whig power broker Henry Brougham, who recommended him for an opening as Commissioner of Bankruptcy, and in 1828 he accepted the post which included a \P250 annual salary, but this expired when a new government came to power two years later. Macaulay was so strapped for cash that he sold a gold medal he had won at Cambridge.

The Edinburgh Review essays—especially his attacks on Utilitarianism—enabled Macaulay to fulfill one of his ambitions, a seat in Parliament. The essays impressed the moderate Whig Lord Lansdowne, who offered him a pocket borough he controlled in Calne. Macaulay accepted the seat in February 1830. Ironically, Lansdowne was the son of the Earl of Shelburne, who had introduced Utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham to politically connected people. Once in Parliament, Macaulay would play a key part promoting the Reform Act of 1832, which abolished pocket boroughs and extended the franchise to the middle class. It was perhaps the bitterest political struggle in England during the nineteenth century.

Macaulay’s considerable knowledge and elegant phrases caused a stir. His performance enabled him, an impecunious commoner, to gain acceptance among many leading Whig aristocrats. William Ewart Gladstone, convert to Liberalism who served as Prime Minister four times, noted that Macaulay got an amount and quality of social attentions such as invariably partake of adulation and idolatry, and as perhaps the high circles of London never before or since have lavished on a man whose claims lay only in himself, and not in his descent, his rank, or his possessions.

Since Macaulay wasn’t a rigorous thinker, he occasionally supported proposals that undermined liberty. For instance, he did not oppose a bill to get tough with Ireland (1833). He was for the 10-Hours Bill (1846), which limited working hours for young persons, conceding a loophole for massive government interference in the workplace. He hoped that by spending taxpayer money on government schools (1847), liberty and property would be better protected, but as later generations discovered, this promise didn’t pan out.

An Eloquent Defender of Liberty

On one key issue after another, though, Macaulay contributed many of the most eloquent words ever spoken. He took advantage of many opportunities to pursue his cherished theme of defending the Industrial Revolution. Macaulay applied his eloquence to an 1833 bill for abolishing laws against Jews. We treat them as slaves, he declared, and wonder that they do not regard us as brethren. . . . Let us do justice to them. Let us open to them the door of the House of Commons. Let us open to them every career in which ability and energy can be displayed. Till we have done this, let us not presume to say that there is no genius among the countrymen of Isaiah . . . [the] religion which first taught the human race the great lesson of universal charity.

Macaulay backed Richard Cobden and John Bright’s campaign to abolish the corn laws—grain tariffs which made bread prices several times higher than they would have been if people could have imported grain freely from the United States and other efficient producers. On December 2, 1845, Macaulay declared: I have always considered the principle of protection to agriculture as a vicious principle. . . . Nobody now ventures to say in public that ten thousand families ought to be put on short allowance of food in order that one man may have a fine stud and a fine picture gallery. . . . I must vote for the total repeal of the corn laws.

Despite Macaulay’s triumphs in Parliament, there were occasions when his views differed from those of his party, which presented him with the choice of compromising principles or quitting a ministry position—and losing an important source of income. If I remain in office, he had written his sister Hannah in August 1833, I shall, I fear, lose my political character. If I go out, and engage in opposition, I shall break most of the private ties which I have formed during the last three years. In England, I see nothing before me, for some time to come, but poverty, unpopularity, and the breaking up of old connections.

Indeed, the Whigs soon proposed a bill to abolish slavery in the British West Indies, but it included a clause providing a 12-year transition period during which slaves must continue to work for their masters as apprenticed laborers. Abolitionists objected, and Macaulay submitted his resignation from the ministry, but the offensive clause was dropped, and his resignation was refused.

Macaulay in India

Meanwhile, Parliament passed a law to reform the administration of India. It provided that there would be a supreme council. Macaulay loomed as a likely candidate for the job. It paid \P10,000 per year, and Macaulay was told he could live very well for half that—enormous sums for somebody whose assets were just \P709, if everyone who owed him money repaid. He figured that if he stayed in India six years, he could save \P30,000 and banish money worries for the rest of his life. He got the job and sailed with Hannah in February 1834. She brought some 300 oranges for sustenance. He packed a half-dozen trunks of books. Except at meals, he recalled of the voyage, I hardly exchanged a word with any human being. I read insatiably; the Iliad and Odyssey, Virgil, Horace, Caesar’s Commentaries, Bacon de Augmentis, Dante, Petrarch, Ariosto, Tasso, Don Quixote, Gibbon’s Rome, Mill’s India, all the seventy volumes of Voltaire, Sismondi’s History of France, and the seven thick folios of the Biographia Britannica.

Macaulay developed reforms for Indian education and law. He convinced his fellow commissioners that Indians should be taught English, so they could tap the intellectual wealth of the Western world. He did most of the work writing the Indian Penal Code. At the time, it was a mishmash of Hindu and Moslem law, variously interpreted in different regions of the country, overlaid with British East India Company regulations. Macaulay applied the legal philosophy of Jeremy Bentham as he drafted a remarkably concise, systematic, plain English code. He observed the principle of suppressing crime with the smallest amount of suffering, and the principle of ascertaining the truth at the smallest possible cost of time and money. He established a rule of law for all races—foreigners and natives alike were subject to the same rules. He moved to eliminate what remained of slavery in India. He abolished laws censoring the press. He limited the death penalty to treason and murder. He provided that women could own property. His Indian Penal Code was adopted in 1837, and its fundamentals endure in Indian law today. Macaulay returned to England in January 1838.

“A True Picture of the Life of Their Ancestors”

He arrived with a plan for writing a history of England. He proposed to challenge the prevailing interpretation of history which had been written by Tories like David Hume, intent on vindicating government power. Macaulay believed the most glorious story was the struggle for human freedom.

He decided to survey the history of England from ancient times to 1660, the accession of Charles II who aimed to re-establish royal absolutism. Then Macaulay would chronicle the Glorious Revolution, which peacefully toppled Charles’s Catholic successor James II, brought in the Protestant William III, and assured the supremacy of Parliament. Macaulay hoped to conclude with the death of King William IV in 1837. He sought as many converts as possible for liberty. I shall not be satisfied, he remarked, unless I produce something which shall for a few days supersede the last fashionable novel on the tables of young ladies.

He aimed to go far beyond the traditional confines of political history and talk about the lives of ordinary people. It will be my endeavor, he wrote, to relate the history of the people as well as the history of the government, to trace the progress of the useful and ornamental arts, to describe the rise of religious sects and the changes in literary taste, to portray the manners of successive generations, and not to pass by with neglect even the revolutions which have taken place in dress, furniture, repasts, and public amusements. I shall cheerfully bear the reproach of having descended below the dignity of history, if I can succeed in placing before the English of the nineteenth century a true picture of the life of their ancestors.

Macaulay did a prodigious amount of research. He pored through archives in England and Holland. He acquired a vast collection of document transcriptions from France, Spain, and the Papacy. He examined transcriptions of French diplomatic dispatches, collected by Charles James Fox who had contemplated a history of late seventeenth-century England. Macaulay read diaries, pamphlets, broadsheets, ballads, and newspapers of the period. Novelist William Makepeace Thackeray marveled that he reads twenty books to write a sentence; he travels a hundred miles to make a line of description.

He began writing on March 9, 1839. He worked in a suite of rooms on the second floor of the Albany, a building between Vigo Street and Picadilly, London. Every room overflowed with books. Macaulay worked with fewer distractions after he lost a Parliamentary election in July 1841, but he was back in a ministry from June 1846 until July 1847. During the periods when he was working on the History full-time, he wrote from seven in the morning until seven at night. He started writing as soon as he had enough information to produce an account, then revised in light of further material. He went through many drafts, struggling to achieve greater clarity and interest. The great object is that, after all this trouble, they may read as if they had been spoken off, and may seem to flow as easily as table talk, Macaulay noted in his diary.

How little the art of making meaning pellucid is studied now, he added. Hardly any popular writer, except myself, thinks of it. Many seem to aim at being obscure. Indeed they may be right enough in one sense; for many readers give credit for profundity to whatever is obscure, and call all that is perspicous shallow.

Macaulay wasn’t always fair in his judgments of people—notably William Penn, who was a friend of James II—but he soared to heights rarely seen in historical literature before or since. He told how under the settlement of 1688, the authority of law and the security of property were found to be compatible with a liberty of discussion and of individual action never before known; how, from the auspicious union of order and freedom, sprang a prosperity of which the annals of human affairs had furnished no example . . . the history of our country during the last hundred and sixty years is eminently the history of physical, of moral, and of intellectual improvement. Those who compare the age on which their lot has fallen with a golden age which exists only in their imagination may talk of degeneracy and decay; but no man who is correctly informed as to the past will be disposed to take a morose or desponding view of the present . . . we rejoice that we live in a merciful age, in an age in which cruelty is abhorred. . . . Every class doubtless has gained largely by this great moral change: but the class which has gained most is the poorest, the most dependent, and the most defenseless.

Macaulay’s first two volumes were published on December 1, 1848, and they were an immediate hit. Within four months, some 13,000 copies were sold in Britain, and about 100,000 were sold in the United States. Two more volumes appeared on December 17, 1855. The History was translated into Bohemian, Danish, Dutch, French, German, Hungarian, Italian, Polish, and Spanish. After the third and fourth volumes sold 26,500 copies in 10 weeks, Macaulay’s publisher wrote him a \P20,000 check which became a landmark in literary history.

Faced with Macaulay’s eloquence, his adversaries twisted his ideas beyond recognition. A misguided twentieth-century biographer, Richmond Croom Beatty, even committed the obscenity of blaming World War I on free markets. He sneered at Macaulay’s philosophy which taught that, once wealth had been augmented in England, all other blessings that men can tangibly perceive will follow inevitably in its wake. The world-wide madness which this philosophy engendered went on unchecked, as we have seen, until the fatal summer of 1914.

In fact, Macaulay’s view was that human beings could achieve unlimited progress— as long as governments stay out of the way. In a May 1857 letter to Henry S. Randall, who wrote a biography of Thomas Jefferson, Macaulay expressed his worry about the destructive potential of future government intervention: On one side is a statesman preaching patience, respect for vested rights, strict observance of public faith. On the other is a demagogue ranting about the tyranny of capitalists and usurers, and asking why any body should be permitted to drink champagne and to ride in a carriage, while thousands of honest folks are in want of necessaries. Which of the two candidates is likely to be preferred by a working-man who hears his children cry for more bread? I seriously apprehend that you will, in some such season of adversity as I have described, do things which will prevent prosperity from returning; that you will act like people who should in a year of scarcity devour all the seed-corn, and thus make the next year not of scarcity, but of absolute famine. There will be, I fear, spoilation. The spoilation will increase the distress. The distress will produce fresh spoilation.

As Macaulay focused more intently on his History and tired more easily because of a heart condition, he withdrew from London society. He recognized that he wouldn’t live long enough to fulfill his dream. Macaulay lived with a butler at Holly Lodge, a villa between Palace Gardens and the Fox family’s Holland House, in Campden Hill, London. In 1857, Prime Minister Lord Palmerston honored his achievements by naming him a peer—Baron Macaulay of Rothley.

On Wednesday morning, December 28th, 1859, Macaulay dictated a letter accompanying a £25 contribution to a poor clergyman. Sometime after seven that evening, he suffered a fatal heart attack while reading a book in his library easy chair. He was buried in Poet’s Corner, Westminster Abbey.

A posthumously published fifth volume brought his History only up to the death of William III, in 1702. This work is a towering fragment which offers a tragic glimpse of what might have been had Macaulay lived longer, but what he did do was awesome.

His story of freedom and progress inspired readers for generations. Up to that time, noted German historian Leopold von Ranke, the Tory view, as represented by Hume, had not yet been driven from the field. Macaulay decided the victory of the Whig view.

Of course, intellectual trends ran against Macaulay as collectivism engulfed Europe, and his work was relentlessly attacked. Yet his influence persisted, and in 1931 Cambridge University professor Herbert Butterfield found it necessary to issue a famous attack, The Whig Interpretation of History. Writing before Hitler and Stalin had emerged as world-class demons, Butterfield denounced the Whig division of mankind into good and evil.

Debate raged for decades about whether capitalism brings human progress, and today Macaulay stands vindicated. Among the works which affirm his view are John H. Clapham’s An Economic History of Modern Britain (1926), T.S. Ashton’s The Industrial Revolution (1948), John U. Nef’s War and Human Progress (1950), F.A. Hayek’s Capitalism and the Historians (1954), William H. McNeill’s The Rise of the West (1963), David S. Landes’s The Unbound Prometheus (1969), Douglass North and Robert Thomas’s The Rise of the Western World (1973), Fernand Braudel’s Civilization & Capitalism (1979), Julian L. Simon’s The Ultimate Resource (1981), Asa Briggs’s A Social History of England (1983), J.M. Roberts’s The Triumph of the West (1985), Nathan Rosenberg and L.E. Birdzell’s How the West Grew Rich (1986), Rondo Cameron’s A Concise Economic History of the World (1989), and Joel Mokyr’s The Lever of Riches (1990).

Macaulay was right to say that people thrive when they are free. He insisted that government intervention would make millions miserable—and it has. He believed that by telling a simple, stirring story in bold colors, he could help win the hearts of people—and he did. Long after the most fashionable pundits are forgotten, readers will be thrilled by Thomas Babington Macaulay’s extraordinary eloquence for liberty.

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