Macaulay—or, to give him his full name and peerage, Thomas Babington Macaulay, first Baron Macaulay—died a century and a half ago. No historian has aroused a greater range of emotions, from deep love to wild hate. The deep love became evident in his own day, when his History of England and his numerous essay collections achieved a commercial success now associated with supermarket tabloids and Oprah-endorsed chick-lit. He was evidently well-liked by both of his chief biographers, namely, his nephew G.O. Trevelyan, whose Life and Letters of Lord Macaulay appeared in 1876, and his spiritual heir Sir Arthur Bryant, whose admiring, though intermittently censorious, single-volume Macaulay dates from 1932. Throughout the former British Empire, schoolteachers long accorded Macaulay’s name a reverence that is today confined to Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Nelson Mandela. Even Ignatius Reilly, the ferociously anti-Protestant hero of John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, quotes with approval the Protestant Macaulay.

This firm admiration exists alongside equally firm detraction. After Macaulay’s death, Matthew Arnold, never one to stand idly by when there was a mindless slogan in need of publicizing or a literary reputation impudent enough to arise without his help, called Macaulay “the great apostle of the Philistines.” In 1931, Sir Herbert Butterfield, who differed from Arnold in having a genuine philosophical impulse, devoted his renowned pamphlet The Whig Interpretation of History to criticizing triumphalist historical narratives in general, and by implication Macaulay’s own. Yet Butterfield always paid Macaulay’s outlook the compliment of serious argument. Very different was the personal vendetta waged against Macaulay in the same decade by Winston Churchill, who seethed at Macaulay’s refusal to deify Churchill’s forebear the Duke of Marlborough. Churchill taxed Macaulay with having “vilified Marlborough’s early life in order by contrast to make the glories of his great period stand out more vividly.” Ancestor worship is no doubt an honorable impulse, but in writing Marlborough: His Life and Times (1933-1938), Churchill had no compunction about serving up a cartoon historiography far more objectionably strident than anything ever perpetrated by his intended target. Reviewers were inconsiderate enough to point out Churchill’s reckless agenda. (No such scruples afflicted America’s Churchill cultists: Leo Strauss, whose own knowledge of English politics in the late Stuart era could have fit on the back of a postage stamp, dubbed Churchill’s filial agitprop “the greatest historical work written in our century.”) Yet such half-baked invective as Arnold’s and Churchill’s prompts the question: will the real Macaulay please stand up?

The real Macaulay’s career consisted of broadly disinterested public service and little else. Born in 1800, he never married. If he had a love life or even a lust life, he kept it dark. Bryant refers scornfully to debunkers “seeking … evidence of sexual perversities and scandals, rather as little dogs seek out truffles.” Yet one doubts if any canine, however industrious, could dig up vices that would incriminate Macaulay. Young Tom loved words as few children do. When but 4 years old, having been scalded by spilt coffee, he responded to his hostess’s concern: “Thank you, madam, the agony is abated.” He was not likely to be tongue-tied as an adult. From his redoubtable father, Zachary Macaulay—statistician, veteran anti-slavery activist, and erstwhile governor of Sierra Leone—he inherited evangelical fervor, an exalted conception of duty, and at the same time an 18th-century tough-mindedness that precluded such vague pious uplift as Woodrow Wilson subsequently taught the world.

No other writer in the English pantheon has surpassed Macaulay for sheer learning. Milton alone came close. Macaulay knew firsthand all the surviving productions of the leading Greek and Roman authors and felt bound to study them in the original languages. He also knew every major French author, contemporary or ancient. Later, he acquired enough German to read Goethe and Schiller. On the Elizabethans and their Italian contemporaries, he had wider expertise still. When he said that Milton’s masque Comus “is as far superior to The Faithful Shepherdess as The Faithful Shepherdess is to the Aminta or the Aminta to the Pastor Fido,” he assumed readers would recall these three works as having been created by, respectively, John Fletcher (1579-1625), Torquato Tasso (1544-1595), and Giovanni Battista Guarini (1538-1612).

Within Macaulay’s lexicon, “dumbing down” existed neither as phrase nor concept. “Every schoolboy,” ran one of his more sanguine pronouncements, “knows who imprisoned Montezuma and who strangled Atahualpa.” Every schoolboy at Beverly Hills 90210, one wonders? Every schoolboy even in Macaulay’s lifetime, when many schools’ curricula comprised no more than elementary spelling, arithmetic, and Bible classes, punctuated by near homicidal floggings?

That said, Macaulay never lacked readers in his day. Publishers ate up his output, even as they privately felt alarm at the authoritative exuberance of his prose. One of his very first patrons, the Edinburgh Review’s editor Francis Jeffrey, marveled, “The more I think, the less I can conceive where you picked up that style.”

In Macaulay’s Britain, libel legislation had yet to be passed, and dueling had grown unfashionable. Thus warfare between periodicals attained an ad hominem belligerence that would never again be witnessed among Anglophones until a hundred years later, when the Moscow show trials goaded New York Jewish intellectuals into their reciprocal head-kicking sessions. Macaulay’s opponents, when in benign mood, contented themselves with misspelling “Babington” as “Babbletongue.” Harsher and more typical was the ultra-Tory magazine Blackwood’s, which in its October 1827 issue expressed for Macaulay the loftiest contempt: “We scarcely ever met with a more striking specimen of frothy, shallow, pointless feeble declamation—of puerile, low, scurrilous ‘sound and fury, signifying nothing’.” (When Wordsworth died, Blackwood’s obituary notice called him “a fat ugly cur.”) If we sometimes regret the way Macaulay dished it out, we should remember that he also had to take it.

Perhaps the zenith of Macaulay’s dishing-out propensities came with his onslaught on J.W. Croker, a Tory boss whose declension from moderately talented scholar to party-political goon—bungling party-political goon, at that— anticipates with eerie perfection the metamorphosis of some academics of our own time. Croker ill-advisedly released, in 1831, a new edition of Boswell’s Life of Johnson, with annotations as lavish as they were inaccurate. Macaulay let him have it from the opening sentence:

This work has greatly disappointed us. … We are sorry to be obliged to say that the merits of Mr. Croker’s performance are on a par with those of a certain leg of mutton on which Dr. Johnson dined, while travelling from London to Oxford, and which he, with characteristic energy, pronounced to be ‘as bad as bad could be, ill fed, ill killed, ill kept, and ill dressed.’ This edition is ill compiled, ill arranged, ill written, and ill printed. Nothing in the work has astonished us so much as the ignorance or carelessness of Mr. Croker with respect to facts and dates. Many of his blunders are such as we should be surprised to hear any well educated gentleman commit, even in conversation. The tomes absolutely swarm with misstatements into which the editor never would have fallen, if he had taken the slightest pains to investigate the truth of his assertions, or if he had even been well acquainted with the book on which he undertook to comment. We will give a few instances.

And give them Macaulay does, on subjects as diverse as Juvenal, Thucydides, Suetonius, Herodotus, Demosthenes, the 17th-century Scottish Royalist general Montrose, and the correct translation of the Greek term philokerdes.

One might wonder what the polymathic Macaulay did when not reading or writing. The answer is not a lot. His tenure as parliamentarian, and later as minister—he held cabinet rank in the governments of two Whig prime ministers, Lord Melbourne and Lord John Russell—allowed him expansive leisure for his studies, politics being then considered a hobby for gentlemen rather than a full-time job. Though no debater, he gained bipartisan respect as an orator. Future Tory Premier Sir Robert Peel commented after one Macaulay address, “Portions of that speech were as beautiful as anything I ever heard or read.”

In 1835, crushed by the death of his sister Margaret, Macaulay wrote to his closest friend, Thomas Ellis, “What a blessing it is to love books as I love them—to be able to converse with the dead, and to live amidst the unreal.” Not the kind of sentiment to be heard from the lips of modern policy wonks. Eventually, however, even his undemanding administrative duties came to annoy him; in his last years, worn down by cardiac trouble, he would have endorsed the sentiments that Evelyn Waugh confided to his diary in 1943: “I … don’t want to influence opinions or events, or expose humbug or anything of that kind. I don’t want to be of service to anyone or anything. I simply want to do my work as an artist.”

Of course, Macaulay the artist had his flaws. He did not have the opportunities for archival research that exist in today’s world. These days, any teenage halfwit with Google access can trawl through more 17th-century primary sources in an hour than Macaulay could have obtained in a decade. To cite Bryant:

At the time when Macaulay was working, English historical scholarship was at its lowest ebb. Those who blame him for his neglect of documents might as justly censure Napoleon for failing to use machine-guns at Waterloo. … Of technical training for his task he had scarcely any, for there was then scarcely any to be had.

The miracle is not that Macaulay made mistakes, or that he glorified King William III with a zest incredible to us today who know more about William’s political corruption and erotic perversions than Macaulay ever knew or we ever wanted to know. Rather, it is that despite his weaknesses, Macaulay remains compulsively readable and at times profound. His summary of the historian’s function packs as much wisdom into one sentence as others have dragged out over several dozen pages:

The real use of … studying the annals of past times, is to preserve men from the contraction of mind which those can hardly escape whose sole communion is with one generation and one neighborhood, who arrive at conclusions by means of an induction not sufficiently copious, and who therefore constantly confound exceptions with rules, and accidents with essential properties.

For all his biases, Macaulay sought the truth. No wonder Churchill resented him. A thinker who risked ostracism by rebuking Queen Victoria to her face—when Her Majesty referred to her “ancestor” James II, Macaulay shot back: “Not Your Majesty’s ancestor, Your Majesty’s predecessor”—would hardly have taken the 20th century’s blood-drenched Caesars at their own ethical rating had he lived to witness them.

Before he could finish his History of England, Macaulay died on Dec. 28, 1859. No latter-day chronicler can hope to equal the exquisite closing paragraph of Bryant’s biography:

They found him sitting upright in his chair, with a book still open at his side. The heart had stopped, and the historian had become part of that which he had made it his business to record. 

R.J. Stove lives in Melbourne, Australia.

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