Thomas Babington Macaulay

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Thomas Babington Macaulay, 1st Baron Macaulay of Rothley, (1800-1859) was a leading British essayist, historian, and statesman, best known for his vivid style and brilliant Whiggish interpretation of the English Civil War of the 17th century, and for his successful work to modernize education and society in India through the English language.


His grandfather John Macaulay, was a Church of Scotland (Presbyterian) minister in the Western Isles and the Highlands. His father, businessman Zachary Macaulay, was active in the Clapham Sect of the Church of England, an evangelical group, and edited the "Christian Observer". Sent to Jamaica as a teenager, Zachary was horrified by slavery. he later was governor of Sierra Leone, the colony in Africa abolitionists set up for freed slaves. The father spent his career working to destroy slavery, which included missionary work, the creation of London University and the Society for the Suppression of Vice. Thomas was a precocious boy with a powerful memory; he was quite religious as a boy and was educated at two evangelical schools. Avidly devoted to literature, he nevertheless did not win honors at Trinity College, Cambridge University, because of his weakness at mathematics. He won two college poetry prizes and in 1824 he was awarded a Trinity Fellowship at the very handsome rate of £300 a year. He needed the money for his father's business had failed and he was the breadwinner for the family. He never married and was always very close to his sisters. He took law courses but never had a profitable practice.


Macaulay began his writing career with essays in Britain's literary reviews and antislavery magazines. In 1825 his essay on Milton in the prestigious Edinburgh Review won overnight recognition. Readers thrilled at his original style—exciting, vigorous, and trenchant—which he was later perfected and which has made a permanent impact on English and American prose.


After serving as a law commissioner for bankruptcy cases from 1828 to 1830, Macaulay in 1830 became a Member of Parliament for the "pocket borough" of Calne, which had a mere 24 voters and was controlled by a political friend. Macaulay emerged as an articulate exponent of parliamentary reform. The power and eloquence of his oratory won widespread admiration, helped the passage of the Reform Bill of 1832, and—combined with his conversational brilliance—made him a center of Whig political and social life in fashionable London circles.

Macaulay was an all-purpose reformer with his hand in many causes. For example, on 5 April 1830, he delivered a powerful maiden speech in Parliament favoring a bill to extend full civil rights to British Jews. His January 1831 article in the Whig Edinburgh Review drew attention for its strength and clarity on the issue, as did a speech in Commons in 1833, supporting a second attempt to pass the bill. Macaulay favored granting Jews the same status as Protestant Dissenters and, more recently, Roman Catholics. He opposed all theological or religious tests for citizenship or the holding of public office.[1] Macaulay played a major role in designing modern copyright law in 1842, giving protection for 42 years from publication.


Appointed first a member and then secretary of the board of control of Indian affairs, in 1832 he was elected to Parliament as a Whig member for Leeds. His Cambridge University fellowship had come to an end in 1831, and he now depended upon this official income to support the family and pay off his father's debts. Yet, at a time when he had been forced to sell his Cambridge prize medals, he offered to resign in opposition to an inadequate government plan to liberate slaves in the West Indies; the plan was changed, however, and his resignation was not accepted. In December 1833 he accepted appointment to the Supreme Council of India at a salary of £10,000 a year for five years. He moved to India, and planned to save half the salary to send to his siblings. He took no interest in Indian literature or antiquities save as a mark of the superiority of things European. He avoided British society in Calcutta and knew few Indians apart from servants.

In India Macaulay made numerous reforms, the most important of which were a new penal code, and the introduction of English education in India, especially though his famous minute of February 1835. English replaced Persian and Arabic as the official legal and educational language. It required the use of English as the medium of instruction in all institutions of learning, and the training of English-speaking Indians as teachers. Macaulay's role was controversial for at the time there were two competing positions. The Indian gentry, as well as the strivers seeking upward mobility into the middle class demanded English language education. The ywere opposed by a reactionary Indian faction that wanted schools to teach using the vernacular (native) languages, who joined with British Orientalists (who wanted Sanskrit taught). Macaulay thus won the day for one element of Indian society. To this day Indian elites know English, although it was never widespread among the Indian people.

Essentially a Londoner, he felt keenly the pangs of exile, despite the comfort of his sister Hannah's presence and the knowledge that he was saving his family from want. A £10,000 legacy from an uncle enabled him to leave India after three and one-half years, during which time he had taken a leading part in putting the English language foremost in Indian education and, almost single-handed, had drafted the Indian Penal Code which became law in 1860.


Back in London in 1838, he was elected to Parliament for Edinburgh in 1839, serving in Melbourne's cabinet as secretary of state for war until 1841, when the government was defeated. He accomplished little in the role. When the Whigs were returned to power in 1846 he became paymaster general, a less onerous post. His libertarian views on economic policy did not satisfy his Edinburgh constituents, and his enemeies assembled a coalition of Free Church Presbyterians (who disliked his preference for the Church of Scotland), to members of the Church of Scotland who disliked his sympathy for the Catholics in Ireland, and many others who questioned if he was a Christian at all. At the general election in July 1847 he came in third place and lost his seat.

He won election in 1852, but was stricken by a heart illness from which he never fully recovered. He resigned his seat in 1856 and in the following year was made Baron Macaulay of Rothley.


During these years he turned increasingly to writing. In 1838 he began his monumental History of England from the Revolution of 1688. He also wrote twenty-seven essays between 1825 and 1844 for the Edinburgh Review. His Lays of Ancient Rome (1842) and the republication of his Edinburgh Critical and Historical Essays (1843) enhanced his renown. The first two volumes of the History of England, published in 1848, were an immediate success. In 1849 he was elected lord rector of Glasgow University, an honorary post. He published his collected Speeches in 1854, and the third and fourth volumes of the History in 1855. The fifth volume, left unfinished, was published posthumously in 1861.

His in-depth coverage of a critical 17 years from 1685 to 1702 contributed to a definition of the English nation with a special mission of civilization. He saw the Glorius Revolution of 1688 in the context of the Europe-wide struggle between Catholicism and Protestantism, with William III's accession finally tipping the balance of influence in Europe in favour of the Protestant cause. gnoring statistics, wage rates and demographic trends, he explained the people of England by drawing on his encyclopaedic knowledge of the popular literature of the time, including chapbooks, ballads, popular songs, plays, novels, and what he called "the lighter literature of the age". In depicting the great political figures he wrote in evenhanded fashion, fairly evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of them all. Amidst the chaos of the 1848 revolutions on the Continent, he praised the British people, explaining, "It is because we had a preserving revolution in the seventeenth century that we have not had a destroying revolution in the nineteenth." His work did not praise democracy, and thus had a limited audience in the United States.

Macaulay sought to emulate and expand upon Sir Walter Scott's method of historical presentation as seen in the immensely popular novel, Waverley. In his ambitious History of England Macaulay sought to use Scott's approach to enliven and attract a large readership to his historical text, which did achieve great popularity for several decades following its publication. A comparison of the depiction of Scottish Highlanders in Scott and Macaulay reveals much about their origins and political bias. While Waverley remains readable today, interest in Macaulay's History has faded due to its overwhelming Whig bias and the preference for dispassionate analysis.[2]

One weakness was a failure to appreciate the Enlightenment as a major philosophical movement. He did not grasp its essentially cosmopolitan spirit, the mutual fecundation of ideas coming from various parts of the world, and the important role played by the Orient in the evolution of ideas. Nor did he recognize the struggle between the writers and the political regimes under which they lived.


Macaulay died in London on Dec. 28, 1859, and was buried in Westminster Abbey.

More than anyone else, the true Whig party principles were expressed by Francis Jeffrey, the editor of the Edinburgh Review, and that magazine's most notable contributor, Macaulay. Surprisingly, Macaulay rejected moral conscience in political decisionmaking, best shown in his ridicule of the Nonconformists and of assertive Catholicism. He also criticized secular factions who introduced morality into politics. Politics meant protecting the center from the extremes, as illustrated by the Reform Bill. Macaulay's Machiavellianism had a long-range ill effect on the Whigs as a party by leaving no room for morality.[3]

Edward Gibbon (1737–94) and Macaulay were the two most famous English historians before 1850. A number of superficial similarities and differences are apparent. For example, Macaulay frowned upon indecency, while Gibbon relished in bawdy scenes. Both men were fat, considered ugly, and unmarried. Neither could get along with his father. But in a deeper analysis, other parallels and divergences can be discerned. Gibbon asked for a respect for scholarship and attempted to use history as a science of human nature, while Macaulay stressed narrative art and a new kind of social history. Both historians were popular, and they both sought to amuse and to teach. Macaulay in particular felt that the lessons of the past could instruct the future. They had different prose styles; Macaulay was straightforward, while Gibbon was ironic and elliptical. Gibbon wrote for upper middle class circles, Macaulay for a more popular audience.[4]

Neither deeply philosophical nor religious, but gifted with immense learning and robust common sense, generous, staunchly liberal, emotionally affectionate in his family circle, Macaulay was an example to his age. A brilliant orator, he ignored the backstage maneuvers that were essential to becoming a major politician. Few writers have had greater power than he to stimulate literary interests.

Further reading

  • Clive, John. Macaulay: The Shaping of the Historian (1974), ends in 1839
  • Edwards, Owen Dudley. Macaulay (1989). 182 pp.
  • Firth, Charles. A Commentary on Macaulay's History of England (1938) online edition
  • Hamburger, Joseph. Macaulay and the Whig Tradition (1976)
  • Thomas, William. "Macaulay, Thomas Babington, Baron Macaulay (1800–1859)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography(2004); online edn, Jan 2008; the best place to start

Primary sources


  • Macaulay, Thomas Babington. The Letters of Thomas Babington Macaulay, edited by Thomas Pinney, (6 vol 1974-81) primary sources
    • Lays of Ancient Rome (1859); argues that the early books of Livy's History were based on stories taken from oral poetry, since lost, and rendered into prose. Macaulay's aim was to put the stories back into ballad form for English readers.
    • The History of England from the Accession of James II, 5 vols. (1848) vol. 1, vol. 2, vol. 3, vol. 4, vol. 5
    • Critical and Historical Essays, (2 vol. 1907), edited by Alexander James Grieve. vol 1,vol 2
    • The Miscellaneous Writings and Speeches of Lord Macaulay, (4 vol. 1860) vol 1, vol 2, vol 3, vol 4
    • Speeches (1866) full text online
    • Historical Essays of Thomas Babington Macaulay‎ (1901 edition), 350pp complete text online


  1. Israel Finestein, "A Modern Examination of Macaulay's Case for the Civil Emancipation of the Jews". Jewish Historical Society Of England Transactions 1981-82 28: 39-59.
  2. Frank Palmeri, "The Capacity of Narrative: Scott and Macaulay on Scottish Highlanders." Clio 1992 22(1): 37-52
  3. Hamburger (1976)
  4. Clive (1974)