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Macaulay: The Tragedy of Power
Macaulay: The Tragedy of Power
Robert E. Sullivan
Belknap Press: An Imprint of Harvard University Press, 2009
624 pp., 57.00

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David Bebbington


Macaulay in the Dock

Was he utterly base, contemptible, and odious?

He remains to me," Lord Acton once wrote about Thomas Babington Macaulay, the early Victorian historian who is the subject of this biography, "one of the greatest of all writers and masters, although I think him utterly base, contemptible and odious." [1] Acton, a towering intellectual of the later 19th century, was at once a strongly ideological Liberal and an entirely faithful Catholic. He considered Macaulay insufficiently liberal, and Acton, as somebody aware of the eternal law of God, felt bound to censure the historian. Robert E. Sullivan, the author of this study, is also of liberal inclinations; and he, too, is a loyal Catholic with a firm moral outlook. The result is a biography treating Macaulay as base, contemptible, and odious.

Sullivan is willing to acknowledge that Macaulay, if not a great master, was a great writer. The historian's deployment of words was his greatest skill. He could describe the Roman Empire in an early essay as at risk of achieving "a tottering, drivelling, paralytic longevity." Few loved the government of Oliver Cromwell, Macaulay noted; "but those who hated it most hated it less than they feared it." Macaulay was the Simon Schama of his day, regaling a mass public with elegant evocations. Every sentence flowed effortlessly (though, as Sullivan makes clear, at the expense of enormous effort). Every paragraph concluded with an epigram. The verbal dexterity was what made his five-volume History of England from the Accession of James II (1849-61) a triumphant success. Even before its final volume, 46 editions had appeared in the United States. Macaulay was rewarded with the first ever peerage conferred in the United Kingdom for literary achievement.

The author of this new biography also recognizes the enormous influence exerted by Macaulay in matters great and small. He shaped Weber's formulation of the affinity between Protestantism and capitalism. He sketched something like the theory of Habermas about the creation of a public sphere. He anticipated the recent genre, well developed in France, of the history of memory. Macaulay left a legacy of history as literature which exerted an enduring appeal during the 20th century. But it is as a propagator of national myths that, according to Sullivan, he was most potent. At the peak of Victoria's reign, Macaulay celebrated the genius of England for moderate constitutional evolution. Furthermore, according to Sullivan, he glorified the capacity of the nation to exert authority in the world. Sullivan also documents how, in British India, Macaulay was responsible for the ruling that English should be the medium of instruction in schools (a decision still commemorated in India on Macaulay's birthday) and for the codification of the law, even though its implementation was deferred until after his death.

Sullivan performs much of his evaluation particularly well. He brings to his task an enviable familiarity with the classical texts that Macaulay loved. This expertise is a crucial quality in the biographer of a man who, as a civil servant in Calcutta, spent every day from five to eight o'clock in the morning reading the works of antiquity. The historian of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides, was his idol, with Herodotus and Tacitus not far behind. It is one of the sharpest perceptions of this biography that Macaulay's history has to be seen as shaped by the rhetorical conventions of the ancient world. Macaulay did not imitate the scrupulous respect for original documents of his great German contemporary Ranke. He did not even trouble to quote accurately such primary sources as he troubled to read. What he did do was ensure that he made out a case for the causes and personalities he approved with maximum persuasive power.

Another great quality of this volume is its extraordinary range of allusion. We hear, for example, of the World War I poet Wilfred Owen, with his memorable excoriation of the Latin tag, Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori: "It is sweet and proper to die for one's country." We also learn about Cicely Saunders, the founder of the late 20th-century hospice movement in Britain that caters to those dying of cancer. And we even stumble on a reference to Lolita, the sexually precocious 12-year-old of Vladimir Nabokov's novel of 1955. It is as though Macaulay is related to life in all its fullness.

Readers with Christian proclivities will also appreciate the religious metaphors that abound. The Great Exhibition of 1851 struck "pseudoreligious awe" in its attenders; the secretary of state of William III was "the unmoved mover of the slaughter"; the "theology of classical economics" reigned in Macaulay's day. The analogies stimulate as they are meant to do. The occasional homiletic phrase, however, can jar. "Our self-glorification feeds on and feeds our self-isolation." Does it, we are inclined to ask? "Tragedy, however, still bedevils all power that rests on violence or the threat of violence." Does it, we ask more insistently? Does not the state itself ultimately rest on the threat of violence?

And that leads to the heart of the case made out here. It is less history than indictment. Macaulay stands charged with being corrupted by power—not so much his own power, even though he sat in parliament and was twice a government minister, as the power wielded by Victorian Britain. Macaulay pandered to his country's taste for self-aggrandizement when it was unequivocally the most powerful nation on earth. Most crucially, he sanctioned genocide: "it is in truth more merciful," wrote Macaulay in an essay of 1838, "to extirpate a hundred thousand human beings at once, and to fill the void with a well-governed population, than to misgovern millions through a long succession of centuries." Sullivan returns to this judgment again and again, clearly deeply troubled by it. He is outraged that Macaulay has benefited over the intervening period from silence about his "imperial ethic of extermination." Sullivan will not remain silent.

This stance is very much what Acton might have adopted. Acton famously remarked that "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." [2] Sullivan, who alludes to a version of the dictum at one point without naming Acton, holds it to be true. He also maintains Acton's principle that the historian must make rigorous moral judgments. For Acton, persecution was an unpardonable crime. In the same way, Sullivan believes that mass murder must be condemned as an execrable evil.

One of Acton's successors as Regius Professor of History at Cambridge, the Methodist Herbert Butterfield, was less sure that the historian is sufficiently qualified to condemn others for their moral failings. While forms of behavior may be entirely wrong, Butterfield believed, pinning the blame on another human being may be perilous. We do not know what allowance has to be made for conditions in the past. A Butterfieldian analysis of Macaulay's position might take issue with any recommendation of genocide, and yet note in extenuation the extent to which Macaulay was the victim of utilitarian misconceptions (and of a desire for rhetorical flourish). The resulting judgment on Macaulay might be less severe.

In any case, Sullivan turns his book into a pursuit of his quarry for almost every imaginable misdeed. Macaulay, we are told, was egocentric, emotionally deficient, and guilty of incestuous love for his sisters. And the charges are supplemented by suggestions of guilt by association. Macaulay is made to express "the English public mind" on extirpation and so he is treated as the source of Herbert Spencer's Social Darwinist view of the struggle for survival between the races, even though Sullivan recognizes that Macaulay was free of the idea that race determined capacity. Likewise Joseph Chamberlain's aggressive imperialism at the end of the century is fathered on Macaulay without any attempt to show any connection between them. The ideas of the two men may have been similar, but was Macaulay responsible for Chamberlain's obnoxious jingoism? If not, why mention it? The historian is even branded with the tendentious remark of Samuel Johnson that "No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money." The only suggested link between Johnson and Macaulay is that both were "naturally indolent authors." The historian emerges in the reader's mind as a racist, avaricious advocate of the unscrupulous policies that led to the Boer War. That picture goes beyond the bounds of fairness.

The unfairness extends to strained interpretations of Macaulay's words. In the historian's earliest public speech of 1824, he spoke of England's "peculiar glory, not that she has ruled so widely, not that she has conquered so splendidly, but that she has ruled only to bless, and conquered only to spare." The author makes a caustic comment: "Repeating 'ruled' and 'conquered' was more important than repeating 'only.' " That evaluation appears highly unlikely. The very rhythm of the words suggests otherwise. But Macaulay must always be depicted in the darkest hues.

The explanation of Macaulay's failings also embodies unfairness. His abandonment of Christian faith is attributed to the upbringing he received from his father, Zachary, one of the pillars of the evangelical philanthropic circle later called the Clapham Sect. The father "imposed" "a stern evangelical Anglicanism." He "imposed" classical learning on "his reluctant heir." He "imposed" on his firstborn "an austere version of Scottishness" (what is that?). The result was not just an aversion to religious enthusiasm but also an emotional deprivation which marked young Tom for life. That was the reason for his inability to sympathize with suffering humanity. The whole of the book is summed up in a single sentence: "His stunted emotional consciousness caused him to live barely attentive to and mostly unconcerned about the people and places in front of him, while his masterful intelligence empowered him to interpret and help shape the English public mind during his nation's century."

What is perhaps most serious is that the explanation proffered, in turn, for Zachary Macaulay's draconian discipline is primarily his religion. The evangelicalism of the family home is made to bear much (though not all) the blame for the attitudes of Tom's father. The members of the Clapham Sect wanted to "impose" their morality on the public, and so Zachary was merely doing in the home what he and his circle were attempting in society at large. The religion of this body of saints, Sullivan suggests, was itself stunting for Tom: "Clapham left him with limited ears and literal eyes." His capacity for appreciating music or art, Sullivan means to convey, was restricted by his spiritual antecedents. But John Ruskin, with whose reactions to Venice Macaulay's are unfavorably compared, was equally the product of an evangelical home, and his eyes for artistic achievement were probably sharper than those of any other figure of the century. The blanket attribution of philistinism to the evangelicals will not do.

Again, Sullivan is willing to concede that evangelicals generated "pious works and childlike fun" but not "wit and irony." That is very doubtful. William Wilberforce, the central figure in the Clapham group, was known for the amusement he provided for sophisticated society. And Sullivan misrepresents evangelicalism when he remarks that it anchored Christian faith in "the domain of imagination," not in the hard thinking that produced adequate theology. That was not true of the evangelicals of Zachary Macaulay's generation. Deeply swayed by the atmosphere of the Enlightenment, they made reason their lodestar in religion. They generated serious theology: again, Wilberforce, though a layman, is a good example, since he wrestled with questions of theodicy in the journal that Zachary edited. The presentation of evangelicalism in the book verges on a caricature.

So this biography has merits and flaws. It appreciates Macaulay as a writer, shows distinct acumen about his classical taste, and generally displays great learning. But it is unfair to its subject, to his father, and to his father's religion. On his deathbed in 1859, Macaulay dispatched a £25 gift to a poor clergyman. That is not the deed of a man incapable of compassion. Macaulay may have shared in the corruption that Acton attributed to any who exercise power, but he was not as black as he is painted here. He was not base, contemptible, and odious.

David Bebbington is professor of history at the University of Stirling and a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society. He is the author most recently of Baptists Through the Centuries: A History of a Global People (Baylor Univ. Press).

1. Lord Acton to Mary Gladstone, April 1885, in Herbert Paul, ed., Letters of Lord Acton to Mary, Daughter of the Right Hon. W. E. Gladstone (London: George Allen, 1904), p. 210.

2. Louise Creighton, Life and Letters of Mandell Creighton, 2 vols. (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1904), Vol. 1, p. 372.


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