Lord Macaulay : Artistic Historical Writing – Beacon Lights of History, Volume XIII : Great Writers by John Lord

Beacon Lights of History, Volume XIII : Great Writers by John Lord

John Lord – Beacon Lights of History, Volume XIII : Great Writers

Rousseau : Socialism and Education
Sir Walter Scott : The Modern Novel
Lord Byron : Poetic Genius
Thomas Carlyle : Criticism and Biography
Lord Macaulay : Artistic Historical Writing
Shakspeare or The Poet
John Milton : Poet and Patriot
Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe : Germany’s Greatest Writer
Alfred Lord Tennyson : The Spirit Of Modern Poetry

John Lord – Beacon Lights of History, Volume XIII : Great Writers
John Lord

Topics Covered
Macaulay’s varied talents
Descent and parentage
Birth and youth
Character; his greatness intellectual rather than moral
College career
Enters the law
His early writings; poetry; essay on Milton
Social success; contemporaries
Enters politics and Parliament
Sent to India; secretary board of education
Essays in the Reviews
Limitations as a statesman
Devotion to literature
Personal characteristics
Return to London and public office
Still writing essays; “Warren Hastings,” “Clive”
Special public appreciation in America
Drops out of Parliament; begins “History of England”
Prodigious labor; extent and exactness of his knowledge
Self-criticism; brilliancy of style
Some inconsistencies
Public honors
Remarkable successes; re-enters Parliament
Illness and growing weakness
Conclusion of the History; foreign and domestic honors
Resigns seat in Parliament
Social habits
Literary tastes
Final illness and death; his fame

Lord Macaulay : Artistic Historical Writing


Among the eminent men of letters of the present century, Thomas Babington Macaulay takes a very high position. In original genius he was inferior to Carlyle, but was greater in learning, in judgment, and especially in felicity of style. He was an historical artist of the foremost rank, the like of whom has not appeared since Voltaire; and he was, moreover, no mean poet, and might have been distinguished as such, had poetry been his highest pleasure and ambition. The same may be said of him as a political orator. Very few men in the House of Commons ever surpassed him in the power of making an eloquent speech. He was too impetuous and dogmatic to be a great debater, like Fox or Pitt or Peel or Gladstone; but he might have reached a more exalted and influential position as a statesman had he confined his remarkable talents to politics.

But letters were the passion of Macaulay, from his youth up; and his remarkably tenacious memory–abnormal, as it seems to me–enabled him to bring his vast store of facts to support plausibly any position he chose to take. At fifty years of age, he had probably read more books than any man in Europe since Gibbon and Niebuhr; he literally devoured everything he could put his hands upon, without cramming for a special object,–especially the Greek and Latin Classics, which he read over and over again, not so much for knowledge as for the pleasure it gave him as a literary critic and a student of artistic excellence.

Macaulay was of Scotch descent, like so many eminent historians, poets, critics, and statesmen who adorned the early and middle part of the nineteenth century,–Scott, Burns, Carlyle, Jeffrey, Dundas, Playfair, Wilson, Napier, Mackintosh, Robertson, Alison; a group of geniuses that lived in Edinburgh, and made its society famous,–to say nothing of great divines and philosophers like Chalmers and Stewart and Hamilton. Macaulay belonged to a good family, the most distinguished members of which were clergymen,–with the exception of his uncle, General Macaulay, who made a fortune in India; and his father, the celebrated merchant and philanthropist, Zachary Macaulay, who did more than any other man, Wilberforce excepted, to do away with the slave-trade, and to abolish slavery in the West India Islands.

Zachary Macaulay was the most modest and religious of men, and after an eventful life in Africa as governor of the colony of Sierra Leone, settled in Clapham, near London, with a handsome fortune. He belonged to that famous evangelical set who made Clapham famous, and whose extraordinary piety and philanthropy are commemorated by Sir James Stephen in one of his most interesting essays. They resembled in peculiarities the early Quakers and primitive Methodists, and though very narrow were much respected for their unostentatious benevolence, blended with public spirit.

Macaulay was born at Rothley Temple, in Leicestershire, Oct. 25, 1800, but it was at Clapham that his boyhood was chiefly spent. His precocity startled every one who visited his father’s hospitable home. At the age of three he would lie at full length on the carpet eagerly reading. He was never seen without an open book in his hands, even during his walks. He cared nothing for the sports of his companions. He could neither ride, nor drive, nor swim, nor row a boat, nor play a game of tennis or foot-ball. He cared only for books of all sorts, which he seized upon with inextinguishable curiosity, and stored their contents in his memory. When a boy, he had learned the “Paradise Lost” by heart. He did not care to go to school, because it interrupted his reading. Hannah More, a frequent visitor at Clapham and a warm friend of the family, gazed upon him with amazement, but was too wise and conscientious to spoil him by her commendations. At eight years of age he also had great facility in making verses, which were more than tolerable.

Zachary Macaulay objected to his son being educated in one of the great schools in England, like Westminster and Harrow, and he was therefore sent to a private school kept by an evangelical divine who had been a fellow at Cambridge,–a good scholar, but narrow in his theological views. Indeed, Macaulay got enough of Calvinism before he went to college, and was so unwisely crammed with it at home and at school, that through life he had a repugnance to the evangelical doctrines of the Low Church, with which, much to the grief of his father, he associated cant, always his especial abhorrence and disgust. While Macaulay venerated his father, he had little sympathy with his views, and never loved him as he did his own sisters. He did his filial duty, and that was all,–contributed largely to his father’s support in later life, treated him with profound respect, but was never drawn to him in affectionate frankness and confidence.

It cannot be disguised that Macaulay was worldly in his turn of mind, intensely practical, and ambitious of distinction as soon as he became conscious of his great powers, although in his school-days he was very modest and retiring. He was not religiously inclined, nor at all spiritually minded. An omnivorous reader seldom is narrow, and seldom is profound. Macaulay was no exception. He admired Pascal, but only for his exquisite style and his trenchant irony. He saw little in Augustine except his vast acquaintance with Latin authors. He carefully avoided writing on the Schoolmen, or Calvin, or the great divines of the seventeenth century. Bunyan he admired for his genius and perspicuous style rather than for his sentiments. Even his famous article on Bacon is deficient in spiritual insight; it is a description of the man rather than a dissertation on his philosophy. Macaulay’s greatness was intellectual rather than moral; and his mental power was that of the scholar and the rhetorical artist rather than the thinker. In his masterly way of arraying facts he has never been surpassed; and in this he was so skilful that it mattered little which side he took. Like Daniel Webster, he could make any side appear plausible. Doubtless in the law he might have become a great advocate, had he not preferred literary composition instead. Had he lived in the times of the Grecian Sophists, he might have baffled Socrates,–not by his logic, but by his learning and his aptness of illustration.

Macaulay entered Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1818, being a healthy, robust young man of eighteen, after five years’ training in Greek and Latin, having the eldest son of Wilberforce for a school companion. Among his contemporaries and friends at Cambridge were Charles Austin, Praed, Derwent Coleridge, Hyde Villiers, and Romilly; but I infer from his Life by Trevelyan that his circle of intimate friends was not so large as it would have been had he been fitted for college at Westminster or Eton. Nor at this time were his pecuniary circumstances encouraging. After he had obtained his first degree he supported himself, while studying for a fellowship, by taking a couple of pupils for £100 a year. Eventually he gained a fellowship worth £300 a year, which was his main support for seven years, until he obtained a government office in London. He probably would have found it easier to get a fellowship at Oxford than at Cambridge, since mathematics were uncongenial to him, his forte being languages. He was most distinguished at college for English composition and Latin declamation. In 1819 he wrote a poem, “Pompeii,” which gained him the chancellor’s medal,–a distinction won again in 1821 by a poem on “Evening,” while the same year gave him the Craven scholarship for his classical attainments. He took his bachelor’s degree in 1822, and was made a fellow of Trinity College. He did not obtain his fellowship, however, until his third trial, being no favorite with those who had prizes and honors to bestow, because of his neglect of science and mathematics.

As a profession, Macaulay made choice of the law, being called to the bar in 1826, and at Leeds joined the Northern Circuit, of which Brougham was the leading star. But the law was not his delight. He did not like its technicalities. He spent most of his time in his chambers in literary composition, or in the galleries of the House of Commons listening to the debates. He never applied himself seriously to anything which “went against the grain.” At Court he got no briefs, but his fellowship enabled him to live by practising economy. He also wrote occasional essays–excellent but not remarkable–for Knight’s Quarterly Magazine. It was in this periodical, too, that his early poems were published; but he did not devote much time to this field of letters, although, as we have said, he might undoubtedly have succeeded in it. His poetry, if he had never written anything else, would not be considered much inferior to that of Sir Walter Scott, being full of life and action, and, like most everything else he did, winning him applause. Years later he felt the risk of publishing his “Lays of Ancient Rome;” but as he knew what he could do and what he could not do, or rather what would be popular, he was not disappointed. The poems were well received, for they were eminently picturesque and vital, as well as strong, masculine, and unadorned; the rhyme and metre were also felicitous. He had no obscurities, and the spirit of his Lays was patriotic and ardent, showing his love of liberty. I think his “Battle of Ivry” is equal to anything that Scott wrote. Yet Macaulay is not regarded by the critics as a true poet; that is, he did not write poetry because he must, like Burns and Byron. His poetry was not spontaneous; it was a manufactured article,–very good of its kind, but not such as to have given him the fame which his prose writings made for him.

It was not, however, until his article on Milton appeared in the Edinburgh Review in 1825, that Macaulay’s great career began. Like Byron, he woke up one morning to find himself famous. Everybody read and admired an essay the style of which was new and striking. “Where did you pick up that style?” wrote Jeffrey to the briefless barrister. It transcended in brilliancy anything which had yet appeared in the Edinburgh or Quarterly. Brougham became envious, and treated the rising light with no magnanimity or admiration.

Of course, the author of such an uncommon article as that on Milton, the praise of which was in everybody’s mouth, had invitations to dinner from distinguished people; and these were most eagerly accepted. Macaulay rapidly became a social favorite, sought for his brilliant conversation, which was as remarkable for a young man of twenty-six as were his writings in the foremost literary journal of the world. He was not handsome, and was carelessly dressed; but he had a massive head, and rugged yet benevolent features, which lighted up with peculiar animation when he was excited. One of the first persons of note to welcome him to her table was Lady Holland, an accomplished but eccentric and plain-spoken woman, who seems to have greatly admired him. He was a frequent guest at Holland House, where for nearly half-a-century the courtly and distinguished Lord Holland and his wife entertained the most eminent men and women of the time. This gratified young Macaulay’s inordinate social ambition. He scarcely mentions in his letters at this time any but peers and peeresses.

And yet he did not court the society of those he did not respect. He was not a parasite or a flatterer even of the great, but met them apparently on equal terms, as a monarch of the mind. He was at home in any circle that was not ignorant or frivolous. He was more easy than genial, for his prejudices or intellectual pride made him unkind to persons of mediocrity. It was a bold thing to cross his path, for he came down like an avalanche on those who opposed him, not so much in anger as in contempt. I do not find that his circle of literary friends was large or intimate. He seldom alludes to Carlyle or Bulwer or Thackeray or Dickens. He has more to say of Rogers and Lord Jeffrey, and other pets of aristocratic circles,–those who were conventionally favored, like Sydney Smith; or those who gave banquets to people of fashion, like Lord Lansdowne. These were the people he loved best to associate with, who listened to his rhetoric with rapt admiration, who did not pique his vanity, and who had something to give to him,–position and éclat.

Macaulay was not a vain man, nor even egotistical; but he had a tremendous self-consciousness, which annoyed his equals in literary fame, and repelled such a giant as Brougham, who had no idea of sharing his throne with any one,–being more overbearing even than Macaulay, but more human. This new rival in the Edinburgh Review, of which for a long time Brougham had been dictator, was, much to Jeffrey’s annoyance, not convivial. He did not drink two bottles at a sitting, but guarded his health and preserved his simple habits. Though he speaks with gusto of Lord Holland’s turtle and turbot and venison and grouse, he was content when alone with a mutton-chop and a few glasses of sherry, or the October ale of Cambridge, which was a part of his perquisites as Fellow. He was very exclusive, in view of the fact that he was a poor man, without aristocratic antecedents or many powerful friends. Outside the class of rank and fashion, his friends seem to have been leading politicians of the Liberal school, the stanch Whigs who passed the Reform Bill, to whom he was true. To his credit, his happiest hours were spent with his sisters in the quiet seclusion of his father’s modest home. All his best letters were to them; and in these he detailed his intercourse with the great, and the splendor of their banquets and balls.

Macaulay’s rise, after he had written his famous article on Milton, was rapid. The article itself, striking as it is, must be confessed to be disappointing in so far as it attempted to criticise the “Paradise Lost” and Milton’s other poems. Macaulay’s genius was historical, not critical; and the essay is notable rather for its review of the times of Charles I. and Archbishop Laud, of the Puritans and the Royalists, than for its literary flavor, except as a brilliant piece of composition. It was, however, the picturesque style of the new writer which was the chief attraction, and the fact that the essay came from so young a man. Macaulay followed the Milton essay with others on Macchiavelli, Dryden, Hallam’s “Constitutional History,” and on history in general, which displayed to great advantage his unusual learning, his keen historic instinct, and his splendor of style. He became the most popular contributor to the Edinburgh Review, which was beginning to be dull and heavy; and this kept him before the eyes of politicians and professional men.

Macaulay’s ambition was now divided between literature and politics. His first appearance as a public speaker was at an annual anti-slavery convention in London, in 1826, when he made a marked impression. He eagerly embraced the offer of a seat in the House of Commons, which was secured to him in 1830; and as soon as he entered Parliament he began to make speeches, which were carefully composed and probably committed to memory. At a single bound he became one of the leading orators of that renowned assembly. Some of his orations were masterpieces of argument and rhetoric in favor of reform, and of all liberal movements in philanthropy and education. In the opinion of eminent statesmen he was the most “rising” member of the House, and sure to become a leader among the Whigs. But he was poor, having only about £500 a year–the proceeds of his fellowship and his literary productions–to support his dignity as a legislator and meet the calls of society; so that in 1833 he was rewarded with an office in the Board of Control, which regulated the affairs of India; this doubled his income, and made him independent. But he wanted an office in which he could lay up money for future contingencies. Therefore, in 1834, he gladly resigned his seat in Parliament and accepted the situation of a member of the Supreme Council of India, on a salary of £10,000 a year, £7000 of which he continued to save yearly; so that at the end of four years, when he returned to England, he had become a rich man, or at least independent, with leisure to do whatever he pleased.

In India, as chairman of the Board of Education, as legal adviser of the Council, and in drafting a code of penal laws for that part of the Empire, he was very useful,–although as a matter of fact the new code was too theoretically fine to be practical, and was never put in force. His personal good sense was equal to his industry and his talents, and he preserved his health by strict habits of temperance. Even in that tropical country he presented a strong contrast to the sallow, bilious officials with whom he was surrounded, and in due time returned to England in perfect health, one of the most robust of men, capable of indefinite work, which never seemed to weary him.

But in Calcutta, as in London, he employed his leisure hours in writing for the Edinburgh Review, and gave an immense impulse to its sale, for which he was amply rewarded. Brougham complained to Jeffrey that his essays took up too much space in the Review, but the politic editor knew what was for its interest and popularity. Macaulay’s long articles of sometimes over a hundred pages were received without a murmur; and every article he wrote added to his fame, since he always did his best. His essays in 1830 on Southey and Montgomery, and one in 1831 on Croker’s edition of Boswell’s Life of Johnson, were fierce, scathing onslaughts, even cruel and crushing,–revealing Macaulay’s tremendous powers of invective and remorseless criticism, but reflecting little credit on his disposition or his judgment. His Hampden (1831) and his Burleigh (1832) remain among his finest and most inspiring historical paintings. His first essay on Lord Chatham (1834) is a notable piece of characterization; the one on Sir James Mackintosh (1835) is a most acute and brilliant historical criticism; the one on Lord Bacon (1837) is striking and has become famous, but shows Macaulay’s deficiency in philosophic thought, besides being sophistical in spirit; and the article on Sir William Temple (1837)–really a history of England during the reign of William III.–is thoroughly fine.

Macaulay’s residence in India, so far as political ambition was concerned, may have been a mistake. It withdrew him from an arena in which he could have risen to great distinction and influence as a parliamentary orator. He might have been a second Fox, whom he resembled in the impetuosity of his rhetoric, if he had also possessed Fox’s talents as a debater. Yet he was not a born leader of men. As a parliamentary orator he was simply a speech-maker, like the Unitarian minister Fox, or that still abler man the Quaker Bright, both of whom were great rhetoricians. It is probable that he himself understood his true sphere, which was that of a literary man,–an historical critic, appealing to intelligent people rather than to learned pedants in the universities. His service in India enabled him to write for the remainder of his life with an untrammelled pen, and to live in comfort and ease, enjoying the otium cum dignitate, to which he attached supreme importance,–so different from Carlyle, who toiled in poverty at Chelsea to declare truth for truth’s sake, grumbling, yet lofty in his meditations, the depth of which Macaulay was incapable of appreciating.

It is, then, as a man of letters rather than as a politician that our author merits his exalted fame. Respectable as a member of the House of Commons, or as a jurist in India in compiling a code of laws, yet neither as a statesman nor as a jurist was he in his right place. The leaders of his party may have admired and praised his oratory, but they wanted something more practical than orations,–they wanted the control of men; and so, too, the government demanded a code which would exact the esteem of lawyers and meet the wants of India rather than a composition which would read well. But as an historical critic and a luminous writer, Macaulay had no superior,–a fact which no one knew better than himself.

In 1838, on his return from India,–where he had regarded himself as in honorable exile,–Macaulay had accumulated a fortune of £30,000, to him more than a competency. This, added to the legacy of £10,000 which he had received from his uncle, General Macaulay, secured to him independence and leisure to pursue his literary work, which was paramount to every other consideration. If both from pleasure and ambition there ever was a man devoted heart and soul and body to a literary career, it was Macaulay. Nor would he now accept any political office which seriously interfered with the passion of his life. Still less would he waste his time at the dinner parties of the great, no longer to him a novelty. He was eminently social by nature, and fond of talk and controversy, with a superb physique capable of digesting the richest dishes, and of enduring the fatigues and ceremonies of fashionable life; but even the pleasures of the banquet and of cultivated society, to many a mere relaxation, were sacrificed to his fondness for books,–to him the greatest and truest companionship, especially when they introduced him to the life and manners of by-gone ages, and to communion with the master-minds of the world.

For relaxation, Macaulay preferred to take long walks; lounge around the book-stalls; visit the sights of London with his nieces; invite his intimate friends to simple dinners at The Albany; amuse himself with trifles, especially in company with those he loved best, in the domestic circle of his relatives, whom he treated ever with the most familiar and affectionate sympathy,–so that while they loved and revered him, they had no idea that “Uncle Tom” was a great man. His most interesting letters were to his sisters and nieces, whose amusement and welfare he had constantly in view, and who were more to him than all the world besides. Indeed, he did not write many letters except to his relatives, his publishers, and his intimate friends, who were few, considering the number of persons he was obliged to meet. He was a thoroughly domestic man, although he never married or wished to marry.

It surprises me that Macaulay’s intercourse with eminent authors was so constrained. He saw very little of them; but while he did not avoid talking with them when thrown among them, and keeping up the courtesies of life even with those he thoroughly disliked, I cannot see any evidence that he sought the society of those who were regarded as his equals in genius. He liked Milman and Mackintosh and Napier and Jeffrey and Rogers, and a few others; but his intimate intercourse was confined chiefly to these and to his family.

Macaulay’s fame, however, was substantially founded and built. Sydney Smith’s witty characterization of him is worth recalling:–

“I always prophesied his greatness from the first moment I saw him, then a very young and unknown man on the Northern Circuit. There are no limits to his knowledge, on small subjects as well as great; he is like a book in breeches.

“Yes, I agree, he is certainly more agreeable since his return from India. His enemies might have said before (though I never did so) that he talked rather too much; but now he has occasional flashes of silence that make his conversation perfectly delightful. But what is far better and more important than all this is, that I believe Macaulay to be incorruptible. You might lay ribbons, stars, garters, wealth, title, before him in vain. He has an honest, genuine love of his country; and the world could not bribe him to neglect her interests.”

Macaulay now devoted several weeks of every year to travel, visiting different parts of England and the Continent as the mood took him. In the autumn of 1838 he visited Italy, it would seem for the first time, and was, of course, enchanted. He appreciated natural scenery, but was not enthusiastic over it; nor did it make a very deep impression on him except for the moment. He loved best to visit cities and places consecrated by classical associations.

While at Rome, Macaulay received from Lord Melbourne the offer of the office of Judge Advocate; but he unhesitatingly declined it. The salary of £2500 was nothing to a scholar who already had a comfortable independence; and the duties the situation imposed were not only uncongenial, but would interfere with his literary labors.

In February, 1839, he returned to London; and now the pressure on him by his political friends to re-enter public life was greater than he could resist. He was elected to Parliament as one of the members from Edinburgh, and gave his usual support to his party. In September he became War Secretary, with a seat in the Whig Cabinet under Lord Melbourne. Consequently he suspended for a while his literary tasks, conducting the business of his department with commendable industry, but without enthusiasm. In the session of 1840 and 1841, during the angry discussions pertaining to the registration of votes in Ireland, he gave proof of having profited by the severe legal training he had received from his labors in India. During these years he found time to write a few reviews, the one on Lord Olive being the most prominent.

The great subject of political agitation at this period was the repeal of the Corn Laws. The Whig leaders had lost the earnestness which had marked their grand efforts when they carried the Reform Bill of 1832, and were more indifferent to further reforms than suited their constituents; so that, at a dangerous financial crisis in 1841, the direction of public affairs fell into the hands of the Tories, under Sir Robert Peel. This great man not only rescued the nation from its fiscal embarrassments, but having been convinced by the arguments of Cobden of the necessity of repealing the Corn Laws, he carried through that great reform, to the disgust of his party and to his own undying fame. I have treated of this period more at large in another volume of this series.[2]

Macaulay was not much moved by the fall of the ministry to which he belonged, and gladly resumed his literary labors,–the first fruits of his leisure being an essay on Warren Hastings, a companion piece to the one on Clive.

These East Indian essays constitute the most picturesque and graphic account of British conquests in that ancient land that has been given to the public. Macaulay’s intimate knowledge of the ground, and his literary resources, enabled him to picture the dazzling successes of Clive and Hastings; so that the careers of those superb military chieftains and commercial robber-statesmen, in securing for their country the control of a distant province larger than France, and in enriching the British Empire and themselves beyond all precedent in conquest, stand splendidly portrayed forever.

Macaulay had now taken apartments in The Albany, on the second floor, to which he removed his large library, and in which he comfortably lived for fifteen years. His article on Warren Hastings was followed by that on Frederic the Great. His numerous articles in the Edinburgh Review had now become so popular that there was a great demand for them in a separate form. Curiously enough, as in the case of Carlyle, it was in America that the public appreciation of these essays first took the form of book publication; and Macaulay’s “Miscellanies” were published in Boston in 1840, and in Philadelphia in 1842. As these volumes began to go to England, for Macaulay’s own protection they were republished by Longman, revised by the author, in 1843, and obtained an immediate and immense sale,–reaching one hundred and twenty thousand copies in England,–which added to the fame and income of Macaulay. But he was never satisfied with the finish of his own productions; the only thing which seemed to comfort him was that the last essays were better than the first. In addition to his labors for the Edinburgh, was the publication of a volume of his poems in 1842, which was also enthusiastically received by his admirers. His last notable essays were a chivalrous article on Madame D’Arblay (January, 1843); an entirely charming account of Addison and the wits of Queen Anne’s reign (July, 1843); an interesting review of the Memoirs of Barère, the French revolutionist and writer (April, 1844); and finally a second article on Lord Chatham (October, 1844), which is considered finer than the first one written twenty years earlier. More and more, however, the project of writing a History of England had taken possession of him, and he began now to forego all other literary occupation, and to devote all his leisure time to that great work.

Thomas Babington Macaulay, Baron Macaulay, Painting by Sir Francis Grant

Thomas Babington Macaulay, Baron Macaulay, Painting by Sir Francis Grant

During much of the time that Macaulay had continued writing his reviews, at the rate of about two in a year, he was an active member of Parliament, frequently addressing the House of Commons, and earning the gratitude of the country by his liberal and enlightened views,–especially those in reference to the right of Unitarians to their chapels, to the enlarged money-grant given to the Irish Roman Catholic Maynooth College, and to the extension of copyrights. He rarely spoke without careful preparation. His speeches were forcible and fine. In the higher field of debate, however, as we have already intimated, he was not successful. In 1845 Sir Robert Peel retired, the Whigs again coming into power; and in 1846 Macaulay accepted the office of Paymaster of the Forces, because its duties were comparatively light and would not much interfere with his literary labors, while it added £2000 a year to his income. During the session of 1846 and 1847, while still in Parliament, he spoke only five times, although the House was ever ready to listen to him.

In the year 1847 the disruption of the Scotch Church was effected, and in the bitterness engendered by that movement Macaulay lost his popularity with his Edinburgh constituents. He seemed indifferent to their affairs; he answered their letters irregularly and with almost contemptuous brevity. He had no sympathy with the radicals who at that time controlled a large number of votes, and he refused to contribute towards electioneering expenses. Above all, he was absorbed in his History, and had lost much of his interest in politics. In consequence he failed to be re-elected, and not unwillingly retired to private life.

Macaulay now concentrated all his energies on the History, which occupied his thoughts, his studies, and his pen for the most part during the remainder of his life. The first two volumes were published in the latter part of 1848; and the sale was immense, surpassing that of any historical work in the history of literature, and coming near to the sale of the novels of Sir Walter Scott. The popularity of the work was not confined to scholars and statesmen and critics, but it was equally admired by ordinary readers; and not in England and Scotland alone, but in the United States, in France, in Holland, in Germany, and other countries.

The labor expended on these books was prodigious. The author visited in person nearly all the localities in England and Ireland where the events he narrated took place. He ransacked the archives of most of the governments of Europe, and all the libraries to which he could gain access, public and private. He worked twelve hours a day, and yet produced on an average only two printed pages daily,–so careful was he in verifying his facts and in arranging his materials, writing and rewriting until no further improvement could be made.

This book was not merely the result of his researches for the last fifteen years of his life, but of his general reading for nearly fifty years, when everything he read he remembered. Says Thackeray, “He reads twenty books to write a sentence; he travels one hundred miles to make a line of description.” The extent and exactness of his knowledge were not only marvellous, but almost incredible. Mr. Buckle declared that Macaulay was perfectly accurate in all the facts which Buckle had himself investigated to write his “History of Civilization;” and so particular was he in the selection of words that he never allowed a sentence to pass muster until it was as good as he could make it. “He thought little of reconstructing a paragraph,” says his biographer, “for the sake of one happy illustration.” He submitted to the most tiresome mechanical drudgery in the correction of his proof-sheets. The clearness of his thought amid the profusion of his knowledge was represented in his writing by a remarkable conciseness of expression. His short, vigorous sentences are compact with details of fact, yet rich with color. His terseness has been compared to that of Tacitus. His power of condensation, aptness of phrase and epithet, and indomitable industry made him a master of rhetorical effect, in the use of his multifarious learning for the illustration of his themes.

As soon as his last proof-sheet had been despatched to the printers, Macaulay at once fell to reading a series of historians from Herodotus downward, to measure his writings with theirs. Thucydides especially utterly destroyed all the conceit which naturally would arise from his unbounded popularity, as expressed in every social and literary circle, as well as in the Reviews. Like Michael Angelo, this Englishman was never satisfied with his own productions; and the only comfort he took in the impossibility of realizing his ideal was in the comparison he made of his own works with similar ones by contemporary authors. Then he was content; and then only appeared in his letters and diary that good-natured, self-satisfied feeling which arose from the consciousness that he was one of the most fortunate authors who had ever lived. There was nothing cynical in his sense of superiority, but an amiable self-assertion and self-confidence that only made men smile,–as when Lord Palmerston remarked that “he wished he was as certain of any one thing as Tom Macaulay was of everything.” This self-confidence rarely provoked opposition, except when he was positive as to things outside his sphere. He wrote and talked sensibly and luminously on financial and social questions, on art, on poetry and the drama, on philosophy and theology; but on these subjects he was not an authority with specialists. In other words, he did not, so to speak, know everything profoundly, but only superficially; yet in history, especially English history, he was profound in analysis as well as brilliant in the narration of facts, even when there was disagreement between himself and others as to inductions he drew from those facts,–inductions colored by his strong prejudices and aristocratic surroundings.

Macaulay was not always consistent with his own theories, however. For instance, he was a firm believer in the progress of society and of civilization. He saw the enormous gulf between the ninth and the nineteenth centuries, and the unmistakable advance which, since the times of Hildebrand, the world had made in knowledge, in the arts, in liberty, and in the comforts of life, although the tide of progress had its ebb and flow in different ages and countries. Yet when he cast his eye on America, where perhaps the greatest progress had been made in the world’s history within fifty years, he saw nothing but melancholy signs of anarchy and decay,–signs portending the collapse of liberty and the triumph of ignorance and crime. Thus he writes in 1857 to an American correspondent:–

“As long as you have a boundless extent of fertile and unoccupied land, your laboring population will be far more at ease than the laboring population of the Old World; but the time will come when wages will be as low, and will fluctuate as much, with you as with us. Then your institutions will fairly be brought to the test. Distress everywhere makes the laborer mutinous and discontented, and inclines him to listen with eagerness to agitators who tell him that it is a monstrous iniquity that one man should have a million, while another cannot get a full meal. In bad years there is plenty of grumbling here, and sometimes a little rioting; but it matters little, for here the sufferers are not the rulers. The supreme power is in the hands of a class deeply interested in the security of property and the maintenance of order; accordingly the malcontents are restrained. But with you the majority is the government, and has the rich, who are always in a minority, absolutely at its mercy. The day will come when the multitude of people, none of whom has had more than a half a breakfast, or expects to have more than a half a dinner, will choose a legislature. Is it possible to doubt what sort of legislature will be chosen? On the one side is a statesman preaching patience, respect for vested rights, strict observance of the public faith; and on the other a demagogue ranting about the tyranny of capitalists and usurers, and asking why anybody should be permitted to drink champagne and 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? There will be, I fear, spoliation. The spoliation will increase the distress; the distress will produce fresh spoliation. There is nothing to stop you; your Constitution is all sail and no anchor. Either civilization or liberty will perish. Either some Caesar or Napoleon will seize the reins of government with a strong hand, or your republic will be as fearfully plundered and laid waste by barbarians in the twentieth century as the Roman Empire was in the fifth.”

I do not deny that there is great force in Macaulay’s reasoning and prophecy. History points to decline and ruin when public virtue has fled and government is in the hands of demagogues; for their reign has ever been succeeded by military usurpers who have preserved civilization indeed, but at the expense of liberty. Yet this reasoning applies not only to America but to England as well,–especially since, by the Reform Bill and subsequent enactments of Parliament, she has opened the gates to an increase of suffrage, which now threatens to become universal. The enfranchisement of the people–the enlarged powers of the individual under the protection and control of the commonwealth–is the Anglo-Saxon contribution to progress. It is dangerous. So is all power until its use is learned. But there is no backward step possible; the tremendous experiment must go forward, for England and America alike.

Macaulay himself was one of the most prominent of English statesmen and orators, in 1830, 1831, and 1832, to advocate the extension of the right of suffrage and the increase of popular liberties. All his writings are on the side of liberty in England; and all are in opposition to the Toryism which was so triumphant during the reign of George III. Why did he have faith in the English people of England, and yet show so little in the English people of America? He believed in political and social progress for his own countrymen; why should he doubt the utility of the same in other countries? If vandalism is to be the fate of America, where education, the only truly conservative element, is more diffused than in England, why should it not equally triumph in that country when the masses have gained political power, as they surely will at some time, and even speedily, if the policy inaugurated by Gladstone is to triumph? For England Macaulay had unbounded hope, because he believed in progress,–in liberty, in education, in the civilizing influence of machinery, in the increasing comforts of life through the constant increase of wealth among the middle classes, and especially through the power of Christianity, in spite of the dissensions of sects, the attacks of crude philosophers, socialists, anarchists, scientists, and atheists, from one end of Christendom to the other. Why should he not have equal faith in American civilization, which, in spite of wars and strikes and commercial distresses and political corruption, has yet made a marked progress from the time of Jefferson, the apostle of equality, down to our day,–as seen especially in the multiplication of schools and colleges, in an untrammelled and watchful press, and in the active benevolence of the rich in the foundation of every kind of institution to relieve misery and want? The truth is that he, in common with most educated Englishmen of his day,–and of too many even of our own day,–cherished a silent contempt for Americans, for their literature and their institutions; and hence he was not only inconsistent in the principles which he advocated, but showed that he was not emancipated, with all his learning, from prejudices of which he ought to have been ashamed.

As time made inroads on Macaulay’s strong constitution, he gave up both politics and society in the absorbing interest which he took in his History, confining himself to his library, and sometimes allowing months to pass without accepting any invitation whatever to a social gathering. No man was ever more disenchanted with society. He begrudged his time even when tempted by the calls of friendship. When visitors penetrated to his den, he bowed them out with ironical politeness. He had no favors to ask from friends or foes, for he declined political office, and was as independent as wealth or fame could make him. In 1849 he was made Lord Rector of the University of Glasgow, and the acclamations following his address were prodigious. Lord John Russell gave to Macaulay’s brother John a living worth £1100. Macaulay himself was offered the professorship of History at Cambridge. In one year he received for the first edition of his third and fourth volumes of the History, published in 1855, £20,000 in a single check from Longman. At the age of forty-nine, he writes in his diary: “I have no cause for complaint,–tolerable health, competence, liberty, leisure, dear relatives and friends, and a very great literary reputation.”

With all this prosperity, Macaulay now naturally set up his carriage. He dined often with the Queen, and was a great man, according to English notions, more even from his wealth and social position than from his success in letters. Lord John Russell pressed him to accept a seat in his cabinet, but “I told him,” Macaulay writes, “that I should be of no use,–that I was not a debater; that it was too late to become one; that my temper, taste, and literary habits alike prevented.” He was, however, induced to become again a member of Parliament, and in 1852 was elected once more for Edinburgh, which had repented of its rejection of him in 1847. But he insisted on perfect independence to vote as he pleased. He regarded this re-entrance into public life as a great personal sacrifice, since it might postpone the appearance of his next two volumes of the History. His election, however, was received with great acclamation. Even Professor Wilson, the most conservative of Scotch Tories, voted for him. It was not a party victory, but purely a personal triumph.

A serious illness now follows,–a weakness of the heart, from the effects of which Macaulay died a few years afterwards. He retires to Clifton, and gives himself up to getting well, visiting Barley Wood, and driving in his private carriage among the most interesting scenery in the west of England. But he was never perfectly well again, although he continued to work on his History. His intimate friends saw the change in him with sadness, but he himself was serene and uncomplaining. Although he suffered from an oppression of the chest, he still on great occasions addressed the House. His mind was clear, but his voice was faint. The last speech he made was in behalf of the independence of the Scottish Church. The strain of the House of Commons proved to be too great for his now enfeebled constitution. “Nor could he conceal from himself and his friends,” says Trevelyan, “that it was a grievous waste, while the reign of Anne still remained unwritten, for him to consume his scanty stock of vigor in the tedious and exhaustive routine of political existence; waiting whole evenings for the vote, and then … trudging home at three in the morning through the slush of a February thaw.” He therefore spared himself as a member of Parliament, and carefully husbanded his powers in order to work upon his book. He gave himself more time for his annual vacation, yet would write when he could on the subjects which engrossed his life. His labors were too severe for his strength, but he worked on, and even harder and harder.

At length on the 25th of November, 1855, Macaulay sent to the printer the last twenty pages of his History, and an edition of twenty-five thousand was ordered. Within a generation one hundred and forty thousand copies of the work were sold in the United Kingdom alone. Six rival translators were engaged in turning it into German; and it was published in the Polish, the Danish, the Swedish, the Italian, the French, the Dutch, the Spanish, the Hungarian, the Russian, and the Bohemian languages, to say nothing of its immense circulation in the United States. Such extraordinary literary popularity was accompanied by great honors. In 1857 Macaulay was created a British Peer and elected Lord High Steward of the borough of Cambridge. The academies of Utrecht, Munich, and Turin elected him to honorary membership. The King of Prussia made him a member of the Order of Merit. Oxford conferred on him the degree of Doctor of Civil Law, and he was elected president of the Philosophical Institution of Edinburgh. He could have little more in the way of academic and governmental honors.

The failing health of Macaulay now compelled him to resign his seat in the House of Commons. It was also thought desirable for him to vacate his apartments at The Albany, which he had occupied for fifteen years, that he might be more retired and perhaps more comfortable. His friends, at the suggestion of Dean Milman, selected a house in Kensington, the rooms of which were small, except the library, which opened upon a beautiful lawn, adorned with flowers and shrubs; it was called Holly Lodge, and was very secluded and attractive. Here his latter days were spent, in the society of his nieces and a few devoted friends, and in dispensing simple hospitalities. His favorite form of entertainment was the breakfast, at which his guests would linger till twelve, enchanted by his conversation, for his mind showed no signs of decay.

From this charming retreat Lord Macaulay very seldom appeared in London society. Years passed without his even accepting invitations. An occasional night at a friend’s house in the country, one or two nights at Windsor Castle, and one or two visits to Lord Stanhope’s seat in Kent in order to consult his magnificent library, were the only visits which Macaulay made in the course of the year. He always had a dislike of visiting in private houses, much preferring hotels, where he could be free from conventional life.

Macaulay was always careful in his expenditures, wasting nothing that he might enjoy the pleasure of charity,–for he gave liberally, especially to needy and unfortunate men of letters. Once he gave £100 to a total stranger who implored his aid. In his household he was revered, for he was the kindest and most considerate of masters, while his relatives absolutely worshipped him. At home he made no claim to the privileges of genius; he had few eccentricities; he never interfered with the pleasures of others; he never obtruded his advice, or demanded that his own views or tastes should be consulted; he was especially careful not to wound the feelings of those with whom he lived. Children were his delight and solace. Over them he seemed to have unbounded influence. He would spend the half of a busy day in playing with them, and in inventing new games for their diversion. One of his pleasures was to take them to see the sights of London. His sympathies were quick and generous; although apparently so cynical in his opinions of books, he was always affected at any touches of pathos, even to tears.

It was hard for Macaulay to realize that the time had come when he must leave untold that portion of English history with which he was more familiar than any other living man; but he submitted to the inevitable without repining. He had done what he could. Even when he was compelled to give up his daily task, his love of reading remained; a book was his solace to the last. He had no extensive acquaintance with the works of some of the best writers of his own generation, preferring the classic authors of antiquity, and of England in the time of Anne. He did not relish Coleridge or Carlyle or Buckle or Ruskin, or indeed any writer who seemed to strain after originality of style, in defiance of the old and conservative canons. He preferred Miss Austen to Dickens. He felt that he owed a great debt to the master-minds of by-gone ages, who reached perfection of style, so far as it can be attained. Even the English writers of the reign of Anne, to his mind, have never been surpassed. His admiration for Addison was unbounded. Dryden and Pope to him were greater poets than any who have succeeded them. Such a poet as Tennyson or Wordsworth he pretended he did not understand. He wanted transparent clearness of expression. Browning would have been to him an abomination. He despised the poetry of his own age, with its involved sentences, its obscurity, and its strange metres. His own poetry was as direct as Homer, as simple as Chaucer, and as graphic as Scott.

In 1859, Macaulay contrived to visit once more the English lakes and the western highlands, where he was received with great veneration, being recognized everywhere on steamers and railway stations. But his cheerfulness had now departed, although he made an effort to be agreeable. In December of this year he ceased writing in his diary. The physicians pretended to think that he was better, but fainting fits set in. On Christmas he said but little, and was constantly dropping to sleep. His relatives did not seem to think that he was in immediate danger, but the end was near. He died without pain, and was buried in Westminster Abbey on the 9th of January, 1860, having for pall-bearers the most illustrious men in England. He rests in the Poet’s Corner, amid the tombs of Johnson and Garrick, Handel and Goldsmith, Gay and Addison, leaving behind him an immortal fame.

And what is this fame? It is not that of a philosophical historian like Guizot, for his History is not marked by profound generalizations, or even thoughtful reflections. He was not a judicial historian like Hallam, seeking to present the truth alone; for he was a partisan, full of party prejudices. Nor was he an historian like Ranke, raking out the hidden facts of a remote period, and unveiling the astute diplomacy of past ages. Macaulay was a great historical painter of the realistic school, whose pictures have never been surpassed, or even equalled, for vividness and interest. In this class of historians he stands out alone and peerless, the most exciting and the most interesting of all the historians who have depicted the manners, the events, and the characters of a former age,–never by any accident dull, but fatiguing, if at all, only by his wealth of illustration and the over-brilliancy of his coloring. He is the Titian of word-painting, and as such will live like that immortal colorist. Critics may say what they please about his rhetoric, about his partial statements, about his want of insight into deep philosophical questions; but as a painter who made his figures stand out on the historical canvas with unique vividness, Macaulay cannot fail to be regarded, as long as the English language is spoken or written, as one of the great masters of literary composition. This was the verdict pronounced by the English nation at large; and its great political and literary leaders expressed and confirmed it, when they gave him fortune and fame, elevated him to the peerage, bestowed on him stars and titles, and buried him with august solemnity among those illustrious men who gave to England its power and glory.

[2] Beacon Lights of History: European Leaders.

Shakspeare or The Poet

John Lord – Beacon Lights of History, Volume XIII : Great Writers