Article abstract: Macaulay was a prominent Whig politician and popular essayist, but his greatest achievement was The History of England from the Accession of James the Second, a work of enduring popularity and influence.
Thomas Babington Macaulay was born on October 25, 1800, in Rothley Temple, Leicestershire, England, the first child of Zachary Macaulay, a descendant of Scottish highland chiefs, a merchant, a ship owner, a member of the Clapham Sect of Evangelical Anglicans, and a campaigner against the slave trade. Macaulay grew up in an atmosphere of stifling religious observance and self-examination which he rejected in later years, although still maintaining conventional Christian morality. He was a child prodigy who began to read voraciously at the age of three, thus beginning early to accumulate that vast array of facts with which he delighted his friends and belabored his enemies. He entered Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1818, and proceeded to win debating triumphs in the University Union and numerous academic prizes, including an award for his “Essay on the Life and Character of William III,” who was to be the great hero of his historical masterpiece. After graduation, Macaulay studied law and was called to the bar in 1826, but he never put much effort into becoming a practicing lawyer.
In 1825, Macaulay began to contribute to The Edinburgh Review, the prestigious quarterly journal for intellectual Whigs. His second essay, discussing the poet John Milton and defending his radical politics during the English Civil War, made him an instant celebrity and star guest at Holland House, the very center of Whig society. Over the next twenty years, Macaulay wrote thirty-six articles for The Edinburgh Review, most of them ostensibly beginning as book reviews, but soon turning into long and independent essays. Macaulay at twenty-five had mastered the style he was to wield for the rest of his life. The essays were vigorous and assertive, abounding in paradox and contrast, intimidating in their command of facts, confident in judgment, and exciting to read. His literary fame brought him some unexpected rewards. In 1828, Lord Lyndhurst made him a Commissioner of Bankruptcy, and in 1830, Lord Lansdowne used a pocket borough, Calne, which was under his control, to send the young Macaulay to Parliament.
Macaulay the public figure seemed assured and successful, but the private man was sometimes troubled and uncertain. He never married and concentrated his emotions completely on two younger sisters, Hannah and Margaret. By the 1820’s, Macaulay’s father, at one time very wealthy, had lost most of his money, and thereafter, Macaulay, though sometimes short of funds himself, felt obliged to help. He was, for a time, in much demand at fashionable dinner tables, and yet he often failed to impress at first sight. Many described him as a short, squat man with vulgar, though energetic, features, who talked interminably. He was also unusually clumsy and often had trouble tying his cravats properly or shaving without drawing blood.
Macaulay entered Parliament as a Whig, a member of the party of moderate reform, led by liberal aristocrats, proud of their descent from the families of the Glorious Revolution of 1688-1689, which had overthrown King James II, brought in William III, and asserted parliamentary supremacy. Macaulay was a man of the political center, or slightly left of center, but he asserted his moderate views with combative zeal. He delivered his maiden speech in April, 1830, in defense of a bill to remove civil disabilities from Jews. In March, 1831, he gave the first of a series of powerful orations supporting the Whig Reform Bill, which abolished many rotten or pocket boroughs (seats with very few inhabitants, such as Calne, for which Macaulay sat), created new parliamentary districts, and gave the vote to most of the middle class, though not to the working class. It was a very limited reform but was bitterly opposed by the Tories as threatening the social order. The very reverse was true, argued Macaulay. The refusal to reform when reform was needed would create a justified discontent that would bring on revolution. “Reform,” urged Macaulay, “that you may preserve.” In June, 1832, the Reform Bill became law, and Macaulay returned to Parliament for one of the new constituencies, Leeds. He was acknowledged as a great orator and rising statesman. In December, 1833, he became the legal member of the newly created four-man Supreme Council of India at the amazing salary of ten thousand pounds a year. He planned to stay in India for five or six years, live splendidly on five thousand pounds a year (in fact he spent much less), and then return to England a rich man, able to follow his political and literary interests without financial concerns.
In February, 1834, Macaulay sailed for India accompanied by a small library of the Greek and Latin classics and by his adoring sister Hannah. His other favorite sister, Margaret, had, much to his distress, married the year before. Before the year was over, Hannah married Charles Trevelyan, a brilliant young official of the East India Company, and Macaulay received news that Margaret had died of scarlet fever. Hannah was to remain his closest friend and intimate, although she could not be as close as before. Macaulay felt lonely and devastated. He saved himself by rereading a good portion of Greek and Latin literature and by entering into hard and controversial work. He was fortunate in enjoying the backing of a reforming governor-general, but still had to fight harsh opposition in convincing the Supreme Council to abolish press censorship and to end certain privileges held by Englishmen appearing in Indian courts. He became president of the General Council of Public Instruction, which was bitterly split between the Orientalists, who wished to continue subsidizing native schools teaching traditional learning in Arabic, Persian, and Sanskrit, and the Anglicists, who wished to support only European learning taught in English. With his usual vigor and with even more than his usual intolerance of folly, Macaulay argued for English. In his famous “Minute on Indian Education” of February 2, 1835, he summed up Indian learning as: “. . . Astronomy, which would move laughter in girls at an English boarding school—History, abounding with Kings thirty feet high, and reigns thirty thousand years long—and Geography, made up of seas of...
(The entire section is 2666 words.)