Authors: Thomas Babington Macaulay

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

English historian, critic, and politician

Author Works

Nonfiction:

Critical and Historical Essays, Contributed to the “Edinburgh Review,” 1843 (3 volumes)

The History of England from the Accession of James II, 1849-1861 (5 volumes)

Poetry:

Lays of Ancient Rome, 1842

Biography

Thomas Babington Macaulay (muh-KAW-lee) was born at Rothley Temple, Leicestershire, October 25, 1800, the son of Zachary Macaulay, a prominent philanthropist. The boy was precocious; before he was eight he had written a history of the world and a three-canto romance in the manner of Sir Walter Scott. In 1818 he matriculated at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he wrote the prize poems in 1819 and 1821. He was called to the bar in 1826. In 1830, Macaulay entered Parliament as a Whig from the “pocket borough” of Calne, which was given to him from the “pocket” of Lord Lansdowne. His first speech, in support of what became the Reform Bill of 1832, was a tremendous success and established Macaulay as a leader of the Whig Party. Although the Reform Bill eliminated his and many other pocket boroughs, he represented various other constituencies in Parliament over the next fifteen years. He became a specialist in Indian affairs, and from 1834 to 1838 he was in India as a member of the Supreme Council. His essay on Lord Clive, the leader of England’s acquisition of India as a colony, was published in 1840.{$I[AN]9810000514}{$I[A]Macaulay, Thomas Babington}{$I[geo]ENGLAND;Macaulay, Thomas Babington}{$I[tim]1800;Macaulay, Thomas Babington}

Thomas Babington Macaulay

(Library of Congress)

Macaulay established his literary reputation in 1825 with an essay on John Milton, published in the Edinburgh Review, at that time the most influential journal in England. The essay attracted wide attention, and Macaulay was soon the most widely read essayist of the period. He had already become a famous conversationalist in an age when conversation was an art, and he was a familiar figure at Holland House, entry to which signified social success. Some found his conversation, loaded with recondite references, overwhelming, for he read books almost as fast as he could turn the pages and never forgot a detail. He was “a book in breeches.”

In spite of his duties in the House of Commons, which he discharged most conscientiously, Macaulay continued to write for the Edinburgh Review, contributing essays generally on literary subjects. Yet his great work and the one that brought him the most fame and money was The History of England from the Accession of James II. Within a generation after its publication it had sold 140,000 copies in Great Britain alone and had been translated into every European language. For many readers, indeed, it long remained the history of England, for it was written from the liberal Whig point of view, dominant in Victorian England.

Macaulay, more than any other great writer of his time except perhaps Charles Dickens, seems to embody all the qualities associated with the word “Victorian”: the hard common sense, the optimism, the complacency, the satisfaction with material progress. He said what the average reader wanted to hear, and he said it in an effective and articulate style. His prejudices were obvious, but they were the prejudices of his readers; he saw everything in black or white, a characteristic which appealed to the great middle-class reading public, which was impatient with subtle theorizing.

Macaulay’s mind was unquestionably powerful, but it was limited. He knew nothing about science, art, or philosophy, but this blindness did him no harm with his readers. His prodigious memory enabled him to produce endlessly the illustrations and references with which his work abounds.

Like most essayists, Macaulay had his contemporary critics who spoke against his sweeping historical judgments, his extreme self-confidence, and his certainty on all questions. Later reaction against Victorianism damaged his reputation as an essayist, and changes in historical and political perspective altered the perception of his work, but his lively style of writing and the historical value of his work have kept his name high in the ranks of nineteenth century writers.

Macaulay was raised to the peerage in 1857 by Queen Victoria, making him Baron Macaulay of Rothley, but ill health limited his activities, and he never spoke in the House of Lords. He died at Campden Hill in 1859, and since he had never married, his barony became extinct.

BibliographyBeaty, Richmond Croom. Lord Macaulay: Victorian Liberal. 1938. Reprint. Hamden, Conn.: Archon Books, 1971. Defines the term “liberal” as it relates to Macaulay and other Victorian writers.Clive, John. Macaulay: The Shaping of the Historian. 1973. Reprint. Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1987. This full-length biography greatly enhances the Trevelyan work.Cruikshank, Margaret. Thomas Babington Macaulay. Boston: Twayne, 1978. A critical but somewhat positive evaluation and interpretation of Macaulay’s major historical writings.Gay, Peter. Style in History. 1974. Reprint. New York: W. W. Norton, 1988. Assesses Macaulay’s historiographic style, along with that of several other Victorian historians.Morison, J. Cotter. Macaulay. 1882. Reprint. New York: Macmillan, 1927. In the English Men of Letters series. A biographical sketch and literary evaluation.Roberts, S. C. Lord Macaulay: The Pre-eminent Victorian. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1927. A pamphlet by the English Society of Oxford, also gives a brief sketch and evaluation.Thomas, William. The Quarrel of Macaulay and Croker: Politics and History in the Age of Reform. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000. A study of the literary and political aspects of a disagreement between “liberal” and “conservative.”Travelyan, George Otto. Life and Letters of Lord Macaulay. 1875. Reprint. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978. This standard biographical source is by his nephew.
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