Macaulay, Thomas Babington (1800-1859)
Thomas Babington Macaulay was arguably the most influential of all the British classical liberals and a renowned historian, noted for his powerful prose. His magisterial history of England, a sensation when it first appeared, soon established itself as the standard work on its subject while his critical and historical essays were models of persuasive writing. Both commanded a worldwide mass readership long after his death and influenced the noted American journalist and essayist H. L. Mencken, among many others. Among the major themes of Macaulay’s work were the cruelties and follies of arbitrary government, the harm wrought by religious strife and the persecuting spirit, and the transformative power of scientific advance and economic freedom.
Macaulay’s major work, his multivolume History of England from the Accession of James the Second, concentrates on the events surrounding the Glorious Revolution of 1688, chronicling with unrivaled narrative grip the long struggle between “court” and “country”—between the forces of royal and governmental prerogative and those who sought for the people of England a right to govern themselves. Although unapologetically celebrating the triumph of freedom, Macaulay had little patience for abstract theories about the proper role of government. Instead, he understood English liberty to have grown hardy under constant assault, built up over long agonies like a mass of scar tissue through a succession of abuses and the resistance to them. Its extent and solidity was explainable by which bad officeholder had tried and failed to get away with which encroachment on the public during which reign.
The history’s immense popularity with readers owed much to its vividly drawn individual portraits: the vain and foolish Stuart kings, vindictive Judge Jeffreys of the “Bloody Assizes,” and many more. Although the standard critique of Macaulay was as an implacable partisan who was unfair to his opponents, many strokes of his characterization portray upright and admirable figures on the Tory side, as well as rogues and incompetents in his own Whig camp.
An unabashed believer in economic freedom, Macaulay in his history demonstrates the extent to which commercial and civil liberty grew up intertwined. The battle against arbitrary taxation accounted for many gains in the struggle against arbitrary government in general, while the fight to restrict unlimited search and seizure owed much to the popular resistance to tariffs and royal grants of monopoly. Few writers have dealt more effective blows to the notion that life for the English masses was worse after the Industrial Revolution than it had been before. In the famous chapter from his history on the condition of the nation in 1685—one of the great panoramic set pieces of the English language—he hammers away, page upon page, at the wretchedness of the food, the lodgings, the roads, the communications, the sanitation, the depravity of governance, and the prevalence of disorder and crime.
Turning to the controversies of his own time, in his essays Macaulay defended free trade and the new factory system. Then as now, critics assailed the increased division of labor and export-driven economic globalization, which, they argued, had impoverished ordinary workers and dissolved traditional ties of community into a mere cash nexus. Industrial advances had, they contended, replaced romantic, older farm-and-cottage landscapes with ungainly modern construction and raised a new class, the vulgar bourgeoisie, to cultural dominance. In his response, Macaulay cited vital statistics to demonstrate that the parts of England where the new manufacturing economy had penetrated furthest were the same parts where rates of poverty and mortality had plunged fastest.
He further rejected the notion that the newly affluent English urban populace—accused by some of being pleasure-obsessed and lacking in public spirit—exemplified some sort of decline in national character that a paternalistic government should seek to remedy. “The duties of government,” he wrote,
would be … paternal, if a government were necessarily as much superior in wisdom to a people as the most foolish father, for a time, is to the most intelligent child, and if a government loved a people as fathers generally love their children. But there is no reason to believe that a government will have either the paternal warmth of affection or the paternal superiority of intellect.
Macaulay also took issue with Christian conservatives who deplored the essentially secular turn that government had taken by the time Victoria had ascended the throne and who argued that religion should be regarded as the basis of civil government. He replied that because unbelievers, like everyone else, showed as keen a concern for not having their goods stolen or homes invaded, “we are at a loss to conceive in what sense religion can be said to be the basis of government, in which religion is not also the basis of the practices of eating, drinking, and lighting fires in cold weather.” Among the most basic themes of his History is the almost unending series of calamities that religious intolerance brought upon the English nation; all the major sides (High Church, Low Church, and Catholics) embraced persecution as an instrument of policy and practiced it when they could, but at length no faction could summon a majority for its designs, at which point religious tolerance emerged as a kind of exhausted last resort.
Macaulay’s extensive parliamentary and official career is best remembered for his role in defending adherents of minority religions, helping rid the West Indies of the slave trade, establishing modern copyright law, and reforming the government of India, which he endowed with a rational criminal code and a system of elite education based on the English language. Although he won a huge American readership, he took surprisingly little interest in American matters.
For many readers, one’s first encounter with Macaulay begins a lifelong love affair with the writer. “He is always in a storm of revolt and indignation against wrong, craft, tyranny,” Thackeray wrote on his death. “How he cheers heroic resistance; how he backs and applauds freedom struggling for its own; how he hates scoundrels, ever so victorious and successful; how he recognizes genius, though selfish villains possess it!”
Gabb, Sean. “Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800-1859): Rediscovering a Victorian Liberal.” Libertarian Heritage no. 21 (Pamphlet). London: Libertarian Alliance, 2001.
Macaulay, Thomas Babington. Miscellaneous Works in Five Volumes. Lady Trevelyan, ed. New York: Harper & Bros., 1880.
Powell, Jim. Thomas Babington Macaulay: Extraordinary Eloquence for Liberty. Irvington-on-Hudson, NY: Freeman, 1996.
Originally published .