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September 2011: Macaulay: The Tragedy of Power

Reviewed by:  Andrew Porter, King’s College London

Robert E. Sullivan. Harvard: Belknap Press, 2009. 614 pp. £25 (hardback).

What is the purpose of biography? A straight-forward, possibly banal, question, answerable some would say only in terms of the variety of individual biographers and their absence of a common purpose. It may serve to entertain and to satisfy an idle curiosity, whether that of the voyeur or the more genuinely inquisitive. To the delight of publishers and authors it often sells well, even if rarely on the Blairite scale, generating sufficient funds to fuel significant charitable giving and stimulate national political debate or animosity. If the question were put to biographers themselves they might wish to lay claim to a higher moral or didactic purpose. Biography opens a window on the past neither necessarily nor readily accessible by means of more abstract or generalised studies. Good biography has the capacity to throw light on contemporary themes as well as personalities, enlightening readers as to the historical context in which its subject was set.

Confronted with such a list of possibilities, Thomas Babington Macaulay can well seem the ideal biographee, a publisher’s dream, a man for all seasons. This is especially so in the hands of as skilled an historian as Robert Sullivan, notwithstanding the much-admired work of John Clive on Macaulay’s earlier career to 1837 and William Thomas’s valuable and elegant essay in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. If all there was to Macaulay were his public face, his reputation as an essayist, and his engagement with Indian policy-making in education and law, then his historical traces might justifiably be seen as slight, his achievements plain if not ‘transparent’. That this was not so and that there are reasons for Macaulay to be taken far more seriously is at once Sullivan’s goal and major achievement. More ‘protean, subtle, and effective than … those who followed him allowed’, from ‘adolescence onward [Macaulay] needed to conform and be accepted, as well as to simulate and dissimulate.’ Rather than deviousness or duplicity, it was an older word, ‘doubleness’, ‘that caught … the ambivalent sensibility that underlay his virtuosic ability to exercise power as a cultural warrior, a front-bencher, a nationalist historian, and a proselytising imperialist’.

However, it is not only the many-sidedness of Macaulay’s life that compels attention and will fascinate today’s historians. It was the powerful expression and fluidity of his thinking on the major issues of the day that won him a following in a world full of would-be reformers, popular pressure groups and splintering intellectual factions, political, religious, and economic. Sullivan’s unravelling of the blend of public and private sources offers a far fuller picture of Macaulay’s world and his response to its existential crisis focussed on issues of religion, class, nation and empire than we have available to us elsewhere.

At the root of Sullivan’s success lies the extensive, painstaking exploitation of a plethora of rich and unused sources. Here above all there is the multi-volume manuscript of Macaulay’s diaries, written in 1839, 1840, and thereafter ‘almost daily from late October 1848 until … his death at the end of 1859’. Of critical importance alongside the diaries were Macaulay’s immersion in the traditions of both a classical education and evangelical biblical interpretation. Exposed like the no less precocious J. S. Mill at an extraordinarily young age to bracing and extensive draughts of all the classical authors, Macaulay’s assimilation of classical values and commitment of volume after volume to memory was formidable to say the least. Eloquent testimony to his absorption is provided by two bloodstained pages reproduced from his own annotated copy of Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War, and description of his early-morning routine: ‘I pass the three or four hours before breakfast in reading Greek and Latin … Before six the barber comes to shave me.’ As for his religious beliefs, Macaulay gradually rejected the pronounced evangelicalism of his family and with it much that characterised the language and values of the Clapham Sect. This meant discarding the religious force-feeding insisted on by his father Zachary for a more comfortable agnosticism, albeit one which, Sullivan shows with great skill, continued to shape his own moral commitment. Time and again Macaulay returned to reading these sources, gaining from them an understanding of principle and fact, an aversion to theory and speculation, a grasp of historical narrative as an essential source of political wisdom, and an absorption of rhetorical skills. He was never at a loss for an allusion, a quotation, an example, citing at length and often at random authors such as Plato, Tacitus, Euripides, Demosthenes, Aristotle, Machiavelli, Herodotus or Cicero whenever superficially appropriate.

However, while impressive and often impregnable his genius and intellectual armoury might seem to many of his audiences, there was a sense in which Macaulay was overwhelmed by his own cleverness and the intensity of his commitment. His reading of the classics was in many ways highly subjective. They were scorned by academic scholars of the day as those of an erudite amateur, just as his attempts at defining rationalised religious politics failed to convince the genuinely converted. In the House of Commons more often as not he failed as a debater, partly on account of absence and dislike of the platform it provided, but also because, with a preference for declamation and oratory he echoed his father in the expectation that bullying assertion would most likely carry the day. These characteristics were Macaulay’s hallmarks by 1830, changing little thereafter. Increasingly he developed as ‘immovably utilitarian, materialist, and insular’. Woefully ignorant of continental Europe, bar a visit to Italy in 1838 when he found himself unexpectedly impressed by Genoa and Rome, he shared conventional prejudices as to British superiority over foreigners.

However unsuitable his qualifications for a parliamentary career, such characteristics did not deter Macaulay from his search for official position and political power as the means to implementing his own vision of Britain’s future. Again he drew on his voracious reading. From Bacon, Hobbes and Sir William Temple he extracted ‘the catchwords of Britain’s century – utility, progress, and civilization – as well as the convictions that supported them: materialism, cultural Protestantism, nationalism, and imperialism’. Sullivan not only offers absorbing analyses of these intertwined intellectual currents, but considers in fascinating detail those other necessary conditions Macaulay felt he required for success. First was the need for approval in the circles he frequented, beginning with his own family members – Zachary, Selina, Margaret but notably Hannah on whom he was emotionally very dependent. This relationship was first revealed by John Clive. Sullivan charts its continuation into Macaulay’s later life, when its self-serving character became still more pronounced. Tensions grew as a result of Hannah’s marriage to Charles Trevelyan and the escalation of Macaulay’s ill-health and heart problems when confronted with the medical quackery of the 1850s. Stability in personal ties had to be balanced by a sense of economic well-being. Although hard-pressed as a young man, for much of his career, Macaulay felt himself poorly off albeit with scant justification. Especially in later years, as Sullivan helpfully demonstrates with the conversion of income statistics into modern equivalents, his earnings were the stuff of dreams. In 1849 Longman’s first royalty cheque for £5,500, from his sales of The History of England from the Accession of James II, represented a purchasing power of £433,722 in 2007 values. At death his estate was valued in the same terms at about £4.7 million: by any calculation a very wealthy man, he nevertheless continued to feel the insecurity of the debtor.

Coping with these preoccupations and wanting a clear resolution of their uncertainties left Macaulay fretful and disappointed. Here Sullivan approaches the tragedy of his subtitle, personal for Macaulay, systemic for the whiggish patronage on which he relied, terminal for notions of liberal democracy he espoused. In his view power and politics went together, the unattractiveness of much in political life was to be endured for the power it brought those in office. Macaulay slowly learnt that the world was not like that. Holding office frequently rendered office-holders impotent. The question of Irish union made this plain enough, when even a figure such as Cromwell whom Macaulay greatly admired could not achieve lasting solution. Only in India, as a member of the Board of Control, president of the Committee on Public Instruction, and president of the Indian Law Commission, was he able to use the power of office to lasting and constructive effect in the construction of the Indian Criminal Code.

This achievement was the product of power largely imposed from outside, confirming Macaulay’s growing belief that the unrestricted exercise of state power was essential to effective government. Happy to identify and sponsor reforms, Macaulay was still more ready to introduce change while remaining comparatively ignorant of the societies he hoped to ‘civilise’ or reform. He lacked any genuine sympathy with either Indians or the Irish, and made no progress in acquainting himself with their languages or culture. Life was simpler that way. As he came slowly to appreciate the limitations of political power, eventually abandoning the Commons in 1848, so Macaulay fell back more and more on the wisdom and inspiration to be gleaned from his literary studies, and the influence to be won by his own publications. The intellectual triumphed in the end. Of crucial importance therefore was his History of England, four volumes of which were published in 1848 and 1855. This extensive narrative work was intended to map the development of Britain’s national character, civilisation, and the principles of utility and progress it embodied. The volumes were an immediate success and a popular best seller. One of Sullivan’s principal achievements is to demonstrate how Macaulay and many of his contemporaries in the light of the History developed their sense of the potential of authoritarian government to promote radical reform. This conviction that might and right went together overlapped with a recognition that brutality, in Sullivan’s words, ‘civilising slaughter’, might be required to preserve them. Macaulay’s work on the Legal Code provided a prize example of ‘the amalgam of humanity and violence that was the British imperial project’. In the first half of the nineteenth century the justification of empires lay in their civilising potential, not in notions of inbred biological distinction. This conviction carried wide appeal before 1860, only beginning to evaporate on the eve of Macaulay’s death.

Sullivan also develops the view that The History of England encapsulates an argument about the public role of the professional historian, to educate the nation at large in the importance of its past. This fine book is a masterpiece and should be of interest to many historians, not only of the early Victorian age. Illustrating its wider reverberations, an epilogue traces a line of historiographical descent from Macaulay via G. M. Trevelyan and J. H. Plumb to figures of today such as Simon Schama, David Cannadine and John Brewer. Whether a cure for history’s ills is to be found in this prescription remains to be seen. The activities of ‘narrative’ historians, of those exploiting the new electronic media, and those promoting a renewed role for historians as policy advisers speaking to power suggests that there are many attuned to Macaulay’s historical wavelength. Few, one suspects, are ready to have their barbers shed
blood at six o’clock in the morning.

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