The History of England by Thomas Babington Macaulay
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
A traveler must be freed from all apprehension of being murdered or starved before he can be charmed by the bold outlines and rich tints of the hills.
Sir Thomas James Babington Macaulay, Baron of Rothley—more commonly known as Lord Macaulay—is yet another of those creatures of former ages who could fill volume after volume with excellent prose, seemingly without effort. He wrote reams: this work itself, in the original, runs to five volumes. And everything he wrote—from poems to essays, from speeches to history—was both instantly successful in his day and still remains a model of force and clarity. The power of his style is why Macaulay is most frequently cited nowadays. He is the only English historian (except perhaps David Hume) whose writing can be mentioned in the same breath as Edward Gibbon; indeed the two of them are grouped together as models of elegance, in much the same way as were Demosthenes and Cicero.
Brilliant stylists they both were; but quite different in their brilliance. Gibbon is stately, while Macaulay is luminescent. To borrow a phrase from Tocqueville, Gibbon tried to see history from God’s point of view: as a pure spectator, a neutral observer, emotionally unmoved but intellectually engaged. Macaulay imitated the more dramatic styles of Thucydides and Tacitus, narrating history as an enormous spectacle with heroes and villains. Here he is describing the fate of the Scottish colony of Caledonia during the failed Darien scheme:
The alacrity which is the effect of hope, the strength which is the effect of union, were alike wanting to the little community. From the councilors down to the humblest settlers all was despondency and discontent. The stock of provisions was scanty. The stewards embezzled a great part of it. The rations were small; and soon there was a cry that they were unfairly distributed. Factions were formed. Plots were laid. One ringleader of the malcontents was hanged.
Macaulay’s punchy, declarative sentences have an overwhelming effect when piled atop one another in cumulative description. Indeed, Macaulay never simply describes: he dramatizes. He pays at least as much attention to the emotional effect of his words as their literal accuracy. Granted, Macaulay is seldom as quotable or as graceful as Gibbon; but he is leaps and bounds more exciting to read.
This difference in style, as often happens, mirrors a difference in attitude. Gibbon had his fair share of prejudices, but he was not partisan. Macaulay is partisanship incarnate. He is largely responsible for popularizing what is commonly called Whig History. This is the thesis that sees English history as “the history of physical, of moral, and of intellectual improvement” caused by political reform. This thesis became historical orthodoxy for a time, until, like all orthodoxies, it bred a heresy that became the new orthodoxy.
Nowadays the idea that history is a grand progress from barbarism to civilization will strike many as terribly simplistic, mostly wrong, and nauseatingly complacent. After two world wars and the atom bomb, we are apt to view any suggestions of progress with skepticism. Nevertheless, to condemn Macaulay’s perspective for being old-fashioned would be to forget, what Hugh Trevor-Roper reminds us in the introduction, that the “severest critics themselves are generally unaware of the extent to which they depend on the achievement of their victim.”
The terms ‘Whig’ and ‘Tory’ appear with great frequency both within the book and in discussions of Macaulay; and yet these political positions can be bewildering for a non-British reader. This is in keeping with the general Britishness of this book. Macaulay’s history is a national history; it is a book written for Brits. For any British reader, I suspect this book will excite some strong emotions, positive or negative. For me it appealed mainly to my anthropological curiosity.
In fairness, Macaulay’s conception of Great Britain is wide enough to include Scotland and Ireland. And although this book is full of shocking insults against the Scots and the Irish (as a prophet of progress, Macaulay sees Scotland and Ireland during this time as hopelessly backward), Macaulay’s history was nevertheless important—or so says Hugh Trevor-Roper in the introduction—for treating those two realms as of integral importance to British history.
As Trevor-Roper also points out, Macaulay’s partisanship expresses itself most damagingly in his dealings with individuals. Macaulay is not an acute psychologist. He occasionally breaks off the narrative to engage in a lengthy description of some figure—such as his unforgettable portrait of George Jeffreys—but these descriptions are inevitably either philippics or eulogies. There are no memorable personalities in these pages; only flat heroes and villains. This tendency to choose good guys and bad guys often led Macaulay into errors or even chicanery. He deliberately misrepresents the evidence to blacken William Penn’s name, while going so far as to assert that “extirpate” is commonly understood to mean “disarm” rather than “eliminate” in order to clear William of the Glencoe Massacre.
Purists may have some misgivings about reading this abridgement. For me, I see abridgements like this as an ideal place to begin reading: it gives you a decent overview of the whole work, and allows you to decide if you’d like to commit to five volumes. Trevor-Roper did an excellent job with this edition, giving a satisfying overview of the narrative arc, providing the necessary connections between the missing parts, as well as enlivening the experience with his own cutting commentary. As a writer, Trevor-Roper is fully within the Macaulay school: sharp, direct, and unmerciful. The book is full of footnotes pointing out where Macaulay is erring or being underhanded. The introduction, too, is unsparing: “[Macaulay’s] descriptions of art, architecture, music are of a frigid, conventional pomposity if they are not positively absurd.”
To my surprise, I found this period of time to be relevant to contemporary American politics. James II—a bumbling, petty, egotistical monarch in league with a foreign ruler—couldn’t help but remind me of Trump’s Russia affair. The way that James would fill government posts with cronies, or would try to circumvent long-held traditions by browbeating his subjects in personal interviews, was eerily similar to what James Comey describes in his statement. Macaulay’s sections on the National Debt and the partisan squabbles between Tories and Whigs were also astoundingly applicable. This is curious, if not exactly meaningful.
Hopefully one day I will have the time and inclination to read the unabridged version of this masterpiece. Until then, I can say that Macaulay’s reputation is well deserved: as a stylist, and as a partisan.
One thought on “Review: The History of England”