Macaulay and the lost optimism of Victorian history

Thomas Babington Macaulay, the laudator temporis acti of the high Victorian age, showed us there is more than one way to write history.

Westminster Bridge, London, 1753. Westminster Abbey is on the right. At this date the Thames was a busy city thoroughfare, as can be seen from the amount of traffic on the river, including two state barges. The bridge was completed in 1750.
Westminster Bridge, London, 1753. Westminster Abbey is on the right. At this date the Thames was a busy city thoroughfare, as can be seen from the amount of traffic on the river, including two state barges. The bridge was completed in 1750. (Photo by Ann Ronan Pictures/Print Collector/Getty

What is history? There is one simple answer, provided by Ranke, who said that history is ‘what actually happened’. Yet that is a deceptive simplicity, for a number of reasons.

First, in any modern society, the amount of material available to the historian would require an industrious Methuselah’s life-span to assimilate. The only way to cope with all that is selectivity. The historian has to decide priorities which will determine the questions he asks of his sources. All this will depend on his intellectual and cultural formation, which may not be shared by later generations. That is why history is always evolving. Second, all history contains an inevitable element of falsification. Events tumble out in simultaneous chaos over an enormously broad horizon. To make sense of all that, and to try to work out what caused what, the historian has to impose vertical structures: more scope for later evolution. Third, there is a frequent assumption – frequent and facile – that one can learn truth from history. In L. P. Hartley’s words, ‘The past is another country. They do things differently there.’ In any debate about contemporary foreign policy, someone is bound to chuck in the word ‘appeasement’, invariably producing more heat than light. The rights or wrongs of British foreign policy in the late Thirties tell us little about the way to deal with Putin or Xi today. Circumstances are always different. That said, I have never come across anyone who argues that there is a case to be made for Ethelred the Unready. 

There is another point. Few if any historians have been willing to restrict themselves to Rankean rigour. The temptation to move from the library to the rostrum and draw general conclusions, often moral ones,  is usually irresistible. To Gibbon, that infinitely subtle old cynic who had discarded all Christianity except for a belief in original sin, history was: ‘Little more than the register of the crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind.’

It is easy to see why a reading of history should lead to pessimism – but there is one resounding exception. Thomas Babington Macaulay had read Gibbon – he had read everything – and was as committed as Ranke to establishing what had actually happened. But for him, far from being in contradiction, the pursuit of the facts, at least for a historian of England, would reach its apogee in morality and optimism.

Although almost all his writings relate to earlier periods, Macaulay was the laudator temporis acti of the high Victorian age. He helped to create its public doctrine and the image of Victorianism which passed down to posterity: one of complacent prosperity. The Queen was in one of her Palaces, while in its new Victorian-Gothic Palace, the reformed Parliament was the focal point of national debate. The Churchmen were in their pulpits, the scientists in their laboratories, the Royal Navy on the seven seas, making them safe for British trade. The Northern cities, responsible for many of the trade goods, were being adorned by urban palaces, paid for from the harvests of industry and commerce. The Great Exhibition of 1851 added new lustre to the ‘Great’ in Great Britain, on whose Empire the Sun never set. None of that was untrue. It was selective. 

There was another version of early to mid-Victorian history. The French Revolution had terrified most of the propertied classes while Bonaparte, though unlikely to bring a guillotine in his baggage-train, had threatened Britain with invasion and conquest. The British finally won, a triumph ratified amidst the splendour of the Congress of Vienna.

Yet life at home was very different. There had always been periods of rural poverty, when harvests failed. Now, there was also urban poverty, caused by trade cycles which exacerbated the already grim conditions endured by the workers in the new industrial towns. Economic discontents were reinforced by demands for Parliamentary reform. In 1830, the French overthrew Charles X. The next year, in England, there was grave disorder. Nottingham Castle was set ablaze as was the Bishop’s Palace in Bristol. Those of a nervous disposition – a widespread ailment – saw all this as the onset of revolution. The shadow of France in the 1790s took a long time to dissipate.

The first volume of Macaulay’s history was published in 1848, at the end of the Hungry Forties in England, the starving Forties in Ireland. A lot of those with something to lose were in need of reassurance. Macaulay provided it. His history was a publisher’s delight. Offering that most attractive of combinations, intellectual prestige and effortless reading, he swept the drawing-rooms. No historian has ever won such instant popularity.

Despite the apparent effortlessness, Macaulay wanted to be widely read. ‘I shall not be satisfied unless I produce something which shall for a few days supersede the last fashionable novel on the tables of young ladies.’ He took a great deal of trouble over his style and that virtue was rewarded. The language scintillates. No-one has ever written with such vivacity, or with such feeling for the romance of great events.

It helped – if he needed any help – that Macaulay had not only read every important poem in English, Latin and Greek. He also wrote poetry and was influenced by Walter Scott, knowing all his verse by heart. In Hugh Trevor-Roper’s words: ‘He … consciously imitated Scott’s method of writing; his use of description, of local colour, or popular tradition.’ He also tried to visit all the battlefields he describes. Macaulay does not use the historic present. For him, history is the present. As he sets the scene, we feel as if we are there.

In Trevor-Roper’s view, Macaulay’s greatest strength as a historian was his grasp of politics. Intellect was reinforced by instinct and intuition. He understood why the men of affairs acted as they did. Moving from the council chamber into action, his command of pace and detail is awe-inspiring. James II’s final interview with Monmouth, the battle of Killiecrankie, the siege of Londonderry, the massacre of Glencoe, Judge Jeffreys’ butchery in the West country: those are a handful of examples from volumes which could supply hundreds.  Even when the reader knows the outcome, the narrative is as exciting as a good thriller.

Was it at this point that English prose reached its apogee? It is surely indisputable that no-one ever has to read a Macaulay sentence twice. In the decades after Shakespeare, prose writers still lumbered in the poets’ wake. Imagine how Hobbes would have written, two hundred years later. Hume and Gibbon both write beautifully, but that can be deceptive. After three apparently lucid sentences, you realise that you have not understood a word. They are the finest old brandy, to be sipped and savoured. Macaulay is great draughts of excellent ale. With him, metaphors proffer themselves. Is he striding along at a brisk light-infantry pace? Or is he a batsman, in total command at the wicket, able to dispatch the ball anywhere he chooses with a mere flash of the wrist?

These comparisons illuminate an important point. Macaulay was wholly at ease in his own skin. Has there ever been so clever a man – and no-one could have written like him without being very clever indeed – with such a complete absence of self-doubt? Although he came from a religious family, Macaulay had no interest in theology. When appropriate, he makes expressions of conventional piety, but this is about social respectability, not soul-searching. Mid-Victorian England was entering on a period of religious anxiety. German Biblical scholarship, Darwin, George Eliot, Matthew Arnold: admittedly, much of that took place in the next generation to Macaulay, but if he had any intimation of the melancholy, long, withdrawing roar of the sea of faith, he was unmoved by it. At most, he was a deist. Where there could be no answers, he was content to ask no questions.

Secularists often find substitute religions, and this was true of Macaulay. The teleological energies which he might have devoted to God went instead to the Whigs, one of the two great parties which emerged from the conflicts of the Seventeenth Century. Although some Whigs would have been Roundheads and Cromwellians while others had little sentimental attachment to Monarchy, by 1850, they were broadly satisfied with the mixed constitution as it had evolved and were not to be confused with the radical wing of what became the Liberal party. Moreover, they had always been firm in their support for the Hanoverians and were content enough with the Church of England.

The Tories, their rivals, had faced harder problems: political, intellectual and theological. They descended from the Cavaliers, and Charles I was their martyr. In the Seventeenth Century, their creed rested on twin foundations: the Church of England and the Divine Right of Kings – Church and King. A lot of them took divine right to its logical conclusion – some might say its reductio ad absurdum – and preached the doctrine of non-resistance. Even if the Monarch was a tyrant, men had no right to resist his authority.

Then came James II, a cruel monarch with a coarse mind, his personality a poisonous mixture of fanaticism and deviousness.

There were two difficulties. First, James was a Roman Catholic and a determined opponent of the Church of England. This might not have been insurmountable. By 1688, James was 55. A few years, and the threat to the Church would surely be removed. Then came the second difficulty. James had a son, who would be brought up as a Catholic. The Church’s peril intensified. Faced by an apparent schism between Church and King, Tories agonised. Many of them reluctantly accepted the need to overthrow King James in order to preserve their Church and joined in the Glorious Revolution which brought in William III and Mary.

For the first few years, the rift did not necessarily seem permanent. James also had two daughters, Mary (wife of William) and Anne, both Anglicans. The prestige of being a Princess largely effaced the taint of being a usurper. One infant life was all that stood between the de facto arrangements of 1688/89 and a restoration of legitimacy. But Divine Providence appeared to be neglecting the Church of England. James’s son, another James, lived to become the Old Pretender and to give his name to the Jacobite cause. His sister Anne had nineteen children, all of whom perished in early infancy. A Whig-dominated Parliament passed Acts decreeing that no Roman Catholic could inherit the throne. So when Queen Anne died, the Crown side-stepped the descendants of Charles I’s daughter, Henrietta of Savoy, in favour of the Hanoverians. In 1714, the head of that house, George I, was fifty-fourth in succession to the Throne.

Although most Tories stopped short of rebellion, at least in England – the Highlanders were another matter – large numbers were unhappy. But as the century went on, they settled down to a grumbling acquiescence. After dinner, they might indulge in romanticism and nostalgia, toasting the King over the water. But the English rarely allow their politics to be swept up in romanticism. During the soberer parts of the day, and even though the association with Jacobitism kept their Party out of power until 1760, most Tories were content with the King on the banks of the Thames.

Macaulay was more than content, especially as those monarchs were happy to be guided by Whig Ministers. Sellars and Yeatman drew their delicious contrast between Right but Repulsive – the Roundheads – and the Cavaliers who were Wrong but Wromantic. Macaulay has his own synthesis: right and romantic. Milton sought to justify the ways of God to men. Macaulay’s secular teleology aspired to Miltonic grandeur and there is no sense in trying to give an account of his project when his own language is unsurpassable.

I shall trace the course of that revolution which terminated the long struggle between our sovereigns and their parliaments, and bound up together the rights of the people and the title of the reigning dynasty. I shall relate how the new settlement was … successfully defended against foreign and domestic enemies; how … the authority of law and the security of property were found to be compatible with a liberty of discussion and of individual action never before known; how, from the auspicious union of order and freedom, sprang a prosperity of which the annals of human affairs had furnished no example; how our country, from a state of ignominious vassalage, rapidly rose to the place of umpire among European powers; how her opulence and her martial glory grew together; how, by wise and resolute good faith, was gradually established  a public credit fruitful of marvels which to the statesmen of any former age would have seemed incredible; how a gigantic commerce gave birth to a maritime power compared with which every other maritime power … sinks into insignificance … how, in Asia, British adventurers founded an empire no less splendid and more durable than that of Alexander.

There is shade to accompany the light. Macaulay acknowledges grave errors, especially in regard to America and Ireland. But they are outweighed by the successes, he says: ‘Yet, unless I greatly deceive myself, the general effect of this chequered narrative will be to excite thankfulness in all religious minds and hope in the breasts of all patriots. For the history of our country during the last hundred and sixty years is eminently the history of physical, of moral, and of intellectual improvement. Those who compare the age on which their lot has fallen with a golden age which exists only in their imagination may talk of degeneracy and decay; but no man who is correctly informed as to the past will be disposed to take a morose or desponding view of the present.’ 

Macaulay goes further. Britain owes all these benisons, not to Divine favour, but to the party which led the country through manifold perils to an abiding constitutional settlement: the Whigs. He has a point. Although neither is so-described, there were two revolutions in modern British history. Both led to chaos and violence. In both cases, the resulting disorder reverberated down the centuries. Either could have condemned us to strife sufficiently unending as to justify any amount of morosity and despondency. The first was the Reformation; the second, the Civil War and the judicial murder of Charles I. After 1689, the Whigs are entitled to much of the credit for their helmsmanship. There is only one period when the Whig party was in danger of betraying the national interest; when that charming, mesmerising and dangerous rogue Charles James Fox was in charge. He would not have been the leader to see off the French. But he was almost always out-foxed by that most Whiggish of Tories, Pitt the Younger.

As for the Tories, their early historian Keith Feiling, who could also evoke the past, believed that when it reluctantly abandoned the Divine Right of Kings, the original Tory party lost its raison d’etre. Certainly, there was no replacement as a core belief.

In recent times, that Tory arch romantic Enoch Powell had proclaimed the Crown in Parliament with the same fervour as a cavalier would have acclaimed Church and King. But there is a difference. Until 1689, Church and King was an active constitutional principle, aspiring indeed to be a dominant one. The Crown in Parliament is just a sonorous phrase, with as much political meaning as the Herald’s costumes at the State Opening of Parliament. After the Glorious Revolution, Toryism settled down to become the brake to a Whig accelerator. Like Falkland, wise Tories believed that when it was not necessary to change, it was necessary not to change. But that was a literally reactionary stance, not a positive one. As the tears passed, it might have been assumed that a party which could not see the necessity for change in the early 1830s would condemn itself to the margins of politics. Yet as the historical script changed, it was the Whigs who were written out of it. Macaulay would have been horrified.

Originally, Macaulay had intended to end his triumphal march in 1830. But in the Fifties, failing health restricted his ambitions. Four volumes were published in his lifetime, reaching 1697. A fifth, edited by his sister, reached 1702. The rest remains a might have been. But the books that we have tower over incompleteness.

Initially, Macaulay’s success was academic as well as literary and financial. His work became the standard history of its period, for all his Whig coat-trailing, There had always been detractors. As a young man, he had been nick-named Cocksure Tom, and Melbourne had famously said that he wished he was as sure of anything as Tom Macaulay was of everything. But much of that can be put down to jealousy. When it came to the history, the Tory counter-attack was surprisingly muted. He was discovered to have made mistakes, and when these were pointed out, was reluctant to make corrections. But that is a minor failing: ‘Better to err with Pope than shine with Pye.’

A full attempt at rebuttal had to wait for more than a Century, when Sir Herbert Butterfield produced The Whig Interpretation of History, which has at least one remarkable aspect. It manages to be the anti-Macaulay, without ever mentioning Macaulay’s name. According to Butterfield, the Whigs were far more concerned to use history for political propaganda, including easy moral judgments, than to be good Rankeans. Following Ranke – but emphatically not Macaulay – Butterfield believed in the autonomy of the past.

Oddly enough, for Butterfield,  it was ‘in Lord Acton [that] the whig historian reached his highest consciousness’, which seems to be a paradoxical judgment, given that Acton was a Roman Catholic. Butterfield was against the use of history for partisan purposes, and he is particularly effective on Luther, whose religious views, especially on toleration, were far more rooted in the Sixteenth Century than many of his modern adherents care to acknowledge. Butterfield insisted that the historian ought to be ‘concerned with the concrete and… at home in the world of facts and people.’ Fair enough, but there are plenty of people and lots of facts in Macaulay. Perhaps we should conclude that there is more than one way to write history.

Macaulay gradually ceased to be fashionable, and there is an obvious explanation. He extols one hundred and sixty years of progress, and that continued for several decades after his first volume. It was then followed by the blackest period in history since the Dark Ages. Civilisation survived, not through Whiggery or any other method of political improvement, but because the mutually-assured destruction of the nuclear era has, thus far, prevented a third world war.

We can be inspired by Macaulay’s Victorian optimism. If only we could share it. Macaulay evokes a serene world, in which there appeared to be no barriers to the onward march of progress, no limits to human achievement, every reason for optimism and hope. A serene world, and a lost one – but at least we have the book.


Bruce Anderson