- BuyMacaulay and Son: Architects of Imperial Britain by Catherine Hall
Yale, 389 pp, £35.00, October 2012, ISBN 978 0 300 16023 9
Thomas Babington Macaulay – later Lord Macaulay, and ‘Tom’ to Catherine Hall – was the most influential of all British historians. Sales of the first two volumes of his great History of England, published in 1848, rivalled those of Scott and Dickens. The main reason for his popularity, apart from his literary style, was that he flattered the English by crediting them with a unique history of evolving ‘freedom’. Hall thinks – what might at first glance appear paradoxical – that he also reconciled them to their empire. Thus bolstered, they strode out into the world, confident both of their own national virtue and in their mission to spread it globally. It’s in this sense that Tom Macaulay and his father, Zachary, can be regarded as ‘architects of imperial Britain’.
Vol. 34 No. 23 · 6 December 2012
From Dan Stacey
There are some rather obvious and unfair omissions in Bernard Porter’s account of Macaulay (LRB, 22 November). First, Porter refers to the absence of ordinary men and women in the History of England and says that Macaulay was ‘thinking only of middle-class men’ and ‘probably not of women at all’. But he does not mention Macaulay’s famous third chapter, an innovative (no doubt crude) attempt at social history, dealing with, among other things, the labour of children in factories, the growth of towns, the number of paupers, the state of the common people, agricultural wages and female education.
Second, although Porter may be correct that the History of England does not feature the ‘contemporary histories of most of Britain’s colonies’, Macaulay’s two essays on Lord Clive and Warren Hastings are detailed portraits of the period, and of India at the time. In fact, at the beginning of his essay on Clive, Macaulay bemoans the lack of general knowledge in England of colonial history. ‘It might have been expected,’ he writes, ‘that every Englishman who takes any interest in any part of history would be curious to know how a handful of his countrymen, separated from their home by an immense ocean, subjugated, in the course of a few years, one of the greatest empires in the world. Yet, unless we greatly err, this subject is, to most readers, not only insipid, but positively distasteful.’
Third, and perhaps most important, Porter refers to the ‘racism’ of Macaulay and his ‘pre-existing prejudice’. However, he doesn’t mention Macaulay’s remarkable article written for the Edinburgh Review in March 1827, ‘The Social and Industrial Capacities of Negroes’. This was a powerful attack on a report by one Major Moody which had been commissioned by the House of Commons. Moody had reported to the effect that the races should be kept apart or, as Macaulay puts it, ‘that there exists between the white and the black races an instinctive and unconquerable aversion which must frustrate for ever all hopes of seeing them unite in one society on equal terms’. Macaulay then devotes some thirty or forty pages to demolishing this thesis, pointing out that such differences are entirely social and not inherent at all. ‘We entertain little doubt,’ he stated, ‘that when the laws which create a distinction between the races shall be completely abolished, a very few generations will mitigate the prejudices which those laws have created and which they still maintain.’