Macaulay and Son: Architects of Imperial Britain 
by Catherine Hall.
Yale, 389 pp., £35, October 2012, 978 0 300 16023 9
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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’.

George Scharf, ‘The Funeral of Thomas Babington Macaulay’ (1860). Image: National Portrait Gallery.

George Scharf, ‘The Funeral of Thomas Babington Macaulay’ (1860). Image: National Portrait Gallery.

That is one of the two main themes of Hall’s unusual joint biography. The other is the way the great historian’s views were influenced by his family life, and in particular by his parents and two of his sisters. (He never married.) This aspect of the lives of ‘great men’ is often ignored, marginalised or clichéd away. Here, building on Family Fortunes, her groundbreaking book of 1987 (written with Leonore Davidoff), Hall describes Macaulay’s family context at some length, analyses it sensitively, and relates it convincingly to his career and work. (It’s the reason, I think, and a good one, for her calling him Tom, as his family did.) The result is the most rounded and fascinating biography of a political figure (let alone two) that it has ever been my pleasure to read. It also got me wondering about the effects of my own family background, and curious to know about Hall’s.

Tom’s wouldn’t have suited me at all. Sent away to boarding school at the age of 13 – not to one of the great public schools: much too immoral – he was desperately unhappy, as his tear-stained letters to his parents attest. He was unathletic, and couldn’t see the point of his schoolmates’ childish games. ‘Tom will play at Homer,’ his sister Margaret remembered one of them complaining; and ‘I can’t play at Homer.’ Zachary was a hard taskmaster, burdening his precocious eldest son with huge expectations – he hoped that, with proper application, ‘a being might be formed who could regenerate the world’ – yet never encouraging him with any praise. ‘Fathers have flinty hearts,’ Tom was to observe later. The particular brand of Christianity that motivated the anti-slavery efforts for which Zachary is best known was also personally oppressive, with its image of a judgmental God overlooking our every move. The only affection Tom ever got was from his mother and sisters. When his mother and Margaret died he was bereft, but his sisters’ marriages upset him even more: he wrote a cruel letter to Margaret when she left him to become Mrs Cropper; and when she died of scarlet fever told his other favourite sister, Hannah, that he found Margaret’s ‘death a less trial than the living death of marriage’.

As an adult Tom was opinionated, boring in conversation – lecturing rather than discussing – and sometimes viciously insulting in his writing. He was not physically prepossessing: ‘a little man of small voice, and affected utterance’, as one contemporary described him, ‘clipping his words and hissing like a serpent’. It seems remarkable that he became so renowned as a parliamentary orator, but it must have been purely – rather like Churchill, perhaps – because of the literary quality of his speeches. Two of these, on parliamentary reform (2 March and 5 July 1831), are classics of the genre. He went on to become a famous essayist, usually hanging his own themes on the books he was supposed to be reviewing (but aren’t we all guilty of that?); something of a poet; and then – surprisingly – a legislator in India, with a clearly defined view of what would ‘improve’ the Indians, and some influence in this direction. That was before he decided to leave active politics and write his second great history book. (He’d already written ‘a compendium of Universal History’ at the age of eight.) One of his reasons may have been to escape from the traumas, as he saw them, of family life. The past was all done, finished, secure; it couldn’t let him down like his mother and siblings had. ‘In the dead there is no change.’ And it couldn’t answer back. (Surely there are signs of clinical depression here. Macaulay used to refer to his ‘blue devils’, which sound a bit like Churchill’s ‘black dog’.) Hence his immersion in the History of England: only a very short stretch of that history, as it happens, from 1685 to 1702, though with a substantial introduction dealing with ‘events leading up to’, and lots of obvious lessons for his own century.

Tom’s may not have been the best background against which to write such a history. It was somewhat restricted. The members of the evangelical Clapham Sect were narrow in their views, finding it impossible to conceive of any true morality divorced from their own brand of Christianity, against which they judged everyone and every other culture in the world. Though best known for his part in ending Caribbean slavery, then governing the slave refuge colony of Sierra Leone, Zachary, like his fellow abolitionist William Wilberforce, believed the spread of the Gospel was a much greater cause. Blacks should be free to serve their – that is, his – God, and to take their proper places in the hierarchy of humanity that the evangelicals saw as ‘natural’, and essential to stability. Those places depended more on education than on race, which is why Zachary can’t be regarded, technically, as a racist, though, as Hall points out, there was often some ‘slippage’ from one position to the other, especially later on. Nature also determined that women had a lower – though the evangelicals would have called it a ‘complementary’ – role, to support the men in the family; Tom’s sisters, while they were unmarried, dutifully performed this part. (In Hannah’s case this involved accompanying him to India, which she hated.) Men were supposed to be ‘manly’: true, honest, straight, independent-minded, protective of women and the like. More important than these particular views, however, may have been the ideal world of order and certainty that they implied. Again, one might speculate that this gave some comfort to a depressive personality.

What might have tempered these certainties – relativised them – was the knowledge Macaulay gained of parts of the world outside Christian Europe, vicariously through his father, and then directly from his own stay in India between 1834 and 1838. The early Victorians were great travellers, but tended to glean very different lessons from the experience. One group, satirised by Thackeray as ‘travel snobs’, came back full of the superiorities of ‘abroad’: in the colonies this was called ‘going native’. Macaulay himself noticed and deplored this among many Anglo-Indians. For another group, however, represented by Charles Lever’s Dodd Family Abroad (1852), visits to foreign countries merely served to confirm them in their xenophobic prejudices.

Tom Macaulay belonged to this group. Later, he described the existence of those who, like him, lived in India without ‘going native’ as one of ‘almost complete misery’. He was horribly shocked by the country: couldn’t understand its architecture, considered its music ‘deplorably bad’, disliked the smell of the food (though he is supposed to have enjoyed lobster curry, washed down with champagne), thought the bejewelled clothes of its native rulers ‘tawdry’. More seriously, he deplored India’s treatment of women, dismissed ‘Hindoo religion’ as ‘extravagantly absurd’, and was left cold by its literature – though there’s no sign that he read much of it. (He didn’t bother to learn any Indian language; Hannah dutifully did that for him, in order to be able to converse with the servants. In the meantime, Tom carried on reading Homer.) His notorious statement that any ‘single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabic’ hardly suggests an empathetic observer of traditions other than his own: Macaulay would have hated multiculturalism. Hall thinks his attitude was partly a result of his imperial experiences. But it wasn’t inevitable: contact with other races could almost as easily lead to cultural understanding and sympathy, though it probably needed closer contact with the ‘natives’ than Macaulay allowed himself. In his case probably the most we can say is that his Indian experiences did nothing to undermine his pre-existing prejudice.

That prejudice, basically, was that no other culture was as good as England’s, to which all nations should aspire. Here he departed from his father’s beliefs in one respect: Zachary thought England’s superiority lay in its Christianity, Tom in its history of ‘liberty’. His shining city on the hill was a strictly secular one. The salvation of the rest of the world rested on its ‘assimilation’ to that model. It’s the reason his History was of ‘England’, rather than Britain. Scotland had already gone through this process (he, originally from a Highland family, was a prime example: a fully Anglicised Scot); Ireland was resisting, but with a bit of coercion – this was his excuse for imperial control – would qualify for full English freedoms eventually. India would take longer – much longer. But ‘whenever it comes’ – the day when India demanded English institutions – ‘it will be the proudest day in English history’. Thus was patriotism combined with internationalism, of a sort.

I was reminded by this of a student of mine in America years ago. Asked by a redneck neighbour what he was studying, he replied: ‘British history’. ‘Why British history?’ the neighbour asked. ‘America has the best history in the world.’ That was obviously Macaulay’s view of English history. It’s a valid opinion, just. What is a little surprising is that he seems genuinely to have believed that it was an objective view. That was supposed to differentiate his History from all previous ones. ‘I have sacrificed nothing to temporary fashions of thought and style,’ he wrote in his journal in 1848. He expected his account to last: ‘I have tried to do something that may be remembered; I have had the year 2000, and even the year 3000, often in mind.’ He had abjured theories for facts, and those facts were supposed to establish the reliability of his account, and hence the lasting fame he hankered after. British history was supposed to stand as a beacon for others, and this book may have been his way of fulfilling his father’s ambition that he ‘regenerate the world’. It suited his personality better than becoming a ‘leader’ of any other sort.

But of course Tom was as much the creature of the ‘fashions’ of his time as we all are (which is not to say totally). That he believed himself to be independent of theories merely shows how thoroughly he had internalised the fashionable theories of his day. It could hardly be otherwise, in view of the narrowness of his upbringing and his reluctance, or inability, to look too closely at any of the alternative value systems he was brought into contact with: the culture of schoolboys, for example; of the working classes of Leeds and Edinburgh (the cities he represented in Parliament); or the India that he camped in, unhappily, during the years when he was meant to be legislating for it. He did manage eventually to distance himself from some aspects of his father’s evangelical Toryism – mainly the evangelical part – though he retained his view of natural hierarchies and of gender relations. His father probably wouldn’t have approved of his History. The main complaint of Zachary’s generation of evangelicals about history writing in their time had been that it found no room for ‘Divine Providence’; this made no appearance in Tom’s account either. The History also showed little sign of the humanitarianism that had fired his father’s struggle against slavery.

To the extent that Tom did escape his upbringing, it was to embrace two other broad theories, or assumptions, which he clearly didn’t recognise as such. The first was the idea of progress, which can be seen as a secular version of Zachary’s ‘workings of Providence’. The other was the notion of political economy, which rendered humanitarianism superfluous. There is little explicit mention of this in Macaulay’s writings, though he apparently lectured on it, or in Hall’s book, but it clearly infuses his thought. It’s the reason he had no time for the suffering working classes (he was initially against factory legislation for adults), or for his father’s West Indian ‘negroes’ once they were emancipated into the market. Indeed, he claimed to despise ‘negrophiles’ as much as ‘nigger drivers’. Philanthropy he regarded as ‘effeminate’. And the working classes he saw mainly as a ‘mob’; or, if they weren’t properly grateful to their betters, as ‘agitators’. Free trade, in labour as well as everything else, was expected to take care of all problems. (In fairness it should be remembered that free market theory at the time – unlike today’s – held that capitalism would eventually produce economic and social equality. John Stuart Mill, one of its champions, declared that if it didn’t, he would become a socialist.)

Macaulay’s History of England now reads obviously as a document of its time; which is the way it is usually treated, if it’s included, in history courses. As ‘objective’ history it is clearly deficient, as many of Catherine Hall’s and my own books doubtless are too (although we don’t claim to write for the year 3000). The omissions, especially, are glaring. Early on, Macaulay advocated broadening history out to include ‘ordinary men as they appear in their ordinary business and their ordinary pleasures’. He was thinking only of middle-class men – ‘the crowds of the exchange and the coffee house … the convivial table’ – and probably not of women at all, but even such men figure only ‘minimally in his History, driven out by high affairs of state’. Gender relations – ‘at least as important’ in history, he wrote earlier, ‘as the mutual relations of any two governments’ – suffered the same fate. The slave trade scarcely features, though it was active in his period; neither do the contemporary histories of most of Britain’s colonies. This goes back to his ideology too: colonies did not have histories before they had progressed to England’s stage. Needless to say, the voices of the colonised never appear. Nor do those of the labouring classes, except for the women ‘half-naked … chaunting a wild measure’ and the men ‘with brandished dirks’ doing ‘a war dance’ on 17th-century Tyneside before civilisation arrived there; or when they impinged dirtily on the gentry, before the more enlightened 18th century erected railings to keep the classes apart. By gender relations he may have meant only the way men treated women, which in his view was a major index of civilisation. These are some of what Hall calls the ‘absent presences of the History’.

On the question of imperialism more generally, Macaulay was ambivalent and clearly troubled. He believed Britain’s imperialism was too stained with ‘great national crimes’ to be celebrated for itself. He was against alien domination in principle: ‘of all forms of tyranny … the worst’ (that in relation to Ireland); unimpressed by Disraeli’s ideas of imperial federation; and convinced – and contented – that the ‘white’ settler colonies would fly the imperial nest soon. The dominant theme of Britain’s history was not its imperial expansion, but its moral and political progress, which slavery scarcely conformed to, though its abolition, of course, did. He doesn’t seem to have advocated further colonial expansion, only reform of the empire Britain already had. He was more willing to tolerate Indian religions, for example, than his father, but only for pragmatic reasons: upsetting the religious susceptibilities of colonial subjects made them harder to control; and these susceptibilities would in any case melt away naturally in the bright light of European rationalism. So he probably wasn’t an imperialist in the full-blown sense. But just as his views on comparative cultures could easily slip into racism, so his Anglocentric views of how Britain should reform her colonies could slide into imperialism. Later generations used Macaulay’s arguments to justify British – or French, German and most recently American – territorial, economic and cultural colonialism: liberal imperialism, as it became called.

His other main legacy was the way his particular interpretation of English history – exceptional, progressive, reforming, liberal, moderate, rational – came to serve the people of England itself. Whether his perspective in any way derived from his experience of Britain’s empire is difficult to say. Hall believes it did: that at the very least it furnished an ‘other’ for Macaulay to measure Britain against, so emphasising its ‘exceptionality’. But Macaulay already had his ‘other’: it was Britain before progress properly took hold, exemplified in the Scottish Highlands, late 17th-century Tyneside and the greater part of Ireland. And he wasn’t the first to see British history in broadly progressive terms; David Hume got there before him in his own History of England (1754-61). If India seemed primitive and decadent to Macaulay, it was because he was predisposed to think it so by his study of English history, his father’s view of his own kind as an ‘elect’, and his reading of, for example, James Mill’s History of British India (1818), which laid the foundation for his disparaging view of Indian culture – and meant he didn’t need to study it himself. I don’t think we can blame the empire for his views – but in the year 3000 they may prefer Hall’s ideas on this.

Whatever its genesis, Macaulay’s version of British history caught on, both in his time and later, feeding into a version of English (or British) national identity which is still much favoured today. It made the English feel good about themselves; and may have helped knit together the classes of British society at a time of ominously revolutionary feeling – as well as being the Year of Revolutions on the Continent and in Ireland, 1848 was also the date of the greatest, and last, Chartist demonstration in London. The notorious failure of that event seemed to corroborate Macaulay’s thesis: the best path to progress was the enlightened British one – not agitation, still less revolution, but ‘to reform that we may preserve’. Progress was something all could share in, even if its benefits hadn’t reached everyone yet. In one form or another this optimistic view dominated popular British history until the 1980s when progress, whose latest manifestation had widely been thought to be the welfare state (not that Macaulay would have approved of that), appeared to be faltering, and we all got more miserable. Until recently Macaulay was also the basis for the official version of British decolonisation: the claim that we granted freedom before it was demanded of us. And his is still the sort of history our rulers want to be taught to their young subjects – the original national curriculum in history, for example, set in 1988, included abolition as a key theme but not slavery itself – and would like prospective new citizens to learn. Macaulay didn’t create this myth, but he was what Hall calls its most ‘authoritative manly voice’.

Manly perhaps; but still dependent on ‘his’ women, the last of whom, Hannah, finally betrayed him when she decided to accompany her husband to India, leaving him, she said, ‘dreadfully depressed’. He sought solace in his writing, attempting to continue his still unfinished History. ‘I wish I were dead,’ he said. ‘I hardly know what I write.’ That was in October 1859; he died two months later. ‘His monument,’ Hall concludes, ‘was a paean to progress.’ Behind that monument, however, lies the tangle of inheritances from his chilly upbringing, distinctive personal relationships and broad contemporary influences which is so brilliantly unpicked in this biography. It isn’t the last word on either of the Macaulays; but it adds enormously to our picture of them, and affords a model of what can be gained by restoring women, family and questions of gender to their proper places in the lives of even the most masculinist of ‘great’ men.

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Vol. 34 No. 23 · 6 December 2012

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.’

Dan Stacey
London N5

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