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The Man and the Monument

By (February 1, 2010) One Comment

Macaulay: The Tragedy of Power

By Robert E. Sullivan
Harvard Belknap, 2009

1688: The First Modern Revolution

By Steve Pincus
Yale University Press, 2009

We’re perennially encouraged by stories of writers struggling against all odds, achieving their measure of fame by surmounting the stony indifference of the reading public. The 19th century Whig historian Thomas Babington Macaulay had the drive of these long-striving authors, but his story cannot possibly encourage us: fame stood beside Macaulay all his life, waiting impatiently to bestow all its bounties on everything he did. His luck is enough to make you hate the man, but the renown it brought him – and a cadre of descendants-cum-literary executors who’ve fixed their cannon on canonization – has compelled the opposite reaction. In the 150 years since his death, Macaulay has been near-universally revered, even though, as Robert E. Sullivan points out in his new biography of the man, the historian’s actual histories are seldom read anymore.

Full-dress biographies have been rare, and Sullivan, after paying due respects to start of one made by John Clive (1973’s vigorous, readable Macaulay: The Shaping of the Historian), proceeds to write a life that will likely stand as definitive for decades. Definitive, but problematic.

Arthur Bryant, in writing his own fun and briskly opinionated 1932 biography of Macaulay, set out the standard warning: “Apart from their writings, the lives of writers tend to be uneventful, and, the more they write, the truer this is, since so much of their time has to be spent at their sedentary task.” But Bryant knew well that in this as in so much else, Macaulay defied conventional wisdom. The son of a prominent Scottish evangelical, he achieved fame in a way that stirs the hope of every miserable freelancer in the world: his passionate, erudite essays for The Edinburgh Review brought him to the attention of influential political powers in London, and Macaulay was duly installed – while still in his early thirties – in the House of Commons, where he made several epic speeches on issues of the day.

When his administration fell from power, good fortune installed him as a member of the Supreme Council of India, a profitable posting to which he ventured in 1834 with Hannah, one of his two much-loved younger sisters (Macaulay never married nor, so far as we know, ever seriously considered doing so), his other sister Margaret remaining behind in England. Her death while Macaulay was away filled him with a desolation alleviated only by Hannah and literature – he had all his life been a voracious and precipitous reader (his collected marginalia would make a very funny book, unless you happened to be one of the authors he disliked), and before he returned from his Indian posting in 1837, he’d already started dreaming of producing something grand himself. He didn’t associate this dream with the huge success of his poetry, even though his Lays of Ancient Rome (in a characteristically apt phrase, Sullivan says it “provided England with a surrogate national epic”) was a runaway success. He didn’t associate this dream with his collected essays, even though its sales broke records in England. No, for Macaulay there was ever only one dream: to write a great work of history.

And once he’d written it, good fortune outdid itself. The first volumes Macaulay’s History of England sold out of their first edition before it had even appeared in bookstores. The author had half-joked that his aim was to “produce something which shall for a few days supersede the last fashionable novel on the tables of young ladies,” but the book – which took as its subject the so-called “Glorious Revolution” of 1688 in which the Catholic monarch James II was deposed and replaced with the Protestant Dutch soldier-prince William of Orange and his wife Mary, a daughter of James by his first wife – sold better than Macaulay could have dreamt.

The tremendous financial success of the History was only the outward and most trivial manifestation of its power. Through its note-perfect (“pellucid,” as Macaulay himself called it) prose, it enraptured readers from the Duke of Wellington and Queen Victoria to the poorest Welsh coal miners; it was translated into dozens of languages and moved its author (whom the wag Sydney Smith referred to as “a book in breeches”) into the company of Clarendon, Gibbon, and Carlyle.

Which alone would have made him fair game for biographers, and it’s to Robert Sullivan’s credit that his biography (ominously subtitled The Tragedy of Power) ranges far and wide in all directions from this central meteor. He’s quite a pellucid writer himself, and his chapters on the work Macaulay did reforming the Indian criminal code (and forming the subcontinent’s durable educational system), as well as those on the historian’s declining years, are vivid with new detail and sensitive judgement. If anything, Sullivan tries a little too hard to crush the History back into some semblance of mortal proportion, characterizing it as “Rhetoric, flattery, moralism, and flashy stories” and imputing to it a crass commercialism other biographers have been loath to suggest:

Which alone would have made him fair game for biographers, and it’s to Robert Sullivan’s credit that his biography (ominously subtitled The Tragedy of Power) ranges far and wide in all directions from this central meteor. He’s quite a pellucid writer himself, and his chapters on the work Macaulay did reforming the Indian criminal code (and forming the subcontinent’s durable educational system), as well as those on the historian’s declining years, are vivid with new detail and sensitive judgement. If anything, Sullivan tries a little too hard to crush the History back into some semblance of mortal proportion, characterizing it as “Rhetoric, flattery, moralism, and flashy stories” and imputing to it a crass commercialism other biographers have been loath to suggest:

Macaulay’s desire for big money moved him to write for audiences of markedly different interests and aptitudes. His book is an unfinished Faberge, not the curate’s egg, and its long popularity and survival depended on his literary genius. Appealing to naifs and sophisticates alike, it gained a wide audience because it could engage readers wherever they picked it up or put it down.

Sullivan even goes so far as to use a certain three-letter word in connection with Macaulay, something that would have seemed an act of blackest lèse-majesté even thirty years ago. See if you can spot it:

… a simple theme connects Macaualy’s tales: the unparalleled greatness of England depended on the Revolution of 1688. Twenty years earlier he had hailed Cromwell as ‘the greatest Prince and Soldier of the Age.’ Now the shade of ‘the shade of the greatest prince that has ever ruled England,’ Oliver, loomed to rebuke his predecessor’s toxic weakness: ‘his power was the terror of all the world’ – evidence of the Chunzhi Emperor trembling in Beijing is sparse. Macaulay had already signaled to knowing readers the allegory underlying his contrast between Cromwell and Charles, along with much else in his book: ‘Thomas Hobes [sic] had, in language more precise and luminous than had ever been employed by any other metaphysical writer, maintained that the will of the prince was the standard of right and wrong.’

Perhaps it’s inevitable that in so assiduously cutting the History down to size, Sullivan should indulge in a few slices at the author himself – understandable too, that he should be feeling his ex cathedra oats when dealing with the aforementioned cadre of Macaulay descendants and defenders (his nephews, grandnephews, and grandnephews-in-law all became Macaulay-adulating historians, and each in his turn had sole control of the old man’s papers and letters, which is a wonderful tool for inducing like-minded adulation among successive generations of scholars). Inevitable, understandable – but unfortunate. The problem is that Macaulay led a largely unobjectionable life and was beloved by virtually everybody who knew him.

Sullivan tells us “Macaulay lived several lives, some of them known, others unknown or irretrievable,” and then he hones in on what is surely the most irretrievable of those lives: the historian’s relationship with his sisters (the surviving sister Hannah destroyed heaps of letters and diary entries, as did her children, and their children – what we have left has been scrubbed and sanitized so thoroughly you could eat your lunch off it). That relationship is far too close for Sullivan’s tastes. He characterizes it rather repulsively as Macaulay’s “unconsummated passion for his two younger sisters,” as though every Victorian who ever wrote affectionate letters was trembling on the edge of incest. The sibling connection forms the capper of a long list of perceived hypocrisies. According to Sullivan, this was someone who:

… became a prominent spokesman for abolishing slavery in the British Empire who lacked any taste for the cause, a forceful theoretician and practitioner of reforming Whig politics who was a Machiavellian realist, a soaring parliamentary orator who avoided debate, a self-declared Christian who was a committed skeptic and a masterly secularizer of English history and culture, and a stern public moralist in love with his two youngest sisters.

But Sullivan himself is the one to point out how easily he could be in error on this ground, and I can’t put my own cautions to him any better than he puts them to himself:

Two realities condition any effort to interpret the words of the recently appointed member of the Supreme Council of India: all of us have expressed our emotions in hyperbole that makes us seem both ridiculous and sad when it is embalmed in print; establishing what words from a vanished world likely raised eyebrows there is a tentative business.

A tentative business, yes, and more often than not wrongly done. Whether there was ever any proof of that Sullivan’s ‘in love’ should stand instead of the simpler and less libelous ‘who loved’ there’s none now, and it’s surely a score on which a great writer should be given the benefit of a fairly small doubt.

No such restraint need apply when dealing with the man’s works, and Sullivan is universally strong and perceptive in that regard. He has to be: contending with the long and incredibly pronounced shadow cast on all subsequent writing of history by Macaulay’s masterpiece is no job for the faint-hearted. The magisterial assurance of the History, its gorgeous, sonorous prose and granite verdicts, have shaped the reading of their events since the moment of publication. In Macaulay’s view, the Glorious Revolution was the essential turning point of English history, a calm, rational, and orderly transition from the madness of singular autocratic royal rule to the control and debate of parliamentary procedure. A small band of concerned aristocrats, seeing the increasingly absolutist trends of the willful James II, seeing his efforts to restore Catholicism to England, seeing his unacceptably cordial relations with France, and worst of all seeing his hithertofore infecund queen Mary of Modena give birth to a healthy baby boy (thereby raising the specter of a Catholic dynasty, rather than one no longer young Catholic king), exercised “freedom in the midst of servitude” and secretly invited William of Orange and his wife to invade England and take the crown from James. It was all very orderly, in Macaulay’s overwhelmingly popular telling, and not a drop of English blood was spilled. “And,” the author triumphantly continued, “if it be asked what has made us to differ from others, the answer is that we never lost what others are wildly and blindly seeking to regain. It is because we had a preserving revolution in the seventeenth century that we have not had a destroying revolution in the nineteenth.”

It’s a testament to the sheer power of Macaulay that such oracular pronouncements stood unchallenged for so long – and they’re still unchallenged, in their basic tenets, in most popular accounts of the period. That power can also be gauged by the crop of books that have risen up over the years to challenge it, and 1688: The First Modern Revolution is the best of that crop to date.

Steve Pincus, like Sullivan, is properly reverential to the rhetorical beauty of Macaulay’s History (diplomatic, since in terms of prose skill, Macaulay rather handily writes both of them under the table), but he isn’t buying a single word of it. He writes – and he assembles a truly formidable array of historical sources to back up what he writes – that the Glorious Revolution has been critically misunderstood by generations of historians, with the champion misunderstander being Macaulay.

If its reader is up to speed on Macaulay and 17th century English history, 1688: The First Modern Revolution is a disarmingly fun book to read. Pincus stresses many pivotal historical points, including the fact that the Revolution wasn’t at all bloodless in Scotland, still less in Ireland. He maintains that James wasn’t ousted for religious reasons, regardless of the unexpected birth of his son – the mass of the kingdom had welcomed his accession, knowing his religion full well. No, the problem wasn’t James’ old religion or even his absolutist tendencies – it was the new and hyper-efficient lickspittle bureaucracy he was implementing to enact both:

Frustration with high politics at the center of government ultimately led James to the most modern and thoroughgoing set of political maneuvers that England had ever experienced. When Parliament failed to approve of James’s desire to employ Roman Catholics in the army, James felt it was time to reevaluate his political circle. The king rejected the notion that he should seek advice from a broad spectrum of political opinion. He insisted that all of Charles II’s problems had arisen from “divided councils.” Instead, James told the French ambassador, he would retain at court and in his councils only “those who were entirely attached to his interests.”

In strengthening these changes, Pincus argues, James was crucially misunderstanding the nature of his own times, in which a large and growing amount of real power was accumulating in the hands of citizens who weren’t always entirely attached to his interests. “The Whig revolutionary triumph brought with it a new bourgeois culture,” Pincus tells us. “The revolution in political economy brought with it a revolution in cultural values,” and the revolution was not only motivated by those values but necessitated by them:

…James II’s modernizing program, for all its commitment to trade and empire, was not a bourgeois vision. The exponents of James II’s political-economic program were critical of urban populations and placed territorial acquisition at the heart of their imperial program. Merchants were to have no independent political role. James’s ideological achievement was to harness commercial society for landed norms. His program was simultaneously modernizing and antibourgeois.

This is shrewd, persuasive stuff. Pincus’ book is as potent a counter-measure to the stately Whig triumph of Macaulay’s History as anybody has yet written, and it deserves a wide audience. It was Macaulay himself who wrote: “Facts are the mere dross of history. It is from the abstract truth which interpenetrates them, and lies latent among them like gold in the ore, that the mass derives its whole value.” But the truth is mercurial, and the ore is always being reshaped by new hands. It’s an oddly comforting thought, that we’re finally willing (though perhaps not perfectly able) to look back at the heyday of Victorian historiography and tackle both the man and the monument.

Steve Donoghue is a writer and reader living in Boston with his dogs. He’s recently reviewed books for The Columbia Journal of American Studies, Historical Novel Review Online, and The Quarterly Conversation. He is the Managing Editor of Open Letters Monthly, and hosts one of its blogs, Stevereads.

One Comment »

  • Oz Childs says:

    Macaulay’s History tells about the Glencoe massacre in Scotland (the most painful chapter Macaulay ever wrote, since William III was his hero) and has a long and captivating series of chapters on the subsequent war in Ireland. It’s unfair to suggest that Macaulay thought the Revolution was bloodless in every part of the three kingdoms.

    But it is silly to claim some other reason for the Glorious Revolution than the almost-universal reaction to James’s attempt to make England (and ultimately Scotland) Roman Catholic. It wasn’t just about the Army. James started to replace the heads of colleges at Oxford with Catholics, and, famously, prosecuted 7 bishops who refused to read aloud his Declaration that promoted the growth of Catholicism in the English Church. That, and that alone, was sufficient to temporarily suspend the ideological battle between Whig and Tory and undermine all meaningful support for James when William decided to come over with a small but effective army. Had James just supported the Established Church though not himself a believer, his reign would have been as peaceful, domestically, as his brother’s — and a good deal better managed.

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