- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 9, 2004

Faddish academic theorists today say history is merely a bad set of fictions, mere pseudo-literature. Their nonsense aside, in the old days history did resemble literature in a grander way — in its style and pride in the sound of the English language.

True, some contemporary historians (say, Steven Ambrose or James McPherson) address a wide audience with well-written studies. But we have no Edward Gibbon on Rome, no Francis Parkman on the Oregon Trail, and, last, no Lord Macaulay on England. One can admire many styles of writing, but few people ever wrote classic English prose better than he.

The writing of Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800-1859) is as impressive and sonorous as his name. Twice an MP for Edinburgh, once secretary of war, and several times a cabinet official for India, Macaulay made a sensation with two major essays on literature in the trend-setting Edinburgh Review: “On Milton” (1826) and a review of a biography of Lord Byron (1830), who had died six years earlier.

His “History of England From the Accession of James the Second,” whose first volumes were published in 1849, sealed his reputation. The work solidified an idea, first accepted in England and then by assimilation in America, that still lives on — the idea of progress through the expansion of democracy and capitalism. In 1850s America, sales of the “History” were exceeded only by a few works, notably the Bible and “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”

Macaulay was a key proponent of what is termed the “Whig interpretation of history,” named for the Whigs, the progressive party, eventually to become the Liberal Party, of England. In the 19th century, “liberal” meant almost the opposite of what it does today: faith in the market, limits on government, and expansion of individual, not group, rights.

In Macaulay’s view, English history was a postlude to the Magna Carta, when restriction on solo authority was first legalized. Once absolute power was checked, he said, it was only a matter of time — albeit a few centuries — until the creation of constitutional monarchy and popular franchise, albeit limited.

Macaulay articulated what developed into the belief, especially strong in America under Woodrow Wilson (a history professor before becoming president), that history reveals, or should produce, the triumph of democracy.

The “History” only details a short period. Macaulay’s knowledge of early and medieval England was slight and he treats it only briefly. His focus was on the 17th century and sectarian fanaticism under the Stuart dynasty. In Macaulay’s view, James I maintained religious peace among all varieties of believers, but Charles I so stressed royal prerogative and reaction against the Reformation that he provoked revolution (and his own execution) by the Puritans.

His son Charles II (when he paid attention to politics, not fun, Macaulay cracks) restored the peace of James I. Charles’ brother James II returned to the policies of their father, leading to his ouster by the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688, when parliamentary forces replaced James II with his son-in-law William of Orange and his daughter Mary. “Glorious” it was, Macaulay said, because it destroyed royal despotism without destroying royalty.

Admittedly, some of the “History” is tough slogging through Stuart politics. But then there are the glories of Macaulay’s scene-setting, such as his description of the burial ground in the Tower of London:

“In truth there is no sadder spot on the earth than that little cemetery. Death is there associated, not, as in Westminster Abbey and St. Paul’s, with genius and virtue, with public veneration and imperishable renown; not, as in our humblest churches and churchyards, with everything that is most endearing in social and domestic charities; but with whatever is darkest in human nature and in human destiny, with the savage triumph of implacable enemies, with the inconstancy, the ingratitude, the cowardice of friends, with all the miseries of fallen greatness and of blighted fame.”

The rest of the passage becomes an elegy for all the dead buried there, from Lady Jane Grey to famous bishops to lord high treasurers. As Macaulay says of the risky politics of bygone times, “They were fighting not merely for office, but for life.”

Macaulay crafted many such phrases. In his “Byron” essay, he observed, “We know of no spectacle so ridiculous as the British public in one of its periodical fits of morality.” Still, the most famous phrase connected with Macaulay is not by but about him. A prime minister in the early 1800s, Lord Grenville, said, “I wish I were as sure about anything as Macaulay is about everything.”

Macaulay does sound sure of himself. His rolling cadences and parallelisms — all bearing the imprint of classical rhetoric and parliamentary eloquence — sweep everything before them. A closer look shows that Macaulay qualified his view of progress. He simply has such an orderly way of writing about complications that they sound insignificant.

His “History,” Macaulay said, was not one of complete triumph. Though celebrating the fall of James II, he lambastes the abuses of the new parliamentary system, the corruption that came with the explosion of wealth in the 18th century, and in the 1770s, the royal “imprudence and obstinacy [that] broke the ties which bound the North American colonies to the parent state.” He condemned the mistreatment of Ireland.

“Yet, unless I greatly deceive myself,” he wrote in the “History,” “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.”

The best edition of Macaulay’s “History of England” that is readily available is a Penguin paperback abridged by the 20th-century grandmaster of English history, Sir Hugh Trevor Roper. The abridgement leaves out Macaulay’s quick treatment of events pre-1685. The most complete (and annotated) edition is by T.F. Henderson, a 1931 World Classics five-volume set. Macaulay’s essays are widely available in many paperback editions with varied selections.

Macaulay was among the last “Renaissance men.” He wrote poetry (the “Lays of Ancient Rome”); his short essays are brilliant. In “Milton,” for shock’s sake, he pronounced, “The more civilization advances the more poetry declines.” By “poetry,” he meant all the arts, and one can fault him for missing, during and after his time, the music of Vienna or of Giuseppe Verdi. But who can contest the general claim that — in an age of science and now cyberspace — no William Shakespeare, Leonardo da Vinci or Ludwig van Beethoven will come again? (Architecture may yield an exception.)

Macaulay knew progress had prices. Today, some say the prices are too high: To take one example, we are content if our children read an occasional book instead of watching SpongeBob SquarePants. A few, perhaps, may read Macaulay someday. If they did, how they would write.

Tom O’Brien is an editor of Arts Education Policy Review.

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