- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 7, 2010

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

MACAULAY: THE TRAGEDY OF POWER

By Robert E. Sullivan Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, $39.95, 624 pages

Reviewed by John R. Coyne Jr.

“The history of England is emphatically the history of progress.” That, in a nutshell, is the Whig theory of history, as articulated by the subject of this heavily researched, strongly written and somewhat peculiar book. Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800-1859), historian, essayist and statesman, was the colonial administrator who made English the language of India and authored that country’s penal code, much of which it retains today. As historian and man of letters, his most important contribution was the “History of England From the Accession of James II,” a work that equaled the novels of Charles Dickens and George Eliot in sales.

Macaulay served in Parliament, where he distinguished himself as an orator and a supporter of reform, abolition of the slave trade and the removal of all sanctions against Jews. He also held various Cabinet and government posts and is widely credited with creating the civil service.

Obviously, he was a man of considerable accomplishment. However, as Robert E. Sullivan, a priest, writes, “Within living memory much of the English reading world has demoted him from an Eminent Victorian … to a name known only to liberal-arts graduates of a certain age and to students of nineteenth century culture.” True enough. And so why this disinterment? Another academic attempt to burnish a faded reputation? Not at all. As becomes immediately apparent, Father Sullivan’s intention here is to resurrect Mac-aulay and drive a stake through his heart.

Macaulay, he writes, “succeeded in crafting an intricate and winning public face that often belied him. He became a prominent spokesman for abolishing slavery … 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 stern public moralist in love with his two youngest sisters.”

Macaulay’s life and reputation, in short, are totally hypocritical, and despite his perceived accomplishments, grudgingly acknowledged here, his intentions were always less than admirable. His life and actions told one story, his mind and heart another. In the end, it’s this literary heart-and-mind reading that informs Father Sullivan’s brief. Nor is he content to stop with Macaulay’s public life, as that last distasteful charge demonstrates.

Thomas Pinney, who edited the Macaulay correspondence that Father Sullivan consulted, wrote that to suppose Macaulay had an incestuous relationship with his sisters was “absurd.” But Father Sullivan won’t have it. “Among the Macaulays, he writes, snidely, “as in many respectable nineteenth century families, the incest taboo, though technically inviolable, was supple.”

Why this animosity, at times edging toward prurient nastiness? And just who is Robert E. Sullivan, and why does he loathe Macaulay? Surely, because he reads Macaulay’s heart and mind, we’re entitled to read his.

Given the heft of this book and the prestige of its publisher, you would expect a good deal of biographical detail about its author, but all we’re told is that Father Sullivan is associate professor of history and associate vice president at Notre Dame. He’s also a priest, so it’s hardly a surprise that a priest named Sullivan who works at the home of “the fighting Irish” focuses inordinately on Macaulay’s apologia for historical British policy in Ireland.

The initial book idea, born in a Dublin pub, was to study Macaulay as a classicist, Father Sullivan writes. However, in reading for it, he was electrified by a Macaulay comment about Cromwell’s brutal invasion of Ireland, which appeared to endorse “civilizing slaughter.” In the end, that’s what the book is about - Crom- well, Ireland, imperialism, a misguided faith in the efficacy of progress, the irrelevance of religion - and it features all the prejudices, quirks, inhibitions, repressions and sublimations that we’ve been conditioned to associate with the mid-Victorians, all personified by one man. A heavy burden, indeed. Nor are there limits.

Macaulay’s acceptance of Cromwell’s brutality made him “the first European” to endorse “ethnic cleansing,” which led to genocide. Thus, “much that maimed the 20th century derived from what Macaulay taught his contemporaries to see as reasonable.” Along the way, just to pound the point home, Father Sullivan links Macaulay’s name with those of Hitler, Stalin and even Mussolini (no mention of Franco).

In all, it’s a startling bill of particulars, albeit one singularly lacking in any measure of Christian charity.

John R. Coyne Jr., a former White House speechwriter, is co-author with Linda Bridges of “Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement” (Wiley, 2007).

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