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A Good Word for Macaulay

On the historian.

About the author

Matthew Walther

Matthew Walther is editor of The Lamp.

Try as I might, I have never been able to dislike Macaulay. In this I find that I am not alone among Catholics, who might be expected to have hard things to say about the great booster of William III. Even Belloc (who once called the style of the History “as clear and clean and fresh as reasonably good water out of a large tap in the public washhouse of a well-appointed industrial town”) loved him in spite of the “whole haystack of dogmas, not one of which he knew to be a dogma” that made up his worldview.

The greatest of our twentieth-century historians went even further. For Dom David Knowles, who was fond of translating Macaulay’s speeches into Latin, he was not only the most distinguished historian Cambridge had produced, an orator of the first rank, the prince of English essayists, a narrative poet with the rare distinction of being read continually for pleasure and committed effortlessly to memory (which continues to this day)—he was also, in a sense, the inventor of the paragraph, in the modern sense of a unit of prose composition made up of sentences “in which a topic or an idea is taken up, dismissed, or discussed.”

One is tempted to dismiss this sort of thing out of hand. But dip into any of the great prose writers of the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries, and you will find that Knowles has got you dead to rights: it is the Latin period, crudely reduced into the long sentence, that is the basic unit of prose composition. In Gibbon, for example, paragraphs continue on for pages at a time, trailing off seemingly at random. This is true even of Macaulay’s contemporaries—compare his Essays with those of Lamb or De Quincey.

Of course no one writes that kind of thing anymore. The idea that reviewers ought themselves to aspire to literature went out with the ban on anarthrous noun modifiers. Nowadays in the pages of the “good” American newspapers one is lucky to read one review a week that suggests literacy, much less an agreeable style or a discriminating taste.

The problem is even more acute in the writing of history. It is difficult to imagine how the standard of prose composition in what we now call “nonfiction” could be any lower than it is at present. The golden ideal of haute vulgarisation which he realized in his History—for all its numberless errors of fact and interpretation—and bequeathed as a kind of trust or legacy to Trevor-Roper, Runciman, Hobsbawm, and others has been entirely squandered. Most of the would-be historians who scribble for the trade lines of our major university presses are scarcely better writers than the average Politico journalist, with the same fallen stock of mixed metaphor and debased syntax.

Yet for all this Macaulay in his own age and that which followed him was regarded not simply as a kind of inspired amateur—for there were, of course, no professional historians in England yet—but as the equal of the great Germans who were attempting to set the profession on a new footing. Never mind the school of Acton and Creighton, who awarded him the laurels for reasons of partisanship—his reputation was, if anything, higher on the continent. No less an authority than Mommsen considered Macaulay the greatest of all modern historians.

They were surely wrong about this. Lytton Strachey perhaps put it best when he wrote that Macaulay “did not—to put it succinctly—understand what he was talking about”; for him the particular quality of the later seventeenth century “in which religion, debauchery, intellect, faction, wit and brutality seethed and bubbled together in such an extraordinary olla podrida,” for many of us the source of its considerable charm, was faintly disgusting. It was in spite rather than because of his judgements—fatuous, erroneous, meliorist—that he survived.

The secret was, of course, his style. In what did it consist? Knowles praised it for its “absolute clarity” and tells us that if Macaulay’s vocabulary were quantified “he would be found to use a smaller variety of words than most great writers.” Strachey, who compared it to “that of a debater,” was even more precise:

The hard points are driven home like nails with unfailing dexterity; it is useless to hope for subtlety or refinement; one cannot hammer with delicacy. The repetitions, the antitheses, resemble revolving cog-wheels; and indeed the total result produces an effect which suggests the operations of a machine more than anything else—a comparison which, no doubt, would have delighted Macaulay.

This sounds very cutting. Yet what a style it is! There is nothing in it of the polished Gibbonian irony of Newman—nearly his exactly contemporary—or the whimsy of Lamb or the spirited agitato of Carlyle; there is not even that limpid coldness one finds in Gladstone. But what an afterlife it would enjoy. It was (pace Waugh, who refused to believe that others did not aspire to his own Augustan ideal) the basis of Churchill’s style and by way of Churchill the style of William Manchester and dozens of forgotten minor American men of letters—the authors of Book of the Month Club selections that now gather dust in used bookshops or appear in the free pile outside of libraries. But what a useful vehicle it was for confidence, for Whiggish prescription and half-cultured spite. In comparison with the journalese in which modern history is written—which also aspires to a kind of hammer-like clarity—it is as musical as Sir Thomas Browne.

That brings me to my actual purpose in writing, which is to say that I was disheartened recently to happen upon an essay in Another Publication which referred to Macaulay as a “liberal futurist.” Could a more ludicrous verdict be imagined? While it is certainly true that his “delight in large brick towns of the north and the midlands has become our nausea” (Belloc again), it is difficult to think of a man who cared less for the “future,” whose imagination was more thoroughly imbued with the spirit of old times, than Macaulay, whose chief pleasure in life was to take long walks while reading Homer, who read and re-read Dante continuously, who committed the whole of Paradise Lost and most of Shakespeare’s plays to memory and considered Father Sarpi’s history of Trent worthy of Thucydides, for whom the merits and defects of the Roman emperors remained live questions which weighed upon him at breakfast, who each year worked through the whole of Plato and Cicero in his moments of leisure, who at a moment’s notice could scrawl the names of every don in the history of Cambridge on a scrap of paper. A four-year-old Ronald Knox was asked by a family friend what he did instead of sleeping and replied: “I lie awake and think about the past.” Macaulay might have said the same thing at age forty.

But to return to the essay, the other absurd thing was the author’s insistence that Macaulay is an obscure figure from the murkier byways of nineteenth-century English letters, like Viscount Bryce. He is, of course, nothing of the kind, which is why for quite ordinary Americans in their seventies (grandfathers with high school educations like my own) he survives as a mononym, like Beethoven or Darwin; meanwhile the author of the piece in question styles him “Baron Thomas Macaulay [sic].”

I realize that I have gone on rather longer here than I meant to, which is why I shall give the last word (once more) to Belloc:

His philosophy is as dead as mutton; his doctrines are a jest; the falsehoods in which he delighted—representation, competition, impeccable judges, habeas corpus—(they are still repeated in our textbooks, but it is now ritual alone) are found out and quite discredited; what was his delight in large brick towns of the north and the midlands has become our nausea; his conception of government by the rich as a sort of paradise is not accepted by the rich themselves to-day. Yet he does not date.