Thomas Babington Macaulay

Thomas Babington (or Babbington) Macaulay, 1st Baron Macaulay, PC (October 25, 1800 December 28, 1859) was a nineteenth-century English poet, historian and Whig politician. He wrote extensively as an essayist and reviewer, and on British history.


The son of Zachary Macaulay, a British colonial governor and abolitionist, Macaulay was born in Leicestershire and educated at Trinity College, Cambridge. Macaulay was noted as a child prodigy. As a toddler, gazing out the window from his cot at the chimneys of a local factory, he is reputed to have put the question to his mother: "Does the smoke from those chimneys come from the fires of hell?" Whilst at Cambridge he wrote much poetry and won several prizes. In 1825 he published a prominent essay on Milton in the Edinburgh Review. In 1826 he was called to the bar, but showed more interest in a political than a legal career.

Macaulay as a politician

In 1830 he became a Member of Parliament for the pocket borough of Calne. He made his name with a series of speeches in favour of parliamentary reform. After the Great Reform Act was passed, he became MP for Leeds.


Macaulay was appointed Secretary to the Board of Control, which required him to visit India. Macaulay was a convinced colonialist and a believer in European, especially British, superiority over all things Oriental. Serving on the Supreme Council of India between 1834 and 1838 Macaulay was instrumental in creating the foundations of bilingual colonial India, by convincing the council and parliament to close schools and colleges teaching in Sanskrit or Arabic and instead to teach English to "natives" and provide education in English only.

Macaulay's criminal law system was enacted immediately in the aftermath of the Indian rebellion of 1857. It was a "successful" experiment - the Indian Penal Code was later reproduced in most other British colonies and to date many of these laws are still in place. The anti-sodomy provision, Section 377 continuing in places as far apart as Singapore, Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe.

The term Macaulay's Children is used to refer to people born of Indian ancestry who adopt Western culture as a lifestyle. The term is usually used in a derogatory fashion, and the connotation is one of disloyalty to one's country and one's heritage. The passage to which the term refers is from his Minute on Indian Education, delivered in 1835. It reads, "It is impossible for us, with our limited means, to attempt to educate the body of the people. We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect. To that class we may leave it to refine the vernacular dialects of the country, to enrich those dialects with terms of science borrowed from the Western nomenclature, and to render them by degrees fit vehicles for conveying knowledge to the great mass of the population."

Later career

Returning to Britain in 1838, he became MP for Edinburgh. He was made Secretary at War in 1839. After the fall of Lord Melbourne's government Macaulay devoted more time to literary work, but returned to office as Paymaster General in Lord John Russell's administration. In the election of 1847 he lost his seat in Edinburgh because of his neglect of local issues. In 1849 he was elected Lord Rector of the University of Glasgow and he also received the freedom of the city. In 1852 his party returned to office. He was offered a seat, but suffered a heart attack which seriously weakened him. He was raised to the Peerage in 1857 as Baron Macaulay, of Rothley in the County of Leicester, but seldom attended the House of Lords. His health made work increasingly difficult for him, and he was unable to complete his major work, The History of England, before his death in 1859. He was buried in Westminster Abbey.

Macaulay's great-nephew was the historian G. M. Trevelyan.

Literary works

During his first period out of office he composed the Lays of Ancient Rome, a series of very popular ballads about heroic episodes in Roman history. The most famous of them, Horatius, concerns the lone heroism of Horatius Cocles. It contains the often-quoted lines:

Then out spake brave Horatius, the Captain of the Gate:
"To every man upon this earth death cometh soon or late.
And how can man die better than facing fearful odds,
For the ashes of his fathers, and the temples of his gods."

During the 1840s he began work on his most famous history, the History of England from the accession of James II, publishing the first two volumes in 1848. The next two volumes appeared in 1855. He had only reached the reign of King William III when he died.

The history is famous for its brilliant ringing prose and for its confident, sometimes dogmatic, emphasis on a progressive model of British history, according to which the country threw off supersition, autocracy and confusion to create a balanced constitution and a forward-looking culture combined with freedom of belief and expression. This model of human progress has been called the Whig interpretation of history. Macaulay's approach has been criticised by later historians for its one sidedness and its complacency. His tendency to see history as a drama led him to treat figures whose views he opposed as if they were villains, while his approved characters were presented as heroes. Macaulay goes to considerable length, for example, to absolve his main hero William III of any responsibility for the Glencoe massacre.

  • "His imagination resembled the wings of an ostrich. It enabled him to run, though not to soar." On John Dryden. 1828.
  • "Thus then stands the case: it is good that authors should be remunerated and the least exceptionable way of remunerating them is by a monopoly, yet monopoly is an evil for the sake of the good. We must submit to the evil, but the evil ought not to last a day longer than is necessary for the purpose of securing the good."
  • (From Edinburgh Review, 1830) "If any person had told the Parliament which met in terror and perplexity after the crash of 1720 that in 1830 the wealth of England would surpass all their wildest dreams, that the annual revenue would equal the principal of that debt which they considered an intolerable burden, that for one man of £10,000 then living there would be five men of £50,000, that London would be twice as large and twice as populous, and that nevertheless the rate of mortality would have diminished to one half of what it then was, that the post-office would bring more into the exchequer than the excise and customs had brought in together under Charles II, that stage coaches would run from London to York in 24 hours, that men would be in the habit of sailing without wind, and would be beginning to ride without horses, our ancestors would have given as much credit to the prediction as they gave to Gulliver's Travels."

This biography was taken verbatim from the Wikipedia. We're providing a snapshot just in case the Wikipedia servers were temporarily unreacheable. The original page is not only much more up-to-date, it also features links to other pages and sites. This snapshot was last updated: 08/29/2006. (mm/dd/yyyy)

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