Scholar among Rakes: Macaulay Communes across the Generations

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Macaulay--or, to give him his full name and peerage, Thomas Babington Macaulay, first Baron Macaulay--died a century and a half ago. No historian has aroused a greater range of emotions, from deep love to wild hate. The deep love became evident in his own day, when his History of England and his numerous essay collections achieved a commercial success now associated with supermarket tabloids and Oprah-endorsed chick-lit. He was evidently well-liked by both of his chief biographers, namely, his nephew G.O. Trevelyan, whose Life and Letters of Lord Macaulay appeared in 1876, and his spiritual heir Sir Arthur Bryant, whose admiring, though intermittently censorious, single-volume Macaulay dates from 1932. Throughout the former British Empire, schoolteachers long accorded Macaulay's name a reverence that is today confined to Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Nelson Mandela. Even Ignatius Reilly, the ferociously anti-Protestant hero of John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces, quotes with approval the Protestant Macaulay.

This firm admiration exists alongside equally firm detraction. After Macaulay's death, Matthew Arnold, never one to stand idly by when there was a mindless slogan in need of publicizing or a literary reputation impudent enough to arise without his help, called Macaulay "the great apostle of the Philistines." In 1931, Sir Herbert Butterfield, who differed from Arnold in having a genuine philosophical impulse, devoted his renowned pamphlet The Whig Interpretation of History to criticizing triumphalist historical narratives in general, and by implication Macaulay's own. Yet Butterfield always paid Macaulay's outlook the compliment of serious argument. Very different was the personal vendetta waged against Macaulay in the same decade by Winston Churchill, who seethed at Macaulay's refusal to deify Churchill's forebear the Duke of Marlborough. Churchill taxed Macaulay with having "vilified Marlborough's early life in order by contrast to make the glories of his great period stand out more vividly." Ancestor worship is no doubt an honorable impulse, but in writing Marlborough: His Life and Times (1933-1938), Churchill had no compunction about serving up a cartoon historiography far more objectionably strident than anything ever perpetrated by his intended target. Reviewers were inconsiderate enough to point out Churchill's reckless agenda. (No such scruples afflicted America's Churchill cultists: Leo Strauss, whose own knowledge of English politics in the late Stuart era could have fit on the back of a postage stamp, dubbed Churchill's filial agitprop "the greatest historical work written in our century.") Yet such half-baked invective as Arnold's and Churchill's prompts the question: will the real Macaulay please stand up?

The real Macaulay's career consisted of broadly disinterested public service and little else. Born in 1800, he never married. If he had a love life or even a lust life, he kept it dark. Bryant refers scornfully to debunkers "seeking ... evidence of sexual perversities and scandals, rather as little dogs seek out truffles." Yet one doubts if any canine, however industrious, could dig up vices that would incriminate Macaulay. Young Tom loved words as few children do. When but 4 years old, having been scalded by spilt coffee, he responded to his hostess's concern: "Thank you, madam, the agony is abated." He was not likely to be tongue-tied as an adult. From his redoubtable father, Zachary Macaulay--statistician, veteran antislavery activist, and erstwhile governor of Sierra Leone--he inherited evangelical fervor, an exalted conception of duty, and at the same time an 18th-century tough-mindedness that precluded such vague pious uplift as Woodrow Wilson subsequently taught the world.

No other writer in the English pantheon has surpassed Macaulay for sheer learning. Milton alone came close. Macaulay knew firsthand all the surviving productions of the leading Greek and Roman authors and felt bound to study them in the original languages. …