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A Bit Of Stick

Tadhg Foley

Macaulay: The Tragedy of Power, by Robert E Sullivan, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 614 pp, €36, ISBN: 978-0674036246


Nineteenth-century newspapers and periodicals, unlike their coy modern successors, were not averse to engaging in controversy with what they usually called their “contemporaries”. This book was reviewed in The Irish Times (January 16th, 2010) by Richard Aldous, who found that Sullivan seemed to “detest Macaulay with a passion … out of all proportion” to what Aldous called, in inverted commas, the “sins” of his subject, who, despite his racism, imperialism, sexism and contempt for the lower orders, was “a great man”. Such a hero is clearly, in true Nietzschean fashion, beyond good and evil, invulnerable to the cavillings and piddling criticisms of terrestrial beings. Macaulay himself indeed was deeply committed to this idea, which in the latter part of the eighteenth century was sometimes called the “moral sublime”. Clearly that hero of our time Bertie Ahern chose his ghost writer wisely.


Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800-59), created (as they blasphemously say) Baron Macaulay of Rothley in 1857, is best known for his monumental History of England (1848 and 1855) which, as Marx briskly put it, “falsified English history in the interest of the Whigs and the bourgeoisie”. He is both revered and reviled for his services to the British Empire, especially to India, where, as Aldous coolly observes, “he was responsible for the introduction of penal reform and the educational measures that help explain why English is the shared language of the sub-continent”. Others have been noticeably less restrained in their recording of his services to the people of India. Macaulay was at various times a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, a barrister, a Liberal MP, a commissioner in bankruptcy, a secretary of war, the mainstay of the Edinburgh Review, a literary critic and a minor poet who wrote the immensely popular Lays of Ancient Rome.


His father, Zachary, the son of a Church of Scotland minister, was connected with the Clapham Sect and was a committed opponent of slavery. The son was generally, for better or worse, seen to lack physical, social, and sartorial graces and was, in Sullivan’s words “permanently celibate”, having, he claims, a passion for his sisters Margaret and Hannah which could scarcely be described as brotherly love as conventionally understood. Thomas Carlyle wrote of the “[e]ssentially irremediable commonplace nature” of Macaulay, “a squat thickset, low-browed, short, and rather pot-bellied, grizzled little man of fifty: these be thy gods O Israel!” He had, however, a glittering reputation as a conversationalist, though Marx dismissed him as a “Scotch sycophant and fine talker”.


In Sullivan’s view, the classical education Macaulay received at Trinity College, Cambridge provided him with the “cultural and political power he needed to help turn a theory about the utility of classical studies into an imperial policy”, though he worried about this being at the expense of modern English classics. Such moral superiority as the moderns had over the ancients was due entirely to Christianity, which both Hume and Gibbon, “our most admired historians”, scorned. However, Macaulay’s classical and Christian universalism was tempered by a very local English patriotism. Greek literature sustained him in India in his unhappiness; the Greek and Roman classics constituted for him and his kind a perennial philosophy against which the ephemeral notions of other cultures could be judged and found wanting. Macaulay instructed his readers to respect “that control to which it is the glory of free nations to submit themselves, the control of superior minds”. Classical education, unproblematically interpreted as ideologically conservative, provided a reservoir of shared cultural assumptions to unify the social and political elites in England in the interests of both domestic hegemony and imperial expansion. Macaulay, though philosophically an empiricist who decried “abstraction” and “theory”, and a utilitarian, greatly valued classical rhetoric and he never forgot that its object was not truth but persuasion. He saw the best history as “a compound of poetry and philosophy”. Though neither a great orator nor debater, his speeches were powerfully effective. However in Macaulay’s estimation rhetoric was, in the wrong hands, a dangerous weapon. One of his reasons for opposing universal suffrage was that it made the masses vulnerable to demagogues.


Macaulay prudently combined the worldly-wise, “pig philosophy” of utilitarianism with high-minded Hellenism and Christianity. His religion was nominally Anglican of the high and dry variety, which he publicly professed. He believed that the masses required the discipline and consolation of religion and would have agreed with Edward Gibbon’s cynical view of the gods of ancient Rome: “The various modes of worship, which prevailed in the Roman world, were all considered by the people as equally true; by the philosopher, as equally false; and by the magistrate as equally useful.” Macaulay was Erastian in his view of religion, arguing that the “State must control the Church”.


Utilitarianism was for him an indispensable complement to religion because people “will not and cannot” act “to promote the happiness of others, at the expense of their own”. The only competing moral system for Macaulay was the “sentimental”, whose claims, Sullivan notes, “began and mostly ended in the domestic sphere”. Indeed the “domestic” and “feminine” remit of the sentimental made it not only inappropriate but often positively dangerous in the intensively competitive and “masculine” public arena. Writing on “Population” Malthus, Macaulay defended political economy against “blundering piety”, just as the Archbishop of Dublin, Richard Whately, was later to warn against the excesses of benevolence generated by religion unrestrained by the stern imperatives of the laws of political economy. Macaulay turned his essay on Sir William Temple into a “pre-emptive strike against those meddlesome ‘philanthropists’”, while his desired “extirpation” of the aboriginal Irish was frustrated by the “sentimental moral philosophy” spread by the same lovers of their fellow men. In his reaction to the Indian rebellion of 1857, though he had some misgivings about “vindictive hatred”, he condemned “effeminate mawkish philanthropy”. Masculinity, on the other hand, was a very English and a very imperial characteristic. Cromwell “possessed, in an eminent degree, that masculine and full-grown robustness of mind, that equally diffused intellectual health, which, if our national partiality does not mislead us, has peculiarly characterised the great men of England”. Macaulay, who identified civilising India with Christianising it, felt that in the rare occasions on which such “masculine” virtues and “health” were encountered in the colonies they should be turned to account. In 1843 he explained to the House of Commons that to govern the Indian subcontinent the “warlike” Muslim minority had to be courted. Hinduism was, in his view, extremely “unfavourable to the moral and intellectual health of our race”, whereas Islam was almost an offshoot of Christianity.


For Macaulay, the two words that formed the key to Francis Bacon, the disperser of metaphysical mists and fogs, were “utility” and “progress”. He appreciated Bacon’s emphasis on experience and observation and was enthusiastic about his drive to extend “the empire of man over matter”. The history of England was “emphatically the history of progress” and he noted the “bustle & incessant progress which are characteristic of England”. He saw the Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace in London in 1851 as, paradoxically, both a triumph of utilitarianism and a vindication of his own vision of the sublime. It was a palpable manifestation of power. With reference to St Peter’s in Rome, he observed that size mattered when it came to architecture and that “proportions in architecture are good or bad according to the effect which they produce is sublime or mean ... one chief ingredient of the sublime in architecture is the notion of great human power exerted ‑ Wherever there is a building of vast extent this ingredient of the sublime is found.”


Macaulay was a moral consequentialist for whom property, for instance, was not a natural right but had to be justified on the basis of utility. He was scared by the Chartists’ demands and appalled by their call for universal manhood suffrage. Such an electorate was “incompatible with property” and “consequently incompatible with civilization”. Macaulay was as appreciative as Michael McDowell of the blessings of inequality, a concept that early in the nineteenth century had provoked the West Cork Protestant landlord William Thompson into a radical critique of capitalism. For Macaulay, the poor, vulnerable to demagogues, could not understand the “reasons that irrefragably prove this inequality to be necessary to the wellbeing of all classes”. He would doubtless have agreed with Archbishop Whately’s view, in his textbook on political economy for Irish children, Easy Lessons in Money Matters, that if there were no rich people there would be nobody to give alms to the poor. Macaulay commended himself on his own charity after the fashion of wealthy lawyers justifying outrageous fees on the basis of pro bono work.


In the nineteenth century it was widely believed that the Irish and Roman Catholics (and a fortiori Irish Catholics) had a free and easy relationship with truth. Charles Kingsley famously wrote that “Truth, for its own sake, had never been a virtue with the Roman clergy”, a charge that provoked John Henry Newman’s Apologia Pro Vita Sua. Though he had no problems ascribing “mendacity” to all of Asia, Macaulay’s own devotion to truth-telling was less than wholehearted. He justified the “necessary lie” and was a sneaking regarder of Machiavelli and Hobbes; he agreed with Cicero’s view that “we must dissemble if we would live in the world”. For Macaulay this was both for the good of the state and of himself. In early modern Europe, political lying was known as “Tacitism” after the historian Tacitus, whom Macaulay held to be the greatest of the Romans because of his genius for delineating character and his power of dramatisation, essential for the writing of history. In Bacon’s famous essay on “Simulation and Dissimulation”, dissimulation was seen as a bad habit but occasionally even the “ablest men that ever were” found it necessary to use it. Circumstances and consequences dictated when “this hiding and veiling of a man’s self” was necessary.


Macaulay held democracy to be a dangerous creed, which would destroy civilisation by plundering the rich. He opposed manhood suffrage, advocated by the utilitarians, though he did at least support the ten-hour day bill for women and minors. The revolutions of 1848 made him even more contemptuous of “the rabble” and he feared the spread of revolutionary infection. It was inevitable, he felt, that “institutions purely democratic must, sooner or later, destroy liberty, or civilization, or both”, enabling “the poor to plunder the rich”. Socialism he denounced as simply “robbery”.


According to Sullivan, nationalism became nineteenth century England’s civil religion and Macaulay “one of its high priests”. He helped to invent and popularise the term “England” and was under no illusion that there was any equality between the constituent parts of the United Kingdom. To unify England as a nation it was imperative to reconcile the “two great branches of the natural aristocracy, the capitalists and the landowners”. Macaulay’s maiden speech in the House of Commons supported the right of Jews to vote and sit in parliament but his notion of religious tolerance was, in Sullivan’s view, “less a way of protecting religious minorities than of subordinating their diversity to the authority and control of the state”, for, more than “divisive Anglicanism, shared Englishness unified the modern nation”. He saw England as exceptional, the nation which had “combined beyond all example and all hope, the blessings of liberty with those of order”.


An enthusiast for progress and English power, and broadminded about the methods necessary for their achievement, Macaulay, according to Sullivan, despised the schemes of his father and his antislavery allies “to protect endangered native peoples against various European and American civilizing imperial projects”. It was, he wrote, “in truth more merciful to extirpate a hundred thousand human beings at once, and to fill the void with a well-governed population, than to misgovern millions through a long succession of generations”. The massacre of the clan Macdonald at Glencoe in 1692 he saw as a battle between civilisation and savagery, or at best barbarism. His Lays of Ancient Rome, Sullivan writes, “instructed modern Britons in the bellicose virtues that made the Romans both imperial and great. In 1857 rebellion in India transformed his ballads into a bestseller and the surrogate national epic.” Ancient Rome prefigured the wished for organic society of contemporary England:


Then none was for a party;
Then all were for the state;
Then the great man helped the poor,
And the poor man loved the great.


Preoccupied by empires, both sacred and profane, especially those of Rome and England, Macaulay was disdainful of the “lazy arts of peace”. He spoke of England’s “peculiar glory, not that she has ruled so wisely, not that she has conquered so splendidly, but that she has ruled only to bless, and conquered only to spare”. For him, “Oriental despots” were the “worst class of human beings”, and Bengalis, enervated by a “soft climate and accustomed to peaceful employments”, “bore the same relation to other Asiatics which the Asiatics generally bear to the bold and energetic children of Europe”. Regarding property, he was “always for the man in possession”. In like manner, he was “always in favor of dominant & successful races ‑ Spaniards against Indians, Anglo-Saxons agst Spaniards, Russians agst Poles, Virginians agst negroes”. Not uniquely in the nineteenth century, he believed in innate national characteristics. The English and the Irish had “different national characters as strongly opposed as any two national characters in Europe”; he held that the “same line of demarcation which separated religions separated races”. For Macaulay, the Scottish Highlanders, despite their misfortune of being Celts, were, unlike the Irish, fit for Anglicisation, through the good offices of an efficient police force and the “civilizing influence of the Protestant religion and of the English language”.


Though he loathed the country and its people, found its food inferior to that of the West and detested its music, Macaulay played a major role in Indian affairs. He became secretary of the East India Company Board of Control and a member of the Supreme Council of India. He referred to the period he spent in India (1834-38) as “banishment” and “exile” and he was disdainful of English settlers in Calcutta and they of him. Despite his earlier assaults on James Mill, Macaulay described his History of British India as the “greatest historical work which has appeared in our language since that of Gibbon”. One can see why he found it congenial. Mill dismissed as unreliable the first-hand information of travellers to India, ridiculed the scholars who translated indigenous Indian texts and claimed to be a more objective authority because he had not visited the country.


Macaulay envisioned Indian self-government in the distant future and he argued that for the good of the country “the admission of natives to high office must be effected by slow degrees”. The goal was the “pacific triumphs of reason over barbarism” so that England would become “the imperishable empire of our arts and our morals, our literature and our laws”. But before this triumph of reason, India should be governed by an “enlightened and paternal despotism”. There were occasional signs of progress: Macaulay found a court interpreter to be “a handsome, intelligent-looking man, whose mind has evidently been enlarged by much intercourse with Englishmen”. If necessary, civilised ends could be achieved by uncivilised means and he was not above recommending the fomenting of “internal divisions” between Muslims and Hindus in the interest of empire. He celebrated Warren Hastings for his “great services to the state”, for, despite his cruelty and corruption, he was a “noble subject”, a “hero”. Macaulay had no problem in admitting that Hastings was deficient in basic social virtue, disregarding the rights of others and lacking sympathy for their sufferings; yet his “fervent zeal for the interests of the state redeemed him”. He saw Edmund Burke, Hastings’s accuser, as one who misunderstood the orient, including the “lower standard of Indian morality”, doubtless because he was a “sentimentalist” whose reason, “powerful as it was, became the slave of feelings”. The “dark, slender, and timid Hindoo” shrank from conflict with stronger races. Strangely however Macaulay, contemptuous of the docility of the Indians, “their own apathy, their own passiveness under wrong”, failed to welcome ‑ indeed was outraged by – the unexpected display of activism that came with the revolt of 1857.


One of Macaulay’s less contentious legacies to India was his Criminal Procedure Code. On May 25th, 1835 he was appointed president of the Indian Law Commission and two years later he submitted the code, which came into force in 1862. Not a digest of any existing Indian system of laws, it was informed by the principle that “We know that India cannot have a free Government. But she can have the next best thing ‑ a firm and impartial despotism.”


He was a central figure in the controversy between the “Orientalists” and the “Anglicists”. Both he and Lord William Bentinck, governor-general of Bengal, were Anglicists who favoured ending the government subsidy of the instruction of indigenous peoples in their own classical languages and using the money instead to teach English. John Stuart Mill and others sided with the Orientalists and urged the continued subsidisation of the subcontinent’s classical languages. Macaulay neglected to look at his Asian-language materials on the ship on his way to India, concentrating instead on Greek and Latin classics. He never learned Persian or Hindi or any indigenous Indian language. On one occasion, dining in the English College in Rome, he met an “exceedingly absurd” old India hand, remarking that “I have since heard what is quite compatible with his absurdity that he is a great orientalist.” Macaulay’s famous “Minute on Indian Education” of February 2nd, 1835 lambasted Indian culture, claiming that “a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia”. In the minute, Macaulay famously explained how to civilise the Indians: “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.” In his “Report on the Indian Civil Service”, he stated that “It therefore seems to us quite clear that those vernacular Indian languages which are of no value, except for the purpose of communicating with natives of India, ought not to be subjects of examination”, though he conceded that Sanskrit and Arabic were “by no means without intrinsic value in the eye both of philologists and of men of taste”: each would be graded at half the value of Greek or Latin. Macaulay invited Max Müller, a celebrated oriental scholar at Oxford, to discuss the content of the examinations for the Indian Civil Service with him. Müller came armed with facts and arguments supporting oriental studies and Macaulay, professing to know “nothing of Indian languages and literatures”, asked him a number of questions. But before he could answer one of them, Macaulay began relating the history of his “Minute on Indian Education” and for a “futile hour” Müller tried to get a word in. Then Macaulay thanked him “for the useful information I had given him, and I went back to Oxford a sadder and I hope a wiser man”.


As a young man, Macaulay worked on an epic poem, “The Conquest of Ireland”, twenty-seven pages of which survive. In 1833 he told the House of Commons that “he would far rather live in Algiers, in its most despotic day, than in the county of Kilkenny at the present time”. Little though he loved Calcutta, he preferred it to being settled in the Phoenix Park. For Macaulay, as for countless others of various political hues, Ireland, though officially an intrinsic part of the United Kingdom after the Act of Union, was a colony. He treated Oliver Goldsmith as an ignorant feckless Irishman, in whose poem, “The Deserted Village”, the happy village was “true English”, its decayed counterpart “an Irish village”. The “felicity and the misery which Goldsmith has brought close together belong to different countries and to two different stages in the progress of society”. In the nineteenth century the British Empire was routinely figured as a body with Ireland, in Macaulay’s words, “the diseased part of the empire”. He clinically observed and dispassionately diagnosed the sufferings of that starving body in the latter part of the 1840s. His only visit to Ireland was in late summer of 1849 and seeing the famine-stricken Irish did not provoke him into questioning his imperial ethic. Indeed he made some contributions to Trevelyan’s The Irish Crisis (Trevelyan was married to his sister Hannah).


“No man of English blood,” wrote Macaulay in his History of England, “then regarded the aboriginal Irish as his countryman. They did not belong to our branch of the great human family.” Only the English and Anglo-Irish he met in Ireland impressed him. Accompanied in his travels through the Irish countryside by William Wilde, Oscar’s father, his reaction to suffering was often contradictory. Such was his distrust of sentiment that the “endless mendicant whine” of beggars provoked him to laughter; yet he could “hardly help crying” ‑ just as Uncle Tom’s Cabin had made him “cry a little” though as a “political and moral work” he speculated that it might “do more harm than good”.


Macaulay defended the Union and he advocated a policy of rigour rather than lenity towards the native Irish, “the aboriginal race”. Cromwell was a heroic figure beyond good and evil, categories satisfactory for a utilitarian fingering his or her felicity calculus but not for an “awful tyrant” as the awe-struck Macaulay called him. Cromwell was an avenging angel “with some high commission of destruction and renovation”, who offered a “cruel, but most complete and energetic system”. Macaulay continued: “The thing most alien from his clear intellect and his commanding spirit was petty persecution ... He had a great and definite object in view, to make Ireland thoroughly English, to make Ireland another Yorkshire and Norfolk.” Macaulay did not shrink from defending “extirpation”, “eradication”, and other equally “energetic” systems in the interest of empire and its civilising mission. “We can much more easily,” he wrote, “pardon tremendous severities inflicted for a great object, than an endless series of paltry vexations and oppressions inflicted for no rational object at all”. Frederick II of Prussia, for instance, though bloodthirsty and “grossly perfidious”, was for Macaulay a “truly great” ruler.


Macaulay’s History of England is a story- and character-driven narrative, with the author as omniscient narrator. His England includes Scotland, Ireland, and Wales and his heroes are the agents of change. This is a Whig account of history, presenting the progress of “noiseless revolutions”, a history without friction: “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.” The nation or people that were improving for Macaulay, however, consisted of the upper and middle classes, the respectable; they excluded the “mob”, the “vulgar”, the “multitude”, the “common people”, who threatened respectability, property and order. As Sullivan puts it: “The political, cultural, and economic superiority of the ‘great English people’ was the leitmotiv of Macaulay’s story.” They were possessed of masculine virtues, being sturdy, honest, stern and “little used to outward signs of emotion”, for “we Anglo-Saxons are not much given to expressing all that we feel. We leave that to the Celts, who generally overdo the matter as much at least as we underdo it.” Macaulay’s disdain for “scientific” history was inherited by his nephew, George Otto Trevelyan, and his grand-nephew, George Macaulay Trevelyan. GM Trevelyan was twenty-six when he heard the Regius Professor of Modern History at Cambridge denounce the old “politico-ethical theory of history” and contend that history must now be studied “as a science not as a branch of literature”. Trevelyan replied with a manifesto which became Clio, A Muse. Running counter to national stereotype, the Regius Professor who advocated scientific history was JB Bury, an Irishman.


In this impeccably scholarly and superbly researched book, Robert Sullivan of the University of Notre Dame presents us with a splendidly comprehensive account of Macaulay’s works and days, combined with a searching analysis of his philosophy and politics. The author’s perspective on the relationship between Macaulay and his sisters Hannah and Margaret might well be disputed. As an advocate, when circumstances demanded, of a civilising slaughter, Macaulay was by no means unique in nineteenth century Britain. Sullivan is not always successful in dealing with the structural problems created by having to integrate extensive analytical material into his chronological narrative of the biography.


The case of one Irishman active in the empire illustrates the fact that respect for native cultures need not necessarily lead in an anti-imperialist direction. Max Arthur Macauliffe (formerly Michael McAuliffe), a nineteenth century senior Indian civil servant, celebrated by Sikhs but forgotten in his native Ireland, far from repudiating indigenous Indian culture, converted to Sikhism. He was, however, most anxious to emphasise that this dramatic instance of “going native” was by no means anti-imperial. In his Lecture on the Sikh Religion and Its Advantages to the State, published in Simla in 1903, the state the author referred to was the British one. Macaulay’s contempt for Indian culture and Macauliffe’s embrace of significant aspects of it were, in the end, both in the interests of empire.

Tadhg Foley taught in the English Department of NUI Galway until his retirement last year. He is a graduate of NUI Galway and of the University of Oxford (DPhil). His doctoral work was on the concept of taste in the eighteenth century and his main research interest has been in cultural history and the history of ideas in nineteenth century Ireland.