Confessions of a Macaulay Fan

The great liberal historian appreciated on his bicentenary


Is the New Economy leaving behind a trail of exploited workers and uprooted communities? Has an overemphasis on tolerance gone so far as to disadvantage believers in true religion? Is free trade mostly a boon for the few, national sovereignty be damned? Why isn't the government doing more to improve the character and morality of a pleasure-obsessed populace?

Such questions were the talk of London in 1840, which is one reason I'm always urging people to read the historian-essayist-statesman Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800-1859), a figure overdue for rediscovery given the issues that agitate our current politics. Macaulay has a fair claim to being the most influential of the British classical liberals, and few would dispute that he's the most fun to read. Indeed, the extraordinary clarity, vividness, allusiveness, and energy of his writing style, conceded even by his enemies, won him from early on a huge following everywhere English was spoken. His work ran through endless reprints in 19th and early 20th century America—which makes him a great bargain on eBay—and he served as an influence on and model to Mencken, Churchill, and countless other writers.

These days Macaulay seems to survive mostly as a few familiar nuggets from Bartlett's: the one about how the Puritan hated bear-baiting not because it gave pain to the bear but because it gave pleasure to the spectators; the one about how there's no spectacle more ridiculous than the British public in one of its periodic fits of morality; the not especially prescient one about how the American Constitution is all sail and no anchor; the one about how an acre in Middlesex is preferable to a principality in Utopia. All very well in their way, but one-liners make a poor introduction to a writer known for painting on such gigantic canvases: His History of England is among the longest standard works in English, and even the essays can take 10 or 20 pages to warm up before getting to their main theme.

Besides, none of those quotes catch the Whig historian in his most characteristic mood: filled with scorn and wrath at how those in government abuse their power. What propels the reader of his history through the long battle between court and country, between the party of state prerogative and the party of liberty, is the way Macaulay gets you to root for the latter much as one roots for a sports team. But the partisanship is not unrelenting: Constant strokes of characterization, often sharply at cross-purposes with the purely political sympathies, drive home how often folly, knavery, and vice of every sort can be found on the side that turns out to be right in politics, and how often uprightness and intelligence are found on the side that is wrong.

History, Macaulay once wrote, is "made up of the bad actions of extraordinary men," and those who idealize English institutions are likely to squirm at his portraits. The monarchy's occupants, naturally, come off badly, the feckless Stuarts above all. And the law? Even aside from the atrocious proceedings of the Star Chamber and High Commission, the state trials offer little more than a procession of "browbeating judges, packed juries, lying witnesses, clamorous spectators." Sir Edward Coke? A "pedant, bigot and brute," though eventually useful to the cause of liberty. Oxford? Forever squandering its venerable scholarship on devising the most laughably backward defenses for official prerogative.

The churches? "The doctrine which from the very first origin of religious dissensions has been held by bigots of all sects, when condensed into a few words and stripped of rhetorical disguise, is simply this: I am in the right, and you are in the wrong," he observed in one essay. "When you are the stronger, you ought to tolerate me; for it is your duty to tolerate truth. But when I am the stronger I shall persecute you; for it is my duty to persecute error." Each of the rival factions—High Church, Low Church, Catholics—persecuted cruelly when it got to power, and religious tolerance emerged at last in a kind of exhausted tumble when no faction could summon a majority for its designs.

An unabashed believer in economic freedom, Macaulay also makes clear the extent to which commercial and civil liberty grew up intertwined: The battle over arbitrary taxation (including the king's famed "ship-money") accounted for many gains in the struggle against arbitrary government conduct in general, while the fight to restrict unlimited search and seizure owed much to the popular resistance to tariffs and monopolies.

Somehow, freedom grew hardy amid the constant assaults, which is very much the Macaulayan concept of liberty: something built up over long agonies like a mass of scar tissue, abuse by abuse and resistance by resistance, its extent and solidity explainable by which bad officeholder had tried and failed to get away with which encroachment on the public during which reign. No one was less interested than he in a priori speculation about how governments ought to work, or more keenly interested in how from experience and observation they actually had worked. His caustic dismissal of the abstract reasonings of the utilitarian James Mill is perfectly characteristic: "We have here an elaborate treatise on Government, from which, but for one or two passing allusions, it would not appear that the author was aware that any governments actually existed among men."

Macaulay may have taken his relentless empiricism too far for some modern libertarians' tastes, but it stood him in good stead when he turned to one of the great controversies of his own day, the new factory system that had transformed Britain amid an export-driven globalization of its economy. Romantics on both the Jacobin left and the traditionalist right were inclined to view this new economy as a blight on the landscape and the soul alike, reducing workers to cogs and neighbors to strangers, throwing up a new and spiritually rootless elite of uncaring bourgeois, and replacing quondam public spirit and noble national purpose with a mere cash nexus.

In one of the great panoramic set pieces of the English language—the famous chapter from his History on the condition of England in 1685—Macaulay sets out to cure the reader of any notion that the olden times were better: For page upon page he hammers away at the miserableness of the food, the lodgings, the roads, the communications, the sanitation; the badness of governance; the insecurity of person and property; the prevalence of disorder and crime. It was a time, he writes, when "to have a clean shirt once a week was a privilege reserved for the higher class of gentry" and "men died faster in the purest country air than now die in the most pestilential lanes." With eerie accuracy, he predicted that a century or more hence, among the yet better-fed, better-housed, safer, and happier descendants of his readers, it would "be the mode to assert that the increase of wealth and the progress of science have benefited the few at the expense of the many, and to talk of the reign of Queen Victoria as the time when England was truly merry England, when all classes were bound together by brotherly sympathy."

Not infrequently, in their heyday, classical liberals found themselves ranged against a practical alliance between the extreme Tories to their one side and the Jacobins on the other. The campaign for free trade, for example, brought forth noisy counter-demonstrations both from reactionary nationalists and from mobs disrupting public meetings in the name of the working class, prompting this riposte from the historian: "Whenever I hear bigots who are opposed to all reform, and anarchists who are bent on universal destruction, join in the same cry, I feel certain that it is an absurd and mischievous cry; and surely never was there a cry so absurd and mischievous as this cry against cheap loaves." To update the case from the streets of Edinburgh to those of Seattle, it is merely necessary to substitute for the phrase "cheap loaves," "cheap clothes."

Perhaps his favorite target were the individual figures—"Red Tories"—who combined left- and right-wing themes in their loathing of capitalism. Poet laureate Robert Southey, hapless victim of one of Macaulay's most enjoyable polemics, managed to follow a trajectory from far left to far right without spending a moment in actual sympathy with the bourgeois society rising around him. Having cultivated the radical side when it was most in the wrong, he proceeded to do likewise with the reactionaries. Wrote Macaulay: "He has passed from one extreme of political opinion to another, as Satan in Milton went round the globe, contriving constantly to 'ride with darkness.'"

By the time he wrote his Colloquies, Southey had homed in on perhaps the most durable critique of capitalism, the aesthetic. Anyone could see its ravages, he said, by standing on a hill and comparing the ivy-clad cottage of the traditional farm laborer with the ugly, uniform brick dwellings of the industrial workers. (His successors today buy newspaper ads that treat it as a rebuke to globalization that there are now cloverleaf interchanges in Cairo and fast-food strips in Bangkok.) Macaulay's response was to pull out rows of vital statistics to demonstrate that the burden of supporting the poor was lowest in the counties where the new manufacturing economy had penetrated furthest, while the death rate had also fallen fastest in those counties.

At the same time, Southey argued fervently that the new industrial regime was far too secular in tone; it now slighted the claims of religion to be the basis of civil government. Macaulay retorted that societies where religious faith has been scanty or missing—he names ancient Athens as an example—have not for that reason found it advisable to dispense with civil government. Given that unbelievers, like everyone else, show a keen concern for not having their goods stolen or homes invaded, "we are at a loss to conceive in what sense religion can be said to be the basis of government, in which religion is not also the basis of the practices of eating, drinking, and lighting fires in cold weather."

Like other Tories, Southey also perceived a decline in national character, a morality gap, which only guidance from on high—"statecraft as soulcraft," we now might say—could hope to rectify: "The maxim, that governments ought to train the people in the way in which they should go, sounds well. [But] can it be laid down as a general rule that the movement of political and religious truth is rather downwards from the government to the people than upwards from the people to the government?" Indeed, "the duties of government would be, as Mr. Southey says that they are, paternal, if a government were necessarily as much superior in wisdom to a people as the most foolish father, for a time, is to the most intelligent child, and if a government loved a people as fathers generally love their children. But there is no reason to believe that a government will have either the paternal warmth of affection or the paternal superiority of intellect."

The practical results of the paternalist view, thought Macaulay, would be meddlesome government on virtually every front. "He [Southey] conceives that the business of the magistrate is not merely to see that the persons and property of the people are secure from attack, but that he ought to be a jack-of-all-trades—architect, engineer, school-master, merchant, theologian, a Lady Bountiful in every parish, a Paul Pry in every house, spying, eavesdropping, relieving, admonishing, spending our money for us, and choosing our opinions for us. His principle is, if we understand it rightly, that no man can do anything as well for himself as his rulers, be they who they may, can do it for him, and that a government approaches nearer and nearer to perfection in proportion as it interferes more and more with the habits and notions of individuals."

There's no space to discuss Macaulay's extensive political career, which is less remembered for the highest positions he held (secretary of war, postmaster-general) than for his success at removing the disabilities inflicted on adherents of minority religions, helping rid the West Indies of the slave trade, and endowing India with a rational criminal code and an educational system based on the English language, an eternal boon to that country whose effects can be traced to this day in such realms as software development. To thank him, skip the monuments and just enjoy his written legacy. "He reads twenty books to write a sentence; he travels a hundred miles to make a line of description," Thackeray put it in an obituary appreciation. "He is always in a storm of revolt and indignation against wrong, craft, tyranny. How he cheers heroic resistance; how he backs and applauds freedom struggling for its own; how he hates scoundrels, ever so victorious and successful; how he recognizes genius, though selfish villains possess it!"

Contributing Editor Walter Olson (wo@walterolson.com), a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, is the author of The Excuse Factory and The Litigation Explosion.