Forgetting a great man: Victorian historian Thomas Macaulay

Historians in the News

...The Victorian historian and politician Thomas Babington Macaulay has been lucky so far with his biographers. His life was memorialised in a vast, two-volume biography by his nephew, George Otto Trevelyan. His reputation and legacy were then kept alive by the latter’s son, GM Trevelyan, among the most influential historians of the 20th century, who also tightly controlled access to Macaulay’s papers. These included personal diaries, publication of which, Trevelyan noted, would be “unfair” to Macaulay’s memory. Even when the inevitable reassessment came, Macaulay’s luck held. In the early 1970s, the Harvard historian John Clive wrote a perceptive and elegant early life, Macaulay: The Shaping of the Historian , that threw new light on Macaulay’s character and thought in ways that made him more, not less, interesting. It was, said the New York Times , “a great book on a great historian”.

Suggestive as it was, Clive’s work was an open invitation to others to explore further Macaulay’s complexities during his remaining years, and to pull the whole thing together in a full-scale life. And what a life Macaulay had. He wrote a hugely popular and influential History of England , which set out the “Whig” view of history as progress that would dominate well into the 20th century. He was a wonderful stylist, whose influence is seen even to this day in a direct and personal line of succession through GM Trevelyan to JH Plumb and contemporary historians such as Simon Schama, Niall Ferguson and David Cannadine. In his public life as an MP and minister, Macaulay was widely admired for his eloquent parliamentary speeches. And as a colonial administrator in India, 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. Taken together, it not difficult to see why he was so esteemed by his contemporaries and also why a modern biographer might, as Clive did, want to take a scalpel to such an obviously “eminent Victorian”...

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