Monday, 6 July 2009

Macaulay’s History of England: A Great Liberal Essay

Primary version of this post, with picture of Macaulay, Barry Stocker's Weblog

Recently I’ve been reading The History of England from the Accession of James the Second by Thomas Babington (Lord) Macaulay (pictured above), which was incomplete at Macaulay’s death in 1859. Macaulay was a Whig (roughly speaking an aristocratic liberal) politician committed to gradual but significant measures on electoral reform and civil rights, a colonial administrator in India who left about as good a legacy as it is possible for such a person to leave, a poet and a historian.

Macaualay is the person most associated with the now despised genre of ‘Whig History’, that is historical writing which assumes that England is and has been a model of freedom throughout its history, that England has kept becoming more free and that historical figures can be divided between good advocates of freedom and bad advocates of tyranny). This kind of writing was attacked in the 1930s in Britain and when I hear historians on British radio they still find it necessary in some cases to attack Whig history. These people are surely guilty of the same oversimplification of which they accuse Macaulay and surely it’s shameful for professional historians to only mention great predecessors in order to attack them. The counter reaction to Macaulay is surely now so old and well established that there is nothing to be gain by assaulting his reputation and everything to be gain by drawing attention to the greatness of a work which is inevitably limited by the assumptions of the time.

There is one way in which people may now know of Macaulay now. Every time the morality and legality of hunting animals is discussed in Britain, some ‘serious’ journalist will dredge up the same quotation from Macaulay, that: ‘The puritan hated bear baiting, not because it gave pain to the bear, but because it gave pleasure to the spectators’. The journalists who quote this have probably got it from whatever book of quotations they use to seem cultured than the reading of Macaulay. The quotation does show Macaulay’s style and capacity for ironic commentary. He is referring to the strict Protestants who dominated England in the Seventeenth Century under Oliver Cromwell. Macaulay’s had a great deal more respect for the Puritans and Crowmell than this quotation taken in isolation suggests.

Macaulays’ book is more like an essay on the relation between ideals of liberty (for my thoughts on different aspects of liberty, see my 1st July post on ‘The Western and the Tragedy of Natural Liberty’) and events of British history than a research monograph as now understood. That was how history was written then, and for centuries before. Macaulay illustrates his ideas about liberty with considerable bias about personalities and in the use of dramatic stories. The right approach is to appreciate what Macaulay achieved in writing a historical drama in a classical prose style, which emphasises well constructed sentences, particularly sentences of very balanced rhythm which emphasise a contrast of some kind.

Macaulay was very eager to believe that there was liberty under the law and representative constitutional government in England going back to Anglo-Saxon times (before 1066) and that later movements of reform returned to that original spirit which was never completely eliminated but constrained by autocratic kings. This leans on myths about freedom and constitutional government under Anglo-Saxon kings going back to Alfred the Great (848-899), and a fantasy of the restoration of a past state. These myths were very widespread in England from the 17th to 19th Centuries, the myth of the Norman Yoke in which the Norman French Duke of Normandy stole English liberties when he invaded England and became King William I in 1066. It’s a myth that inspired constitutional and democratic movements and should be understood as an important way in which an understanding of the past influenced political actors. The detail of Macaulay’s account takes us beyond the myth, to appreciate the economic and social changes in England the constitutional innovations that accompanied social evolution.

The book covers a lot of material before the reign of James II, so the title of the books is misleading. However, there is a reason for it, Macaulay takes the resistance to James and his overthrow in the Glorious Revolution (see post of July 2nd) as the vital moment in English history. As that is the moment which established that laws are made by Parliament, that government is responsible to Parliament and that Parliament raises taxes, its not an outrageous claim to make. Macaulay is notoriously unfavourable to James II and favourable to his successor William III. Nevertheless, the book is not just a series of pantomime heroes and villains. Macaulay criticises extremists on both sides on every conflict he examines; and expresses admiration for those who sought compromise and sought to serve the state rather than party interest. Generally Macaulay produces literary-historical portraits of the actors which look at a mixture of good and bad points. Though Macaulay was a Whig, he is willing to give credit to Tories (aristocratic conservative party) for resisting abuses of state power and criticise Whigs for abusing power or going to the extremes. His ‘Whig’ history is really about how Tories and Whigs both advanced liberty through their struggles and interactions with each other. It’s an essay on how party spirit may lead people to undermine the political processes of compromise necessary to the spirit and institutions of liberty; and then how the experience of peaceful politics can enable liberty to survive and advance in times of crisis.

No one should read Macaulay now for a scholarly investigation of English history using the most recent evidence and methods. It’s certainly not a substitute for reading recent historical work, but I doubt that anyone is making such a mistake. It’s a great, and beautifully constructed essay, combining political thought, historical knowledge and literary style on how liberty emerges in history. Sometimes Macaulay repeats and reinforces historical myths, but these myths have their own force and historical reality in English history and deserve to be studied.

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