Another Chapter in the Historian's Historian's History

Author of The History of England from James I
(More than a Century on the best selling list.)

Family Background

John Babington MacAulay had a heritage before he was born with talent pool contributions from ancestors from the celtic (though mixed with Norse) clan MacAulay's of Lewis -- known as the "intellectual clan". The earliest written records go back to 1610 refering to a Donald MacAulay of Lewis, and indeed, history would later play a prominent role in this descendent. John's father, Zachary, whose direct observance of British Emperial slavery in Jamaica and Sierra Leon, while governor, made him abhor and work to end it with his involvement in the Anti-Slavery Society and editing the Christian Observer. Zachary's father, a Calvinist minister, would eventually become very proud to see his grandson become a historical essayist of the highest caliber. Ironically the Protestant Whig bias in his work was the only chink in his most luminous armour from the critics.

Historical Beginnings

History for John Babington MacAulay, started on 25 October, 1800 at Rothley Temple, Leicestershire birthed by the Quaker mother. When only eight years of his history had been written in the book of life, he was already writing historical allegories in verse, and he wrote within another year "Compendium of Universal History" the accounting of time from Creation to his birth date. By the time he was eighteen the bright and likeable lad was enrolled in Trinity College, Cambridge, where he became a fellow.

Early 19th Century College Activist

MacAulay became acquainted with many of the undergraduates with similar modern views of actively changing the world. After sharing like minds with Lord Grey and Charles Austin, he ingested the works of Joseph Priestly and Jeremy Bentham embracing utiliarianism. It was sometimes observed that he almost religiously anthropomorphized the technology that was constantly improving in and on their world. His friendship with Austin caused him to change Tory affiliation to Whig, to the original chagrin of his father, but John never did go to far overboard radical. He was one of those that were of ultimate value that the aristocacy would enlist support from the middle classes, so both could cooperate in progressive agendas. He was preparing for his future law career after graduation when he argued at the Student Union against their ban of debating public affairs more recent than the previous hundred years.

Early Writing Opportunities

After getting some of his short historical and classical pieces published in Knight's Quarterly Magazine, he finally got an important and much noticed work on Milton published in Henry Brougham's Whig The Edinburgh Review in 1825. A year before that, he made himself memorable with his speaking engagement before the Anti-Slavery Society. Even though by the next couple of years he was accepted to the bar, he still was mostly involved in penning essays, but still by 1828 he was promoted by Lord Lyndhurst to Commissioner of Bankruptcy. This salary kept his family in room and board while father's Babington and MacAulay company was almost evaporated.

Political Man

Lord Landsdowne then furthered MacAulay's upward mobility by opportuning him with the seat of the borough Calne. His entrance into Parliament was just in time for his participation in the discussions on the Reform Act proposed by Lord John Russel. Even though Sir Robert Peel was on the opposite side, he too, had to join the throngs in lauding Thomas MacAulay's speech promoting the measures to correct parliament. He gushed that it had sections: " beautiful as anything I have ever heard or read."

In 1832, before the Reform Act passed MacAulay was given a commissionership of the board of control, and after the successful Whig victory, he was their winning candidate for a seat for Leeds running against Radical Tory Michael Sadler. In his year at Parliament he made his father happy, during a time that business investments were not, with his contribution ending slavery in the Caribbean.

For a Few Rupees More

In 1833 the good paying (ten thousand pounds per annum) position on the Supreme Council of India lured him away from his legislative duties for the chance to help allay his father's continued worsening financial woes. He used every bit of his salary for the five years to successfully pay off the family's debt. When not presiding over the commission investigating Indian jurisprudence, and writing their penal code, he used his free time to write some of the famous History of England.

A Fistful of Pounds

Like clockwork when the required savings were made, Thomas returned to England in 1838 and, just like riding a bicycle, ran for Parliament representing Edinburgh in the House of Commons. The next year Lord Melbourne made MacAulely his Secretary of War holding that office until the change of government in 1841.

Time on One's Hands? Put a Pen In It

Not one to wring his hands upon unemployment, Thomas took up his pen and used the free time to do some serious writing. In 1842 he had The Lays of Ancient Rome published --used by millions of students of Horatius1, followed the next year with his three volume Collected Essays. Then, he intensified his concentration on his Magna Oeuvre, the History of England.

Please Mister Postman

In 1846 Lord John Russell, now in charge of the government, appointed MacAulay Postmaster General, and the next year MacAulay finally lost an election putting him back at the writing desk, again. In another year he published the first two chapters of his History of England, his three fortnight sales of close to fourteen thousand copies and critical acclaim put him close behind Dickens and Sir Walter Scott in fame. People loved the lavish imagery conjured up in reading his narratives. (By the time all four volumes were published in a seven year span, a dozen different European nationalities (French, German, Dutch, Italian, Spanish, Hungarian, Russian, Polish, Hungarian, Danish, Persian and Bohemian) could read it in their own tongue.) He was made Lord Rector of the University of Glasgow in 1849.

MP of Edinburgh

Though Thomas was elected to the House of Commons for Edinburgh again in 1852, he more often than not was an absentee member endeavoring to finish the History. The final third and fourth volumes sold almost twenty seven thousand copies two and a half months, although it's pro Whig viewpoint drew some negative reviews. For example, he defended Whig noblemen involved helping William and Mary against the French and the Stuarts in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. The History remains a best seller even today.

MacAulay's Final History Chapter

By 1856 he resigned from Parliament, and the following year he was made First Baron Lord MacAulay of Rothley Temple and retired in Westminster at Holly Lodge, and enjoyed only two years until he died there three days after the Christmas of 1859. He is buried next to Shelley, Keats, Byron and Alfred, Lord Tennyson in the poets corner at Westminster Abbey.


His essays covered not only English figures such as Johnson, Bacon, Clive, Hastings and Temple, but his Continental focus included Machiavelli, or critiquing History of the Popes by Ranke. In his writing he would parallel facts such as Francis Bacon's poor domestic lifestyle with his excellent achievments for mankind. His third volume of his History Carlyle and John Ruskin were more less materialistic in their philosophy compared to MacAulay, and Thomas Carlyle summed up his feeling on this great historian as having no vision. MacAuley just happened to be very much in tune with his Victorian times and herein lies some of the reason as to his being relatively neglected in the modern era.

In his essay on Milton he explains, referring to 19th century technology:

Poetry produces an illusion on the eye of the mind, as a magic lantern produces an illusion on the eye of the body. And, as the magic lantern acts best in a dark room, poetry effects its purpose most completely in a dark age. As the light of knowledge breaks upon its exhibitions, as the outlines of certainty ecome more and more definite, and the shades of probability more and more distinct, the hues and lineaments of the phantoms which the poet calls up grow fainter ad fainter. We cannot unite the incompatible advantages of reality and deception, the clear discernment of truth, and the exquisite enjoyment of fiction.

His Poetry relayed classically inspired stories sampled here:

Dies Irae

On that great, that awful Day,
This vain world shall pass away.
Thus the Sibyl sang of old,
Thus hath Holy David told.
There shall be a deadly fear
When the Avenger shall appear,
And unveiled before his eye
All the works of man shall lie.

Hark! to the great trumpet's tones
Pealing o'er the place of bones:
Hark! it waketh from their bed
All the nations of the dead, --
In a countless throng to meet,
At the eternal judgment seat.
Nature sickens with dismay,
Death may not retain his prey;
And before the Maker stand
All the creatures of his hand.

The great book shall be unfurled,
Whereby God shall judge the world:
What was distant shall be near,
What was hidden shall be clear.
To what shelter shall I fly?
To what guardian shall I cry7
Oh, in that destroying hour,
Source of goodness, Source of power,
Show thou, of thine own free grace,
Help unto a helpless race.

Though I plead not at thy throne
Aught that I for thee have done,
Do not thou unmindful be,
Of what thou hast borne for me:
Of the wandering, of the scorn,
Of the scourge, and of the thorn.

Jesus, hast thou borne the pain,
And hath all been borne in vain?
Shall thy vengeance smite the head
For whose ransom thou hast bled?
Thou, whose dying blessing gave
Glory to a guilty slave:
Thou, who from the crew unclean
Didst release the Magdalene:
Shall not mercy vast and free,
Evermore be found in thee?

Father, turn on me thine eyes,
See my blushes, hear my cries;
Faint though be the cries I make,
Save me, for thy mercy's sake,
From the worm, and from the fire,
From the torments of thine ire.

Fold me with the sheep that stand
Pure and safe at thy right hand.
Hear thy guilty child implore thee,
Rolling in the dust before thee.
Oh the horrors of that day!
When this frame of sinful clay,
Starting from its burial place,
Must behold thee face to face.

Hear and pity, hear and aid,
Spare the creatures thou hast made.
Mercy, mercy, save, forgive,
Oh, who shall took on thee and live?

(Other) Assorted Works
•(The Complete Works of Thomas MacAulay can be bought for either almost two grand new, or twenty bucks used.)

Napoleon and the Restoration of the Bourbons (From History of France from the restoration of the •Bourbons to the accession of Louis Philippe.)

Sculptural Views on Perceptual Ambiguity

•Essays on Milton and Addison.

Life of Samuel Johnson

Essay on Lord Clive

Warren Hastings

Lays of Ancient Greece

Poetical Works

Speeches by Lord MacAulay, With His Minute on Indian Education.

An Essay on Frederic the Great

Hymn by Lord MacAulay: An Effort of His Early Childhood
Lord MacAulay's Legislative Minutes

Marginal Notes

Literary Essays for the Edinburgh Review



1From Horatius (kind of apt here on E2):

To every man upon this earth
Death cometh soon or late.
and how can man die better
Than facing fearful odds,
For the ashes of his fathers,
And the temples of his Gods

Postnote: Gritchka says re Thomas Babington Macaulay: Tsk, you haven't mentioned the good quotations: 'Thank you, ma'am, the agony is much abated' (age 4), and someone saying if I knew as much about anything as Tom Macaulay does about everything... /me waves hands.

British Poetry and Prose, ed. Linder, Lovett, Root: NY, Houghton Mifflin Co., 1938. Bartleby's
University of Toronto Library

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