Thomas Babington Macaulay

(1800—1859) historian, essayist, and poet

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politician and historian, son of the noted philanthropist and reformer Zachary Macaulay. After graduating from Trinity College, Cambridge, he was called to the bar, but his essay on Milton for the Edinburgh Review in August 1825 brought him instant fame, and for the next 20 years he wrote numerous articles on historical and literary topics for the Review, becoming one of the acknowledged intellectual pundits of the age. In 1830 he became a Whig Member of Parliament and took an active part in the passing of the Reform Bill. But in 1834 he accepted a place on the Supreme Council of India, where his famous Minutes on Law and Education had a decisive influence on the development of the subcontinent. On his return in 1838 he was a secretary for war, 1839–41, and paymaster‐general, 1846–7. He published Lays of Ancient Rome (1842), which like Essays Critical and Historical (1843) sold steadily down the century. His History of England (vols i–ii, 1849; vols iii–iv, 1855) was deeply researched; its purpose was to demonstrate that revolution on the continental model was unnecessary in England because of the statesmanlike precautions taken in 1688. He used a wide range of manuscript sources with great skill; it is still the most detailed factual account, for instance, of the reign of James II. He also affected an interest in social history, though this was focused on his superficial and discredited Chapter III, on ‘The Condition of England in 1685’. He acknowledged a great debt to Sir W. Scott. His descriptive power was one of his great assets; another was the narrative momentum he was able to achieve. The History brought him great wealth, and, in 1857, a peerage.

He was the subject of one of the best Victorian biographies, by his nephew, Sir G. O. Trevelyan (1876). His letters have been edited by Thomas Pinney (6 vols, 1974–81).

Subjects: Literature.

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