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On this day in history in 1859, died Thomas Macaulay.
Macaulay was a Whig politician, poet and historian, who interpreted history in terms of British Nineteenth Century values, and wrote The Lays of Ancient Rome, as if Rome had been an antique version of British society.
Thomas Babington Macaulay was born on 25th October 1800 at Rothley Temple, Leicestershire, the son of Zachary Macaulay, a former governor of Sierra Leone, and the son of a Presbyterian minister from the Hebrides. His mother was a Quaker, the daughter of a Bristol bookseller. He was educated privately and was a precocious child. At 8 years old, he had written a compendium of universal history, and also The Battle of Cheviot, a romantic narrative poem, in the style of Walter Scott. In 1818, he went up to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he gained a reputation for his skill in poetry writing, and his genial companionship.
In 1830, he entered Parliament as member for the pocket borough of Calne. He became the secretary of the Board of Control, a body which supervised the administration of India by the East India Company. He supported the government line, except when it came to the question of slavery, where he took the side of the Abolitionists. Possibly because of his opposition to government policy, he was sidelined and offered a position on the recently created Supreme Council of India, which meant that he had to leave the House of Commons.
Macaulay’s policy was that India was not the property of the British, but was a nation, ready to be developed for the benefit of its people. He respected Indian culture, but accepted that the diverse versions of this culture were a hindrance to progress. For this reason, he insisted that English were to be the common language throughout India, rather that Sanskrit or Arabic. He deplored the lack of education in India and set up an effective educational system, foreseeing that an educated Indian population would benefit both India and Britain. He wrote to the Governor ‘To trade with civilised men is infinitely more profitable than to govern savages’. He also drafted a penal code that later became the basis of Indian criminal law. The code was systematic and comprehensive and remains in place today. Despite technological advance it has needed very little adjustment over the centuries.
In 1838, Macaulay was elected to Parliament as a member for Edinburgh. He became secretary for war in 1839, with a seat in Melbourne's Cabinet, but the ministry fell in 1841. Out of office, he found that he had time to write his epic poem Lays of Ancient Rome, which is full of heroic ancient Romans, who despise tyranny, rather like the British, and would rather die than be ruled by another nation, rather like the British, and have a compassionate attitude to other cultures, and hope to civilize them, and make them like themselves, rather like the British. The outstanding Roman character is Horatius, who is blessed with the gifts of courage and eloquence, rather like Macaulay. Horatius’ great moment comes when he finds himself as the last line of defence against the enemy, where his sentiments are expressed thus.
‘Then out spake brave Horatius, the Captain of the Gate:
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.’
Macaulay grew tired of the workings of Parliament. In 1846, he was recorded as speaking only 5 times, and one of those occasions was to ask for the windows to be opened. In 1847, he lost his Edinburgh seat, due to his lack of attention to local issues. In retirement, he wrote his great work, The History of England from the Accession of James II. He started with James II, who he viewed as the last great tyrant, and proceeded to demonstrate that, after the elimination of the autocrat, civilisation makes incremental progress until it reaches the stage of perfect government that is, having a titular monarch on the throne, with a Whig government in power, and having somebody, rather like Macaulay, organising the colonies. Macaulay struggled with this work, continually making corrections, and never quite finished it. He had only reached the reign of William III, when he died at his home in Campden Hill, aged 59. He is buried in Westminster Abbey, where he was positioned in Poets’ Corner, as his verses were considered of more worth than his political achievements.
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