THOMAS BABINGTON MACAULEY Whig History of England from
THOMAS BABINGTON MACAULEY Whig History of England from the Accession of James III
BIOGRAPHY � � � � 1800 -1859 Born in Leicesteshire England Son of Zachary, governor of Sierra Lione and anti slave abolitionist. Early schooling indicated a talent for literature and poetry. Heavily influenced by the writings of Sir Walter Scott Left his Legal course to spend many hours in the House of Commons Became a writer contributing essays to the Edinburgh Review but financial losses forced Macauley to seek a political career. Appointed to India where he reformed the Penal Code. He retired from politics in 1841 and commenced his major work, A History of England.
Whig History � � ". . . the history of our country during the last hundred and sixty years is eminently the history of physical, of moral, and of intellectual improvement. . . “ Macaulay's writing of history shows a partisanship, often expressed in excessive terms, in support of the Whigs and it also shows an high degree of certainty that the course of British history during the years in question had been one of progress.
Who were the Whigs? � � The Whigs are often described as one of the two original political parties (the other being the Tories) in England later the United Kingdom from the late 17 th to the mid-19 th centuries. The Whigs' origin lay in constitutional monarchism and opposition to absolute rule They therefore valued any liberal, democratic ideas or events that expanded the power of Parliament.
Teleological view � � Macaulay duly traced the origins of English nationhood and democracy back to the time of the signing of Magna Carta (1215), which he presented as an attempt to limit the powers of the Norman (i. e. French and foreign) kings. He interpreted the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century as a great blow for individual liberty against the monkish despotism of the Catholic Church. The English Civil War was the result of an attempt by Charles I to turn back the clock of progress by sabotaging the increasing authority of Parliament. Charles’s son, James II, was spurred by his reactionary Catholic beliefs to make similar attempts, but was happily defeated in the Glorious Revolution of 1688, when political opponents (significantly nicknamed Whigs) called upon William of Orange to rescue English liberties and rule as William III.
Style � � � He refers to the Englishmen of the past as ‘we’, and assumes that they shared the thought-processes of nineteenth-century gentlemen like himself Macaulay is a master of all thè literary arts. Especially his use of antithesis and to make his effects by violent contrasts. Add to this the art of skilful climax, clever alliteration, happy illustration and great narrative power and you have the chief features of Macaulay's style “The style of Macaulay's History is the style of his speeches. Whatever subject he is treating in his History the orator is always appearing behind the historian, or rather the two are one: in reading we are continually reminded that his speeches never failed to fill the benches of the House of Commons with crowded listeners. ” Charles Firth ( 1938)
Characterisation or caricature? � � � Portrait of Titus Oates, who falsely claimed to have uncovered a Popish plot to murder Charles 11 “. . his short neck, his legs uneven. . . as those of a badger, his forehead low as that of a baboon, his purple cheeks, and his monstrous length of chin. . . those hideous features on which villainy seemed to be written by the hand of God. ” Macauley’s use of literary devices are understandable given his belief that history and literature was an intimate one
� In an early essay ( 1828) he argued that the perfect historian must strive to authenticate all facts, but that truth must be given “ those attractions which have been usurped by fiction. ”
Sources � “ONE characteristic of Macaulay's History is the air of certainty which pervades it. The facts it contains and the deductions from the facts are all set forth as positive and indisputable truths about which no doubt can exist. This was in keeping with Macaulay's character. He was not given to doubts about anything past or present. Lord Melbourne is reputed to have said that he wished he could be 'as cocksure about anything as Macaulay is about everything'. ”
� � “One can say this with perfect truth for Macaulay: he had a right to express himself with more certainty than previous historians because his narrative rested on a greater mass of evidence, a broader and more solid basis, and because he had taken more trouble than his predecessors to get at the truth Any reader who examines Macaulay's footnotes at all carefully can see what immense help the transcripts in the Mackintosh collection were to him. The whole collection has now found a resting-place in the British Museum. 2 It consists of forty volumes of papers, all dealing with the history of the period between 1688 and 1702. It is valuable not merely for its bulk, but for the systematic care with which the documents were selected. It contains a collection of newsletters for the years 1682 to 1688, twelve volumes of letters copied from the archives of the French Foreign Office, the letters of Cardinal Adda to Rome from 1685 to 1689, those of the Dutch and Spanish ambassadors in England for the same period, selections from the correspondence of the English ambassador in Paris between 1680 and 1688, and copies of the letters of William III to his confidants Bentinck and Heinsius”
Critical analyses of sources? ? ? � “As this is the first occasion on which I cite the correspondence of the Dutch ministers at the English court, I ought here to mention that a series of their despatches, from the accession of James the Second to his flight, forms one of the most valuable parts of the Mackintosh collection. The subsequent despatches, down to the settlement of the government in February 1689, I procured from the Hague. The Dutch archives have been far too little explored. They abound with information interesting in the highest degree to every Englishman. They are admirably arranged; and they are in the charge of gentlemen whose courtesy, liberality, and zeal for the interests of literature, cannot be too highly praised. “
Firth on Macauley � “However, the business of the historian is not only to collect all the available materials but to make sure that he interprets the evidence rightly, for there is a great difference in the value of witnesses. The development of a more scientific method of treating historical evidence was one of the great achievements of the nineteenth century. Macaulay stands outside this historical movement. He does not weigh the value of the evidence he employs, with sufficient care, if he is judged by the standards of to-day. ”
Herbert Butterfield � � The British historian, Herbert Butterfield (190079), is generally credited with first exposing those tendencies. In his short book The Whig Interpretation of History (1931), he complained about historians who wrote ‘present-minded’ history and, in so doing, fell with a resounding thud into traps which good historians should avoid.
Weaknesses � � They allowed their interpretation of the past to be coloured by their own political views and what they saw as the political needs of their own times. This led to them making arrogant assumptions about the direction history was taking. They applauded the British system of liberal parliamentary democracy, and assumed that the goal of history was to perfect it. So, Whig historians were likely to see the past progressing in a reasonably straight line towards parliamentary democracy. There are two main problems with this. In the first place, it tends to encourage historians to look for, and then to over-emphasise, similarities between past and present, and so to tumble into anachronism. In the second place, Whig historians were prone to categorising their historical characters as those who favoured progress (the winners) and those (the losers) who did not. Identifying winners and losers is a sure step on the road to making moral judgements about people in the past. In The Whig Interpretation of History, Butterfield generally avoided naming and shaming particular historians, but still reserved a prominent place of dishonour for Lord Acton (1834 -1902) who, he felt, wrongly made the making of moral judgements the mark of true historical writing.
Wide Ranging Narratives � Macaulay also represents an example of another of Butterfield’s pet hates: so-called ‘abridged’ history. Butterfield disliked the wideranging narrative histories which offered the general reader simplified explanations. He felt that, the more abridged the work was, the more likely it was to wallow in Whiggish errors
Warren on Macauley and Butterfield � “In practice, then, issues raised by Whig history remain central to debates about the nature and purpose of history. Butterfield was right to point out the dangers of glorifying and distorting the past to uphold a particular view of the present, and many would agree that the objectivity he demanded is central to all ‘good history’. Others might question how far objectivity is, in practice, attainable, and point to the way in which Butterfield’s own prejudices shaped his demands. ”