English Essays: Sidney to Macaulay.
The Harvard Classics. 1909–14.
Introductory NoteThomas Babington Macaulay
THOMAS BABINGTON MACAULAY (1800–1859) was the son of Zachary Macaulay, a Scotsman whose experience in the West Indies had made him an ardent Abolitionist. Thomas was an infant prodigy, and the extraordinary memory which is borne witness to in his writings was developed at an early age. He was educated at Cambridge, studied law, and began to write for the “Edinburgh Review” at twenty-five, his well-known style being already formed. He entered the House of Commons in 1830, and at once made a reputation as an orator. In 1834 he went to India as a member of the Supreme Council, and during his three and a half years there he proved himself a capable and beneficent administrator. On his return, he again entered Parliament, held cabinet office, and retired from political life in 1856.
Until about 1844 Macaulay’s writings appeared chiefly in the “Edinburgh Review,” the great organ of the Whig Party, to which he belonged. These articles as now collected are perhaps the most widely known critical and historical essays in the language. The brilliant antithetical style, the wealth of illustration, the pomp and picturesqueness with which the events of the narrative are brought before the eyes of the reader, combine to make them in the highest degree entertaining and informing. His “History of England,” which occupied his later years, was the most popular book of its kind ever published in England, and owed its success to much the same qualities. The “Lays of Ancient Rome” and his other verses gained and still hold a large public, mainly by virtue of their vigor of movement and strong declamatory quality.
The essay on Machiavelli belongs to Macaulay’s earlier period, and illustrates his mastery of material that might seem to lie outside of his usual field. But here in the Italy of the Renaissance, as in the England or the India which he knew at first hand, we have the same characteristic simplification and arrangement of motives and conditions that make his clear exposition possible, the same dash and vividness in bringing home to the reader his conception of a great character and a great epoch.