The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIV. The Victorian Age, Part Two.

II. Historians, Biographers and Political Orators

§ 5. Macaulay

Thomas Babington (lord) Macaulay’s youthful Edinburgh essay on Hallam’s Constitutional History, with all its enthusiasm, indicates very clearly the qualities which distinguish him from the author of that work, whose whole spirit, he says, is “that of the bench, not that of the bar.” For himself, he was, among modern historians, the greatest of advocates; as his early essay History shows, he had drunk too deeply of the spirit of the ancient masters and had too closely studied their manner of narrative and characterisation not to be desirous of reproducing, with their picturesqueness and point, the intensity of feeling which inspired their art, and to take pride in his partisanship as he gloried in his patriotism.

Born in 1800, Macaulay almost grew into manhood with the great events of the second decade of the century, and first took thought of his History at the time of one of its greatest political struggles. Sir George Trevelyan’s biography of his venerated kinsman, besides bringing home to every reader the truthfulness of its portraiture of a man who justified the opinion formed, in his boyhood, by Hannah More as to the transparent purity and sincerity of his nature, shows that his services to his country and the empire were far from being absorbed in those which, with voice and pen, he rendered to his party; and that, in heart and soul, he was, from first to last, the man of letters whose fame grew into an enduring national possession. The path of distinction opened early for him in literary as well as in political work; to a forensic career, he was not drawn, not withstanding his oratorical gifts, his marvellous power of memory and what has been well described as his extraordinary sense of the concrete. He was the most indefatigable of workers, both from motives highly honourable to him (he was an excellent son to his father, Zachary Macaulay, a chief pillar of the antislavery movement, and, through life, a devoted brother) and from natural disposition, and he could say for himself that “when I sit down to work I work harder and faster than any person that I ever knew.” In the earlier half of his life, he found himself obliged to earn money to supplement the income from his Trinity fellowship and, subsequently, from his commissionership in bankruptcy; and when, in 1830, he began his History of England, he did not think it possible to give himself up to preparation for what might prove an unremunerative task. Thus, though, as it proved, nearly thirty years were yet before him, he abstained from entering at once upon a work which he might still have carried out on a scale such as that which he originally contemplated when fixing the death of George III as ulterior limit; and he became a regular contributor to periodical literature, Knight’s Quarterly Magazine and The Edinburgh Review in particular. An article proposed by him to the latter journal, after a visit to France at the time of the revolution of 1830, having been rejected through the intervention of Brougham (never Macaulay’s friend), he planned a history of France from the restoration to the accession of Louis-Philippe, but did not carry it to quite one hundred printed pages—in which condition it was afterwards discovered. When, in 1834, he accepted a seat on the India council, and, during his residence in India (where he never became domesticated) to 1838, devoted to literature such leisure as he could command, The Edinburgh Review, again, gathered its ripe fruits. On his return home, now in possession of a sufficient income, a parliamentary career once more offered itself to him; and, though he had already begun his History of England, he, in 1839, accepted office under lord Melbourne.