Copyright
Henry H Lancaster.

Essays and reviews online

. (page 15 of 38)
Online LibraryHenry H LancasterEssays and reviews → online text (page 15 of 38)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


cal life, although the highest offices were denied him,
he played no undistinguished part. He shared in the
great Reform battles, in the storms which preceded
the fall of the Melbourne Ministry, and in the bitter-
ness of the opposition which arrayed itself against
Peel. In these contests, and in the results which they
entailed, ample opportunities were afforded for dis-
playing all the qualities which dignify or discredit the
career of a politician. No portraiture has yet been
given to the public of Lord Macaulay 's social and
domestic characteristics, and on these, therefore, a
stranger must be silent. But we know enough to
enable us to assign him his place in the republic of
letters, and to ascertain how far, in the great game of
politics, his opinions were worthy to be accepted, and
his example to be followed.

It is not, we confess, without hesitation that we
attempt this subject. Lord Macaulay 's death is still
so recent, his loss is so irreparable to that most im-
portant branch of literature, the historical literature
of our country, that we find it no easy matter to dis-
charge, with fitting composure, the duty of a critic.
It is hard to be impartial in the midst of regret.
When the feeling is strong upon us that the place
which has been left vacant can never be supplied
that the task which has been left unaccomplished
will never be completed we are hardly able to be
coldly impartial. So much, too, has been written on
Macaulay, that it is impossible to write anything better
than has been written already. But it is possible to



180 LORD MACAULAY S PLACE

write something more. His works have been reviewed
as they variously appeared ; but, until the present time,
all his writings have never been brought together. It
is now in our power to regard his labours as a whole,
to notice the gradual development of style, to remark
the growth of his ideas, and to admire the stability of
his convictions. Such a study cannot be unimportant
or uninstructive ; and we shall endeavour to pursue it
with as much impartiality as our fervent admiration
for the great historian whom we have lately lost will
allow.

When Lord Macaulay's contributions to the " Edin-
burgh Eeview " first appeared in a collected form, the
popularity which they obtained was quite unprece-
dented ; nor has it been approached since by any of
the compilations of a similar nature which have
become so common. Sydney Smith's articles alone,
from the humour, the sound sense, and the knowledge
of the world which they display, are worthy to be
placed beside them. But Lord Macaulay took a wider
sweep than the accomplished churchman, and lent to
a more varied range of subject the charm of a more
brilliant style. Any detailed criticism of these essays
now-a-days would be absurd. Everybody has read
them, and the verdict of public opinion has been
definitely pronounced. They are a perfect mine of
information. We have criticism on poetry, on essay
writing, and on novel writing, in the articles on Byron,
on Addison, and on Madame D'Arblay. We have
elaborate portraitures of the greatest English states-
men of Burleigh, of Walpole, and of Chatham. We
have solutions of the most vexed questions of English
history, as in the article on Sir William Temple. We
have the great difficulty of Church and State connec-
tion discussed upon rational principles. And, above
all, we have the magnificent Indian disquisitions. It



IN ENGLISH LITERATURE. 181

is not too much to say, that an effect equal to the
effect produced by "Lord Olive" and "Warren
Hastings" was never produced by any two articles
since article-writing began. In the paper on Clive,
surprise was expressed at the general ignorance of
Indian affairs, even among educated Englishmen.
The publication of these two essays went far to dispel
that ignorance. They could not, indeed, narrate the
whole. Yet, any one who studies them attentively
will at least have laid a good foundation for further
inquiry. He will find that he has acquired not a little
knowledge of the rise of our Indian empire, and of
what may be called the Constitutional History of our
rule in the East. And, what is of greater importance,
he will find excited within him a very strong desire
to learn more. India has been unhappy in her his -
torians ; but to these essays belongs the triumph that,
in spite of the heaviness of Mill, the prolixity of Orme,
and the commonplaceness of Elphinstone, Englishmen
are at last beginning to know something of the
"annals of that marvellous empire which valour
without parallel has annexed to the throne of the
Isles."

But Lord Macaulay, great though he was as an
essayist, has won for himself a more enduring title to
fame. His genius was essentially historical. His first
essays were historical ; his best essays were historical ;
and, last of all, we have the History itself by which
his reputation will be finally determined.

All of us remember the manner in which the first
two volumes of the History were received. No book,
not even the best of the Waverley series, ever ex-
perienced such popularity. The " Times " devoted not
only articles, but leaders, to its praise. Every Eeview
in the country went into ecstasies. One notorious ex-
ception indeed there was; but that exception only



182 LORD MACAULAY'S PLACE

sufficed to bring out more forcibly the otherwise
universal concord. Such harmony was too beautiful to
last. Gradually faint murmurs of disapprobation made
themselves heard. As years went on, these increased
in number and deepened in tone, until the reaction
reached a height on the appearance of volumes
in. and iv. The greeting accorded to them differed
markedly from that which had welcomed their more
fortunate predecessors. Faults before unnoticed were
pointed out ; blemishes before hinted at were enlarged
upon ; beauties before brought into strong relief, were
passed over or denied. The whirligig of time brought
round revenges which might have satisfied even the
soul of Mr. Croker. The "Edinburgh Review " itself,
bound to render all suit and service to its great con-
tributor, began to falter in its allegiance. This was
no more than might have been expected. Such
changes from one extreme of opinion to the opposite
extreme, are as common in literature as in anything
else. But the reactionary spirit leads into as great
error as the original enthusiasm. Every part of Lord
Macaulay's History possesses peculiar and appropriate
merits ; but were a choice forced upon us, we should
give the preference to the third and fourth volumes
over the other two. The first part of the work, indeed,
possessed the charm of novelty. All the more pro-
minent characters were brought on the stage; and
the celebrated second chapter, from the nature of its
subject, stands alone. The brilliant circle which sur-
rounded Charles n. is painted with the pencil of
Watteau, in colours rendered brighter by contrast
with the sombre court of his successor. The fall of
James from the height of almost absolute power to
the long exile at St. Germains, is traced in a manner
hardly less dramatic than that in which Thucydides
traces the fate of the Sicilian expedition from the



IN ENGLISH LITERATURE. 183

bright midsummer morning on which it sailed, to its
end in the quarries of Syracuse. Yet it is not too
much to say that the varied powers of the historian
are more displayed in the latter portion of his narra-
tive. The siege of Derry is the most exciting thing
in the book. The battle of Landen will bear a com-
parison even with the battle-pieces of Sir William
Napier. The passage of the Boyne is finer than the
rout of Sedgemoor. In these volumes, too, we have
evidence of an ability, for the exercise of which the
earlier volumes afforded no scope we mean, the
power of carrying on, without confusion, a complex
story. From the beginning of the work down to the
abdication of James we are seldom out of Britain, and
the action is simple and continuous. After the acces-
sion of William, the plot deepens and widens. The
subject changes, the scene shifts, and yet every trans-
ition is managed without effort and without abrupt-
ness. The historian passes easily from the campaigns
in Ireland to the intrigues of St. James's, from the
battle-fields of the Low Countries to the mountains
of Scotland, never confusing his readers never un-
equal to his theme. Few qualities are rarer than this,
and none is more important. Students of the fifth
and sixth volumes of Mr. Froude's History will best
appreciate its value, by having had most occasion to
lament its absence. That gentleman's guidance is
like the magic carpet in the "Arabian Nights." It
whisks us about from country to country, over sea
and over land, with a rapidity which takes our breath
away, and disturbs all our ideas of space and time.
Above all, the last part of Lord Macaulay's work is
valuable, as telling us so much which it behoves us
to know. Less picturesque it may be than what
went before ; but we are certain that it is more in-
structive. Volumes I. and n. tell of an overthrow ;



184 LORD MACAULAY'S PLACE

volumes in. and iv. tell of a reconstruction a work
far greater in itself, immeasurably greater, in that it
has been enduring.

In the progress of its development, the political
constitution of England has been exposed to two
great shocks, arising out of two great convulsions in
the minds of the people : one, the change of the
national faith at the Reformation ; the other, the long
struggle of the Commons against the Crown. When
William of Orange appeared on the stage, both con-
vulsions the change of religion and the struggle for
liberty had left deep scars. The empire was torn
with religious dissensions; all constitutional forms
were unsettled. From this chaos William had to
evoke order; those scars it was his to heal. His
reign was the new birth of our constitution the real
beginning of the modern history of England. How
he accomplished his arduous task, how, under his
wise guidance, the constitution recovered the shocks
it had undergone, and, renewing its youth, gave pro-
mise of a strong and lasting existence, this is the
theme, than which no theme can be nobler, of the
concluding volumes of Lord Macaulay's History. The
position and influence of the monarchy were defined
by the Bill for Settling the Coronation Oath, and the
Bills for Settling the Oaths of Allegiance and Supre-
macy. The clergy and the Tories retained sufficient
power to defeat the Comprehension Bill, arid to main-
tain the test. But by the Toleration Act, religious
differences were, in part at least, composed ; and
Dissenters experienced the strange freedom of being
allowed to follow, without molestation, the dictates of
their consciences. The ecclesiastical constitution of
Scotland was fixed, and fixed upon such principles,
that, had it not been wantonly altered by the ad-
visers of Anne, it would have been spared the shock



IN ENGLISH LITERATURE. 185

of so many secessions. The Bank of England was
founded ; the national debt began ; the whole financial
system of the country had its origin. English politics
acquired the characteristics which they retain to the
present day, by the formation of the first regular
Ministry under Sunderland. Party warfare lost the
violence and cruelty which had before disgraced it,
and became animated by a comparative moderation
of spirit ever after that Act of Grace, the granting of
which constitutes one of William's purest titles to
fame. The scandal of our State trials was swept
away by the law which secured to the judges their
seats during life or good behaviour, and by the law for
regulating trials in cases of treason ; and, above all,
the liberty of the press was established.

All these great changes changes which made the
England of 1697 hardly recognisable by the statesmen
of 1687 are narrated in the historian's best manner.
They are the topics of which Lord Macaulay is most
thoroughly master, and in the handling of which he is
most perfectly at home. Brilliant as are his pictures of
courts, stirring as are his scenes of battle, it is in describ-
ing social ameliorations and parliamentary struggles
that his genius has achieved its most signal triumphs.

Yet, in spite of all this, these volumes never enjoyed
the popularity of their forerunners. Enemies soon
found this out. The mere caprice of reaction had
dictated the general judgment, but hostile critics
readily set themselves to justify that judgment. At
first they had, for the most part, been frightened into
silence ; but now they took heart of grace, and spoke.
To a certain extent this is a compliment qui na pas
de lecteurs, ria pas d 'adversaires but it has gone on
too long. Even death put no period to detraction.
Especially vehement have been the assaults contained
in a series of articles in " Blackwood's Magazine," com-



186 LOUD MACAULAY'S PLACE

mencing with praises of Presbyterianism in August
1856, and ending with praises of Dundee in September
1860. The ruling motive of these articles has not
been to vindicate the reputation of the departed great,
but to diminish the just fame of the historian. To
accomplish this end, positions the most contradictory
have been taken up, pleas the most inconsistent have
been urged. Covenanters and Claverhouse, Highlanders
and Western Hillmen, Marlborough and Penn, are all
to be defended with equal zeal, if so only Lord
Macaulay may be abused. Foolish jesting does not
deserve, random assertion does not admit of, a reply.
Such opponents are, like the opponents of Gibbon,
"men over whom victory was a sufficient humilia-
tion."

The defence of Penn, however, has been differently
conducted. Mr. Hepworth Dixon first took up the
case ; his arguments were condensed by a Mr. Paget ;
and their joint advocacy has been so plausible, that
on one or two points Lord Macaulay has seen fit to
answer. He has reiterated his belief, that it was the
Quaker himself, and not a lowly namesake, who nego-
tiated that scandalous business of the little girls of
Taunton for the maids of honour, and he has given
his reasons for that belief. He has justified the lan-
guage he employed with regard to Penn's advances to
Alderman Kiffin ; and he has maintained the correct-
ness of his account of Penn's conduct in the affair of
Magdalen College. Those answers, in our judgment
altogether convincing, appear only in the small seven
volume edition of 1858. This is not as it should be.
The notes containing those replies should be incor-
porated in every future edition of the History. The
publishers will culpably neglect the duty which they
owe to Lord Macaulay's reputation unless they look
to this. On no point, however trivial, can it be un-



IN ENGLISH LITERATURE. 187

important to establish his accuracy. 1 It would be out
of place to transcribe here Lord Macaulay's argu-
ments ; and, indeed, our space prevents us from
entering into the depth of the Penn controversy. The
more fully this is done, the more will the trust-
worthiness of the historian be brought out ; but to
accomplish the task thoroughly, would in itself afford
material for an article, and that not a very short
one.

The most hostile critics have failed, in our opinion,
to convict Lord Macaulay of misinterpreting his
authorities. But some assailants have occupied a
different ground, and have accused him of a different
fault, the fault of carelessness in selecting his autho-
rities. This is an error to which French historians
are especially prone. M. Thierry, for example, is a
conspicuous offender. With him, one authority so
that it be quotable is as good as another. Nothing
tends so much to mislead. The reader is thrown
off his guard. An imposing array of names, formally
cited, allays any suspicion. He never thinks of in-
quiring further. He is lulled into a false sense of
security, and accepts the assertions of the historian as
all resting upon equally good foundations. This
charge has been particularly urged against the descrip-
tion of the social position of the clergy, in the celebrated
second chapter of the History. Now it can be easily
shown indeed, Macaulay's assailants have themselves
succeeded in showing that his sketch is true to his
authorities, that it is, in every particular, corroborated
by the literature of the period. But then the question

1 As a matter of fact, the majority of readers have never seen the small
edition. One of the latest critics, for example, calmly assumes, as a
matter beyond dispute, the confusion between William Penn and George
Penne in the Taunton business, and exultingly refers to it as an instance
of Macaulay's inaccuracy. The critic, when he wrote, had evidently
never seen Macaulay's arguments in support of his original statement.



188 LOED MACAULAY'S PLACE

remains, What was that literature, and who were those
authorities \ Mr. Churchill Babington, in his " Charac-
ter of the Clergy, etc., considered," exults greatly in
the fact that one of them Oldham was an Atheist ;
and another T. Wood was a Deist. The inference
that both were on that account liars, is, perhaps, rather
rapid. And even if we ascribe to them an irresistible
tendency to falsehood, we must not forget that, like
Captain Absolute's invaluable servant, they were bound
to lie so as to be believed. The question simply is,
how far the satirical and popular literature of the day
may be relied upon as being true ? Now the first object
of a satirist is to be read, the next is to produce an
effect; but in order that he may do either, it is
requisite that he keep within the bounds of proba-
bility. A gross caricature can never be a powerful
satire. While, therefore, the satirist must exaggerate
in order to attract, he must yet, in all his exaggera-
tion, preserve a certain measure of truth. If satirists
represent a class of the community as being exclu-
sively composed of men of low origin, we may safely
assume that high birth among that class is rare. If
the comedians of a whole century agree in making
the members of a certain profession invariably marry
servants, we may conclude that the alliances con-
tracted by that profession were not, as a general rule,
exalted. 1 Take the literature of our own day.

1 Lord Macaulay has given deep offence by his remarks on this subject.
That those remarks are unpleasant, however, is more obvious than that
they are unfounded. A century later, a novelist, who had no dislike to
the Church, describes his most perfect heroine as allowing a marriage
between her waiting-maid and a "young Levite" attached to her
establishment. And, considering that she belonged to the household of
the virtuous Pamela, Miss Polly Barlow had been very near those frailties
which, according to Swift, make it prudential to give up hopes of the
steward, and fall back upon the chaplain. A waiting-maid of uncertain
virtue, even though the waiting-maid of a Pamela, would hardly be con-
sidered a very appropriate alliance for a clergyman now-a-days.



IN ENGLISH LITERATURE. 189

"Punch" is our professed satirist; the "Times"
habitually indulges in exaggerated writing. Yet we
suspect that a discerning historian could draw a fair
picture of the manners and customs of the period
from the pages of these two periodicals. Any one,
however, who attempts such a task has a reasonable
claim upon our indulgence ; for it is only by the
greatest industry and the most unerring tact that
success can be approached. At best there will always
be many who refuse to accept the results. Such
refusal, however, should be courteously conveyed. In
the case we are supposing, the author should not
hastily be reproached with carelessness or with wilful
inaccuracy. He may, indeed, have blundered. He
may have trusted too much to one satirist ; he may
have mistaken the spirit of another. But if past
conditions of society are to be reproduced at all, this
risk must be run. Lord Macaulay has faced it, and
has been bitterly abused in consequence. He is able,
indeed, to quote authorities more imposing than those
to whom we have referred. The Grand Duke Cosmo,
Lord Clarendon, and even the injunctions of Queen
Elizabeth, corroborate, in various minute points, the
view he has taken. But, as a whole, the case is un-
doubtedly rested on the representations of satirists
and popular writers. The matter is not one which
admits of being definitely settled by argument. It is
of no avail to be true to your authorities, when the
value of those authorities is denied. And as no more
valid authorities than those rejected satirists can be
cited, the question must be left to every man to
determine for himself, or to leave alone, as he likes
best.

Lord Macaulay's account of the Highlands and of
the Highlanders is very much in the same position as
his sketch of the clergy. Here also, it is urged con-



190 LOED MACAULAY'S PLACE

temptuously, his chief authorities are satirists and
Cockneys. Now it is perfectly true that the opinions
expressed by the satirists and entertained by the
Cockneys of that day, with regard to Highlanders or
anything else, are of historical value, and well worthy
to be preserved. For though it be the fashion to sneer
at Cockneys now, at that time the inhabitants of
London were, in wealth, power, and intelligence,
greatly in advance of any other part of the kingdom.
But the fact that such opinions were entertained is
one thing ; the truth of such opinions is a very dif-
ferent thing. The difficulty of presenting a fair
picture of the Highlanders of 1689 is indeed extreme.
At that date they were absurdly caricatured ; in our
own day they have been not less absurdly exalted
into heroes of romance.

" Thus it has chanced," says the historian, " that the old
Gaelic institutions and manners have never been exhibited
in the simple light of truth. Up to the middle of the last
century they were seen through one false medium ; they
have since been seen through another. Once they loomed
dimly through an obscuring and distorting haze of preju-
dice ; and no sooner had that fog dispersed, than they
appeared bright with all the richest tints of poetry. The
time when a perfectly fair picture could have been painted
has now passed away. The original has long disappeared ;
no authentic effigy exists ; and all that is possible is to
produce an imperfect likeness by the help of two portraits,
one of which is a coarse caricature, and the other a master-
piece of flattery."

The "imperfect likeness" thus produced is not a
very attractive one. 1 It mightily offended all the
victims of that Celtic mania, which, for some years

1 Its un truthfulness, however, is not so clear. Among other argu-
ments in its favour, it recommends itself to our acceptance by agreeing,
in all essentials, with the picture drawn by an historian so unprejudiced
and so painstaking as Mr. Burton.



IN ENGLISH LITERATURE. 191

past, has been making Scotland ridiculous. Foolish
men who lilre to wear kilts, foolish young ladies who
cry over ballads about Prince Charlie, and foolish
writers who affect a sentimental and unreal Jacobit-
ism in order to move such tears, cannot endure that
their fond delusions should be swept away. Loudly,
therefore, has Lord Macaulay been accused of cherish-
ing a bitter hatred towards Scotland. This absurd
cry has been echoed by many who bear no love to
the Celts, but who think that the historian has borne
too hardly on Scottish statesmen. Both grounds of
accusation are equally unfounded. Lord Macaulay,
it is true, has invested the Highlanders with no false
romantic attractions ; and he has spoken of men like
Perth and Melfort in no very gentle terms. But he
did not, therefore, undervalue the Scottish character,
or fail to appreciate duly the true glories of Scottish
history. He only judged more wisely than his critics
where these glories are to be found. He would not
seek them in the annals of an aristocracy, at their best
never faithful to the cause of their country's freedom ;
and, at the times of which he wrote, hopelessly
degraded into a tribe of unprincipled place-hunters.
Nor would he seek them in the exploits of half-naked
savages, whose love of independence was but an im-
patience of law, whose loyalty was but a longing to
quarrel and a lust to plunder. It is among the
middle classes of the Lowlands that the best charac-
teristics of Scotchmen have ever been displayed.
Those characteristics love of freedom, zeal for
religion, attachment to order are virtues of which
any nation may be justly proud ; and they are virtues
which Lord Macaulay was the last man to esteem



Online LibraryHenry H LancasterEssays and reviews → online text (page 15 of 38)