WSJ book review of Robert E. Sullivan's "Macaulay: The Tragedy of Power"





Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800-1859) was an influential historian, minor Victorian politician and the author of India's legal code. His educational reforms in India are largely the reason English is the tongue that unites the subcontinent today. His greatest literary legacy was the "History of England From the Accession of James II," which established the Whig or "progressive" view of history. In all, a life of influence in many spheres, and generally for the good.

To judge by Robert E. Sullivan's "Macaulay: The Tragedy of Power," one might well conclude that Macaulay was a hypocritical monster who smoothed the way for Nazi and Soviet genocide. The inescapable conclusion, after reading Mr. Sullivan, is that Macaulay, far from deserving his resting place in Westminster Abbey, ought to be disinterred and flung into a plague pit. With loathing dripping from almost every page, the book paints a portrait of Macaulay that is entirely removed from the generally rosy picture we currently have of him. But is it backed up by evidence?

"Thomas Babington Macaulay succeeded in crafting an intricate and winning public face that often belied him," Mr. Sullivan states early on. "He became a prominent spokesman for abolishing slavery in the British Empire who lacked any taste for the cause, a forceful theoretician and practitioner of reforming Whig politics who was a Machiavellian realist, a soaring parliamentary orator who avoided debate, a self-declared Christian who was a committed skeptic and a masterly secularizer of English history and culture, and a stern public moralist in love with his two youngest sisters." A complete fraud, in other words, and incestuous to boot!

This is quite the gravest series of accusations—especially the last one—ever made against a Victorian public figure, and I must admit to reading on avidly to discover Mr. Sullivan's support for so severe an assault. I prepared myself for a series of titillating revelations—maybe from a cache of freshly uncovered secret diaries?—about one of 19th-century England's more respected public figures. No such luck...

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