Thomas Babington Macaulay

From New World Encyclopedia

Thomas Babington Macaulay, 1st Baron Macaulay

Thomas Babington Macaulay, 1st Baron Macaulay, PC (October 25, 1800 – December 28, 1859), was a nineteenth century English poet, historian, and Whig politician. He wrote extensively as an essayist and reviewer, and on British history. His 1835, Minute on Education in India, where he was a senior civil servant, had a lasting impact on colonial attitudes, encouraging a sense of cultural superiority that had not characterized earlier generations of colonial officials. His minute resulted in the policy of only funding education in English following a European curriculum.

Thomas Macaulay at the age of forty-nine—after an engraving by W. Holl, from a drawing by George Richmond

Oddly, a direct line can be drawn between this and Indian independence, since it was members of the Indian English-speaking educated elite that led the self-rule struggle, inspired by the values of freedom and fair-play they had encountered in English literature. Macauley has intended his English educated elite to be loyal to Britain; instead, appalled at British hypocrisy, they rebelled against their imperial masters demanding self-determination and freedom. Yet, the assumptions of racial and cultural superiority that Macaulay articulated dominated British policy not only in India but almost everywhere throughout their empire for another hundred years after his death, informing the view that it was Britain's moral responsibility to supervise childlike people elsewhere in the world, until they matured enough to rule themselves. Even after World War I, this attitude dominated the Paris Peace Conference, 1919, when huge portions of the globe were entrusted to European powers on the basis that their populations, which were not consulted about their future, and were viewed as not yet ready to govern themselves.


The son of Zachary Macaulay, a British colonial governor and abolitionist, Macaulay was born in Leicestershire and educated at Trinity College, Cambridge. Macaulay was noted as a child prodigy. As a toddler, gazing out the window from his cot at the chimneys of a local factory, he is reputed to have put the question to his mother: "Does the smoke from those chimneys come from the fires of hell?" Whilst at Cambridge he wrote much poetry and won several prizes. In 1825, he published a prominent essay on John Milton in the Edinburgh Review. In 1826, he was called to the bar, but showed more interest in a political than a legal career.

Macaulay as a politician

In 1830, he became a Member of Parliament for the pocket borough of Calne. He made his name with a series of speeches in favor of parliamentary reform, attacking such inequalities as the exclusion of Jews. After the Great Reform Act, which greatly increased the number of people entitled to vote, was passed, he became MP for Leeds.


Macaulay was Secretary to the Board of Control from 1832 until 1833. After the passing of the Government of India Act 1833, he was appointed as the first Law Member of the Governor-General's Council. He went to India in 1834. Macaulay believed in European, especially British, superiority over all things Oriental, as may have been "justified" by the circumstances, in the eyes of many contemporary observers. Serving on the Supreme Council of India between 1834 and 1838, Macaulay was instrumental in creating the foundations of bilingual colonial India, by convincing the Governor-General to adopt English as the medium of instruction in higher education, from the sixth year of schooling onwards, rather than Sanskrit or Arabic then used in the institutions supported by the British East India Company. Although he could not read or speak any Asian language, he confidently declared that a "single shelf of good European literature" was worth the entire "native literature of India and Arabia." Nor could he find a scholar of this literature who was prepared to deny this.

Macaulay's criminal law system was enacted immediately in the aftermath of the Indian rebellion of 1857. It was probably the only systematic code of law in the world. It approaches law in a comprehensive manner that needs little change even after nearly two centuries—in spite of the advances in technology, no "new" category of crime has come into existence since Macaulay. It included the three major codes—The Indian Penal Code, 1860, the Criminal Procedure Code, 1872, and the Civil Procedure Code, 1909. The Indian Penal Code was later reproduced in most other British colonies—and to date, many of these laws are still in places as far apart as Singapore, Sri Lanka, Nigeria, and Zimbabwe.

Attitude of cultural superiority

The term Macaulay's Children is used to refer to people born of Indian ancestry who adopt Western culture as a lifestyle, or display attitudes influenced by colonizers. Macaulay’s own aim had been to create a class of people who, English in all but name, would prove to be both loyal servants of the colonial regime as well as people who would act as a bridge to the general population, spreading English ideals among them. This became known as the "trickle-down theory" and was widely adopted by Christian missionaries in India. Missionary educators established prestigious schools which, attracting members of the Indian upper and middle classes, were meant to adopt the Christian religion and aid the task of Christianizing the non-elite. Alexander Duff (1806-1878), the first Church of Scotland missionary in India, championed this approach.

The term "Macaulay’s children" is usually used in a derogatory fashion and the connotation is one of disloyalty to one's country and one's heritage.

The passage to which the term refers is from his Minute on Indian Education, delivered in 1835. It reads:

It is impossible for us, with our limited means, to attempt to educate the body of the people. We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect. To that class we may leave it to refine the vernacular dialects of the country, to enrich those dialects with terms of science borrowed from the Western nomenclature, and to render them by degrees fit vehicles for conveying knowledge to the great mass of the population.[1]

Writing about Hinduism, Macaulay pronounced that to offer it any type of assistance, such as funding Hindu schools, would be a crime against humanity, "high treason against humanity and civilization."[2]

The policy resulted in the Government funding only schools and Colleges that used English and a European curriculum, which impacted negatively on institutions that used vernacular languages and traditional Indian curricular. On the other hand, there is little evidence that Indian languages or literature declined, indeed something of a Renaissance developed. Those men who would lead the independence movement, too, were almost all "Macaulay’s children," who drew on the ideals they encountered in English literature, which included democracy, freedom, and fair-play, to argue that what the British upheld at home, they hypocritically denied Indians in India. Macaulay had actually supported the appointment of Indian to high office but advised that this should be introduced gradually. Following the 1857-58 Revolt, the idea that Indians could not yet govern themselves, and would not be ready to do so for a very long time became popular. Hence, Indians and Africans and non-European elsewhere, like children, needed a parent or a guardian to care for them until they reached maturity. This was understood to be a moral responsibility, or Rudyard Kipling's "White Man's Burden."

India's debt to Macaulay

Macaulay's legacy is both reviled and revered in India. On the one hand, he is reviled for his attitude towards Indian culture. On the other, he helped to ensure that Indian can compete in the modern world because English is widely spoken, and technological education well established. Goha (2007) comments:

English remains indispensable for technical education and as a means of inter-State communication. The software revolution in India might never have happened had it not been for Macaulay's Minute. And India might not have still been united had it not been for that Minute either. For, it was the existence and availability of English that allowed the States of South India to successfully resist the imposition of Hindi upon them.[3]

Later career

Returning to Britain in 1838, he became MP for Edinburgh. He had earned enough money while in India, where Civil Servants were very well paid, not to have to work again. (MPs were unpaid at this time, since governance was regarded as a public duty performed by the privileged.) He was made Secretary at War in 1839. After the fall of Lord Melbourne's government Macaulay devoted more time to literary work, but returned to office as Paymaster General in Lord John Russell's administration.

In 1841, Macaulay addressed the issue of copyright law. Macaulay's position, slightly modified, became the basis of copyright law in the English speaking world for many decades. Macaulay argued that copyright is a monopoly and as such has generally negative effects on society.[4]

In the election of 1847, he lost his seat in Edinburgh because of his neglect of local issues. In 1849, he was elected Lord Rector of the University of Glasgow and he also received the freedom of the city. In 1852, his party returned to office. He was offered a seat, but suffered a heart attack which seriously weakened him.

The National Portrait Gallery was formally established on December 2, 1856, Macaulay was amongst its founder trustees and is honored as one of only three busts above the main entrance.

He was raised to the Peerage in 1857, as Baron Macaulay, of Rothley in the County of Leicester, but seldom attended the House of Lords. His health made work increasingly difficult for him, and he was unable to complete his major work, The History of England, before his death in 1859. He was buried in Westminster Abbey. 1857, was the year that the Rebellion against British rule in India started, sparked in part by lack of Indian representation on the Legislative Council and by the general attitude of disrespect towards the sensitivities and customs of Indians. Macaulay can be said to have contributed to this attitude. In his political capacity, Macaulay did much to "resist the encroachments of religion on the State and the encroachments of the State on its citizens."[5]

Macaulay's great-nephew was the historian G. M. Trevelyan.

Literary works

During his first period out of office he composed the Lays of Ancient Rome, a series of very popular ballads about heroic episodes in Roman history. The most famous of them, Horatius Horatius, concerns the lone heroism of Horatius Cocles. It contains the often-quoted lines:

Then out spake brave Horatius, the Captain of the Gate:

"To every man upon this earth death cometh soon or late.
And how can man die better than facing fearful odds,

For the ashes of his fathers, and the temples of his gods.

During the 1840s, he began work on his most famous history, "The History of England from the Accession of James the Second," publishing the first two volumes in 1848, and the next two volumes appearing in 1855. He is said to have completed the final volumes of the history at Greenwood Lodge, Ditton Marsh, Thames Ditton, which he rented in 1854. At his death, he had only got only as far as the reign of King William III.

The history is famous for its brilliant ringing prose and for its confident, sometimes dogmatic, emphasis on a progressive model of British history, according to which the country threw off superstition, autocracy, and confusion to create a balanced constitution and a forward-looking culture combined with freedom of belief and expression. This model of human progress has been called the Whig interpretation of history. Macaulay's approach has been criticized by later historians for its one sidedness and its complacency. His tendency to see history as a drama led him to treat figures whose views he opposed as if they were villains, while his approved characters were presented as heroes. Macaulay goes to considerable length, for example, to absolve his main hero William III of any responsibility for the Glencoe massacre.


Thomas Macaulay in his later years. The illustration is taken from the 1881 Young Persons' Cyclopedia of Persons and Places
  • "We are free, we are civilized, to little purpose, if we grudge to any portion of the human race an equal measure of freedom and civilization."[6]
  • "His imagination resembled the wings of an ostrich. It enabled him to run, though, not to soar" (On John Dryden, 1828).
  • "Thus then stands the case: It is good that authors should be remunerated and the least exceptionable way of remunerating them is by a monopoly, yet monopoly is an evil for the sake of the good. We must submit to the evil, but the evil ought not to last a day longer than is necessary for the purpose of securing the good."
  • (From Edinburgh Review, 1830) "If any person had told the Parliament which met in terror and perplexity after the crash of 1720 that in 1830 the wealth of England would surpass all their wildest dreams, that the annual revenue would equal the principal of that debt which they considered an intolerable burden, that for one man of £10,000 then living there would be five men of £50,000, that London would be twice as large and twice as populous, and that nevertheless the rate of mortality would have diminished to one half of what it then was, that the post-office would bring more into the exchequer than the excise and customs had brought in together under Charles II, that stage coaches would run from London to York in 24 hours, that men would be in the habit of sailing without wind, and would be beginning to ride without horses, our ancestors would have given as much credit to the prediction as they gave to Gulliver's Travels."
  • "It would be, on the most selfish view of the case, far better for us that the people of India were well governed and independent of us, than ill governed and subject to us; that they were ruled by their own kings, but wearing our broadcloth, and working with our cutlery, than that they were performing their salams to English collectors and English magistrates, but were too ignorant to value, or too poor to buy, English manufactures. To trade with civilized men is infinitely more profitable than to govern savages."[7]
  • "Copyright is monopoly, and produces all the effects which the general voice of mankind attributes to monopoly. […] Monopoly is an evil. For the sake of the good we must submit to the evil; but the evil ought not to last a day longer than is necessary for the purpose of securing the good."
  • (Review of a life of William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley by Edward Nares, Edinburgh Review, 1832) "The work of Dr. Nares has filled us with astonishment similar to that which Captain Lemuel Gulliver felt when first he landed in Brobdingnag, and saw corn as high as the oaks in the New Forest, thimbles as large as buckets, and wrens of the bulk of turkeys. The whole book, and every component part of it, is on a gigantic scale. The title is as long as an ordinary preface: The prefatory matter would furnish out an ordinary book; and the book contains as much reading as an ordinary library. We cannot sum up the merits of the stupendous mass of paper which lies before us better than by saying that it consists of about two thousand closely printed quarto pages, that it occupies fifteen hundred inches cubic measure, and that it weighs sixty pounds avoirdupois. Such a book might, before the deluge, have been considered as light reading by Hilpa and Shallum. But unhappily the life of man is now three-score years and ten; and we cannot but think it somewhat unfair in Dr. Nares to demand from us so large a portion of so short an existence. Compared with the labour of reading through these volumes, all other labor, the labor of thieves on the treadmill, of children in factories, of Negroes in sugar plantations, is an agreeable recreation."
  • "The measure of a man's character is what he would do if he knew he would never be found out."


  • Works by Thomas Babington Macaulay, 1st Baron Macaulay. Project Gutenberg
    • Lays of Ancient Rome. Boston: Houghton, Mifflin, 1890
    • The History of England from the Accession of James II, 5 vols. (Orignial,1848); London: Dent, 1906.
    • Critical and Historical Essays, 2 vols. New York: Houghton Mifflin company, 1925.
    • The Miscellaneous Writings and Speeches of Lord Macaulay, 4 vols. London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1889.


  1. Thomas Babington Macaulay, Macaulay's "minute on education," Columbia University. Retrieved May 18, 2007.
  2. Arun Shourie, Missionaries in India: Continuities, Changes, Dilemmas (New Delhi: ASA Publications, 1994). ISBN 9788190019941
  3. Ibid.
  4. Eric Flint, Macaulay's speeches on copyright law. Retrieved May 18, 2007.
  5. Ramachandra Goha, Macaulay's Minute Revisited. Retrieved May 18, 2007.
  6. Columbia University, We must look forward to a time when Indians will hold high offices. Retrieved May 18, 2007.
  7. Ibid.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Cruikshank, Margaret. Thomas Babington Macaulay. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1978. ISBN 9780805766868
  • Morison, James Cotter. Thomas Babington Macaulay. Honolulu, HI: University Press of the Pacific, 2003. ISBN 978-1410208583
  • Trevelyan, George Otto. The Life and Letters of Lord Macaulay. New York: Harper & brothers, 1876.

External links

All links retrieved April 30, 2023.


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