The time was when England would have said that in losing Macaulay she would lose the most extraordinary man of his generation in this country, the greatest and most accomplished of her statesmen of the nineteenth century. Such, and no less, was the expectation entertained of Macaulay when he first came forward as orator and poet, and on to the time when he had shown what he could do in Parliament. The expectation has not been fulfilled; and for many years it has been in course of relinquishment. He was not a great statesman, but he was the most brilliant Rhetorician and Essayist of his day and generation, and the most accomplished of that order of Scholars who make their erudition available from moment to moment, for illustration and embellishment, for the benefit of the multitude. He was no statesman, nor philosopher, nor logician, nor lawyer: but he was so accomplished a Man of Letters, and so incomparable a speaker and writer in his own way, that he will be regretfully remembered by his own generation while they live to miss the treat afforded from time to time by his suggestive pages and his enrapturing speeches.
He was the son of that excellent man, Zachary Macaulay, whose honored name is inseparably connected with the Anti-Slavery movement of the beginning of the century. Strange as the saying may seem, there is in our minds no doubt that his parentage was his grand disadvantage, and the source of the comparative unfruitfulness of his splendid powers. Zachary Macaulay sacrificed fortune, health, time, peace and quiet, and reputation, in behalf of the great philanthropic enterprise of his time; and, instead of his distinguishing qualities being perpetuated in his son, the reaction from them was as marked as often happens in the case of the children of eminent men. We see the sons of remarkably pious clergymen grow up to be men of the world; the sons of metaphysical or spiritual philosophers make a rush to the laboratory, or wander about the world, hammer in hand, to chip at its rocks. The sons of mathematicians turn to Art; and the families of statesmen bury themselves in distant counties, and talk like graziers of bullocks and breeds of sheep. The child of a philanthropist, Thomas Macaulay wanted heart: this was the one deficiency which lowered the value of all his other gifts. He never suspected the deficiency himself; and he might easily be unaware of it; for he had kindliness, and for anything we know, a good temper; but of the life of the heart he knew nothing. He talked about it, as Dr. Blacklock, the blind poet, wrote descriptions of scenery — with a complete conviction that he knew all about it; but the actual experience was absent. From the eclectic character of his mind it has been said that Macaulay thought by proxy. This was in the main true; but it was more remarkably true that he felt by proxy. However it might be about his consciousness in the first case, it is certain that in the second he was wholly unaware of the process. He took for granted that he was made like other people, and that therefore other people were amenable to his judgment. Thus it happened that his interpretations of History were so partial, his estimate of life and character so little elevated; and, we may add, his eclecticism so unscrupulous, and his logic so infirm. Very early in life he heard more than boyhood can endure of sentiment and philanthropy; the sensibilities of the Clapham set of religionists proved too much for "the thinking, thoughtless schoolboy;" and we have no doubt that it was the reaction from all this that made him a conventionalist in morals, an insolent and inconsistent Whig in politics, a shallow and inaccurate historian, a poet pouring out all light and no warmth, and, for an able man, the most unsound reasoner of his time. Heart is as indispensable to logic as to philosophy, art, or philanthropy itself. It is the vitality which binds together and substantiates all other elements; without it, they are forever desultory, and radically unsubstantial — like the great gifts of the brilliant Macaulay.
He was born in 1800. The first of his long series of distinctions and honors were those he won at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he took his Bachelor's degree in 1822. Very high were those early honors; and thenceforth many eyes were upon him, to watch the next turn of a career which could not but be a marked one. He obtained a fellowship at Cambridge, went to Lincoln's Inn to study Law, and was called to the Bar in 1826. His first recorded speech was made in 1824, at an Anti-Slavery meeting, where the tone he had caught up from the associates of his life thus far, expressed itself in a violence and bitterness which, being exceedingly eloquent at the same time, brought on him the laudation of the Edinburgh Review and the scoldings of the Quarterly — the former being the organ of the Abolitionists, and the latter of the West India interest — at that time very fierce from excess of fear. The Edinburgh Review placed the speech of this promising young man above all that had been offered to Parliament, and reported Mr. Wilberforce's heartsome saying, that his friend Zachary would no doubt joyfully bear all that his apostleship brought upon him "for the gratification of hearing one so dear to him plead such a cause in such a manner." This was, however, the last occasion, or nearly so, of the young orator appearing as one of the Abolitionist party. In the same year he presented himself as a poet, in Knight's Quarterly Magazine; and not long after obtained high credit even from the Quarterly Review, for his fine translation of Filicaia's Ode on the Deliverance of Venice from the Turks. The versification was pronounced to be loftily harmonious, and worthy of Milman. Thus had he already taken ground as an orator and a poet; and in 1826 he reaped his first fame as an essayist, in his article on Milton, in the Edinburgh Review. Whatever he might think at the time of the party puffery of that article, he showed on occasion of its compelled republication long afterward, that he valued the youthful effort at no more than its deserts. There was promise enough in it, however, to add his qualification of essayist to his other claims to high expectation. Parliament was to be his next field; and to Parliament he was returned in the first days of Reform, becoming member for Calne in 1832, and for Leeds in 1834. He was rendered independent in the first instance by his office of Commissioner of Bankrupts, given him by the Grey Government; and then by being Secretary to the India Board.
In Parliament, his success at first did not answer to ministerial expectation, though it was a vast gain to the Administration, when their unpopularity began to be a difficulty, to have Macaulay for their occasional spokesman and constant apologist. The drawback was his want of accuracy, and especially in the important matter of historical interpretation. If he ventured to illustrate his topic in his own way, by historical analogy, he was immediately checked by some clever antagonist, who, three times out of four, showed that he had misread his authorities, or more frequently had left out some essential element, whose omission vitiated the whole statement or question. It was this fault which afterward spoiled the pleasure of reading his essays in the form of reviews. Very few could singly follow him in his erudite gatherings of materials; but the thing could be done by the united knowledge of several minds and those several minds found that, as far as each could go along with him, he was incessantly felt to be unsound, by the omission or misstatement of some essential part of the case. When this was exhibited in regard to his early parliamentary speaking, the defence made was that he was yet young; and he was still spoken of by the Whigs as a rising young man, and full of promise, till the question was asked very widely, when the "promise" of a man above thirty was to become fruition. It was not for want of pains that his success was at first partial. Those who met him in the Strand or Lincoln's Inn in those days saw him threading his way unconsciously, looking at the pavement, and moving his lips as in repetition or soliloquy. "Macaulay is going to give us a speech to-night," the observer would report to the next friend he met; and so it usually turned out. The radical inaccuracy of his habit of thought was decisively evidenced by his next act in the drama of life. In 1834 he resigned his office and his seat in Parliament to go to India as member of the Supreme Council of Calcutta, to frame a Code of Law for India. It was understood that his main object, favored by the Whig Ministry, was to make his fortune, in order to be able to pursue a career of statesmanship for the rest of his life. Ten years were talked of as the term of his absence; but he came back in three, with his health considerably impaired, his Code in his hand, and a handsome competence in his pocket. The story of that unhappy Code is well known. It is usually spoken of by Whig leaders as merely shelved, and ready for reproduction at some time of leisure; but the fact is, that there is scarcely a definition that will stand the examination of lawyer or layman for an instant; and scarcely a description or provision through which a coach and horses may not be driven. All hope of Macaulay as a lawyer, and also as a philosopher, was over for any who had seen his Code.
After his return in 1838 he was elected by Edinburgh, on his making the extraordinary avowal that he was converted to the advocacy of the Ballot, Household Suffrage, and short Parliaments. For a moment, the genuine reformers believed that they had gained the most eloquent man in Parliament to their cause; but it was not for long. They soon found how thoroughly deficient he was in moral earnestness, and how impressible when the interest or impulse of the hour set any particular view, or even principle, brightly before him. He did not become a Radical any more than Peel or Melbourne. When appointed Secretary at War, the year after, he turned out rather more than less aristocratic than other reformers to whom fate affords the opportunity of dating their letters from Windsor Castle, when sent for to attend a Council.
This was the time of his greatest brilliancy in private life. As a talker, his powers were perhaps unrivalled. It was there that he showed what he could do without the preparation which might, if it did not, insure the splendor of his essays and his oratory. At the dinner-table he poured out his marvellous eloquence with a rapidity equalled only by that of his friend Hallam's utterance. He talked much, if at all; and thus it was found that it did not answer very well to invite him with Jeffrey and Sydney Smith. Jeffrey could sit silent for a moderate time with serenity. Sydney Smith could not without annoyance. Both had had three years of full liberty (for they did not interfere with each other) during Macaulay's absence; but he eclipsed both on his return. After some years, when his health and spirits were declining, and his expectations began to merge in consciousness of failure, he sometimes sat quiet on such occasions, listening or lost in thought, as might happen. It was then that Sydney Smith uttered his celebrated saying, about his conversational rival: — "Macaulay is improved! Yes, Macaulay is improved! I have observed in him of late flashes — of silence." Meantime, he was the saving genius of the Edinburgh Review, then otherwise likely to sink prone after the retirement of Jeffrey, and during the unpopularity of the Whig Government, all of whose acts it set itself indiscriminately to uphold. Brougham, with his brother William, Senior, and Macaulay, with some underlings, wrote up every Whig act and design, and made a virtue and success of every fault and failure; but it would not all have done if Macaulay's magnificent articles, in a long and rich series, had not carried the Review everywhere, and infused some life into what was clearly an expiring organization. The splendid historical, biographical, and critical dissertations of Macaulay were the most popular literature of the day; and they raised to the highest pitch the popular expectation from his History. A History of England by Macaulay was anticipated as the richest conceivable treat; though some thoughtful, or experienced, or hostile person here and there threw out the remark that as his oratory was literature, and his literature oratory, his history would probably be something else than history — most likely epigrammatic criticism. There was some further preparation for his failure as well as success as an historian after his article on Bacon in the Edinburgh. That Essay disabused the wisest who expected services of the first order from Macaulay. In that article he not only betrayed his incapacity for philosophy, and his radical ignorance of the subject he undertook to treat, but laid himself open to the charge of helping himself to the very materials he was disparaging, and giving as his own large excerpts from Mr. Montagu, while loading him with contempt and rebuke. But those who were best aware of Macaulay's faults were carried away by the delight of reading him. As an artist, we are under deep obligations to him; and in his own walk of Art — fresh, and open to the multitude — he was supreme. The mere style, forceful and antithetical, becomes fatiguing from its want of repose, as well as its mannerism; but his cumulative method of illustration is unrivalled. It has been, is, and will be, abundantly imitated, but quite unsuccessfully; for this reason — that it requires Macaulay's erudition to support Macaulay's cumulative method; and men of Macaulay's erudition are not likely to have his eclectic turn; and, if they had, would make their own path, instead of following at his heels. In 1842 he published his Lays of Ancient Rome, very charming, but eclectic with a vengeance. He was no poet it was clear, though he had given us a book delightful to the unlearned. In 1847 he was excluded from Parliament by his rejection at Edinburgh — on account merely of a theological quarrel of the time. The citizens compensated this slight, as far as they could, by promoting his election to such Scotch honors as could be conferred upon him — such as being chosen Lord Rector of Glasgow University, and, on the death of Professor Wilson in 1854, President of the Edinburgh Philosophical Institution. He was sorely missed in the House, though his speaking had become infrequent. When at length he returned with new literary honors accumulated on him, the eagerness to hear him showed what the privation had been. From the Courts, the refreshment-rooms, the Committee-rooms — from every corner to which the news could spread that Macaulay was "up," the rush was as if for a matter of life or death.
Meantime, while he was in this parliamentary and official abeyance, he brought out what were called the first volumes of his History; neither he nor any one else having any doubt that the rest, up to the reign of George III., would follow regularly and speedily. The beauty of the book exceeded expectation; and its popularity was such as no book had met with since the days of the Waverley novels; and with regard to some characteristics and some portions of the book, the first enthusiastic judgment will stand. His portrait of William III., and the portions which may be called the historical romance of the work, will be read with delight by successive generations. But the sober decision already awarded by Time is that the work is not a History; and that it ought never to have been so called, while the characters of real men were treated with so little regard to truth. Of praise and profit Macaulay had his fill, immediately and tumultuously; and openly and heartily he enjoyed it. But the critical impeachments which followed must have keenly annoyed him, as they would any man who cared for his honor, as a relater of facts, and a reporter and judge of the characters of dead and defenceless men. Failing health added its dissuasion to industry. He became subject to bronchitis to a degree which rendered his achievements and his movements uncertain. He was once more elected for Edinburgh in his absence; and it was on this return to the House that the rush to hear him was so remarkable a spectacle. He spoke seldom; and men felt that their opportunities would henceforth be few. Before his retirement from the House of Commons in 1856, he was the mere wreck of his former self. His eye was deep-sunk and often dim, his full face was wrinkled and haggard; his fatigue in utterance was obviously very great; and the tremulousness of limb and feature melancholy to behold. In 1857 he was raised to the Peerage; a graceful compliment to literature.
Macaulay's was mainly an intellectual life, brilliant and stimulating, but cold and barren as regards the highest part of human nature. As in his History there is but one touch of tenderness — Henrietta Wentworth's name carved upon the tree — so in his brilliant and varied display of power in his life, the one thing wanting is heart. Probably the single touch of sensibility was in him, and we should find some bleeding gashes, or some scars in the stiff bark if we were at liberty to search; but hard and rugged it was, while throwing out its profusion of dancing foliage and many-tinted blossoms. It was a magnificent growth; and we may accept its beauty very thankfully, though we know it is only fit for ornament, and not to yield sweet solace for present, or perennial use. If we cannot have in him the man of soul, heroic or other, nor the man of genius as statesman or poet, let us take him as the eloquent scholar, and be thankful.