It [Croker's Boswell] was a work conceived and carried on in this spirit, through two long years of toil, its pages enriched by hundreds of contributions from men who had access to all possible sources of information — it was this work that Lord Macaulay found it consistent with his sense of truth and justice to pronounce "a worthless edition of Boswell's 'Life of Johnson,' some sheets of which our readers have doubtless seen round parcels of better books."
To any one who has read Mr. Croker's "Boswell," or who has even taken the trouble to look through the notes, this judgment will appear so unfair and so unreasonable that a suspicion must inevitably be engendered that it was not arrived at by the legitimate exercise of the critical faculty, but must have been prompted by some personal and unworthy motive. The existence of such a motive was well understood at the time the onslaughts were made, and more recently it has been laid bare to the world by the publication of Macaulay's own "Memoirs and Letters." The attack defeated itself by its very violence, and therefore it did the book no harm whatever. Between forty and fifty thousand copies have been sold, although Macaulay boasted with great glee that he had "smashed" it; for readers of his letters will have observed that his appreciation of his own work was at least as high as that which the public of his day entertained for it. One review had "smashed" a book which has had a steady sale ever since; another put an inoffensive writer in the "pillory," from which he had vainly "begged" to be let out. In the present day, it is usually felt that even if a man is able to produce such dire effects as these by his writings, it ill becomes him to show too keen a consciousness of his tremendous power.
The edition of "Boswell" was not published until 1831. For some months previously in the House of Commons there had been several sharp encounters between Croker and Macaulay in the debates on Reform. The two men, as it has been pointed out, were to some extent "pitted" against each other, and more than once Mr. Croker gained a marked and telling advantage over his antagonist. He had greater felicity in ready reply than Macaulay, and on more than one occasion he utterly demolished an elaborately prepared and showy, but unsubstantial, speech of the "brilliant essayist." Macaulay, as it clearly appears from his own letters, was irritated beyond measure by Croker; he grew to "detest" him. Then he began casting about for some means of revenge. This would seem incredible if he had not, almost in so many words, revealed the secret. In July, 1831, he thus wrote: "That impudent, leering Croker congratulated the House on the proof which I had given of my readiness. He was afraid, he said, that I had been silent so long on account of the many allusions which had been made to Calne. Now that I had risen again he hoped that they should hear me often. See whether I do not dust that varlet's jacket for him in the next number of the Blue and Yellow. I detest him more than cold boiled veal." From that time forth he waited impatiently for his opportunity to settle his account with Mr. Croker.
In the previous month of March he had been looking out eagerly for the publication of the "Boswell." "I will certainly review Croker's 'Boswell' when it comes out," he wrote to Mr. Napier. He was on the watch for it, not with the object of doing justice to the book, but of "dusting the jacket" of the author. But as his letters had not yet betrayed his malice to the world, he gravely began the dusting process by remarking, "This work has greatly disappointed us." What did he hope for, when he took it up, but precisely such a "disappointment"? "Croker," he wrote, "looks across the House of Commons at me with a leer of hatred, which I repay with a gracious smile of pity." He had cultivated his animosity of Croker until it became a morbid passion. Yet it is conceivable that he did not intend posterity to see him in the picture drawn by his own hand, spending his time in the House of Commons straining his eyes to see if there was a "leer" on Croker's countenance, and returning it with gracious smiles of pity.
The threat of revenge was made in July; the article which carried the threat into execution appeared in September. The animus with which the article was written was obvious to all fair-minded men, even before Macaulay's own revelations had told all the truth. "It will be evident," remarked one journal, "that the book has been taken up by one determined to punish the member of Parliament in the editor, and who ... is determined to sacrifice truth to brilliancy" — an accusation repeated, and proved, many times since then. "Everybody is aware," remarked the chief literary newspaper of England, "that the article was originally levelled less against Mr. Croker the editor than Mr. Croker the politician, and the abuse which may have been relished in times of hot passion and party vindictiveness, reads in our calmer days as so much bad taste and bad feeling." The American public were never for a moment deceived by Macaulay's vituperation. The book was held in esteem, and had a large sale, in the United States, and American writers have always done it justice. "Mr. Croker," says one, whose industry and ability are equally remarkable, "deserves great credit for his excellent edition of 'Boswell.' We venture this assertion notwithstanding the unaccountable attempt of Mr. Macaulay to depreciate the value of Mr. Croker's editorial labours." The "attempt," it has been shown, is not so "unaccountable" now as it was when these words were written. Macaulay has laid bare the entire process of flaying an author — first the threat to dust his jacket; then the urgent request to be allowed to review the book; lastly, the article itself, laden with charges prompted by the overwhelming desire for vengeance. If some obscure and wretched hack had been guilty of this conduct, slight indeed would have been the mercy shown to him in any quarter.
Public opinion has long ago redressed the wrong which was done. When a writer, however eminent, is proved to have committed an injustice for the express purpose of producing a "slashing article," or of satisfying a personal resentment, it sometimes happens that it is he who is seen standing in the "pillory" — not his intended victim.