On the 150th anniversary of the death of the English historian and politician Thomas Babington Macaulay, Robert Sullivan offers a portrait of a Victorian life that probes the cost of power, the practice of empire, and the impact of ideas.
His Macaulay is a Janus-faced master of the universe: a prominent spokesman for abolishing slavery in the British Empire who cared little for the cause, a forceful advocate for reforming Whig politics but a Machiavellian realist, a soaring parliamentary orator who avoided debate, a self-declared Christian, yet a skeptic and a secularizer of English history and culture, and a stern public moralist who was in love with his two youngest sisters.
Perhaps best known in the West for his classic History of England, Macaulay left his most permanent mark on South Asia, where his penal code remains the law. His father ensured that ancient Greek and Latin literature shaped Macaulay’s mind, but he crippled his heir emotionally. Self-defense taught Macaulay that power, calculation, and duplicity rule politics and human relations. In Macaulay’s writings, Sullivan unearths a sinister vision of progress that prophesied twentieth-century genocide. That the reverent portrait fashioned by Macaulay’s distinguished extended family eclipsed his insistent rhetoric about race, subjugation, and civilizing slaughter testifies to the grip of moral obliviousness.
Devoting his huge talents to gaining power—above all for England and its empire—made Macaulay’s life a tragedy. Sullivan offers an unsurpassed study of an afflicted genius and a thoughtful meditation on the modern ethics of power.
A magisterial biography of a man now nearly forgotten and always clearly misunderstood… Elegant, erudite, and enlightening.
[A] virtuosically argued and detailed account.
It is a testament to Sullivan’s complex and sophisticated approach that I ended up both detesting and admiring Macaulay more… This is a fascinating, provocative study. In our era, of citizenship tests and pre-emptive strikes, when what makes, binds or breaks a nation is a pressing concern, Macaulay’s legacy is more instructive than ever to re-examine.
[Sullivan’s] biography is well paced and richly detailed… His book is an absorbing tour through the world of an elite Victorian liberal.
Superbly researched… [An] impressive and subtle book.
[An] exceptional book about the great 19th-century historian Thomas Babington Macaulay… Sullivan’s portrait of the historian-statesman is unimpeachable, based on a deep reading of Macaulay’s voluminous correspondence, journals, speeches, essays, and books. The man who emerges from this detailed portrait is loathsome but also sad. That he was popular in his own age says worlds about emerging values in mid-19th-century England… Enthusiastically recommended; this exceptionally well-written work will please all serious lovers of history.
In this long-awaited study, Robert Sullivan clearly and persuasively explores Thomas Babington Macaulay’s personal life and intellectual development in tandem, a difficult and rare achievement. He presents a probing, convincing, and ultimately devastating portrait of the mind of a liberal imperialist that transforms our understanding of Macaulay. Victorian intellectual history has no similar study. Macaulay is a major accomplishment that makes Sullivan one of the premier Victorianists of his generation.
In this boldly original but elegantly executed book, Sullivan coolly subverts many of the central preconceptions through which we have conventionally interpreted Macaulay. By focusing on several aspects of Macaulay’s intellect hitherto discounted or entirely neglected—the formative and intensely personal nature of his classicism, his carefully camouflaged scepticism, his profound psychological disturbances, and not least his consistently ruthless attitudes toward Ireland—Sullivan has produced a more complex—and darker—portrait of the great Victorian than has ever before been conceived.
- 624 pages
- 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
- Belknap Press
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