Robert E. Sullivan


On his book Macaulay: The Tragedy of Power

Cover Interview of January 29, 2010

In a nutshell

Macaulay: The Tragedy of Power is a cultural biography of Thomas Babington, Lord Macaulay (1800-1859).  The eclipse of his reputation may suggest that there’s nothing deader than a dead empire.  Once as inescapable as England’s, which he helped to build and popularize, his name is now known only to liberal arts graduates of a certain age and to students of nineteenth-century culture.

But do great empires ever entirely die?  Today Macaulay’s legacy flourishes in South Asia, where he detested living but relished power.  When you hear the voice of a fluent English-speaker in a call center in what was recently Bangalore (Bengalooru), consider that in 1835 Macaulay was instrumental in launching English as the subcontinent’s shared language.  If this weren’t enough, the penal code for India that he almost singlehandedly drafted remains in force there and elsewhere in the late British Empire.

Macaulay was also long a cultural power wherever English was spoken or read.  In 1912, Theodore Roosevelt recommended his History of England to American historians as a model, and TR wrote the kind of history that he preached. The tenacious veneration of Macaulay as a sage is as telling about the underside of the history of the English-speaking peoples during the last two centuries as it is about his prodigious talents.

Like every successful imperialist, Macaulay possessed a myopic emotional sensibility: a highly selective, narrow—even exclusive—awareness of other human beings.  His father Zachary was a heroic evangelical abolitionist and an ineptly domineering parent—imagine Charles Dickens’s Mrs. Jellyby, global in her charity but heedless at home, but Mrs. Jellyby with sharp teeth.

Zachary’s heedless parenting taught his first-born to view human relations as essentially a business of domination and submission, always regulated by the steely calculation of self-interest.  He was an emotional cripple.  Honors, wealth, and power intensified his self-absorption.  Only a handful of people were completely real to him.  All the rest were, in the end, “not necessary” and thus expendable.  Macaulay’s life became a tragedy:  a great man devastated by a flaw.