Thomas Macaulay, Liberal Futurist

Joshua Fagan

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July 14, 2023
Illustration: Wikimedia Commons

‘For the history of our country during the last hundred and sixty years is eminently the history of physical, of moral, and of intellectual improvement.” These are not the words of Steven Pinker or any other contemporary Davos-attending technocrat. Rather, they come from Baron Thomas Macaulay, the 19-century British historian and politician. Macaulay’s name may no longer be familiar, but the type of triumphalist history he helped pioneer endures. His most famous text, 1848’s The History of England, was a best-seller in its time in both Britain and the United States, delighting audiences with a sweeping tale of heroism and technological advancement. The History guaranteed Macaulay fame during his lifetime, to the extent that his bust adorns the façade of  the Library of Congress, alongside those of Dante and Ralph Waldo Emerson, among others.

Of Britain Macaulay wrote, with typically optimistic verve, that “no other society has yet succeeded in uniting revolution with prescription, progress with stability, the energy of youth with the majesty of immemorial antiquity.” This kind of historical boosterism has admittedly lost some legitimacy in recent years among progressives, who instead embrace a gloomy historical fatalism exemplified by the 1619 Project, which emphasizes the centrality and ineluctability of America’s “original sin” of slavery. But upbeat historiography remains alluring in the tech world, where technological acceleration still equates to societal progress. Bill Gates adores the hyper-optimistic Pinker, whose Enlightenment Now he called his “new favorite book of all time.” Elon Musk expresses a similar utopianism about the future, bluntly stating that the ethos of SpaceX is “about believing in the future and thinking that the future will be better than the past.”

“Lost traditions and conceptions of community had little value for Macaulay.”

Just as Pinker views humanity as continually becoming more prosperous, moral, and kind, Macaulay depicted British history since the rule of James II as a constant forward march, in which chaos and superstition give way inexorably to reason and tolerance. For the Macaulay-ist, those who don’t assent to the overwhelming superiority of the present over the past are nothing but wide-eyed sentimentalists. Pinker, too, condemns contemporary intellectuals who “hate progress” and view the reality of constant civilizational improvement “with indifference, skepticism, and even contempt.” Macaulay framed critics of modern industrial society as “constantly discontented with a condition which is constantly improving,” comparing them to travelers in the desert fooled by a mirage. Lost traditions and conceptions of community had little value for Macaulay. Old legends and ancestral wisdom, fading in the hyper-stimulating dynamism of the industrial revolution, were to him superstitions to be cured by skepticism and science.

Such an unequivocal preference for industrial productivity and commercial gain bespeaks a value judgment, but Macaulay preferred to obscure the fact that his History even makes judgments. Instead, he presented selectively chosen data and statistics to definitively “prove” the superiority of the modern age, how it created “a liberty of discussion and of individual action never before known.” His conception of history does not lead to a greater study of the past, looking for lost insight to heal an uncertain age, or to a more critical analysis of the present, looking to imagine new ways of organizing society. Instead, it complacently affirms that history acts merely as a moral lesson leading to the greater appreciation of the present.

He portrayed himself in the same manner as the technocrats who followed him: as a scientific, rational mind debunking the overblown claims of nostalgic fools. Admittedly, Macaulay acknowledged in his History that social and political missteps have occurred in the last several centuries, and that the historian’s duty is to “faithfully record disasters mingled with triumphs, and great national crimes and follies far more humiliating than any disaster.” In the spirit of objectivity, he gestured to some of these disasters, such as the British enclosure movement that disenfranchised common farmers by privatizing land formerly used for communal agriculture, but he vigorously maintained that the laws of Britain “have never been lost in general and irreparable ruin.”

Representative of Macaulay’s approach was his response to the Romantic poet Robert Southey, who lamented the utilitarian anonymity of housing in the industrial age, which he saw as buildings “naked and in a row.” In response, Macaulay condemned Southey for preferring picturesque cottages to “steam engines and independence.” The society Macaulay saw as the most civilized to have ever existed—industrial Britain in the mid-19th century—now largely exists in the public consciousness as a nightmare world of squalid, sickly cities and dangerous factories powered by child labor. Thus, the specific arguments he made are likely to strike the modern reader as unconvincing. Yet the underlying problem of Macaulay’s argumentation is less his overwhelming celebration of a specific era and more his dogmatic commitment to the objective inevitability of progress. Marx called him a “systematic falsifier of history” and accused him of eliding the alienation and social conflict endemic to industrial society. Macaulay’s strategy, copied by those who unwittingly follow his lead in our time, combined utopian futurism with a crude materialism that reduces the well-being of the population to quantifiable numbers and statistics. He thus ignored the uprooted malaise and atomization created by the ruthlessly efficient, regimented world of mass commercial society.

Born in 1800 in Leicestershire to a wealthy but non-aristocratic family, Macaulay matured in an environment shaped by the violence of the French Revolution. Less than a decade before his birth, revolutionaries had beheaded Louis XVI and thousands of his supporters, tipping France into a state of constant upheaval that many in Britain took as a warning. That Macaulay viewed the radicalism of the French revolutionaries negatively doesn’t make him unique. What differentiates him from, say, Edmund Burke—who in 1790 wrote the most famous denunciation of the French Revolution—is Macaulay’s view of history.

Burke objected that the revolutionaries largely ignored the past in their desire to create a new world built on abstract ideas. Macaulay argued the opposite, asserting in 1828 in his Edinburgh Review essay “History” that the French revolutionaries erred in thinking too much about the distant past. He objected that they drew from the writings of the Roman historian Plutarch, seeing a blueprint for a new tomorrow in the wisdom of the ancient world. The bloodshed of the revolution confirmed for Macaulay how dangerous such a backward-looking approach was.

“Historical advancement is ‘a change by which science gains and poetry loses.’”

Macaulay held that “no past event has any intrinsic importance,” and that the knowledge of the past “is valuable only as it leads us to form just calculations with respect to the future.” This utilitarian perspective treats history as a tool that has only practical value, a flawed tool prone to misuse by those who don’t wield it with sufficient “scientific” rigor and thus fail to realize that the present is measurably superior to the past. The function of history, thus, is to convince the contemporary reader to support the gradual progress of society toward wealth and prosperity, instead of looking to the past to revitalize a malaise-stricken present, as Macaulay claimed the French revolutionaries did. He admitted the existence of “absurd commercial restrictions, corrupt tribunals, disastrous wars,” and such in the course of human affairs, but for his view of history, such mishaps are relatively minor, as they don’t prevent the national wealth from “uninterruptedly increasing.” He asserted that historical advancement is “a change by which science gains and poetry loses,” but even this loss didn’t dim his ardent faith in progress.

Admittedly, Macaulay’s interest in the past extended beyond criticizing its faults. In his letters, he admitted to weeping with poignant joy upon re-reading the Iliad in the original Greek in 1851, exclaiming, “What is the power and glory of Caesar and Alexander to that?” He wrote an elucidating essay on John Milton while still studying at Trinity College in Cambridge. Still, as a prominent reformist liberal who ardently supported the Whig party, he viewed the past as a prelude for the bustling prosperity of an age of commerce and industrialization.

He served several stints in Parliament as a Whig, divided by a period between 1834 and 1838 where he assisted the governance of British-controlled India. This lofty career allowed him to exert significant influence on British policy, and to his credit, he actively contributed to the kinds of improvements he and the technocrats who followed him claim occur inevitably due to civilizational progress. Macaulay supported the civil rights of Britain’s Jewish minority, and he gained renown as a campaigner for the epoch-defining First Reform Act of 1832, which abolished the corrupt “rotten borough” system of parliamentary representation and significantly expanded the right to vote.

The appealing narrative of constant progress stretching back to James II inspired Macaulay to impassioned oratory and towering professional achievements, but it also contributed to a narrowness in his historical vision. His History aspires to the level of scientific inquiry, relying on specific evidence to support his narrative about the constant improvement of civilization, yet the heroic grandeur of this narrative consistently exceeds the facts provided. While comprehensive, the History relies on a degree of impassioned polemic that approaches determinism. He explicitly announced that “no man who is correctly informed as to the past” will take a “desponding view of the present,” demonstrating the same fervor as when he proclaimed in a speech in favor of the Reform Bill that rejecting the bill would cause “the confusion of ranks, the spoliation of property, and the dissolution of the social order.”

Many of Macaulay’s claims, while not without merit, fail to bolster such emphatic statements. He noted, for example, that in 1685, 1 in 23 inhabitants of London died. In the enlightened age of the mid-19th century, by contrast, only 1 in 40 Londoners died every year. In 1685, wages totaled about half of what they were more than a century later, and many commodities were more expensive in the past, of which Macaulay provided a comprehensive list: “sugar, salt, coals, candles, soap, shoes, stockings, and generally all articles of clothing and all articles of bedding.”

Accompanying these factual assertions were a list of claims about the moral improvement of the country. He claimed that the British have become “not only a wiser, but also a kinder people.” In attempting to quantifiably, measurably claim that the nation had become more merciful, he created a picture of the past defined solely by cruelty and privation, echoing the infamous Hobbesian vision of a life nasty, brutish, and short. He conveyed ghoulish images of men and women tortured and executed for the amusement of the debauched masses, who demonstrated far less compassion than modern society gave “to the factory child, to the Hindu widow, to the negro slave.” Unmentioned was the fact that both industrial factory labor and the trans-Atlantic slave trade owed their origins to the process of commercial gain Macaulay valorized.

Macaulay claimed that “the general effect of the evidence which has been submitted to the reader seems hardly to admit of doubt,” but the evidence he offered mixes a jumble of facts with contestable assertions about civilization making citizens kinder and more just. There are undoubtedly areas in which the present surpasses the premodern world, and Macaulay didn’t err in celebrating an increase of wealth and a decrease in the mortality rate. The flaws in Macaulay’s perspective rather come from the one-sided assurance that the facts and assertions he offered objectively prove the innate superiority of modern life.

Utilitarian modernity can—as we surely knowbe isolating, eroding networks of community and connections to the past, causing uncertainty and loneliness. John Ruskin, a contemporary of Macaulay, lamented that despite the “seasoned wood and tempered steel” that characterize modern architecture, industrial society transforms workers from “flesh and skin” to mere tools “to yoke machinery with.” Ruskin’s perspective, while perhaps also exaggerated, at least conveys an awareness of the downsides of the commercialist, profit-centric society Macaulay saw as the pinnacle of human development.

“Macaulay equated commercial wealth and technological progress with civilizational worth.”

The liberal futurist, seeking confirmation of a narrative defined by constant advancement, can be as guilty of dogmatism as any idealizer of the past. In British India, Macaulay emphasized the need to educate the “natives” by teaching them the English language and making them “English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect.” Such an attitude, though not atypical in 19th-century Britain, was for Macaulay an extension of his obsession with progress, his ironclad conviction that the present must inevitably be superior to the past. All the literature available in English in his time surpassed all the literature that 300 years ago “was extant in all the languages of the world.” He argued that no scholar could deny that “a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia.” Modern liberal futurists would, of course, denounce the Eurocentrism and paternalism of such an attitude without necessarily considering its origin. Macaulay equated commercial wealth and technological progress with civilizational worth. Thus, since 19th-century Britain was the richest and most technologically advanced civilization of its day, Macaulay believed in its innate superiority.

From his time in India to his fame as a historian, Macaulay proved himself an undeviating ideologue for progress. He consistently pointed forward, warning against both radicalism and reaction, celebrating the increase of trade and the influx of mercantile goods. Progress for Macaulay was a page of statistics about increases in productivity and somewhat lower commodity prices, wrapped in a fable that obscured class-based antagonism and widespread alienation. That he, unlike Dante and Emerson, is no longer a recognizable name may be a fair consequence of his zealous defense of a particularly exploitative age. But were his work more famous, the techno-optimism of Silicon Valley and Davos would no longer appear so novel. More people would see claims that innovation and efficiency will solve the problems of today as what they undoubtedly are: the latest version of a shopworn 19th-century utopia.