MY TOP SHELF – Chapter 28


[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book published in 2015 called ‘The Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’.  The extracts are as originally published, and they come in the same order.]



T B Macaulay (1980)

Folio Society, 1980; edited by Peter Rowland; introduction by J P Kenyon; red cloth embossed in gold; with stone slip case.

Perhaps no person can be a poet, or can even enjoy poetry, without a certain unsoundness of mind, if anything which gives so much pleasure  ought to be called unsoundness … Truth indeed is essential to poetry; but it is the truth of madness.  The reasonings are just but the premises are false.

This is how an English gentleman, and man of letters, a member of parliament, described the founding of his national church:

A King, whose character may be best described by saying that he was despotism itself personified, unprincipled ministers, a rapacious aristocracy, a servile Parliament, such were the instruments by which England was delivered from the yoke of Rome.  The work that had been begun by Henry, the murderer of his wives, was continued by Somerset, the murderer of his brother, and was completed by Elizabeth, the murderer of her guest.  Sprung from brutal passion, nurtured by selfish policy, the Reformation in England displayed little of what had, in other countries, distinguished it, unflinching and unsparing devotion, boldness of speech, and singleness of eye.

Here is an assessment of the key players.

We do not mean to represent Cranmer as a monster of wickedness.  He was not unwantonly cruel or treacherous.  He was merely a supple, timid, interested courtier, in times of frequent and violent change.  Henry, Cranmer, Somerset and Elizabeth were the great authors of the English Reformation.  Three of them had a direct interest in the extension of the royal prerogative.  The fourth was the ready tool of any who could frighten him.

But Macaulay likes the result obtained in the English church.

From this compromise, the Church of England sprang.  In many respects indeed, it has been well for her that, in an age of exuberant zeal, her principal founders were mere politicians.  To this circumstance, she owes her moderate articles, her decent ceremonies, her noble and pathetic liturgy.  Her worship is not disfigured by mummery.  Yet she has preserved, in a far greater degree than any of her Protestant sisters, that art of striking the senses and filling the imagination in which the Catholic Church so eminently excels. 

This book is a collection of essays as is a similar book published by Folio on England in the Eighteenth century.  You can therefore have Macaulay on the whole history of England, as his masterpiece, The History of England from the Accession of James II, starts at the beginning.  Thucydides, Gibbon, Carlyle and Namier were conscious stylists.  Maitland was not.  Macaulay certainly was.  ‘There will however be some passages which will not require constant references to authorities; and such passages I may be able to compose and polish in my chaise or at an inn.’

The principal work is a celebration of the Glorious Revolution, and is seen as the Bible of the Whig view of history.  Since the word ‘Whig’ had a different meaning in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and has none now, that term is at best slippery.  But it would be churlish to write off the truth that underlies the triumphalism.

The highest eulogy which can be pronounced on the revolution of 1688 is this, that it was our last revolution … And if it be asked what has made us to differ from others, the answer is that we never lost what others are wildly and blindly seeking to regain.  It is because we had a preserving revolution in the seventeenth century that we have not had a destroying revolution in the nineteenth. 

That is dead right, and was shown in 1789, 1848 and 1917, and will be shown in every nation in the Middle East and North Africa.

Macaulay of course had his dislikes.  Here he is on Strafford.

He was the first of the Rats, the first of those statesmen whose patriotism has been only the coquetry of political prostitution, and whose profligacy has taught Governments to adopt the old maxim of the slave-market, that it is cheaper to buy than to breed, to import defenders from an Opposition than to rear them in a ministry.  He was the first Englishman to whom a peerage was a sacrament of infamy, a baptism into the union of corruption.  As he was the earliest of the hateful list, so was he also by far the greatest; eloquent, sagacious, adventurous, intrepid, ready of invention, immutable of purpose, in every talent which exalts or destroys pre‑eminent, the lost Archangel, the Satan of the apostasy.

You might think that is over the top, but I have heard similar passion, if not venom, displayed about the apostasy of Paul Johnson by a descendant of a people of haters, and those views would have been widely shared by English people when they determined that Strafford was ‘so dangerous as to require the last and surest custody, that of the grave.’  The means used were, both Macaulay and Churchill had to concede, revolutionary.  ‘Stone-dead hath no fellow.’

Penn was traduced but the Establishment was not immune.  Churchill’s ancestor regularly got a backhander.  ‘Churchill, in a letter written with a certain elevation of language, which was the sure mark that he was going to commit a baseness ..’; ‘…endowed with a certain cool intrepidity which never failed him in either fighting or lying …’; ‘Churchill … made his appearance with that bland serenity which neither peril nor infamy could disturb’; ‘it was written with that decorum which he never failed to preserve in the midst of guilt and dishonour.’

This is England at the height of its imperial power with its first empire.

The situation which Pitt occupied at the close of the reign of George III was the most enviable ever occupied by any public man in English history.  He had conciliated the King; he domineered over the House of Commons; he was adored by the people; he was admired by all Europe.  He was the first Englishman of his time; and he made England the first country in the world.  The Great Commoner, the name by which he was often designated, might look down with scorn on coronets and garters.  The nation was drunk with joy and pride.  The Parliament was as quiet as it had been under Pelham.  The old party distinctions were almost effaced; nor was their place yet supplied by distinctions of a still more important kind.

Then they lost America.  How?

We are inclined to think, on the whole, that the worst administration which has governed England since the Revolution was that of George Grenville.  His public acts may be classed under two heads outrages on the liberty of the people, and outrages on the dignity of the Crown.  As he wished to see the Parliament despotic over the nation, so he wished also to see it despotic over the Court.  In his view, the Prime Minister, possessed of the confidence of the House of Commons, ought to be Mayor of the Palace.  The King was a mere Childeric or Chiperic, who might well think himself lucky in being permitted to enjoy such luxurious apartments as St James’s, and so fine a park at Windsor……The Stamp Act was indefensible, not because it was beyond the constitutional competence of Parliament, but because it was unjust and impolitic, sterile of revenue and fertile of discontents.

Macaulay will be read while the English language lasts.  His description of England in 1685, the last minute conversion of Charles II, the depredations of Jeffreys, and the trial of the seven bishops are integral to the English story.  His account of the massacre at Glencoe is high theatre, a kind of genocide that the Scots inflicted on themselves.  ‘The extirpation planned by the Master of Stair was of a different kind.  His design was to butcher the whole race of thieves, the whole damnable race.’  He began by referring to ‘the Glen of Weeping….the most dreary and melancholy of all the Scottish passes, the very valley of the Shadow of Death’.  This was said to be typically over the top.  I have been to Glencoe three times and you need no sense of history to feel that this stark outcrop is pregnant with doom.  And his explanation of the awfulness of it all is just right.  The passage ends with his saying that we could not imagine that ‘Robespierre would have murdered for hire one of the thousands whom he murdered from philanthropy’.  The following should be printed and shown in every house of government:

We daily see men do for their party, for their sect, for their country, for their favourite schemes of political and social reform, what they would not do to enrich or avenge themselves….virtue itself may contribute to the fall of him who imagines that it is within his power, by violating some general rule of morality, to confer an important benefit on a church, on a commonwealth, on mankind.

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