Lord Macaulay and the Limits of Liberalism

In 1832 Britain’s parliament debated the First Reform Bill. The Whig Party’s significant majority in the House of Commons, combined with a rump of sympathetic Tory peers in the House of Lords, eventually passed Reform acts for England and Wales, Scotland, and Ireland, which significantly expanded the electorate for the Commons. (Even after the Reform acts the number of men able to exercise the franchise in Britain was only a fraction of the kingdom’s population as a whole.) Among the loudest and most enthusiastic champions of the Reform acts was Thomas Babington Macaulay. Although he later served as a civil servant and emerged as the greatest British historian of the first half of the Nineteenth Century, in 1832 Macaulay was a young parliamentarian intent on removing hidebound Eighteenth Century restrictions that maintained oligarchy at the expense of civil liberties.

Concern for civil liberties drove Macaulay to embrace liberal causes of the day. His Scottish Highlander father, Zachary Macaulay, had served as a colonial governor and was a noted abolitionist and member of the Evangelical Clapham Sect. The elder Macaulay worked tirelessly with other anti-slavery advocates such as Hannah More and William Wilberforce. Macaulay drank up liberal influences in his youth, so that by the time he entered parliament no one could have mistaken him for a conservative or Tory.

In 1830, Macaulay used his maiden speech to lambast civil restrictions on Jews, and he never wavered in his advocacy for Jewish civil rights and the enfranchisement of Jews. Advocacy for religious liberty did not entail religious disestablishment. The year before Macaulay entered parliament, the House of Commons voted to enfranchise Roman Catholics and remove civil restrictions placed on them by the Stuarts and Hanoverians. Raising Jews to equal civil status with Protestants and Roman Catholics didn’t necessitate obliterating Britain’s social establishment or its state church. Enlarging the franchise, argued Macaulay, was in actuality a conservative measure. “Turn where we may—within, around—the voice of great events is proclaiming to us, Reform, that you may preserve.”[1]

Liberals historically did not accede to Enlightenment or secularist ideology regarding the civil order. F.A. Hayek noted that, in Britain, the term “liberal” remained wedded to an understanding of government’s ability to protect and maintain individual civil rights, but that did not entail government deconstructing the social and civil order. Maclaulay and most European and American Nineteenth Century liberals—Francois Guizot, Massimo d’Azeglio, Henry Clay, Domingo Sarmiento, and others—did not believe that raising Jews and Roman Catholics to full participation in civil society meant the dismantling of conservative or even Christian civil, cultural, or even political foundations. Lord Macaulay—ennobled by Queen Victoria in 1857—was hardly a libertarian or a value neutral liberal.

Even in the middle of the Nineteenth Century, radical politicians coopted the term “liberal” to define their own politics. An annoyed Macaulay wrote to a friend “you call me a liberal… but I don’t know that in these days I deserve the name.” Macaulay defiantly opposed radical causes of the day. “I am opposed to the abolition of standing armies. I am opposed to the abrogation of capital punishment. I am opposed to the destruction of the National church.” He joked that “in short, I am in favour of war, hanging, and Church Establishments!”[2]


[1] Antonia Fraser, Perilous Question: Reform or Revolution? Britain on the Brink, 1832 (Philadelphia: PublicAffairs, 2013), 83.

[2] Arthur Bryant, Macaulay (New York: Harper & Row, 1979), 95.

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