John Clive is William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of History and Literature at Harvard University, and he brings his knowledge of both history and literary style to bear in analyzing the life and historical writings of Thomas Babington Macaulay in his book Macaulay: The Shaping of the Historian. The approach considers the works of Macaulay in terms of what they reveal about the forces that shaped them, including the family situation of Macaulay, the intellectual currents of the time, and Macaulay's psychology, showing how these forces interacted to cause Macaulay to think as he did and to begin to write history as he did. The book does not cover all of Macaulay's life but instead examines what the sub-title indicates -- the shaping of the historian, the forces that shaped Macaulay up to 1839 when he started writing history. Clive's book has been well-received and was given the National Book Award in History in 1974 and the Robert Livingston Schuyler Award of the American Historical Association in 1976. Clive tells the reader what he will examine and then does so utilizing primary sources for the most part while showing an awareness of the secondary analyses that have been undertaken by other historians, and Clive disagrees with many of them and makes this part of his analysis.
Clive details Macaulay's life in chronological order, beginning with the lives and marriage of his parents Zachary and Selina, suggesting that the forces that shape anyone actually begin long before they are born and first shape their parents and then begin the process of shaping the child and the adult that follows. Zachary was a leader in the effort to abolish the slave trade, and Clive says that Zachary undertook a spiritual journey of the sort Evangelicals cite as teaching important lessons. Zachary spent a good deal of time in Africa as part of the Sierra Leone Company before overwork and ill health brought him back to England. It was there he met his future wife, Selina Mills, a woman with a strong religious bent who made money from her own writings. Zachary was a devout Evangelical and practiced self-denial. More is known about Zachary than Selina because he wrote many letters and she did not, though the main concern she did express in her few letters was that Zachary was overworking.
Certainly, this family setting had considerable influence on Thomas, as would his education at Cambridge and his political career as a Whig, which Clive notes was somewhat surprising given Macaulay's earlier aversion to the Whigs. Clive notes that critics often find Macaulay to be a representative of the Augustan tradition, "an heir of the eighteenth-century classical literary tradition, violently opposed to the more lyrical, more emotional mode of the Romantic poets" (79). Clive finds this assessment too simplistic and instead points out that Macaulay was a men who found himself in between generations. His education fitted him for the role he undertook and clearly separated him from the less educated younger writers. Macaulay was influenced by men like Samuel Johnson and Milton, who was the subject of an essay by Macaulay. Macaulay's own writings thus make it relatively easy to follow the development of his thinking and the different influences that helped shape it.
Throughout the book, Clive shows Macaulay to be a man of independent thought who was influenced by others but never controlled by them or their ideologies. His father had broken with the Tories over the issue of slavery, but Macaulay's shift to the Whig party had little to do with that and much to do with his own assessment of the world and his political reaction to it. Macaulay's career included political, lawyer, writer, historian, and similar pursuits, and each stage was a logical extension of what went before. After college, Macaulay wrote for the Edinburgh Review, a journal founded by Whig politician Henry Brougham, who would also have an influence on Macaulay, though Macaulay came to agree with others that Brougham was "superficial and uncertain" (99). This pattern could be seen with some of the others with whom Macaulay interacted, that Macaulay would begin as a follower and then differences would push Macaulay in a different direction. Such shifts are to be expected, of course, and Clive avoids making either these alliances or disaffections more important than they really were.
In writing about Macaulay's early essays, Clive notes certain ideas which are featured there and which govern how Clive analyzes Macaulay and his era in this book as well. He says that the first important idea offered by Macaulay is that "in order to grasp the realities of political power and of men's behavior in society, one must not accept the doctrines, badges, symbols, and phrases of publicists and politicians at their face value" (105). Instead, one must view these things "within the context of the general moral atmosphere of their particular time" (105). The second idea is that this moral atmosphere is produced by circumstances which are "closely linked to the social and political institutions of given periods in history" which are in turn "parts of particular stages in the development of Western society" (105). Clive considers the development of the historian by analyzing the general moral atmosphere of the time, how it has affected Macaulay, and also how this atmosphere has been produced by the circumstances of the age. He has adopted Macaulay's own method in some ways and applies them in a reasonable and cogent manner.
The writing style is relatively straightforward as the author makes connections between ideas and movements and the people who offered the ideas and supported the movements. He considers the development of Macaulay by looking at a series of events in the man's life, jobs he performed, and particular issues in which he became embroiled. The key issues include his becoming a Whig and writing for the Edinburgh Review, his work with the Reform Bill of 1832, his growing reputation as an orator, his association with Holland House, and his concerns about India. Clive makes his own intention clear in his "Prologue" when he notes that the subject of his book is not the well-known Macaulay whose writings are so widely read but rather the younger Macaulay, seen then as the outsider and as "awkward, ugly, impecunious," the man "who by sheer talent and energy won the respect of the Whigs, and a seat in the cabinet before the age of forty" (xv). The book ends before any of the major works for which Macaulay is known were published: "Its aim is to trace some of the forces -- familial, intellectual, political, and personal -- which helped to shape the man and the historian" (xv). This is precisely what Clive does and does well, though he might do well to offer a stronger sense of what sort of historian Macaulay would become so the reader would be able to understand how the forces cited by Clive contributed to Macaulay's success or failure..
His interpretation is not necessarily new but it does differ in key respects from the accepted portrait of Macaulay. Some of this has been noted above, such as the view that Macaulay represents the Augustan tradition, while Clive believes he stands between generations in a different way. Clive approaches his subject by analyzing numerous primary sources from letters and other writings by Macaulay himself to official documents from the period, writings by others, laws passed, newspaper accounts, and so on. Considerable emphasis is placed on information gleaned from letters from Macaulay, allowing the man to speak for himself even as Clive analyzes the meaning and relates Macaulay's words to the events and people of the time. When Clive differs with other historians, he does not avoid saying so but instead suggests why the usual view is wrong, usually because it is too simplistic rather than completely off the mark. Clive then explains further to show the complexities and so gives a better sense of the way different forces interact and contribute to events which an observer might not immediately see as connected to those forces.
The section on Macaulay's debates and actions concerning the governing of India is particularly interesting and begins with a statement by Lord Auckland that one of Macaulay's traits that created the most problems for him was "his tendency to exaggerate in controversy" (342), which Clive says is evident in the debates over Indian educational policies. Here, again, Clive points out that a simplistic version of the story has long circulated, holding that Macaulay entered the controversy and prevailed about the place of English in the process. This action had considerable consequences for the entire history of the British Raj, or rule over India. [The British officially took over India in 1858 and established the Raj, while in Macaulay's time, India was ruled by a private British trading company which had been sending Indian goods to Britain for sale.] Clive says that the reality is more complex, and he provides an analysis of…