Fearing that my writing style was becoming anemic, I recently sought a literary booster shot from my bookshelves. Happily, a dozen volumes of Thomas Macaulay awaited me. Macaulay made history mesmerizing, and I have been captivated by his speed, grace, and wit for 40 years.
Nobody would mistake my shelf of Macaulay books for leather-bound collector items. In 1981, I picked up a four-volume set of his essays for 75 cents from a “discard” book sale outside McKeldin Library on the University of Maryland campus. Those volumes were too ratty for a cat to drag into a house. Two of the volumes had cracked spines and were held together with masking tape. Having been raised in the mountains of Virginia, I knew exactly how to upgrade them. I replaced the masking tape with duct tape. Having a “library discard” set zapped any hesitation to annotate the hell out of the crinkly old pages.
This was a pirate edition of Macaulay’s essays. A Philadelphia printer published the collection in 1842, at a time when Macaulay prohibited his essays from being republished in England. After the pirate edition (no royalties were paid to the author) began being imported into London, Macaulay relented and brought out the essays in Britain, providing an immense blessing for readers everywhere. Friedrich Hayek, in a footnote to his The Constitution of Liberty, hailed “Macaulay’s success in making the achievement of the constitutional struggles of the past once more a living possession of every educated Englishman” in bygone times.
Swooning for Macaulay’s masterful prose
Those four volumes complimented a battered 1860 volume of his essays that I snared for 25 pence in 1977 in Cambridge, England, during a summer spent hitchhiking around Europe. That volume included early vociferous pieces that Macaulay himself sought to suppress.
Macaulay was the Mike Tyson of book reviewers, busting heads left and right. He immortalized one Tory anti-Catholic bigot: “He foams at the mouth with the love of truth.” He lampooned an overheated paternalist: “His artillery … is composed of two sorts of pieces, pieces which will not go off at all, and pieces which go off with a vengeance, and recoil with most crushing effect upon himself.”
He derided England’s Poet Laureate: “What theologians call the spiritual sins are his cardinal virtues — hatred, pride, and the insatiable thirst for vengeance…. ‘I do well to be angry,’ seems to be the predominant feeling of his mind.” The first part of that description fits many political zealots nowadays. The second line could serve as a motto for people endlessly agitated by a recent president.
Macaulay vehemently denounced the oppressive, archaic laws of England that brutalized the downtrodden: “We see the barbarism of the thirteenth century and the highest civilization of the nineteenth century side by side; and we see that the barbarism belongs to the government, and the civilization to the people.” In his 1839 essay on “Church and State,” Macaulay declared: “It is mere foolish cruelty to provide penalties which torment the criminal without preventing the crime.” I recycled that one-sentence refutation of the U.S. drug war in several articles in the 1980s and 1990s. Unfortunately, politicians profit from tormenting drug users regardless of the vast collateral damage of the war on drugs.
Macaulay understood economics and pilloried protectionism at every chance. In 1824, he lamented, “Free trade, one of the greatest blessings which a government can confer on a people, is in almost every country, unpopular.” He recognized that voluntary exchange is by definition mutually beneficial: “To trade with civilized men is infinitely more profitable than to govern savages.” He also appreciated how renegades spurred reform: “Many absurd revenue acts have been virtually repealed by the smuggler.” It is unclear whether Macaulay knew that clashes between British troops and Bostonians commenced after the seizure of a ship named “Liberty,” which John Hancock, the first signer of the Declaration of Independence, used for smuggling.
One of my biggest surprises in reading Macaulay was learning how pro-government balderdash is perpetually recycled throughout history. In his 1830 essay on Robert Southey’s Colloquies on Society, Macaulay mocked faith in taxation:
In every season of distress which we can remember, Mr. Southey has been proclaiming that it is not from economy, but from increased taxation, that the country must expect relief; A people, he tells us, may be too rich: a government cannot: for a government can employ its riches in making the people richer…. We are really at a loss to determine whether Mr. Southey’s reason for recommending large taxation is that it will make the people rich, or that it will make them poor.
Macaulay followed up by impaling the delusion that government intervention is the magic cornucopia to produce prosperity:
In a bad age, the fate of the public is to be robbed. In a good age, it is much milder — merely to have the dearest and the worst of everything. We firmly believe, that five hundred thousand pounds subscribed by individuals for railroads or canals, would produce more advantage to the public, than five millions voted by Parliament for the same purpose.
A ten-to-one ratio of benefits from government vs. private spending was par for the boondoggles I investigated in the Reagan era and beyond. I used the “bad age” quote to anchor the conclusion of a 1986 Cato policy analysis on “The Continuing Failure of Foreign Aid.” Neither my analysis nor endless Inspector General demolitions of failed projects slowed the foreign-aid gravy train.
Another Macaulay phrase provided a lodestar for my attacks on agricultural subsidies. As I wrote in my 1989 book, The Farm Fiasco, “Farm aid is based on the old superstition that ‘no money can set industry in motion till it has been taken by the tax-gatherer out of one man’s pocket and put into another man’s pocket.’” Any farm handout that made voters or donors grateful was a good investment for congressmen. Because politicians didn’t pay the price of foolish policies, they had no incentive to cease repeating nitwit interventions.
In the final pages of my 1994 book, Lost Rights: The Destruction of American Liberty, I could not resist roping in my favorite essayist: “Government should be organized solely with a view to its main end; and no part of its efficiency for that end should be sacrificed in order to promote any other end however excellent.” I set up that quote with my own swing at an epigram: “America needs fewer laws, not more prisons.” Unfortunately, no leash can stop politicians from launching crusades for which government has no competence.
Macaulay’s continued relevance
Macaulay’s essays offer antidotes for the new mania for government crackdowns on “misinformation.” He skewered the notion that governments possessed latent wisdom: “None of the modes by which a magistrate is appointed, popular election, the accident of the lot, or the accident of birth, affords … much security for his being wiser than any of his neighbors.” In an 1830 essay, he explained why nothing good should be expected from officialdom “fixing” public opinion: “Government, as government, can bring nothing but the influence of hopes and fears to support its doctrines. It carries on controversy, not with reasons, but with threats and bribes…. Thus, instead of a contest between argument and argument, we have a contest between argument and force.” Unfortunately, today’s zealots are thrilled to use government force to win any argument. In an 1839 essay, Macaulay warned, “Those who preach to rulers the duty of employing power to propagate truth would do well to remember that falsehood, though no match for truth alone, has often been found more than a match for truth and power together.” The vast secrecy regime of the federal government props up far more falsehoods than citizens suspect.
Macaulay helped me recognize the paltry prevailing standards for political reasoning. He gained early fame in part from a series of attacks on Utilitarians, a new political sect that claimed their phrase “greatest happiness for the greatest number” solved the mysteries of the political universe. Many Utilitarians were poorly read devotees who “delighted to be rescued from the sense of their own inferiority by some teacher who … puts five or six phrases into their mouths … and transforms them into philosophers,” Macaulay wrote. He derided their reliance on deductive, evidence-free argument, which he labeled “reasoning utterly unfit for moral and political discussions.” Utilitarians failed to recognize that “logic has its illusions as well as rhetoric, that a fallacy may lurk in a syllogism as well as in a metaphor.” He wrapped up with a taunt that also applies to contemporary political science, castigating “that slovenliness of thinking which is often concealed beneath a peculiar ostentation of logical neatness.”
After Macaulay became a Member of Parliament in 1830, he openly denigrated legislative imbecility: “Nothing is so ill-made in our island as the laws.” That line should have been carved above the entrance of the U.S. Capitol. He had no patience for pablum about “the best and the brightest”: “Nine-tenths of the calamities which have befallen the human race had any other origin than the union of high intelligence with low desires.”
Macaulay vigorously opposed universal suffrage because he believed poor people would use their votes to plunder everyone else. He warned in 1840: “While property is insecure, it is not in the power of the finest soil, or of the moral or intellectual constitution of any country, to prevent the country sinking into barbarism. On the other hand, while property is secure, it is not possible to prevent a country from advancing in prosperity.”
Private property still exists despite universal suffrage, but politicians are continually whittling down citizens’ right to retain their earnings and control their own turf. Politicians are dividing Americans into two classes — those who work for a living and those who vote for a living. Maybe Macaulay’s warnings helped spur my most widely quoted line: “Democracy must be something more than two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for dinner.”
Not all of my Macaulay volumes were tattered. Shortly after I dropped out of Virginia Tech, I purchased a five-volume set of his History of England (another bootleg production by a Philadelphia printer). The $5 price seemed extravagant back when a six-pack of beer was only 99 cents, but wisdom never comes cheap. When I first read those volumes, I was enthralled by the vivid portrayal of the long fight of the English people against oppressive kings. But I reckoned that modern Americans would not need the lessons on torture and habeas corpus.
But 9/11 proved me wrong.
The Liberty Fund has kindly posted free copies of Macaulay’s essays in its Online Library of Liberty.
This article was originally published in the August 2023 edition of Future of Freedom.