Thursday, January 1, 2009

Macaulay's History of England

I am currently reading the five volume set of Thomas Macaulay's brilliant History of England from the Accession of James the Second.

Macaulay, a master stylist with a genius for irony and sarcasm, appropriates the techniques of the novelist to enliven his history. In contrast to the modern historian, who purports to be dispassionate and objective, Macaulay revels in applying his personal perspective as a cultured Englishman to make sense of the past and to distill history into striking judgements and descriptions. The force of his personality and his Whig convictions are evident on every page. The following excerpts illustrate his approach.

Macaulay applies the stilletto to those he deems worthy of disapprobation. Consider his description of Princess Anne, later Queen Anne, last of the Stuart monarchs:

"The King and Queen [William and Mary] had never, since the commencement of their reign, been on very good terms with their sister Anne. That William should have been disliked by a woman who had just sense enough to perceive that his temper was sour and his manners repulsive, and who was utterly incapable of appreciating his higher qualities, is not extraordinary. But Mary was made to be loved. So lively and intelligent a woman could not indeed derive much pleasure from the society of Anne, who, when in good humour, was meekly stupid, and, when in bad humour, was sulkily stupid."

Macaulay gives a blistering assessment of the dissolute Admiral Torrington:

"We cannot justly blame William for having a high opinion of Torrington. For Torrington was generally regarded as one of the bravest and most skilful officers in the navy. He had been promoted to the rank of Rear Admiral of England by King James, who, if he understood any thing, understood maritime affairs. That place and other lucrative places Torrington had relinquished when he found that he could retain them only by submitting to be a tool of the Jesuitical cabal. No man had taken a more active, a more hazardous, or a more useful part in effecting the Revolution. It seemed, therefore, that no man had fairer pretensions to be put at the head of the naval administration. Yet no man could be more unfit for such a post.

His morals had always been loose, so loose indeed that the firmness with which in the late reign he had adhered to his religion had excited much surprise. His glorious disgrace indeed seemed to have produced a salutary effect on his character. In poverty and exile he rose from a voluptuary into a hero. But, as soon as prosperity returned, the hero sank again into a voluptuary; and the lapse was deep and hopeless. The nerves of his mind, which had been during a short time braced to a firm tone, were now so much relaxed by vice that he was utterly incapable of selfdenial or of strenuous exertion. The vulgar courage of a foremast man he still retained. But both as Admiral and as First Lord of the Admiralty he was utterly inefficient.

Month after month the fleet which should have been the terror of the seas lay in harbour while he was diverting himself in London. The sailors, punning upon his new title, gave him the name of Lord Tarry-in-town. When he came on shipboard he was accompanied by a bevy of courtesans. There was scarcely an hour of the day or of the night when he was not under the influence of claret. Being insatiable of pleasure, he necessarily became insatiable of wealth. Yet he loved flattery almost as much as either wealth or pleasure. He had long been in the habit of exacting the most abject homage from those who were under his command. His flagship was a little Versailles. He expected his captains to attend him to his cabin when he went to bed, and to assemble every morning at his levee. He even suffered them to dress him. One of them combed his flowing wig; another stood ready with the embroidered coat.

Under such a chief there could be no discipline. His tars passed their time in rioting among the rabble of Portsmouth. Those officers who won his favour by servility and adulation easily obtained leave of absence, and spent weeks in London, revelling in taverns, scouring the streets, or making love to the masked ladies in the pit of the theatre. The victuallers soon found out with whom they had to deal, and sent down to the fleet casks of meat which dogs would not touch, and barrels of beer which smelt worse than bilge water. Meanwhile the British Channel seemed to be abandoned to French rovers. Our merchantmen were boarded in sight of the ramparts of Plymouth. The sugar fleet from the West Indies lost seven ships. The whole value of the prizes taken by the cruisers of the enemy in the immediate neighbourhood of our island, while Torrington was engaged with his bottle and his harem, was estimated at six hundred thousand pounds. So difficult was it to obtain the convoy of a man of war, except by giving immense bribes, that our traders were forced to hire the services of Dutch privateers, and found these foreign mercenaries much more useful and much less greedy than the officers of our own royal navy."

The Irish inspire Macaulay to his grandest flights of invective. Macaulay offers this description of the early life of Richard Talbot, later to become the leader of the Irish army opposing the English troops under King William:

"Richard Talbot, Earl of Tyrconnel, the fiercest and most uncompromising of all those who hated the liberties and religion of England, arrived at court from Dublin. Talbot was descended from an old Norman family which had been long settled in Leinster, which had there sunk into degeneracy, which had adopted the manners of the Celts, which had, like the Celts, adhered to the old religion, and which had taken part with the Celts in the rebellion of 1641. In his youth he had been one of the most noted sharpers and bullies of London. He had been introduced to Charles and James when they were exiles in Flanders, as a man fit and ready for the infamous service of assassinating the Protector.

Soon after the Restoration, Talbot attempted to obtain the favour of the royal family by a service more infamous still. A plea was wanted which might justify James Duke of York [later King James the Second] in breaking that promise of marriage by which he had obtained from Anne Hyde the last proof of female affection. Such a plea Talbot, in concert with some of his dissolute companions, undertook to furnish. They agreed to describe the poor young lady as a creature without virtue, shame, or delicacy, and made up long romances about tender interviews and stolen favours. Talbot in particular related how, in one of his secret visits to her, he had unluckily overturned the Chancellor's inkstand upon a pile of papers, and how cleverly she had averted a discovery by laying the blame of the accident on her monkey. These stories, which, if they had been true, would never have passed the lips of any but the basest of mankind, were pure inventions. Talbot was soon forced to own that they were so; and he owned it without a blush. The injured lady became Duchess of York. Had her husband been a man really upright and honourable, he would have driven from his presence with indignation and contempt the wretches who had slandered her. But one of the peculiarities of James's character was that no act, however wicked and shameful, which had been prompted by a desire to gain his favour, ever seemed to him deserving of disapprobation.

Talbot continued to frequent the court, appeared daily with brazen front before the princess whose ruin he had plotted, and was installed into the lucrative post of chief pandar to her husband. In no long time Whitehall was thrown into confusion by the news that Dick Talbot, as he was commonly called, had laid a plan to murder the Duke of Ormond. The bravo was sent to the Tower: but in a few days he was again swaggering about the galleries, and carrying billets backward and forward between his patron and the ugliest maids of honour. It was in vain that old and discreet counsellors implored the royal brothers not to countenance this bad man, who had nothing to recommend him except his fine person and his taste in dress. Talbot was not only welcome at the palace when the bottle or the dicebox was going round, but was heard with attention on matters of business. He affected the character of an Irish patriot, and pleaded, with great audacity, and sometimes with success, the cause of his countrymen whose estates had been confiscated. He took care, however, to be well paid for his services, and succeeded in acquiring, partly by the sale of his influence, partly by gambling, and partly by pimping, an estate of three thousand pounds a year. For under an outward show of levity, profusion, improvidence, and eccentric impudence, he was in truth one of the most mercenary and crafty of mankind. He was now no longer young, and was expiating by severe sufferings the dissoluteness of his youth: but age and disease had made no essential change in his character and manners. He still, whenever he opened his mouth, ranted, cursed and swore with such frantic violence that superficial observers set him down for the wildest of libertines. The multitude was unable to conceive that a man who, even when sober, was more furious and boastful than others when they were drunk, and who seemed utterly incapable of disguising any emotion or keeping any secret, could really be a coldhearted, farsighted, scheming sycophant. Yet such a man was Talbot.

In truth his hypocrisy was of a far higher and rarer sort than the hypocrisy which had flourished in Barebone's Parliament. For the consummate hypocrite is not he who conceals vice behind the semblance of virtue, but he who makes the vice which he has no objection to show a stalking horse to cover darker and more profitable vice which it is for his interest to hide."

The discipline and training of the rebel Irish army supporting the deposed James the Second against King William are frequent targets of Macaulay's scorn:

"James, standing on the defensive, behind entrenchments, with a river before him, had the stronger position; but his troops were inferior both in number and in quality to those which were opposed to him. He probably had thirty thousand men. About a third part of this force consisted of excellent French infantry and excellent Irish cavalry. But the rest of his army was the scoff of all Europe. The Irish dragoons were bad; the Irish infantry worse. It was said that their ordinary way of fighting was to discharge their pieces once, and then to run away bawling "Quarter" and "Murder." Their inefficiency was, in that age, commonly imputed, both by their enemies and by their allies, to natural poltroonery. How little ground there was for such an imputation has since been signally proved by many heroic achievements in every part of the globe. It ought, indeed, even in the seventeenth century, to have occurred to reasonable men, that a race which furnished some of the best horse soldiers in the world would certainly, with judicious training, furnish good foot soldiers. But the Irish foot soldiers had not merely not been well trained; they had been elaborately ill trained."

Finally, consider the withering appraisal of Irish towns that Macaulay includes in his faint praise of Belfast:

"Other Irish towns may present more picturesque forms to the eye. But Belfast is the only large Irish town in which the traveller is not disgusted by the loathsome aspect and odour of long lines of human dens far inferior in comfort and cleanliness to the dwellings which, in happier countries, are provided for cattle."