Taine was perhaps the first to draw attention to the manner in which Macaulay in his History used apparently random anecdotes, illustrations, and allusions to reinforce his major themes. The French critic chose the example of james II's arrival in Ireland in 1689 to make his point: "No horses to be found at Cork, the country a desert, the peasants marauders and butchers." All this adds up to more than some random observations on social history.

For from this description it becomes clear what will happen when William and the Protestants face the Irish Catholic forces at the Boync: "The history of manners is thus seen to be involved in the history of events; the one is the cause of the other, and the description explains the narrative." One might go further than this and point out that Macaulay's habit of constructing his paragraphs by rounding off a tattoo of short, breathless sentences with a resolving period is more than what Sir Richard Jebb called it — a trick of oratory, the surging and subsidence of thought and feeling in the orator's mind. Does not this stylistically reiterated sequence of tension and crisis leading to climactic resolution reflect the critical and tense sequence of events that found a happy issue in the Glorious Revolution; or, in a larger context, Macaulay's general theme of per aspera ad astra?

. . . But there is no doubt at all that Macaulay was very conscious of less intangible matters pertaining to arrangement and structure in historical writing. He wanted to make his History instructive, entertaining, and universally intelligible; and he rewrote and polished endlessly to achieve these goals. One need only reread chapter 3 on the state of England in 1685 to find instances of masterfully planned transitions — logical, easy, and seemingly inevitable — and to discount his own modest statement confided to his journal in 1854 that "arrangement and transition are arts which I value much, but which I do not flatter myself that I have attained." He was very much aware of how the great historians of the past had dealt with problems of presenting and arranging narrative history; Thucydides and Herodotus remained yardsticks for his own performance. When he devised as a means of exposition the declamatory disquisition, a summary of the arguments that might have been used by various parties to sustain their feelings at critical junctures, he did so because he felt he needed to have an equivalent for the speeches employed by the ancient historians.

Not only was Macaulay very conscious, then, of the importatlce of scaffolding in historical writing — but he was indeed a consummate master of the art of draping his narrative around that scaffolding in sUch a way that the latter remained for the most part invisible. He bas also, in his personal papers and in reports of his conversation, left some revealing glimpses of the extent to which he was generally familiar with the workings of his historical imagination. [65-67]


Clive, John. Not By Fact Alone: Essays on the Writing and Reading of History. Alfred A. Knopf: New York, 1989.

Last modified 2000