Thomas Banington Macaulays Speech of March 2, 1831 Essay

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As one of Britains greatest orators, historians and famous Whig politicians, Lord Thomas Banington Macaulays speech to Parliament on March 2, 1831 stands as one of the most important political documents of the early 19th century.  It was the time of the Tory dominance and the Whigs identification with the middle classes[¦] Macaulay voiced the opinion of his generation and [¦] it was because of his pen the Whigs got recognition. (Lord Macaulay, 2)

As the minority party, the Whigs had become identified with progressivism and eventually liberalism. During the parliamentary session of March 1831, the House considered a Reform Bill which would enfranchise the British middle-class. Until the Reform Bill, the House of Commons had been elected in almost completely non-democratic ways. The 1832 Bill[¦]did enfranchise the British middle class. The process of extending the franchise continued for almost a hundred years, until women were given equal access to the vote. (Halsall, 1)

               Macaulay, in speaking on behalf for passage of the measure, established himself as a powerful personality in British politics and also as one of the most respected orators of his time. Key to Macaulays convictions were a faith in individual empowerment, and a deep seated belief that democracy for all nations comprised the ultimate goal of political history. Macaulay was a key proponent of [¦] the progressive party, eventually to become the Liberal Party, of England. In the 19th century, liberal meant almost the opposite of what it does today: faith in the market, limits on government, and expansion of individual, not group, rights. (A Historian Who Articulated B07)

               For  the Whig party, the political reforms which were included within the Reform Bill represented an interpretation of historical events and philosophical insights into the nature of civil society, all considerations propelled by an intense belief in individual liberty and empowerment. The Whig view (and Macaulays view) of history held that English history was a postlude to the Magna Carta, when restriction on solo authority was first legalized. Once absolute power was checked, he said, it was only a matter of time albeit a few centuries until the creation of constitutional monarchy and popular franchise, albeit limited. (A Historian Who Articulated B07)

               It is precisely this profound consideration and knowledge of history that separates the mode of both the Whig-philosophy of the era and also for Macaulays extraordinary ability to not only comprehend, but eloquently express, the social and political ideas and realities of his time, but to do so with a sense of historical inevitability.  And it is, perhaps, this sense of historical inevitability which allowed Macaulay to write and orate with such  authority and conviction.  For a man who is famous for coining popular and enduring phrases, the most famous phrase connected with Macaulay is not by but about him. A prime minister in the early 1800s, Lord Grenville, said, I wish I were as sure about anything as Macaulay is about everything. (A Historian Who Articulated B07)

               This profound conviction and historical knowledge, along with his natural gifts for writing and speaking, allowed Macaulay to speak so eloquently on behalf of the minority party that Macaulay became, perhaps, the most powerful individual in Parliament. It is important to clearly keep in mind that Macaulays skills as a writer an orator, even above those he possessed as an historical historian, allowed the progressive, Whig party to establish British law which resulted in the expansion of individual liberties and political enfranchisement.

When the House met to discuss the Reform Bill of 1831, the piece of legislation was considered with more levity than diligence. Parliament adjourned over Christmas, and on the 1st of March, 1831, Lord John Russell introduced the Reform Bill amidst breathless silence, which was at length broken by peals of contemptuous laughter from the Opposition benches as he read the list of the hundred and ten boroughs which were condemned to partial or entire disfranchisement. (Trevelyan, 162)

               In his speech of March 2, 1831,  Macaulay stated with great aplomb his admiration for the American democracy: Universal suffrage exists in the United States without producing any very frightful consequences; and I do not believe that the people of those States, or of any part of the world, are in any good quality naturally superior to our own countrymen.

He also reminded his fellows that democratic institutions are the result of productive, enlightened societies and that the enfranchisement of laborers or working class people held no special threat to the sanctity of British institutions or national security: If the labourers of England were in that state in which I, from my soul, wish to see them-if employment were always plentiful, wages always high, food always cheap If a large family were considered not as an incumbrance but as a blessing-the principal objections to universal suffrage would, I think, be removed. (Halsall, 1)

               Macaulays professed, profound concern for the working classes of Britain, sincere as it was beautifully phrased, emerged out of his own experiences in British society. The son of a Bristol booksellers daughter and an evangelical Scottish merchant, Macaulay rose to prominence with the publication of an essay on what was then a newly-discovered poem by Milton and a review of a biography of Byron. Macaulay made a sensation with two major essays on literature in the trend-setting Edinburgh Review: On Milton (1826) and a review of a biography of Lord Byron (1830), who had died six years earlier. (A Historian Who Articulated B07)

               After attaining renown as a writer, Macaulay was approached in February 1830 [by]  Whig magnet, Lord Lansdowne offering him pocketborough of Calne. Macaulay entered the House of Commons and made his maiden speech on April 5, 1830. (Lord Macaulay, 2) As a new arrival to the House of Commons, Macaulays speech of March, 2 1831 is that much more impressive.

Macaulay spoke after the measure had just been redressed by Sir Robert Inglis, who  led the attack upon a measure that he characterized as revolution in the guise of a statute. (Trevelyan, 162) Inglis characterization of the Reform Bill was illustrative of the predominant view, which held that conservation of power allowed for the only reasonable measure to keep the social fabric of a nation together. In other words, that individual liberties comprised a kind of attack on the established order, one which was no less than a revolution.

               For the Whigs, however, and for Macaulay, the passage of the Reform Bill was not something to be viewed as a concession to the masses, but as a a fulfillment of history and moral principles. These beliefs, while central to Whig political thought, were met with stiff resistance from the majority. Therefore, Macaulays speech to the House on March 2, 1831, by necessity, would have to address the idea of revolution and also, the idea of concessions. For the latter, Macaulay appealed to the sense of universal humanity and sense of Justice. Fir the former, he evoked the possibility, the specter, of revolution and civil unrest, but not due to passage of the Reform Bill; but rather to its failure to pass. (Halsall).

                His appeal in the speech for passage of the Reform Bill  is ingenuously based partly upon his status as a newcomer. By referring to the working classes of Britain in a familiar and compassionate manner, Macaulay radically altered the methods and modes of the reform Bill and was instrumental in its eventual passage. He states: Monarchy and aristocracy, valuable and useful as I think them, are still valuable and useful as means, and not as ends. The end of government is the happiness of the people; and I do not conceive that, in a country like this, the happiness of the people can be promoted by a form of government in which the middle classes place no confidence. (Halsall,1)

               His arguments expands near the speechs denouement to include the possibility of  violent revolt by the disenfranchised British citizenry. Echoing the opening lines of the speech, when invoking America as an example of a successful democracy, Macaulay now inverts that same image and injects a vision into the minds of his peers of Britain torn by violent revolution and civil-war:

                Now, therefore, while everything at home and abroad forebodes ruin to those who     persist in a hopeless struggle against the spirit of the age; now, while the crash of the            proudest throne of the Continent is still resounding in our cars; ¦ now, while the heart    of England is still sound; now, while the old feelings and the old associations retain a            power and a charm which may too soon pass away; now, in this your accepted time;     now, in this your day of salvation, take counsel, not of prejudice, not of party spirit, not        of the ignominious pride of a fatal consistency, but of history, of reason, of the ages        which are past, of the signs of this most portentous time.

               The impact of Macaulays speech was to turn Parliament upside-down. Many of the members found his words both persuasive and beautiful. Immediately upon the conclusion of the speech, the House fell into a state of commotion and even at that short notice, most felt they were had witnessed one of the most profound and eloquent orations of their lifetimes. When he sat down, the Speaker sent for him, and told him that, in all his prolonged experience, he had never seen the House in such a state of excitement. (Trevelyan, 162)

               Macaulays strategy of appealing to the rational as well as emotional senses of his audience proved to be wildly successful. The impact of his words also contributed to the success of the passage of the Reform Bill. Though is is difficult for modern readers to fully comprehend the power, the majesty, and profundity of Macaulays brilliantly constructed argument, some of power may still be retrievable, particularly with the close of the eloquent speech.

Even at this distance of time, it is impossible to read aloud the last thirty sentences without an emotion which suggests to the mind what must have been their effect when declaimed by one who felt every word that he spoke, in the midst of an assembly agitated by hopes and apprehensions such as living men have never known or have long forgotten. (Trevelyan, 162)

               Such a distinction is important because, unlike much of modern political discourse, the speech given by Macaulay on March 2, 1832 the deepest and most considered social political and ethical philosophies which flourished among the members of the Whig party and represented the considered thought and theories of a highly literate and intellectual social microcosm.

In this way, both Macaulay and the other Whigs were able to articulate their deepest political and social convictions in a way which is not quite as fashionable in modern politics. Because of this endemic passion and because of the ramifications of the Reform Bill, the passage of the Bill established Macaulay as as a leading figure. His contacts with various personalities increased his knowledge and judgment of men. It also formed the base for a future historian. The political reputation brought him a well-off public life. He was a man in demand in high Whig society. (Lord Macaulay, 2)

               These events allowed Macaulay to broaden not only his political contacts and influence, but his philosophical horizons and his considerable breadth of knowledge. The enormous success of speech on the Reform Bill paved the way for Macaulay to become not only one of Britains leading politicians but one of its most predominant historians as well. Such distinctions served not only to change the course of the British legislature, but to ensure that the Whig intepretation of history would occupy a first-tier position among modern historians and for future generations.

               Interestingly enough, the Reform Bill played a role in Macaulays personal career as well. After his successful speech to the House and the passage of the Bill, he found himself in dire financial straits and he was ultimately deprived of his seat in the pocket-borough. But soon his salvation came when he was re-elected by the new middle class constituency of Leeds. In 1832, he was appointed the Commissioner of Board of Control, the official body to enforce the will of the English Government on the directors of the East India Company. (Lord Macaulay, 2-3)

               Macaulays belief in personal freedom and in the universal equality of individuals remained bolstered by his political career and the impact of the philosophies and ethical beliefs that proved crucial to the passage of the Reform Bill continued to expand and evolve during the ensuing years. Macaulay enjoyed his role as a prominent political figure and worked to continue establishing the progressive policies of the whig party. Macaulays letters sufficiently indicate[¦] how entirely he recognized that spirit of noble equality[¦] which takes little or no account of wealth, or title, or, indeed, of reputation won in other fields, but which ranks a man according as the value of his words, and the weight of his influence, bear the test of a standard which is essentially its own. (Trevelyan, 163)

               Though it is impossible to quantify with certainty the impact of Macaulays extensive career as a politician and historian on contemporary British political and social conditions, it is certain that Macaulays influence can be traced both in spirit and in method to his arresting speech of March 2, 1831.  The enduring power and probing thought of that speech is both documentation of and a map to the essential components of progressive Whig thought in the early nineteenth century and into the mind of that partys most brilliant orator and rhetorician.

               The tenants of Macaulays progressive social philosophy seem perennially germane. With modern issues of free-speech, racial enfranchisement, economic disparity, and environmental crises, many of Macaulays observations and eloquently expressed ideas are resonant with present-day issues. Certainly his impassioned convictions regarding the supremacy of individual liberty pose an historical basis for modern conceptions of libertarianism and for certain conservative movements as well, primarily those which eschew the expansion of government powers and the tyranny of  beureuacracy.

               Another aspect of Macaulays bequest to future generations is the scope of his rhetorical, historical, and linguistic knowledge which stands as a powerful testament to the persuasive power and enduring influence of literate and logical thought and writing. In final analysis, it is not only the concepts, beliefs, and political convictions of the Whig party that drove Macaulays enormous and influential political career, but his agile capacity to phrase unpopular ideas in such a manner that the impact of the ideas was able to sway even the harshest opponent. Of the speech of March 2, 1831, it must be said, the echoes of Macaulays words still reverberate through the political halls of contemporary society. Sir Thomas Denman, who rose later on in the discussion, said, with universal acceptance, that the orators words remained tingling in the ears of all who heard them, and would last in their memories as long as they had memories to employ.  (Trevelyan, 162)

                                                           Works Cited

A Historian Who Articulated Classic Liberal Idea of Progress. The Washington Times 10 Oct.           2004: B07.

Trevelyan, George Otto. The Life and Letters of Lord Macaulay. Vol. 1. New York: Harper &   Brothers, 1909.

Halsall, Paul. Modern History Sourcebook: Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800-1859): Speech           On The Reform Bill of 1832, March 2, 1831 July 1998. Accessed 4-1-07


Lord Macaulay. World of . 2006. Accessed 4-1-07.


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