Thomas Babington Macaulay, 1st Baron Macaulay

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Thomas Babington Macaulay, British poet, historian, and politician.

Thomas Babington (or Babbington) Macaulay, 1st Baron Macaulay (October 25, 1800 - December 28, 1859) was a nineteenth century British poet, historian and Whig politician.


  • Press where ye see my white plume shine, amidst the ranks of war,
    And be your oriflamme today the helmet of Navarre.
  • Oh! wherefore come ye forth in triumph from the north,
    With your hands and your feet and your raiment all red?
    And wherefore doth your rout send forth a joyous shout?
    And whence be the grapes of the wine-press which ye tread?
  • Soon fades the spell, soon comes the night;
    Say will it not be then the same,
    Whether we played the black or white,
    Whether we lost or won the game?
    • Sermon in a Churchyard, st. 8 (1825)
  • Out of his surname they have coined an epithet for a knave, and out of his Christian name a synonym for the Devil.
  • Nothing is so useless as a general maxim.
    • On Machiavelli (1827)
  • The gallery in which the reporters sit has become a fourth estate of the realm.
    • On Hallam's Constitutional History (1828)
  • Intoxicated with animosity.
    • On Hallam's Constitutional History
  • I have not the Chancellor’s encyclopedic mind. He is indeed a kind of semi-Solomon. He half knows everything, from the cedar to the hyssop.
    • Letter to Macvey Napier (December 17, 1830)
  • That wonderful book, while it obtains admiration from the most fastidious critics, is loved by those who are too simple to admire it.
    • On Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress (1831)
  • What a singular destiny has been that of this remarkable man!—To be regarded in his own age as a classic, and in ours as a companion! To receive from his contemporaries that full homage which men of genius have in general received only from posterity; to be more intimately known to posterity than other men are known to their contemporaries!
    • On Boswell’s Life of Johnson (1831)
  • Reform, that we may preserve.
    • Debate on the First Reform Bill (March 2, 1831)
  • Ye diners-out from whom we guard our spoons.
    • Political Georgics (June 29, 1831)
  • The conformation of his mind was such that whatever was little seemed to him great, and whatever was great seemed to him little.
    • On Horace Walpole (1833)
  • Such night in England ne'er had been, nor ne'er again shall be.
    • The Armada, l. 34 (1833)
  • To sum up the whole, we should say that the aim of the Platonic philosophy was to exalt man into a god.
    • On Lord Bacon (1837)
  • An acre in Middlesex is better than a principality in Utopia.
    • On Lord Bacon
  • Temple was a man of the world amongst men of letters, a man of letters amongst men of the world.
    • On Sir William Temple (1838)
  • Every schoolboy knows who imprisoned Montezuma, and who strangled Atahualpa.
    • On Lord Clive (1840)
  • She [the Roman Catholic Church] may still exist in undiminished vigour when some traveller from New Zealand shall, in the midst of a vast solitude, take his stand on a broken arch of London Bridge to sketch the ruins of St. Paul’s.
    • On Ranke's History of the Popes (1840)
  • She [the Catholic Church] thoroughly understands what no other Church has ever understood, how to deal with enthusiasts.
    • On Ranke's History of the Popes
  • The Chief Justice was rich, quiet, and infamous.
    • On Warren Hastings (1841)
  • In that temple of silence and reconciliation where the enmities of twenty generations lie buried, in the great Abbey which has during many ages afforded a quiet resting-place to those whose minds and bodies have been shattered by the contentions of the Great Hall.
    • On Warren Hastings
  • Thus, then, stands the case. It is good, that authors should be remunerated; and the least exceptionable way of remunerating them is by a monopoly. Yet monopoly is an evil. For the sake of the good we must submit to the evil; but the evil ought not to last a day longer than is necessary for the purpose of securing the good.
    • Speech on the Copyright Bill, delivered February 5, 1841.
  • I shall not be satisfied unless I produce something which shall for a few days supersede the last fashionable novel on the tables of young ladies.
    • Letter to Macvey Napier (November 5, 1841)
  • In order that he might rob a neighbour whom he had promised to defend, black men fought on the coast of Coromandel and red men scalped each other by the great lakes of North America.
    • On Fredrick the Great (1842)
  • We hardly know an instance of the strength and weakness of human nature so striking and so grotesque as the character of this haughty, vigilant, resolute, sagacious blue-stocking, half Mithridates and half Trissotin, bearing up against a world in arms, with an ounce of poison in one pocket and a quire of bad verses in the other.
    • On Fredrick the Great
  • I would rather be a poor man in a garret with plenty of books than a king who did not love reading.
    • Letter to his Niece (September 15, 1842)
  • The highest proof of virtue is to possess boundless power without abusing it.
    • Review of Aiken’s Life of Addison (1843)
  • He [Richard Steele] was a rake among scholars, and a scholar among rakes.
    • Review of Aiken’s Life of Addison
  • A man who has never looked on Niagra has but a faint idea of a cataract; and he who has not read Barère's Memoirs may be said not to know what it is to lie.
    • On Mémoires de Bertrand Barère (1844)
  • There you [Sir Robert Peel] sit, doing penance for the disingenuousness of years.
    • Speech in the House of Commons (April 14, 1845)
  • Forget all feuds, and shed one English tear
    O'er English dust. A broken heart lies here.
    • Epitaph on a Jacobite (1845)
  • The sweeter sound of woman’s praise.
    • Lines written in August, 1847
  • It is odd that the last twenty-five years which have witnessed the greatest progress ever made in physical science — the greatest victories ever achieved by mind over matter — should have produced hardly a volume that will be remembered in 1900.
    • Diary entry for March 9, 1850
  • Your Constitution is all sail and no anchor.
    • Letter to H.S. Randall, author of a Life of Thomas Jefferson (May 23, 1857)

Essay on Mitford's History of Greece (1824)

  • That is the best government which desires to make the people happy, and knows how to make them happy.
  • Free trade, one of the greatest blessings which a government can confer on a people, is in almost every country unpopular.
  • Wherever literature consoles sorrow or assuages pain; wherever it brings gladness to eyes which fail with wakefulness and tears, and ache for the dark house and the long sleep,—there is exhibited in its noblest form the immortal influence of Athens.

On Milton (1825)

  • We hold that the most wonderful and splendid proof of genius is a great poem produced in a civilized age.
  • Nobles by the right of an earlier creation, and priests by the imposition of a mightier hand.
  • The dust and silence of the upper shelf.
  • As civilization advances, poetry almost necessarily declines.
  • Perhaps no person can be a poet, or even enjoy poetry, without a certain unsoundness of mind.
  • There is only one cure for the evils which newly acquired freedom produces, and that cure is freedom.

On John Dryden (1828)

  • The English Bible,—a book which if everything else in our language should perish, would alone suffice to show the whole extent of its beauty and power.
  • His imagination resembled the wings of an ostrich. It enabled him to run, though not to soar.
  • A man possessed of splendid talents, which he often abused, and of a sound judgment, the admonitions of which he often neglected; a man who succeeded only in an inferior department of his art, but who in that department succeeded pre-eminently.
  • It seems that the creative faculty and the critical faculty cannot exist together in their highest perfection.

Southey's Colloquies on Society (1830)

  • Men are never so likely to settle a question rightly as when they discuss it freely.
  • A single breaker may recede; but the tide is evidently coming in.
  • Nothing is so galling to a people not broken in from the birth as a paternal, or, in other words, a meddling government, a government which tells them what to read, and say, and eat, and drink and wear.
  • There is surely no contradiction in saying that a certain section of the community may be quite competent to protect the persons and property of the rest, yet quite unfit to direct our opinions, or to superintend our private habits.

On Moore’s Life of Lord Byron (1830)

  • He had a head which statuaries loved to copy, and a foot the deformity of which the beggars in the streets mimicked.
  • We know no spectacle so ridiculous as the British public in one of its periodical fits of morality.
  • From the poetry of Lord Byron they drew a system of ethics compounded of misanthropy and voluptuousness,—a system in which the two great commandments were to hate your neighbour and to love your neighbour’s wife.

Lays of Ancient Rome (1842)

  • Lars Porsena of Closium
    By the Nine Gods he swore
    That the great house of Tarquin
    Should suffer wrong no more.
    By the Nine Gods he swore it,
    And named a trysting day,
    And bade his messengers ride forth,
    East and west and south and north,
    To summon his array.
    • Horatius, st. 1
  • To every man upon this earth
    Death cometh soon or late.
    And how can man die better
    Than facing fearful odds,
    For the ashes of his fathers,
    And the temples of his gods?
    • Horatius, st. 27
  • Then none was for a party,
    Then all were for the State;
    Then the rich man helped the poor,
    And the poor man loved the great;
    Then lands were fairly portioned,
    Then spoils were fairly sold;
    The Romans were like brothers
    In the brave days of old.
    • Horatius, st. 32
  • Now Roman is to Roman
    More hateful than a foe;
    And the Tribunes beard the high
    and the fathers grind the low;
    As we wax hot in faction,
    In battle we wax cold;
    And men fight not as they fought
    In the brave days of old.
    • Horatius, st. 33
  • Was none who would be foremost
    To lead such dire attack;
    But those behind cried, "Forward!"
    And those before cried, "Back!"
    • Horatius, st. 50
  • "Oh, Tiber! Father Tiber!
    To whom the Romans pray,
    A Roman's life, a Roman's arms,
    Take thou in charge this day!"
    So he spake, and speaking sheathed
    The good sword by his side,
    And with his harness on his back,
    Plunged headlong in the tide.
    • Horatius, st. 59
  • No sound of joy or sorrow
    Was heard from either bank;
    But friends and foes in dumb surprise,
    With parted lips and straining eyes,
    Stood gazing where he sank;
    And when above the surges,
    They saw his crest appear,
    All Rome sent forth a rapturous cry,
    And even the ranks of Tuscany
    Could scarce forbear to cheer.
    • Horatius, st. 60

History of England (1849-1861)

  • Those who compare the age in which their lot has fallen with a golden age which exists only in imagination, may talk of degeneracy and decay; but no man who is correctly informed as to the past, will be disposed to take a morose or desponding view of the present.
    • Vol. I, ch. 1
  • I shall cheerfully bear the reproach of having descended below the dignity of history if I can succeed in placing before the English of the nineteenth century a true picture of the life of their ancestors.
    • Vol. I, ch. 1
  • There were gentlemen and there were seamen in the navy of Charles II. But the seamen were not gentlemen, and the gentlemen were not seamen.
    • Vol. I, ch. 2
  • The Puritan hated bear-baiting, not because it gave pain to the bear, but because it gave pleasure to the spectators.
    • Vol. I, ch. 3
  • The ambassador [of Russia] and the grandees who accompanied him were so gorgeous that all London crowded to stare at them, and so filthy that nobody dared to touch them. They came to the court balls dropping pearls and vermin.
    • Vol. V, ch. 23


  • People crushed by law have no hopes but from power. If laws are their enemies, they will be enemies to laws.
    • According to Kenneth Owen Morgan (The Illustrated History of Britain (1984) p. 421) this was said by Macaulay in 1832. If so, he was quoting a letter written by Edmund Burke in 1777.
  • The measure of a man's real character is what he would do if he knew he would never be found out.

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