Thomas Babington Macaulay, 1st Baron Macaulay

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The highest proof of virtue is to possess boundless power without abusing it.

Thomas Babington (or Babbington) Macaulay, 1st Baron Macaulay (25 October 180028 December 1859) was a nineteenth century British poet, historian and Whig politician.


Men are never so likely to settle a question rightly as when they discuss it freely.
  • Our academical Pharisees.
    • On Milton (1825)
  • It is impossible for us, with our limited means, to attempt to educate the body of the people. We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern,—a class of persons Indian in blood and colour, but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals and in intellect.
  • 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 (17 December 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 (2 March 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 (1840)
  • 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 (1841)
  • 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 (5 February 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 (5 November 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 (1842)
  • 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)
  • I would not give up the keys to the granary, because I know that, by doing so, I should turn scarcity into a famine.
    • Sullivan, p. 266 (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 (14 April 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 (9 March 1850)
  • Your Constitution is all sail and no anchor.
    • Letter to H.S. Randall, author of a Life of Thomas Jefferson (23 May 1857)
  • These be the great Twin Brethren
    To whom the Dorians pray.
    • The Battle of Lake Regillus; reported in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, 10th ed. (1919)

Essay on Mitford's History of Greece (1824)[edit]

  • 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)[edit]

  • 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.
  • Many politicians lay it down as a self evident proposition that no people ought to be free until they are fit to use their freedom. The maxim is worthy of the fool in the old story who resolved not to go into the water until he had learned how to swim.

On John Dryden (1828)[edit]

  • 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)[edit]

Full text online
  • 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)[edit]

  • 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)[edit]

Full text online at Project Gutenberg
Lars Porsena of Closium
By the Nine Gods he swore
That the great house of Tarquin
Should suffer wrong no more.
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?
  • 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
  • Then out spake brave Horatius,
    The Captain of the Gate:
    "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

    And for the tender mother
    Who dandled him to rest,
    And for the wife who nurses
    His baby at her breast,
    And for the holy maidens
    Who feed the eternal flame,
    To save them from false Sextus
    That wrought the deed of shame?"

    • Horatius, st. 26 & 27; this quote is often truncated to read:
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?
  • 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

    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. 32 & 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
  • When the goodman mends his armor,
    And trims his helmet's plume;
    When the goodwife's shuttle merrily
    Goes flashing through the loom;
    With weeping and with laughter
    Still is the story told,
    How well Horatius kept the bridge
    In the brave days of old.
    • Horatius, st. 70

History of England (1849–1861)[edit]

  • 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.[citation needed]
    • The earliest quotations of this give it as anonymous or unknown author.[1] [2]
  • "We are free, we are civilised, to little purpose, if we grudge to any portion of the human race an equal measure of freedom and civilisation." [3]
  • "Nine-tenths the calamities of the human race are due to the union of high intelligence with low desires."
    • "Lord Bacon", (1837) in Essays 2:183
  • "If any person had told the Parliament which met in terror and perplexity after the crash of 1720 that in 1830 the wealth of England would surpass all their wildest dreams, that the annual revenue would equal the principal of that debt which they considered an intolerable burden, that for one man of £10,000 then living there would be five men of £50,000, that London would be twice as large and twice as populous, and that nevertheless the rate of mortality would have diminished to one half of what it then was, that the post-office would bring more into the exchequer than the excise and customs had brought in together under Charles II, that stage coaches would run from London to York in 24 hours, that men would be in the habit of sailing without wind, and would be beginning to ride without horses, our ancestors would have given as much credit to the prediction as they gave to Gulliver's Travels."
  • "It would be, on the most selfish view of the case, far better for us that the people of India were well governed and independent of us, than ill governed and subject to us; that they were ruled by their own kings, but wearing our broadcloth, and working with our cutlery, than that they were performing their salams to English collectors and English magistrates, but were too ignorant to value, or too poor to buy, English manufactures. To trade with civilised men is infinitely more profitable than to govern savages." [4]
  • "Copyright is monopoly, and produces all the effects which the general voice of mankind attributes to monopoly. [...] 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."[5]
  • "The work of Dr. Nares has filled us with astonishment similar to that which Captain Lemuel Gulliver felt when first he landed in Brobdingnag, and saw corn as high as the oaks in the New Forest, thimbles as large as buckets, and wrens of the bulk of turkeys. The whole book, and every component part of it, is on a gigantic scale. The title is as long as an ordinary preface: the prefatory matter would furnish out an ordinary book; and the book contains as much reading as an ordinary library. We cannot sum up the merits of the stupendous mass of paper which lies before us better than by saying that it consists of about two thousand closely printed quarto pages, that it occupies fifteen hundred inches cubic measure, and that it weighs sixty pounds avoirdupois. Such a book might, before the deluge, have been considered as light reading by Hilpa and Shallum. But unhappily the life of man is now three-score years and ten; and we cannot but think it somewhat unfair in Dr. Nares to demand from us so large a portion of so short an existence. Compared with the labour of reading through these volumes, all other labour, the labour of thieves on the treadmill, of children in factories, of negroes in sugar plantations, is an agreeable recreation."
  • "To punish public outrages on morals and religion is unquestionably within the competence of rulers. But when a government, not content with requiring decency, requires sanctity, it oversteps the bounds which mark its proper functions. And it may be laid down as a universal rule that a government which attempts more than it ought will perform less."
    • "Leigh Hunt" (1841), in Critical...Essays 2:509
  • "There is not, and there never was on this earth, a work of human policy so well deserving of examination as the Roman Catholic Church. The history of that Church joins together the two great ages of human civilisation. No other institution is left standing which carries the mind back to the times when the smoke of sacrifice rose from the Pantheon, and when camelopards and tigers bounded in the Flavian amphitheatre. The proudest royal houses are but of yesterday, when compared with the line of the Supreme Pontiffs. That line we trace back in an unbroken series, from the Pope who crowned Napoleon in the nineteenth century to the Pope who crowned Pepin in the eighth; and far beyond the time of Pepin the august dynasty extends, till it is lost in the twilight of fable. The republic of Venice came next in antiquity. But the republic of Venice was modern when compared with the Papacy; and the republic of Venice is gone, and the Papacy remains. The Papacy remains, not in decay, not a mere antique, but full of life and youthful vigour. The Catholic Church is still sending forth to the farthest ends of the world missionaries as zealous as those who landed in Kent with Augustin, and still confronting hostile kings with the same spirit with which she confronted Attila. The number of her children is greater than in any former age. Her acquisitions in the New World have more than compensated for what she has lost in the Old. Her spiritual ascendency extends over the vast countries which lie between the plains of the Missouri and Cape Horn, countries which a century hence, may not improbably contain a population as large as that which now inhabits Europe. The members of her communion are certainly not fewer than a hundred and fifty millions; and it will be difficult to show that all other Christian sects united amount to a hundred and twenty millions. Nor do we see any sign which indicates that the term of her long dominion is approaching. She saw the commencement of all the governments and of all the ecclesiastical establishments that now exist in the world; and we feel no assurance that she is not destined to see the end of them all. She was great and respected before the Saxon had set foot on Britain, before the Frank had passed the Rhine, when Grecian eloquence still flourished at Antioch, when idols were still worshipped in the temple of Mecca. And she 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."
    • "Essay on Ludwig von Ranke's 'History of the Popes', in "Critical and Historical Essays", iii, (London; Longman, 7th Edn. 1952), 100-1.

[citation needed]


  • I have travelled across the length and breadth of India and I have not seen one person who is a beggar, who is a thief. Such wealth I have seen in the country, such high moral values, people of such caliber, that I do not think we would conquer this country, unless we break the very backbone of this nation, which is her spiritual and cultural heritage, and therefore, I propose that we replace her old and ancient education system, her culture, for if the Indians think that all that is foreign and English is good and greater than their own, they will lose their self esteem, their native culture and they will become what we want them, a truly dominated nation.
    • This quotation is commonly said to have been spoken by Macaulay during a speech to the British Parliament in 1835. Since Macaulay was in India at the time, it is more likely to have come from his Minute on Indian Education. However, these words do not appear in that text. According to Koenraad Elst, these words were printed in The Awakening Ray, Vol. 4, No. 5, published by the Gnostic Center, preceded by: "His words were to the effect." Burjor Avari cites this misattribution as an example of "tampering with historical evidence" in India: The Ancient Past (ISBN 9780415356169, pp. 19–20), writes: "No proof of this statement has been found in any of the volumes containing the writings and speeches of Macaulay. In a journal in which the extract appeared, the writer did not reproduce the exact wording of the Minutes, but merely paraphrased them, using the qualifying phrase: ‘His words were to the effect.:’ This is extremely mischievous, as numerous interpretations can be drawn from the Minutes."

Quotes about Macaulay[edit]

  • But above all, he typified the two things that really make the Victorian Age itself; the cheapness and narrowness of its conscious formulae; the richness and humanity of its unconscious tradition.
  • The man is a humbug—a vulgar, shallow, self-satisfied mind, absolutely inaccessible to the complexities and delicacies of the real world. He has the journalist's air of being a specialist in everything, of taking in all points of view and being always on the side of the angels: he merely annoys a reader who has the least experience of knowing things, of what knowing is like. There is not two pence worth of real thought or real nobility in him. But he isn't dull…
    • C. S. Lewis, in a diary entry regarding Macaulay (July 1924), published in Letters (1966), p. 97
  • I wish I were as cocksure of anything as Tom Macaulay is of everything.

External links[edit]

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