English conservatism in the nineteenth century.
FEW THINGS AGE SO RAPIDLY as political speeches, and much the same can be said of most literary and journalistic quarrels. The points in contention seem unimportant or incomprehensible to later generations as the context recedes. William Thomas, however, successfully brings to life the long, acrid feud between Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800-1859) and John Wilson Croker (1780-1857). These men interpreted Edmund Burke's legacy in different ways and consequently exerted great influence over what came to be known as conservative thought in Britain. Their bitter quarrel provides a window into the party politics of the mid-nineteenth century, the formative period of modern conservatism.
Macaulay, the apostle of progress, is often thought to have had the better of the exchange with his older antagonist, but Thomas here shows that Croker was the more complex and sympathetic character. By presenting the scene through Croker's eyes, Thomas, who teaches history and political thought at Oxford, captures a milieu of English conservatism since lost to all but a few specialists.
The quarrel began in November 1830 and gathered heat through the debates that concluded with the passage of the Reform Act in 1832. Macaulay had recently entered the House of Commons as M.P. for Calne, a pocket borough controlled by the Whig Marquess of Lansdowne. A diffident, proud young man whom Sydney Smith described as "a book in breeches," Macaulay made up in force and erudition what he lacked in style. He quickly built a reputation for oratory and bolstered his standing as the rising star of the Edinburgh Review.
Croker's reputation as an M.P. had been long established by almost two decades of administrative work at the Admiralty and management of the Tory government's press relations. Beyond Parliament, Croker was known as the force behind the Quarterly Review, famed for its intellectual high Toryism and vicious invective that combined political and literary criticism in defense of Britain's pre-1832 regime. Although he shunned public attention and had little personal ambition, Croker ranked with Robert Peel, George Canning, and his Whig rival Henry Brougham as one of the leading debaters in the Commons. Rhetorical skill, encyclopedic knowledge, and a biting wit made Croker a dangerous man to cross in debate.
Thomas passes over their first brief encounter in November 1830 when Macaulay rose to defend Brougham--who as a peer could no longer speak in the Commons--from Croker's charge that the newly ennobled Lord Chancellor had betrayed a recent pledge to the Yorkshire freeholders that he would accept no position other than representing them. The debate over parliamentary reform that provided the context for the conflict between Macaulay and Croker occurred in a tense atmosphere of public agitation. Reform would irrevocably change a venerable constitution, and men on all sides of the issue struggled to appreciate its likely impact. Macaulay offered one answer in an important speech in 1831 defending the government's bill, drawing an elaborate analogy with the French Revolution. Timely adaptation to change, he explained, preserved continuity and provided the only way to accommodate reasonable demands for political influence by groups lacking representation. Macaulay warned the House of Lords to avoid the French nobility's fatal error of resisting concessions "till the time had arrived when no concession would avail."
Although Croker had prepared a point-by-point critique of the Whig measure, he readily took up Macaulay's analogy to make the opposite case on the broader question. Concessions only encouraged further demands from the mob, Croker contended, and to initiate sweeping reform threatened social upheaval. French aristocrats had been all too eager to embrace popular demands and paid the price with their lives, their property, and the constitution of France. Croker's detailed knowledge of the French Revolution embarrassed Macaulay, and Croker also chided the younger man obliquely for representing a Whig pocket borough that would happen to be spared in the Whigs' Reform Bill. Since changes in representation hurt Tory interests more than they hurt the Whigs, Croker saw the government bill as a self-interested proposal. He also feared that the bill dangerously weakened executive authority by undermining its influence over the House of Commons and leaving ministers at the mercy of shifting majorities more than ever before. Reform for Croker meant revolution.
Macaulay carried the quarrel into print with a review in September 1831 of Croker's edition of James Boswell's The Life of Samuel Johnson (1791). Thomas cites the review as "a good example of Macaulay's talent for ridicule by tendentious quotation." Macaulay cataloged Croker's (often minor) factual mistakes as if they were quite obvious before launching into a discussion of the Tory Johnson's eccentricities. The two points are more closely linked than one might think. Croker, Boswell, and Johnson epitomized a tradition Macaulay loathed, and discrediting it served his purpose of burying both Toryism and the Augustan literary culture that supported it. Macaulay emphasized his subjects' faults to present them as relics of a passing age. The review failed to smash the book, though Croker resented the attack enough to respond with a pamphlet and later returned the favor in 1849 with an equally vituperative attack on Macaulay's History of England.
The two men never faced each other directly after the Reform Bill's passage, but their quarrel continued at a distance through the rival Edinburgh and Quarterly Reviews. These journals provided another battlefield outside Parliament that drew together politics, literature, and new intellectual currents. Although his stand against reform brought his reputation to new heights and later led Peel to press him to join the government, Croker retired from active politics to focus on journalism and historical research. Macaulay received a far better press than his rival until Herbert Butterfield and other twentieth-century revisionists pointed out the flaws of Whigs' history. Thomas notes that Macaulay's reputation had formidable guardians in his sisters and in his nephew George Otto Trevelyan (1838-1928).
Croker outlived both his friends and the political world he had dominated, and eventually he came to be seen even by Tories of a younger generation like Lord Stanley as a "curious but irrelevant fossil." Benjamin Disraeli ridiculed Croker out of personal animosity dating from a quarrel in the 1820s, and the image painted in Coningsby (1844) stuck. The dispersal of Croker's voluminous papers and their very range made it difficult for biographers to present a revised portrait, and only students of Regency politics and a few scholars familiar with his writings on the French Revolution appreciated his abilities. Thomas's parallel biography fills many lacunae, while adding an interesting perspective on Macaulay as well.
Few have sketched out Macaulay's conflicted relationship with the Whigs so thoroughly as Thomas does here. Macaulay joined the Whigs partly as the only alternative, having rejected both his father's Evangelical puritanism and a newer version crafted by Utilitarians. But it was not an easy fit. Uncomfortable in polite society, Macaulay disapproved of the habits of Whigs like Lord Melbourne and resented Brougham's domineering manner in both the party and the Edinburgh Review. Macaulay's absolute confidence and tendency to engage in monologues rather than discussion drew notice as well. Literature attracted him far more than politics, and despite holding office under Whig ministries, he gradually withdrew into historical scholarship. A long sojourn in India gave Macaulay a greater sympathy for utilitarian policies, but Burke's influence remained important. Macaulay thought Burke "the greatest man since Milton," and drew on Burke's moral imagination and his view that even flawed political institutions provided the stability necessary for civil society.
Macaulay's understanding of Burke was mediated to some extent through the Whig intellectual Sir James Mackintosh (1765-1832), who bequeathed Macaulay his own notes for a prospective history of England. Mackintosh was a Foxite who had recanted his critique of Burke's view of the French Revolution; the shift reflected both emerging knowledge of the situation in France and a reunion between Foxite and Burkean Whigs after 1804. Macaulay followed Mackintosh in synthesizing Burke's interpretation of Britain's seventeenth-century history with sociological insights from the Scottish Enlightenment. The result was the optimistic view of progress found in Macaulay's History of England.
Because he left no single definitive work, Croker's perspective on politics and history requires more effort to reconstruct from his essays and correspondence. He stands out as one of the nineteenth century's leading students of revolution, and Thomas remarks that "with a little more esprit de systeme he might well have been the English de Maistre." His scholarship won the respect of Herbert Butterfield as well as Richard Cobb and other twentieth-century historians of the French Revolution, but Croker's historical interest developed from his vocation as a political critic. His work reflected the Augustan style and moral imagination of Johnson, but applied these to the questions of revolution that preoccupied the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Burke was both a family friend and a relative by marriage to Croker, and they traced similar paths from an Irish upbringing to prominence in British literary and political circles. Ireland deeply marked both men's views; the collapse of Henry Grattan's experiment in liberalizing the Ascendancy regime with the 1798 rebellion and the 1801 Act of Union with Great Britain dominated politics in Croker's formative years. Croker's outlook as an uprooted member of the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy resembled that of the more famous Castlereagh and Wellington. Croker shared their internationalist perspective, and his preoccupations resemble those of Burke's continental followers, the publicist and Austrian official Friedrich von Genz and the Prussian minister Karl von Stein. All feared revolution as a protracted threat to the European social fabric that must be resisted by all possible measures.
That said, Croker was never the reactionary critics portrayed him to be, and he cannot be compared fairly with ultra-Tories such as Lord Eldon. He appreciated the value of timely reform and as a junior minister promoted reforms that included Catholic Emancipation, partial adjustment of parliamentary representation, decimal coinage, railway development, and support for libraries and the arts. Croker described this approach in a Burkean metaphor of "trimming the tree to improve the fruit" rather than touching the roots. Croker's view of British politics after Waterloo and through the 1830s echoed Burke's earlier analysis of the French Revolution in which cries for reform came not from changes in popular sentiment, but from political conflicts of the day. Ambitious men might ride public agitation into office, but could they satisfy or contain it? Croker's low opinion of his Whig opponents led him to doubt whether they understood the situation, let alone could master it by combining cautious reform with firm executive government.
Opposition to reform in 1832 thus reflected much deeper concerns than British politics. Napoleon's defeat and the reconstruction of Europe's political order after 1814 did not end the threat from revolution, and the upheavals of 1830 and 1848 gave further reason for pessimism. Sadly, Croker never truly left politics to make a deeper mark on history and literature, and he lost touch with new trends after passage of the Reform Act. The energies which he dissipated in reviews and in advising political friends might have won him a reputation to rival Macaulay's had they been better deployed. Croker nevertheless deserves more attention than he has received to date. Students of nineteenth century intellectual history and conservative thought doubtless will appreciate Thomas's lively and engaging book.
WILLIAM ANTHONY HAY is Assistant Professor of History at Mississippi State University and Senior Fellow with the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He became a Weaver Fellow during his doctoral studies at the University of Virginia.
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|Title Annotation:||Book Reviews; The Quarrel of Macaulay and Croker: Politics and History in the Age of Reform|
|Author:||Hay, William Anthony|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2003|
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