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Lord Macaulay: Power, Armies and Public Opinion

Sina Odugbemi's picture

I need to explain how this came about. I was in London recently and I wanted a fabulous example of English prose style to read on the flight back to Washington. I have always believed that the golden age of English prose style is somewhere between the 18th and 19th centuries. So I went to Waterstones, the booksellers, and bought a copy of Lord Thomas Babington Macaulay's (1800-1859) magisterial History of England, specifically the condensed Penguin Classics version of it. As a masterpiece of English prose style it has not disappointed me. The work itself tells the story of how James II, King of England in the late 17th century, lost public support and William of Orange was able to come over from Holland to replace him, almost without firing a shot in anger. The revolution is known as the Glorious Revolution of 1689, and it more or less resulted in the constitutional system that is still the basis of government in the United Kingdom today.

What is so compelling about Lord Macaulay's History is precisely what the blurb announces:' his astonishing ability to grasp, and explain, the political reality that always underpins social change'. As he tells the dramatic story in vivid and riveting prose, he analyzes the underlying political dynamics with amazing acuity. And as I read it, I realized that he was talking a lot about the role of public opinion in governance.  The work shows how public support is really the plinth upon which royal majesty sits. Remove that plinth and someone else can come in, the army will not fight for the King, and a revolution will occur. The work also shows that the radicalization of public opinion is the fundamental process that removes the plinths upon which all public authority rests. The revolutions of our own time confirm this.

James II was a catholic fanatic governing a kingdom of Protestants, Catholics, dissenters and nonconformists. Public opinion was broadly behind him, and the rural populations, priests and grandees were staunch supporters. Yet James II was determined to restore the power and prestige of the Catholic Church. And he launched a series of cack-handed moves. Lord Macaulay captures in detail how public opinion gradually turned against the king. He discusses the role of pulpits in shaping public opinion, rumors and how they worked in 17th century England, the role of protest songs that mocked the King, the role incendiary pamphlets played in shaping public opinion and so on until a huge and unforgiving coalition of former enemies and irreconcilables formed against the king. It got so bad that since the armed forces under his nominal command were also infected by the dominant public opinion, they defected to his rival at the psychological moment, and he was finished. He had to flee for his life, an ordinary man once again. 

Throughout the dazzling story Lord Macaulay uses expressions like 'public opinion', 'the general voice', 'the public voice' and 'public feeling'. He thinks wise and judicious rulers rule according to law and public opinion. I couldn't agree more.

And so it came to pass that although I simply wanted to spend some time enjoying majestic English prose, I ended up with a fascinating historical case regarding the interactions among rulers, power, ordinary citizens and public opinion.

So long!

Photo Credit: Flickr User kimberlyfaye