A child prodigy and a man of genius, Thomas Babington Macaulay was, after Gibbon, our greatest historian. The son of Zachary Macaulay, anti-slavery crusader and pillar of the Evangelical Clapham Sect, he was born in 1800 and within three years was, dressed in his nankeen frock, expounding to the parlourmaid from a book almost as big as himself. Aged six, Tom preached from a chair to an assembly of servants and workers, later joking that he ‘might have been indicted for holding a conventicle’. Soon he was reading as fast as he could turn the pages and devouring mountains of print. He never forgot a thing. If by some miracle of vandalism, he later said, The Pilgrim’s Progress and Paradise Lost were expunged from the earth, he could restore them from memory. This was a marvellous gift for one who would make it the business and pleasure of his life to recreate the past.
It was also something of a social handicap. To be sure, Macaulay’s intellectual virtuosity was quickly recognised and rewarded. He became a fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge, won instant renown with the first of his coruscating essays (on Milton) in the Edinburgh Review, was called to the bar and, in