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Macaulay: Commentary

Macaulay is here setting the scene before he embarks on his narrative of the dramatic events of James II's reign. The idea of progress through human endeavour was very popular in Britain at the time Macaulay was writing, so he was to some extent preaching to the converted. We can also imagine that most of his readers would have enjoyed the very flattering image he gives of the Britain of their own day, the beneficiary of the progress he traces from medieval times through the Tudors and Stuarts to modern times.

Note that Macaulay sees England's happy position as the result 'partly of our geographical and partly of our moral position': the question of whether the British (in common with general usage at the time Macaulay, himself a Scot, used 'England' to mean 'Britain') were morally superior because they had not undergone Continental-style war and revolution or whether their superior morality was the reason they had avoided them was the historical chicken-and-egg question of the day. That the British were morally superior to other peoples Macaulay here takes as read.

It might well be objected that Macaulay is here overlooking the civil wars that engulfed the British Isles in the 1640s and the very revolution against James II that is the main subject of his own book; however, Macaulay, in line with standard practice at the time, sees the events of the seventeenth century through very rose-tinted glasses.

The Civil Wars, in reality as brutal and destructive as any subsequent civil war of our own day, was generally presented as a romantic contest fought by dashing characters in gorgeous costumes, while the overthrow of James II in 1688 was remembered as a bloodless event, conveniently overlooking the extremely bloody conflict it sparked off in Ireland. To modern eyes, therefore, this passage might seem breathtakingly self-satisfied; to Macaulay's readers, however, it would have seemed little more than a statement of the obvious.

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