Catharine Macaulay Essay - Critical Essays

Macaulay, Catharine


Catharine Macaulay 1731-1791

(Born Catharine Sawbridge; also wrote under the name Catharine Macaulay Graham.) Eighteenth-century British historian, political pamphleteer, philosopher, and feminist.

Catharine Macaulay is best remembered as the first prominent English female historian and as one of the pioneers of feminist thought. Her eight-volume History of England (1763-83) brought Macaulay fame in her own lifetime, not only because of the novelty of being penned by a woman historian, but because her ringing condemnation of seventeenth-century British monarchy gained great support from political radicals in England and revolutionaries in France and the United States. Her History of England was the first republican account of British history, and Macaulay used the renown gained from her the work to become a leading advocate for liberty, representative government, universal male suffrage, and colonial rights. Attacked for her marriage at age 48 to a man less than half her age, Macaulay fell from favor in England, but she continued to be popular abroad, particularly in the fledgling United States, where her admirers included George Washington, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson. Her Letters on Education, with Observations on Religious and Metaphysical Subjects, published one year before her death in 1791, challenged the dominant belief that women were naturally inferior to men, and argued that through equal education women could obtain equal status to men. Macaulay was a major influence on the feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, and today her Letters on Education, like her History of England, is studied as much for its literary and intellectual influence as for the ideals it espoused.

Biographical Information

Macaulay was born Catharine Sawbridge on April 2, 1731, in Wye, Kent, the youngest of four children of a wealthy Whig family. Like most girls in eighteenth-century England, Catharine did not receive a formal education, but she read voraciously from her father's extensive library. Her reading of Greek and Roman histories instilled in her lifelong republican and libertarian leanings. In 1860 Macaulay moved to London after marrying George Macaulay, a Scottish physician, who introduced her to some of the city's most radical literary and political figures. With her husband's encouragement Macaulay began to write her Whig interpretation of seventeenth-century British history, and in 1763 she published The History of England, from the Accession of James I to that of the Brunswick Line, the first volume of what would eventually be an eight-volume work. A second volume appeared in 1765, a year before George died, leaving Macaulay a substantial inheritance with which to raise their daughter.

Encouraged by the success of her History of England, Macaulay became increasingly political. Her association with radicals like Tobias Smollett, William Hunter, Thomas Hollis, and her brother, John Sawbridge—a radical Whig who would gain fame in his own right as the Lord Mayor of London—led to the formation of the Society for the Supporters of the Bill of Rights. Throughout the 1760s and 1770s Macaulay became a prominent speaker for republican values and published, with slightly varying titles, several more volumes of her History of England. During this time she also became England's first female pamphleteer, issuing several tracts condemning the royalist Tory views of contemporaries like Thomas Hobbes and David Hume.

In 1774 Macaulay moved to Bath, where she met John Wilkes, a radical parliamentarian who had been exiled from London for his criticism of King George III. She soon moved into the house of an admirer, Dr. Thomas Wilson, and their relationship sparked great speculation. The gossip became harsher still when in 1778 Macaulay married William Graham, a 21-year-old medical apprentice. While Macaulay denounced the double standard which allowed men to marry women half their age, she was unable to escape public condemnation of her actions, and she became a figure much lampooned in cartoons. Not only her political rivals seized upon this scandal to smear her reputation, but some old friends, including Dr. Wilson, renounced their friendship, and Macaulay was never able to regain her former high reputation in English society. Even as her reputation declined at home, Macaulay remained something of a hero abroad, particularly in France and the American colonies, where her History of England and pamphlets such as An Address to the People of England, Ireland, and Scotland on the Present Important Crisis of Affairs (1775) were read as texts denouncing England's tyrannical monarchies and supporting the American colonies' right to resist British taxation. In 1777 she traveled to France, where she met Jacques Turgot and Benjamin Franklin. In the spring of 1784, a year after finishing the final volume of The History of England, Macaulay traveled to the United States, where she discussed politics with John Adams and Mercy Otis Warren. The highlight of her trip to America was a ten-day stay at Mount Vernon with George Washington, whose admiration for Macaulay can be seen in many of his later letters to her.

In 1787 Macaulay returned to England. In 1790 she published her second major work, Letters on Education, which called for, among other things, the equal education of women. A final pamphlet denouncing Edmund Burke's criticism of the French Revolution appeared shortly before her death on June 22, 1791.

Major Works

The eight-volume, 3,500-page History of England for which Macaulay is best known, was published over a twenty-year period from 1763 to 1783. Considered to be the first anti-royalist history of its time, and certainly the first major historical work written by a British woman, The History of England served as a Whig interpretation of British seventeenth-century history from the foundation of the Stuarts to the Civil War and the Glorious Revolution of 1688-89. Macaulay intended for the work to show a long tradition of monarchical tyranny in Britain and also to act as a counter-argument to David Hume's popular History of Great Britain, which covered the same period but served as a major defense of his Tory support for the monarchy. Macaulay's history denounces Charles I as a despot and defends the parliamentary cause in the revolution and Civil War, which resulted in the King's execution. Like the political radicals with whom she associated, Macaulay believed the monarchy should be replaced by popular sovereignty and representative government to promote individual liberty and reason. Unlike her Whig comrades, however, Macaulay was unable to support Oliver Cromwell, whom she believed to be nearly as depraved as the despised kings of the previous centuries. Similarly, Macaulay's History of England did not consider the Glorious Revolution to be a success, since it did not lead to universal male suffrage and since, she believed, the king still retained the potential to become absolute again.

In addition to The History of England, Macaulay wrote several pamphlets which expanded her defense of republican values. Her 1767 Loose Remarks on Certain Positions to be found in Mr. Hobbes' Philosophical Rudiments of Government and Society. With a Short Sketch of A Democratical Form of Government, in a Letter to Signior Paoli challenged Thomas Hobbes' belief that monarchies were necessary because of human imperfectability. The second part of the pamphlet offered Paoli, leader of the 1755 Corsican revolt against France, advice for constructing a republican constitution and encouraged him to enact other reforms, such as universal male suffrage, frequent elections, and rotating office appointments. Similarly, her 1775 Address to the People of England, Ireland, and Scotland denounced the Quebec Act and the Stamp Act which had infuriated American colonials. Calling the English “despots,” Macaulay warned that repression of the American colonies would be followed by repression at home in Britain. Her final important pamphlet, the 1790 Observations on the Reflections of the Right Hon. Edmund Burke on the Revolution in France, in a Letter to the Earl of Stanhope, supported the French revolution and its calls for liberty and equality. In this work Macaulay heaped praise on the unicameral National Assembly, which she believed to be a more representational governing body than even the American Congress. Whereas Burke predicted the French Revolution would plunge the country into chaos, Macaulay predicted that a egalitarian and rational society would be created.

Two other major works by Macaulay, The History of England, from the Revolution to the Present Time in a Series of Letters to the Reverend Doctor Wilson, published in 1778, and A Treatise on the Immutability of Moral Truth, (1783) were largely ignored. Her final major work, however, the 1790 Letters on Education, with Observations on Religious and Metaphysical Subjects, helped reestablish Macaulay's reputation as a pioneering thinker. The Letters on Education was a direct refutation of Jean-Jacques Rousseau's assertion that women were naturally inferior to men. Macaulay claimed that men were superior to women only in terms of physical strength, but that in all other ways the sexes were equal. Women's inferior status, she argued, could be best accounted for by their education and socialization, not their innate abilities. The only way to correct these forms of repression, Macaulay reasoned, was to give equal education to all boys and girls, men and women. While the Letters on Education also dealt with morality, non-violence, and the treatment of children, slaves, and the poorest members of society, it is primarily remembered as one of the earliest calls for gender equality and co-education.

Critical Reception

Macaulay's fame as an historian, a proponent of republican ideals, and an advocate for the equal education of women was fleeting. The History of England gained her a great deal of notoriety in her own lifetime, both in the form of grudging respect from her Tory adversaries and high praise from radicals in England and revolutionaries in France and America. The poet Thomas Gray called her History of England “the most sensible, unaffected and best history of England that we have had yet.” Mercy Otis Warren claimed Macaulay's history as the inspiration for her own 1805 history of the American Revolution. Thomas Jefferson so admired her history that he ordered all eight volumes for the University of Virginia and recommended that they be made required reading. As often as not however, praise and criticism tended to focus on the unique status of Macaulay as a female historian. John Adams called Macaulay “one of the brightest ornaments not only of her sex but of her age and country.” Samuel Johnson found her criticisms of monarchs and other political figures libelous, and James Boswell quoted Johnson as saying “she is better employed at her toilet, than using her pen. It is better she should be reddening her own cheeks, than blackening other people's characters.” Even Hannah More echoed Johnson's sexist sentiments, writing that Macaulay “was not feminine either in her writing or her manners, she was only a tolerably clever man.” By the end of the eighteenth century Macaulay's social reputation had been shattered by her marriage to William Graham, and her political support for Whig radicals soon began to be seen as outmoded. In England her History of England was overshadowed by Hume's conservative History of Great Britain, and in the nineteenth century the four-volume History of the Commonwealth of England, published by William Godwin between 1824 and 1828, became the standard “radical” historical version of seventeenth-century British politics. For the next 150 years Macaulay's History of England languished in obscurity.

Modern critics have helped resurrect Macaulay's reputation to some degree. Most focus on her pioneer status as a female historian and her fall from grace due to her scandalous marriage to Graham. Some of these critics, including Lucy Donnelly, whose 1949 article on Macaulay's life and work helped renew critical interest, have called The History of England valuable despite its “absurdities … undisciplined clutter and exaggerations.” Others have argued that The History of England offered original observations and a degree of scholarship unequalled in its time. Most scholars tend to agree that Macaulay's method for writing history was unusual in its day because, unlike such contemporaries as Hume, Edward Gibbon, and Voltaire, Macaulay did not write so much with a moral purpose but to defend her own republican political positions. While this defense of republicanism may have been a factor in the earlier decline in influence of The History of England, most modern critics regard it as an important historical work regardless of the gender of its writer.

While her political pamphlets receive only scant attention and her philosophical and religious texts remain mostly ignored, Macaulay's Letters on Education is often studied as an early expression of feminist ideals and as a major influence on Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792). Wollstonecraft's 1790 review of Letters on Education was glowing in its praise; later she would call Macaulay “an example of the intellectual acquirements supposed to be incompatible with the weakness of her sex.” While critics today are largely silent on many of the societal reforms Macaulay advocated in Letters on Education, all concur that it should be remembered as one of the earliest examples of political literature fighting for the equal treatment of women.

Principal Works

*The History of England, from the Accession of James I to that of the Brunswick Line [Vol. 1] (history) 1763

*The History of England, from the Accession of James I to that of the Brunswick Line. [Vol. 2] (history) 1765

*The History of England from the Accession of James I to the Elevation of the House of Hanover [Vol. 3] (history) 1767

Loose Remarks on Certain Positions to be found in Mr. Hobbes's Philosophical Rudiments of Government and Society. With a Short Sketch of a Democratical Form of Government, in a Letter to Signior Paoli (political pamphlet) 1767

*The History of England from the Accession of James I to...

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Lucy Martin Donnelly (essay date 1949)

SOURCE: “The Celebrated Mrs. Macaulay,” in The William and Mary Quarterly, Third Series, Vol. 6, No. 2, April 1949, pp. 173-207.

[In the following essay, one of the earliest critical commentaries on Macaulay's life and work, Donnelly argues that despite the many flaws in the historian's writings, Macaulay should be remembered as one of the great proponents of political liberty.]

Years ago in London the director of a book shop in high repute urged upon me the importance of Catharine Macaulay. I drew back in surprise. Her works have long been reduced to dusty out of the way shelves and in “the historian in petticoats” personally I felt little or no interest. Like...

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Daisy L. Hobman (essay date 1952)

SOURCE: “Mrs. Macaulay,” in The Fortnightly, No. 1022, February 1952, pp. 116-21.

[In the following essay, Hobman argues that Macaulay was one of the most celebrated and influential women of the eighteenth century, as evidenced by the impression she left on men like Washington, Boswell, and Disraeli.]

Boswell, in his recently published London Journal, relates the story of Mrs. Macaulay and Dr. Johnson which is also told in the Life. He quotes the doctor as saying: “Sir, there is one Mrs. Macaulay in this town, a great republican. I came to her one day and said I was quite a convert to her republican system, and thought mankind all upon a footing;...

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Mildred C. Beckwith (essay date 1958)

SOURCE: “Catharine Macaulay: Eighteenth-Century Rebel,” in The South Carolina Historical Association, 1958, pp. 12-29.

[In the following essay, Beckwith discusses Macaulay's fame as England's first female historian and her radical defense of the American and French revolutions combined with an unwavering criticism of the British monarchy.]

The most widely known woman in England in the second half of the eighteenth century, save the Queen, was Catharine Sawbridge Macaulay. Her name was on tip-of-tongue among the literati of two continents. Americans eagerly embraced her political concepts, while the French liberals roundly applauded her demand for equal liberties; a...

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Bridget Hill and Christopher Hill (essay date 1967)

SOURCE: “Catherine Macaulay and the Seventeenth Century,” in The Welsh History Review, Vol. 3, No. 4, December, 1967, pp. 381-402.

[In the following essay, Bridget and Chrisopher Hill discuss Macaulay's History of England, which they praise for its detailed and perceptive interpretation of seventeenth-century English politics.]

‘One hand a roll of ancient records grac'd,
The other arm sweet Liberty embrac'd;
And on her bosom Alfred hung—the Great,
Who plung'd Corruption headlong from her seat’.

Anon., Six Odes Presented to that justly-celebrated Historian Mrs. Catherine Macaulay on her Birthday (n.d., 1777?), pp. 42-43.


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Lynne E. Withey (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: “Catharine Macaulay and the Uses of History: Ancient Rights, Perfectionism, and Propaganda,” in The Journal of British Studies, Vol. 16, No. 1, Fall, 1976, pp. 59-83.

[In the following essay, Withey argues that Macaulay's History of England can be best understood by considering the author's social, political, and religious idealism, and notes that Macaulay considered historical analysis to be the best means for conveying the possibility of human political, moral, and institutional perfection.]

Late eighteenth-century London was a center of political debate, expressed variously in countless pamphlets, in coffee house discussions, and in...

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Florence Boos and William Boos (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: “Catharine Macaulay: Historian and Political Reformer,” in International Journal of Women's Studies, Vol. 3, No. 1, January/February, 1980, pp. 49-65.

[In the following essay, Florence and William Boos discuss Macaulay's History of England, which they call the first and most important Enlightenment history written by a woman, and her Letters on Education, which they regard as one of the earliest feminist attacks on gender inequality, slavery, and the education of England's children and poor.]


Catharine Macaulay was a prominent eighteenth-century British defender of Enlightened republican views, the...

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Barbara Brandon Schnorrenberg (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: “An Opportunity Missed: Catherine Macaulay on the Revolution of 1688,” in Studies in Eighteenth-Century Culture, Vol. 20, 1990, pp. 231-40.

[In the following essay, Schnorrenberg details how Macaulay's History of England and political pamphlets were conscious corrections to the historical writings of David Hume and Edmund Burke and why, in particular, Macaulay believed that the Glorious Revolution of 1688 had proved insufficient in producing real liberty in England.]

Those of us who learned our history first in the Whig tradition were taught early that the Glorious Revolution of 1688-89 was a good thing. It freed England, Scotland, Wales, and even an...

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Donald T. Siebert (essay date 1992)

SOURCE: “Catherine Macaulay's History of England: Antidote to Hume's History?,” in Transactions of the Eighth International Congress on the Enlightenment, edited by H. T. Mason, The Voltaire Foundation, 1992, pp. 393-96.

[In the following essay, Siebert analyzes the differences between Macaulay's and David Hume's historical accounts of the execution of Charles I, and argues that each retelling shows how these writers used history as a tool to advance their own political convictions.]

Without question Catherine Macaulay's History of England was intended partly as an Old Whig, republican answer to David Hume's version of seventeenth-century...

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Bridget Hill and Christopher Hill (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: “Catharine Macaulay's History and her Catalogue of Tracts,” in The Seventeenth Century, Vol. 8, No. 2, Autumn, 1993, pp. 269-85.

[In the following essay, Bridget and Christopher Hill contest the charge leveled by critics like Lucy Matin Donnelly that Macaulay's historical work lacked scholastic rigor, pointing to the little-known Catalogue of Tracts that Macaulay assembled shortly before her death and which demonstrates her broad range of interests and unusually detailed scholarship.]

In the eighteenth century Catharine Macaulay was far from alone as a historian of the seventeenth century, but what made her unique was that she was a woman and...

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Cecile Mazzucco-Than (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: “‘As Easy as a Chimney Pot to Blacken’: Catharine Macaulay ‘the Celebrated Female Historian,’” in Prose Studies, Vol. 18, No. 3, December, 1995, pp. 78-104.

[In the following essay, Mazzucco-Than argues that the principal fame Macaulay's History of England garnered in the eighteenth century as well as its subsequent neglect during the past two centuries is due to a single cause—-a continuing emphasis on the gender of the historian herself.]

There is nothing so bad for the face as Party-Zeal … I would therefore advise all my Female Readers, as they value their Complexions, to let alone all Disputes of this Nature;...

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Catherine Gardner (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: “Catharine Macaulay's Letters on Education: Odd but Equal,” in Hypatia, Vol. 13, No. 1, Winter, 1998, pp. 118-37.

[In the following essay, Gardener argues that Macaulay's Letters on Education should not be dismissed as a loose collection of the author's views on a wide range of subjects, but instead should be seen as a single, sustained argument for the perfection of society through, among other things, the equal education of women, an idea which greatly influenced the British feminist Mary Wollstonecraft.]

Catharine Macaulay's work Letters on Education published just five years before A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, is an...

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F. G. A. Pocock (essay date 1998)

SOURCE: “Catharine Macaulay: Patriot Historian,” in Women Writers and the Early Modern British Political Tradition, edited by Hilda L. Smith, Cambridge University Press, 1998, pp. 243-58.

[In the following essay, Pocock analyzes Macaulay's History of England in the context of the age in which she lived, concluding that the greatness of her work was unfortunately overshadowed by the work of David Hume and Mary Wollstonecraft.]

Let us begin by recalling the best-known facts about Catharine Macaulay.1 She wrote a number of works, of which by far the most prominent is a History of England from the Accession of James I to that of the Brunswick...

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Further Reading


Davis, Natalie Zemon. “History's Two Bodies.” In The American Historical Review, Vol. 93, No. 1, February, 1988, pp. 1-30.

Examines how five historians (Etienne Pasquier, Catharine Macaulay, David Hume, Marc Bloch, and Eileen Power) spanning the past five centuries have conceptualized the historical traditions they each inherited and how their struggles with that inheritance led to the field's continuous reform.

Ditchfield, G. M. “Some Literary and Political Views of Catherine Macaulay.” In American Notes and Queries, Vol. 12, No. 4, December, 1973, pp. 70-76.

Uses the diary of Sylas Neville to...

(The entire section is 314 words.)