Catharine Macaulay Critical Essays


(Literary Criticism (1400-1800))

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.