Called by Mary Wollstonecraft a "woman of the greatest ability, undoubtedly, that this country has ever produced," in her famous treatise A Vindication of the Rights of Women, Catharine Macaulay was the first female British historian. She also was a proto-feminist and a Whig, having grown up surrounded by the radical politicians of her day. "Yet, quite apart from her interest to historians of feminism, there is much in her work worthy of attention," wrote Bridget and Christopher Hill in the Welsh Review.
During her lifetime Macaulay was one of the most widely known women in England, her fame stemmed from her influential eight-volume History of England during the English Civil War and the Restoration. Unusual for the time period, Macaulay based her writings mainly on primary source materials, an approach almost unheard of at the time, although it has since come to be the standard mode of historical research. She wrote treatises that were very popular in revolution-prone America and France, and which circulated among the learned of those nations. Both countries applauded Macaulay's demands for equal liberties for all people no matter their station in life, although much of British society was scandalized by her rather radical, for the time, views.
Macaulay was born on April 2, 1731, in Olantigh, her family's estate in Wye, county Kent, England, near Canterbury. She was born to Elizabeth Wanley Sawbridge and John Sawbridge, both of whom came from prominent London Whig banking families. Her father was a country gentleman and after his wife died in 1733 he became almost a recluse. Macaulay had two brothers and one sister, and all of them were educated at home. History was one of her greatest joys in her childhood and she read avariciously from her father's library. She studied many subjects, but was especially interested in Greek and Roman history. While information about her upbringing is scarce, purportedly Macaulay's father visited his children very little and absolutely refused to hire an instructor for his two daughters. Despite that, Macaulay managed to educate herself thoroughly, aided in these efforts by her brother John Sawbridge the Younger. He supported his sister intellectually her entire life and himself became "a radical Whig, member of the 'Bill of Rights Club,' partisan of the policies of John Wilkes and Charles Fox, and in succession alderman, sheriff, Lord Mayor of London, and member of Parliament," according to the International Journal of Women's Studies.
Entered Whig Society and Wrote History
In 1760 Macaulay married Dr. George Macaulay a Scottish physician who lived in London. Dr. Macaulay was very well connected in Whig and Scottish circles and introduced his wife to such famous men as Tobias Smollett, William Hunter, and Thomas Hollis, all of whom were diligently active in politics. It was, in fact, Hollis, who encouraged Macaulay to research and write about their shared political views, which were republican or Old Whig. The Whig party, at the time, was the radical branch of politics. Macaulay wrote many pamphlets arguing her radical position, some of which were replies to Edmund Burke's conservative pronouncements. She supported deposing King James I, but because she considered Protestant leader Oliver Cromwell to be just as depraved as the king, she withdrew her support from him as well.
Macaulay published many pamphlets and articles before she finally settled down to write a comprehensive history of England. She published the first book of her eight-book series, History of England during the English Civil War and the Restoration, in 1763. The collective work covers England from the Accession of James I to that of the Houses of Hanover. The books were published rather sporadically, due to personal events in Macaulay's life, but she did manage to get all eight books published before she died; book two was published three years after the first volume and volumes three, four, and five were published between 1767 and 1771. Macaulay's History of England was her most important work and was highly regarded by her contemporaries. It was the most thorough and in-depth treatment of the Old Whig view available. The view in it was antimonarchical and strongly supported the ideals of liberty, reason, the people, and the perfectibility of human establishments. The treatise seemed to answer the history of England written earlier by David Hume that supported the monarchy and espoused more conservative Tory views.
Wrote Political Pamphlets
Macaulay's methodology was significant because, in hindsight, it was a precursor for the ways in which modern historians research their topics. She used primary sources for her research, reading pamphlets and manuscripts written in the previous century, and using them to draw her conclusions. She was known for quoting sources at length and sometimes published essays that reflected both sides of an argument, presenting a broad view rather than being solely one-sided. Unlike the work of her colleagues, Macaulay wrote history mainly for a political, not a moral, purpose.
After the publication of the first volume of her history of England, Macaulay began a "series of radical pamphlets which embodied some of her best prose and ideas," according to a contributor to the International Journal of Women Studies. These pamphlets included a repudiation of Hobbes' Philosophical Rudiments of Government and Society, and an attack on a pamphlet of Burke's titled Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents. Unlike her History, these pamphlets required that Macaulay be brief and to the point. Because of that her writing was particularly good, filled with a combination of moral fervor and sarcasm that answered her opponents well. Along with her brother John's political success, these pamphlets introduced Macaulay to a wide range of social and intellectual contacts. Her works were said to have appeared in political cartoons behind people who were defending liberty and were even quoted publically by such men as William Pitt, the famous politician, in the House of Commons.
During her research into political subjects Macaulay became very interested in the efforts of the revolutionaries the American colonies. She met most of the colonists who visited England, and she became a correspondent with several of them, including John and Abigail Adams and Mercy Otis Warren. She even wrote a pamphlet about the problems in America, giving warning that repressing the colonies would only lead to troubles. The pamphlet, called An Address to the People of England, Ireland, and Scotland, on the Present Important Crisis of Affairs, was, not surprisingly, very well thought of in America and went through several reprintings there.
In 1766 Dr. Macaulay died and Macaulay, along with their daughter, Catharine Sophia, moved out of the family's prominent St. James's Place house to a newer section of London off Oxford Road. There Macaulay opened her doors to the city's radicals who were often found at her home discussing unorthodox political views. Her health was declining, however, and she made frequent visits to Bath in order to restore herself somewhat. Finally, in 1774 she moved permanently to Bath. During her time in Bath Macaulay befriended and then moved in with Reverend Thomas Wilson, something that caused her political opponents to gossip venomously. Desiring to make use of Wilson's extensive library, she paid little attention to the gossip that surrounded her actions. Macaulay also associated with a quack doctor named James Graham while she was in Bath. Graham, along with Wilson, arranged a grand birthday party for Macaulay in 1777 that caused even more gossip, as did the fact that Wilson had a larger-than-life statue of Macaulay dressed as Clio, the muse of history, put up in his church in the city. It was so badly received that it was eventually removed.
For her next major work Macaulay turned her hand to publishing a history of modern England, titled The History of England, from the Revolution to the Present Time. The work was begun as a series of letters in 1778, but remained incomplete because of its poor reception. In the treatise Macaulay condemned some of the men who were still alive, which made her very unpopular and fueled reaction to her seemingly scandalous behavior. The death knell to her reputation, however, came in December of 1778 when the 47-year-old historian eloped with William Graham, the 21-year-old brother of Dr. James Graham. The marriage caused a falling out between Macaulay and Wilson that was eagerly covered by the press, which presented both the truth as well as highly fictionalized accounts. Amid vocal disapproval of her politics and her scandalous marriage to a much younger man of lower social standing, Macaulay ignored all of it and returned to her writing.
After her marriage Macaulay—now called Mrs. Macaulay Graham—and her husband moved to live quietly in Leicestershire. There she published the remaining volumes of her History of England. In 1784 Macaulay and her husband visited the United States and saw many of her friends in North America. The trip culminated in a ten-day visit with George and Martha Washington, where she shared her love of Republicanism with the young nation's president. From America, Macaulay and her husband visited France, returning to England in 1787 and settling in Binfield, Berkshire.
Wrote Letters on Education
In 1790 Macaulay published her Letters on Education, her last major work. Two years later Mary Wollstonecraft wrote her better-known A Vindication of the Rights of Women, which Wollstonecraft admitted had been immensely influenced by Macaulay's work. Letters on Education focused on three subjects: kindness and non-violence, moral precepts, and the education of women. Unlike Wollstonecraft who wanted women to be educated so they could become better wives and mothers, Macaulay wanted women to be educated so that they could use this education and their talents to win in the man-dominated world, just as she had done. She talked about how women's seeming deficiencies were due not to their lower nature but to their lack of a proper education. She supported the same educational system for boys and girls, men and women. In the work she discussed the fact that a woman's virtue was only a measure of one thing: how chaste they were. She admitted that in society it was acceptable that a woman be a thief, liar, cheat, coward, deadbeat, or any other type of criminal as long as she was still a virgin. Losing her virginity, outside of wedlock, a woman was marked as a debased woman, a situation from which she could never recover. To Macaulay women could find more power in a chastity that they chose for themselves than they could in throwing that chastity away.
The motivations behind Letters on Education never really came to the attention of British society because at the time it was published all attention was riveted on the nation across the English channel, which was then in the throes of the French Revolution. For her part, Macaulay wrote several pamphlets explaining her approval of the overthrow of the French monarchy, viewing those efforts as those of a people trying to create a better way of life for their nation, a life in which there was equality. She wrote her pamphlets in answer to Burke's more conservative essays.
Macaulay died on June 22, 1791, in Binfield, Berkshire. She is buried in All Saints Church where there is a marble plaque decorated with her profile and an owl, symbolizing her wisdom. According to Mildred C. Beckwith in the Bulletin of the South Carolina Historical Association, "Horace Walpole, that inveterate letter writer, upon hearing of her death wrote to a friend that he felt certain she already was discussing republicanism versus unprincipled monarchs with other reformers who had preceded her in heaven!"
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Welsh History Review, December, 1967.