Macaulay, Catharine (1731–1791)

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Macaulay, Catharine (1731–1791)

Controversial British historian, political radical, and champion of women's education who was an ardent supporter of America in 18th-century England . Name variations: Catherine or Catharine Macaulay-Graham; Catherine Graham Macaulay; Catherine Saw-bridge Macaulay. Born Catharine Sawbridge on April 2, 1731, at Olantigh (pronounced: Ollantee), the family estate near Wye, Kent, England; died in Binfield, Berkshire, on June 22, 1791, of a long, unidentified illness; daughter of John Sawbridge (a wealthy country gentleman) and Elizabeth Wanley Sawbridge (an heiress); largely self-educated; married Dr. George Macaulay, in June 1760 (died 1766); married William

Graham, in 1778; children: (first marriage) one daughter, Catharine Sophia Macaulay, born sometime between 1760 and 1766.

Moved to London following marriage (1760); published first volume of History of England (1763); seven additional volumes followed intermittently until 1783; moved to Bath (1774); spent one year in America, including ten days at Mount Vernon with the Washingtons (1784–85); published Letters on Education (1790).

Selected publications:

History of England from the Accession of James I to that of the Brunswick Line (8 vols., 1763–83); Loose Remarks … with a Short Sketch of a Democratical Form of Government (1769); Observations on a Pamphlet, Entitled, Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents (1770); An Address to the People of England, Ireland and Scotland, on the Important Crisis of Affairs (1775); Letters on Education with Observations on Religious and Metaphysical Subjects (1790); Observations on the Reflections of the Right Hon. Edmund Burke on the Revolution in France (1791).

Few could have imagined that the sickly girl from rural Kent who spent much of her time reading ancient history in her father's library would grow up to become one of the most famous women in England in the 1770s—second only to the queen, Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz .

Catharine Macaulay was born Catharine Sawbridge in 1731, one of four children of Elizabeth Wanley Sawbridge , an heiress, and John Sawbridge, a wealthy country gentleman. When Catharine was only two years old, her mother died, and her grieving father stayed mainly in London, leaving Catharine, her sister and brothers at Olantigh, the family estate near Wye, Kent. There, they were cared for by a governess whom Catharine later described as "ignorant and ill-qualified." In time, the two boys would go off to boarding school while the daughters stayed home with the governess.

Let it be remembered that everything new is alarming to the ignorant and prejudiced.

—Catharine Macaulay

According to Macaulay's first biographer, Mary Hays , Catharine did not care for dolls and doll houses, preferring books and news periodicals. At age 20, she came across a book of ancient history and from that time on was enthralled with the subject. Descriptions of the Greek and Roman republics proved as intriguing to her as the tales of tyranny and human cruelty proved distressing. These accounts led her to study the relationships among government, public morality, human happiness, and roots of evil.

Although nothing more is known of her early years, her fascination with ancient history and philosophy surfaced again when she attended a party in nearby Canterbury. Elizabeth Carter , a contemporary intellectual and avid correspondent, wrote to a friend in 1757:

Did I tell you … of a very fine lady who … is a very sensible and agreeable woman and much more deeply learned than beseems a fine lady; but between the Spartan laws, the Roman politics, the philosophy of Epicurus, and the wit of St. Evremond, she seems to have formed a most extraordinary system. To be sure I should have been mighty cautious of holding any such conversation in such a place with a professed philosopher or scholar, but as it was with a fine fashionable well-dressed lady, whose train was longer than anybody's train, I had no manner of scruple.

It is generally assumed that she was referring to the 26-year-old Catharine Sawbridge.

Living in pastoral Kent, about 70 miles from London, Catharine and her brother John followed events of the capital and of the outside world. They shared their father's anti-aristocratic views and suspicion of autocratic government. Raised in the Age of Enlightenment (Age of Reason), the Sawbridges were influenced by such political and social philosophers as Locke, Montesquieu, and, later, Rousseau. These revolutionary writers challenged the power of despotic kings and abusive aristocrats, asserting that the common people should have certain natural, fundamental rights and liberties.

In 1760, at the age of 29 (a relatively advanced marital age for the time), Catharine married the widower Dr. George Macaulay, a Scottish physician practicing in London. Nothing is reported concerning the circumstances of their meeting or marriage. She may well have deferred marriage as long as possible, knowing that for the bride loss of legal and financial rights were the consequences. A married woman at that time could own no wealth or property, had no legal rights, could legally be beaten by her husband, and stood a good chance of dying in childbirth. Above all, society decreed that she was not to read, write or discuss serious subjects such as politics, history, or world affairs. Those who dared defy this code risked social rejection. Moreover, among the well-to-do, marriage arrangements were usually based on money, not mutual attraction. A wealthy father could, with a suitable dowry, "buy" a husband for his daughter with money and property to which she had no claim after the marriage. But George Macaulay was a rare man, who admired and encouraged his wife's intellectual interests. In a London seething with political debates, he introduced her to his circle of liberal friends, who cared deeply about human rights, liberty, and democracy. Indeed, she was soon accepted as a worthy colleague by these men.

The Macaulays lived on fashionable St. James's Place, a few blocks from St. James's Palace where George III had just taken up residence as king. As the monarch became increasingly determined to be a strong king, control Parliament, and crush dissent in the American colonies, the Macaulays and their friends protested in alarm. Long years of war with France, the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution, limited parliamentary representation, and a mentally unstable king all contributed to a London aboil with controversy. Within this environment of political ferment, Catharine Macaulay found her milieu.

With a loving husband, considerable wealth, and a houseful of servants, she easily could have enjoyed a life of leisure. As an intellectual, she might have joined the "Bluestockings," brilliant, well-read women who produced and discussed literature; but the Bluestockings chose to avoid discussions of political events, an intolerable limitation for Macaulay. She preferred talking with political dissenters such as her husband's friend Thomas Hollis, a wealthy radical who promoted liberty, espoused the American cause in the 1760s and early 1770s, and encouraged pro-American writers. He would help launch Macaulay upon her career as a historian by furnishing research materials and arranging for the publication of her first volumes, copies of which he would then send to Harvard College.

By 1763, Macaulay had produced the first volume of her controversial History of England from the Accession of James I to that of the Brunswick Line. This bombshell elicited reactions from admiration to ridicule, anger, and disbelief. According to the thinking of the time, women were not capable of understanding or writing history. Women could write novels, poetry and letters—but not history. Some even asserted that a man had actually written the History. As Macaulay later reflected, "when we compliment the appearance of a more than ordinary energy in the female mind, we call it masculine."

Ridicule for overstepping the gender boundaries was combined with wrath over the bias of the book. Among the author's stated purposes in writing an account of the 17th-century monarchy and the brief republic was to demonstrate the abuses of despotic power. To do so, she attacked the kings, praised Parliament and the Commonwealth (1649–1653), but blamed Oliver Cromwell's tyranny for the downfall of the short-lived republic.

On the other hand, her political kindred applauded her anti-monarchical views and her audacity. Above all, American colonists, who by 1765 were protesting what they perceived to be England's unfair tax policies, cheered Macaulay who became their new champion. In 1770, after the publication of two more volumes of her History, John Adams wrote to her: "I have formed the highest opinion of [Catharine Macaulay] as one of the brightest ornaments not only of her sex but of her Age and Country." Additional volumes of the History, eight in all, would appear intermittently until 1783.

Meanwhile, in 1766, her husband had died leaving her with one daughter, Catharine Sophia. After a period of deep mourning, Macaulay resumed her historical writing. Strongly involved in a number of political controversies, she wrote a letter to the city of Boston to apologize on behalf of the English people for the Boston Massacre, and she joined with others to urge parliamentary reforms in England. At that time, the high costs of running for office, long terms, and tight restrictions on voting eligibility meant that Parliament represented only the interests of the wealthy. Dedicated to making England a democracy, these reformers pressed for parliamentary changes which they hoped would weaken the power of the king and the wealthy landholders. They believed that broadening the electorate and shortening the terms of office of parliamentary members would help to create a more representative and democratic legislature. These reforms, however, would not come about until the 19th century.

Macaulay supported the cause of the fiery politician and journalist John Wilkes. By defying Parliament and the king, Wilkes became identified both in England and America with the cause of liberty. Macaulay contributed financially to his legal defense. During the decade of the 1770s, she also corresponded with a number of American leaders such as John Adams and James Otis, a leader of opposition to British rule.

When not engaged in writing her History, Macaulay wrote pamphlets, one of which attacked certain views of Edmund Burke, the renowned parliamentary leader. Burke complained later in a letter to a friend that "the Amazon" was "the greatest champion" of the reformers and that "no heroine in Billingsgate can go beyond the patriotick [sic] scolding of our Republican Virago. You see I have been afraid to answer her."

Macaulay moved to a new London home which became a gathering place for reformers, American sympathizers, and visiting Americans. Their hostess, with the aid of her liveried servants, is said to have presided over these weekly salons with the "air of a princess." A frequent visitor was Macaulay's brother, John Sawbridge, a member of Parliament and strong defender of American liberties. During the same period, Macaulay continued to be vilified and ridiculed by those opposed to her political philosophies, her assertiveness, and her "unwomanly" pursuits. Contemporary newspapers and magazines frequently ran cartoons lampooning her hair-style, her cosmetics and her views. The famous Dr. Samuel Johnson spared no opportunity to jeer. Johnson, composer of the first English dictionary and prominent conversationalist, was a dedicated monarchist and arch-conservative. It is reported that he once teasingly reminded her: "You are to recall, Madam, that there is a monarchy in Heaven." To which she replied: "If I thought so, Sir, I should never wish to go there." Most of Johnson's attacks on her, however, were not so lighthearted.

In another of her pamphlets, written in 1775 on the eve of the American Revolution, Macaulay called upon the British public to petition Parliament for leniency in its colonial policies. She reasoned that English liberty, too, was at stake, for if Parliament and King George failed to recognize American grievances, the government would be emboldened to do likewise in the mother country. "Rouse my countrymen," she urged, "otherwise you … will be left to the bare possession of your foggy islands and under the imperious sway of a domestic despot."

The virulence of her opponents and the passion for her causes evidently took their toll. Her intermittent poor health had led her in 1774 to forsake the ferment of London for the curative waters of Bath. For the next four years, she enjoyed the social life of the spa's "smart set" while seeking relief from her unnamed physical ailments. Her correspondence with friends refers frequently to recurrent fever and bilious attacks of many months' duration. In Bath, she at last found help from a Dr. James Graham whose unorthodox treatments earned him the epithet "quack doctor." Macaulay, however, claimed that Graham saved her life.

About two years after Macaulay's arrival in Bath, an elderly admirer, the Reverend Thomas Wilson, invited her and her daughter to live in his house. Sharing her political views, he evidently felt that, as his protégée, the famous and colorful woman would bring distinction to his home as well as to his church in London. He even commissioned a larger-than-life-size statue of her and had it placed within the chancel of his church. The presence of a statue of a controversial, anti-government radical in a place of worship was not popular among the congregation, however, and they demanded and won its removal.

By 1777, Macaulay was again ill, evidently beyond Graham's help, for she and his sister traveled to France in search of improved health. On the way to southern France, they stopped in Paris where Macaulay's fame as a lover of liberty had preceded her arrival. She was lionized by those opposed to the autocratic French monarchy; her History had helped inspire some who would become leaders of the French Revolution 12 years hence.

While in Paris, she also met Benjamin Franklin who was seeking assistance from the French monarchy for the new American republic, which was fighting for its life. Before leaving, she wrote a letter to Franklin apologizing for not having entertained him herself. Doing so, she states, would have subjected her to imprisonment for consorting with the enemy, and, because of her weak constitution, she probably could not survive life in prison. Although she would willingly give her life for American freedom, she added, she did not believe that a purely social meeting would contribute to the cause. Life in Paris seems to have agreed with her, for, instead of proceeding south, she returned to Bath.

Within a year, Macaulay, a leader of Bath society, would defy social convention and fall from grace, committing what was then considered a grievous sin. At age 47, she abandoned the Reverend Wilson's home and eloped with Dr. Graham's 21-year-old brother, William, an unemployed former ship surgeon's mate from Scotland, who was of lower social status than she. Scandalized, Bath society ostracized them. The 75-year-old Reverend Wilson was reportedly "consumed by rage and hatred."

From that time on, she and William lived quietly out of the public eye, moving frequently while she produced the last three volumes of her History. The marriage, according to observers, was apparently a happy one and lasted 14 years, until her death.

By 1784, the American Revolution was over, and, at last, Macaulay could travel with her husband to the United States to see firsthand the new republic she had so strenuously supported. It was the embodiment of the political philosophies she had been promoting for over 20 years. Also, she would meet face-to-face the colonial leaders with whom she had been corresponding for many years. She was especially eager to meet Mercy Otis Warren of Massachusetts, with whom she had corresponded for the past ten years. As the sister of James Otis, signer of the Declaration of Independence, and wife of General James Warren, Mercy Otis Warren was directly acquainted with most aspects of the Revolution and its prelude. Like Macaulay, Warren was a writer, thinker, and activist who was devoted to liberty, republicanism, and the American cause. During Macaulay's one-year sojourn in America, these two women cemented their friendship and undoubtedly discussed Macaulay's plans to write a history of the American Revolution.

To this end, George and Martha Washington entertained Catharine and William at Mount Vernon for ten days. Here, Washington allowed the historian to read his journals and records of the war. Macaulay, however, never wrote the history. Poor health was a factor, but she may also have realized from many conversations with Mercy Warren that the American woman was the logical candidate for the project. In a letter to Warren in 1787, Macaulay announced that she must decline the task. Perhaps, this was the green light Warren had been awaiting. Her History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution appeared in 1805.

Three years after leaving America, Catharine and William were living in the small town of Binfield, Berkshire, west of London, for, as Macaulay told Warren, she was "quite tired of the absurdities of the capital." In their continuing correspondence, the two friends exchanged family news as well as other news and views. Macaulay happily announced the marriage of her daughter, Catharine Sophia, and, later, the birth of her first grandchild.

Though nearing the end of her life, Macaulay had yet to write the book which would in later years prove more significant than her voluminous History of England. In 1790, she published Letters on Education With Observations on Religious and Metaphysical Subjects. This single volume of "letters" to a fictitious friend sums up her philosophies on a myriad of topics ranging from human nature to the institutionalized church and Christianity, good government, cruelty to animals, penology, the problem of pain and evil, relations between the sexes, intellectual abilities of women, and the education of children. The last two subjects were of special concern to the author for, at this time, the education of girls was confined largely to domestic skills (and that at the hands of family retainers, not formal institutions). Some boarding schools for girls existed but served only the wealthy. Most women of learning such as herself and the "Bluestockings" were self-taught. Considering Macaulay's own educational history, these Letters on Education are of special interest. Most of the expressed views reflect the "new thinking" of the Age of Enlightenment and advocate replacing the old, restrictive ways with liberal and more humanitarian attitudes. "[A]ll those vices and imperfections which have been generally regarded as inseparable from the female character," she wrote, "do not … proceed from sexual causes, but are entirely the effects of situation and education."

Confine not the education of your daughters to what is regarded as ornamental nor deny the graces to your sons.… Let your children be brought up together.…

The happiness and perfection of the two sexes are so reciprocally dependent on one another that, till both are reformed, there is no expecting excellence in either.

The Letters was not Macaulay's final publication, as even seclusion in Binfield and her last illness could not suppress her concern with current events. Only a few months before her death, she wrote a tract defending the French revolutionists in response to Edmund Burke's attack on the events of 1789–90 which toppled the Old Regime of France. Macaulay expressed her "exultation" over the new regime with its Declaration of the Rights of Man and King Louis XVI's acceptance of the new constitution. She did not live to see the Reign of Terror and the execution of Louis and Queen Marie Antoinette . She did, however, live to see two nations, America and France, throw off the yoke of monarchical oppression.

Macaulay did not enjoy the realization of the reforms in England which she had advocated. Parliamentary changes and the broadening of the electorate awaited the next century, as did the granting of certain legal and educational rights to women. Nevertheless, Macaulay inspired later generations to continue working for human rights. Both Mary Wollstonecraft , author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, and Susan B. Anthony , renowned American suffragist, have acknowledged their debt to her.

After a long and painful illness, Catharine Macaulay died in Binfield on June 22, 1791. She was buried in the Binfield church where a plaque bearing her portrait was placed by her husband.


Beckwith, Mildred. "Catharine Macaulay: Eighteenth-Century Rebel." Ph.D. dissertation, Ohio State University, 1953.

Hays, Mary. Female Biography: or Memoirs of Illustrious and Celebrated Women of All Ages and Countries. 6 vols. London: Printed for Richard Phillips, 1803.

Macaulay, Catharine. Letters on Education with Observations on Religious and Metaphysical Subjects. London: C. Dilly, 1790 (reprinted NY: Garland Press, 1974).

suggested reading:

Donnelly, Lucy Martin. "The Celebrated Mrs. Macaulay," in William and Mary Quarterly. Vol. VI. April 1949, pp. 173–205.

Hill, Bridget. The Republican Virago: The Life and Times of Catharine Macaulay, Historian. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Emily Gilbert Gleason , freelance writer in history, Sylvania, Ohio