Catharine Macaulay

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Catharine Macaulay
Catharine Macaulay (née Sawbridge) by Robert Edge Pine.jpg
Portrait of Catharine Macaulay by Robert Edge Pine, circa 1775.
Born 2 April 1731
Olantigh, Wye, Kent, England
Died June 22, 1791(1791-06-22) (aged 60)
Binfield, Berkshire, England
Resting place
All Saints Church, Binfield
Nationality English
Occupation Historian,. author
Known for Writing on the history of England, political activism
  • Dr. George Macaulay (1760-1766, his death)
  • William Graham (1778-1791, her death)

Catharine Macaulay (born Catharine Sawbridge and, by the time of her death, Catharine Graham) (2 April 1731 – 22 June 1791) was an English historian.

Early life: 1731–1763[edit]

Catharine Macaulay was a daughter of John Sawbridge (1699 – 1762) and his wife Elizabeth Wanley (died 1733) of Olantigh. John was a landed proprietor from Wye, Kent, whose ancestors were Warwickshire yeomanry.[1]

Educated by a governess, Catharine Macaulay later described herself to her friend Benjamin Rush as "a thoughtless girl till she was twenty, at which time she contracted a taste for books and knowledge by reading an odd volume of some history, which she picked up in a window of her father's house".[2]

On 18 June 1760 she married a Scottish physician, Dr. George Macaulay (1716–1766), and they lived at St James's Place, London. They remained married for six years until his death in 1766. They had one child together, Catherine Sophia.[3]

The History of England: 1763–1783[edit]

Between 1763 and 1783 Macaulay wrote, in eight volumes,The History of England from the Accession of James I to that of the Brunswick Line. She believed that the Anglo-Saxons possessed freedom and equality with representative institutions, lost at the Norman Conquest. The history of England, in Macaulay's view, was the story of the struggle of the English to win back their rights that were crushed by the "Norman yoke".[4] Whigs welcomed the first volumes of the History as a Whig answer to David Hume's "Tory" History of England.[5] However in 1768, relations between her and the Whigs cooled. Volume four of the history was published; this dealt with the trial and execution of King Charles I. Macaulay expressed the view that Charles's execution was justified,[6] praised the following Commonwealth of England and showed republican sympathies. This caused her to be abandoned by the Rockingham Whigs.[7]


Macaulay was one of the leading political activists of her day, and was involved in various reforming groups. She was an active supporter of John Wilkes during the Wilkesite controversy of the 1760s and closely associated with the radical Society for the Supporters of the Bill of Rights. Her works were critically acclaimed, financially successful and politically influential in her own period.

The Tory Samuel Johnson was a critic of her politics:

Sir, there is one Mrs. Macaulay in this town, a great republican. One day when I was at her house, I put on a very grave countenance, and said to her, “Madam, I am now become a convert to your way of thinking. I am convinced that all mankind are upon an equal footing; and to give you an unquestionable proof, Madam, that I am in earnest, here is a very sensible, civil, well-behaved fellow-citizen, your footman; I desire that he may be allowed to sit down and dine with us.” I thus, Sir, shewed her the absurdity of the levelling doctrine. She has never liked me since. Sir, your levellers wish to level down as far as themselves; but they cannot bear levelling up to themselves. They would all have some people under them; why not then have some people above them?[8]

Letters on Education[edit]

She wrote in 1790 in her Letters on Education, as Mary Wollstonecraft did in 1792, that the apparent weakness of women was due to their mis-education.[9]

Marriage to William Graham[edit]

The increasingly radical nature of her work and her scandalous marriage to William Graham in 1778 (she was 47, he was 21) damaged her reputation in Britain, where she lived in Bath, Leicestershire and then Binfield in Berkshire. Her histories continued to be popular in America. They provided an interpretation of British history as a constant struggle for virtue and liberty not yet achieved, and played a significant role in the formation of revolutionary ideology.

Later life[edit]

She was personally associated with many leading figures among the American Revolutionaries. She stayed at Mount Vernon with George Washington and his family in 1785; the two continued to correspond about the organisation of the ideal government for the remainder of her life.

She died in Binfield on 32 June 1791 and was buried in All Saints' parish church there.

Macaulay (seated, far left), in the company of other "Bluestockings" (1778)


Her status as a somewhat scandalous woman writer with a damaged reputation has allowed her to be forgotten or disregarded by later historians of eighteenth-century literature and politics. However, her significance as a writer and political thinker is increasingly recognised. Her work has been the focus of a growing number of recent studies, a trend which seems set to continue.


  • The History of England from the Accession of James I to that of the Brunswick Line:
    • Volume I (1763).
    • Volume II (1765).
    • Volume III (1767).
    • Volume IV (1768).
    • Volume V (1771).
    • Volume VI (1781).
    • Volume VII (1781).
    • Volume VIII (1783).
  • 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 Signor Paoli (1767).
  • Observations on a Pamphlet entitled ‘Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents’ (1770).
  • A Modest Plea for the Property of Copyright (1774).
  • An Address to the People of England, Scotland and Ireland on the Present Important Crisis of Affairs (1775).
  • The History of England from the Revolution to the Present Time in a Series of Letters to a Friend. Volume I (1778).
  • Treatise on the Immutability of Moral Truth (1783).
  • Letters on Education with Observations on Religions and Metaphysical Subjects (1790).
  • Observations on the Reflections of the Rt. Hon. Edmund Burke, on the Revolution in France (1790).


  1. ^ Hill, p. 4.
  2. ^ Hill, p. 10.
  3. ^ Hill, pp. 12-16.
  4. ^ Hill, p. 31.
  5. ^ Hill, p. 30.
  6. ^ Rabasa et al (2012), p.524
  7. ^ Bridget Hill, ‘Macaulay , Catharine (1731–1791)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2012
  8. ^ James Boswell, Life of Johnson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), pp. 316-317.
  9. ^ Walters, Margaret (2006). Feminism: A Very Short Introduction. USA: Oxford University Press. p. 30. ISBN 0-19-280510-X. 
Bibliography and Sources

Further reading[edit]

  • L. M. Donnelly, ‘The celebrated Mrs Macaulay’, William and Mary Quarterly, 6 (1949), pp. 173–207.
  • Bridget Hill and Christopher Hill, ‘Catharine Macaulay's History and her “Catalogue of tracts”’, Seventeenth Century, 8 (1993), pp. 269–85.
  • T. P. Peardon, The Transition in Historical Writing (1933).

External links[edit]


 This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainCousin, John William (1910). A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature. London: J. M. Dent & Sons. Wikisource