Mrs Macaulay – The Historian In Petticoats – Britain’s First Female Historian

Born Catherine Sawbridge on the 23rd March 1731, she gained an informal education in her father’s library alongside her brother at their family home in Kent. She moved to London in 1760, upon her marriage to Dr George Macaulay and three years later published the first of her extensive eight volume History of England that spanned from the succession of James I to the Revolution. Part way through the third volume of her history, her husband passed away, leaving her widowed with a single daughter (Catherine Sophia) from the marriage. She remained in London for a while, before moving to Bath in 1774 where she met her second husband William Graham. The marriage caused scandal. As the brother of her physician, son of a saddle maker, and only a mere Surgeon’s Mate1, William was considered beneath Mrs Macaulay. They remained together until her death on the 22nd June 1791 at the age of sixty at their home in Binfield on the Thames, near Windsor. In her memory, William dedicated a memorial to her in the local parish church nearby.

Aside from the eight-volume history, Mrs Macaulay also published numerous political pamphlets during her lifetime. A staunch supporter of American independence and set against the expansion of the British Empire due to her belief that it would result in “insatiable lust for luxuries that would result in the further deprivation of liberties, in moral depravity and selfishness, and in the eventual disintegration of civilization itself”2 she wrote in defence of both the American3 and French4 revolutions. These political discourses were popular, despite their radical stances, as evidence by her pamphlet ‘An Address to the People of England, Scotland, and Ireland, on the Important Crisis of Affairs’ which went into a fourth edition in 1776.5 In it she claims the government “in steady progress of despotism, have attempted to wrest from our American Colonists every privilege necessary to freemen; – privileges which they hold from the authority of their charters, and the principles of the constitution6.”7 There is also a religious element to this pamphlet. A devout woman, Macaulay took issue with the government allowing Catholicism to take root in Quebec, but her arguments swing back to the evils of empire. “Had the government of Charles the Fifth been confined to the sovereignty of Spain, the Spaniards might to this day have preserved a greater degree of freedom than any other European nations.”8 She then demands to know what right the British Government had to tax the Americas when the Americas have no representation within British Government to oppose such taxes. While she does not state that she supports an uprising in the colonies, she goes out of her way to explain why such action is understandable and sets the responsibility for righting the wrongs done by the British Government at the feet of the constituents. A woman in the eighteenth century, in a published, popular pamphlet calling “Rouse, my countrymen! Rouse from that state of guilty dissipation in which you have too long remained, and in which, if you longer continue, you are lost for ever. Rouse!”9 It’s easy to see why she was refereed to as “the crusader of eighteenth-century life”10 by Lucy Martin Donnelly, in her article ‘The Celebrated Mrs Macaulay’.

Macaulay’s politics went further than defence of liberty regarding the Americas and the French, she also argued that education should be the same for both sexes11 and that equal opportunities for women to progress, beyond the realms of education, needed to be made available. In her journal article ‘Catherine Macaulay on the Paradox of Paternal Authority in Hobbesian Politics’, Wendy Gunther-Canada makes the argument that throughout Macaulay’s work we see an emerging feminist. Certainly, in her Letters on Education, written close to the end of her life, Macaulay explicitly states her desires for women to receive the same formal education as men, but there has been a level of disagreement among academics over whether you could call her ‘a feminist’. In her letters, Macaulay goes back to a point she made against Hobbs regarding the validity of contracts, directly arguing that “a woman could not rationally enter into a contract that nullified her rights as an individual”.12 Gunther-Canada also points to Macaulay’s use of language in her pamphlet ‘Loose Remarks’13, replacing the word “sons” with “adults”14 and leaving her work open to interpretation regarding who Macaulay intended to place into positions of power in her instructions for the framework of government. However, those such as Catherine Gardner argue that there is a weakness in Macaulay’s arguments as her desire for equality stems from “the moral reform of both women and society as a whole”15 indicating “that granting rights to women equally with men would depend not so much on recognizing gross injustice as on acknowledging the potential moral benefit for both women as individuals and society as a whole.”16 This appears to be a criticism that Macaulay’s work does not mirror the same zeal for the rights of women as Mary Wollstonecraft’s work. A contemporary of Macaulay, Wollstonecraft may well have drawn on Macaulay’s Letters on Education, but the fact that Macaulay does not purely focus on gender politics within her work should not be used to diminish the importance, or the radical nature of what she was writing.

During this time in England, the Blue Stockings Society was making itself known, with women pushing the boundaries imposed on them by patriarchy. Despite being a contemporary of these women, Macaulay moved in almost exclusively male circles. She voiced her political opinions with the same level of confidence as the men of her time, and refused to be taken less seriously, just because she was female. Her second husband caused scandal, but it appears she was loved and supported in both her marriages, disregarding any gossip that arose regarding the suitability of her second choice. She was also published under own name and considered with respect by many of her male contemporaries, including George Washington who she visited for ten days during her trip to America in 1785. She found fame in her own lifetime, and though her name is not as well known in the twenty-first century, her memory and works have persisted.

This article was adapted for Women’s History Month 2021 from a post written in 2013. The notes below include the original sources used, and the additional texts incorporated into this reworked piece. This is the second article in a series looking at Women in History, the first being Shropshire Witches – Witchcraft In The Early Modern Era.

Footnotes:
1. Surgeon’s Mate: A Rank in the Royal Navy for a medically trained assistant to the ship’s Surgeon.
2. Gilbride Fox, Claire ‘Catherine Macaulay, An Eighteenth-Century Clio’. Winterthur Portfolio, 4, 1968, pp.131
3. The American Revolution 1775-1783
4. The French Revolution 1789-1799
5. Gilbride Fox, Claire ‘Catherine Macaulay, An Eighteenth-Century Clio’. Winterthur Portfolio, 4, 1968, pp.135
6. English Constitution – not a codified constitution like the American Constitution which was created in 1787
7. Macaulay, Catherine ‘An Address To The People Of England, Scotland, and Ireland, On The Present Important Crisis of Affairs’. 1775, 2nd Edition pg.7
8.Ibid. pg.19
9. Ibid pg.31
10. Donnelly, Lucy Martin ‘The Celebrated Mrs Macaulay’. The William and Mary Quarterly, 6, (2), 1949, pp.203
11. Gardner, Catherine ‘Catherine Macaulay’s Letters on Education: Odd but Equal’. Hypatia, 13, (1), 1998
12. Gunter-Canada, Wendy ‘Catherine Macaulay on the Paradox of Paternal Authority in Hobbesian Politics’. Hypatia, 21, (2), 2006 pp.155
13. 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
14. Gunter-Canada, Wendy ‘Catherine Macaulay on the Paradox of Paternal Authority in Hobbesian Politics’. Hypatia, 21, (2), 2006 pp.165
15. Gardner, Catherine ‘Catherine Macaulay’s Letters on Education: Odd but Equal’. Hypatia, 13, (1), 1998 pp.130
16. Ibid

Bibliography
Macaulay, Catherine The History of England From The Accession of James I To That Of The Brunswick Line Vol. 1 (1768)
Macaulay, Catherine ‘An Address To The People Of England, Scotland, and Ireland, On The Present Important Crisis of Affairs’. 1775, 2nd Edition
Donnelly, Lucy Martin ‘The Celebrated Mrs Macaulay’. The William and Mary Quarterly, 6, (2), 1949, pp.173-207
Gardner, Catherine ‘Catherine Macaulay’s Letters on Education: Odd but Equal’. Hypatia, 13, (1), 1998, pp.118-137
Gilbride Fox, Claire ‘Catherine Macaulay, An Eighteenth-Century Clio’. Winterthur Portfolio, 4, 1968, pp.129-142
Gunter-Canada, Wendy ‘Catherine Macaulay on the Paradox of Paternal Authority in Hobbesian Politics’. Hypatia, 21, (2), 2006 pp.150-173
Maner, Martin ‘Women in the Eighteenth-Century British Fiction and Transatlantic Politics’. Eighteenth Century Life, 32, (1), 2008, pp. 90-95.
Staves, Susan ‘ “The Liberty of A She-Subject of England”: Right Rhetoric and the Female Thucydides’. Cardozo Studies in Law and Literature, 1, (2), 1989, pp. 161-183
Taylor, Barbara ‘Feminism and the Enlightenment 1650-1850’. History Workshop Journal, 47, 1999, pp.261-272

13 Comments

  1. Thank you for you posting here and before – I admit that I am sadly all to busy (in my head) to respond or comment upon the writings, poems, thoughts of those who, like yourself (myself?) are studying the word or creating it.

    Good luck with your History Degree – I did half a degree in the 90s with a combined Eng. Lit / Eng. History course in Winchester – it is so good an environment to really get to the depths of people from the past. Thank you for this brief insight into Mrs Macaulay – times were different then – we don’t always see how – Graeme:)

  2. But, I will try to get better at feeding back – it is important, and, yes I love feedback to – god, bad or indifferent – it means that you are talking to somebody… and they may have listened… G:)

    1. My phone showed me this comment first, leaving me a little confused, but it made sense one I had read through all three comments.
      I was doing a joint degree at first, but since I want to complete a masters and PHD, I dropped down to just history.
      I’m glad that you enjoyed my little piece on Mrs Macaulay.

  3. That is very interesting. I’m not an historian, and knew only of a Thomas Babington Macaulay.

    1. It is rather infuriating when most of my searches lead me to him I must admit.
      I’m glad that you found the piece interesting, I’m only partway through my researching and I didn’t want to throw too much information at people so it was fairly brief.
      I might start including more pieces of a similar nature on the blog from now on though.

  4. Thank you for introducing me to this tenacious woman, Carol, who was not only a prolific writer on history, but she also used her knowledge to form strong and controversial opinions for a woman of her time, particularly her belief that the expansion of the British Empire would result in “insatiable lust for luxuries that would result in the further deprivation of liberties, in moral depravity and selfishness, and in the eventual disintegration of civilization itself”. I am amazed by women like Catherine, who flourished despite their basic education and opportunities compared to their male counterparts. I can understand why she is referred to as a feminist.

    1. Thank you for taking the time to read and comment. It’s clear that she didn’t allow expectations dictate her life and I think there’s a lot women today can take from that. These history posts bring me so much pleasure to write, and I love the research element of them.

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