Catharine was born in 1731 into a prosperous, but not aristocratic, family. Her mother died while Catharine was young, and her father, John Sawbridge, paid little attention to his children, especially his daughters. Like most girls of her time, she got very little education. While her brothers went to school, she was kept at home, not given tutors, but allowed the run of her father’s library. She quickly learned to read and having started was almost insatiable. Where did these 18th century teenagers get their hunger for ancient history? Today’s young people can barely keep from yawning when they hear stories about 50-year-old wars, but in those days adolescents found excitement in stories about 2000-year-old battles in Greece and Rome.
Not only was Catharine a great reader, she developed an ambition to become a writer. Luckily at 29 she married George Macaulay, a physician and gentleman, who seems to have encouraged her ambition to become an historian even though it was a bizarre choice for a woman. She was also influenced by her brother, John Sawbridge, who was a Republican activist in monarchist England. Catharine and he shared an ambition to reduce the power of the monarchy and make the king treat his subjects fairly.
Like many 18th century radicals, Catharine looked back to Anglo-Saxon times before the Norman conquest, when the English enjoyed freedom and equality. She considered the period of the Commonwealth as “the brightest age that ever adorned thepage of history” and admired Oliver Cromwell far more than the kings who ruled before and after him.
When she published the first volume of her history, it was widely read and praised. She became a star—no doubt partly because of the novelty of having a woman who could write solid history. And she enjoyed her role and the acclaim that went with it. She used her fame as a pathway into some of the male privileges of the time. As one astonished fellow-guest wrote, “Mrs. Macaulay does not retire after dinner with the ladies, but stays with the men.”
While British activists argued about the lessons of history, American colonists were busy applying their theories. They looked to many British historians, including Catharine Macaulay, for interpretations of the actions of the monarchy. Benjamin Franklin and John Adams were among the American leaders who read Macaulay’s history and admired her work. Thomas Jefferson bought the whole 8-volume set of her history books for the library when he established the University of Virginia. Macaulay was very supportive of the Americans struggle to control their own destiny and in 1775, wrote a passionate “Address to the people of England on the Present Important Crisis of Affairs” in which she urged King George III and Parliament to change their policy.
Well, we all know what happened next. The crisis was not solved, the American colonies rebelled, and a new country was formed. As we celebrate the occasion, we should perhaps look back not only on the heroes who fought for that country, but to the people who inspired them and helped shape their ideas of how a government should treat its citizens.
Catharine Macaulay is almost forgotten today. There is an excellent biography by Bridget Hill called The Republican Virago, but it is not easy to find in a library or bookstore. The lives of the other women who influenced the American Revolutions are celebrated in a widely available book by Cokie Roberts, Founding Mothers: The Women Who Raised Our Nation. that is well-worth reading too.