Catharine Macaulay – ‘The patroness of liberty’

Biographical dictionaries of the time called her “the patroness of liberty”. An advocate for freedom and human rights, many people considered her to be eccentric, particularly after her second marriage to William Graham which created something of a scandal (he was 26 years her junior and there were rumours that Catharine had been involved with William’s brother before the marriage).

Catharine had been fortunate enough to be privately educated and had been inspired by studying Roman and Greek history.

She published an eight-volume work between 1763 and 1783 called History of England from the Accession of James I to that of the Brunswick Line. Although this was a historical series about the English Civil War, it reflected many of Catharine’s views about the rights of the people, and showed her support for republicanism. It was unusual at the time for a woman to embark on such a series of books, but this did not seem to faze Catharine. When the first volume was released, it was largely positively received, although some reviews were less than complimentary about the fact that a woman had written a work of history. The Monthly Review referred to her as “our fair Historian” and they wished that “the same degree of genius and application had been exerted in more suitable pursuits”.

This did not stop Catharine from publishing other works throughout her lifetime, including several political pamphlets.

Her History had not only been a popular work in England, but had also influenced some of the ideals of the American Revolution. In 1784 Catharine and William travelled to America, where they were guests of George Washington at Mount Vernon. Washington wrote in his diary of the visit: “the celebrated Mrs. Macauly Graham & Mr. Graham her Husband… arrived here.” Washington clearly agreed with Catharine’s ideas, later writing to a friend that her principles were “so justly admired by the friends of liberty and of Mankind.”

In 1790, Catharine published Letters on Education, which included her thoughts on childcare and women. She argued that girls and boys should be educated in the same way, and that women should not accept that men had natural superiority. Mary Wollstonecraft expressed admiration for Catharine’s work, and was inspired by Catharine’s Letters when later writing A Vindication of the Rights of Women.

Catharine’s last work, Observations on the Reflections of The Right Hon. Edmund Burke on the Revolution in France, also published in 1790, was a defence of the French Revolution – a cause that Catharine was passionate about.

Catharine died in 1791 after a period of ill-health, leaving behind a legacy which is sadly largely forgotten today. Not only did she help shape some of the ideals of the American Revolution and influence the work of Mary Wollstonecraft, she is also credited as being Britain’s first female historian. 

Written for Sheroes of History by Charlene Price

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