From British Lady Rebel to the Founders’ BFF

Her writings helped trigger the American Revolution—and earned her two weeks at George Washington’s Mount Vernon. What today’s government can learn from Catharine Macaulay.

01.09.16 5:01 AM ET

Accounts of the American Revolution often sound like tales from the Legion of Nerdy Superheroes with Wigs. Thomas Jefferson writes the Declaration. John Hancock signs it. John Adams grumbles. Then, James Madison theorizes about the Constitution, Alexander Hamilton implements the ideas, and George Washington presides beatifically over it all.

Today, remembering the acerbic first lady Abigail Adams and the martyred African-American from the Boston Massacre, Crispus Attucks, injects multicultural touches into the white boys club. A fuller story would also include the Wonder Woman of the Revolution, Catharine Macaulay. Hailed as “the Amazon leading charge after charge on behalf of a Great New Cause,” this bold British thinker helped shape the Anglo-American love of liberty that freed us from England and launched our democratic era.

Catharine Macaulay released her eight-volume, 3,500-page A History of England from 1763 through 1783—critical years in American life. Her version of British history, along with her other writings, celebrated liberty and mocked monarchy. Her works reflect the broader blossoming of republican thought in the 1700s. This democratic ideology triggered the American Revolution, valuing the consent of the governed over the brute force of those who govern.

Born on April 2, 1731, in Kent, just 10 months before George Washington, Catharine Sawbridge had a conventional aristocratic education for girls—she was taught very little. But she roamed freely, hungrily, through her father’s library. As the biographer Mary Hays wrote in 1803, “she became her own purveyor, and rioted in intellectual luxury.”

Macaulay would recall: “From my early youth I have read with delight those histories which exhibit Liberty in its most exalted state, the annals of the Roman and the Greek republics.” When she was 26, an older aristocratic poet, Elizabeth Carter, said Macaulay was “more deeply learned than becomes a fine lady.”

Married in 1760, for only six years until the death of her husband, the Scottish physician George Macaulay, she became a free liver, not just a free thinker. For two years she and her daughter lived with the Rev. Thomas Wilson, who even built a statue exalting her as Clio, the goddess of history. Despite this tribute, critics note that with her first husband’s moderating editorial hand gone, her language became looser, her interpretation more political.

The 48-year-old Macaulay’s social standing in Great Britain suffered in 1778, after she left Wilson and married William Graham, a 21-year-old. Macaulay resented that men could women marry half their age, while she was shunned.

Macaulay’s support for the American colonists oppressed by the Stamp Act in 1775 had already generated controversy. Mastering the popular political medium in this Golden Age of Pamphleteering, she became Britain’s first female pamphleteer.

This form of 18th-century performance art dramatized an individual’s worldview. More than today’s telegraphic op-eds, or barbaric tweets, these sweeping statements rooted each author’s political stands in philosophy. A great pamphlet—which could reach 100 pages—cleverly articulated basic assumptions that still explain who we are as human beings, how good societies function, and what makes for the best form of government.

The Library of America recently published a two-volume boxed set, The American Revolution: Writings from the Pamphlet Debate 1764-1776and Macaulay’s work ranks with these gems. She insists that “defending the cause of the Americans” against British despotism is defending “the rights of mankind,” including British rights. As a good republican, she feared that tyranny anywhere threatened liberty everywhere.

The ministers, “by attacking the rights of all America,” set dangerous precedents for abusing British rights while weakening the British Empire. And so, 241 years ago, in 1775, in her great “Address to the People of England, Ireland, and Scotland, on the PRESENT important Crisis of AFFAIRS,” she begged: “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.”

To Macaulay, the American colonists’ rebellion, along with the British government’s reaction, vindicated her preaching masquerading as historical teaching. “Parliaments are noxious things when they become the dupes of ministers,” she warned. She therefore believed “it is only the democratical system, rightly balanced, which can secure the virtue, liberty and happiness of society.” By 1790, after the French Revolution, she proclaimed: “Government can have no legitimate force, but in the will of the people.

One local cartoon depicted her as a grotesque cross between an Indian chief and a Roman matron trying to stab Britannia in the heart.

In 1784, she met the American A-list, palling around with Abigail and John Adams, chatting with Mercy Otis Warren (whose 1805 history of the American Revolution was inspired by Macaulay’s work), and, scoring the ultimate American invite with a 10-day visit on George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate. Thomas Jefferson ordered all eight volumes of her history for the University of Virginia, hoping the work would be required reading.

Macaulay’s feminism was natural not strident, simply assuming female equality. John Adams called her “one of the brightest ornaments, not only of her sex but of her age and country.” Nevertheless, this “historian in petticoats”—as her friend Benjamin Franklin called her—encountered what we would now call sexism, a nonexistent term in her day. The great essayist Samuel Johnson sneered: “She is better employed at her toilet, than using her pen. It is better she should be reddening her own cheeks, than blackening other people’s characters.”

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Discovering Catharine Macaulay entails more than finding a new role model for today’s women. Her work highlights the mutual benefits we gain from entering into John Locke’s social contract, of the great leap forward that was necessary to root sovereignty in the people not the monarch as God’s representative on earth, and our democracy’s everyday miracles.

Today, during a nasty, already-too-long presidential campaign with 11 months left, amid inadequate candidates and daunting problems, we still should remember how far we have come politically. We still have a democracy based on consent of the governed, and a republic form of government that channels the people’s desires through their representatives’ actions. The two major parties evoke those traditions in their names. Appreciation is not an excuse to rest on our laurels, but an opportunity to relearn the secrets of mutuality, the arts of compromise, the bonds of patriotism that both left and right often forget while demonizing one another.

Gil Troy is a historian and the author of a new book, The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s.